Saturday, November 16, 2013

Stubs – Rafter Romance

Rafter Romance (1933) Starring: Ginger Rogers, Norman Foster, George Sydney. Directed by William A. Seiter. Screenplay by H.W. Hanemann and Sam Mintz. Adapted by Glenn Tryon. Based on the novel Rafter Romance by John Wells. Produced by Merian C. Cooper (Executive Producer). Run Time: 72 minutes. U.S.  Black and White. Romantic Comedy

Sometimes it’s the silliest of reasons that make you want to watch or rewatch a movie, as is the case with Rafter Romance (1933). In Sunset Blvd. (1950) Betty Schaefer (Nancy Olson) wants to work with writer Joe Gillis (William Holden), but at the time he’s living the highlife as Norma Desmond’s (Gloria Swanson) kept man. But Joe throws her an idea on a script she’s trying to write about teachers:

                                                      (Turning in the open door)
                                               And don't make it too dreary.  How
                                               about this for a situation: she teaches
                                               daytimes.  He teaches at night. Right?
                                               They don't even know each other, but
                                               they share the same room. It's cheaper
                                               that way.  As a matter of fact, they 
                                               sleep in the same bed -- in shifts, 
                                               of course.

                                               Are you kidding? Because I think it's

                                               So do I.

One reason it sounds good is lose the teachers as occupations and add one more bed to the equation and you’ve got the basis for Rafter Romance.

In Sunset Blvd, Gillis comes up with a new plot that sounds an awful lot like Rafter Romance.
The original film starred Ginger Rogers, who only the year before had begun her partnership with Fred Astaire in Flying Down to Rio (1932). A versatile actress, Rogers had appeared in musicals and comedies since arriving at RKO a few years earlier.

This is a typical studio feature of its day, production began in mid-June and the film was in theaters by September 1, 1933. The film moves along with the same harried pace. At 72 minutes in length, the movie tells the week in the life of two residents at Ye Eckbaum Arms, a tenement house in Greenwich Village, New York.

The proprietor, Max Eckbaum (George Sidney), is a good natured man, but with bills of his own to pay. He has two tenants, Mary Carroll (Ginger Rogers) and Jack Bacon (Norman Foster), both of whom are three months behind in their rent. Mary is a young woman from upstate New York who has come to the big city to find a job. However, by now almost all of her money has been spent. She’s hopeful of employment at the Icy Air Refrigerator Company as a telephone solicitor at $10 a week plus commission. But Max knows she’s so far in the hole that she won’t be able to pay her back rent for quite a while.

Mary Carroll (Ginger Rogers) getting ready in the morning.
Instead of throwing her out, he makes arrangements to move her into the loft upstairs which is currently occupied by Bacon, an aspiring artist who works as a night watchman. Bacon has already turned down money from Elise Peabody Worthington Smythe (Laura Hope Crews), an alcoholic older woman who is infatuated with him. She offers to buy one of his paintings for $300, which Eckbaum overhears. That would be enough money to square Bacon with him, but Bacon refuses. He doesn’t want to be taken care of by Elise. But that leaves Max with the only option of forcing his roommate arrangement.

Jack Bacon (Norman Foster) won't take Elise's (Laura Hope
Crews) hand outs, even they are disguised as an art purchase.
Because of his job, Jack is not home from 8 pm to 8 am; during that time, his new roommate will occupy. Max tells Mary that since she’s gone during the day, her roommate will occupy it from 8 am to 8 pm. And he promises both that they never need to meet the other. While neither likes the idea, it beats homelessness.

Mary does land the job, but when she arrives home, Eckbaum has already moved her things up to the attic and rented out her old apartment. While waiting to occupy the room that evening, Mary sits outside a nearby delicatessen practicing her sales pitch, calling her practice customer Mr. Wharton. Meanwhile, Jack is inside the deli buying a few essentials, like coffee, when he spots Mary ringed by a salami hanging in the window. When he steps outside to meet her and, hearing the name Mr. Wharton, pretends that is his name. Oh, what a coincidence he pretends. Mary is good-looking and Jack flirts with her, unaware that she is his new roommate.

The first time Jack sees Mary she's framed by the salami hanging in the deli's window.
Jack returns to the loft before he has to leave for work and for the first time realizes that he’s sharing it with a woman. Jack berates Eckbaum for his pairing and insults his roommate, characterizing her as a small town spinster with goggle-eyed glasses who came to Greenwich Village looking for romance. Mary overhears him outside the door and runs crying to Eckbaum's wife, Rosie (Ferike Boros), but Max lies and tells her her roommate is excited about sharing.

Jack confronts Eckbaum (George Sidney) about the gender of his roommate.
Upset about her characterization, Mary leaves her roommate a note asking him not to leave his pajamas all over the place. This begins an exchange of written insults and innuendos. He accuses her of using his toothbrush, which she denies, but still on her way out of the apartment, she makes sure that it’s wet like it had been used.

After work, Mary's boss, H. Harrington Hubbell (Robert Benchley), tries to ask her to dinner, telling her that it will be a banquet. Mary though makes it sound like Hubbell is throwing everyone a party, which excites her co-workers, who mob Hubbell for details. Mary then manages to slip away in the confusion.

Again, she waits outside the deli for her timeslot, when Jack comes by. Anxious to impress her, Jack makes up a story about his aunt owning a housing development in Westchester and her interest in buying at least six refrigerator units from Mary. After they enjoy a romantic walk in the park, Jack tells Mary he has to get to a board meeting and rushes off, but not before giving Mary his telephone number at work.

Jack tries to convince Mary that his aunt might buy refrigerators she's sellling.
Mary, with Eckbaum watching, later calls Jack at his job. Pretending to be the company receptionist and then his own secretary, Eckbaum listens to Mary’s spiel. He arranges to meet her the next evening in the park at 6:30. Mary, whom Eckbaum encourages, thinks she’s on the verge of her first big sale.

Eckbaum thinks Mary on the verge of a big sale.
Hubbell though is not over Mary and asks her to dinner that night. She gives him some excuse about having to watch her sister’s sick child and then rushes home. Tonight it is raining and she gets soaked on the way home. Eckbaum, knowing how important this business meeting is to her, makes sure the loft is vacant so she can go shower and change. The roommates have been exchanging notes about the condition of the makeshift shower they share and Jack has written that it’s been fixed. But while she’s showering, the pail with holes in it, which serves as the shower head, falls on her.

Just before the shower head falls on Mary's head.
Mad and bruised, she retaliates by hanging her roommate’s good suit in the shower. When Jack comes home, after Mary has already gone, he starts the shower, before realizing his suit is hanging there. With his suit all wet, he puts on an overcoat over his underwear and runs out in the rain to a nearby tailor’s which advertises pressing your clothes while you wait. Unfortunately, he has to wait in the rain, since the locked shop has a back in fifteen minutes sign on the door.

As Jack waits, so does Mary. With her umbrella turned inside out by wind, she gets more soaked in the storm. Frustrated, she leaves the park and heads back to the overhang next to the Deli. Jack, with his suit still balled up under his overcoat, runs to the park to meet Mary, but he’s too late. He goes to the Deli, but she’s already left, going to Mike’s to get a burger for ten cents and coffee. Fritzie (Guinn Williams), the cab driver, is the only other customer in the place.

Mary gets soaked while waiting for Jack during a rain storm.
The next day, Jack tries to call Mary to explain, but she hangs up on him. And when Hubbell invites her to see the Ziegfeld Follies that night, she accepts. Learning that Hubbell is her boss, Eckbaum lets her have her old room back to impress him. Hubbell pours himself a drink and sizes Mary up against a framed picture of a nude on the wall. He tells her that she has quite a comfortable place, but she insists she does not live there. As they leave, they bump into a drunk (Bert Roach) in the hall. The drunk calls Mary a pet name, even though she doesn’t know him, and proceeds into the apartment. Hubbell gets the idea that she is the man's mistress which only steels him to make a move. Mary, with the help from their taxi driver, Fritzie, who recognizes her, manages to deflect Hubbell's romantic advances on the way to the theater.

Mr. Hubbell (Robert Benchley) is thwarted in his advances on Mary.
Meanwhile, in retaliation for the suit in the shower incident, Jack saws his roommate’s bed in half so that it would come apart when she sits on it. But while he’s doing this, Elise comes for a visit. When she learns that a woman also lives there, she refuses to leave until she sees her. But Jack leaves and runs into Mary, who is not happy to see him. But he convinces her to have dinner with him, and they reconcile over a Chinese meal. Jack confesses to Mary that he’s a night watchman and not an aspiring businessman.
When the bill comes, Jack pays for dinner with the two dollars Mary has left with a note asking her roommate to give the money to Max for dry cleaning. The two even flirt while kicking the wadded note back and forth across the table, with neither knowing its full implications. Jack invites himself along to Mary’s company picnic that Sunday. She tells him to meet her in front of the Icy Air Refrigerator building. With some of the money left over, after tipping the waiter, Jack even buys her flowers. (Two dollars went a long way back in 1933.)
To top off the evening, Jack buys Mary flowers.
Of course, it's with her money as it turns out.
Mary goes home only to discover Elise, asleep, snoring on her bed. The discovery harshes Mary’s mellow. After ejecting Elise from the apartment and removing the box Jack had put to brace the bed when Elise insisted on sitting on it, Mary sits down only to have the bed collapse under her, leading her to tears.
After Jack saws her bed in half, it collapses on her.
When Jack accompanies Mary to a company picnic, they slip away from the group together. While out in a rowboat, they kiss for the first time, but they return too late and miss the bus back to town. But when they run to catch it, Jack falls and sprains his ankle, forcing them to take a taxi back. When they arrive at Jack's home, Mary realizes that Jack is her roommate. When she tries to make bandages from an old dress of hers, Jack lights in on his co-tenant, unaware Mary is the person with whom he has been sharing the attic loft.
The two young lovers slip away during Mary's company picnic.
When Eckbaum finds them together, he berates them for violating their agreement. It is only then that Jack realizes who Mary is and they argue with each other about past events. Elise arrives hoping to take Jack away and gets into a name calling match with Mary. Hubbell, who had been looking for Mary at the picnic, arrives just as Mary leaves. She cries outside and Fritzie, who happens to be there with his taxi, listens to her complain about the "filthy, horrible, despicable" man in her apartment, meaning Jack. But just having seen Hubbell go in, Fritzie rushes upstairs and punches him.

Jack tries to explain things to Mary. Judging by the ending, he succeeds.
Realizing his mistake, Fritzie goes outside and finds Jack in his cab pleading with Mary to forgive him. Mary sounds like she wants none of it. But when Fritzie pulls Jack out of the cab to punch him for hurting Mary, she intercedes and pulls Jack back into the cab with her. No sooner are they together then they start making out. Fritzie, seeing this, gets in to take them to the park.

From their window, the Eckbaum family watches them drive away. When Eckbaum’s son, Julius (Sidney Miller), asks if they’ll get married, the landlord boasts that “I arranged it."

Okay the plot of the movie sounds rather silly. Eckbaum’s plan has a seven day window. The 12 hour shifts works only as long as one has to work days and the other has to work nights. But come Sunday, things would be different, which the film manages to avoid with an office picnic. All that said, the plan is doomed and the film falls apart when it should and our two roommates are now in love. It’s the only possible happy ending resolution available.

It’s interesting to watch a film like this and realize that depictions had to ring true to the audiences of the day, since that was the only audience the filmmakers ever envisioned. Not only do prices seem low [10 cents for a hamburger, 20 cents for wheat cakes (pancakes made of wheat flour), wages were $10 a week, rent was $15 a month], but so were morals. Mr. Hubbell’s overt sexual overtures towards Mary would be the basis for a sexual harassment lawsuit. No telling what he was trying to do in the backseat of that cab.

Even though the movie went out of its way to show there was no sexual relationship between Mary and Jack while they were sharing the attic, an unmarried man and woman sharing an apartment would have been considered at the time to be, as Elise calls it, “living in sin”. Now we don’t necessarily bat an eye when a man and woman share a flat as friends.

But nothing in this movie is played with any real sense of seriousness. These were hard times and audiences weren’t necessarily looking for a reflection of their hardships from the silver screen.

As opposed as to how it seems now, Hollywood studios in the 1930s were in the business to make motion pictures, trying to put out roughly one a week. Since all the majors controlled movie theaters, there were seats to fill and popcorn to sell. People came to the movies out of habit. Quick paced and quickly made films were what made Hollywood famous. It is amazing, in retrospect, that they are generally as good as they are.

And every studio had stars that they both wanted to groom and to exploit. RKO was no exception. The more Ginger Rogers films they could pump out in a year, the better. In fact, this was the 10th film in 1933 that Ginger Rogers starred or appeared in for RKO, Warner Bros. and Allied Pictures. You can’t make ten films in a year and have them all be winners.

Rafter Romance is one of six films that Merian C. Cooper wrestled away from RKO. In 1946, as a settlement for a dispute with the studio over monies he was due; Cooper was given complete ownership over six films he had produced for RKO. Besides Rafter Romance, there was Double Harness (1933), The Right to Romance (1933), One Man’s Journey (1933), Living on Love (1937) and A Man to Remember (1938). Living on Love is actually a remake of Rafter Romance, starring James Dunn, Whitney Bourne and Joan Woodbury.

Merian C. Cooper. Executive Producer of Rafter Romance.
Cooper withdrew these films, only letting them be shown in 1955-1956 on television in New York City. It wasn’t until TCM purchased rights to them in 2007 that many of these films were seen in over 70 years.

Flawed though it may be, Rafter Romance is still a fun and innocuous film to watch. The plot is certainly not over thought and the film, when available, is worth seeing.

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