In recent years, there has been a renewed interest in the daring, risque films of pre-Code Hollywood. Prior to being self-suffocated by heavy handed censorship, the studios routinely produced films that challenged the social hypocrisy of the era.
One of the more intriguing titles of this period is the 1931 MGM release “It’s a Wise Child,” starring the much-maligned Marion Davies. The film’s plot focus, regarding a small town turned upside down over the rumor of out-of-wedlock pregnancy, was fairly racy even by the freewheeling standards of pre-Code Hollywood. Alas, the film never truly received its due – its initial theatrical release was brief and the production has been stuck in legal limbo for many years.
Film Threat caught up with Nick Langdon, the noted Marion Davies historian, to learn more about this intriguing but near-lost film.
What is the current status of “It’s a Wise Child” and why can’t we see the film on TV, DVD or in revival screenings?
“It’s a Wise Child” was a play written by a man named Laurence E. Johnson. It was his only hit and was purchased by W.R. Hearst for his Cosmopolitan Productions as a vehicle for Marion Davies.
Late in 1930, Hearst brought Johnson out to Hollywood with his wife and mother. Johnson had been born in the same small town as Marie Dressler (Cobourg, Ontario) just a year later in 1869. Johnson worked on the script for Marion’s “The Bachelor Father” as well as two Buster Keaton movies and Marion’s later “Polly of the Circus.” Hearst had Johnson adapt “Wise Child” to the screen in 1931. The script for the movie is much more robust and rowdy than the Broadway version, and the few audiences who saw it thought it was hilarious.
Johnson went on to write the screenplay for Marie Dressler’s final film, “Christopher Bean” in 1933, then promptly dropped dead. His wife copyrighted his works in 1937, and they were renewed in the 1960s by the American Entertainment Co. of Beverly Hills. Warner Brothers inherited the actual film, but due to some legal loophole of the Johnson estate (of which there are no heirs) it cannot be shown in the U.S. Oddly, if there were prints available it could be shown outside of the U.S.
Is the film extant or is any footage lost?
Oh no, the film survives in beautiful shape, and intact. UCLA has a stunning original 1931 nitrate print (missing the last reel) and the Library of Congress has a 35mm safety print copy of Marion’s original nitrate from the San Simeon vault. Warner Brothers has all the negatives and materials to actually make a print, but they do not have a print.
Was the film well received when it was released in 1931? And what did Marion Davies think of the film?
Problems started almost immediately because of the nature of the film. Its expectant mother out-of-wedlock (as a comedy) theme was too much for rural America or Britain. Most theaters refused to even show the film; it never played in Sacramento at all. Britain’s Film Yearly listed the film as MGM’s worst performer of 1931.
It was the pre-Code era and believe me, this film takes advantage of that fact. In one scene, Clara Blandick (playing Marion’s Aunt) is crying because she thinks Marion is pregnant and asks, “Why did you do it Joyce?” Marion, who’s only wrongdoing was throwing a rock through a speakeasy window, quips, “Well, it was Lent and there was nothing better to do!”
I can tell you that I’ve actually been able to see the film three times now, once with a large audience at the Library of Congress, and the film is sprite, hilarious, irreverent fun.
Marion didn’t document any comments about the production.
What are you doing to get the film restored, and how can people help you in this effort?
Well, we all need to hold our breath because it all hinges on Warner Brothers. Firstly, they obviously haven’t thought that the property was worth investing any money to salvage from its legal quagmire. It was barely shown when it was released, so nobody remembers it, which is a double-edged sword.
Right now, I have UCLA negotiating with Warner Brothers to get the right to do preservation/restoration work. If Warner’s agrees, then funding will have to be procured through an account at the UCLA archive. When that happens, I’ll be sure to let everyone know how they can contribute. This will not clear the copyright though, but it would produce a preserved or restored print, which might entice Warner Brothers to do something about the legal issue.
Having seen the film, can you tell us about it in general, its artistic value, and how good Marion Davies’ performance is?
This is Marion’s finest screen comedy, hands down. She simply sparkles here, playing Joyce, one of two orphaned teens living with their extended family. The family has made its living manufacturing butter churns (which was just as funny then as it is now). Johnny Arthur plays Uncle Otho, who’s dedicated to “Building better butter churns,” and seems to be sneaking out of the house at night. The family has been forbidden from buying a Frigidaire because their maid is having an affair with Cool Kelly…The Ice Man! The maid (silent star Marie Prevost) has been two-timing on Cool Kelly with Joyce’s brother and finds herself in trouble. The local speakeasy gets raided just as Joyce and her Uncle (who’s stowed away in her rumble seat) are arriving.
The cops are arresting the brother and maid, but won’t take Joyce because she wasn’t in the roadhouse. She gives her uncle a quick peck on the cheek (which starts the gossip mill speculating that she’s the one he’s been sneaking out with) then promptly hurls a rock through the speakeasy window. “Now will you take me?” she says to the dazed policemen.
Now they’re all in jail and the maid breaks down and spills the story about the baby and their quickie marriage. Joyce had been engaged to the very old and wealthy town banker (although she was seeing one of the tellers behind his back), and he bails them out but breaks their engagement. This leaves Joyce free to pursue the handsome teller, but that irritates the trusty family retainer played by Sidney Blackmer.
Because she is spotted by the gossips visiting a local midwife (to arrange for the baby’s delivery), the whole town thinks Joyce is the one who’s pregnant.
In a pre-Code comic twist, half the male population of the small town show up in Joyce’s living room proclaiming to be the father of her unborn child. Marion at one point puts her hand on her hip and quips, “You ought to form a club!”
Everything works out in the end, the maid gets an annulment then elopes with Cool Kelly (who still doesn’t know she’s pregnant with the brother’s baby!), and Joyce drops the bank teller and marries the handsome family lawyer. It’s a wild ride from the first frame to the last.
The highlight is Marion’s entrance in the film: Test driving an open roadster in classic Mack Sennett style by outrunning a locomotive then crashing into a tree. As she hands a fender to the dazed car salesman she says, “Here, Mr. Cohen, I don’t think I’m going to buy this car after all!”