Joe Martin (Douglas Fairbanks Jr.) is a complicated and flawed character. John Howard Lawson wrote the play this movie was based on and also adapted it for the screen (co-credited with Howard J. Green on the adaptation), so I presume Joe didn’t lose too much along the way. Still, he feels incomplete. Very empty for otherwise having so much to him. Agnes (Genevieve Tobin), his million-dollar goal, says of Joe, “I think he’s the saddest boy in the world. He’s all twisted and funny. He wants to be a great man. And he wants to be sweet.” I got all that, except the last bit. Joe is very sour, from the first until nearly the last, when a tacked-on ending personally salvages him. I stop short of calling that ending feel-good or happy, because I actually cared about Sarah (Colleen Moore), the girl who’s stuck with him from the start.
“Everybody seems to think love is just a way of passing the time,” Sarah remarks after the latest proposal from her boss, Raymond Merritt (Frank Morgan). She’s been at Joe's side since at least 1927, probably a lot longer, but that's when the movie opens. Joe’s brother, One-Eyed Mike Martin, has just gone out in style—in a 14-Karat gold coffin—after a gangland machine gun battle took his other eye and then his life. A bit unnecessary, but I suppose it makes us more accepting of just how heavy that chip on Joe’s shoulder is. “I’m gonna get what Mike was after,” Joe vows, “only I’m going to get mine respectable.” Presumably with Sarah at his side along his rise, at least that’s her understanding when she lands him a job as an assistant clerk at Merritt’s advertising agency, where she's the boss's secretary.
Joe is envious of others, restless because he wants what they have. “You got a lot of saps working here that don’t know their business,” he tells Merritt of the kiss-up college boys roving the ad exec's offices, privileged from birth and not nearly as bright or driven as working class Joe. He seethes over his lack of advantage until the inevitable blow-up gets him fired, practically as an afterthought by Merritt. But Sarah goes to bat for Joe again, promoting him to Merritt as imaginative, sensitive, and not nearly as tough as he pretends to be. Merritt gives him another chance, and Joe makes good. He also picks up a bit of immediate inspiration when Agnes, Merritt’s kept woman, stops by the office that first night looking for her benefactor.
Agnes gets by on a thousand a month from Merritt, and while she’s completely mercenary, she does want more than money. When she asks Merritt why he doesn’t marry her he replies, “You’ve got no soul.” Despite the comfort and security their relationship offers her, Agnes does dream of “romantic people” and sometimes even thinks she wants somebody exciting to sweep her off her feet. Her first meeting with Joe is as combative as it is sex-charged, though the nastiness and the flirting are all the same thing. He tells her off, all the while keeping her perfume-scented handkerchief glued under his nose, and refusing to return it at the end of their first parry. “I want it,” he says. “I need it,” she says. “If I had a million dollars—I’d buy you,” he tells her.
Joe rises quick inside Merritt’s office, his talent and drive raising him to position of Merritt’s right-hand man. As he explains to Sarah, the salary still isn’t great, but “it’s the market that counts.” The Depression is on, and the way Joe handles the market is directly contrasted with Merritt’s moves. “I don’t care how much I’m short, keep on selling,” Joe tells his broker, hell-bent on making his fortune. Meanwhile, Merritt is buying, spending all, out of a patriotic optimism: “People that think they can sell America short are crazy,” he tells his broker, as he buys more, more, more for the greater good. But Joe realizes Merritt’s breaking himself and he sells him out on the golf course with business acquaintance Hatfield (Henry Kolker), who allows a pretense of ethics to restrain him for a brief moment. “I don’t get this stuff about ethics,” Joe says, adding, “I ain’t got time for loyalty.” He needs to make his million.
Poor, loyal Sarah disappears for awhile, as inconsequential to us as she is Joe, who pursues Agnes as single-mindedly as he pursues the fortune he knows it’s going to take to land her. “You just want me because I’m hard to get,” she says. “There’s no sense in your marrying me.” Joe has operated under the mistaken impression that marrying Agnes and making Agnes his are one in the same. Not so. “Am I supposed to raise an old-fashioned family?” Agnes asks, after they’ve married and Joe’s unveiled plans for their new home. It includes a gigantic nursery that Agnes decides would be better suited as a billiard room because, “You can have a lot more fun with billiards.” Joe won’t tame her into motherhood, nor will he even tame her from a very active nightlife by moving her away from the city: “I like New York,” she says. “I like noise and parties. And I’d die anywhere else.”
Joe chose the wrong goal. Set himself up to be a loser. Back at the office he’s taken absolute power after maneuvering Merritt into a corner and forcing him to step down. Now Joe doesn’t have anywhere further to go. He’s pushed to the top of his business and married the woman he had pursued, but winds up empty. As he tells Sarah later, all he has are “a lot of dreams that turned into nightmares before I could touch them.”
He begins to show symptoms of humanity. He’s happy for long-time employees Dinah (Nydia Westman) and Harry Fisher (Edward Everett Horton), who met and married at Merritts, and finally announce they’re going to have a baby. At least he's intrigued by their happiness. Next, former college boy rival Halliburton (Allen Vincent) returns hoping to sell bonds to Joe. Joe had previously delighted when Halliburton was cut loose from the company, and this reunion is shaky until Halliburton tells him what a happy man he is now. Joe softens and hires him back. “Some people are happy,” he says aloud, to himself. A couple more instances like this, and I might have cared about Joe. It's as though he's learned of compassion and empathy, but has yet to realize he's capable of it.
Joe Martin is every much the gangster his brother was, running roughshod over the business world and eventually breaking all the rules for personal advancement. In the end he can only be saved by his writer, but his story stops a little bit short. I suspect we’re supposed to see some of this humanity in Joe that Agnes and, especially, Sarah tell Merritt about, but he's just too down on everything but himself. The Fisher couple and even Halliburton tease that there’s something more there, but the Joe Martin we see is probably even scarier than his dead gangster brother. Angry and soulless.
“I’m in the dark. The fog,” Joe says, and I suppose Sarah offers him a way out. More’s the pity for her.
Directed by J. Walter Ruben at RKO. A March 1934 pre-Code release.
I wrote a little about this one a couple of years ago in a round-up of first impressions of a few titles. I was more enthusiastic then, after first seeing it, then I sound here, but despite my hard feelings for Joe, I really do like what's here. I think I just better understood what I disliked this time.
The acting is excellent, as is the dialogue, even if it turns a little polished at times. I wanted more Joe, but chop off the unnecessary bit about his brother at the beginning (you don't need gangster kin to feel disillusioned, especially in those times), and the wanna be happy ending, and what's in between works, even if it's a little short of ideal.
My IMDb rating: 7/10.