Thursday, November 21, 2013

"I like these Anglo-Saxons": In Consideration and Great Appreciation of William A. Seiter's Professional Sweetheart

Bowing at Radio City Music Hall in July 1933, an apt setting for the New York premiere of RKO's radio-sponsorship send-up, Professional Sweetheart, director William A. Seiter's early Ginger Rogers vehicle appeared in the latter stages of an epochal cultural transformation of which Seiter and his playwright screenwriter Maurine Watkins (Chicago, 1926) seemed almost uniquely discerning. Defined by a rising consumer capitalism, anti-immigration sentiment and increasingly liberal sexual mores, the immediate postwar years represented what would prove the last glorious gasp for the nation's long dominant Protestant mass culture - sociologist E. Digby Baltzell has named this the "Anglo-Saxon Decade" - though it would be an apogee that already contained the seeds of its own decline, a fall that would be felt acutely with the imminent rise of the more heterogeneous New Deal coalition. Professional Sweetheart, released in the earliest stages of the latter's ascendancy, observes the conflicts or space between prewar heterogeneous Protestant culture, here a lucrative commodity sold to denizens of the nation's "Corn Belt," and both a newer urban secular American Protestantism and an emergent Rooseveltian cultural multiplicity.

Rogers's radio spokeswoman Glory Eden is both cultural product, she is said to represent "the lost innocence that went out with the war," and also a site for the contradictions that had since developed among the nation's historically dominate Protestant faction. Billed as "The Purity Girl" for wash-cloth king Ipswich's "Ippsie-Wippsie Radio Hour," Glory's public persona is closely monitored and managed by her corporate handlers: she is ordered "certified milk" for the sake of the hotel's nosy staff, is forced to wear a modest nightgown for a matronly interviewer (Zasu Pitts as Elmerada), and is denied every postwar vice - be it drink, cigarettes or jazz. In private, however, would-be wild-child Glory demands sexy underwear and fantasizes about transgressive trips to Harlem. Belying her image spectacularly, Glory contends that she wants to go "the Devil," preferably with an international playboy; she wants to "sin and suffer," ruing that "now I'm only suffering." There is, in other words, a substantial disparity between Glory's wholesome public image, her commodified self, and what is in effect the acculturated postwar reality she embodies.

This gap is made possible by the lax censorship standards that obtained in Hollywood before the implementation of the Hays Code one year later. It is also indicative of a larger project that Seiter, in a measure of his considerable artistic imagination, pursues throughout the highly accomplished Professional Sweetheart. In the opening studio set-piece, where we are first introduced to our 'Purity Girl,' Seiter makes use of sound perspective to express the discrepancy between the ad campaign that reaches the airwaves and those who are producing the 'Corn Belt'-targeted program: as the camera surveys the studio space with Glory on-the-air, we see (but don't hear) the show's host berating a producer behind a thick pain of glass. That is, we see the reality that is concealed behind the kitschy 'Ippsie-Wippsie Radio Hour' that we, and Middle America, hears. Similarly, Glory's consequent on-air wedding again plays on radio's image-less ontology, with the broadcaster effusively describing the couple's gifts - even as Seiter's tracking camera discloses the far less impressive truth - while also lamenting the fact that they are not on television (in what is therefore a very early reference to the new medium). Seiter's pre-Code cinema shows the reality that 'The Purity Girl' radio spots conceal.

In an attempt to protect the restless, sex-starved Glory's small-town image, Gregory Ratoff's Ipswich namesake, along with his two protégées, Frank McHugh's Speed Dennis and Franklin Pangborn's Herbert Childress - which is to say, a thickly-accented non-native, Irish newsman-type and coded homosexual; there is again a different ethnic reality that the film's fake, commodified purity obscures - conspire to identify a suitable mate, "an Anglo-Saxon from the Corn Belt" as one of the men puts it. From her coterie of admirers, and much to Herbert's initial chagrin - Pangborn would prefer a blond - they choose Daniel Boone-figure Jim Davey (Norman Foster), a hulking Kentucky native of Anglo-Saxon (read: American or Scotch-Irish) ancestry. A real white American, in other words. When Speed travels to the "home of the purest Anglo Saxons" to recruit the unsuspecting Jim, McHugh's character insists that he not wear his "store cloths," but instead his rural, hunting garb in a further attempt to construct his own wholesome Middle-American (and indeed, pre-twentieth century) persona. Following their on-air nuptials, which Glory wrongly assumes will be her ticket to worldly pleasures, Jim whisks his new bride back to his back-country cabin, to the quieter life that he presumes every woman wants.

While Glory initially expresses satisfaction with her new life, her on-air displacement by another member of a charter demographic of the New Deal coalition, her black maid Vera (Theresa Harris) - when listening to Glory's replacement, Jim tellingly notes of her more jazz vocal inflections: "say, she makes you feel kind of, say they shouldn't let her do that on the air" - spurs Rogers's lead to return to her star-making role. (Seiter accordingly initiates a discourse that his subsequent Sing and Like It [1934] would pursue to an even greater degree: namely, the conflict between the life of the artist and that of a more banal, familial existence; in the latter comic feature, Pitts's modestly talented heroine, to be generous, resigns herself to the fact that she will have to sleep with one of his producers - a belief that she most certainly is alone in holding.) Returning back to New York, Glory and Jim now share the microphone in what will thus represent a détente of sorts between Jim's simpler prewar ('Corn Belt') world and Glory's more liberal postwar (urban) present.

Professional Sweetheart represented Ginger Rogers's first role and starring performance for RKO, following her previous contract work for Warner Bros. (which concluded with her breakthrough appearances in 42nd Street and Gold Diggers of 1933 earlier that same year). It was of course beside Fred Astaire at RKO that Rogers built her enduring reputation, beginning in yet another 1933 production, Flying Down to Rio, which was conceived originally as a Dolores del Rio vehicle. Professional Sweetheart was itself received as a Ginger Rogers film, despite her relatively short résumé, with Variety noting that the film "demonstrates again, as she has before, that light comedy is her apple pie." (7.18.1933)  Reviews were indeed generally positive, with The New York Times's Frank S. Nugent arguing that "Miss Rogers has rarely been more entertaining" and that "RKO Radio, which sponsored the picture, merits a vote of thanks for an entertaining comedy." (7.14.1933) Photoplay shared both sentiments in naming Seiter's film one of the "Six Best Pictures of the Month," alongside the aforementioned Gold Diggers of 1933 and the George Cukor classic Dinner at Eight. (Aug. 1933)  Though the film is largely unknown today, it is not for a general lack of critical appreciation in its own time.

Then again, there was at least one source of dissension: trade publication The Film Daily complained of Professional Sweetheart's "choppy story and mechanical treatment and situations," insisting ultimately that the RKO film was "very mild and unimportant." (5.27.1933)  To the latter point, there did seem to exist agreement that as pre-Code as it may now seem, Professional Sweetheart was in fact not prohibitively lurid for contemporary audiences, but instead was "wholesomely insane satire," as Motion Picture's more favorable review observed. (Sept. 1933)  That Professional Sweetheart presently appears, to its very benefit, to lack this same 'respectable' quality, above all speaks to the next two-plus decades of comparatively sanitized Hollywood practice. This is a racy, culturally irreverent studio cinema - before the Hays Code effectively suspended these birthrights - that continues to manifest a real daring in the true subject of its radio-world satire: an Anglo-Saxonism that had become a kitsch commodity in an increasingly pluralistic (newly New Deal) America.

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