Why Be Good? (1929) and Success at Any Price (1934)

Why Be Good (26)     Success at Any Price (16)

Why Be Good? (1929) and Success at Any Price (1934)

WHY BE GOOD?  (1929)

Colleen Moore has never become a popular actress after her hey-day such as Garbo, Lombard or even someone like Greer Garson who lived a long life and didn’t retire from acting until she was in her 80s.  Moore played her first uncredited role in 1916 at the age of 15, retiring in 1934 at the ripe old age of 35.  She lived another 53 years, enjoying family life.

Colleen Moore wrote an autobiography entitled SILENT STAR published in 1968.  It was a fast and easy read and I thought she sounded like a thoughtful and very likeable person.  Kathleen Morrison was born into an Irish-American family and wanted to be an actress ever since she could remember.  Her family knew this and with the luck of the Irish, it turned out that D.W. Griffith owed her Uncle Walter, the editor of one of the Hearst newspapers, a favour for getting both The Birth of a Nation and Intolerance past the censors.  Her grandmother accompanied and chaperoned Colleen for the first few years of her career.

In 1923 she married film producer John McCormick but unfortunately he was an alcoholic and she suffered a great deal in her relationship with him when he drank.  I believe he produced all her films including tonight’s first film until they divorced in 1930.  After one more film in 1929, she didn’t make another film until 1933, The Power and the Glory, one of her all-time favourites with Spencer Tracy, followed by only three more.  How she went from a huge star to inconsequential is so intangible.  Her voice was good, she certainly was a fine actress and comedian with years of experience, so it’s really impossible to know for sure.  It may have been the politics of the studio system since she didn’t star in another film for four years after Why Be Good? (although it may have been because of the end of her relationship with her husband/producer that partially caused this time lapse), her choice of roles in the talking films, and/or just that the fickle public wanted new idols.  Maybe it was as simple as Colleen Moore’s passion for acting just being less strong by this point in her life and she wanted something different.

Unfortunately, I understand that more than half of her films are lost and only recently at Cinefest in Syracuse, New York were we fortunate to see the just restored Synthetic Sin, made just prior to Why Be Good?.  The most impressive thing, though, that Colleen Moore achieved outside of her body of work of film is creating her dream dollhouse.  She loved dollhouses ever since her father made her one out of cigar boxes when she was two-years-old and since then had collected quite a few.  In 1928, when her father suggested they build a fairy castle, they chose architect Horace Jackson who designed the sets at First National Studios.  Harold Grieve was brought on as decorator.  It was completed in 1935—taking seven years, using precious jewels owned by Colleen and standing 12 feet high, 9 feet square.  It was worth almost $500,000 at the time of completion!  It is now housed at the Museum of Science and Industry in Chicago.  You can click on the link to see its splendor!

When Colleen Moore wrote her 1968 autobiography, her intuitive thoughts on people such as D.W. Griffith, John Gilbert and Marion Davies were finally what contemporary scholars claim are the reasons for their career downfalls.  I also learned that she became quite astute at investing her money, publishing the book How Women Can Make Money in the Stock Market in 1969.

This brings us to tonight’s first film, Why Be Good?.  I watched it a couple of months ago and noted that there is a lot of detail to be noticed—heights of doors and ceilings, fabulous clothes, lots of good liquor considering it was still Prohibition, great hair bobs, perfume dispensers installed in the bathrooms and to top it all off, the Disco ball was already in use.  There’s some very nice cinematography by Sidney Hickox where the scene starts out as a frozen photograph and then zooms out for a wild party sequence.  Also some great overhead shots taken on angles.  Great lighting especially the art design of the club room.  The soundtrack is well thought out, using the song “Baby Face” while a baby-faced employee is being bawled out by Neil Hamilton’s character for being late for work.  Colleen Moore’s character’s name is Pert and I couldn’t help but notice that on a lingerie gift, her name is embroidered right under the breast area.  Too funny.  The musicians are all white at party one and all black at party two.  The Art Deco is great!

The main theme, which no one will miss, is that no matter how a woman acts, she still must be virtuous.  This is important to the parents in particular, but of course the hero must test her.  If she is, he’s lucky not only to have a virtuous girl as his love, but such a cool one

The last thing to mention about this film is that Bodil Rosing plays Pert’s mother.  This actress has been in so many films that we have seen yet she’s far from being a house-hold name.  She was born in December 1877 and died in December 1941, just 4 days past her 64th birthday.  She raised four children and after a very brief stint on the stage, auditioned on a lark for a role in the 1925 film Pretty Ladies starring Zasu Pitts featuring Lilyan Tashman and Norma Shearer with Joan Crawford and Myrna Loy in uncredited roles. Just recently, again at Cinefest, I saw her in The Return of Peter Grimm (1926) with Janet Gaynor.  She was also in Sunrise (1927), an uncredited role in All Quiet on the Western Front (1930) and in a very interesting role she plays against John Gilbert in Downstairs (1932).  All in all, she was in 84 films.  Pretty impressive.

Keep your eyes peeled for Mischa Auer playing a young man dancing and Andy Devine hanging out at The Boiler as well as Jean Harlow as the blonde on rooftop bench at Winthrop Jr.’s second party.  Enjoy the film.  Caren

May 16, 2015
First National Pictures.  Directed by William A. Seiter.  Story and Screenplay by Carey Wilson.   Titles by Paul Perez.  Cinematography by Sidney Hickox.  Film Editing by Terry O. Morse.  Costume Design by Max Rée.  Released:  August 10, 1930 (sic).  84 minutes.

Pert Kelly…………………………………………………………. Colleen Moore Winthrop Peabody Jr……………………………………………… Neil Hamilton Ma Kelly…………………………………………………………….. Bodil Rosing Pa Kelly……………………………………………………………. John St. Polis Winthrop Peabody Sr……………………………………….. Edward Martindel Tom………………………………………………………………… Eddie Clayton Jerry…………………………………………………………….. Lincoln Stedman Jimmy Alexander………………………………………………. Louis Natheaux Julie……………………………………………………………….. Collette Merton Susie…………………………………………………………………….. Dixie Gay Man Dancing at The Boiler……………………………………….. Mischa Auer Young Man at The Boiler…………………………………………. Andy Devine Blonde on Rooftop Bench at Junior’s Second Party………….. Jean Harlow Guest at Junior’s First Party…………………………………….. Grady Sutton

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I should like to take Colleen Moore and John McCormick to an exhibition of Why Be Good? in Chicago.  I should like to see Miss Moore’s eyes snap as she beheld the liberties the local censors have taken with her nice little picture.  I should like to record Mr. McCormick’s illuminating references to censors in general and these in particular.  For the girls and boys of the censor department in this grave, upright community have sheared not wisely but with devastating effect.

A thing like this always makes me mad.  Here was a nice little picture with the nicest little star of them all in it and lots and lots of snappy subtitles for the boys and girls who like that sort of thing.  It was a swift, clever little yarn about a girl who tried to hide a virtue for which the market value seemed to be down.  It was merrily told, with many a gay commentary on the sophistications of today’s young impossible, and it unquestionably carried more soul-saving power than all the censors in all the world.  But the censors, of course, are beyond salvation.  And so they looked long and blindly upon the tinseled sin of the dance hall depicted and put their scissors into play.

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Of course things like this have happened before, to Miss Moore’s pictures as well as others, but this time the censors were handicapped by a well cued musical score which, naturally enough, didn’t go so well with the print after the clipping process.  And so what, I ask you, was done to correct the break in accompaniment?  I doubt if you’d guess.  Nobody but a censor would.

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Well, if ten feet were clipped from a given scene, throwing the accompaniment ten feet out of gear, then ten feet of action was repeated, bringing back the synchronization if that’s the word.  Isn’t that a nice hot idea?  You should see the picture.

Yet not even a board of censors can wreck a Colleen Moore picture completely.

Exhibitors Herald World by T.O. Service Jan-Mar 1929

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WHY BE GOOD? – First National

Ain’t it just grand to be naughty?  If you don’t think so, see Colleen Moore in this.  It’s another chapter of the jazz age, and the moral is:  “Girls, to get your man, seem to be naughty but still be nice.”

Dancing Daughters was like that, but more adroit.  Still, this picture is clever, and Colleen is pert.  How she can dance!  There’s a café called “The Boiler.”  It will stand night clubs on their ears and give ‘em big ideas.

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The plot goes thus:  Poor girl, rich boy, love, a department store, pretty clothes, mad papas, an understanding mamma, marriage, happy ending.  Neil Hamilton’s the boy.  He’s good.  Girls, you’ll be crazy about the love story.  The picture’s lively, full of pep, a little preachy but entertaining.  You’ll like Louis Natheaux as the sheik.

Photoplay: The Shadow Stage: A Review of the New Pictures, Jan-Jun 1929

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That screen hoyden, Colleen Moore, cavorts through an antedated problem play, the problem of being of such proportions that it easily could be lost on a pinhead. The story lies in the attraction of a rich man’s son for a poor girl who is acclaimed fit to marry the scion because she never before has been at a notorious roadhouse.

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The young woman, Pert Kelly, makes it her mission in life to see that none of her friends shall discover that she is not the wanton person she would have them believe her. She does this in a variety of ways. At one time, for instance, she places her thumb over the flask’s mouth and imbibes nothing; at another she wisecracks her way out of an embarrassing situation.

Neil Hamilton as Winthrop Peabody Jr. does the best he can with the part in this production which has a synchronized music score.

New York Times, May 6, 1929

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After the first mild three-quarters of an hour, Why Be Good? becomes a series of questions, back and forth, as to whether the flaming Pert is a “good girl.”  At the finish, when Pert and Peabody, Jr., both in pajamas, inform Peabody, Sr., that they have wed, the boy assures his father that, yes, she is a “good girl.”

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He took her to a roadhouse and showed her a bedroom to find out whether she really was.  The way she acted, she must have been.  So that proved his original contention, which, unfortunately, was not shared by papa.

Previously, after Pert had stayed out till 8 in the morning with her sweetheart, her mother asked, “Is everything all right?”

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Story of poor but pure department store girl who falls for the wealthy boss’ son, and vice versa.  Usual complications and windup.

Without Colleen Moore and an average Moore performance, film rates slight attention.  No dialog, and that’s against it from any possible exploitation.

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The flaming youth theme, the basic content in this tale, is becoming well worn in the manner used, and all are using it in the same manner.

Louis Natheaux, through his playing of an unsympathetic and typical dance-hall lizard, should have the featured male billing that is now allotted to Neil Hamilton.

Variety by Bige., May 8, 1929

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Colleen Moore gets in a rather satisfying speech blaming men for the girl styles in modes and morals in Why Be Good?, but, like more of their trimming, it is biased.  After three years in the men’s department in a store Colleen couldn’t be expected to know that usually one doesn’t wear a spangled cap with a plaid frock unless that is just a part of the “I’ll do as I like” cult.  Neil Hamilton, who acted like a truant officer, expressed his worship in wardrobes of many drawers, each containing part of a complete evening costume from pearls to diamond heels.  The wrap of taffeta, shirred to the hips where fringed ruffles completed it, the gown of crepe with a bead ornament below the V décolletage in front and self bow at the back of the neck.

Every star has her dance these days and Colleen gave a good exhibition of the meeting of the knees.

Variety: Women’s Page: Gray Matter by Mollie Gray (Tommy Gray’s Sister), May 15, 1929

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What stopped Colleen Moore’s career was apparently Colleen Moore.  Like many another famous silent star, Colleen Moore was at the peak of her success at the end of 1928.  In 1929, she released three movies: Why Be Good?, Smiling Irish Eyes, and Footlights and Fools.  Her talking debut was in the second of these, about which one critic commented, “Miss Moore seems to have a good voice.”  In Footlights and Fools, she even sang to good notices.  Since there was nothing wrong with her voice, and since she was still quite young and a top box office star, what happened to Colleen Moore’s career?  She chose to stay off the screen after Footlights and Fools until The Power and the Glory in 1933.  (Among other things she did a Broadway play.  Her marriage to John McCormack had broken up in 1929.  This marriage was a disaster for Moore.  She had married the alcoholic McCormack, a movie publicity agent, at a young age and suffered greatly in the relationship until she finally found the courage to divorce him.  Her second marriage, to Albert Parker Scoot, who had a seat on the New York Stock Exchange, also ended in divorce.)

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She signed a contract with MGM in 1932, but was loaned to Fox for the latter, which co-starred Spencer Tracy.  An excellent film, The Power and the Glory is the prototype of Citizen Kane, featuring out-of-sequence, overlapping flashbacks (it was written by Preston Sturges).  It tells the story of a man’s rise to riches and the effect this has on his family, particularly the loyal wife he married while he was still poor (Moore).  Moore later said she thought it was the best film she ever made, but she was beginning to wonder about the world outside of Hollywood.  “It seemed to me there had to be more to life than just work…I wondered if the success I had had in my career had to be compensated for by not having much personal happiness.”  She made three more films, all released in 1934—Success at Any Price, The Social Register, and The Scarlet Letter.  The last was a dismal failure at every level, and according to her, she made it only to obtain enough money to finish building her beloved doll house.  After that, she left movies forever, remarking that the public didn’t want her in serious roles.  “They wanted me to go on being a wide-eyed, innocent little girl.  I was too old for that—and too tired of it in any case.  So I bowed out.”  It seems to be a completely candid assessment.  Moore was woman of intelligence, and she wanted something different.  She had already lived her dream of stardom and found it wanting, and she had put more than fifteen years of hard work into the business.  The career of Colleen Moore was over in 1934.

Silent Stars by Jeanine Basinger (1999)

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By the end of October, Colleen and First National settled on the story Why Be Good?—which was being referred to by the press as That’s a Bad Girl—as the film to follow Synthetic Sin.  On October 27th the continuity for Why Be Good was submitted to Colleen, which she approved in November.  “Neil Hamilton, the capable young leading man…in Paramount’s Beau Geste, has been signed by John McCormick for the male lead opposite Colleen Moore in her next First National picture, That’s a Bad Girl, by Carey Wilson.”  Camerawork was still underway for Synthetic Sin, but production on Why Be Good? was “scheduled to start…within a few days after Synthetic Sin is disposed of.  William A. Seiter will direct.”

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On the 16, First National submitted Clipped Wings, When Irish Eyes Are Smiling, and A Garret in Paris, by Sir Philip Gibbs for consideration to follow Why Be Good?  When work on Synthetic Sin was finished, Colleen left town for a working vacation, taking the submitted story suggestions with her.  “Taking advantage of the opportunity for a brief vacation….  Colleen Moore has gone to Palm Springs….  Accompanying Miss Moore is her husband, John McCormick.”  William Seiter, who would direct Why Be Good?, was going to visitthem and go over the script and production details of the coming picture.  “The double task of supervising the editing and cutting of Synthetic Sin and selecting the players to support Miss Moore in Why Be Good? faces McCormick when he returns….  Why Be Good?…. is scheduled to start within two weeks.” 

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Why Be Good? had many of the requisite elements: a bad girl who is actually good deep down; poor girl imported into a rich environment; mistaken identities; and the fairy-tale ending.  Pert Kelly (Colleen), a counter girl in a New York department store, has a reputation for promiscuity, but is secretly a virtuous woman.  She meets Peabody, Jr. (Neil Hamilton), at a road house one night, and they make a date to meet again the following evening.  The next morning, Pert is late for work and is called on the carpet by the personnel manager, who turns out to be Peabody, Jr.  His father, who owns the store, fires Pert, but Peabody, Jr. is (predictably) smitten with her.  He invites her to one of his parent’s fancy soirées.  His father doubts Pert’s virtue, so Junior decides to evaluate her by bringing her to a disreputable roadhouse where he has staged an elaborate test.  She protests and, convinced, Junior marries her right away.

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Bodil Rosing was brought into the production “portraying the mother of Colleen Moore….  It will be remembered that Miss Rosing once before gave a very convincing portrayal of Colleen’s mother in It Must Be Love.”  In one of her first appearances on film, Jean Harlow had a small part as an extra, and William Seiter is supposed to have commented on her to Colleen:  “Look, you’ve never seen anything like it,”  While the cameras were rolling on Why Be Good?, work proceeded on When Irish Eyes Are Smiling.  John wrote to Obringer on December 4 to “please ascertain whether or not the following songs are in the public domain: ‘Come Back to Erin,’ ‘Kathleen Mavourneen.’”  He was hoping to use the songs in a talking picture.  The next day Colleen approved her photo for use on the cover of the sheet music for the song “Betty,” which was to be marketed to the public as the “theme to Synthetic Sin.”  Everything was sliding into place for When Irish Eyes Are Smiling, on December 12 a continuity was submitted to Colleen for her approval.

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Three days later Colleen rejected it.

The rejection put the schedule for the next film on pause, but Why Be Good? rolled along.  Colleen did her usual interviews, posed for publicity photographs, and did her part.  First National might not be terribly happy with her contract, but she knew what a successful film meant to John.

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…Things were looking good for Colleen’s next film.  While Synthetic Sin was still in release, a test audience screened Why Be Good?, at the Westlake Theater.  Whitney Williams was impressed: “Remember Flaming Youth?  With Colleen Moore flaming all over the place, setting cushions on fire at the slightest touch, and what not?  People, as the ancients were wont to chatter, ‘You hadn’t seen nothin’ then!’”  Why Be Good?, it was declared, was livelier than Flaming Youth, and if Why Be Good? had been around then it would have created an even greater uproar.  “Why Be Good? is strictly comedy, of the most delectable sort, up to the last reel or so.  Even then, for all its dramatic treatment, a sense of comedy pervades the action.”  The rough cut was not perfect.  It suffered from “sketchiness, a slackening of tempo at times somewhat disconcerting.”  This was the fault of the film’s length, in its attempt to cover too much territory.  Overall, the reviewer felt this would be corrected by the final cut.  Colleen’s acting was excellent and Neil Hamilton, in “a role requiring little more than ordinary acting, will be well received.”

Colleen Moore: A Biography of the Silent Film Star by Jeff Codori (2012)

Why Be Good (24a)     Why Be Good (24b)

Why Be Good (23a)     Why Be Good (23b)

Why Be Good (22a)     Why Be Good (22b)

Blogs written by other film enthusiasts:
I Thank You, October 16, 2014
She Blogged By Night by Stacia, November 11, 2014
Movie Morlocks by R. Emmet Sweeney, November 18, 2014
All Talking! All Singing! All Dancing! by Jonas Nordin, November 24, 2014
The Case for Global Film by Roy Stafford, February 27, 2015


This is how I introduced the film to my guests:  I first saw this film several years ago at Toronto Film Society’s May film weekend and it stuck with me.  I’ve always wanted to see it again and have waited until this evening to do so.  Not yet released commercially, I was thrilled to pick up a copy a couple of years ago.  What I remember was that the subject matter of this film was certainly unusual for the time, or at least I thought so, and in doing some research it was interesting to note that the writer of the play and screenplay, John Howard Lawson, who was head of the Hollywood division of the Communist Party for several years, was one of the members of the Hollywood Ten during the McCarthy era.

Colleen Moore has a small role as the faithful love interest and secretary to Douglas Fairbanks Jr.  What I remember when I saw this film those years ago was that the make-up department couldn’t have found more unflattering make-up or hair style for Miss Moore.  This just adds another dimension to the film.

The ending of this film is not quite even, as the 180 degree shift in Fairbank’s character’s attitude is not all that realistic although, again I suppose, anything can be explained.  One “explanation” may be that not only the title but possibly the ending of Lawson’s play, Success Story, was changed for the filmed version.

I’ll leave it at that and I hope that you enjoy this film.

This is what I thought after re-viewing the movie:  Now that I have seen the film, there are a number of things I’d like to comment on.  To begin with, it really was quite a film and screenplay!  The main story revolves around Fairbank’s character Joe Martin who is a sociopath.  Although men were overtly sexist in many pre-Code film, Joe (and for that matter Merritt played by Frank Morgan) were so out of touch with how, in particular, Agnes (Genevieve Tobin) felt, that it was shocking.  Agnes was a beautiful woman who used her charm and looks to get what she wanted from men, which makes complete sense for the time as the high majority of women could not earn the big bucks.  But you understand that she has learned that what she would really like is someone to love her for who she really is, although still wanting the finer things in life, and it’s what she’s waiting for someone to figure it out.  She hears it from neither of the two men.  Joe thinks she’s a thing that needs to be bought and Merritt wants to keep her at arm’s length for his own satisfaction.  To me, the conflict between men and women is what the main story is all about.

Joe, who we learn has discovered the body of his slain gangster brother, is an angry, selfish, bitter and, as we see him progress throughout the film, an insane person.  His long-time girlfriend Sarah (with the unlucky last name of Griswold—Colleen Moore) being the secretary for the head honcho, Raymond Merritt, gets him a job in the company she works for,

At first Joe, who has no college education, has a lower paying and lessor job than someone like Allen Vincent (Geoffrey Haliburton).  Vincent likes to show his superiority but Martin is better at the comedown comments.  They end up at blows with each other and after a rude remark thrown at Merritt, Joe’s fired.  But when Merritt tells Sarah that he’s heading out for a rub-down (something bosses don’t tell their secretaries any longer) Joe goes to the baths to tell him his ideas and appeal for another chance.  Well, appeal isn’t quite the word as Joe never lets anyone think they are doing him a favour—in fact it’s the other way around in his eyes.

Joe eventually rises to the top and displaces everyone in the company from Vincent to Merritt himself.  It’s interesting to see the tables turned when it’s Joe getting a rubdown and Merritt trying to appeal to him.  And to make matters clear, Agnes was Merritt’s mistress and Joe wants to possess all things that belonged to this elitist.  When finally married to her, Joe still has the typical dreams, a white picket fence in the country, a wife-maid and a house full of “brats” as they are called several times in the film.  Agnes is the wrong girl for this role.  She likes New York, nightclubs and fancy living.  It’s quite obvious that he should have married Sarah.

There is lots of very flirty dialogue.  There’s also a lot being said, while the actions say the complete opposite of the words spoken.  One scene has Joe storming in on Agnes while she’s still in her lingerie.  He’s totally obsessed by this point but she’s tired of his not understanding her.  While she’s sitting there in her very, very low cut slinky chemise, running her stockings up her leg, she tells him she doesn’t want to see him anymore.

An interesting line spoken by a broken Joe to Harry (Edward Everett Horton) and Dinah (Nydia Westman) is when they let Joe know they’re expecting.  Joe says he is “surprised and pleased that they (somehow!) have created a child between them.”  Unusual dialogue since soon after this film, most references to pregnancy are so very subtle that you could miss it entirely until the baby is actually born.

When there is comedy relief, it’s given by Horton in his usual way and Westman who plays Dinah McCabe, a flighty, talkative receptionist-promoted-to-secretary, but not a particularly sensitive nor certainly not discreet one.  In one scene, where she’s reading the news about the marriage between Joe and Agnes, she seems particularly nasty in her enjoyment of Sarah’s obvious and Merrit’s less discomposure of the event.  In another scene Dinah interrupts a conversation Joe is having with Sarah, who is now his secretary, to ask how to spell the word “unique”.  “U N I K” is Joe’s response and Dinah accepts it as correct with the line so many of us have thought, “that’s what I had at first, but then I didn’t think it looked right.”

By the end, Joe is completely undone.  When the final moment comes, can he actually become a changed person?  That’s when I wondered if the ending of the play stopped just short of this “final moment”.  How does a person change so dramatically, unless maybe they’re Ebenezer Scrooge.  Can the “spirits” in one’s head really make a person change 180 degrees?  Perhaps since Joe survives something that should have caused death, then that could be the moment that changes the synapses in his brain to understand the wonders of life; an epiphany causing a drastic change in the way he views things, including being kind to others, is essential to Joe’s being happy.

I always find the ages of the actors interesting.  For instance, Doug Fairbanks did a remarkable job in this role at the age of 25.  Colleen Moore and Genevieve Tobin were both 34.  We know that Agnes is supposed to be older and wiser than Joe, but I wasn’t certain that Sarah was actually supposed to be older.  To me, she looked it, but her plainness is supposed to be juxtaposed against Agnes’s glamor.

And, the last thing to point out is that there was no—none—music throughout the whole film unless you count the music during the opening credits and literally when the words “The End” appear on the screen.  This is always an interesting and uncommon way to view a film as it leaves it totally up to us to respond to the words and actions rather than let the music influence us as to how we feel.

So now, I truly do hope you enjoy this film!


RKO Radio Pictures.  Directed by J. Walter Ruben.  From the play by John Howard Lawson.  Screenplay by John Howard Lawson and Howard J. Green.  Cinematography by Henry W. Gerrard.  Costume Design by Walter Plunkett.  Art Direction by Alfred Herman and Van Nest Polglase.  Film Editing by Jack Hively.  Music by Bernard Kaun.  Released:  March 16, 1934.  74 minutes.

Joe Martin……………………………………………….. Douglas Fairbanks Jr. Agnes Carter………………………………………………….. Genevieve Tobin Raymond Merritt…………………………………………………. Frank Morgan Sarah Griswold………………………………………………….. Colleen Moore Harry Fisher……………………………………………. Edward Everett Horton Dinah McCabe………………………………………………… Nydia Westman Mr. Hatfield…………………………………………………………. Henry Kolker Geoffrey Halliburton………………………………………………. Allen Vincent

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With the connivance of the author, the screen version of John Howard Lawson’s sardonic success story has been managed with considerable effectiveness. Fortunately the dramatic instinct, or lack of it, which was responsible for crudely renovating the original title to “Success at Any Price” has not extended its sinister influence to the work itself. Although Mr. Lawson’s account of a bitter youth’s lust for power has become something of a cliché in recent years, his dialogue is adult. It lifts an episode story, always something of a bore in the cinema, to a high level of interest.

The players help the new film as much as Mr. Lawson himself. In the leading rôle Douglas Fairbanks Jr. reveals a surprising advance as a dramatic actor. Frank Morgan, Genevieve Tobin, Henry Kolker and, to a lesser degree, Colleen Moore, are generously helpful as the ninepins who topple before the hero’s cruel and merciless advance to success.

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Here Mr. Lawson is telling the story of an East Side youth, who obscurely feels the need to topple his bosses back in the dust. As office boy in a de luxe advertising agency, he is crude, outspoken and resentful. He pushes to the top by selling short while his employers are plunging heavily in a crazily inflated market. When the bubble breaks, he has made his place in the sun and the former czars of the business are out in the cold. His personal life is less happy. He marries his employer’s mistress, who represents the sheer zenith of desirability to him, and discovers her to be an empty and selfish woman of the world. When he finds she has betrayed him with his partner, he knows he has not a friend in the world. He tries to kill himself, after first mailing to the district attorney the secrets of his and his partner’s shady financial dealings. There is a happy solution which does not explain how Joe eludes the clutches of the government.

New York Times by Andre D. Sennwald, May 4, 1934

Success at Any Price (5)


Here’s Doug Jr’s first Hollywood-made picture since he departed for England and English pictures about a year ago, when the Missus (Joan Crawford) decided to divorce him.  Unfortunately Doug returns to us in a very preachy story, but his acting far surpasses the film and proves that Gertrude Lawrence and Noel Coward haven’t hurt his histrionic ability at all.  Doug plays a young man, brother of a slain gangster, who is consumed with an insane passion to make money-money-money.  And not just little dimes and quarters but millions.  He gains his power and money by every unethical manner known to Big Business, with doublecrosses that would make a gangster blush.  And then when he’s right on top he finds that he is the most unhappy man in the world.  Giving splendid performances in this modern morality play are Genevieve Tobin, Colleen Moore, and Frank Morgan.

Silver Screen: Reviews: Opinion, Frankly Expressed, of Pictures Actually Seen, May-Oct 1934

Success at Any Price (1934) Directed by J. Walter Ruben Shown: Colleen Moore, Frank Morgan

Success at Any Price (1934)
Directed by J. Walter Ruben
Shown: Colleen Moore, Frank Morgan


This picture for the most part is a faithful transcription of the stage play, “Success Story,” which set forth the tragedy of a man who sacrificed everything for cash and power.  Most of it is hard-hitting drama in which Douglas Fairbanks, Jr., as the success-ridden principal character does the best work of his career.  It concludes with a forced happy ending that is as affrontingly inappropriate as a Bronx cheer in church.

The film follows the play script faithfully to the point where Joe Martin (Mr. Fairbanks) reaches the pinnacle of success and shoots himself.  Thereafter, take it from the optimistic movies, he recovers to live happy ever after with his long faithful and long neglected girl friend (Colleen Moore).  There ought to be a law.

Success at Any Price (1934) Directed by J. Walter Ruben Shown: Douglas Fairbanks Jr., Genevieve Tobin

Success at Any Price (1934)
Directed by J. Walter Ruben
Shown: Douglas Fairbanks Jr., Genevieve Tobin

A fine case has something into which it can get its teeth.  The story is ruthless and shrill and Mr. Fairbanks’ development, or deterioration, from a cocksure, sullen boy into an overstrained magnate is worth going miles to see.  Genevieve Tobin plays a nitwit woman with a perfect balance that keeps her from being either hardboiled or sentimental, and Ralph (sic) Morgan is a convincingly sleek executive.

This is a distinctly worth-while picture, despite its sloppy conclusion.

High Spots:  The discharged Merritt (Mr. Morgan) and the discarded Sarah (Miss Moore) trying to hide their hurts by laughing.  Aggie (Miss Tobin) coming home tight at 5 a.m.

The New Movie Magazine: First Nights on Broadway by Frederic F. van de Water, Jul-Dec 1934

Success at Any Price (7)

While all films, to a degree reflect the times in which they are made, certain key films, especially when the dominant contributing artist is the writer rather than the director, become especially interesting as mirrors of their era.  Sometimes indeed that importance and interest transcends their value as film.  Tonight’s two films (Bill Everson also screened To The Victor [1948]) are linked in that both are somewhat sour views of the times in which they were made—the depression, and the post-World War Two period.  The earlier depression films (I Am A Fugitive From a Chain Gang) tended to be screams of outrage and protest; by 1934 however, it had become clear that the corner around which prosperity lurked was still many blocks away.  Films shifted gears somewhat, and romanticized the depression, kidded it, or as here, sullenly lambasted what is always ambiguously referred to as “the system”.  It’s a strange film of the period, yet lacking the humor that Warners would have injected, via Frank McHugh or Allen Jenkins, as an antidote.  It was one of the earlier screenplays written by John Howard Lawson, and since it is based on his own quite well received play, it can be considered very much a personal point of view.  Lawson of course, as one of the “Unfriendly Ten”, achieved some notoriety during the McCarthy era as an alleged Communist propagandist, and his career was aborted thereby.  While one always tends to feel sympathy for the artist at the mercy of the political witch-hunter, the suspicions concerning Lawson are not entirely unfounded.  His screen-writing career was not prolific, and was quite liberally dotted with war stories like Blockade, Counter Attack, Sahara and Action in the North Atlantic, where the odd political lines could be slipped in casually.  Apart from its underlying theme of revolution against the ruling classes almost for its own sake, there is no real Communist thrust to Success at Any Price, but as in Lester Cole’s screenplay for The House of Seven Gables while it may not be pro-Communist it is most certainly anti-American at times!  Success at Any Price in any case, is a strong, powerful little picture with mature situations and dialogue, and a commendably unsympathetic performance from Douglas Fairbanks Jr.—quite a departure for him at a time when he was coming into his own as a very likeable young leading man.  Genevieve Tobin is, as always, elegant and sophisticated, a perfectly understandable reason for anyone to leave his wife or fiancée.  In the latter role, Colleen Moore has practically a carbon copy of her role in the previous year’s The Power and the Glory, but she isn’t kindly treated by the camera, or indeed by the writing of the role itself.  And Frank Morgan, though in a (for him, at that time) stereotyped role, reminds us again what a good dramatic actor he was before MGM turned him into a comic buffoon.

Success at Any Price (1934) Directed by J. Walter Ruben Shown: Frank Morgan, Genevieve Tobin

Success at Any Price (1934)
Directed by J. Walter Ruben
Shown: Frank Morgan, Genevieve Tobin

The print, by the way, like many RKO Radio films—preserved only for tv use—is from a 16mm negative and rather soft.  (You’ll notice the difference when the crisp Warner print follows it).  There’s nothing one can do to remedy this, except to reduce the size of the image on screen (which would be more disconcerting than the soft focus) or to point out that the further back you sit, the better it will look.

The New School Film Series by William K. Everson, March 17, 1978

Nydia Westman reading the marriage announcement to Colleen Moore

Dinah reading the marriage announcement to Sarah

Then I accepted the only offer on my immediate horizon and started homeward again.  This job was several notches below what I’d hoped for.  To be called Success at Any Price, the film was hardly more than a fancy Hollywood potboiler.  It would be saved by the immensely popular Colleen Moore.

…Neither Colleen nor I can any longer recall a single thing about the plot of Success at Any Price, but I do very clearly remember the many good wishes offered me for a long-contemplated campaign to find the backing needed to form my own producing company.

The Salad Days by Douglas Fairbanks, Jr. (1988)

Success at Any Price (3)

The moral equivalence between crime boss and capitalist executive is schematic in Success at Any Price (1934), directed by J. Walter Ruben from the play by John Howard Lawson.  The narrative follows a heartless moneygrubber from 1927 to 1934, the Jazz Age to the Great Depression.  Go-getter Joe Martin (Douglas Fairbanks, Jr.) works for an advertising company whose main client is “Glamour Cream,” an expendable consumer product of the 1920s rendered extravagant in the 1930s.  The communist screenwriter Lawson laces the play with a venomous hatred for his antihero and the system he prospers under.  Compared to Joe Martin, even Rico Bandello enjoys a warm personal life.

The film opens with a Jazz Age prelude, a headline from 1927: Joe has just buried his gangster brother before setting out on a parallel career track in business.  He is a dynamic workaholic, but a pathological one, betraying mentor, girlfriend, and business partners.  In the last unpersuasive seconds of the film, the likable Fairbanks reveals the kind heart under his sinister skin, but Joe Martin has been a witting tool of capitalism too long to pull off a deathbed conversion.

Pre-Code Hollywood: Sex, Immorality, and Insurrection in American Cinema 1930-1934 by Thomas Doherty (1999)

Genevieve Tobin

Genevieve Tobin

There was more than a hint (of social revolution) in Success at Any Price (1934), based on the play Success Story, by John Howard Lawson (later blacklisted as one of the Hollywood Ten).  It presented a man’s phenomenal rise in business as a consequence of his stunted moral and emotional nature.  It was, in a way, a transparent leftist diatribe.  Yet it crystallized the era’s antibusiness sentiment and was precisely the sort of movie that could not be made once the Code was enforced.  The Code arrived just three and a half months after the release of the picture.

Douglas Fairbanks, Jr., in one of those young tough-guy roles he excelled at, played Joe Martin, who, on the day of his gangster brother’s funeral, decides to go straight and make his fortune within the system.  His girlfriend (Colleen Moore) gets him an entry-level job in an advertising company, where she works as a secretary.  When Joe, a lout with a chip on his shoulder the size of a piano, finally gets a chance to make good, his talent is recognized, and he begins his climb.

Success at Any Price (2)

Joe is driven.  He has nothing but his work, his anger, and his hunger.  He meets his boss’s mistress (Genevieve Tobin) and decides he wants her—just like Scarface wanted his Boss’s mistress—as a symbol of his arrival.  “If I had a million dollars, I’d buy you,” he says.

She understands.  She is all about money, too, and sold her soul long ago.  “I know how you feel,” she tells him.  “Anything you can’t get makes you sick and sour.”

Success at Any Price (1)

To make his million, he buys stock and sells short, rides employees to the breaking point, and ultimately pulls a power play, squeezing out the boss who gave him a chance in the first place.  “We cleaned up on Wall Street with tricks that would make a gunman blush,” he says.  “There are no ethics in this town.  It’s kill or be killed.  Get what you can.”  It’s not until his expensive, worthless wife (Tobin) betrays him that he sees his harsh life as having no meaning, no connection, no value, and no hope.  It’s for these kinds of moments that characters in movies always keep a revolver in their desk.  Success at Any Price ends with a tableau of male fragility, Fairbanks is resting his head on Moore’s lap as they wait for the ambulance to arrive.

In their depiction of the business world, pre-Code movies were turning their gaze on the arena in which most men spent their working lives.  “Something is missing here,” these films were saying.  “Something about this is antithetical to life.”

Dangerous Men by Mick LaSalle (2002)

Success at Any Price (15) Blogs written by other film enthusiasts:
Movie Morlocks by Jeff Stafford, June 12, 2010
Immortal Ephemera by Cliff Aliperti, March 20, 2013
Mondo 70: A Wild World of Cinema by Samuel Wilson, June 12, 2013

Joining me for the evening was Susan, Chris, Jillian, Lee, Sandy, Shaun, Ronda, Allen, Calvin, Arny, Hanna, Andrea, Rolf and Deniz.


3 thoughts on “Why Be Good? (1929) and Success at Any Price (1934)

  1. Thanks for your great write-ups, Caren, and especially all those gorgeous posters and photographs! It’s a true pleasure to go through everything; a way of enjoying the films all over again. Fabulous!

  2. Pingback: Success at Any Price (1934) - Toronto Film Society

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