This otherwise average romantic melodrama is lifted by Sylvia Sidney. It’s also a good trial run for the Sidney and George Raft team, establishing a chemistry that carried over to their later pairings in You and Me (1938) and Mr. Ace (1946). Fritz Lang’s You and Me is best of this trio, and I slightly preferred Mr. Ace to Pick-Up, but this earliest effort is entertaining too.
Some period reviews found British-born Lilian Bond miscast as the society temptress, but Bond was fine, it was her character who wasn’t necessary. As to performances, I largely agreed with Variety’s assessment that “full effect of the strongest scenes is also lost because Raft is not yet an actor.” True, but Raft often gets by on charm, never better than when he prefers ketchup over mushroom sauce to flavor his “he-man food.”
I admit, I giggled when Sidney is introduced behind prison bars as “Baby Face Mary.” There’s no denying the baby face, but that nickname bears a more vicious connotation than Sylvia Sidney ever arouses. She immediately cracks wise to the matron, but luckily our Sylvia is no more course than the slang delivered in her native Brooklyn tone, a lot of it peppered by ain’ts, just to show she ain’t entirely proper.
Baby Face Mary is visited by her estranged convict husband (William Harrigan) just before she’s released from prison with the standard five dollars in hand. Subtract $3.65 for her trip back to town, and another fifteen cents for coffee, and Mary is at the mercy of the stormy weather, which—along with a street pervert—drives her into the back of Harry Glynn’s (Raft) taxi. Glynn admits he’s “got to be rough with dames like you,” but after first booting Mary from his cab, he relents, and offers her a ride home.
“You got a place to sleep, don’t you?” he asks.
“Sure. Third bench on the left as you go into the park.”
So Harry takes Mary back to his place where he plies her with a pair of pajamas and a slug of booze. Mary hops under the covers, and Sylvia Sidney puts her wide eyes to work, watching Harry and trying to decide if he’s going to make her pay for the warm bed by joining her. Harry reveals he’s better than that, planning to bunk with a neighbor, though once he gets a better look at Mary it seems as though he may have changed his mind. She’s wary again, but beats him back with a few gentle rebuffs. At last, he says, “Okay, kid, don’t worry about me. See you in the morning maybe.”
Definitely. At first Harry thinks she cleaned out his pockets and scrammed, but Mary soon returns with groceries and the change leftover from Harry’s missing fiver. She orders him to shave while she cooks breakfast. After settling in at the table Mary is upset over a newspaper headline—thankfully, the accompanying story about Baby Face Mary doesn’t include a photo.
“They should have sent her up for life,” Harry says upon spotting the headline. “Working the badger game, and on a nice feller, and drive him to suicide. A guy with a wife and kid too. There ain’t nothing lower than a woman pulling a badger game like that. A guy could smash her face in and still be a gentleman. I could sock that kind of dame myself.”
Uh oh. Harry thinks Mary is a harmless little trick—a pick-up; someone who uses sex to survive, not to swindle. When he asks her name, she lies and tells him Molly.
Just so the name change sticks with you, I’ll quote this gem from Louise Beavers, who shows up later as Harry and Mary/Molly’s maid, Magnolia:
“They done got Miss Molly in the jail house. Lawdy. But Miss Molly ain’t Miss Molly. She’s Miss Mary. Baby Face Mary. Is you know’d she ain’t she, she is her?”
You know, Louise Beavers can usually manage to elevate a part, but even she can’t do anything with this sort of dialogue. She had a cute bit before this when she calls Raft to the phone and he calls for Sidney to toss him a robe after realizing he’s walked out in front in his boxers with his bare legs exposed: “Never mind. Gentleman’s legs ain’t no treat for me,” Magnolia says before walking away, but that’s as good as gets for Beavers. Up next, after trying to figure out just who Sidney’s character really is, Magnolia adds:
“What kind of game is that, Mr. Harry? That badger game. I ain’t never played it, is you?”
I’m bringing up this bit from the end of the movie so soon, just in case you’re with Magnolia and wondering what this badger game is all about. Baby Face Mary did time because she and her husband (Harrigan) were caught working a con whereby she’d lure an unsuspecting gentleman to a bedroom and then, just when Mary worked the fellow into a compromising position, outraged hubby would burst in on his wife and the other man demanding an explanation—and a pay-off. Unfortunately for everybody, this time around the mark’s response was suicide, which wound up sending up both Jim and Mary Richards to prison (the same prison). Jim still has time to serve when Mary’s released, and Mary—now Molly—certainly doesn’t want her new friend Harry to find out who she really is. Hell, he might smash her face in, and nobody wants that!
Not when she’s falling for the lug. Harry gets Molly a job working the switchboard at the taxi company he drives for. The boss, Sam Foster (Clarence Wilson), hints at being a lech, but Molly knows how to handle herself and will even make Foster’s slight advances pay off soon enough. For now, she’s satisfied with a paycheck. After she pays back the five dollars she took from Harry, he suggests they go to dinner. Molly would rather see him save his money, and that evening’s meal develops into the cute scene with the mushroom sauce I’d mentioned earlier. This establishes a courtship where Molly consistently gets her way while Harry doesn’t even realize it. He just thinks she’s prone to bossing too much. After Molly mentions that she discovered Foster pulled down thirty-five grand at the cab company last year, Harry reveals that he’s been driving cab for eight years now.
But Harry is content. He just wants to stick away ten or fifteen bucks in a drawer each week, and occasionally treat himself to something nice like the diamond ring he flashes at her. Some guy wants him to invest in a garage, but Harry’s no sucker, he’s happy with wages. Molly won’t let the garage idea drop though, and they even cause a minor disturbance in a movie theater while a newsreel featuring Mussolini plays.
“Nobody ever got anywhere by sticking to one job all of the time,” Molly insists.
Harry points to the screen: “That guy’s going all right.”
“He wasn’t afraid to take a chance,” Molly says, before an interested Italian theatergoer tells them to pipe down and argue at home like any married couple.
Shortly after this, lecherous old Sam Foster calls Molly into his office hoping to take her out that night. Molly fights him off with ease—the old guy is more persistent than anything else—as Harry passes by the office. Molly then has a stroke of inspiration that gives Harry the little extra push she’d been trying to give. She goes over to Foster and scolds him for pinching her. Harry bursts in to the rescue and Foster fires the pair of them, though Molly and Harry insist that they both quit. Afterward, Molly coaches Harry in a phone booth as Harry puts in a call to the man with the garage for sale.
Molly has already tempted fate throughout Pick-Up by not disclosing her past to Harry. She confesses part of her problem—she’s already married—after Harry proposes to her on the way to the garage. Harry isn’t bothered by her past, after all, she was just a pick up when she entered his life, but he can’t understand why she won’t get a divorce. She explains that a divorce would make her past public knowledge, and that wouldn’t be any good for Harry as he tried to start a new business in a new town. “I’d give my right arm to know. And my left arm not to,” Harry says of her troubles. But she’s told him enough for now. She even offers to break it off. “Just try to leave me,” he says, “and I’ll sock you in the jaw.”
So Molly is pretty square with Harry regarding her background, at least after they’ve been together awhile. But thirties’ screen justice will make Molly pay for the deceit she used to rouse Harry into leaving the cab company. Even if it it was for his own benefit.
With that in mind, some problems arise. First, Molly/Mary’s husband Jim (Harrigan) receives a report about her from one of his gang, Tony (Brooks Benedict). Jim’s not happy with what he hears and tells Tony to continue to keep an eye on her. He may be locked up, but she’s still his wife!
And then Muriel Stevens (Bond) enters the picture. “Call the police, I’ve just killed Johnny Walker,” Muriel shouts among a crowd of wealthy youngster from a car somehow stranded in the middle of a small lake. Harry happens upon them, and young Lochinvar carries the lady Muriel to dry land, soaking his pants practically to the waist in doing so.
Harry plays it square at first: when Muriel telephones to invite him to a party, he covers the phone to tell Molly that the girl he’d just been telling her about is on the line. Molly is upset that the invitation is just for Harry, but she presses: “If you want to know the best people, you’ve got to play their games.”
She’s still trying to egg on Harry to greater things: “You don’t want to be a garage owner your whole life, do you?”
“I’m satisfied,” Harry says, before disappointing Muriel by asking if his wife can tag along.
Muriel’s wild party is a costume affair with a finishing school theme—It reminded me of the big baby party in Broadminded (1931) with Joe E. Brown, only with a slightly older theme to accommodate the giant seesaw in the middle of the room. “The Stevens Finishing School” announces the special signage Muriel commissioned for her party: “Our Girls Start Where Others Finish.” With ruler in hand and standing in front of a blackboard with the words “Is Sex a Boon!” chalked behind her, Muriel scolds Harry for whispering to Molly and insists he stand at her side so she can keep an eye on him. It all goes too far for Molly when Muriel pulls Harry into a private booth after a game of post office erupts. All of the other youngsters are delirious over the naughty fun, except Molly, who interrupts Harry and Muriel to announce that she’s going home. Harry runs off behind her. “Opened by mistake,” Muriel declares, “return to sender!”
The lure of Muriel easily convinces Harry that Molly had been right about him trying to advance himself. Molly’s refusal to marry him sours Harry on their future, plus Muriel is pulling out all of the stops to make Harry her plaything. All of the plot lines boil into one on the day Molly is advised that she can secure an annulment from Jim because he’s been locked up for so long. Harry quickly shatters her happiness and then, just as Molly has packed her bags to leave, Jim returns to reclaim her.
Muriel laughs off Harry’s advances, sending him running back to an empty home. Meanwhile, Jim whisks Mary/Molly off to a hide-out where Sylvia Sidney and William Harrigan manage to resuscitate the movie with their work. Sidney is the woman in peril with wiles enough to devise her own rescue, while Harrigan alternates between some very heavy breathing and lapses of insane anger when he feels Marry is rejecting him.
“We’re still married, ain’t we?” Jim asks.
“What do you mean?” Mary replies, knowing exactly what he means.
“You’re so modest,” he says, talking her into a kiss before climbing on top of her and raging that she has double-crossed him.
Mary outsmarts Jim, but while he’s recaptured, so is she. The fact that she’d packed her bags before leaving with him makes it appear as though she’d aided his prison break. Harry meanwhile realizes what he’s lost, and puts everything he owns on the line to secure a top lawyer (Robert McWade) to come to Molly/Mary’s aid in one of those courtroom finales that you’re only going to see in an old movie. By the end they’ve come full circle: Raft having sacrificed all of his gains to save Mary, and waiting for her outside of the courthouse in his taxi. They’ll start over, but without any secrets this time.
Gary Cooper was originally cast as Harry, and while Raft is too green to be entirely convincing, I can’t imagine the more established Coop doing much better. After all, Raft can naturally pull off a streetwise role to some degree, while Cooper is much better at playing more intense sensitive types in romantic dramas such as this. Cooper succeeded on the wrong side of the law as romantic lead opposite Sidney in the earlier Paramount gangster entry City Streets (1931), but Cooper’s Kid in that film came with a fitting background and had Rouben Mamoulian directing him, not Marion Gering of Pick-Up. That said, Gering did all right by Cooper in Devil and the Deep (1932). The director was brought to Paramount by Sidney, who he had directed on Broadway in Bad Girl, which, by the way, was based on a novel by Vina Delmar, who also wrote the original story for Pick-Up. Pick-Up is one of six movies Sylvia Sidney appeared in for Gering between 1931-34.
Cooper was reluctant to do Pick-Up because he didn’t think his part was strong enough. There were reports that Paramount would bolster the role for him, but instead they cast Raft, who was supposed to appear opposite Miriam Hopkins in The Story of Temple Drake (1933), but that was delayed at that time over troubles with the Hays Office. Raft ultimately refused his role in Temple Drake, but completed work on Pick-Up before Paramount dropped him from payroll. The studio welcomed the actor back about a week before Pick-Up’s release on March 24, 1933.
Reviews generally agreed, Pick-Up wasn’t anything special, but it was elevated by Sidney and Raft. Only Variety took issue with Raft, and they were one of the few sources to take time to praise Harrigan, who I also liked here. Photoplay praised Pick-Up, including it among their “Best Pictures of the Month” with other titles including Gabriel Over the White House, Picture Snatcher, and The Little Giant. Motion Picture Herald recommended it to exhibitors on the basis of it being “a stronger than ordinary program attraction,” that was “modern, easily understood.” They praised the “slangy, breezy dialogue,” and advised, “go after strong adult business on this one … build for strong matinee business with the women.”
I’ve yet to see a Sylvia Sidney movie that I haven’t enjoyed. Pick-Up is one of her lesser films, but it will work for any Sidney fan. She’s always in jeopardy, often breaking your heart when the breaks don’t go her way, but Sidney is never helpless. There’s always an admirable strength in her characters. They meet problems head-on, sometimes to their own detriment, as with Sidney’s choice to confront Lilian Bond in Pick-Up. Her rejection of Harrigan is clear, and she uses her brains to beat back his brawn. In her relationship with Raft, she sacrifices a bit of dignity out of guilt over her past, but her strength and drive is an inspiration to him throughout. Or at least until she pushes too far.
The scenes with Lilian Bond are entertaining, but they feel like they belong in another movie. They’re a fun distraction, especially the party scene, but they weren’t necessary. All they do is give Sidney an excuse to pack her suitcases—which probably could have been worked out some other way—and force Raft to eat a little humble pie, which he would have done anyway. Bond never even has to pay for her self-described “wicked” ways; instead, she’s the punishment imposed on Sidney for her white lies, and the lesson Raft learns about “the difference between a pick-up and a lady.”
Pick-Up would have worked better at closer to sixty minutes without these scenes. Sidney and Raft, with a tip of the hat to Harrigan, are the whole show here anyway.
- “Cooper Balky.” Variety. December 20, 1932, 5.
- “‘Pick-Up’ Starting Date Is Postponed.” Hollywood Reporter. January 9, 1933, 1.
- “Pictures: Pick-Up.” Variety. March 28, 1933, 27.
- “Showmen’s Reviews: Pick Up.” Motion Picture Herald. March 25, 1933, 19.
- “The Shadow Stage.” Photoplay. June 1933, 59.