Escort Girl (1941)
Who doesn't love hookers? Seriously, damn, hookers are awesome! This one time in Tulsa I was at this Motel 6 with this Vietnamese chick, man, she had this thing she did with her to[redacted]
We here at MMT would like to sincerely apologize for the preceding statement, as it surely does not reflect the core values of our company in any way. It seems that our Research Intern Kelby took it upon himself to write the intro for our review of 1941's Escort Girl without my direct supervision. As Kelby's...um, hobbies tend to sway more in the direction of felonious sexual deviancy, as his employer I should have foreseen that he would not be an impartial reviewer considering the somewhat racy subject matter of this movie. He has been summarily rebuked and his food rations reduced accordingly, an appreciable punishment for him, because he's fat. Thank you for your patience and we hope you enjoy this joint review by myself and the ever-dependable Pam. Take it away, dear.
Thanks, Nate. Today we will be reviewing what is ostensibly an exploitation movie, a largely-extinct genre from the days when the Production Code was strictly enforced. This type of movie featured various kinds of lurid subject matter that would not ordinarily be permitted onscreen, but tried to evade censorship by claiming that it was only trying to warn the audience about the dangers of the actions depicted in the movie. Think Reefer Madness, for example. This kind of movie relied on its subject matter to draw an audience, and both production values and acting were typically very poor. As you might guess from the title, the particular danger Escort Girl is "warning" about is the peril of being a paid escort. Since this is an exploitation movie, it's sure to have a lot of explicit scenes, right? This is going to be hot stuff, right? Well...
The thing that lifts this movie above the usual poorly-made exploitation movie, and the main reason I was able to sit through it, is two of the principal actors, Betty Compson and Wheeler Oakman. Betty Compson was a major star during the era of silent movies, and she successfully made the transition to sound, but by the time this movie was made she was about 44 years old and looked it. Check out Nate's review of The Great Gabbo to see how she looked in her prime. However, twelve years later, she's showing the beginning of sagging jowls and a double chin, and the camera is careful not to get too close to her. This probably explains why she was reduced to acting in movies like this, although biographical material I found on the Internet suggests that she didn't care what sort of movie she acted in as long as the price was right. She would make only a few undistinguished movies after this one and would stop acting completely in 1948, but the Internet says that after she gave up acting, she and her husband developed a successful business manufacturing personalized ashtrays for hotels and other businesses. Those were the days!
Betty Compson in younger days, working the flapper look (yum!).
Wheeler Oakman, although never a real star, had been acting since 1912 and would rack up an impressive 287 movies during his career. He was 51 years old in 1941, and like his leading lady, looks a little the worse for wear here. He died in 1949 and seems to have been acting up until the end. Both he and Betty Compson show acting skills far better than is generally seen in this type of movie and are light-years ahead of any of the other actors in this movie. It's surprising that two actors of this caliber couldn't get parts in respectable movies, even though both are showing their age. One possibility is that they didn't know just what kind of movie this would be. I've heard that during this period, when good actors were hired for cheap movies, they were paid by the day and their scenes were shot as quickly as possible to minimize the cost. They were only given a script for the scenes they were in and weren't told anything about the rest of the movie. Or maybe Ms. Compson and Mr. Oakman just didn't care.
Oakman also made a lot of westerns, as evidenced by his bandana and vagina hat.
This movie was produced by Continental Pictures, a company that made and/or distributed only a handful of movies, all of them similar in quality to this one, judging from their titles. It's now in the public domain and is available on several sites on the Internet, including Internet Archive. The version available for free on the Internet seems to have many frames missing, especially in the first few minutes of the movie, making the video jerky and the soundtrack unintelligible in spots. It cuts off most of a scene where an elderly woman lasciviously requests an "understanding" male escort from the Hollywood Escort Bureau. The switchboard operator assures her that they can supply her with one, and tells her that the charge will be $10.00. It turns out that this escort service doesn't only supply young men to horny old women but also supplies women to men, although it doesn't seem to supply women to women or men to men. I guess in 1941, the concept of same-sex "escorts" was too shocking even for an exploitation movie.
She loves her job.
The operator continues to take calls, extolling the charms of the available escorts, although her heart doesn't seem to be in her job. She continually grimaces and sticks out her tongue as she talks to the customers. One has a complaint about his girl, and she fields the call to her manager, a man named Breeze Nolan. He's played by the prolific but undistinguished actor Guy Kingsford, not that it matters. Contrary to all principles of good business management, he tells the switchboard operator to tell the dissatisfied customer that he's not in.
"Send me more hookers!"
We now get to meet two of the escort girls, who are sitting in Mr. Nolan's office. One is a skinny blond girl with an excruciatingly fake Southern accent, and the other is another blonde, older and harder-faced than her companion. Neither one is a knockout, but they're not ugly, either. The whole setup seems surprisingly innocuous: the business offices are large, sunny, and tastefully furnished, and the escort girls are both wearing lady-like suits and hats. The skinny blonde even points out to Mr. Nolan that he told her not to let anybody get fresh with her. I'm beginning to wonder where the sleaze is, and if maybe the Hollywood Escort Bureau is only supplying platonic companionship for lonely people after all.
Nolan chats with the ladies, this print's quality is abysmal, sorry.
Fortunately for the movie's reputation, we cut now to a sumptuous apartment, where we meet our leads, Ruth Ashley (Betty Compson), and Gregory Stone (Wheeler Oakman), who are the joint owners of the Hollywood Escort Bureau. Now we get the first sign that the Hollywood Escort Bureau is not on the up-and-up after all, as is revealed when Gregory complains to Ruth that he just had to pay $2500, and she points out that they need protection. Business appears to be good. According to Ruth, they've bought a cafe and a hotel with the profits from their escort business, and the escorts bring their customers to the cafe and the hotel, which means even more money to Ruth and Gregory. It appears, though, that there are some shady people who have decided to cut themselves in for a little of the profit.
Ruth has done very well for herself, it seems. She's used her share of the profits to establish herself in high society and to send her daughter, who lives back East, to the best schools. Neither high society nor her daughter have any idea how she makes her money. A situation which is about to change, as we find out when we cut to Ruth's daughter June, who is conversing with Drake Hamilton, the man to whom she's just become engaged. Drake is being sent to the West Coast on some unspecified business, and the lovestruck June can't bear to be away from him. Therefore she decides that rather than waiting for her mother to come and visit her, she will follow Drake to Hollywood and surprise her mother.
June and Drake.
Drake thinks this is a wonderful idea, but as you've probably already guessed, Ruth doesn't agree when June calls her to tell her she's already in town. Ruth is seriously upset, but Gregory tells her they've got a lot more to worry about, since he's just been told the District Attorney is starting a new investigation into the escort business in Hollywood to find and arrest the head of it, and all the protection they've been paying for is useless. However, he's not worried because he's got a plan, which is to make Breeze Nolan take the fall for him. He doesn't say whether Mr. Nolan has signed off on this plan. Gregory has something else going for him, too, namely an informant in the DA's office.
Ruth's going to get an ulcer worrying so much.
Now we learn a little more about what it's like to be an escort girl, as we go now to a dressing room somewhere in the escort office. It's the morning after the night before, and one of the girls is fully dressed, but the others are in their underwear. Possibly to 1941 audiences this was titillating, but bear in mind that this was women's underwear in 1941, a good deal less revealing than the average modern bikini. I'm not that familiar with the Production Code, but I think having girls sitting around in bras and panties, and maybe even slips, was prohibited by it. However, that notorious purveyor of porn, the 1941 Sears catalogue, showed girls in a similar state of undress, so I can't imagine any members of the audience were too unfamiliar with the sight. Besides learning what women in 1941 wore under their street clothes, we learn that the life of an escort girl is not altogether a happy one. The skinny blonde with the fake Southern accent we saw before, whose name may be Blondie, has been left with a couple of nasty-looking bruises as a souvenir of last night's date. Blondie doesn't seem to quite remember how she got them, and in the next scene we find out why.
Girls in undies.
It appears to be night again, and we're in what is probably the café Ruth and Gregory were talking about earlier. Blondie is in a black evening dress, sitting with a customer, and she is blissfully happy and feeling no pain at all. The hard-faced blonde we saw with Blondie earlier, and whose name is Susie, comes over to tell Blondie to straighten herself up. What's worse, Blondie has broken the cardinal rule of the escort business and has forgotten to get the money up front. Susie gives her a talking-to and sends her back to her customer, but Susie herself has her hands full with a very drunken man at the bar. This is Arthur Housman, a minor actor of the time whose entire repertoire seems to have been playing drunks. His IMDb biography suggests that he wasn't always acting, and he does give a very convincing performance here. The worldy-wise Susie gets rid of him by telling him to go and wash his face, which he tries to do, but on his way to the men's room he is distracted by something that looks a lot like a television. This doesn't seem possible in 1941, and in fact it turns out to be some sort of device that plays brief films when coins are dropped into a slot. The drunk has just enough coordination left to insert a coin into the slot, and now we see what probably did most to push this movie into the category of exploitation movie.
Roosevelt does not approve of public drunkenness.
A film starts to play on the screen, and the camera zooms in close so we can see all of it. In it, a pretty brunette girl appears on a stage and starts dancing. She's wearing a high-necked blouse and a long skirt -- but not for long. And here is where we truly cross the line between low-budget movie and sleazy exploitation film, because the girl very shortly strips off both her blouse and her skirt and is clad in nothing but pasties and a narrow ruffle around her hips! I probably don't have to tell anybody that this was completely unacceptable in any mainstream 1941 movie, and would mean that it could be shown only in seedy, "adults-only" theaters. However, I wonder if the customers who paid to see an "adult" movie felt cheated after they watched this? The stripping sequence lasts only a couple of minutes, and the rest of the movie is pretty tame, although maybe those panties and bras looked racier in 1941 than they do today. The girl is wearing pasties, so technically there are no naked boobies, and since 1941 was long before the days of silicone enhancement her breasts are small by today's standards, but she moves pretty well and seems to be enjoying herself.
Nor would Roosevelt approve of strippers (he was totally no fun to be around).
This foray into smut doesn't last long, and we cut back to the bar, where a man with Hollywood's idea of a country rube's accent pulls out a wad of money and requests that the bartender get him a French girl. Susie is all that's available, but she's able to convince the rube that she's French. After a minimum of conversation she drags the rube up to a bedroom, and, using a certain amount of muscle, holds him back when he tries to leave. The scene is played for laughs, but it does get the message across that these escort girls do more than just talk to their customers, even though the scene fades out before the rube does more than pin Susie down on the bed and kiss her (which was probably unacceptable to the Production Code anyway). And now, over to you, Nate, for your opinion on this pernicious threat to the morals of America.
That's how the fascists win, you know.
Thank you, Pam. Well, heresy perhaps, but I believe that prostitutes (which is what these "escort girls" are) do serve an important role in society. I know, but douse your torches and put down your pitchforks, I'm not condoning illegal and immoral behavior, but I do understand why it's called the "world's oldest profession" for nothing. While I have zero experience with paid sex (honest!), our intern Kelby has a voracious Charlie Sheen-like appetite for the ladies of ill repute and he tells me that the ready availability of relatively low-cost sex is a good thing. It allows fugly dudes a chance at seeing a girl naked who isn't their mom and it also gives employment opportunities to cokehead bimbos who would otherwise be schlepping their way to their weekend shift at Taco Bell and cashing welfare checks. Streetwalkers have also almost singlehandedly propped up the fishnet stocking and green eyeshadow industry, saving countless jobs for hardworking Americans. God bless the hookers, I say.
Kelby, out spending MMT's petty cash fund again.
Anyway, back to the film. In the type of ah-ha coincidence that only happens in movies, it turns out that Drake is a special investigator working on busting the illegal escort services! Image the odds! I suppose he's an FBI agent, otherwise an East Coast policeman is seriously out of his jurisdiction. When he tells June's parents of this, you can almost hear her mom's heart explode from the stress. Her dad, however, sees the silver lining, now they have a sneaky "in" with the very man who is going to be investigating their business dealings.
"Here, smoke more, it'll calm you down."
After stopping by the stock footage track to play the stock footage ponies (prostitution is bad but gambling is ok, Mister FBI Man?), Drake and June then go to the less-than-classy Café Martinique for some evening entertainment. June seems to have been taught in whatever boarding school she attended that the way to a man's heart is with empty, shallow, fluffy flattery. "I want to hold all my happiness and dream about it." she purrs, with a wink that promises some special vacation sex later than night.
A three-piece Mariachi band enters the dining room and stays on-screen long enough to make you wonder if the director was paying back some debts. As the band plays, an Olive Oyl lookalike in a frilly coral reef dress cha-cha's to a sultry flamencio beat, wading through the tables, flirting and teasing the men with her seductive hips. Drake wisely doesn't take bait when June asks him if he thinks the dancer is pretty (any man worth his salt can recognize that old landmine).
Chiquita banana, olay!
Once Drake and June leave to find a dark room to paw at each other, Breezy comes into the club to check on his escorts (one would assume that he'll be delivering some serious pimphands if the money isn't flowing). Along with various barfly women there is also a male escort on a date with a much older woman. Perhaps having not read the rulebook on being a paid escort, the guy is clearly not into the wrinkly old lady's amorous advances. But once he learns that her dead husband left her 100gs, he's raring to go! I've read that being a male escort is the way to go if you simply must enter that field, you can make a ton of money and, generally, that 75-year old wealthy widow in the Rascal isn't going to rape you (unless you ask).
Money makes everyone prettier.
In an interlude in what is essentially the girl's locker room, we are treated to another five minutes of somewhat attractive girls in my grandma's underwear talking about how (gasp!) men expect sex from them (the horror!) just because they are escort (the cads!). Echoing Pam's thoughts from before, and being a man of this modern age of Victoria's Secret catalogues and Desperate Housewives on netflix, there's just nothing sexy about a woman in her chaste, supportive underwear anymore (sigh...). Though in 1941 I'm sure it was quite arousing in a sexually repressed, emotionally stunted, pre-Ruth Westheimer sort of way.
"You know what the pervert wanted me to do with this nail file?"
So the next day Drake begins his investigation by posing as an itinerate farm boy looking for work as an escort, hoping to learn the identity of the pimp kingpin from within. In the process of verbally applying for the job, Drake charms the knickers off the receptionist. As bland and blah as everyone else in this movie is, the poor put-upon receptionist is by far the most interesting character here. Shame she has Flying Nun hair.
Like a motorcycle helmet.
Drake starts snooping around the seedy clubs and back alley bars, on the lookout for pimps and hos, but isn't having much luck finding the elusive kingpin. So he calls up the Hollywood Escort Bureau, using a fake name and disguising his voice surely, and orders an escort girl for the evening, hoping to get one pliable enough to pump for information (though that sounds dirty, Drake is a stalwart upstanding sorta guy who'd never go that "deep undercover" for his job).
Besides, hunky guys don't have to pay for it.
PimpDaddyGregory knows what Drake is up to, thanks to Piggy, his mole in the Police Department. So he arranges to have his own daughter June (!) show up in place of the escort girl just to mess with Drake's head (she's an unwitting pawn in all this). For whatever reason, Drake immediately (and I mean instantly) assumes his fair, innocent June is a skanky diseased hooker and flies off the handle. If he'd just stop for a second and think about it, he'd remember that June has been living on the East Coast with him for years and that would make it pretty hard for her to be working with the Hollywood Escort Bureau. But Drake is in a mood to yell, and, to her credit, June is quick to fight back. Oddly, she's not so much defending herself as dragging up old, suppressed emotions and anger. Looking back over their relationship on screen, one that was built completely on a teetering tower of sugary proclamations and empty platitudes, you can't really be that surprised that it ended so quickly. It always seemed like June was trying way too hard to keep Drake happy, slathering on the gushy mushy stuff with a bilge mop, and Drake seems like the kind of guy who, at the end of the day, needs a woman who isn't so co-dependent and needy. As the scene closes, she stomps out in a snit, her engagement ring left on the dusty floor. Back to Pam now for Escort Girl's final reel.
Breaking up is hard to do.
Before I continue with the review, I'd like to mention a couple of things. First, according to IMDb, that skinny girl dancer in the ruffly dress was none other than Cyd Charisse, in her first screen appearance. She's not credited and the movie doesn't appear in most of her filmographies, but somebody must have spotted her. Given the moral climate of the time, she probably was embarrassed to have been in a movie like this and hoped nobody would find out. My second item is, how does an intern like Kelby manage to afford a car like that? If I were you, Nate, I'd go over the MMT books very carefully...
A lot of our profits seem to disappear...
Back to the movie. After finally showing a little spirit with Drake, June shows a little more and storms off to confront Gregory. It's unknown exactly how he talked June into going to see Drake, because that's in one of the parts of the movie that's missing, but he must have lied to her big time, because she's furious. She's put two and two together and figured out that he's the head of the local escort business. Gregory informs her that she's a rare combination of both brains and beauty, but she promptly proves that he's wrong about the brains when she spits out that she's going to tell the District Attorney who the head of the escort business is (keep in mind that he's obviously ruthless, he's a lot bigger than she is, he's got everything to lose if she blabs, and no one knows that she's gone to see him). Gregory counters by dropping the big one: he tells her who his partner is.
June learns the awful truth.
June immediately collapses in tears. Her zeal to put a stop to crime evaporates, and now all she can do is lie on the sofa and moan that she doesn't believe it. After much sobbing, she concludes that she now has nothing left to live for, now that she knows what her mother is. One might say that if she has nothing left to live for, she might as well go to the police and rat out Gregory and her mother, but this is not how June reasons. She sits moping on the couch, crying that she'll never get over this, while Gregory pours her a glass of wine, which she chugs right down. Gregory offers her smarmy sympathy and more wine, which she accepts eagerly. For a good girl, she sure does put away the booze. Gregory is sliding closer to her, trying to put the moves on her, but he can't pry the wineglass out of her hand. I'm hoping, I'm really hoping, that he isn't her father after all, even though it seemed earlier that he was. He hasn't been acting at all fatherly in this scene, and I think incest was a little too much in 1941 even for this sort of movie.
Worst stepdad ever.
Meanwhile, Drake is also putting two and two together. He heads off to the office of the Hollywood Escort Bureau, where the receptionist is still on duty. Seriously, does this girl work 24 hours a day? We can see through the windows, and it's dark outside. She tries to stop Drake, but he charges into Breeze Nolan's office, and after some punching and threats, wrings out the information that Gregory Stone is the real head of the business. The sensible thing to do would be to call the police and let them handle it, especially since it's unclear what, if any, jurisdiction Drake has. When he explained to June earlier about what he was going to be doing, it kind of sounded like the DA just hired him off the street to snoop around and he's not any sort of law enforcement officer. But letting the police handle it would be totally out of character for the hero of this kind of movie, so Drake heads for Gregory's apartment.
"Police brutality", anyone?
Back to Gregory's apartment, where he and June are sitting side by side on the sofa. He's looking amorous (yuck!), and she's looking smashed out of her mind. She finally passes out just as her mother walks in the door. Ruth at first doesn't see who the girl is, and she berates Gregory for cheating on her. This wakes June up, and she staggers off the sofa to confront her mother. Ruth pleads and June yells for a couple of minutes, then June flounces out of the apartment, predictably slamming the door behind her.
It's about to get worse for her.
There's another jump due to missing frames, but we next see Ruth with a gun in her hand, glaring at Gregory's back. More missing frames make the dialogue hard to follow, but as best as I can tell, Ruth is trying to force Gregory to call the police and confess. I can't understand what good this will do to repair Ruth's relationship with June, and Gregory tries to point this out, but Ruth isn't listening. Most people will be able to predict what happens next: Gregory and Ruth struggle for the gun, Drake just happens to get to the apartment at this particular point in time and breaks in, he and Gregory fight. Of course the gun goes off and the bullet just happens to hit Ruth, who slumps to the floor dramatically.
Drake has angry eyes.
Drake and Gregory continue to fight much longer than they realistically ought to, since Drake is bigger and much younger than Gregory. Finally Drake lands a punch that knocks Gregory clear through the window, where he falls to his death. Ruth is still writhing on the floor but shortly expires, although not before gasping out that June was not an escort girl, and with her last breath beseeching Drake to make June happy. Betty Compson clearly wasn't able to resist hamming this scene up for all it was worth.
"Call a doctor, idiot!"
We end the movie with June and Drake cuddling. June is admiring her engagement ring, having apparently completely recovered from the trauma of learning about her mother's unsavory occupation, not to mention her recent demise. The movie fades out with the two of them kissing, and we have had a clear demonstration that Crime Does Not Pay, that Virtue Is Rewarded, and that Granny Panties Are Not Sexy. I wonder what happened to the poor little receptionist?
"Hey, what happened yesterday, that was kinda awkward, eh?"
This movie can't seem to make up its mind what it wants to be: a moral tale about the escort business, a comedy, or a sleazy exploitation movie. My guess is that this movie was originally meant to be a legitimate if cheaply-made movie about prostitution, with all action acceptable to the then-current Production Code, including a "crime does not pay" message at the end. However, I think somewhere along the line a decision was made that this movie would be more profitable if it was spiced up some, even though it could no longer be shown in regular theaters. I've seen reviews that complain that this movie just isn't bad enough to be funny. Well, it's not, but it's good enough to be semi-enjoyable, and there are some genuinely funny parts. Whoever made it didn't take himself or the movie too seriously. Most exploitation movies were deadly serious, but this one has a sense of humor. Go ahead and watch it, there's worse things you could do with 57 minutes. And now, a word from Nate.
Thanks, Pam. Well, in a way, Escort Girl does teach us that Crime Doesn't Pay, but only for those in charge. Gregory, Ruth, and (presumably) Breezy all get their comeuppance in the end, showing that, indeed, the road to Hell is paved with hookers and drunken incest and if you partake in the seedy business of paid sex, it's only a matter of time before some square-jawed Elliot Ness comes along and punches you out a window and marries your stepdaughter (or something like that). However, for the "low end" of the escort service's totem pole, the actual working girls themselves, it seems that crime does, in fact, pay quite well. It's not like these girls are now going to to get respectable secretarial jobs or anything, they're just going to get a new pimp. And, if they are lucky, maybe some sort of medical plan and maybe even a per diem for condoms and wetwipes or something. And now a final word from Kelby...
Hookers, baby! Yeah! Can I borrow $20?
Written in March 2011 by Nathan Decker and Pam Burda.
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