Soon after this effort, Lionel Barrymore went back to acting full-time. I wouldn't blame him. Although Stanwyck is excellent as usual, this is a slight tale, typical of the time, that she alone makes worth watchingone time only. There's something frustrating, moreover, about how her character remains faithfully committed to the lout played by Monroe Owsley for so long. I suppose we have to accept that behavior which in our day would seem masochistic was the cultural norm in 1931 for most women. On the Pre-Code front, there's a gum-chewing scene stealer, foxy Sally Blane as Molly, a newbie who can't wait to dive into the sleazy dance hall world, although Stanwyck tries to advise her (and immediately says she knows that Molly is underage).
What brings everything down is the low budget. Columbia could mount a good-looking feature from time to time, but in 1931, I suppose they weren't doing it very much. The art director does suggest the opulence of Ricardo Cortez's apartment effectively without showing its interior; we get the idea from the lobby, hallway leading up to his door and vestibule, with its snazzy Spanish California motif. But the rest of the picture is pretty threadbare, and Barrymore's direction seems perfunctory and hurried, as if pressured by budget and schedule constraints (I hasten to add that budget is not necessarily everything; take a look at the excellent, absorbing Five Star Final, which basically takes place in two newspaper offices and an apartment living room, to see how resourcefully such conditions can be handled).
As for the story itself, it looks like it was dreamed up by somebody and sketched out on the back of an envelope all in the space of one afternoon. If Barrymore felt dispirited, he sure showed 'em, going into "A Free Soul" this very year, where his performance blew everybody's minds and won him a lifetime MGM contract. The song of the title is pretty good; we hear but do not see it performed by a torchy vocalist.
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