There are a lot of movies found in Professional Sweetheart, released via Warner Archive, that make you go, “Really?” Sure, every movie comes with its own level of suspended belief, but Professional Sweetheart brings up so many things, from the discussion of gender roles to the creation of publicity, female sexuality, even race issues all discussed in a movie that’s barely 90 minutes. Professional Sweetheart’s frustrations are certainly evident – it never goes quite far enough with the messages it’s comedically bringing up – but it’s a sharp, if minor, pre-Code feature I’m glad is available.
Glory Eden (Ginger Rogers) is an orphan who’s found great success as the “purity girl” for a local washcloth company. But Glory is sick of being America’s virgin and demands she be given some fun. Her publicity men come up with the idea of finding her a professional sweetheart to keep her occupied. They settle on a Kentucky rube named Jim Davey (Norman Foster), but Jim’s entry in Glory’s life causes more harm than good.
Professional Sweetheart’s most interesting point isn’t necessarily that it was Ginger Rogers’ RKO debut. Instead, it’s that it was written by Maurine Watkins, creator of the play that would become the musical Chicago. Watkins was a screenwriter with a focus on wicked women, penning this the same year as she went uncredited as the writer of The Story of Temple Drake. She’d later go on to write the scripts for Libeled Lady (1936) and Jean Harlow’s Saratoga (1937). In fact, Jean Harlow’s features seem to be the inspiration for Professional Sweetheart, not unlike Harlow’s The Girl From Missouri (1934).
This isn’t necessarily Ginger’s film despite everyone making a big deal about her. Her Glory Eden is presented as the 1930s equivalent of Britney Spears in the ’90s. Glory doesn’t drink, smoke, swear, or engage in that sinful jazz music. It’s caused her to become quite popular with America, as represented by Zasu Pitts’ reporter Elmerada de Leon (who tells Glory “I’ve slept with the stars” with a straight face). But Glory wants to let her hair down and go wild with “hooch and Harlem,” much like her maid Vera (Theresa Harris).
Rogers is a lot of fun. Her early career in this time period cultivated her as a woman with a temper tantrum handy and she does much of the same thing here. Her humor is derived from being angry about her situation, hurling books at her PR people and generally acting like Jean Harlow, right down to imitating Harlow’s baby talk. But, really, Rogers feels like the character everyone walks around. Her PR team, led by actors Frank McHugh, Allen Jenkins and Gregory Ratoff, are where the humor is truly found. They try to control her by first suggesting one of them date her and after Jim is discovered they’re the ones running after her.
It’s amazing, and I say that with irony, how similar the treatment of Glory Eden’s character is with most female pop stars and celebrities throughout the ages. Glory is a symbol of perfect womanhood as controlled by a gang of men who treat her like a child. While they eat caviar and lobster Thermador, Glory is eating baked apples and drinking “cocoa. Not chocolate. Cocoa.” The belief is that a man will temper Glory’s desires when it really doesn’t. Norman Foster’s Jim Davey is just as stereotypical, a Kentucky man that the script cheekily writes lives where the best Anglo-Saxon men live. When the two finally marry after a whirlwind, media-controlled courtship, Jim is horrified to find out that Glory has no problem taking her clothes off in front of him, even if he’s her husband.
The movie revels in its pre-Code sensibilities. It’s easy to see how Watkins would become known for the likes of Chicago and Roxie Hart (a role Rogers would play in the movie) as she created women who didn’t play by the rules. But, of course, it’s also easy to understand why that wouldn’t necessarily work in the studio system, so Watkins gets inventive with how things pan out. Glory, for narrative reasons, takes to Jim’s definition of domesticity and is ready to leave everything behind.
Her handlers, fearing that they’ll lose everything, decide to make Glory jealous by letting Vera become the new purity girl. Theresa Harris is wonderful in this movie despite being uncredited, and her and Rogers have a friendly rapport that appears to go beyond the conventions of their job. The fact that Vera is given the opportunity to be the purity girl at all, in spite of her race, seems shockingly progressive by 1933 standards. What’s hard to watch is that Vera is given the opportunity but the handlers turn her overt sexuality against her. Her sultry rendition of Glory’s song turns everyone on, including Jim, and forces Glory to demand her job back. There’s no competition necessarily; it’s unclear that Glory knows Vera is the new voice. But it’s never clear whether Vera gets to keep the job after Glory, and Jim, become the new couple associated with the washcloths.
A fun pre-Code bit of fluff that may not satisfy Ginger Rogers fan but is consistently humorous. If Maurine Watkins is behind the script, odds are you’re in for a treat.
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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.