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Skyscraper Souls (1932), based on Faith Baldwin's 1931 novel Skyscraper is both a perfect example of Pre-Code films and a fascinating reflection of what was going on in the United States during the early years of the Great Depression.
The Empire State Building had been completed in 1931, and at 102 stories was the tallest building in the world at that time. Although its funding came through the kind of stock speculation and manipulation that caused the Stock Market Crash in 1929, its completion was seen to be a symbol of America's greatness. Baldwin's novel and the film capitalize on the Empire State sensation as its intertwining story lines (a plot device that had been so successful in MGM's other 1932 film Grand Hotel) take place in and around a new 72 story building in New York City.
Skyscraper Souls has plenty of what the public wanted to see in 1932, and what would eventually be banned by the Production Code only two years later: sex, sex, and more sex, 1930's style. Warren William stars as the skyscraper owner who uses everyone to achieve his ends. He has been having an affair with his assistant (played by Verree Teasdale) whom he continues to string along by telling her that his wife (played by future gossip columnist Hedda Hopper) won't give him a divorce. That's because he hasn't asked her for one.
Maureen O'Sullivan, newly signed at MGM and having just completed filming her most famous film, Tarzan the Ape Man (1932), played the young secretary he tries to seduce while Norman Foster plays the boyfriend who wants her to stop working and marry him. O'Sullivan seems to have spent much of 1932 changing into skimpy garments or appearing nude on-screen (thanks to a body double in Tarzan). Here she is seen in her lingerie in her boss's apartment.
Like Grand Hotel it contains another important element common in films of the early 1930s: the suicide of a character who has been swindled and bankrupted by greedy stock traders. Recent headlines had been full of similar stories since 1929. Hollywood itself was on the verge of bankruptcy as the effects of the Crash began to be felt by 1931 as moviegoers couldn't afford the price of a ticket. As it would again in the 1950s, film studios made racier films to bring the audiences back. Unlike the 1950s, sexy films like Skyscraper Souls helped fuel the backlash that led to the adoption of the Production Code in 1934 and the taming of films.
Skyscraper Souls was well received, as noted in the August 5, 1932 New York Times review by Mordaunt Hall, " Skyscraper Souls affords a rich measure of entertainment, and in it Mr. William has a further opportunity to give an excellent characterization. With the introduction of various persons who work in the imposing Dwight Building, the pride of David Dwight (Mr. William), the story is replete with suspense and vitality. There are the financial fights, the snaring of a good-hearted soul named Norton, who enters into a big business deal with Dwight while they are in a Turkish bath, and the greedy speculators who are caught in a shrewdly manipulated stock debacle. In spite of the fact that some of the characters and their doings recall certain happenings in The Mouthpiece [another 1932 film starring Warren William], Edgar Selwyn, the director, has succeeded in sustaining the interest in this tale. Norman Foster, who acts the part of Tom Shepherd, a most persistent pursuer of Lynn Harding, impersonated by Maureen O'Sullivan, gives a gratifying portrayal. His colliding with other persons and piles of boxes may occur a little too frequently, but as these clashes were rewarded by hearty laughter from yesterday afternoon's audience, it must be presumed that Mr. Selwyn was not wrong in introducing such rowdy bits of comedy...Besides Mr. William's clever acting, there are highly commendable portrayals by Miss O'Sullivan, Mr. Foster, Verree Teasdale, Gregory Ratoff, Anita Page, Jean Hersholt, Hedda Hopper and George Barbier."
Director: Edgar Selwyn
Screenplay: C. Gardner Sullivan, Elmer Harris, Faith Baldwin (novel)
Cinematography: William Daniels
Film Editing: Tom Held
Art Direction: Cedric Gibbons
Music: Rudolf Bial, Emil Frey
Cast: Warren William (David Dwight), Maureen O'Sullivan (Lynn Harding), Gregory Ratoff (Mr. Vinmont), Anita Page (Jenny LeGrande), Verree Teasdale (Sarah Dennis), Norman Foster (Tom Shepherd).
by Lorraine LoBianco
All Movie Guide
A Banker's Ambition by Mordaunt Hall, New York Times , August 5, 1932