I’m working through Kino Lorber’s four-pack of RKO Romances and immediately we get one of the more lachrymose and bizarre examples of pre-Code romance with the 1931 romantic-drama, Millie. Millie’s claim to fame is it was a leading feature for early talkie actress Helen Twelvetrees who had quite the banner year in 1931, making four features in that year alone. Millie is firmly in the vein of Stella Dallas (1925) or The Divorcee (1930) in its more problematic elements, but its overemphasis of emotion and total adherence to early-sound tropes, it makes up for in entertainment value because of how bizarrely things develop.
Twelvetrees should be commended for being able to go through the plot transitions her character, Millie Blake Maitland goes through. From the minute we meet her, being cheered and ogled by a group of college boys who introduce her character as a wild woman who will never settle down, you’re anticipating meeting Jean Harlow’s character from Red-Headed Woman (1932). In fact, Millie’s big claim to fame as a character is her red hair, even having a song performed about it later in the film.
But for the hype around Millie being the talk of the town, she actually seems pretty reticent. She enters into marriage with Jack Maitland (James Hall) that, because it’s pre-Code, is frank about Millie’s fear of her wedding night. After the two are married, Jack takes her to a hotel room with the obvious implication that the two will consummate their marriage. But Twelvetrees and cinematographer Ernest Haller play the scene like a horror movie. Millie is on the verge of crying, making excuses so she doesn’t have to be alone with Jack. She makes him call her mother, possibly hoping to hear some words of encouragement to no avail. It’s never stated overtly, but it’s evident Millie is a virgin – further evidence she’s truly a good woman at heart.
Broken up into a series of chapters, it’s just three years after Jack and Millie’s marriage that he starts stepping out on her, and this is where the movie picks up as we’re introduced to a former acquaintance of Millie’s, Angie Wickerstaff (Joan Blondell) and Angie’s “girlfriend,” Helen (Lilyan Tashman). I put girlfriend in quotes as their relationship seems like it is somewhat romantic; they’re introduced in lingerie sharing the same bed. Tashman and Blondell are utterly wonderful, using their hardened, tough-talking dames to give Twelvetrees’ pious Helen more dirt.
But their characters change like the wind. They’re introduced attempting to fleece Millie for money, as Helen and Angie owe backrent. But when they get to the nightclub to sell their pitch they discover Millie’s husband is cheating. The trio’s friendship is never particularly loving, but in this moment there’s a share sense of unity between the pair that continues throughout. Tashman is also great with the wisecracks; “I bet she knows how to sock!” Millie’s divorce from Jack also sees her give up rights to her daughter, turning her into a tragic self-sacrificing mother who, you should know by now, will end up having her mother’s love tested.
The movie then introduces a second romance for Millie that, again, ends in cheating. It’s unclear what the movie wants to say with this. Had this been written by a woman it might be that men are fickle and that true love and devotion comes from friendship or children. But the movie doesn’t say that. In fact, it doesn’t say anything about love. Millie gets her heart broken, again, and starts acting out. Six years (!) pass, purely to introduce Anita Louise’s Connie, Millie’s daughter. She ends up in a lecherous relationship with an old paramour of Millie’s. What makes this part of the narrative so bizarre is that said character, Jimmy Dammier (John Halliday) spends a large part of the movie acting like a supportive friend to Millie. Yes, romance is alluded to, but he’s far from a creep, which makes his disturbing embrace of a 16-year-old girl feel like the script needed a plot infusion.
Of course, Dammier’s behavior ends in murder, with Millie on trial and refusing to name her daughter for fear of ruining her reputation. The movie is already filled with overblown theatrics and Twelvetrees’ crying, but by the time you get to her screaming at her daughter to leave the court it’s just too much. Twelvetrees’ theatrics are already over-the-top.
Millie is hammy, melodramtic cheese and if you’re into that it might work for you. It’s worth it to watch Blondell and Tashman steal the film. It’s also worth a look to see Helen Twelvetrees, who is a huge part of 1930s cinema. But the script is just trash.
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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.