Midnight Mary (1933)

Loretta Young and Una Merkel

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.

Loretta Young's eyes peeping out

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.

Franchot Tone with Loretta Young at her most glamorous, in a beaded headdress

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.

Ricardo Cortez, Loretta Young and Franchot Tone

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.

Loretta Young on the wrong side of the law

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15 thoughts on “Midnight Mary (1933)

  1. Judy, I haven’t listened to the commentaries yet, but that detail you mention in the last paragraph may have something to do with Wellman’s tendency to tell Depression stories that mostly aren’t set during the Depression, but during the previous decade or two. Audiences may not have objected so much to scenes of poverty set in the past, and his flashback stories may have sent a subtle message that once his characters reach the present day (the Depression itself) they’re ready to turn the corner for better things. Midnight Mary itself is a powerful film, with Young’s fate hanging over the whole flashback thanks to that great opening scene in her improvised waiting room. Those wipes are mesmerizing too. This may be the sleeper of Forbidden Hollywood III and I’m glad to see you spreading the word.

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    • That’s a very good point about the poverty being put into the past, Samuel, thanks for that – I’ve also been over to your blog and read your great review of this film. After seeing your thoughts both here and there, it now strikes me that I didn’t take enough notice of the dates between the scenes. I think the great sequence with the neon signs flashing “No Help Wanted”, and the starving girl collapsing in a queue, is placed in the film’s timescale before the Great Depression really starts, although it is clearly a commentary on the Depression. I agree the opening scene is great and leaves Mary’s fate hanging over the whole movie. Thanks very much for your comments.

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  2. “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.”

    Excellent passage here Judy, and one that compellingly conveys Wellman’s “connection” with the period his film is placed in.

    Indeed the entire essay, informed as it is with a cogent summary and an examination of its selling points, is exceptional. I agree with Samuel Wilson and yourself that it’s the best of the Forbidden Hollywood set, though I haven’t seen every one yet. Unlike some other pre-code films this one is hardly risque, but is most suggestive. And I’d say it’s earned it’s titles as “the only Warner Brothers film made by MGM,” alluding of course to its cutting edge and it’s role-reversal for Loretta Young, who later won an oscar in a major upset for playing “wholesome” in THE FARMER’S DAUGHTER. The script here is rather average, but it’s elevated by the performances of Young (yes I agree with you that it’s ‘her’ film), Cortez and Tone. (the latter of course rose to considerable fame a few years later with his exceptional turn in MGM’s MUTINY ON THE BOUNTY). But the flashback technique here is all Warner Brothers too.

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    • Many thanks for this response and for your time and enthusiasm, Sam -I like that line “the only Warner Brothers film made by MGM”. Interesting that you think the script is only average – I thought there was some good snappy dialogue, but a lot of the best moments are visual. I agree with you that the performances of Young, Cortez and Tone lift it, and I also forgot to mention Andy Devine, who adds humour. Despite her wholesome image later, Young did also play “bad girls” in some other pre-Codes, such as ‘Born to Be Bad’ (1934) with Cary Grant, where she is a money-grabbing single mother – as far as I remember she was quite good in that despite a poor script.

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  3. MIDNIGHT MARY is one of my favorite pre-code movies. This is a great review, Judy. Like you, I’ve been able to see the movie as well as listen to the commentary. And that beaded skull cap by Adrian—talk about glamour. Loretta was so beautiful in that ensemble. I wasn’t even a fan of hers until I saw this movie. She displayed some great acting chops here.

    There is at one scene which almost made me laugh out loud. It was not meant to be humorous, either. I had checked this movie out of our library’s collection, so I’m typing this off the cuff, but there was a fight scene between Franchot and Ricardo that could have been choreographed better. It’s almost as if they’re dancing around and around for way too many seconds. And then when the scuffle is over, someone plops a hat on Franchot’s head, and the hat doesn’t land as gracefully as it should. Wellman must have temporarily nodded off during that time. :)

    But no matter, it’s still a great movie, and Loretta Young gives a wonderful performance.

    I think I read in a book by Mick LaSalle that Young said this was her favorite role.

    Another MGM flick with something of a Warner’s flavor is BEAST OF THE CITY, only this is a gangster film from the policeman’s point of view and not the other way around as in the Warner’s plots. Still, it’s got that Warner’s grit.

    Again, great review!

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    • Haha, yes, I know the fight scene you mean – I hadn’t noticed it was like a dance routine until it was pointed out in the DVD commentary! Thanks very much for your kind comments – glad you like this film too and Loretta Young’s performance. She is also brilliant in ‘Man’s Castle’ with Spencer Tracy, a pre-Code I keep meaning to write something about. I haven’t seen ‘Beast of the City’ but will look out for it. Again, many thanks.

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  4. Judy, as an addition to my submission here I wanted to add this, though it’s off subject. Franchot Tone’s last memorable presence was in one of the original Twilight Zone’s most memorable episodes, THE SILENCE, where he played a Men’s Club officer who wagered a million dollars with a down-on-his-luck blowhard, and was unable to live up to his side of the bargain, resulted in a most shocking conclusion. Tone had injured one side of his face before filming, so he was shot in profile throughout, giving a marked chilling effect. He was always an interesting actor, and even near the end he generated a rhetorically colorful acting style.

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    • Thanks very much for adding this, Sam – I appreciate learning more about Franchot Tone. I haven’t seen this episode but it sounds well worth looking out. I like your description of his “rhetorically colorful acting style.”

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  5. I concur with everyone else here, this is a great film and one of MGM’s few to have a Warner’s feel to it. I watched it for the first time last year and Young is just terrific in this. I love the opening court sequence where she is flipping thru the pages. An excellent review Judy!

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    • Thank you, John – I definitely agree this is a great performance by Young, and I love the opening court sequence too. I forgot to say that I enjoyed the supposedly kindly court clerk who is so keen to see the verdict come in quickly so that he can get off to his little grand-daughter’s birthday party!

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  6. No one has mentioned the scene in which Loretta Young wearing a very sexy “Greta Garbo” style hat and seated in a restaurant booth with Tone. She goes from very sweet to very hard-boiled in a matter of minutes or seconds attempting to protect Tone while breaking up with him. Not only is her acting great (and she’s only 19 years old) but LOOK AT THAT FABULOUS FACE OF HERS. SHE’S DROP-DEAD GORGEOUS IN THAT SCENE AND SHE DIDN’T NEED FLASHY CLOTHES. I LOVE THAT MOVIE. Tommy

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  7. Help! We loved this movie too – thought Loretta Young’s tough and vulnerable performance was mesmerizing, but our cable company cut off the last few minutes! Please tell us how it ends!!!

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    • Oh dear, I hate it when that happens – I remember in pre-internet days ‘A Touch of Class’ cut off before the end and I had to wait about a year until it was repeated on TV to find out the end.

      Anyway, anyone reading this thread who doesn’t want to know the ending, avert your eyes now! SPOILERS!

      The jury comes back with a guilty verdict, but then Tom arrives in the court and stands alongside Mary and pleads on her behalf, saying that he is to blame as well and that he loves her and will get a divorce. The court agrees to a retrial and the ending sees the couple kissing in jail, confident that Mary will soon be free.

      I do hope you are soon able to see the ending for yourself.

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    • i never seen her look so stunning, i didn’t know it was loretta young ,had to look it up on this great google.site.

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  8. I just saw this for the 1st time and WOW-what a flick! Loretta Young-such a great actress. And when she blows off the lawyer in the restaurant-what a heart breaking scene, tho the viewer understands why she did that. I missed the end-it was on in the wee hours & I almost stayed awake for it all, so I do thank you for the spoiler. TCM should show more of the pre-code movies. I think when Hollywood instituted that “morals code”, it absolutely ruined movie making!

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