Penthouse is a lean mystery masquerading as a class melodrama. Most of that class melodrama stuff comes at the front–and is only really ever alluded to later–making the film front-heavy. Unfortunately, so much time goes towards the melodrama, the mystery suffers. Luckily, there’s a whole bunch of charm–from the cast, from the script, from director Van Dyke–and it makes up for the uneasy narrative.
Warner Baxter is a blue blood lawyer who discovers his passion is for helping the unjustly accused professional criminal. The criminal can’t be guilty of the crime he’s charged with. The film opens with Baxter successfully defending Nat Pendleton’s mob boss. Pendleton’s fantastic. He’s part of the film’s comic relief, but he’s also conveys danger.
Penthouse doesn’t seem to have much of a budget–it’s that lean mystery, after all–so there aren’t a lot of big set pieces. Danger and drama usually play out in conversation. It’s a talky lean mystery, so it’s good screenwriters Frances Goodrich and Albert Hackett do so well with the dialogue.
Baxter can make any line engaging. He easily breezes through most of the mystery stuff at the end as he distracts from the film’s lack of a big third act finish, but when his material’s good, he’s outstanding. There’s not a lot of time in the script to establish Baxter. His girl (Martha Sleeper) breaks his heart and the film follows her instead of him–because the melodrama. Baxter’s just getting hammered, much to the chagrin of both Pendleton (in addition to being a client, he’s a pal) and Charles Butterworth (as Baxter’s suffering butler).
Only then the film doesn’t stick with Sleeper, but follows Phillips Holmes as her other suitor, then shifts to Mae Clarke as Holmes’s illicit lover. By the time C. Henry Gordon shows up–as Clarke’s ex and Pendleton’s criminal rival–one might forget there was someone else in the opening titles, second-billed, in fact. Myrna Loy. She doesn’t even show up until the second act, which isn’t ideal because there’s only an hour left.
Loy’s sort of a mob moll, sort of not. It’s unclear; Goodrich and Hackett get a lot of amazing innuendo into the script but barely any details. Penthouse isn’t supposed to make sense, it’s supposed to entertain. When it’s too busy trying to build to entertaining points–Loy and Baxter flirt wonderfully but when it comes time for them to make actual sweet talk, it’s all off. Goodrich and Hackett awkwardly combine their romantic melodrama into mystery deduction scenes. It never gels. Maybe because Baxter treating Loy as disposable doesn’t make any sense.
But they’re still great together in most of their scenes and both of them generate a bunch of goodwill on their own. Loy and Butterworth are wonderful together, for example.
Van Dyke’s got some good direction in the film, usually involving Clarke or Loy. He doesn’t try as much in the other scenes, just keeps it brisk. He does seem to get bored occasionally. There’s one fifteen minute stretch in the second act it feels like nothing but two shots between different characters sitting (or walking to some other place to sit).
Penthouse is an uneven, but still successful outing. Another thirty minutes or so, a little more of a budget, a little better editing from Robert Kern (though maybe Van Dyke didn’t have the time for more coverage), it probably would’ve been better. With Loy, Baxter and Pendleton (and Butterworth)–and Van Dyke’s able direction–it works pretty well.
Directed by W.S. Van Dyke; screenplay by Frances Goodrich and Albert Hackett, based on a story by Arthur Somers Roche; directors of photography, Lucien N. Andriot and Harold Rosson; edited by Robert Kern; music by William Axt; released by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer.
Starring Warner Baxter (Jackson Durant), Myrna Loy (Gertie Waxted), Nat Pendleton (Tony Gazotti), C. Henry Gordon (Jim Crelliman), Martha Sleeper (Sue Leonard), Charles Butterworth (Layton), Phillips Holmes (Tom Siddall) and Mae Clarke (Mimi Montagne).