Sunday, December 2, 2012

Rebellious Daughters (Progressive Pictures, 1938)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2012 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

The film was Rebellious Daughters, a 1938 film from a company called “Progressive Pictures” that was essentially the genesis of PRC: the producer, Ben Judell, was the head of PRC for its first two years or so, and the director, Jean Yarbrough (billed here as Jean W. Yarbrough, the only time I can remember seeing the Boy Named Jean’s middle initial on a credit), was also a PRC stalwart. John W. Krafft got credit for an “original” story and screenplay — quotes definitely appropriate! — for a melodrama that turned out to be the old chestnut about suburban kids (this time in the upstate New York suburb of Glenhaven) who, chafing under the rule of overprotective parents, run away to the Big Bad Apple and end up either sadder but wiser or sadder and dead at the hands of the big city’s many resident baddies. There seems to be some confusion as to which of the two leads plays which part, since the American Film Institute Catalog and both list Marjorie Reynolds as playing Claire Elliott and Verna Hillie as Barbara “Babe” Webster — but though I don’t know Hillie I’m pretty familiar with Reynolds, both for her appearances as a Torchy Blane-style reporter in three of the Mr. Wong series films with Boris Karloff for Monogram and her big-studio movies, Holiday Inn (replacing Mary Martin at the last minute in this starry musical with Fred Astaire, Bing Crosby and a score by Irving Berlin which introduced his most popular song, “White Christmas”) and Fritz Lang’s Hitchcockian spy drama Ministry of Fear (though as I’ve pointed out here before it was Hitchcock who imitated Lang, not the other way around!), and I’m convinced that it’s Reynolds playing Babe and Hillie playing Claire. (Babe is a blonde — as was Reynolds in her better-known movies — and Hillie is dark-haired.)

Babe at least has two parents — Claire is living with an overprotective father (Oscar O’Shea), a widower, and her older sister who just looks old enough to be her mother. Babe’s parents are not quite as strict as Claire’s, and when Babe’s boyfriend invites her to a night at the Samoa Club she wants to bring along Claire and find her a date as well, only Claire’s father flatly refuses to allow her to go to a nightclub and, in order to get him to let her go out at all, Babe has to say that Claire will only be a houseguest at her home, with her parents as chaperones. The four guys, including a male Babe has dug up as Claire’s date, go to the Samoa Club — and, praise be, this film’s budget was so small it looks like an actual nightclub (the band is just five pieces and the place doesn’t look like an airplane hangar done up in Art Deco the way the “nightclubs” in Busby Berkeley’s films and a lot of other major-studio productions did) — and while the guys briefly step away from the table, the girls are cruised by Joe Gilman (George Douglas) and his assistant Flo Russell (Sheila Bromley). Just from his “roo” moustache we instantly know Gilman is up to no good, but the girls take him at face value and decide to take up his offer once their “hot” night at a nightclub ends in disaster: one of their dates starts a brawl in the parking lot and everyone involved, including the girls, are arrested and taken to night court, where their parents have to bail them out.

So rather than endure any more lectures from their dads (frankly Overprotective Fathers would have been a more accurate title for this film than Rebellious Daughters!), they run off to New York and get the jobs Gilman promised them as fashion models in his clothing store. What they don’t realize, of course, is that the clothing store is merely a front for Gilman’s real business, which is staging photos so it looks like the well-heeled men who come to the store to buy clothes for their wives are cheating on them, then using the pics to blackmail the men. He’s also involved in some other criminal enterprises, but that’s the main one we see dramatized. Babe takes to this aspect of her job with alacrity but also pisses off Gilman by demanding half his take from any scams she’s involved in, and with Flo also mad at her (she wants to be Gilman’s girlfriend as well as his business partner and gets jealous of any other girl he shows interest in) Gilman decides to get rid of her … permanently. He takes her out on a date, pretends to run out of gas on a deserted stretch of road just on the edge of a cliff, then he gets out of the car supposedly to see what’s wrong with it, tells her to release the brake, and just then another car driven by his henchmen crashes into Gilman’s car and knocks it down the cliff. Babe dies with 20 minutes of the film left to run — though there are a couple of scenes in a hospital room that briefly give us hope that Krafft will have her recover and turn state’s evidence against Gilman and his gang — and Gilman next turns his attentions to Claire, offering to set her up in an apartment and give her an ultra-low rent of $40 a month: he will pay the rest because he plans to use the apartment for business meetings.

The clueless Claire thinks he means he’ll have her meet with buyers (obviously she hadn’t seen the 1932 Loretta Young vehicle from Warners, She Had to Say Yes — directed by Busby Berkeley, his first non-musical — which showed young women who worked in the fashion business essentially forced to prostitute themselves to buyers in exchange for sales!) but what he really wants the apartment for is assignations with the men he’s trying to frame for money … and, it’s hinted as strongly as it could be under the Production Code, Gilman wants Claire to be his mistress as part of the deal. Claire moves out of the boarding house where she and Babe were living — whose proprietress, Ma Delacy (Irene Franklin), was the understanding earth-mother type that ran all movie boarding houses that weren’t run by money-grubbing skinflints only interested in the rent — and into the apartment, but she’s appalled by what she’s supposed to do there. She and her boyfriend, reporter Jimmie Adams (Dennis Moore) — who’s long wanted to do an exposé of Gilman’s operation but has been blocked by his editor because he hasn’t enough evidence against Gilman — set up a sting which involves a police detective, Charlie (Monte Blue), posing as a wealthy oil man from Texas and allowing Claire to frame him (not that Claire knows that’s what she’s doing, in a rather preposterous scene but one surprisingly artfully directed by the normally straightforward and even slovenly Yarbrough), and the ruse works, the police arrest Gilman and Claire and Jimmie presumably get married and live happily ever after. Rebellious Daughters isn’t a bad movie — its musical score (arranged from stock by Lee Zahler) is pretty treacly and the story hard to believe, but the acting is quite good (especially the two women in the leads), and if it has a weakness it’s the same one as a lot of movies about the demi-monde in the Code era: it makes sinning seem so boring that the real moral message seemed to be, “Don’t bother falling off the rails — it’s just dull!”