Sometimes it happens that a stage play is adapted to the motion picture medium, and it still looks and feels like a stage play.
Seventy-six years have passed since this particular romantic drama was lensed, and watching it is almost like looking at the past with an acute case of tunnel vision. The protagonist is Richard Dix, as an independent electrician who is also well-read and well-versed in the trivia of his times. He meets two "New York swells" who concoct a wager, concerning one of their equally snobbish female friends, and who are just about as loathsome as cinematic fiction of that day allowed.
In short, one of these useless playboys ( Allen Kearns ), challenges the other useless playboy in a bet, for $ 5000, no less, that stakes his absolute belief in the uselessness of love. These are the kinds of gentrified men that working-class folks of 1930 would absolutely despise. They wear tuxedoes and smoke constantly ( everybody does ), even while playing billiards in the quiet of a penthouse apartment. They have an Oxford-educated butler at their beck and call. They're disgusting and boorish.
Contrast to them, the Richard Dix character as Darby, the electrician.
He's a fine fellow, noble in spirit, and full of "enthusiasms." In a really great sequence, the loathsome "swell" who doesn't believe in love offers Darby a thousand bucks to masquerade as yet another useless playboy, giving him thirty days to romance his friend, a cold and diffident socialite ( Renee Macready as Betty ). The wise-acre working class stiff refuses to let the pompous "swell" make 400 % on his "labor," and then negotiates himself into a fifty-fifty split. He's too proud to take a thousand dollars but not too proud to game this wager for twenty-five hundred !! Maybe that was funny in 1930 but today, in this time, it just seems to be really, really odd.
Useless playboy number one insists that Darby not reveal the details of this plot and proceeds to fit his 'mannequin' with a couple of good suits and a tuxedo. By this device he's converted into a gentleman.
I.e., another useless playboy. But "love" interferes. He meets the fiancé of useless playboy number one at the tailor shop where he's being fitted for his new suits. For him it's love at first sight.
One thing leads to another and the denouement of the drama happens over a week-end at the New London estate of the loathsome "swell" who concocted this farce. Darby pretends to be just as blasé and useless as the other two playboys but he doesn't do it very well. Maybe that, too, was funny in 1930 but it merely seems inscrutable now.
The thing about this movie that is charming, however, is the rapid-fire dialog and the plot twist of twists, wherein the socialite snob falls for the Oxford butler while the 'flapper' fiancé is falling for the disguised electrician. But when she suspects that Darby is just a romantic wolf, trying to charm every woman in the party, she recoils from him in disgust and sadness. That's actually a very touching moment. How it all works out is rather predictable for today's viewers but it may have been a workable premise for that time.
Dix recants his boorish masquerade, of course, and so the wager is quashed -- forcing obnoxious playboy number one to admit that it is all a trick, in front of his friend and both girl-friends -- and from there the film rushes to its inevitable happy ending.
What earns this film a rating of six out of ten is the pace of the snobbish chatter and the styles of the characters: they are all exact reproductions of New York "socialites" of the late 1920s. It is interesting to see, almost as a cultural document, how the standard of beauty for a young upper-class woman of that time was to be rail-thin and willowy. The two playboys are such boors that the whole 'romance' aspect of it seems unbelievable to these modern eyes. But it was clearly not out of the mainstream for 1930.
Unless some company decides to publish a retrospective of Richard Dix, this film will probably never appear anywhere else but on Turner Classic Movies. Perhaps it was written to be a farce, but if so, the elements of humor that would have been obvious to theater-goers then, have dissolved with the passage of time.
As it stands now, as a cultural document, it seems to be more of a critique of social pretense, and the pretentiousness of "the upper crust," which is in fact a fairly thin layer of American society. Dix, with his physical energy and commanding screen presence, makes this vehicle work, and it was intriguing to open a window on a world from our culture which is now so very long gone. A world that existed for so very few people, where a bet for $ 5000 represents the family income of ten working families of that day and age. Farce or not, it was enjoyable for those reasons and worthy of a better-than-neutral vote.
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