Girls About Town (1931) Directed by George Cukor. Kay Francis, Lilyan Tashman, Joel McCrea. (80 Min) 35mm print from Universal Archive
Two good-hearted, gold-digging “party girls” exploit their rich escorts with a clear conscience. Teaming up with a wronged wife for some sweet revenge proves sisterhood is powerful. Francis and Tashman were promoted as fashion rivials, and they swan in an endless round of drool-worthy gowns by Travis Banton. This risqué Pre-Code comedy was a favorite at the last TCM Film Festival. “Under George Cukor’s direction (this was only the second film he directed on his own) their adventures are more elegant than lewd” (tcm.com).
Girls about Town is one of those films considered “inconsequential” by those writers unable to see how revolutionary its message of comradery between women can be. Written by Zoe Akins, a playwright whose 1935 play The Old Maid would win a Pulitzer Prize for drama, she also wrote novels and many screenplays including Christopher Strong and Morning Glory for Katharine Hepburn and Camille for Greta Garbo. But, of course it has also been difficult to see. Since it could not have been sold to television in the 1950s, because the Production Code was still in effect, the films seems to have been somewhat lost, never having been released on any home video format, and seemingly not on any channel or streaming service, either.
Director George Cukor would direct some of classic Hollywood’s most famous films, including The Women, Philadelphia Story, Gaslight, Born Yesterday and parts of Gone With the Wind, and The Wizard of Oz. This was an early film, but he was already developing a confident cinema directorial style. He had a good sense of how fast the actors should talk, and the elaborate dolly shot at the zoo was a silent era technique just being rescued and transposed to talking pictures. He was nominated for the Best Director Oscar five times over his long career, he won only once, for My Fair Lady in 1964.
When I was a kid, my parents had a big picture book, "The Movies" by Richard Griffith, which outlined film history until about 1955. I poured over it, memorizing every photo and caption. One image that fascinated me was this one, captioned "Lilyan Tashman and Kay Francis competed for the fashion crown of Hollywood until the former's death in 1934." My wish came true when I finally saw "Girls About Town" (1931) last year at the TCM Classic Film Festival.
Kay Francis had a hard scrabble childhood in Oklahoma City. After being deserted by her father, she and her mother, an actress named Katherine Clinton, toured up and down the east coast. She arrived in Hollywood at the dawn of the talkies, already married and divorced twice, and in spite of a speech impediment (she couldn’t pronounce the letter “r”) she became one of the 1930s most dazzling stars. As Janine Basinger says, “She was born for the bias cut…Francis can wear anything. She always looks relaxed no matter what has been draped on her body of stuck on her head. Clothes seem to drip off her shoulders and flow down her body. She is never undone by an outfit or an accessory. She can pick up a fur muff the size of a grizzly bear and make it look like a cloud that has momentarily drifted by” (Basinger 153). She was promoted in the fan magazines as the best dressed woman of the screen. Her private life was not happy, she had always been a heavy drinker, starting the day with a tumbler of gin, and she told Photoplay Magazine in 1939, “I can’t wait to be forgotten” and, if it hadn't been for Turner Classic Movies and the popularity of Pre-Code film festivals, she might well have gotten her wish. But, “when one thinks of fashion and glamour, Kay Francis should be the standard by which everything else is measured” (Basinger 159). “Toward the end of 1931, she’s carrying her own films, literally on her back. In the stylish and thoroughly modern comedy Girls About Town, directed by George Cukor, she is utterly gorgeous as a gold digger with real character” (Basinger 155). Her heyday was in the 1930s, although she made films through the mid-1940s. She died of cancer in 1968.
Kay Francis and Lilyan Tashman
Lilyan Tashman usually played the heroine's rival on screen, and it was George Cukor who decided to celebrate her natural sense of humor in a leading role. “Cukor recognized her lively, outrageous personality immediatly; his eye for casting was already well hewed from his days in the theater” (Levy 57). She was the 10th and youngest child of an Orthodox Jewish tailor from Brooklyn. She went on the stage at the age of 17 to support her family, and was not averse to showing her legs to Florenz Ziegfeld for a chance at the Ziegfeld Follies. She was a showgirl in the legendary 1917 and 1918 Follies, which headlined Fanny Brice, W. C. Fields, Eddie Cantor and Will Rogers. Lilyan loved the risqué life of Jazz Age Broadway, “Sables, Rollses, leases flood in and may be had for the choosing” she said (Mann 113). She made her film debut in 1921. In 1925, she married Edmund Lowe. They were “free lovers of the Greenwich Village type” both gay, but genuinely fond of one another, and they moved to Hollywood. “Sparkling, witty fun, they were the hosts of screenland’s most fabulous soirees” and the fan magazines reported they were “supremely happy in a town where most marriages are just one long tug of war” (Mann 116). She was a glamorous cinema fashion plate, and her chic, feminine style was fan magazine catnip. Her throaty voice made the transition to talkies a breeze. She was not usually a leading lady, “but her forte was stealing films from their nominal stars” (Golden 177). In 1932 she entered the hospital for an “appendectomy” but it was surely the beginning of the stomach cancer that would take her life two years later. Only 37 years old, she died with her husband holding her hand. She had an Orthodox Jewish funeral in Brooklyn; a crush of 10,000 mostly female fans mobbed the cemetery to say farewell.
Lilyan Tashman and her husband, Edmund Lowe
I collect movie star scrapbooks, and one of my favorites is the one kept by Miss Pauline Pinney, 1111 East First Street, Wichita, Kansas, Sunday Afternoon, 2:00 pm, 17 years old, 1933. Pauline annotated some of her entries, and Joan Crawford was by far her favorite star. But, she saved these obituaries from the Kansas paper for Lilyan Tashman.
Here is a fan magazine photo of Lilyan Tashman in a chic fox collared suit.
Joel McCrea, a California native, was born in South Pasadena, but moved to Hollywood when he was nine. He was one of the few male students at the private Hollywood School for Girls, which he attended with the kids of motion picture royalty. He delivered newspapers to the stars, and rode horses in the canyons. By the time he was in high school, he made extra money as an extra, including doubling for Greta Garbo on horseback in her first American film, Torrent. He went to Pomona College, but tall (6’ 2”) and handsome, he continued working in films, mostly because he saw it as a way to make easy money for his dream, to buy a ranch. He married actress Frances Dee in 1933, and that same year bought 1000 acres west of LA for $12.00 an acre. Always modest about his acting, he is best remembered for a couple of Preston Sturges’ comedies, Sullivans Travels and The Palm Beach Story, and Foreign Correspondent for Alfred Hitchcock. Later in his career, he did a lot of Westerns, and after Ride the High Country for Sam Peckinpah, he mostly retired to his ranch. His grandson, Wyatt McCrea, appeared at the TCM Festival, and said he only knew his grandfather as a rancher, and was surprised as a kid to find out he had been an actor, too.
McCrea and Francis did a swimsuit photoshoot for the film, this is one of several poses sent to the fan magazines.
Louise Beavers is one of the many black actresses who played maids on screen when this was virtually the only acting role available. She was born in Cincinnati, and moved to Los Angeles as a girl. She trained for the concert stage, but instead ended up playing vaudeville in the “Lady Minstrels.” She was actually the maid and assistant to Paramount star Leatrice Joy, which was her entrée onto the screen. Her first major role in films was in 1927. As an Ohioan and then an Angeleno, her Southern accent, considered vital in her typecasting, was fake. In 1934, she played opposite Claudette Colbert in the tear jerking melodrama, Imitation of Life. Her role was so highly praised, as the mother heart broken by her daughter’s insistence on passing for white, that her not getting an Oscar nomination was considered a racist snub by many writers of the day, a highly unusual situation. She could definitely steal a scene if given a chance, in films like Bombshell, She Done Him Wrong and Bullets or Ballots. This film, too, breaks some stereotypes, where her character is more of a partner in crime than a servant. She definitely got one of the biggest laughs in the film for one of her lines from the NCMA audience. During the 1930s, she was one of the busiest African American actresses. She played another maid on the tv show Beulah, starting in 1950, becoming one of the first African Americans to star in her own series.
Beavers, and breakfast in bed.
The fabulous clothes in this film are courtesy of Travis Banton, who was the head designer at Paramount in the 1930s. He crafted the screen images of Marlene Dietrich, Mae West and Carole Lombard. Born in Waco, Texas, his family moved to Manhattan when he was two years old. He loved the theater, and his father, trying to discourage an artistic career, insisted he enroll in Columbia for business. Banton hated it, and ended up studying fashion design at the Art Students League, which became Parsons School of Design. While working in the custom dressmaking salon of Madame Frances, he designed a wedding gown that was featured in a fashion magazine. The next day, Mary Pickford arrived, and bought his gown to wear to her wedding to Douglas Fairbanks. His reputation was made. He got a job with Lucille, a leading couturier of the day, and designed for the theater. He was summoned to Hollywood to costume The Dressmaker From Paris, which ended with a fashion parade, another excellent boost to his career. By 1937, Banton was making $1250.00 a week, but when his contract came up, he asked for more money. That was a mistake on his part. He was becoming unreliable, he drank heavily, sometime spending days riding on streetcars, or appearing suddenly in San Francisco or Chicago without explanation. His assistant, Edith Head, frequently made excuses for him. After that, his career never regained the heights he had once enjoyed. Francis and Tashman were perpetually on the lists of the most glamorous Hollywood stars, and Banton burnished their images, and often escorted one or the other of them to movie premieres and parties. Their Banton-crafted glamour will forever shimmer on screen.
I saw this film last year at the TCM classic film festival. I love the naughtiness of Pre-Code films, and it’s not surprising that this film was written by a woman, and that the rather useless men were mere accessories (even though some of them were worthy of love). I was so happy to be able to share this 35mm print from the Universal Film Archive with the audience at the North Carolina Museum of Art. They absolutely loved it! It got huge laughs from the very beginning and a big round of applause at the end.
A Woman’s View by Jeannine Basinger, George Cukor: Master of Elegance by Emmanuel Levy Behind the Screen by William J. Mann, Golden Images by Eve Golden, Louise Beavers on imdb: https://www.imdb.com/name/nm0064792/bio?ref_=nm_ov_bio_sm , Toms Coons Mulattos, Mammies and Bucks by Donald Bogle, “Joel McCrea” by Jimmie Hicks in the October 1991 Films in Review, Joel McCrea on imdb https://www.imdb.com/name/nm0566948/?ref_=nv_sr_1 , The Power of Glamour by Annette Tapert, Creating the Illusion: A Fashionable History of Hollywood Costume Designers by Jay Jorgenson and Donald L. Scoggins, Costume Design by David Chierichetti, The Movies by Richard Griffith and Arthur Mayer.