To start, the tie in the Leading Man Tourney for this week has been broken (for now)…hopefully the last few days of Week 1 don’t see a tie-breaker right off the bat. Anyway, today’s film! Midnight Mary is a 1933 pre-Code with star Loretta Young in one of her most out-of-character roles. I’d originally heard of this whilst reading Hollywood Madonna (note to Runnell…I’m SUPER sorry, haven’t mailed your book yet, will be doing that ASAP). Young is predominately known for playing strong-willed women on the right side of the law, not so in Midnight Mary. The film is okay and Young is more captivating than in any films she did after (in my opinion) but it seems like obvious that the movie was tweaked to accommodate her.
Mary Martin (Young) is on trial for murder at the start of the film. In flashing back to how she ended up on trial the audience sees Mary seduced by the robber/gang leader Leo Darcy (Ricardo Cortez), eventually becoming a valued member of Leo’s gang as well as his mistress. When Mary meets blue-blooded lawyer Tom Mannering (Franchot Tone) Mary’s criminal past could put a damper on their relationship.
Yes ANOTHER Franchot Tone movie! If you’re just joining the blog let me preface the fact that I’m not a Franchot Tone fan. In fact, I’ve seen way too many of his movies in just a few short months (going back to my Jean Harlow Retrospective). Speaking of Tone and Harlow (that’d be a great band name), Midnight Mary was originally set to star Jean Harlow and Clark Gable. First off, Harlow is Mary Martin I noticed that right off the bat. It’s not that Young isn’t good, I’ll get to her performance in a sec, but this character is every character Harlow played. She’s saucy, she plays both sides of the fence, but she’s ultimately sweet. I’m assuming Gable would have been playing the scuzzy Leo and boy would he have been good! The movie follows a lot of the typical pre-Code stories of the time and with Gable and Harlow just finishing Red Dust the year before, I’m assuming they thought it was too similar but boy would it have been great!
The plot is fairly standard for the films of the period. You have a character seemingly evil but as the movie progresses you see how the character was pulled into the wrong side of the law, ended up in a bad situation due to their poor choices, and finds redemption in some way. In many ways the film emulates Baby Face complete with the deus ex machina ending! Again, it’s not bad just predictable.
From the first scene you’re meant to find Mary to be guilty of the crime. The prosecutor is talking about the heinous crime she’s committed, how indifferent she’s been about the proceedings and the camera pans to Mary reading a Cosmopolitan. It’s a hilarious bit of dark humor that continues throughout the movie but it’s meant to tell the audience, this is a woman who doesn’t care whether she lives or dies! As the movie flashes back to how Mary ended up on trial we see the standard pre-Code elements of Mary cavorting with Leo, laying in his lap in his car, going into his apartment….after dark! Mary is a wanton woman!
Actually she isn’t. Mary is actually a kind and caring woman who just gets seduced by a pretty face and jewelry. She doesn’t like Leo to yell at the wait staff, and there’s a hilarious scene where Leo asks Mary why she wants to read a biography about a woman who isn’t alive. It’s reminiscent of Beauty and the Beast…of course a woman is quirky for wanting to read books! I think this is the element of the film that doesn’t fit the rest of the movie. I understand you have standards of the time, and Loretta does balance between kind-hearted and bitchy, but it seems like two totally distinct halves of the character. Knowing how Young would portray herself in subsequent roles it just feels like towards the end the movie is afraid to go too far with the character.
Having only seen Loretta in two other movies (The Bishop’s Wife and Rachel and the Stranger which I reviewed recently on the blog) she’s generally the nice girl which is not the case at all in this film. Not only is she on trial for murder in this movie but she goes out with men who are obviously no good, and even engages in a conversation with Tom about sex! Mind you Tom starts it but she doesn’t shy away or condemn him for it. That conversation by the way is the raciest part of the film as Tom tells Mary he can think of “better games” to play with Mary….oh you pre-Codes. To get back to Loretta, I loved her spirit in this movie. She demonstrates a broad range here that I don’t think you necessarily saw throughout the rest of her career. There’s a moment where she has to make Tom fall out of love with her by telling him he’s a sucker and she was playing him. She turns into a tough bitch with the ability to say some devastating things in an instant. It’s a total 360 for her character that is so seamless for her.
Her duality is probably best exhibited with her relationship with Leo. I originally thought Tone was playing Leo as Ricardo Cortez looks a lot like him (they both rock some slicked back hair). Cortez is pure menace as Leo. He’s the typical guy your mother warned you about, the one who will wine and dine you, give you fancy things and then ask you to be the lookout during his robbery (a man unfortunately every woman wants). I loved Cortez the most in this movie and I think I would have enjoyed the film more had it focused on Mary living with him and coming to the realization that he’s awful for her. I mean Leo is the typical gangster complete with the “yeah see” type of dialogue. When he gets into an argument with Mary he tells her she’s his and then kisses her. She of course melts which allows Leo to smugly tell her he wouldn’t go after her if she leaves “but you’ll always come back.” This sadly happens at least three separate times during the movie and we never see Mary stop and think about this. We only know that she goes back because she’s unable to get a job but there seems to be a lot more behind it.
Much of this ambiguity is because the movie moves so fast through the years. The film is only an hour and fifteen minutes and starts in 1910 with Mary’s birth before rapidly jumping a decade every five minutes. Before you get settled in one way of life the film jumps before dropping the years altogether. You never know how much time has passed as the movie ramps up until a date is flashed on the screen. The final scene of the movie is the deus ex machina where Mary is saved but I won’t tell you how (although it is fairly predictable).
Midnight Mary is a work of its time. It’s a typical pre-Code that starts out racy but devolves into “let the punishment fit the crime” territory. I always go back to Red Dust as the best pre-Code out there (I’m sure someone will mention one that’s better). Midnight Mary just walks to the water’s edge before turning back. It’s a great film to showcase the talents of Young in a different role but that’s about it.
What’s your favorite pre-Code film? Loretta Young film?
A freelance film critic whose work fuels the Rotten Tomatoes meter. I've been published on The Hollywood Reporter, Remezcla, and The Daily Beast. I've been featured in the L.A. Times. I currently run two podcasts, Citizen Dame and Ticklish Business.