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Savant feels like joining a fan club for actress Ann Dvorak. A few years ago I'd seen the talented beauty only in the Hawks/Hughes Scarface, but her haunted eyes and slim figure dominate Pre-Code attractions like College Coach and Three on a Match. Dvorak's "bad" girls are irresistible: compromised but soulful.
Four men pursue Dvorak in The Strange Love of Molly Louvain, an exemplary Warners drama that's honest about the lives of young women adrift in the city and hungry for work, love, and respectability. A dance hall girl remarks that three of her friends have quit and "taken an apartment together", wink wink. They're doing all right now, she adds. From a play by Maurine Dallas Watkins, the author of the original play Chicago, Molly Louvain is directed by Michael Curtiz, who doesn't let a single sordid inference slip by unnoticed.
Poor Iowa girl Madeleine Maude Louvain (Dvorak) thinks she's going to marry a boy from the country club, but he leaves her alone and pregnant. Molly has little choice but to become the consort of traveling salesman Nicky Grant (Leslie Fenton of The Public Enemy). In Chicago three years later Molly drops her child off in paid care, and walks out on Nicky, who has become a wanted thief and known criminal. Taking a job at a dance hall, she reunites with Jimmy Cook (Richard Cromwell), a bellboy who loved her in Iowa and is now a college student. But Nicky intercepts the couple and bullies them into joining him for a car ride. They don't know that the car is stolen until the police close in on Nicky and shoot him down. Wanted for the murder of a policeman killed by Nicky, Molly bleaches her hair and hides out. Jimmy wants to marry her, and she almost agrees, even though she knows he's far too inexperienced. Instead, fast-talking reporter Scotty Cornell (Lee Tracy) bursts into their lives, offering Molly a few weeks of fun and ease, in Paris or Hollywood. He'll be able to leave as soon as he's finished his latest assignment for his paper: trapping that notorious woman Molly Louvain.
The more Pre-Code movies one sees, the more evident becomes the Warners' commitment to stories about Americans deeply impacted by the Depression. The New York Times reviewer had no patience for The Strange Love of Molly Louvain, calling it "wearying and unsavory" and commenting on its "reckless and brainless" heroine. The reviewer can't see how any rational person could fall in with a thug like Nicky Grant, even though the screenplay is specific about Louvain's utter lack of options -- Nick can help support her baby. The beauty of the movie is that Molly Louvain accepts the raw deals dealt her as the price of being poor and socially unacceptable. Her only asset is her ability to attract men. Molly goes out of her way not to victimize the naïve Jimmy. The cynical Scotty is the right guy for her, but he'll first need to be convinced that she's not a "Tinsel Girl" -- a cheap plaything for a short term romance.
The Strange Love of Molly Louvain moves rapidly from one arresting image to another. Young Jimmy takes in the sight of Molly changing her stockings, a typical bit of Pre-Code cheesecake. Convinced that she can handle the oily Nicky, Molly doesn't mind leading him on when he sweet-talks her with promises of free samples of his wares. Showing up at a fancy house for what she thinks will be an engagement party, Molly is turned away at the door -- her beau and his mother have canceled the party and left town. Like Hitchcock's Marnie, Molly dyes her hair to avoid detection. Not knowing what he's doing, Scotty determines to capture Louvain through the dirty trick of having the radio announce that her baby is deathly ill. The conclusion is strangely uplifting. Molly remains in a heap of trouble, but she finds a love based on respect.
Ms. Dvorak's ability to embody a convincingly debased but essentially virtuous heroine is no mean feat; the role comes with its share of cynical wisecracks but the character is quite serious. Leslie Fenton sketches his salesman-turned desperate crook in only a couple of brief scenes; although he's a rat, we realize that he's just as stuck on Molly as the others. (In real life, Dvorak and Fenton appear to have met on this movie. They married just before its release and stayed together for fourteen years.) Lee Tracy's Scotty is an almost inhuman dynamo, bursting into rooms, dodging bills and gambling debts, calling on the radio salesman across the street to turn up the music. Tracy doesn't talk quite as fast here as he does in Blessed Event, where his head seems ready to explode. Less impressive is Richard Cromwell's idealistic kid, who looks like a lovesick puppy when he catches Molly kissing Scotty. The movie has one crime sequence, a fairly raw peek into a dance hall and plenty of cynical The Front Page- like shenanigans with the press corps and the cops -- Frank McHugh, Guy Kibbee, Charles Middleton. Poor Molly is verbally brutalized by a police captain who has no intention of keeping his promises -- he's gotten Molly to surrender herself with a contemptuously underhanded trick.
Director Curtiz has already perfected his personal method of keeping his movies at a brisk boil, with swift montages and a nervous camera that stays put only when characters engage in intimate conversations. The main apartment set incorporates a window view of a street beyond, a nice realistic touch not achieved through rear projection.
The Warner Archive Collection DVD-R of The Strange Love of Molly Louvain is in fine shape. It was previously released on VHS and laserdisc about twenty years ago, in an MGM program called "Forbidden Hollywood". No extras are included.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
The Strange Love of Molly Louvain rates:
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T'was Ever Thus.