Guest blogger Marsha Collock writes about the exploitation classic Midnight Mary:
Meet Mary Martin: Orphaned and sent away to a reformatory at 14 , hooker and gun moll at 17 and a secretary and murderess by 20. She’s a good girl at heart who just has a real string of bad luck. Sounds like a juicy role for Harlow or Stanwyck, but, instead, Mary is played by Loretta Young.
Until seeing this film, I always thought of Loretta Young as the ultimate “great lady.” Growing up, I saw her as the regal vision floating down a flight of stairs at the beginning of her 1950s TV show. In the movies I was most familiar with, she carried herself always as a lady above reproach. She was beautiful, but she was oh so proper; kind of an American Greer Garson. Imagine my surprise at meeting pre-Code Loretta, a luscious, sexy and naughty wench.
Made in 1933, Midnight Mary was directed by the two-fisted William Wellman. With a running time of about 75 minutes, it plays like a slam-bang Warner Brothers pre-Code tale of gangsters and other low-life types, but was actually made by MGM. This gave Loretta the advantage of wearing some very swanky outfits designed by Adrian when Mary was living the high life.
We first meet Mary as a woman on trial for murder. While the charges against her are read, she peruses Cosmopolitan magazine. She is a woman resigned to her fate and has not tried to defend herself. While waiting for the jury’s verdict, Mary relives the journey that landed her perilously close to the gas chamber. Her memories start at age 14, when she and her friend Bunny (played by Una Merkel) are playing in the neighborhood junkyard. Sweet. Both Loretta and Una played their characters at 14 and it actually works. Mary learns of her mother’s death and soon ends up in reform school (unjustly blamed for stealing, Bunny being the real culprit and a continual bad influence). As soon as Mary is sprung, the two pals are at it again and Mary gives it up in the back seat of a car when picked up by a stranger. From there, it is a short trip from sex for pay to a gangster’s moll when she meets hood Leo Darcy, played by Ricardo Cortez.
Mary is very conflicted by her role as live-in gal pal to Leo. He has a serious yen for her and treats her pretty well (for a thug). She tries to break free and find work, but soon ends up back in that apartment with Leo, Bunny and his cronies. It sure beats sleeping in the streets.
Mary and Leo share a frank and sexy relationship. Mary always looks a little apprehensive (just to show us she really is a good girl), but Leo is one sexy gangster. Plus, Mary looks swell in chinchilla.
As good molls, Mary and Bunny have to assist their men in a robbery at a private gambling house. While Mary is waiting for the hold-up to start (Bunny acting as a diversion), she meets and is instantly attracted to society lawyer Tom Mannering, Jr. (Franchot Tone). Tom helps Mary escape when the cops break up the robbery. Mary sees him as a way out of her sordid life and asks Tom to help her go straight. Tom wants to talk about sex, but he sends her to secretarial school and hires her at his firm instead.
Mary works hard and Tom pretends to ignore her, but before long, they are in one another’s arms and planning a future. All seems rosy until one night, at a Chinese restaurant, Mary is spotted by one of the policemen who raided the gambling house. To protect Tom’s reputation, Mary tells Tom she was only playing him for a fool. She then gives herself up to the law, but refuses to implicate Darcy. For that, she gets sent to prison.
While in prison, Mary reads of Tom’s marriage to a socialite. Once released, she tries desperately to find honest work, but succumbs to Darcy’s offer of the good life once again. One night Mary and Darcy meet Tom at a nightclub. It has been made clear that Tom is unhappily married and Mary can’t hide her delight to see him. Darcy spies the two and is instantly jealous. After provoking a fist fight with Tom, Darcy sends his men out to murder the lawyer. Mary follows Tom to his home to warn him. It is there that they both discover that Tom’s best friend, who had taken his car, was shot and killed. Clearly, the bullet was meant for Tom.
Mary returns home to Darcy and pretends that Tom means nothing to her. Darcy almost buys her act until he catches her in a lie concerning her whereabouts after the fight. Realizing the wrong man was killed, he aims to make sure Tom is plugged for good and slaps Mary around for good measure. As he prepares to leave, Mary shoots and kills Darcy in a very effective scene. The jury finds her guilty, but before the judge hands down the sentence, Tom comes forward and requests a new trial, stating that he has evidence that will clear Mary and prove that she only shot Darcy to save Tom’s life. Tom then tells Mary that his wife was filed for divorce and that he knows that they will be able to put this behind them and finally be together.
Like all good and juicy pre-Code films, this one is loaded with innuendo, girls in underwear and men and women who think nothing of having sex outside of marriage. When Bunny becomes pregnant, she wonders what she is going to do. She does have the baby, but we know that she considers the alternative.
Loretta Young, at age 19, is incredibly sensual and sexy. She later said that she was so naive that she had no idea she and Darcy were living together. I find that a little hard to believe. She is sexy and tough here and just mesmerizingly beautiful. I also liked Ricardo Cortez a lot and found him to be much sexier than Franchot Tone.
So, next time you see that ever-so-ladylike Miss Young floating down a staircase or across a screen, check her out pre-Hays Code works and see what a hot tamale she was!
Marsha Collock has been an avid fan – not scholar – of classic films since she saw the first flicker of black and white on the TV screen. Her muse is Norma Desmond, to whom she has dedicated her blog, A Person in the Dark, a site designed for all of the wonderful people out there in the dark who have an unabashed passion for silents, early talkies, all stars and all films. Visit her Facebook page.