Dec 6, 2017
On DVD: 1939 Rarities Full Confession and Beauty for the Asking
I recently had the chance to check out a pair of pleasantly entertaining 1939 rarities making their debut on DVD from Warner Archive: Full Confession, with Victor McLaglen and Beauty for the Asking, staring a pre-hilarious Lucille Ball. While it is understandable that this slight pair got lost in the shuffle during the legendary year in Hollywood that brought Gone with the Wind, The Women, Wuthering Heights and the like to audiences, they have their own charms.
I’ve always looked on Victor McLaglen as a more sincere version of Wallace Beery. He blunders around in much the same way, relying a bit too much on his physical power and impulsive decision making to get through life, and finding trouble because of it, but unlike Beery, he seems to understand his weaknesses on some level. He isn’t “aw shucks” about it, but rather has the decency to feel a little shame when he goes too far.
In the John Farrow-directed Full Confession (1939), he plays this familiar character in a story that often feels more like religious melodrama than the crime drama it is claimed to be. McLaglen is Pat McGinnis, a somewhat cuddly, but also dangerous man who is arrested after he steals a fur coat for his waitress girlfriend Molly Sullivan (Sally Eilers). He is shuffled off to a work farm to serve out his sentence, with the police unaware that he has committed the much more serious crime of killing a policeman during another attempted warehouse crime earlier in the night.
Through an unfortunate series of events, the warehouse night watchman Michael O’Keefe (Barry Fitzgerald) who McGinnis knocked out before the crime is convicted of the murder and faces execution. His pastor Father Loma (Joseph Calleia), who also knows McGinnis, learns the truth and much of the film involves his quest to free O’Keefe.
It’s a bit alarming the way the soundtrack full of weeping strings and several scenes of McGinnis and Sullivan being sweet on each other seem to be indicating that Pat isn’t the dangerous monster he is. Impulsive, aggressive and with no apparent desire to assimilate into society, you know that violence and despair are in Molly’s future if they marry and there are moments that she seems to realize that as well. Father Loma is fully aware of how dangerous and reprehensible the situation is though and he doesn’t hesitate to talk tough.
While none of it is terribly compelling, the disconnect between the film’s attempt to present a sweet couple and the darkness of the truth is intriguingly unsettling. Calleia is also oddly interesting; his sureness of purpose and complete moral certainty could only fully work in a cinematic world, but he lends an interesting edge to his determined man of religion.
Long before Lucille Ball realized her comic genius, she was an appealing, if not totally dazzling star of several genres besides comedy. Starring in the romance Beauty for the Asking (1939) as a beauty salon attendant who cashes in on her brilliant recipe for cold cream while shaking off a yen for the lousy boyfriend who dumped her, she is sharp, lovely and deeply sympathetic.
The bad beau is salesman Denny Williams (Patric Knowles) who leaves the lovely Jean Russell (Ball), for whom he feels passion, for the unpolished but insanely wealthy Flora Barton-Williams (Frieda Inescourt), who can provide him with comfort and access to plenty of illicit society side pieces. Jean realizes Denny is no good, but she can’t shake her passion for him and when Flora has him help her with her cold cream business as a term of her financial support, she struggles to hold him at arm’s length.
On the sidelines is the much cuter Jeff Martin (Donald Woods), who helps Jean with ads and waits hopefully for her to notice him. As her slightly dim-witted gal pal Gwen, Inez Courtney supports Jean’s business and her desire to put a Denny in the past. She is also responsible for the comic elements of the film. In a scene of physical comedy that is at odds with the more dialogue-driven humor of the rest of the film, Courtney is mildly amusing, and knowing what we do of Ball now, it is odd to see her gamely playing straight woman to a much lesser comic performer.
Beauty for the Asking is at its best when it embraces the feminism at its core. Jean thrives while pursuing her dreams of business success and she isn’t ruthless in fulfilling them either. In fact, she throws genuine, generous support to Flora; their strengthening sisterhood is the most satisfying aspect of the story. Most films from this era featuring strong-willed, independent women force you to avert your eyes from implausible endings where the heroine collapses from the exhaustion of being great and retreats into marriage. Here there is no compromise and instead a satisfying feeling of victory.
Many thanks to Warner Archive for providing copies of the films for review. These are Manufacture on Demand (MOD) DVDs. To order, visit The Warner Archive Collection.