There are a handful of Pre-Code elements in Professional Sweetheart it doesn’t seem like the Code broke so much as saved movies from. For instance, when Ginger Rogers needs to break out of her Stepford Wives mindset—Kentucky cracker Norman Foster has beaten her into it—all the city boys need to do is put her former maid, Black woman Theresa Harris, on the radio in her singing spot and they know it’ll get Rogers upset enough to return to New York and her job. Mind you, Harris was a pal to Rogers, though given Harris’s singing can get through Foster’s layers of whitebread and make him feel funny in his hips in a way Rogers can’t… I mean, it’s gross.
Also gross? Having Zasu Pitts playing a vaguely Hispanic character so they can simultaneously make fun of her name and her being a ditzy woman.
There are probably some other things but those two and a half are the big standouts. The half being all Rogers needs to get her sinful thoughts of out her head—she wants to dress sexy, smoke cigarettes, and go to the clubs in Harlem—is for a red-blooded dipshit cracker like Foster to bop her one when she shows too much agency after being kidnapped.
Most of those elements—not Pitts, the movie craps on her from the start and she’s entirely complicit in the characterization—come in the third act, though Foster’s never a good character. He’s okay when Rogers is making eyes at him for a scene; otherwise he’s a hick punchline, literally hired to be her boyfriend because he’s the whitest guy they can find.
The “They” is wash cloth manufacturer Gregory Ratoff and his gang of cronies. There’s press agent (and former newspaperman) Frank McHugh, designer Franklin Pangborn (he makes all Rogers’s dresses and decorates her apartment and might be what 1933 codes as gay, but there’s a final twist on that subtext), and then lawyer Frank Darien. Rogers is their radio personality, their “Purity Girl.” They plucked her out of an orphanage and made her a star in New York City, but she just wants to get smoking, drinking, and dancing. Not to mention getting a fellow or two.
Hence the boys tracking down Foster to try to create a wholesome romance narrative.
Professional Sweetheart’s big problem is the script. Director Seiter’s able to get some good energy going for the comedy—Ratoff and his sidekicks are bickering goons—but the film doesn’t have anything to do with Rogers. Except occasionally parade her around in underwear. But for a movie where she’s top-billed and the titular character… the first bit of agency she gets to show is her misogynoir.
McHugh’s pretty funny and has good timing. Ratoff’s maybe the best performance overall, even though he’s playing a vague European ethnic caricature—there’s this whole subtext about melting pot Americans trying to sell to stupid middle Americans, which is just Hollywood at that point. Pangborn’s good too, though it takes a while and there are caveats. Darien has the absolute least of any character but somehow provides the most stability to scenes.
Allen Jenkins is good as the dish cloth salesman out to steal Rogers away and Lucien Littlefield’s reliable as the radio announcer. It’s weird how reliability and stability are in so short supply in the film’s performances but there’s only so much anyone can do with the script.
Seiter’s direction is low middling. He shows some energy whenever he gets to do outside scenes, but is more often lethargic. It’s a bummer since he at least seems to be trying in the first scene, as the action pans from Rogers and Littlefield on air to Ratoff freaking out his nightly lingerie bribe for Rogers won’t come in time and she’ll presumably tell the audience to frack off.
Professional Sweetheart never gets near living up to the cast’s potential—it’s impossible to say whether or not Foster’s good or bad in the picture just because of the script–but the third act such a perfunctory, easy, icky conclusion, it drags the film down for the finish. It’s particularly odd how the first act is based around the idea Rogers is a star only to continuously demote her importance the rest of the picture.
Needs a rewrite. And maybe a new director.
And not to be so bigot-y in its progressiveness.