Kay Francis … Wanda Howard
Joel McCrea … Jim Baker
Lilyan Tashman … Marie Bailey
Eugene Pallette … Benjamin Thomas
Alan Dinehart … Jerry Chase
Lucile Gleason … Mrs. Benjamin Thomas
Anderson Lawler … Alex Howard
Lucile Browne … Edna
George Barbier … Webster
Robert McWade … Simms
Louise Beavers … Hattie
Judith Wood … Winnie
Directed by George Cukor.
Produced by Raymond Griffith.
Based on the story by Zoe Akins.
Screenplay by Raymond Griffith & Brian Marlow.
Cinematography by Don Haller.
Costumes by Travis Banton.
Still Photography by Frank Bjerring.
A Paramount Picture.
Released October 30, 1930.
After two years of supporting parts or secondary leads, Kay Francis was finally given the star treatment from Paramount in Girls About Town, a wonderful comedy from George Cukor produced in August 1931. Based on a story by Zoë Atkins, the film revolves around two professional gold diggers, one of whom (Francis) decides it’s time for her to quit the racket and settle for love with her ideal suitor (McCrea).
Paramount had showcased Kay just fine in Gentlemen of the Press and Dangerous Curves, but her subsequent films were less than stellar, particularly Let’s Go Native (1930), in which she was fifth-billed in the ridiculous Jack Oakie and Jeanette MacDonald pairing. Two movies opposite William Powell, Street of Chance and For the Defense, along with her loan out to First National for A Notorious Affair made Hollywood stand up and realize that perhaps Kay could emerge as a true star on the Joan Crawford or Norma Shearer level.
But Paramount just didn’t see it. Not knowing what to do with their brunette beauty, she continued in second leads until she was top billed in this production, which became one of the best Pre-Code comedies ever produced.
Kay was top-billed in Girls About Town, which was technically her second to last film under contract. After The False Madonna, the studio was so impressed with her that they gave her the opportunity to work with Fredric March in Strangers in Love (1932) at the same salary her new studio, Warner Brothers, was to be paying her when she began her employment there later in the year. It was a nice gesture she later admitted, but it was time for her to move on in her career, and only Warner Brothers had the plans and assets to turn her into a major star.
There is no one star of Girls About Town, however. Kay, Joel McCrea, Lilyan Tashman, and Eugene Pallette share the spotlight perfectly; clearly this was a movie without any self-centered personalities. Even in the scene where Kay and Joel McCrea go swimming, it’s hard to focus concentration on just one star with McCrea’s perfectly tanned skin and Kay’s revealing bathing suit (which leaves nothing about her figure to the imagination).
According to Kay’s diary, Lilyan was often drunk on the set, but the two ladies were friends. Tashman had told the press that she considered Kay the most beautiful actress of the screen, and appreciated the fact that Kay wasn’t catty, a rare personality trait for Hollywood stars—female or male.
This movie opens up with some really fun credits. As jazzy music plays, we see a montage of glam girls partying and wearing gorgeous gowns with a shot of New York City’s skyline in the foreground. When the credits end, there’s a montage of lades in the powder room applying makeup, combing their hair, and doing their nails. “It’s been an evil night,” Marie Bailey says to girlfriend Wanda.
“Isn’t is a relief to get away?”
“All through the show he talked about nothing but Des Moines.”
“Is that all? I’ve got a callas on my knee from my boyfriend’s suddel approach.”
Wanda admits that she’s “fed up with all this,” and the two go to dinner with their sweethearts of the night. A montage of drinking and fun follows. We see all sorts of weird facial expressions, including a teary-eyed Wanda. Marie goes back to the apartment, strips as far as censors will allow her, then gets ready for bed (in what looks like a comfortable robe topped with lots of fur). Wanda comes home, admits she’s sick of the socializing, then smiles and admits “someone had to pay for this dress” when she gets her $500 check.
The two ladies wake up at five in the afternoon, have some grapefruit juice and some aspirin, and Marie gets a phone call from Jerry about a big party on a yacht for a Mr. Benjamin Thomas.
Later that evening, Jerry informs the girls that Mr. Thomas is the wealthiest man in Michigan. Wanda, peeking out of a window, spots a handsome Jim Baker, but thinks that he’s Thomas. Wanda leans into Marie and insists on having Mr. Thomas. Marie can care less, and they meet the real Mr. Thomas when he plays practical jokes on both of them.
“You know I should have warned you ladies that Ben is a famous practical joker,” says Jerry.
When Wanda and Marie are alone, they decide to swap men. Marie does a swell job at seducing Benjamin, but Wanda has a hard time even keeping Jim awake. He’s immune to her charm, but agrees to play a game with her where he pretends to be her boyfriend. They flirt, kiss, and hours go by and Wanda forgets all about the game. When he says that she can come back home with him, Wanda gets all excited, but Jim thinks that it was only a part of the game.
“Oh… so it’s all been pretending…?”
“Maybe not, maybe you think I just fell on my head as a baby.”
The next morning, Marie is woken up by Ben, who has placed a scary mask in her window to frighten her. She pushes a bottle out the window, knocking him into the water. “Oh, dear, what have I done! Oh, Benjy-wenjy, darling…”
Jim and Wanda go on the deck and sunbathe, then jump into the water. When Wanda starts to drown, Jim rescues her. Kay’s bathing suit is quite revealing, and this is really the only time, besides a scene in Let’s Go Native (1930), where you see her legs, which don’t seem as bad as she made them out to be throughout her career. Anyway, the two settle their disagreement and kiss for real.
With everyone on the deck, Ben sees the opportunity for a joke. He has golf balls which disintegrates when placed in water. He offers to give the girl who finds the ball $3,000. Marie catches on, gets a ball from his own luggage, then comes up from the water holding it.
Jerry gives the girls their pay for the entertainment, and Wanda secretly tears up the check. She can’t receive money to pretend to love Jim, because she really does. At a zoo with Jim, he asks her to marry him. She doesn’t say yes without really saying no. The reason is because she’s still married to a slime ball who sees her as a profitable cause.
But Wanda is different from the other potential brides of 1930s cinema. She tells Jim about her husband, that he doesn’t mean anything to her and that she’ll try to get a divorce.
The trip ends. Back at their apartment, Marie gets a visit from Benjamin’s wife. Marie learns of what a prick Ben has been to his wife, and agrees to get him back. Wanda’s husband, Alex, also arrives at the apartment with a discussion about divorce. She says Jim will pay for all of it when Alex says he’s having financial problems. The little slime ball makes a few wisecracks. He doesn’t want her to be happy at all.
At a jewelry store, Ben and Marie see Ben’s wife. She’s complaining that her cheap husband doesn’t buy her anything, so Ben goes crazy getting Marie plenty of jewels. It’s all set up by Marie and his wife. Later on, at Ben’s birthday party thrown by Marie, he informs everyone he’s changed forever. No more cheap Mr. Benjamin Thomas.
Unfortunately, Wanda’s husband shows up, and realizes that Jim’s got a lot of money.
Unpredictably, he refused to let Wanda give him a divorce, but says he’ll file some alienation of affection sort of suit against Jim. Alex can care less, he just wants Jim’s money. By threatening him with suits, he gets Jim to give him a check for $10,000. After signing it, he knocks Alex out cold. When Wanda comes in, Jim insults her, thinking that the two of them set him up.
Wanda changes, then says she’s going to get that $10,000 if it’s the last thing she’ll do. At his apartment, Wanda meets his sick wife and daughter. Alex turns out to be even more a slime when he tells Wanda they have been divorced a while back, she just never knew about it. She lets him keep the money, and decides to play back the $10,000 to Jim herself. They auction off their jewelry and furs to their gold-digging friends.
They make the money, and Wanda goes to where Jim’s staying and throws the money down on the table. Marie is with her, and opens up the door to show Ben his wife wearing all of the jewelry that he gave her.
Jim asks Wanda to forgive him, but she resists until he kisses her. They decide to marry and go to Michigan and start their new life together.
This film couldn’t have been more fun. As best friends, Kay Francis and Lilyan Tashman have excellent chemistry. Not one single scene shows any signs of cattiness between the two—something Tashman said was the best part about working with Kay.
Kay has one of her best roles as Wanda. Easygoing, fun, and true to herself, Wanda has all the aspects of a comedic character in which Kay excelled best at. This is a total departure from the type of melodramatic roles she is best remembered for. One has sympathy for her when her troubles with Jim arise.
Check out the swimsuit Kay has on. Though she still is pretty well covered—considering what some people wear on the beach today—it still is pretty revealing, and leaves us nothing to the imagination regarding her figure.
Tashman was a party girl. Both on and off the screen she knew how to have fun. It’s evident in this movie.
A great example of the character personalities of the time, Pallette plays his fat, rich man well. Thinking he has a beautiful blonde wrapped around his finger, isn’t he surprised to find out it’s really the other way around. And when he does become aware of Marie’s real intentions, his calling her a “girl about town” is a scene which makes one laugh.
I do like all of his little gags, my favorite being when he is outside the ship, making noises through the girls’ window, and they push him over the edge on “accident.”
Joel McCrea doesn’t have to do much, but photographs especially dark for some reason. My guess is he didn’t wear the proper make-up. But his mannered-down and natural acting is overshadowed by the grandiose presence of Francis, Tashman, and Pallette.
Why this isn’t a more appreciated work of George Cukor’s I don’t understand. It’s probably because of the film’s unavailability, which is a shame. If people knew that more movies like this existed, they would be drawn to the actors who played in them, therefore stretching the market in which they are desirable.
This was the second movie Kay made with Lilyan Tashman. Their first appearance together was in The Marriage Playground (1929), and Girls About Town was their last collaboration. This was also the only movie Kay made with Joel McCrea.
George Cukor had directed Kay in The Virtuous Sin (1930), with Walter Huston and Kay’s real-life husband, Kenneth MacKenna. He does an excellent job directing Kay. It’s a shame they didn’t make more pictures together.
Below: No, this isn’t a picture from the film, but it looks like it would be, right? Photographed during production at Lilyan’s beach house, clockwise from bottom left the guests include: Doug Fairbanks, Jr., Lilyan Tashman, Clifton Webb, Kenneth McKenna, Edmund Lowe (Tashman’s husband), Kay Francis (McKenna’s wife), Ivor Novello, and Joan Crawford.
By Mordaunt Hall, November 2, 1931.
Published in the New York Times.
Lilyan Tashman and Kay Francis impersonate lilies of Broadway’s fields in “Girls About Town,” the present attraction at the Paramount. This handsomely staged and ably directed production is one that affords no little laughter, but unfortunately it is burdened in the latter stages by highly improbable serious sequences.
“Girls About Town” has something akin to “The Greeks Had a Word for it,” for it is chiefly concerned with the crafty methods of attractive gold-diggers in obtaining gifts from susceptible provincial men of means. Like the play, it was written by Zoë Akins and George Cukor is responsible for the compelling direction. In some respects it is an excellent fashion show, for both Miss Tashman and Miss Francis avail themselves of every opportunity to appear arrayed in the glory of the latest creations, which include gowns pajamas and bathing suits. And these actresses, representing the blonde and the brunette, look very attractive. The blonde, who is named Marie Bailey, sticks to her last, but the brunette, Wanda Howard, being of the species that gentlemen marry, falls in love and becomes the wife of a young man who only has to worry about the income tax.
Eugene Pallette has the rôle of Benjamin Thomas of Lansing, Mich. Thomas has an emphatically parsimonious streak in his nature, but so long as he has money, Wanda and Marie feel sure of getting some of it from him. Thomas, a copper king, has a weakness for playing practical jokes, with the consequence that while Marie calls him Benjy to his face, he is an annoyance to her when she is talking about him to Wanda in the privacy of their boudoir.
Thomas has discovered a golf ball that dissolves in water. Aboard his yacht one bright morning he offers as much as $3,000 to the girl who will dive and bring up a golf ball he throws into the water. It chances that Marie has observed Thomas, watching one of the golf balls dissolve in a glass of water. She therefore gets a real golf ball, makes her dive and, to Thomas’s dismay, appears above the water with the little white sphere in her hand. The stingy Thomas is astonished and he spars for time before paying the $3,000.
Marie and Wanda are on call as chatty charmers who consent to dine or sup with millionaires who might otherwise be lonely. One, Jerry Chase, a business man, is in the habit of calling them up and rewarding them with $500 or $1,000. Thomas, being mean, actually believes that Marie likes him for his cheerful disposition, if not for his appearance. On hearing his wife speaking of him as a skinflint when in a jeweler’s store, Thomas buys gems worth more than $50,000, just to contradict his spouse, but he gives the bracelets, necklace and a watch to Marie, expecting to have them returned to him.
The adapter of this story, however, decided that both Marie and Wanda must do something tinged with nobility. What Marie does with the jewelry has a humorous turn, but Wanda’s conversation with her ex-husband over a matter of $10,000 has a ludicrous turn.
Mr. Pallette is capital. Joel McCrea does quite well as the young man to whom Wanda loses her heart and Allen Dinehart gives a good performance as Jerry Chase. Others who help this film are Robert McWade and George Barbier.
Review from Silver Screen, November 1931.