Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Joyce in Under 18 (1931)

Under 18 is a great, lesser-known example of the prototypical Warner Bros. Pre-Code drama. In the film, pretty Marian Marsh stars as a young woman from the slums of New York trying to make ends meet with her recently widowed mother (Emma Dunn). Although she is dating a sweet delivery truck driver (Regis Toomey), witnessing the stormy relationship of her sister (Anita Page) and her lazy gambler of a husband (Norman Foster) has made her cynical about love and marriage. Working as a seamstress at a local fashion house, Marsh is drafted into a modeling job and meets a slimy millionaire (Warren William in the first of many "heel" roles) who invites the comely girl up to his penthouse. Although she is turned off by the way the models in her workplace have become rich mens' mistresses, a desperate turn for her sister prompts Marsh to re-think the man's offer.

Despite the film's salacious title, Under 18 is actually quite a gritty and compelling drama which is given spiffy direction by Warners stalwart Archie Mayo. Marian Marsh, coming off a well-received debut opposite John Barrymore in 1930's Svengali, does an excellent job as the cynical heroine. She might be a bit soft, however, which might explain why she didn't get more starring parts at Warner's (she's a bit like MGM ingenue Madge Evans, with more bite). The film makes great use of the Warner backlot, and sports an excellent Art Deco set design in the form of William's luxe rooftop pool. It moves along efficiently, with only debit being an abrupt, impossibly happy ending.

Joyce Compton appears briefly in a couple of scenes as one of the chatty models at the fashion house where Marsh works. It's interesting to see her in this period, fresh off the Fox studio's ill-advised attempt to mold her into a glamour puss. She's part glamour puss here, also, but one can see the beginnings of the appealing character actress she would evolve into as the 1930s went along. Oddly enough, she gets sixth billing here, well ahead several other actors with more sizeable roles (like Paul Porcasi as Marsh's boss).

Under 18 used to be somewhat hard to find, viewable only when Turner Classic Movies happened to schedule a Marian Marsh or Warren William film fest. In 2010, it received a welcome DVD release via the Warner Archive made to order program. Once a gem, always a gem!

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