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Ted Wilde's Loose Ankles (1930) is a Jazz Age romantic farce on what was essentially its third go-round. The previous film version (also sometimes shown under the title Ladies at Play) came out in November 1926, even while the underlying play by Sam Janney was still enjoying its run in New York's Biltmore Theater. Perhaps unintentionally, by reviving the same material in the talkie era, the filmmakers took what was once genially amusing and found that it now had a bit more bite in the Great Depression.
The story concerns a wealthy young socialite (here played by Loretta Young) who finds herself inheriting an even larger fortune, but with some strings attached. She is expected to marry and settle down, and her aunts are expected to vet and approve of the young man she chooses. If these conditions are not met, none of the family will receive a penny.
Movie-goers in 1930 would have found this a familiar set-up. Just five years earlier, Buster Keaton raced against the clock to secure an inheritance by landing a wife in Seven Chances (1925); a generation before, early film-pioneer Alice Guy-Blaché used the same plot in her Matrimony's Speed Limit (1913). Loose Ankles however works a brilliantly modern variation on theme--instead of a desperate manhunt to comply with the will, Loretta Young's character is determined to purposefully violate the will.
As a free-spirited flapper, she's got no interest in being forced to marry--and the idea of having her mate selected by her Prohibitionist, Puritanical, spinster aunts is too abhorrent to contemplate. As she notes, everyone in her family is already obscenely rich. So why not deliberately engineer a sex scandal to ruin the family's reputation and end this charade?
Of course, when she falls in love with the gigolo she hires to compromise her virtue (Douglas Fairbanks, Jr.), that complicates things.
For a concept that had been originally developed in the Roaring Twenties, Loose Ankles was more at home in the 1930s. For one thing, its emphasis on female comediennes modeled the direction 1930s comedy was going to take, which would lead away from male-dominated slapstick and towards female-dominated screwball. The risqué, sexually-blunt subject matter suited the so-called "Pre-Code" era, during which time Hollywood paid lip service to having a self-policing Production Code that would keep sex and violence off American movie screens, but actually made no effort to enforce that Code and instead splayed as much sex and violence as possible onto the screen.
More importantly, the attitude of Loose Ankles fit Depression-era tastes. Hollywood had made its fortunes marketing images of opulence, glamour, and excess to escapist-hungry audiences, but the worst economic crisis of history had made those images problematic. 1930s comedies responded by staging satirical jabs set within the visually-tantalizing world of the social set, but which featured protagonists who aggressively challenged that world's values--see My Man Godfrey (1936); Vivacious Lady (1938); Holiday (1938); or Fifth Avenue Girl (1939). Loose Ankles followed a trend that hadn't even properly started yet (this is generally called "trendsetting").
Stars Loretta Young and Douglas Fairbanks, Jr. were former child stars emerging from the awkward teenage years and establishing themselves as adult movie stars. Young had been in films since the age of five, and had been groomed for stardom--and given her stage name--by silent comedy legend Colleen Moore. Douglas Fairbanks, Jr. was of course the offspring of one of the silent screen's biggest stars, the Hollywood equivalent of royalty. Young Douglas had struggled in his earliest performances, but had been encouraged and nurtured by Charlie Chaplin and Mary Pickford.
Together, Loretta and Douglas would make several films in the late 1920s and early 1930s, some of which are now believed lost.
Supporting them were a brace of female comics either emerging from the world of slapstick short comedies or about to settle into that world.
Louise Fazenda had made her name as a slapstick clown in films by Mack Sennett, and quickly established herself as one of the few comediennes capable of headlining her own works. Usually performing in exaggerated makeup and costumes that hid her natural beauty, Fazenda reveled in grotesquerie. Here she played one of Loretta Young's harridan battle-ax aunts, reprising the role she originated in the 1926 film.
As Loretta's maid, Daphne Pollard was making an early appearance in a career that would find her supporting Laurel and Hardy and starring in her own run of short comedies for producer Hal Roach.
Director Ted Wilde passed away at the untimely age of 40, before Loose Ankles reached theaters. Wilde was a silent comedy veteran with a resume full of Harold Lloyd pictures (1925's The Freshman; 1927's The Kid Brother; and 1928's Speedy to name some highlights). Judging from his work adapting this stageplay and onetime silent picture into a modern romantic comedy, Wilde made the transition from silent slapstick to talkie farce effortlessly. Hollywood could have used more directors like him. Thanks to a stroke, now they had one fewer.
By David Kalat
Annette M. D'Agostino, The Harold Lloyd Enclyclopedia.
Bernard F. Dick, Hollywood Madonna: Loretta Young.
Douglas Fairbanks, Jr., The Salad Days.
Sam Janney, Loose Ankles: A Comedy in Three Acts.
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