1930s movies have a lot to recommend them. Tight pacing. Earthy subject matter. Rapid-fire dialogue. But I particularly love 30’s movies because their women embrace the money-hungry, social-climbing American dream so honestly. Onscreen, working class dames likes Joan Crawford, and Barbara Stanwyck, didn’t have to play it soft or stupid: they could be hard-hearted and self-interested. It helps that in the early 1930s, Hollywood self-censorship was much looser. The Production Code Administration and it’s middle-brow moralism had yet to fully clamp down. Ruthlessness and greed onscreen didn’t have to be punished. Further, Great Depression was in full-swing. Film audiences were struggling and scraping. Sure, they liked frothy escapism a la Astaire and Rogers, but they also wanted some hardscrabble truth. Stories that reflected the dog-eat-dog world they were facing; they were tough enough to take it.
Sometimes the depression is right there on the surface (Baby Face, Midnight Mary) but even when it’s not, it’s burbling right underneath. There are no breadlines or flophouses in The Girl From Missouri (1934), but the depression-era desperation is still there. Choices, especially women’s choices, are slim. Take Eadie, the girl in The Girl From Missouri. She’s a working class gal running away from home for good reason; it’s rotten there. Her stepfather runs a chintzy nightclub and sends her out on the floor each night as a customer attraction. He’s basically pimping her out. Her youth is his meal-ticket.
Eadie’s a total depression baby. She’s got no connections, no education, and no nurturing family to give her a leg up. And even if she did, her choices wouldn’t be all that attractive. It’s 1934. At best, she’s looking down the barrel of struggling waitress or struggling man’s wife. So Eadie takes it on the lam. She’s young. She’s gorgeous. And she’s been poor. She’s ready to see how the other 1% live.
Eadie heads for New York and gets a job as a big city showgirl. Helpfully, the chorus line she works in has a sideline entertaining at wealthy businessmen’s parties. They aren’t quite strippers, but they aren’t just dancers (because: Hollywood). They wear baroque Busby Berkeley-style costumes and socialize with the fellas while intermittently doing dippy dance numbers. But Eadie’s not there just to be decorative. She’s got goals. While the rest of the girls are flirting or dancing, she’s stalking the head millionaire (Lewis Stone).
One of Harlow’s great strengths as an actress is her delightful way with putting-on “class.” In her early films, before she’d developed her comedic chops, studios occasionally tried casting Harlow as a refined society girl. It never worked. She was as bland as a cucumber sandwich. But as a blue-collar broad putting on society airs, she’s in her element. Traipsing through the party in a slinky gown looking for a bonafide millionaire, she applies her best Mrs. Astor airs, asking the butler if his MAHster is in his office. Eadie isn’t making fun of upper class ladies; she’s just trying to pass, but the put-on dignity of her delivery really plays up how phoney-baloney upper class hauteur is. Later, when she’s finally finagled her way into the tycoon’s office, (and is sitting on the his desk) she picks up an expensive trinket and compliments it- I just love art. When Mister Magnate tells her it’s a genuine Cellini, she has no idea who or what that is. So she says, with appropriate reverence, “I bet that cost a lot of money.”
Unfortunately, it turns out that that Eadie’s target tycoon is actually dead broke. He kills himself minutes after she scampers out of his office. But this only curbs her plan momentarily (and provides audiences another grim reminder of the power of the Depression-even the very rich aren’t immune ). She spots another candidate almost immediately, a genuinely-rich rich guy (Lionel Barrymore) who helps extricate her from the party without getting questioned by the police.
If Eadie sounds a bit ruthless, it’s because she is. She’s looking for the golden ticket, not love. But The Girl From Missouri is a comedy and definitely not out to condemn it’s platinum protagonist. It admires her. She’s got gumption, resilience and indomitable focus, the kind of all-American girl who’ll not only survive tough times, but trounce them. She’s a Horatio Alger cookie. And lacking bootstraps, she’ll pull herself up by her garters.
It helps a lot that Harlow is so damn likeable. If she thinks it will get her through the door, she’ll play at being a lady, but once she’s in, she’s herself again—a sexy, red-blooded, all-American gold-digger. Fun and frank, she’s totally free of pretension and snobbery. Americans love the idea that we’re the salt of the earth almost as much as we love money and social advancement. Harlow’s unique persona unites these opposing qualities, projecting a perfect hybrid of greed and unaffected naturalness. Harlow laughs wholeheartedly when she falls down. She’s got little crinkles at the corner of her eyes when she reveals her megawatt smile. Her girlish, slightly nasal voice is equal parts tart and sweet, like lemonade. Man or woman, you want to take her to the ball game and buy her a hot dog. So it’s fun to watch the beautiful, forthright Eadie make her predatory climb to the top.
I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention Eadie’s most surprising quality: she’s holding out. Probably as a salve to the growing power of the censors, Eadie’s supposed to be a virgin, saving herself for (a very wealthy) marriage. It’s a weird story conceit: Harlow’s Eadie is so bold and overtly sexy, it’s hard to believe she’s never once “let the cat out of the bag.” But the conceit fits perfectly with the movie’s relentless focus on Eadie’s hunger for capital. The girl’s using market principles— keeping supply low, and building demand. It’s also a uniquely tidy solution to the whole virgin-whore dichotomy: Eadie’s selling, but her price is really high. So, we’re supposed to respect her in the morning.
The Girl From Missouri is a unique artifact, a studio’s attempt to keep giving audience sexy heroines while placating censors’ demands that actual pre-marital sex should never be glamorized. It replaces the girl who openly sleeps her way up the ladder (Baby-Face, Red-Headed Woman) and with the gal who uses the opposite strategy- conspicuously not sleeping her way up the ladder (all the while, advertising her product). Either way, such films admit that sex is often a gal’s best entree into to the American dream, especially when times are tough. By the 1940s, women using sex to gain security would be cast not as a lovable gold diggers, but as a destructive femme fatales, or shunted to the sidelines as hookers with hearts of gold.
So there’s something refreshing—and dare I say it— wholesome, about the The Girl From Missouri. Not wholesome because Harlow plays the maiden, but wholesome because the maiden is so frank about her reasons. And Harlow is so winning in the role that we neither look down on her greed nor pity her limited options—she’s not a villain or a victim. Just a determined babe making the best of rigged game.