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.


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