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A no-nonsense, sophisticated, wealthy Viennese banker, Baron von Ullrich (Warren William) is so distracted by the sexual charms of his secretary that he decides to fire her so that he can keep his business and his sex life separate. The Baron's new secretary Susie Sachs (Marian Marsh, who after graduating from Hollywood high school actually studied to be a secretary) is, quite literally, hungry for the secretary job. The impoverished girl dressed in frumpy clothes and no make-up is first seen pressing her nose to the restaurant window where the Baron's assistant Ludwig (Charles Butterworth) eats his lunch.
Susie turns out to be a hard worker for the money, toiling with great speed and efficiency. And in a not-unexpected turn of events, the Baron soon finds that maybe sex and stenography do mix. He falls in love with Susie, who by the end of the film has transformed into a doll-faced siren anxious to experience the good life the Baron has allowed her to sample.
Even by the standards of the time, Beauty and the Boss (1932) is a surprisingly libidinal pre-Code comedy which opens with the Baron frankly assessing his sultry secretary Olive (played by former Ziegfeld show girl Mary Doran) and her physical charms as she takes dictation in his office.
A close-up of Olive's legs is followed by a particularly salacious exchange.
"Yes, I see it," says the Baron. "But I've seen better."
"But I didn't think you could see my, umm..."
"No, of course not."
The Baron continues to take issue with Olive's arsenal of seduction, including her hips, cleavage and perfume ("Love at Dawn" she purrs.)
Though the scene ends with Olive fired, the pair work out a wink, wink, nudge, nudge agreement, to maintain their relationship after work hours. Later there is the suggestion that Olive is kept in stockings and garters with a steady allowance provided by the Baron. When Olive appears later in the film in skimpy lingerie in her boudoir, instructing naive Susie on how to seduce a man, it is made clear the kind of "work" Olive has been doing.
Beauty and the Boss features a cast of Warner Brothers regulars. Character actor Charles Butterworth graduated from Notre Dame University where he studied law before turning to newspaper reporting at the Chicago American and then his hometown paper the South Bend News-Times. Warren William, ironically, also had a newspaper past, as the son of a newspaper publisher, who started out his professional life as a reporter. He went on to often play reporters, as well as detectives and heels in a string of slick, B-movie pictures. Though he never quite graduated into A-list pictures, William was one of Warner Brothers' most popular leading men of the Thirties, starring opposite Bette Davis in The Dark Horse (1932) and Kay Francis in Dr. Monica (1934).
Butterworth mastered a more comic persona, playing in film after film, some version of his shuffling, hangdog comic rube. "I'm selling a personality," goes a Butterworth quote in the Encyclopedia of American Film Comedy, "and to do this I have to be careful it doesn't go out of character -- but I can't tell you how I do it. I've never been able to reduce myself to a formula. A story on what makes me funny to most people would be very unfunny."
Like Butterworth and William, Beauty and the Boss director Roy Del Ruth also worked as a journalist before coming to film as a gagman and screenwriter for Mack Sennett. By the mid-1920s he was directing his own features in a variety of genres including comedy, drama and even musicals.
Of all the Hollywood studios, it was often Warner Brothers which spoke most authentically in the rough and randy language of the pre-Production Code cinema. The studio depicted working class characters and the kind of gritty stories that their Depression-era audience could relate to. Del Ruth was a master of the in-house style and his nickname was "fastest of the fast." According to Thomas Doherty in Pre-Code Hollywood, from 1931 to 1933 Del Ruth made ten films (among them, Beauty and the Boss), each shot in about three weeks which gives the films their sense of immediacy and fast-paced verve.
The sense of working class verisimilitude practiced by the studio often worked its way into the plot lines, as in Beauty and the Boss where a weak and starving Susie Sachs describes her food fantasies to the Baron. Doherty notes that for a time during the Depression years, even the sexual delectation of female starlets framed in exquisite close-up for the camera often became secondary to the mouthwatering, bountiful spreads of food seen and described in films of the time, which were far more relevant and compelling to their audiences.
Director: Roy Del Ruth
Producer: Warner Brothers
Screenplay: Joseph Jackson, based on the play "The Church Mouse" by Paul Frank and Ladislas Fodor
Cinematography: Barney McGill
Production Design: Anton Grot
Music: W. Franke Harling, Arthur Lange, Sam Perry
Cast: Marian Marsh (Susie Sachs), Warren William (Baron von Ullrich), Charles Butterworth (Ludwig), Frederick Kerr (The Count), Mary Doran (Olive "Ollie" Frey).
by Felicia Feaster