[Rochester NY, 7 North Goodman Street where Louis Brooks (1906 – 1985) lived as a recluse from 1956 to her death. Brooks had a minor role in God’s Gift to Women (1931) Photo: David Kramer 2/8/21]
Back during the wintry Covid days, about the only thing to do was watch TV. And despite having a couple of thousand cable channels to choose from, the only things I could find worth watching were old movies. Where, by accident I stumbled across one with a solid, if puzzling, Rochester connection.
One night TCM ran a piece of Hollywood fluff called God’s Gift to Women. One of those early 1930s Warner Bros. productions that runs for slightly over an hour and was churned out on a studio assembly line in a few weeks for a couple of hundred grand.
What the movie isn’t known for.
The movie certainly isn’t known for its plot…see below. Although filmed as a musical comedy, it certainly isn’t known for its songs. After preview audiences panned the musical numbers, most of them were cut before the movie was released. This didn’t help the story line.It certainly isn’t known for its acting. For example, although the casting is no worse than that found in most of the countless “B” movies produced in the years just after the advent of sound, the “star”, Frank Fay, a vaudeville comedian and (alleged) singer, probably should never have been allowed in front of a movie camera.¹ The romantic interest, Laura La Plante, although appearing in over 50 silent and sound movies, was on her way out the door. Joan Blondell was an up and coming screen presence who would have a 50 years career in film and television. But this was only her second year as a movie actress. On the other hand, Charles Winninger was a well-established character actor (probably best known for his role of Capt. Andy in the 1936 movie version of “Showboat”) and one of the two bright spots in the cast.
The other is mentioned below.
What the movie IS known for…maybe.
It’s known to true film aficionados for the fact that the cast included future-Rochesterian Louise Brooks. The sultry siren of the silver screen (but one going into a career decline), cast in a very minor role, one of her last in Hollywood.
It’s known (maybe?) as one of the very few movies, if not the only one, ever made where the writers, needing to provide some of the cast with a fittingly provincial hometown, picked good old Rochester, NY, and then made it a running gag.² After seeing the movie, I discovered that the late Jack Garner, Rochester’s resident film critic, once recommended it as a Plan B viewing option. (I would have said Plan F).
From the way Rochester (or at least one of its residents) is depicted in the movie, the writers give every indication of assuming that they could get a good laugh from the audience by using Rochester as an archetypal hayseed town in the sticks, mentioning the city three times in the movie, each time in a situation were it was assumed it would get a laugh at the city’s expense. More later on whether Rochester deserved to be the butt of these jokes, or whether anyone besides a few Hollywood writers saw us that way.
The plot sickens.
In what passes for a plot, wealthy manufacturer John Churchill (Winninger) and his daughter Diane (La Plante), denizens of stodgy Rochester, are sight-seeing in a Paris night club where Churchill expresses his distaste for the decadent City of Lights with the comment, ”I’d rather have an alley in Rochester than all the streets in Paris”.
At that point Toto Duryea (Frank Fay) enters. Described as a descendant of Don Juan and touted as the personification of God’s Gift to Women, a man who attracts worshipping females by the dozens. (Reviewers at the time made much of Fay’s physical unfitness for a role of a modern day Don Juan).
Within the first 10 minutes of the movie Toto and Diane meet and, in true 1930s cinematic style, immediately fall in love, much to the chagrin of Diane’s father. “Oh if we had only stayed in Rochester!” Churchill exclaims when learning of his virginal daughter’s love for the far more worldly Toto.
Churchill subsequently accosts Toto, telling him to stay away from his daughter, throwing out a reference to Rochester’s perceived puritanical morals,”Why, back in Rochester we only consider your type of a man a lounge lizard. Just a common ordinary garden variety boudoir baboon!”
When Toto professes that he wants to marry Churchill’s daughter. Churchill offers him a deal. If Toto will demonstrate the sincerity of his love for Diane by staying away from her, AND from all other women and alcohol, for six months, then Churchill will consent to the marriage. To further confuse matters, Churchill bribes a doctor to examine Toto and tell him that the slightest emotional excess, even so much as a single kiss, will kill him.
The remainder of the movie charts a predictable path through a minefield of temptation thrown in Toto’s path by his “fast set” friends. Added to this is a bedroom brawl between three of Toto’s scantily-clad girlfriends (this was pre-code Hollywood after all, with plenty of risqué clothing of a sort that wouldn’t be seen in the movies again until the late 1960s) who, hearing that Toto was ill, showed up simultaneously to administer compassionate care. Louis Brooks (minus her trade mark hair bob) appears on screen for about five minutes as Florine, one of the three girlfriends engaged in the brawl.
In the process of being dragged back to Rochester by her father, Diane rushes to Toto’s apartment to proclaim her love where, unable to restrain himself despite medical warnings that amorous activities would kill him, Toto kisses her. Out of the woodwork pops Churchill who tells Toto about his fake medical diagnosis and to announce that, since Toto obviously loves his daughter “more than life itself”, they can marry. The movie was silent on this point. But assumedly the happy couple decided to take up residence in Paris rather than Rochester.
What have we done to deserve this?
Getting back to the depiction of Rochester as Hicksville, USA, I had to ask myself why? I asked the folks at the George Eastman Museum, the mecca for all things cinematographic. To date, neither of us has an answer. I also had some email correspondence with Sidney Rozenzweig, Adjunct Professor of Film at the College at Brockport who has written on the film’s director Michael Curtiz. Sid has no definitive answers.
In 1931, when God’s Gift was released, Rochester was the 22nd most populous city in America. Hardly small town America and well ahead of such future metropolises as Denver, Dallas, Atlanta, Miami, and Jersey City. In addition, Rochester was the home of Eastman Kodak (coincidently, godfather to the movies as the manufacturer of Hollywood’s film stock), and optics kings Bausch & Lomb. Add to this, the city could boast one of the country’s leading philharmonic orchestras (performing in the glittering Eastman Theater), as well as the University of Rochester and its attendant Eastman School of Music.This was a pretty damn good municipal resume. So why did Rochester = The Sticks and provincial America in the minds of some Hollywood screen writers? Or the public for that matter?
Any number of theories can be floated.
Given the Kodak-Hollywood connection (and Hollywood was still joined at the hip with New York City at the time), maybe it was some sort of inside joke? Tinsel Town and the Big Apple forced to deal with a nondescript podunk way up on Lake Ontario? Perhaps. But if your audience isn’t privy to the joke, than the humor falls flat.
Perhaps the image harkened back to the days of vaudeville when Rochester was known only for flour and flowers, two particularly bucolic products, certainly suggestive of a one-horse town. Or maybe it’s simply that, to the average American movie-goer, who likely had no familiarity with Rochester, the name simply sounded funny. Akin to the old gag writer claim that words starting with certain letters such as “K” sounded funny regardless of their actual meaning.
The internet proved to be of no help in looking for an answer to this conundrum. And the Eastman Museum isn’t aware of any cinematic study of how Hollywood determined which US cities would be accepted as social metaphors, although in other regards than the sticks, no studies were needed to equate New York City with sophistication, Boston with blue nose censorship, and Honolulu with white sands and waving palms in the public mind.
So why was Rochester apparently someone’s idea of a cultural backwater inhabited by hicks? Why not Syracuse, or Omaha, or Dubuque? And why did their audience agree with them, if in fact they did? And if they didn’t why pick on Rochester? Looks like we may never know.
Oh well, as I used to hear Tennessee Ernie sing on the radio in the early 1960s at my grandparents’ house on Honeoye Lake, the REAL sticks:
On Saturday night, we all dress up fine
Everybody stays up like ’til eight or nine
We walk up the street and then walk back down
That’s Saturday night in a hicktown
Aaw, we really live it up, in a hicktown
¹Another problem with the movie may have been friction between the openly anti-Semitic Fay and Jewish director, Michael Curtiz.
²None of the three men (Raymond Griffith, Frederick Brennan, Joseph Jackson) credited with writing God’s Gift had any discernible connection to Rochester. But in what local chamber of commerce types at the time might have seen as karma, of the three; one choked to death at a banquet, one shot himself, and the third died at the age of 37, a year after the movie was released.
From Sid Rosenzweig