As a film company, Warner Brothers had a reputation for making the films of the people. Not focusing on the problems of the elite few, the films made at the Warner studios were concerned with the common man and the challenges he faced. No period of films are more evident of this than the pre-code films, made between the years of 1927 and July of 1934. A fine example of a common man film, focusing on the effects of the Depression, is THE STRANGE LOVE OF MOLLY LOUVAIN.
Madeline Maude Louvain aka Molly (Ann Dvorak) works as a cigarette counter girl at small hotel where she fends off the daily advances of slick salesman Nicky Grant (Leslie Fenton), as well as the bashful flirtations of bellhop Jimmy Cook (Richard Cromwell). But Molly does not plan on staying behind that cigarette counter forever having recently become secretly engaged to wealthy Ralph Rogers, with whom she has been having an affair. When Ralph invites her to a party at his home that evening she is thrilled. Assuming that this will be their engagement party Molly goes back to the hotel to finish her shift behind the counter and then get dressed for her big night. While getting ready, Molly finds that she has a run in her last pair of stockings and Jimmy offers to get her another pair. Molly has a better thought and calls up Nicky, asking him if he could get her some. Nicky offers to bring her up some free samples himself, much to Jimmy’s chagrin. Later that night, looking for all the world like a true lady, Molly arrives at Ralph’s home only to be told that he and his mother have left the country and that the party is cancelled. But it is much worse for Molly than just being dumped, she is pregnant with Ralph’s baby.
Three years pass and Molly now has a beautiful daughter whom she loves very much. She also has been hanging around with Nicky, whom she loves not so much. Nicky, it seems, fancies himself a bit of a thief and is constantly bringing trouble to Molly’s door. Growing tired of this supposed gangster lifestyle, Molly takes her daughter to stay with a Mrs. Schiller who will watch her while Molly goes to work as a taxi dancer. After dropping her little girl off with Mrs. Schiller, Molly goes back to the apartment she shares with Nicky to get her belongings. While she is there Nicky comes back and demands to know what Molly is doing. She tells him that she is through with him and his way of life and hurries out of the apartment, Nicky’s angry words following her. While working at the club that night Molly runs into Jimmy, who is now a student at a college and who still has a thing for Molly. The two leave the club together and run into Nicky who demands that Molly gets in the car that he has magically obtained. Molly asks Jimmy to come along with them and all three climb into the car.
Not surprisingly Nicky has not been entirely honest about how he got the car, having of course stolen it, and it isn’t long before the police spot them. Nicky yells at Molly to drive on and he engages in a shoot out with the officers, until he kills one and is shot himself. Molly and Jimmy ditch the car and go on the lam. Since the police are searching for a brunette accomplice Molly dyes her hair platinum blonde, and she and Jimmy pose as a married couple in order to rent an apartment for a week. Jimmy pleads with Molly to just go to the police and explain what happened but Molly dismisses the idea. The police would never believe that she had nothing to do with what happened especially since she has been living with Nicky for the last three years. Jimmy might have a chance to get out of things unscathed but he refuses to leave Molly alone. At that moment the phone in the apartment starts to ring and the door swings open. Enter Scottie Cornell (Lee Tracy), fast talking reporter, who takes a call from a source and learns about Nicky’s capture by police which is overheard by Molly and Jimmy. Scottie now takes a moment to focus on his new neighbors and is immediately drawn to Molly. Molly gives as good as she gets in the verbal back and forth and Jimmy just looks on before Scottie sends him out for groceries.
A few days pass and Scottie continues to flirt with Molly, while Jimmy continues to mope. Molly is desperate to see her daughter but sends Jimmy to visit instead, knowing that Nicky has probably talked and the police will be looking for her. Jimmy comes back quickly and the news is worse than they imagined. Not only are the police looking for Molly but they think that she was the mastermind of it all and that she is running a big gang of thugs. Worst of all someone let it slip that Molly has a daughter and now the police are camped out around Mrs. Schiller’s hose, preventing Jimmy from getting in to see the little girl. Jimmy begs Molly to come away with him, and this time offers to marry her. Molly tries to convince him that she is bad news but Jimmy won’t be swayed. Finally, Molly agrees to marry Jimmy and just then Scottie enters the apartment. While Jimmy rushes out to get their luggage, Scottie turns on Molly and begins taunting her. Marrying Jimmy will be the worse mistake she ever made, he says, she will ruin his life. Not only that but Molly will hate her life with Jimmy, but Scottie has a solution. He kisses Molly and asks her to come away with him to live the high life. But, he warns, Jimmy wants to marry Molly and he doesn’t. He will never give Molly the home and life that Jimmy will, but he will give her passion, lights, laughs, and excitement. Molly remembers now how her mother left her as a child, leaving with such tender parting words as “don’t let them put starch in your underwear…and always remember your mother was a lady”, and she suddenly realizes why her mother left in the first place. Hoping to give her daughter a chance at a better life, one without her in it, she agrees to go with Scottie and breaks Jimmy’s heart. Scottie goes off to the press room at the police station but promises to return soon. Little does he know that the woman he is leaving back in the apartment is the very same woman he is writing about in his column, the infamous Molly Louvain.
The police are growing frustrated in their search for Molly Louvain and are almost ready to give up when Scottie comes up with an idea. In order to lure Molly out of hiding he proposes using the one thing that Molly is sure to care about more than anything, her little girl. So Scottie cooks up a phony message to be read over the radio pleading with Molly to come to police headquarters because her little girl is terribly ill. “Your little girl is crying for you Molly, she needs you”, intones the radio announcer into his microphone. The broadcast goes out and is picked up by the radio that is playing across the street from Molly’s apartment where, at that moment, Molly is lying on the bed next to the open window.
Spoiler Warning: I am going to give a brief rundown of the ending of the movie in order to have a more complete discussion of it at the end. But, if you don’t want to know what happens this would be the moment to stop!
Molly rushes to the police station eager to confess, but finds that no one will believe her when she says that she is Molly Louvain. Finally she insists on being taken to Nicky, who has survived his brush with the law, and let him identify her. The police are now eager to question her, demanding that she confess to the myriad of crimes, both real and imagined, that have been placed at her door. She resists at first and insists upon her innocence all while demanding to see her daughter. At last she realizes that the police have no intention of letting her see her little girl until they have a full confession even if it isn’t true, which she finally gives them. Taking her back to the infirmary she finds her daughter playing horsie with an officer and not sick at all. When she demands to know who came up with this horrible trick, Scottie is pushed forward as the mastermind. Stunned and hurt, Molly refuses to listen as Scottie tries to explain. The police, now satisfied with their trumped up charges and co-erced confession, leave the two alone for a few minutes before taking Molly for processing. In their final precious moments together, Scottie begs for forgiveness and pledges to wait for Molly until she is released. She relents and the two share a kiss before being interrupted by the press, who are using the moment as a photo-op. Scottie doesn’t mind and goes in to kiss Molly, saying to the gentleman of the press “Do it again!”
The New York Times reviewer in 1932 wrote that;
All that can be said in favor of “The Strange Love of Molly Louvain,” the film now at the Warners’ Strand, is that it has a cast of twenty players and that several of them strive hard to make their scenes diverting. But, with due respect for the zealous efforts of Lee Tracy and Ann Dvorak, this film is both wearying and unsavory.
Ouch. He goes on to call Molly Louvain “reckless and brainless”, unable to conceive of any possible reason why any woman would allow herself to fall in with the likes of Nicky. Clearly this reviewer wasn’t paying much attention because it is made abundantly clear that the only reason why Molly is with Nicky is because he can provide for her daughter. When it becomes clear that he won’t be able to do that safely, Molly takes matters into her own hands in order to do what she thinks is best for her little girl. Working as a taxi dancer to help pay the bills is a start, but clearly isn’t Molly’s ideal profession. Even Nicky seems to be somewhat inept at his job as a small time crook, simply because he wasn’t cut out for it. Rather he gets into the seedier side of sales because that is where the money is, something that is harder and harder to come by during the years of the Depression. In fact this search for a stable income is the main motivation behind the majority of the characters in this film. From Mrs. Schiller taking in children to watch, to the landlady renting out apartments, to Molly spending her nights dancing with lonely men at the taxi club, everyone is looking for a way to make an honest (and sometimes not so honest) buck.
Lee Tracy is like a force of nature, hands moving like a blur and talking faster than most people can think. He often plays characters similar to Scottie, guys with an angle and a patter, but there is always an element of goodness and heart in them. For every angle and sly gag, there is a reason and a decency behind it and you feel like through it all Lee Tracy is a stand up guy. And that is why the character of Scottie works so well. He is sarcastic and cutting but it isn’t who he is at his core so the ending, when Molly and he must come to terms with their parts in what has happened, has a ring of truth in it because it makes sense. Even Leslie Fenton portrays Nicky as more than just a one dimensional hoodlum. You can feel his desperation, not only to get the job done, to be respected, and to make it big but also to keep Molly by his side. The desperation makes him a sadder character than you might expect and definitely one with more depth than previously thought. Interestingly, Ann Dvork and Leslie Fenton apparently met and fell in love during this film. They would eventually marry and remain together until their divorce in 1945. If there is a weak link among the principal actors it would have to be Richard Cromwell. Jimmy comes off as a lovesick puppy and we can totally understand why Molly is trying to convince him to leave, though perhaps that is the point. Maybe Jimmy is supposed to be so naive and childish in his affections that it is in direct contrast to the worldly cynicism of Molly and Scottie.
This is clearly Ann Dvorak’s movie, in my opinion even more so than THREE ON A MATCH. Warner Brothers bought her contract from Howard Hughes and cast her in the title role of Molly Louvain, appearing to be grooming her for leading lady status. Ann Dvorak is an actress that I am quickly growing in appreciation of. Molly is a damaged woman but one who still has strong morals and heart, something that Ann Dvorak is able to portray so well. Without that ability to show Molly as a woman doing the dark and dirty deeds in order to provide a better life for her child, this film wouldn’t work and we would be forced to agree with the aforementioned New York Times reviewer.
The fallen woman isn’t a new or unique storyline, especially among pre-code movies. But I think the thing that makes this movie so striking and the ending so powerful is that while Molly has done bad things in her life, she now rejects the easy way out in order to give her child a better life even if that means that she won’t be in it. She could have run away with Jimmy or Scottie, or even just taken off by herself. But she didn’t and when the moment comes to decide whether or not to confess to everything, even crimes she didn’t commit, in order to finally get in to see her baby Molly does it without a moment of thought. And this is what I liked so much about this movie and the character of Molly. She is a fallen woman but she does not need anyone to feel sorry for her nor does she need a man to come and pick her back up. Quite often in movies that portray the bad girl turning good, it is because the love of a good man has saved her. But in this movie it is Molly saving herself that turns her into a good woman and a good mother. She finally understands and forgives her own mother for leaving but decides on a different path for herself. In doing that she is redeemed and is no longer a fallen women, and in fact it is Scottie who must atone and apologize for his actions in the end. And because of the terrific acting by both Lee Tracy and Ann Dvorak we not only believe this transformation and apology, we accept it all wholeheartedly.
Stay tuned because I am bringing you a second posting in this fabulous blogathon! Coming up we will be SAFE IN HELL!