Directed by Roy Del Ruth
Starring Loretta Young and Warren William
Kurt Anderson is the tyrannical owner of a New York department store in financial straits. He thinks nothing of firing an employee of more than 20 years or of toying with the affections of every woman he meets. One such victim is Madeline, a beautiful young woman in need of a job. Anderson hires her as a salesgirl, but not before the two spend the night together. Madeline is ashamed, especially after she falls for Martin West, a rising young star at the store. Her biggest fear is that Martin finds out the truth about her "career move."
A rip-roaring comedic farce from the dawn of the sound era, EMPLOYEES ENTRANCE is one of the finest examples of Hollywood alchemy, a cinematic gem cranked out from a studio assembly line. Buoyed by a powerhouse lead performance from a star that is virtually forgotten today, and directed by someone you've never heard of, it ranks as one of the most entertaining movies of the 1930's. Released just before the onset of the Production Code, the story bristles with frank sexual insights into the lives ofworkers at a massive department store in the early years of the Great Depression.
Leading the way is Kurt Anderson, the ultimate boss from hell and the hero of the movie. Some may quibble with the designation "hero," since he extorts sex from a homeless woman in exchange for a job in his store, and pimps out another employee to deal with a bothersome superior, but he is the main character and thrust of the story. When asked by a co-worker what to do about an insolent mistress, he responds, "Why don't you kill her?" When an assistant he's cuckolded threatens to strangle him, hebarks, "You might have a little trouble with that," and hands the man a gun. Yet somehow Warren William's performance keeps the character from veering into parody and provides the movie with a core of emotional honesty. No matter how outlandish Kurt Anderson's behavior, you never doubt that he's being straight with you. When a former enemy declares to him "I'm beginning to like you," he replies, "I despise you for that."
The movie takes place between board meetings of the department store Franklin Monroe, which is reeling during the depression and clamoring for sales. A veteran of the store for more than thirty years, Kurt Anderson is now head of operations but is also subject to the board of directors. The first scene finds him being threatened with his job, to which he responds "I'll take double my current salary and absolute authority over the store!"- and he gets it. But he only has a few months to turn the store around before the next board meeting when the members will vote to decide his fate. To accomplish his goal, Anderson proceeds to wreck the lives of everyone around him in an all-out capitalistic dogfight to the finish.
In his wake are a young man he promotes to be his second-in-command, who just so happens to be secretly married to the formerly homeless woman Anderson "helped out." This triangle plays out in surprising ways, especially if you've never seen a Hollywood movie from the short period between the advent of sound and the enforcement of the Production Code.
The precursor to today's ratings system, the Production Code was drafted in 1930 to set guidelines for moral acceptability in movies, but was not officially enforced until 1934. In the interim, Hollywood movies enjoyed a relatively lax period when they could forego the Code's Certificate of Approval and were not subject to the prime directive:
1. No picture shall be produced that will lower the moral standards of those who see it.
Whether Employee's Entrance will lower anyone's moral standards, it sure plays loose with them, and in doing so humanizes its characters in ways that just were not allowed in later years when sexual mistakes and emotional vulgarity had to be villianized. It is one of those rare glimpses into the past where people actually behave a lot like they do today.
You may be wondering at this point, if this movie's so good, why haven't I ever heard of it? The simple answer is that nobody involved with it has remained very famous. Aside from Loretta Young, the rest of the cast is unheard of today (and so is Loretta Young, for that matter), and the director was a studio workhorse by the name of Roy Del Ruth. Yet somehow all the elements of punchy writing, engaging performances, nimble camerawork and a relaxed social atmosphere came together to produce a searing 75-minute masterpiece of collective workmanship.