powered by AFI
The career woman comedy is most often associated with Rosalind Russell, who spent the '40s making women's suits look glamorous and making take-charge females sexy. In the '30s, however, Joan Blondell was among the queens of what were then called "women's pictures," movies about the travails of working women during the Great Depression. The chorus girl roles with which she was most associated, in films like Gold Diggers of 1933 (1933) and Dames (1934), were actually variations on that genre, depicting life at the bottom of the labor chain. Often placing the emphasis on the sexual temptations of the work place, the genre, particularly Blondell's steamy 1934 Convention City, are credited with helping to hasten the demand for stricter film censorship. In 1935, she moved up in the world to play a heiress who strikes out on her own in a decidedly tamer version of her earlier roles.
Blondell stars as the rebellious daughter of a toothpaste manufacturer. When daddy (Grant Mitchell) refuses to give her a place in a business world he considers exclusively masculine, she launches her own product, marketing a toothpaste that sounds just like its name, "Cocktail Toothpaste." Along the way, she falls for her father's top salesman (William Gargan), but can't reveal her real identity while she's out-selling him.
Blondell made over 50 films during her nine years at Warner Bros., where she had arrived with James Cagney to co-star in Sinners' Holiday (1930), the film version of their stage hit Penny Arcade. Because she never went to battle with studio head Jack Warner, as Cagney and such other studio stars as Humphrey Bogart and Bette Davis did, she never got the strong roles her talents deserved. Instead, she was a studio workhorse, churning out films back to back and playing both leading and supporting roles. She made ten pictures in her first full year at Warner Bros. in 1931. In 1935, the year of Traveling Saleslady, she only made five movies, as she had the year before, partly because of the birth of her first child in November 1934. Traveling Saleslady marked her return to acting after maternity leave, and her attentive husband, George Barnes, was present on the set as he was also the film's cinematographer.
Though Blondell rarely got the best roles at Warner's, the studio's management at least appreciated her beauty enough to try out a new camera on this film. The result was a clearer foreground rendering and a stronger depth of field than on previous films. With critics raving about how wonderful she looked in Traveling Saleslady, the studio adopted the new camera for all future films.
Blondell's leading man, Gargan, was a member of what was unofficially dubbed the "Irish Mafia," a group of Irish-born actors including James Cagney and Pat O'Brien who worked steadily in Hollywood in the '30s. Despite his good looks and breezy personality, he never caught on with fans, partly because he never scored the kind of major studio backing that had made stars of some of his friends. Still, he won good reviews re-creating his Broadway role as the boxer-turned-butler in Philip Barry's The Animal Kingdom (1932) and scored an Oscar® nomination as Joe, the cowboy whose picture Charles Laughton uses to romance mail-order bride Carole Lombard in They Knew What They Wanted (1940). Gargan lost his best job offer when he signed with Warner Bros. - the chance to play gangster Duke Mantee in The Petrified Forest on Broadway opposite his Animal Kingdom co-star Leslie Howard. Ironically, though Warners' put him in mostly programmers, the actor who got to play Mantee, Bogart, eventually became one of the studio's stop stars. After a year of films like Traveling Saleslady, Gargan complained so much about his situation that the studio released him from his contract.
Fleshing out the cast of Traveling Saleslady were some of the most reliable members of the Warner Bros. stock company, including tough blonde Glenda Farrell as a department store buyer with a soft spot for Gargan, Grant Mitchell as Blondell's father and Ruth Donnelly as her mother. The former bootlegger who invents Cocktail Toothpaste was played by Hugh Herbert, a playwright turned actor whose raised eyebrows, patty cake gesture and signature "Woo Woo," were a studio mainstay and an eventual inspiration for the character Daffy Duck.
Traveling Saleslady received decent reviews, though most critics noted its similarity to other career woman films from Warner Bros. Variety called it a "[s]nappy comedy with plenty of laughs in the dialog and a light plot played for full value by the Warner stock cast," but then confused actor Herbert and screenwriter F. Hugh Herbert (to be fair, the actor had done his share of writing for Broadway and Hollywood). Andre Sennwald of the New York Times, however, thought it inferior to the now-lost Convention City and found it "diverting enough in a rather familiar way."
Producer: Samuel Bischoff
Director: Ray Enright
Screenplay: F. Hugh Herbert, Manuel Seff, Benny Rubin
Based on a story by Frank Howard Clark
Cinematography: George Barnes
Art Direction: Anton Grot, Arthur Gruenberger
Score: Leo F. Forbstein
Costumes by Orry-Kelly
Cast: Joan Blondell (Angela Twitchell), William Gargan (Pat O'Connor), Glenda Farrell (Claudette Ruggles), Hugh Herbert (Elmer Niles), Grant Mitchell (Rufus K. Twitchell), Ruth Donnelly (Millicent Twitchell), Al Shean (Schmidt), Mary Treen (Miss Wells), Bert Roach (Harry), Joseph Crehan (Murdock), Bill Elliott (Freddie), Milton Kibbee (Stenographer), Hattie McDaniel (Black Woman).
by Frank Miller