Employees’ Entrance is a short, sharp and strange film, from the title on downward. A drama made in 1933 and set in a department store in the teeth of the Great Depression, it takes a look at rapacious capitalism in the form of its central character – Warren William as the time-and-motion guy Kurt Anderson, who somehow gains control of a business that’s been run almost on feudal lines till he came along.
Kurt is a price-of-everything-value-of-nothing badass and though his technique isn’t all slash and burn, his management style is brusque, hectoring and unsympathetic and he demands total loyalty from his staff, who he expects to be on call 24/7.
On the one side Kurt, on the other Loretta Young as Madeline, a broke young woman Kurt happens upon in the department store one day. Madeline is bright and charming and a looker, and so Kurt offers her a job as a model in the store, buys her dinner, gives her $10 to tide her over and takes her to bed. This is a pre-Code movie and you can tell.
From here there’s an uneasy tussle between the two components – brutal management technique and fuzzy emotion – complicated when Madeline is also wooed by an ambitous young fellow employee, Martin West (Wallace Ford), who has also caught Kurt’s eye and been promoted to be his right hand man.
The tussle becomes a sotto-voce threeway between Kurt and Martin, neither of whom realise the other man has any romantic involvement with Madeline, Loretta Young’s big saucer eyes working hard to proclaim a sort of virginal innocence on Madeline’s part when there isn’t any at all. It’s as if Red Riding Hood married the woodcutter but failed to tell him she’d slept with the big bad wolf, and might do again.
The “Entrance” of the title is clearly Madeline’s vagina, and both men have access to it. But who’s going to get sole title? At one point Madeline and Martin get married all of a sudden, on a whim, piggybacking cutely on another wedding ceremony, but still Madeline doesn’t tell Martin that she’s slept with the man who’s boss and hers. Capitalism and Matrimony face off.
There are no real conclusions in this bizarre films. Capitalism isn’t solved. Marriage is not fixed. They cannot be, and so the writers Robert Presnell Sr and David Boehm leave them there, kind of dangling.
The director is Roy Del Ruth, one of the highest paid in Hollywood at the time, on account of his ability to turn his hand to anything and make a good job of it. In another director’s hands this would be a screwball farce, but while Del Ruth keeps his actors talking at ten to the dozen, and moving at speed, there’s not even the faint smell of humour.
Warren William is well cast as Kurt Anderson, a barking heartless boss with something broken inside him, William faintly telegraphs. As for Loretta Young, only 20 years old but already 16 years into a movie career, it is mainly eye acting – she barely blinks throughout – but that sense with Young that she thinks it’s all a bit beneath her is already faintly present.
Kurt Anderson might be a tyrant but there’s also the suggestion that it’s old-school capitalism that’s brought about the Depression and that it’s the new broom demanding results that’s going to sort it out. Anderson has ideas – investing into a recession, asking all employees to take a pay cut rather than lay people off, giving innovation its head – whereas the the board members, old duffers to a man, are all more concerned with maintaining personal fiefdoms, leveraging voting rights and trying to keep things as they are.
It’s a lot to fit in, and Roy Del Ruth does it all in 75 tightly packed minutes. When people tell you that Hollywood’s reaction to the Great Depression was Fred and Ginger and spectacle galore, point them this way.
© Steve Morrissey 2022