Pre-Code Corner: Man Wanted – Experience Necessary
“Can’t you get it through your fat head that today there’s just as many serious-minded women in business as men. When you meet them you don’t have to treat them as if you were out on a party.”
That’s right, Tom (David Manners). But as promising as this quote about Tom’s new boss Lois (Kay Francis) sounds, within the next 20 seconds, his conversation with roommate Andy (Andy Devine) inevitably dovetails into the subject of Lois’s physical beauty. What can I say? It was the 1930s.
“Does the magazine field offer a career to women?” Lois (Kay Francis) would answer in the affirmative.
In Man Wanted (1932), Lois reigns as editor of the successful 400 Magazine. She does well enough that her husband, Freddie (Kenneth Thomson) doesn’t have to work, which is excellent, because that’s just the way he prefers it: a life of polo, partying, and philandering. When Lois fires her secretary, sports salesman Tom just happens to be there — and lands the job. Though she’s married and he’s engaged to Ruthie (Una Merkel), feelings start to bud that threaten to complicate their working relationship.
When I re-watched Man Wanted recently, I was struck by how certain elements dealing with the workplace and relationships felt markedly modern. While women weren’t treated equally then — nor, unfortunately, now — the way Man Wanted portrays a female boss reflected some surprising and refreshing attitudes, even for a period that was awash with strong women. (Speaking of powerful ladies, Francis portrayed a notable number of professional women during the pre-Code era, from a perfume company owner in 1932’s Trouble in Paradise to doctors in 1933’s Mary Stevens, M.D. and 1934’s Dr. Monica, all roles that came after this film.)
Of all the dominating male bosses that appeared in pre-Codes (looking at you, Warren William), their lady counterparts were much scarcer. Female (1933) stands as one of the most renowned movies of this kind, emphasized more so, in my opinion, because Ruth Chatterton damn near rivals the likes of William in the sexual harassment department, wielding her power to bed a string of her male employees. While Francis participates in her fair share of flirting with her male secretary, her overall conduct and manner are much more restrained than Chatterton’s, though she still retains a firm grasp on her sexuality.
Warner Brothers did a wonderful job outfitting Kay Francis in attire suitable to a stylish society and boss lady in her first movie for the studio. In fact, press kits declared that Francis had a hand in choosing the fashion ensembles.
What’s encouraging about this picture is that Lois relishes her position and being in control — and she’s not punished for that ambition, nor is she painted as a sexless, staunch executive. Francis imbues the character with a genuine humanity, sensuality, sophistication, and intelligence. When Freddie asks how she stands being an editor, she replies that the whole “racket” is “all part of the game. And I love it.” A passion for the challenge and stimulation motivates her; even when Lois and Tom end up together, we know he wouldn’t force Lois to quit her job because it means so much to her. That said, while a female head of the house is undoubtedly more acceptable today, there’s still a slight social stigma that comes with it, and I can’t imagine what that must have been like in the 1930s.
Despite the strength of the central female character, Man Wanted still conveys the typical period sexism; for instance, Lois proclaims to Tom after she hires him: “You see, I’ve been having trouble with secretaries. The work is so uncertain. It needs a man.” If that line spins the narrative expectation on its head, so did the reviews, in their negligible discussion of the story twist. I was astonished that none of the period’s writers triumphed Lois’s illustrious business position, aside to say — in only one of five critiques I perused — that this picture flipped the typical storyline. But when I actually thought about it, I realized that reaction is my modern sensibility celebrating the portrayal. While I didn’t perceive any animosity in the analyses, in reality, Man Wanted could have been observed by some patrons as incendiary, considering the hostility aimed at working women during the Depression when the female employment rate almost matched the male unemployment rate, and more than half of the country passed laws barring married women from working. I assume Warners skirted that potential issue by mentioning that Lois inherited the publication from her family; it also appears that Lois and Freddie would somehow successfully maintain their lavish lifestyle even without her paycheck.
Most press adverts took the melodramatic or overtly racy road in publicizing Man Wanted. This was one of the few to not only touch upon the gender twist but center the entire message around it.
Man + Wife
Man Wanted paints Freddie as a (lovable) cad for cheating on Lois, and the film makes it painfully obvious that their mentalities and priorities do not align. That said, the affection these two characters share earned my admiration. Their friskiness and the portrayal of their semi-open marriage came across as surprisingly contemporary, from their canoodling when Lois is “in conference” during the movie’s opening scene to their split in the third act.
We quickly learn that Lois isn’t embarrassed about her power and prestige in the business world, and neither is her husband. Sure, Freddie asks Lois why she works, but he doesn’t nag her about it (that we hear of, anyway), and he even acknowledges their swapped societal roles:
Freddie: You see, Lois. It’s all wrong. You work all day when you should be playing; I play all day when I should be working.
Lois: Well I love my work! You love your polo.
Freddie: But the office is no place for a woman like you. Why don’t you chuck it? I seem to remember having asked that question at least three million times.
Lois: I don’t think I could get along without the silly old magazine. It’s in my blood. I love it the way all my people did. Carrying on for them is like some sort of a trust. You don’t really mind, do you?
Freddie: Not if it makes you happy.
Lois: You make me happy.
Even though Freddie takes other lovers, Lois still fancies his companionship and values their marriage. We get the sense that his wandering eyes have nothing to do with her position, as he’s still readily attracted to her and acts upon that allure.
I also found Lois and Freddie’s thoughtfully-handled breakup scene surprisingly poignant, something I wasn’t expecting. Despite the fact that they are parting ways, both parties remain relatively mature in those moments; although Freddie brings upon the proceedings, assumingly so he can more openly pursue ladies, his gestures to soften the blow are commendable, as he tells Lois: “We can’t change ourselves, can we? And trying won’t make us any happier.” As one press piece declared of Man Wanted: “No More Pussyfooting About Modern Marriage and Divorce! At last a motion picture faces the facts about today’s morals!” The delivery there was overdramatic and a bit overreaching, but the point did recognize the picture’s contemporary ideas.
I found the circa 1932 sarcasm regarding college very relatable, and, as such, also a tad troubling. Two humorous jabs at education caught my attention in Man Wanted, the first of which occurs when Tom discusses their sports equipment sales job with roommate/co-worker Andy:
Tom: We only got the job because you’re an all-American.
Andy: Mmm hmm. That proves the value of a college education.
These two sure landed on their feet after college. Well, at least Andy did. Tom should be there any minute now.
… Sure, in securing Tom a gig he’s not satisfied with. When he visits Lois to demonstrate a rowing machine and she impulsively hires him (he does know shorthand), she inquires about his education — turns out he’s a Harvard man, just like her husband. Freddie basically threw that degree in the trash and most likely boasts of it as more of a status piece, but Tom works as a secretary with a Harvard diploma. I think nowadays the weight of that degree and the perceived modesty of the position would raise some eyebrows, but in 1932, it seems the Depression probably trumped that sentiment, though The Los Angeles Times did point out how “reduced” Tom’s circumstances were for a Harvard grad.
Tom: How’s your back?
Lois: I’ll show you in just a moment.
Tom: (laughs) No, I mean how strong do you want me to make this thing pull?
Fight for Your Rights
The great character actress Elizabeth Patterson makes a brief appearance in Man Wanted as Lois’s secretary, Miss Harper, in the beginning. The reason why Tom replaces her? Miss Harper stood her ground, arguing that even though Lois provides her with overtime pay, she’s stayed late every night, and this is the last straw: “I’m afraid I can’t…I’m sorry to inconvenience you, but I simply cannot break another appointment.” What now?! I was sincerely surprised that a middle-aged character would so easily let her job go during such a dire economic downturn, but at the same time, I couldn’t help but feel proud that she upheld her personal standards. That’s called work-life balance — sound familiar to anyone?
I didn’t have access to this film’s Production Code Administration (PCA) file, so any censorship related items remain a mystery, though I can’t imagine many infractions, save for perhaps the laissez-faire attitude towards marriage and adultery. I’d guess that none of the above episodes that I perceived as relatively modern warranted discussion amongst the censors; it seems that Man Wanted strictly served as an amusement for 1932 audiences, though the inclusion of these elements merits extra appreciation from a modern standpoint.
–Kim Luperi for Classic Movie Hub
Kim Luperi is a New Jersey transplant living in sunny Los Angeles. She counts her weekly research in the Academy’s Production Code Administration files as a hobby and has written for TCM, AFI Fest, the Pre-Code Companion, MovieMaker Magazine and the American Cinematheque. You can read more of Kim’s articles at I See A Dark Theater or by following her on twitter at @Kimbo3200.