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Just a Gigolo

Just a Gigolo(1931)

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teaser Just a Gigolo (1931)

William Haines was the big star of Just a Gigolo and Ray Milland (billed as Raymond Milland) just a bit player when the film was released in 1931. In just a very short time, Haines would leave motion pictures and Milland would begin his slow rise to stardom in the 1940s.

Billy Haines had been one of MGM's biggest stars during the silent era and his boyish good looks, breezy personality and undeniable charm won him millions of female fans. Of the transition from silents to talkies, he famously said, "It was the night of the Titanic all over again, with women grabbing the wrong children and Louis B. Mayer singing Nearer My God to Thee." Haines' career easily survived the switch to sound but at the time he filmed Just a Gigolo, in which he plays an English playboy forced into an arranged marriage, his life was imitating his art and his career was in danger by something more personal.

While the fan magazine made up stories of romances with actresses, in reality, Haines was gay (an open secret in Hollywood) and very much in love with his partner, Jimmie Shields. In February 1931, just as he was about to begin shooting on Just a Gigolo, MGM studio chief Louis B. Mayer ordered Haines to end the relationship with Shields and either submit to a studio arranged marriage or risk losing his contract. Mayer, a staunch conservative, was worried about Haines' onscreen antics as well. As William J. Mann wrote, Haines was brought into a meeting with MGM executives and "was told in no uncertain terms to leave the trademark William Haines wisecracks and mannerisms out of his performance [in Just a Gigolo]. He was to play it straight - in all the meanings of the term. He was instructed to imitate Ronald Colman for the picture. Then Fineman told him he would be coached by Leslie Howard, the English actor newly arrived on the lot."

Just a Gigolo, directed by Jack Conway, was based on the Broadway play Dancing Partner, produced in 1930 by David Belasco, and based on a German work by Alexander Engle and Alfred Grnwald. The Belasco play of an English playboy who impersonates a gigolo in order to test the woman his uncle has arranged for him to marry had originally starred Irene Purcell, who would recreate her role of the love interest in the film. Also in the cast was C. Aubrey Smith, who excelled at playing authority figures, and Charlotte Granville. Ann Dvorak, who would attract favorable attention as Paul Muni's sister in Scarface (1932) the following year, can be seen as a dance extra. The great P.G. Wodehouse wrote dialog for the film, although screen credit went to Hans Kraly, Richard Schayer, and Claudine West. The art director on the film was...William Haines. This love of decorating would transform Haines' life soon after.

The reviews for Just a Gigolo were mixed. Some critics thought that Haines was miscast as an Englishman, but Mordaunt Hall wrote in the New York Times that he gave "a really good performance. His acting is more subdued than it has been in any other production and the result is that this feature is a highly amusing entertainment. He holds his own with such experienced players as C. Aubrey Smith, Irene Purcell and Charlotte Granville. It is a comedy bordering on farce, but Jack Conway has directed it in a knowledgeful fashion. It is lavishly staged and the story is one suited to Mr. Haines, who figures as a young Don Juan with little faith in women. His experiences in the opening interludes lead one to think that he has some reason for doubting the fair sex. [...] Many of the incidents in this film aroused laughter on all sides from an audience yesterday afternoon. But let it be said that this is one of those pictures that should be seen from the beginning, otherwise a good deal of fun may be missed."

Billy Haines did what few stars could. He defied Louis B. Mayer and refused to give Shields up and it ruined his film career. For some stars, this would have been a tragedy, but for Haines, it was a blessing. He became one of the world's top interior decorators and was commissioned for work by Hollywood friends like Carole Lombard, Jack Warner, Claudette Colbert and William Powell, and eventually high society figures like the Bloomingdales. His career triumph was when he was asked to remake the American Ambassador's residence in London. Haines' relationship with Shields was likewise a success for almost fifty years. Following his death in 1973, Shields, unable to face life without his partner, followed him three months later. Joan Crawford once referred to them as "the happiest married couple in Hollywood."

Producer: Jack Conway (uncredited)
Director: Jack Conway
Screenplay: Hans Kraly, Richard Schayer, Claudine West (adaptation (dialogue)); Fanny Hatton, Frederic Hatton (English adaptation); Alexander Engel, Alfred Grunwald (play "Dancing Partners")
Cinematography: Oliver T. Marsh
Art Direction: Cedric Gibbons; William Haines (uncredited)
Film Editing: Frank Sullivan
Cast: William Haines (Lord Robert 'Bobby' Brummel), Irene Purcell (Roxana 'Roxy' Hartley), C. Aubrey Smith (Lord George Hampton), Charlotte Granville (Lady Jane Hartley), Lilian Bond (Lady Agatha Carrol), Albert Conti (A French Husband), Maria Alba (A French Wife), Ray Milland (Freddie), Lenore Bushman (Gwenny), Gerald Fielding (Tony), Yola d'Avril (Pauline, Roxana's Maid).

by Lorraine LoBianco

Golden, Eve, Golden Images: 41 Essays on Silent Film Stars
Hall, Mordaunt, "Just a Gigolo", New York Times 13 Jun 31
The Internet Movie Database
Mann, William J. Wisecracker Taves, Brian, P.G. Wodehouse and Hollywood: Screenwriting, Satires, and Adaptations

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