Pre-code films, movies made before the production code was enforced, are among the favorite screenings of attendees of the Picture Show each year. These films often include elements of sex, drug use, and law breaking, which are familiar to modern audiences and make these ideal forays into the world of black and white. Those with misconceptions about what "old movies" are like are often shocked and delighted by what they see in the movies their grandparents or great-grandparents grew up watching. Join us as we explore a few titles from this time.
RODNEY BOWCOCK: One of the most fascinating things about vintage movies is that they often feel like you’re peeking into a world that is far different from our own. While I’m not a woman, so I hesitate to say this, it seems like the world of She Had to Say Yes is one that has long gone by the wayside. Perhaps your mileage may vary, but I certainly hope that I’m correct in saying that.
We’re introduced right away to the world of fashion; clothing manufacturers that make their fortunes by selling their wares seasonally to high stakes department store buyers. It’s a world of beautiful clothing, high commission rates and a seedy underbelly where a swath of women are kept on-hand to “entertain” the buyers as they come in town to see what the manufacturers have to offer.
SAMANTHA GLASSER: ...ahem PROSTITUTES ahem...
RB: But there are a couple of flies in the ointment. One is the struggles of trying to own a business in the black during the depression. The other is that the flock of “customer girls” are, well, becoming old hat. BUT…there is a plan! Why not offer up the secretaries and stenographers to the buyers instead? If the women get the buyers to sign contracts, through whatever means necessary, then they can get to keep a bit of commission for themselves. It’s a win-win (sort of…not really…but…) and before long there is a case of “virtuous” Florence (Loretta Young) being mistaken for having the same questionable morals of the other girls in the office.
SG: Tommy Nelson (Regis Toomey) has the bright idea to offer bonuses to the lovely stenographers at the office for entertaining buyers after hours on a voluntary basis. He assumes his girlfriend (Young) will not participate, but her desire the help the company, and therefore Tommy and their dreams of saving enough to get married, thrust her into the perilous position. She wins over a handsome buyer from Chicago (Lyle Talbot) when another girl is unavailable and raises Tommy's suspicions.
According to some sources, Young and Talbot had a brief fling while making this movie.
RB: Winnie Lightner also provides some fun lines here, coming near the end of her career, which was usually based around musical comedies and (for the time) risqué songs. And, no, this film is not a sequel in any way to the earlier Lightner film She Couldn’t Say No.
SG: She plays the mouthy sidekick role that people like Patsy Kelly and Glenda Farrell would fill later. She has some of the best lines.
Hugh Herbert isn't as high-strung as we are used to seeing him in this film. He lets out a few of his signature "woo-woo"s when he starts making progress with a woman, but his character is more sinister as a dirty old man in a position of power.
RB: There are few if any signs of the Hugh Herbert that we know from cinematic masterpieces such as Sh! The Octopus. He does provide a few bits of levity, perhaps because we know how goofy he usually is. I always kinda half-way smile whenever I see him show up in anything.
And then there's Loretta Young. Can’t discuss this film without discussing her. She’s at her most gorgeous here and is an able star as she is in most of her work, but in my opinion, especially her pre-code films. Unlike the leads in a lot of pre-code films, I’d say that Flo does not subscribe to the unpleasant amorality that seeps into the pores of so many other characters in these sorts of films, and as such, you feel sympathetic toward her plight as she is forced to slog along in a society full of creeps.
SG: We are introduced to Young as she tries to discreetly exit the phone booth where she has been smooching Toomey. The story eventually tells us she is a virtuous woman, but our first impression would suggest otherwise. I've always been a massive fan of Young in the pre-codes. Not only was she gorgeous, she had an appealing vulnerability amid the smut without seeming to be broken down by it. Where someone like Barbara Stanwyck seemed to be hardened by the filth around her, Young maintained a certain grace and dignity in spite of it. (Joan Blondell, who we will visit next week, had fun with all of the pre-code insanity.) When the code was enforced, Young came off as a goody-goody, but no one could accuse her of that in the early 30s.
"I'm just not a good sport, that's all."
SG: The movie cost $110,000 to make and opened at the Strand Theatre in Manhattan on July 28th. Unfortunately, it only made $12,000 after a week, so the studio pushed it around for six months and took note of it as a flop. Motion Picture Herald said, "Considered as an ordinary program picture, She Had to Say Yes affords only the showmanship possibilities and entertainment values associated with that caliber of production."
"Warner Brothers took a long time to make up their minds to release this opus, and if they had thought once more, they would have buried it and tried to forget it," wrote the reviewer for The Hollywood Reporter under the headline, "She Had to Say Yes Looks Like Box Office Lemon." "It is a futile, tiresome attempt at sexiness, provoking only acute ennui."
Harsh words, but the ending is absolutely ludicrous. Young verbalizes that her character is settling for the lesser of two evils. Why she didn't leave all the slimeballs in this movie flat is beyond me. We can credit writer John Francis Larkin, who also wrote the story for Frisco Jenny, and wrote the basis for this film with his story "Customer's Girl."
RB: Perhaps not surprisingly, the views of the critics at the time were different from those that we may have today. While I found the film creepy, shocking and at times hilariously funny and at times in hilariously poor taste, Charles Lee Hyde of the Grand Theatre in Pierce, South Dakota found this to be a “dandy little show”. “A good show which pleased the women” said Wilfred Racine of the Ideal Theatre in Burns, Oregon.
For all of the problematic aspects of the film, it’s never not entertaining. While some of the plot aspects regarding “virtue” and the requirements of the women at the office being strongly encouraged to date men for money that they do not want to date, it’s ably directed by Busby Berkeley and the script moves at a breakneck pace with lots of snappy one-liners. Three and a half stars for this one from me.
SG: The studio gave Berkeley a try after the success of 42nd Street, but paired him with editor George Amy for insurance. We see evidence of their skills in the opening montage showing the company's product in use and in the dance scene at the nightclub.
Fans of Mad Men know that this practice of securing female entertainment for clients did not quickly fade away from the business world. Misogyny is still alive and well in some arenas. But acceptance of such ingrained practices as we see here are mostly gone, thank goodness.
New Movie magazine said She Had to Say Yes, "goes rather a long way to prove very little, but it certainly results in some brisk entertainment." My feelings coincide more with this review than the others. It is a fun movie in spite of its shortcomings and I don't regret savoring it at all. Three stars.
Upon completion of this film, Young moved from Warner Brothers to Twentieth Century Fox. She followed Darryl Zanuck in hopes of securing better parts, but instead found herself playing second fiddle to powerful male leads. It was the end of a glorious era where Loretta Young's beautiful face graced the celluloid of many a seedy, entertaining piece of fluff.
"Well, look out. A bonus is only one of the things you can get from an out-of-town buyer."