Thursday, February 16, 2023

Millie (1931)

Millie is a 1931 RKO pre-code romantic melodrama with a fair leavening of wit and humour in the early stages. It covers seventeen years in a woman’s life.

Millie (Helen Twelvetrees) is a small town girl. She marries Jack Maitland because he seems like a nice guy, he has good prospects and she’s in love with him. They set off for the bright lights of New York.

Three years later the marriage is looking a bit rocky. They have a daughter, Connie. Millie is bored and lonely and she wonders if Jack still loves her. He just doesn’t seem very affectionate any more. He doesn’t even seem to want to kiss her.

Millie gets a call from an old friend she grew up with, Angie (Joan Blondell). Angie lives with her friend Helen (Lilyan Tashman). The three meet up for drinks at a ritzy bar and there Millie spots her husband Jack. Jack is with a cheap blonde. That’s it for Millie. She gets a divorce.

Millie decides she’ll have to get a job. Angie is deeply shocked. Getting a job is something she herself has never even contemplated. As long as there are men in the world why would a girl want to work?

In theory Angie and Helen are chorus girls. Judging by the expensive fashionable clothes they wear we assume they have other sources of income.

Millie gets a job at the cigar counter in a hotel. She meets reporter Tommy Rock (Robert Ames) and falls for him. Tommy wants to marry her but Millie has decided that she3’s tried marriage and it didn’t work. She wants her independence. She’s also being romanced by smooth-talking middle-aged playboy Jimmy Damier (John Halliday).

The movie keeps jumping forward, a few years at a time. Millie is doing well at her job and she’s been promoted.

Things are a bit rocky for her on the romance front. It doesn’t work out with Tommy. She gets involved with Jimmy, and with other men.

Jumping forward a few years later and Millie is still independent, she still has lots of men friends and her daughter Connie is now sixteen. And Connie is a worry. She’s a nice kid but naïve and vulnerable and she gets into a tricky situation with a man, Millie gets involved, there’s a gun involved and it ends in court. Which brings us to a big melodramatic finale.

This is the only Helen Twelvetrees movie I’ve ever seen. She’s vivacious and charming. She was fairly successful in the pre-code era but after that her career faded quickly. She died of a drug overdose at the age of 49.

Lilyan Tashman’s life was even more tragic. Three years after making Millie she was dead. She’s great fun in Millie.

Joan Blondell is of course wonderful. Early on she gets lots of racy dialogue and no-one could deliver risqué lines they way Joan Blondell could. She was never quite a top-rank star but she was able to sustain a successful acting career for half a century. She is never less than delightful in her pre-code movies.

This is definitely a very pre-code movie. Women don’t necessarily get punished for having sex, even if they’re not married. Millie is obviously living with Tommy out of wedlock for several years. She is obviously sleeping with Jimmy. She is obviously sleeping with plenty of other men. But all this is just taken for granted.

There are those who will try to tell you that Angie and Helen are lesbians. That’s wishful thinking. There is zero evidence in the movie to support this theory, and plenty of evidence to the contrary. There's also no evidence that Angie and Helen are prostitutes, although they have no objections to being kept by men.

This is definitely a movie that is critical of the rigidity of traditional sexual morality. Like a lot of pre-code movies it’s not necessarily arguing for the abandonment of traditional morality, but rather for that morality to be loosened up considerably and leavened with some humanity and flexibility. It treats sex as a normal part of life, even for unmarried women.

Millie is one of five pre-code movies in Kino Lorber’s RKO Classic Romances set, released on both DVD and Blu-Ray.

Millie is a fine example of the pre-code melodrama. Highly recommended.

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