Classic Film of the Week #13: Beauty and the Boss (1932)

One of the joys of watching classic films is discovering these beautiful, talented people who have been entirely forgotten except by the most ardent film buffs. Of course uncovering the wonder of a Bette Davis or a Cary Grant is exciting, but falling for an actor or actress who most of the world doesn't even remember ever existed? That's really something, and that's exactly the case for the star of today's film, a lovely young woman named Marian Marsh who was in a string of successful films in Hollywood's Pre-Code era--including Beauty and the Boss--and then sadly faded into obscurity.

Directed by Roy Del Ruth and starring Marian Marsh, Warren William, and David Manners, Beauty and the Boss is the story of a womanizing, chauvinistic bank president named Baron Josef von Ullrich (William) who has a habit of firing his secretaries when they become too "distracting", and keeping them on a private payroll for night duties. After firing yet another secretary who became too flirtatious, he vows that the next one will be a plain, hardworking girl he couldn't possibly be attracted to. His wish is granted when a half-starved, penniless girl named Susie Sachs (Marsh) sneaks into his office and begs for the job. He takes pity on her, and in return she becomes his personal machine, doing the best and most efficient secretarial work the bank has ever seen. But things become complicated when she finds herself falling for her handsome boss, and becomes increasingly jealous of the women coming to call on him every day.

In many ways, Beauty and the Boss is everything a progressive viewer fears of finding if they dare dip their toes into classic film: Warren William's character is an unrepentant sexist, and the collection of over-sexed, stereotypical women pining for him even as he treats them like objects is pretty unappealing. And yet, there's a breezy, lighthearted energy to the film that suggests we aren't meant to take any of this too seriously: it's just meant to be funny, and taking away the real-life implications, scenes like the one in which William tries to dictate a letter but keeps getting distracted by different parts of his secretary's anatomy--prompting him to dictate various updates to the company's dress-code--are, truly, pretty funny. And being a Pre-Code, the film has the liberty to include a healthy dose of sexual innuendo to keep things humorous.

The plot as a whole improves dramatically once Marian Marsh appears on-screen. I'm constantly amazed by her: she's so sweet and so funny, completely lacking the street-smarts that characterize most of my favorite actresses from this period, like Barbara Stanwyck and Joan Blondell. She's just a cute, innocent young woman in a tough world, the perfect protagonist for a light romantic comedy. She's wonderful here as a socially awkward young lady who is nonetheless the perfect secretary, the kind that writes two sets of letters ahead of a pending merger--one set to send out if the merger is successful and the other, if it fails so that not a minute is lost when the announcement comes through. Her schoolgirl crush on William is also played well, although the film would be a more interesting one if she ended up with the Baron's younger brother, played by Manners--he would certainly be more age-appropriate! While his role is small, this is yet another film where Manners adds a nice dose of cheeriness and fun when he's on-screen; while far from being the most complex or interesting actor, his face is one I can't help but be happy to see whenever he pops up in a film I'm watching. He's just so charming and affable!

Ultimately, Beauty and the Boss is not just a clever spin on words: it's a signal that this film is meant to be a bit of a fairy-tale, about a "church-mouse" who works hard and eventually wins the love of a wealthy Baron, undergoing a classic Hollywood makeover in the process. While William isn't exactly prince charming, and the film is too short to give him a redemption arc for his poor treatment of women at the beginning of the film, Marsh's character is not without dignity and she does get her say in the film: while she loves the Baron, Susie does not give in to him when he first shows romantic interest in her, realizing that he just wants female companionship--from any female, not specifically her. She tells him point-blank that the man she marries must work to gain her love, must want her and only her. While the Baron doesn't quite scale a mountain for Susie by the end of the film, he does end things with his female playmates and devotes himself to Susie, suggesting that he does love her and is willing to change his ways to be with her. It's not a particularly feminist ending, but it is appropriate for a film of this nature, and in romantic comedies it's not the ending that really matters anyway--we all know how things will go. It's the road there that matters, and this film delivers, with a journey involving more than enough fun, laughs, and Pre-Code naughtiness to go around.

Not every film needs to be a masterpiece: there's lots of room in the canon for fun films with great casts, and that's exactly what Beauty and the Boss is, highlighting some wonderful A-list stars as well as a number of great character actors that all come together to make the film a true delight to watch. Beauty and the Boss comes highly recommended to all fans of Pre-Code and classic romantic comedies; it's a fun, minor entry into the genre that's sure not to disappoint.


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