Pre-Code Corner: Girls About Town (1931)
Things were a bit turned on its heels from the norm in 1931. The stock market crashed in October of 1929 creating the start of The Great Depression, the Dust Bowl was ramping up in the Midwest, and FDR was not yet elected into office to save the day. Pre-Code films responded to the down-and-out by breaking a few rules.
A common characterization trope in Pre-Code films is gold-digging women in lingerie. In George Cukor’s Girls About Town (1931), we are presented with a positive spin on a couple of gold diggers, Kay Francis as Wanda Howard and Lilyan Tashman as Marie Bailey. Like 1931 audiences, they are working gals who yearned for the good life. In their case, the good life translates into partying all night, sleeping in until 5:30 pm, and being draped in furs and jewels. Make no mistake, these are working gals – paid escorts.
Another frequent theme found in Pre-Code films is the parody of the wealthy. Everyday society struggled to eke out a living so they desired wealth, but resented the wealthy. This is an important difference in understanding the psychology behind a Pre-Code like Girls About Town (1931). Gold diggers Wanda and Marie want the luxury life, but unlike the those born into wealth, they work hard and must break a few society rules to get it. Of course, it doesn’t hurt to look like Kay Francis and Lilyan Tashman.
As escorts, they are paid to entertain men, who are generally middle-aged men of wealth, donned in top hats and tails, and as handsy as octopuses. Clever Marie and Wanda always manage to thwart their advances from going too far. Remember, these are good girls.
Wanda and Marie take their next job aboard a yacht cruise, where they are surprised by their two hosts. Instead of the typical gray-haired, married, wolves, they see a young, handsome Joel McCrea as Jim Baker walk in. He is a charming breath of fresh hair. His business partner is big practical joker Benjamin Thomas, portrayed by lovably frog-voiced Eugene Pallette.
Kay Francis’s Wanda is immediately smitten with Joel McCrae’s Jim. And as much as they try to pretend Wanda is just playing a part for a paid gig, they both realize their connection is very real. Meanwhile, Marie appreciates Benji’s prankish humor so they have natural chemistry. She discovers that his reputation as an extreme tightwad serves as a challenge to her gold-digging goals. To further complicate matters, yes, Benji is technically still married. His wife (Lucile Gleason as Mrs. Thomas) is still in love with him yet sued him for a divorce, due to his cheapskate ways. Even though Benji is the wealthy “Michigan Copper King,” after many years of marriage, she never received a ring!
Ultimately, despite challenges over money, trickery, and reputations, all of these characters make the right decisions, no matter the societal norms. Here are some fun highlights that make this film an especially fun ride, which I encourage you to explore for yourself:
An opening montage of partying with fun close-up shots
Small role by Louise Beavers, as “Hattie” their maid, who performs a witty and integral role in tricking suitors with bad intentions.
Any possible opportunity to show Kay Francis and Lilyan Tashman in lingerie (Would it really be a Pre-Code without this detail?)
An auction scene where fellow working ladies band together to raise money for a noble cause is a nicely feminist touch. Marie shows us she is as lucky as she is a loyal friend.
-Without revealing any spoilers, I enjoyed the handling of the threesome of Marie, Benji, and Mrs. Thomas. Typically, such an awkward trio would be hostile or contentious at the very least. But here, it’s another example of women working together to support each other. And don’t worry about our beloved Benji. He emerges wiser.
For these reasons and more, I recommend Girls About Town (1931). As the Eurythmics and Aretha Franklin famously sang in their 1985 classic, yes indeed, “Sisters Are Doin’ It For Themselves.” I guess that applies to Pre-Code gold diggers with hearts of gold, too.
*You can watch George Cukor’s Girls About Town (1931) for free on YouTube here
–Kellee Pratt for Classic Movie Hub
When not performing marketing and social media as her day gig, Kellee Pratt writes for her own classic film blog, Outspoken & Freckled (kelleepratt.com). Kellee teaches classic film courses in her college town in Kansas (Screwball Comedy this Fall). Unapologetic social butterfly, she’s an active tweetaholic/original alum for #TCMParty, member of the CMBA, Social Producer for TCM (2015, 2016), and busy mom of four kids and 3 fur babies. You can follow Kellee on twitter at @IrishJayHawk66