The implementation of the Code in 1934 left many films in a state of disarray, having to tweak scripts and direction at the last second to comply. Cinema was left to neuter itself, and fast. It’s hard watching movies from this year. The audience can see where the sauciness would have come in, where the plot could have gone darker. It’s like watching a movie where the script included scenes that weren’t filmed. While she wasn’t in the same league of seductiveness as Mae West – and thus never suffered the same censorship – Carole Lombard was perfectly suited for the pre-Code era. The Gay Bride, based on a story by Charles Francis Coe, was envisioned as the story of a golddigger working her way to the top. What it became was a slap-dash romantic comedy that doesn’t have the “brains” of its characters, but is still a fun time thanks to Lombard and gal Friday, Zasu Pitts.
Mary (Lombard) is hoping to set herself up as a society dame thanks to mobster boyfriend “Shoots” Magiz (Nat Pendleton). When Shoots ends up DOA, the newly married Mary Magiz is left to fend off the advances of several murderous suitors, as well as figure out how to secure a trust fund after discovering Shoots was broke.
Had this been released two years earlier it would have been a kissin’ cousin with Jean Harlow’s Red-Headed Woman (1932). Mary Magiz, like Harlow’s eponymous character, is an opportunist, a schemer. She doesn’t love the boisterous Shoots, whose blood is so worked up by her that he practically howls like a wolf in her presence; she’s a woman with dollar signs in her eyes, not hearts. After a game of give and take with the mobster the two are finally married and Mary gets to spending her money. But, as Mary’s poor friend Mirabelle (Pitts) explains, men like Shoots don’t live long and when the man is bumped off by his lawyer, Mary is left broke and looking for husband two.
Eighty minutes can feel long when the story is lost at sea. Acclaimed screenwriters Bella and Sam Spewack lean on repetition as character development. Mary is a golddigger, to be sure, who lover “Office Boy,” Jimmie Burnham (Chester Morris) describes as digging with both hands, but other than that there’s nothing to the character. Nearly 30 minutes of the movie involves hearing Mary talk cute to Shoots, pout, and cry. There’s little variation to these scenes short of changing the man and it makes the pacing staggeringly dull. This could be because the film is afraid to make Mary too calculating. We watch her put on a haughty voice when talking to others, but this is quickly abandoned around the halfway mark. Thankfully Carole Lombard is a good enough comedienne that the audience can enjoy her variations on the same scene. Her face is so expression and her costumes, beautifully rendered by Dolly Tree, are worn like a second skin.
Like most pre-Codes of its ilk, The Gay Bride is at its comedic heights when focusing on its female friendships. In this case, Lombard and Zasu Pitts are incredibly funny. Pitts’ Mirabelle should be Mary’s moral compass. She tells Mary her ways of securing money aren’t working and the men she picks are terrible, describing Shoots as a man who “enjoys” pulling the wings off flies. But Mirabelle is no saint, she’s just not as manipulative as Mary. So when her friend finally secures the trust fund she’s been coveting – only to discover it could drop her in the slammer – the two women decide to give the money away. Cut to Pitts asking Mary if she can have the money. When the answer is no, Mirabelle doesn’t have a problem stuffing some bills into her blouse. Pitts and Lombard are such a great team, bantering off each other with greater ease than the men in Mary’s life.
Similar to how repetitive Mary’s behavior is, the plot sees her become the object of numerous men’s affections in the wake of Shoots’ death. Sam Hardy’s Daniel Dingle is the man responsible for killing Shoots, mainly to get Mary for himself. You also have Leo Carillo as Mickey “The Greek” Mikapopoulis, and the aforementioned Chester Morris as a man who doesn’t even require a name, going by Office Boy for the majority of the runtime. Mary acts as the siren, but the film never explores how terrible each of these men are, simply building up the murder and mayhem before pasting a happy ending-esque bandaid on the entire affair. Chester Morris, who was in Red-Headed Woman, is just as compelling as he was in that, and by that I mean he isn’t. Sorry, but I do not get those who champion him. He’s just too square-jawed and representative of the silent era for me. You never get the feeling that Mary loves any of these men, especially Office Boy. For a woman who was cold enough to move on from her first husband before his body is even cold, there’s no way to buy she’d walk away from wealth for a guy who dreams of a garage. What do you do when your script needs a quick cut for the censors? Just paste an ending and not worry about anything that’s come before.
The Gay Bride is certainly a fascinating case study for how the Code could ruin potentially good ideas. We’ll never know if The Gay Bride would have worked with a better script, but it’s easy to see how it could be fun. Lombard and Pitts know how to navigate the tepid waters, and that’s just fine for 80 minutes.
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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.