Originally published July 23, 2019
As an official Los Angeles resident I’m finally able to consume the various repertory screenings and themed events that happen throughout, and one of the big ones on my list was Kimberly Truhler’s amazing The Style of Sin series at the Egyptian. This month was a double feature to Kay Francis, starting with the sprightly Girls About Town. Francis is certainly an acquired taste for classic film fans, but this George Cukor must-see is such fun with a cast of characters who feel as vibrant as the clothes they’re wearing.
Wanda and Marie (Francis and Lilyan Tashman, respectively) are good-time girls hired out to wealthy businessmen as entertainment. On a boat one night they’re hired to spend time with millionaire Benjamin Thomas (Eugene Pallette) and his assistant, Jim Baker (Joel McCrea). The two women’s scheming takes them down roads they didn’t anticipate.
Girls About Town is so pre-Code you can see Will Hays seething while watching it. What Cukor and the screenwriters do is create a story about two golddiggers who are actually good people. And this coming well before 1953’s Gentlemen Prefer Blondes. Wanda and Marie are essentially paid escorts, with the script making a point of saying they don’t sleep with the men they squire around town. Their maid, played hilariously by Louise Beavers, is always around to act as their waiting mother in the window.
Come to think of it, there are many commonalities to Anita Loos’ famous play and movie, including the intimacy verging on romanticism between Wanda and Marie. The two share a bed together while nursing a hangover with Wanda contemplating leaving the game they’re playing and hoping Marie comes with her. Of course, love gets in the way courtesy of Joel McCrea.
Francis and McCrea get the film’s straightforward love story. It’s not particularly salacious compared to other pre-Codes, but they’re beautiful people who deserve each other. Francis doesn’t have the histrionics she usually puts off in her melodramas, but she comes alive more opposite Tashman (who was a great friend of Francis’ off-screen and got the role because of her). Their friendship feels more electric than the standard relationship between McCrea and Francis. That being said, Francis always has great comedic timing, playing the lovelorn straight man to the gabby Tashman. McCrea is gorgeous and plays the romantic leading man. McCrea was fantastic supporting strong women in cinema and this is another great example.
However, the true reason to watch Girls About Town is Tashman. A mix of Glenda Farrell and Jean Harlow, Tashman’s Marie is brash, uncompromising, and a perfect comedienne. The way she wraps Pallette’s character (and a turn of phrase) around her finger is fantastic. And she has such fantastic scenes opposite Lucile Gleason who plays Daisy Thomas. Marie’s character emphasizes how egalitarian the script is. There aren’t any bad people. Marie and Wanda are schemers, sure, but they’re never presented as bad for wanting good things (something that would be eliminated once the Code was enforced). Cukor and crew never judge them. When Jim is blackmailed Wanda feels bad and puts on a fundraiser to get his money back for him. These women want nice things, but they have a moral compass.
This complexity extends to the rest of the cast. Pallette’s Benjamin is a cheapskate, but his penny-pinching is presented as funny, and it actually helps him reconnect with his wife. Benjamin may be dallying with Marie, but their relationship forces Marie to meet his wife, with the two eventually becoming best friends. A third-act twist leads to the weirdly flat reveal that Wanda is married to a man named Alex (Anderson Lawler) and even that relationship is presented with honesty. Alex does attempt to extort money from Jim, but it’s only because his wife (whom he married after he divorced Wanda, we find out) has just had a baby. You want all these characters to get what they want in the end, and in an era where every action had to be either rewarded or punished – with little middle ground – this balancing helps Girls About Town stand out.
Girls About Town is a gem that isn’t talked about enough. Kay Francis and Lilyan Tashman are a girl group we should be putting alongside Marilyn and Jane Russell. Joel McCrea is certainly pretty. I loved that all the characters were flawed. A great time at the movies.
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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.