Saturday, June 6, 2015

Ona's Hot

One of the more unusual things about The Hot Heiress (1931) is the opening - a sweet little ditty sung by a bunch of construction workers entitled "Nobody Loves a Riveter But His Mother."  The opening makes you think that the movie is a musical; though it has a few songs, it really isn't.  It's a sweet albeit rather tame pre-code movie about our titular heiress' love for an ordinary working guy, who happens to be a riveter.  The film stars Ben Lyon as Hap Harrigan, our working stiff and Ona Munson as  Juliette "Julie" Hunter, the heiress.  It also features Walter Pidgeon as Clay, the man Julie's parents (Homes Herbert and Nella Walker) actually want her to marry. And in a very small part, Thelma Todd as Lola, one of Julie's friends.

The plot is rather simple - Hap sees Julie sleeping in the morning while he is working (he's up high, and can see into the open window.  A little pre-code deshabille in the scene!).  Distracted, he misses a rivet as it is tossed to him; it lands on the floor of Julie's bedroom, starting a fire.  Hap and pal Tom Dugan (Bill Dugan) climb in to put out the fire, and Julie immediately falls for her hero.  The only problem? Her family, who wants her to marry longtime friend, Clay.
Much is made in the film of the class differences between Julie and Hap.  Even their vocabulary is different, with Hap, Tom and Margie very oriented to slang, whereas Julie and Clay speak far more precisely.  This speech difference is emphasized in the scenes in which Hap, Tom and Margie visit Julie's family home for a weekend outing.  It can be a bit disconcerting to the modern ear, but it clearly establishes the differences in the societies, and points out the snobbishness of the "upper" classes.  This is not a film that is sympathetic towards the rich.  Julie is the exception because she treats everyone equally.  In fact, it often seems that she is trying to escape the burdens of her family's wealth - she is not interested in the life they have mapped out for her.

The songs in the film were written by Richard Rogers and Lorenz Hart. As the film didn't do particularly well, the duo was not eager to continue in the film industry, negotiated an end to their contract, and headed back to Broadway, where they would write such notable musicals as Pal Joey, Jumbo, and Babes in Arms (all of which would eventually be made into films). This TCM article goes into more detail on their departure from Hollywood.  And while this is perhaps not their best work, we enjoyed the song "Nobody but You" in particular.  The YouTube video below features the first scene with the song.  You also get nice views of our two couples: Juliette and Hap, and Tom and Margie:
It was quite enjoyable to see Walter Pidgeon in a supporting role, as well as a role in which he is rather a heel.  Though never stated, it sometimes seemed that Clay might only be interested in Julie for her money.  He associates with the right circles, and nothing is ever said, but could his family have lost their fortune in the Depression?  Regardless, Clay doesn't seem to love her; the marriage is one that he just assumes will happen.  Her rejection seems more of an inconvenience to him than anything else.

At first glance, we did not recognize Ona Munson as the actress who would go on to play Belle Watling in Gone With the Wind.  She's lovely here - cute and pert, with a sweet singing voice.  Munson had a respectable career, appearing in 20 films and three television episodes between 1928 and 1953, and 8 Broadway plays, beginning in 1919.  Her life, however, was a complicated one.  She married three times, but was also rumored to have had affairs with Dorothy Arzner, Marlene Dietrich. and Alla Nazimova.  This brief article from Film Comment provides more detail.  She committed suicide at age 51, after a long illness. 
Inez Courtney who played Margie, was perhaps our favorite character.  Margie is someone who, despite her lower class upbringing, fits in anywhere.  Julie's affection for her is transparent, and, when she is a guest at the Hunter home, it is Margie who has all the male guest crowded around her, and they all obviously are enjoying her visit. Courtney also started our on Broadway - she played Babe in the original staging of Good News, among other things. Between 1930 and 1940, she made 58 film appearances.  At the end of her contract, however, she decided to retire and move to Rome with her husband, an Italian nobleman.  (She opted to not use her title of Marchessa)  She died in 1975, aged 67, in Neptune, New Jersey.

Nella Walker, who plays Julie's mother, seemed to have been playing mothers and society matrons from the time she was young. From 1929 to 1954, she appeared in 117 films, primarily in supporting parts.  Included in her list of excellent films is Stella Dallas, in which she was the future mother-in-law of Laurel Dallas; and In Name Only, as Cary Grant's mother.  Her final film would have her playing the mother to Humphrey Bogart and William Holden in Sabrina (she was 13 older than her senior "son", Bogart).  At the end of the filming of Sabrina, she decided to retire She died in 1971

We'll leave you with a trailer from the film.  As you can see, the noise created by construction has not changed very much in 85 years.  And for New York City people like us, the vision of a construction site right next to our bedroom window is nothing new either:

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