On 1930s Class Relations, Dangerous, Bette Davis, and Background Players; by Scott Nye
1935’s Dangerous is rightly discussed in relation to 1934’s Of Human Bondage anytime is comes up – both deal with responsible men of mediocre artistic talent becoming infatuated with and nearly ruining their lives for Bette Davis. Davis is the best part of both films, and though Of Human Bondage is the infinitely superior film, she won her Oscar for Dangerous, many say as a way for making up for the fact that she was infamously not even nominated for the prior work. Dangerous isn’t a bad film, but it’s a water-treader, a rock-solid story not told particularly well, shielding minor notes as mysteries and far too straightforward in its dialogue.
But it had one moment that completely captivated me, one that should have been commonplace in the 1930s but one that I instantly realized I don’t think I’d ever quite seen before.
Near the beginning of the film, Don (Franchot Tone), his fiancée Gail (Margaret Lindsay, always some man’s second choice), and their friend Teddy (Dick Foran) ditch a big fancy social engagement and decide to go slumming it. The bar they end up in is a little too slummy, and they decide to shove off. But having spotted an intriguing woman (Bette Davis), Don says goodnight to Gail and Teddy, giving them the runaround about how it’s easier for Teddy to take Gail home as he lives in her neck of the woods.
Now the part I’m interested in is this shot of the three of them saying goodnight. Teddy wants to make sure Don will be at his polo match that weekend, and they’re all laughing and having a gay old time. In the foreground stands Teddy’s chauffeur. In the background, passers-by are taking note of the whole arrangement (two tuxedos, an evening gown, and a chauffeur), undoubtedly unusual in this neighborhood and noteworthy just about anywhere.
Now I’ve seen dozens of scenes from the 1930s of rich people getting into their chauffeured cars. The studio lot sidewalks are usually sparsely-populated, every extra clearly encouraged to just walk along and mind their own business so as not to distract from the main action. Not so here. Director Alfred E. Green clearly knows that especially in such a neighborhood, in the midst of the Great Depression, people are going to be a little amused. And he directs the background action wonderfully – most just turn and smile, some sort of stumble in their walk. It adds a layer of visual energy that such a scene hardly calls for, and a degree of economic complexity that such society dramas almost never address in such a sly, realistic, and uncomplicated way.
Looking at the caps below, you can see the people in the righthand background try to take it all in.
But as if this wasn’t enough, one of the extras really takes advantage of the moment. This guy, this unnamed, unheralded player, doesn’t just take note of the goings-on; he sneers at them! Look at this dude in the hat come in and scoff at their arrogance as Teddy and Gail get in the car. He stays between the driver and Don in the first three caps, then moves to Don’s rear with a real “get a load of this guy” expression.
The driver in the foreground has a lot more in common with the people in the background, but a herd of socialites separate them. Alternately, the rich are beset on all sides by people of a lower class than them. The rich are oblivious to everyone else, though they are outnumbered, while everyone else can’t stop staring at them, who are so few. Even further, this is the world into which Bette Davis’ character – an actress fallen from glory – has drifted, so subconsciously we intuit the sort of resistance and unfamiliarity she might have with the world into which Don is about to bring her.
Alfred E. Green was an incredibly prolific filmmaker, making forty-five films in the 1930s alone. Very few classics came out of this effort, but one of them was 1933’s Baby Face. It’s the story of a woman a woman born into poverty who uses her sexuality to climb society’s ranks. I don’t know if class figures into every one of his films, but if Dangerous is any indication, he sure found ways to work it in.