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Edwin L. Marin
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Edward Everett Horton
Kurt Anderson is the tyrannical manager of a New York department store in financial straits. He thinks nothing of firing an employee of more than 20 years or of toying with the affections of every woman he meets. One such victim is Madeline, a beautiful young woman in need of a job. Anderson hires her as a salesgirl, but not before the two spend the night together. Madeline is ashamed, especially after she falls for Martin West, a rising young star at the store. Her biggest fear is that Martin finds out the truth about her "career move." Written by
Behind the pedestrian title lurks a rather savage look at survival-era capitalism as played out during that desperate depression year of 1933. Who else is better outfitted to protect the average working stiff from cut-throat competition and unemployment than a tiger shark bigger than those circling around. Department store shark Warren William is in charge of 12,000 average Joe's, and by golly he's going to keep them swimming even if he has to eat half of them in the process. Bravura performance from William-- watch his eyes slink around the hallway before he enters the hotel room to ravish a drunkenly compliant Loretta Young. His authoritative presence commands the movie as completely as he does his underlings. Film may come as a revelation to viewers unfamiliar with pre-Code Hollywood, before the censors took over in 1934. Nonetheless, it was an era of social frankness that would not emerge again until the counter-cultural 1960's, while the movie itself would play as well today as it did then, as one reviewer sagely observes.
Much of film's value lies in getting us to think about the appeal a strongman-tyrant presents during turbulent times. We loathe William's ruthless and often cruel tactics. But at the same time he's inventive, decisive, and brutally logical-- with a single-minded dedication that goes beyond personal happiness. In short, he becomes The Department Store in the same way an effective tyrant can personify The State. He's a figure to be loathed, yet grudgingly admired at the same time, while it's a credit to the film-makers that they pull off the ambivalence as well as they do. Two scenes stay with me that help define William's compelling side--watch him nearly throw up at the smarmy speech given in behalf of the store's worthless owners, plus his face-to-face denunciation of bankers as parasitically unproductive, a passage that probably brought depression-era audiences to their feet.There are also unexpected deposits of humor, such as the bald man/balloon gag that is hilariously inventive and likely a brainstorm from ace director Roy del Ruth. On the other hand, Wallace Ford simply lacks the kind of edge to make his role as William's assistant plausible. Instead, a face-off between William and, say, Cagney would have exploded the screen.
Anyhow, don't let the forgettable title or the now obscure Warren William fool you. There are so many memorable glimpses of human honesty, that the movie must be seen to be appreciated, especially by those unfamiliar with the pre-Code era. So catch up with this cynical little gem if you can.
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