If you like either William Wellman or Loretta Young, I’m prepared to bet you would love this dazzling pre-Code film. Made at MGM, it blends that studio’s sexy glamour with Warner-style grit, and moves at a cracking pace to cram so much into just 74 minutes, with fast, witty dialogue and not a scene or a moment wasted.
I find myself grouping this one together with the slightly earlier film I’ve just reviewed, Frisco Jenny, since both are tales of women driven to murder, showing what took them to that point and culminating in the courtroom. (I also think of them together because they share a DVD in the Forbidden Hollywood Collection: Volume 3 box set.) However, for me Midnight Mary is the more powerful movie of the two – and it is also more fun.
I was especially struck by a stunning sequence at a key turning-point which uses Wellman’s silent movie techniques to sum up the despair of job-hunters in the Great Depression. Mary (Loretta Young) trudges through the streets gazing up at a successon of large neon billboards, where the wording constantly changes from the name of the product being advertised and each sign instead proclaims “No help wanted” or “No jobs today”. One of the billboards is advertising a movie starring Joan Crawford – suggesting a glamour worlds away from Young in the dingy street below.
Most of the drama, based on a story by Anita Loos, unfolds in flashback. The opening scene shows Young on trial for murder, insouciantly flipping through the pages of Cosmopolitan magazine as she waits to learn her fate. Each scene from her past is introduced by the leather-bound spine of a court ledger bearing the date – the commentary by film historians Jeffrey Vance and Tony Maietta on the DVD points out how well this works and how it is an example of Wellman’s economy as a storyteller.
There is a brief glimpse of both Mary and her friend Bunny (Una Merkel) as young girls on a farm growing up, showing how Mary’s world is torn apart when her mother dies. Surprisingly, instead of using child actors for this scene, Wellman has Young and Merkel playing their nine-year-old selves – the commentary on the DVD points out how Wellman has them filmed at an angle from above to make them look smaller. They still look a lot older than nine, but it is such a brief sequence that he just about gets away with it. Astonishingly, Young was still only 19 when she made this film, one of her best pre-Code roles to put alongside her performances in Man’s Castle and Platinum Blonde. She gives a great performance, portraying a character who can seem hard-bitten and brassy or show the vulnerability underneath, depending on the circumstances and how much she wants to let people see.
Mary starts out on a life of crime by chance, when she is unjustly accused of stealing from a store after being in the wrong place at the wrong time. After serving time in a house of correction, she can’t find honest work in the Depression and drifts into becoming a gangster’s moll, kept in luxury by Leo Darcy (Ricardo Cortez in a series of sharp suits) – and dressed in impossibly glamorous outfits designed by Adrian, including a beautiful beaded headdress.
However, this isn’t the life she wants for herself, and, unlike Bunny, also a moll, she dreams of something more. When a violent incident at a casino throws her together with rich, handsome lawyer Tom Mannering (Franchot Tone), she sees a way back to the straight and narrow and persuades him to give her a job as a secretary. But Leo is keeping an eye on her and won’t let her go so easily – and the police aren’t about to forget about her either. Before long she is forced back to her old life again, with more twists in store.
Both Cortez and Tone are fine in their roles, but this is Young’s film all the way. It’s full of pre-Code suggestiveness – there’s even a scene where Tone’s character says he is thinking “about sex”, while in another sequence Young whispers seductively into Cortez’s ear to get him into bed and distract him from the crime he is plotting.
But it is also very much a film about the Great Depression, and, as well as that scene with the neon billboards, there is also a sequence showing Young’s feet trudging through the streets until her shoes wear out and she has to stuff them with newspaper. The DVD commentary says that some film-goers of the time complained about scenes like these because they were too close to the reality all around them. Apparently they preferred scenes like the one where Cortez takes Young to buy a fur coat – but really it is the contrast between opulence and poverty which is the keynote of this film.