Even with some first and third act problems and a peculiar present action–Millie’s a solid melodrama. It works up actual suspense, actual danger, and finds true villainy amid the pat shittiness of men. In addition to passing Bechdel—briefly but definitely—the film ends up fully confronting all the things it seems like it’d be safer to avoid, especially since it shifts the protagonist role from the title character—played by Helen Twelvetrees—to the aforementioned villain. It’s a successful move, even if it does mean Twelvetrees loses the third act.
To be fair, of course, the better movie for Twelvetrees is potential Millie 2, as she spends this film floundering for seventeen or eighteen years (the aforementioned peculiar present action).
The film starts with Twelvetrees a rambunctious, but marriage age, teen, who lets businessman James Hall talk her into marrying him so she can move to New York. Of course, before she can go to New York, they need to stop off at a motel so Hall can check the tires (at least they elope first). It’s a disquieting scene, with Twelvetrees playing it a little too histrionic but at least they’re trying, as the film makes all sorts of implications about Hall’s expectations of her and her questionable willingness.
Then the film skips ahead three years to Twelvetrees a miserable wealthy housewife who isn’t even allowed to bathe her own kid. Hall is always going out on business and never wants to paw her anymore; at least mother-in-law Charlotte Walker is nice to her (better than her own mom, who threw her to wolf Hall without a thought), but Twelvetrees needs friends. So when childhood pal Joan Blondell calls up looking for a loan from a rich friend, Twelvetrees is more than happy to hang out.
Blondell and her roommate, Lilyan Tashman, are professional lady friends to rich, sometimes married men who travel the country looking for the best time. We don’t get a lot of specifics, but it’ll turn out acerbic Tashman is the soulful one whereas Blondell is always the ditz. They’re both really good, but Tashman’s fantastic when she gets to play it earnest.
Unfortunately, they take Twelvetrees to a place she’s never frequented—a lunchtime cabaret for businessmen and their girlfriends—and she’s in for a rude awakening.
The next time jump is two to four years (I think it starts at two, then skips ahead another two to hit four total; sometimes there are title cards, sometimes not) and Twelvetrees is now on her own, trying to make her own way. She’s still good friends with Tashman and Blondell, but isn’t interested in finding men to pay for her upkeep. Instead she works at a hotel cigarette stand, charming various men, most importantly businessman John Halliday and newspaper reporter Robert Ames, but never getting serious (or horizontal) with them.
This middle section of the film, which has Twelvetrees’s anti-romance resolve breaking and coming to another rude awakening, has her best acting in the film. She’s no longer reduced to either giddiness or despair and there’s a lot of character development before she gives in to temptation.
The last act has another jump ahead—this time seven or eight years (I should remember, there’s a title card)—and at that point the film shifts from Twelvetrees being the protagonist to her being the subject. Most of the supporting cast doesn’t get old age makeup, but Twelvetrees gets very tired late thirties eyeshadow and maybe Rock gets a little. Frank McHugh, as Rock’s fellow reporter and amiable sidekick, however, gets none. And Halliday finally seems to be playing his age (late forties).
Though the film’s very timey-wimey with the present action. If it starts in 1931 and ends in the late forties, obviously there’s no World War II because they didn’t know but there’s also no change in the world in those seventeen years. If it starts in 1914 and ends in 1931 or whatever… I mean, they missed the Great War. Also the technology appears identical.
The third act has all the suspense and the most dramatic melodrama—not really soapy though—and while the resolution sets up a far better potential story for the cast, it’s still a reasonable success. Just a bummer they weren’t able to center Twelvetrees through it—though then you couldn’t do the third act in fifteen or twenty minutes; it would’ve been nice for her to get to keep her movie in the finish.
Acting-wise, Twelvetrees, Halliday, and Tashman are the best. Ames is a little flat, though some of it’s the script (some of it’s just everyone else having more personality). Hall’s probably the only complete whiff. Solid support from Anita Louise as well.
Millie’s a lot better than it should be, with the filmmakers actually sticking by a scandalous but also not at all story until they get it told. And when Twelvetrees gets to be the star (and have some agency), she’s excellent.