I have a film going weakness for the early talkies. There is something naive yet fun to watch in these pictures: the Vitaphone System title for Warner Brothers/ First National and, the propeller aircraft going around the globe for Universal, or the single title card with with all the “players” listed along with the title and director. You might get a star in an early role or one having their (Helen Twelvetrees, Ruth Chatterton, Winnie Lightner) last hurrah as their career faded when Hollywood moved on. Fitting into this is MGM’s THE EASIEST WAY (1931) with Constance Bennett, Robert Montgomery, Adolphe Menjou and an early pivotal role for Clark Gable.
The picture was directed by hard drinking, womanizing “man’s man” Jack Conway, who was part of the group around Clark Gable, along with Victor Fleming, Spencer Tracey and a few others. Conway wasn’t a creative director along the lines of John Huston, but his work was making efficiently entertaining dramas . There were some minor masterpieces such as LIBELED LADY (1936).
THE EASIEST WAY (1931) opens with the Murdock family as they rise for the morning in their poor tenement house. Laura Murdock(Constance Bennett) works hard to help her family along with her father Ben (J. Farrell MacDonald) and her mother Agnes (Clara Blandick). Younger sister Peg ( Anita Page) is in love with ambitious laundry delivery man Nick Feliki (Clark Gable). Ben Murdock encourages Peg to marry Nick. Laura rejects a marriage proposal from a suitor to take up with wealthy William Brockton (Adolphe Menjou), whom she meets from behind the counter of her sales job. Brockton hires her for modeling jobs at his advertising agency. The relationship blossoms into expensive gifts and a move to his luxury apartment. Months go by and Laura’s mother starts to notice she is working at night more often and has pricey clothes and arrives back in a chauffeured car. Laura visits the now married sister Peg to see their child; only to be asked to leave by Nick when he demands to know how she gets her money.
This is a precode society drama that features Laurie’s rise in life as she becomes involved with men such as newspaper man Jack Madison (Robert Montgomery). He promises to marry her after she leaves Brockton. That does not go to well in the film and changes happen. Through the film is the delightful world weary gold digger Elfie St. Clair (Marjorie Rambeau), who provides Laura with support, advice and a view of what her life will be as she has lived it herself. Laura asks her for rent money when she leaves Brockton. Elfie has none to spare and calls her a fool for waiting for Madison to come back from South America.
Jack Conway covers the action and story well in THE EASIEST WAY (1931), particularly when showing the tenement house in the beginning. The camera does a lovely tracking shot as the various folk rise or don’t rise and get themselves ready for their day. In one shot you get the atmosphere as you see the bric- a brac, the washboards, and the clothes hanging everywhere in the cramped quarters. Conway contrasts this when Menjou comes on screen, as he stays in a two shot that has wonderful detail on the story all around. Brockton sneaks a not so sneaky look at Laura’s legs from in front and behind of the counter. The camera doesn’t have to move to get the intent. onway also uses a wide shot when Brockton is in his office along with his staff to contrast the little tenement house with the office. The office staff have their backs to the camera as Brockton gives orders to showcase his authority and money.
Constance Bennett does her best as the sympathetic Laura Murdock who goes through life and these events because she has to. Bennett makes Laura at home in a cheaper house dress to a more expensive yet tasteful attire. Bennett, in all her pictures, dresses with a style reminiscent of Kay Francis in her roles. These women have style, grace, and clothes that are practically interesting and well beyond the budget of the film audience. They were an attraction to watch in themselves.
Clark Gable’s early role in the picture was important in establishing his career . Gable’s performance as dastardly Rance Bennett in the William Boyd, Helen Twelvetrees Western, THE PAINTED DESERT (1931)was a fan favorite. THE EASIEST WAY (1931) showed he could handle two contrasting parts with audience favor and this led to the offer of a contract at MGM. Gable was still the tough talking, righteous, hard working guy, but you could see the shadows of what was to come later in pictures like MANHATTAN MELODRAMA (1934) .
Adolphe Menjou is his slippery self as the wealthy Brockton. Menjou does these roles so well as the society man with silky manners and a rattlesnake’s heart. Menjou wore suits well, had the mustache, the manners and was impeccably groomed in this one. It was reminiscent of his role as “Paul Mollett” in JOURNAL OF A CRIME (1934), in which he menaces Ruth Chatterton and Claire Dodd over a paper.
Clara Blandick, who plays Laura’s Mother Agnes Murdock, is barely recognizable as she would have screen immortality as Auntie Em in WIZARD OF OZ (1939). Blandick was a stage actress who became a character actress in film. Blandick was one of the many faces in the background or small roles in major films. She suffered from poor health after her appearance in KEY TO THE CITY (1950) with Gable and Loretta Young as mayors at a convention. In 1962, Blandick went to church in Hollywood, returned home and wrote a note to her friends saying she was going on the “greatest adventure of her life.” She then took an overdose of sleeping pills and put a plastic bag over her head. Clara Blandick was 85 years old.
THE EASIEST WAY (1931) is enjoyable due to the performances in a tight, well done picture for its time. The script is from a play by Edith Ellis and was thought to be more dangerous than the David Belasco Broadway stage hit. Several studios tried to get a version done even after it was filmed as a silent feature in 1917. The Hays office offered many objections and projects were abandoned. You can still see those precode moments in the picture, especially in the beginning, with slight nudity and the attitude of the women who want to marry for money instead of love.