Editor’s Note: Big Business Girl has been released on made-on-demand DVD by Warner Archive.
Bogged down with student loans and itching to try something new, the recently graduated Claire (Loretta Young) insists that she and her fiancé Johnny (Frank Albertson) spend some time apart, her in New York looking for a job, Johnny in Europe on a scheduled tour with his up-and-coming band. Johnny is desperate for Claire to marry him, however, and he threatens constantly, to the point of annoyance, to skip Europe and fuss around town until she relents instead. Claire is having none of that, so off she goes to the big city, where it turns out jobs are few and far between. Some good timing and a nice pair of gams gets her a secretarial job at the advertising agency of Robert Clayton (Ricardo Cortez), a smooth, handsome, no-nonsense businessman.
Soon Claire is submitting her own ad copy and moving up at the agency. While she moves up, Clayton moves in, hoping to make her a woman of the world, if you will. She declines. Johnny returns unexpectedly from Europe, having made such a success that he now has lucrative offers from clubs and radio stations in New York. Claire is busy with her work so Johnny, in the kind of huff pre-Code men are notorious for, takes off to pal around with wealthy middle aged patrons who have the googly eyes for him, unaware that Claire is the one who has scored him his primo gig.
Big Business Girl is a prime example of how the technology of talkies was still tricky in 1931, and films from that year range from unabashed classics that still wear well today, to dull and plodding fare bogged down by static cinematography and lengthy, unnecessary pauses. For every Five Star Final and Frankenstein there was a Behind Office Doors and Other Men’s Women, and even the good films like Arrowsmith and The Sin of Madelon Claudet featured interminable scenes where a camera, firmly cemented to the floor, films characters managing an average of 10 words per minute.
Some of this was certainly the product of directors who had trouble transitioning from silents to talkies, and Big Business Girl’s William A. Seiter was clearly having trouble. He had helmed some terrific films up until 1930 but had only done a handful of talkies prior to Big Business Girl, most of them B-list quickies starring Dorothy Mackaill. He’d find his footing again in 1932 with comedies, but in 1931, he was floundering.
Thankfully, the film is able to rise above the director’s problems. The design, settings, and Loretta Young’s gowns are just gorgeous. Young is luminous and Ricardo Cortez is so full of energy he’s about to jump right off the screen and onto your lap, which no one in their right mind would complain about. Joan Blondell, still in featured supporting roles at this point in her career, makes a late entrance and really spices things up.
Based on a short story that was thoroughly awful — a character named “Uncle Jerry,” who doesn’t appear in the film, is saddled with an endless series of adjectives describing his shoes, his pants, and his car — Big Business Girl got the solid pre-Code treatment when handed over to noted screenwriter Robert Lord. Known for edgy fare like Little Caesar, Bordertown, Heroes for Sale and The Purchase Price, Lord gives Claire, Clayton and Pearl some real zingers scattered throughout their dialogue.
Pre-Codes frequently featured working women as their lead characters, an idea so unique at the time that simply portraying a woman with a job above secretary was scandalous in itself. Claire’s desire to have a career, and to force Johnny into taking his own career seriously, is seen as emasculating; Johnny is repeatedly placed in stereotypically feminine poses, such as holding a bouquet, looking up at someone while begging and pleading, and getting dipped by Claire, who has taken the lead on the dance floor. After his surprise return from a European tour, Claire shrugs him off for a business dinner without a second thought.
It’s not simply a tale of women emasculating men, but also a cautionary tale warning that business creates hyper-masculine winners and inferior, wimpy losers, like Clayton’s incompetent support staff and unappealing toady, Luke Winters (Frank Darien). When Clayton makes the moves on Claire, she shows no interest, not even curiosity, but it has less to do with her morals than it does her desire to remain upwardly mobile in the advertising world. If she let herself be conquered, she would be no different than any number of secretaries who had done the same thing. It’s not hard to imagine her as a proto-Alison Drake from Female (1933), only just beginning to dip her toe into a world that can offer her power, as long as she navigates it with intelligence and ruthlessness.
Formerly included on a VHS set called “Forbidden Hollywood,” there’s little forbidden about what goes on in Big Business Girl. There’s a light twist about halfway through, one which I will not spoil for you because I am your friend and I care about you, but once revealed pretty much just turns the movie into a sitcom. It’s all about nasty Claire and Johnny can be to each other, which isn’t all that nasty, to be honest, but thankfully Clayton and Pearl are there to turn things grubby for the fun finale.
Big Business Girl is now out on made-on-demand DVD from Warner Archive.