Frances Dee in Blood Money (1933)
Her biographer, Andrew Wentnik, said that, “When a friend recently admonished her for playing a prostitute in Blood Money (1933), she denied it, saying, ‘I played a masochistic nymphomaniacal kleptomaniac, not a prostitute.'”
I had to seek out the movie, previously thought lost for 40 years. Spoiler: It’s not that good, but at least it’s short (just over an hour), and it’s definitely sleazy, in a good way. George Bancroft stars as Bill Bailey, a bail bondsman who gets mixed up with Dee’s rich girl thrill-seeker Elaine Talbart. He’s not very charismatic, but what will stick with me is Dee’s portrayal of her character’s obvious desire for bad boys and excitement. The final scene, for example… wait, let me set the stage.
Elaine comes to Bill to help cover up her arrest for shoplifting. She starts dating him, even taking him to a Hawaiian-themed party at her father’s house. Then she meets one of his clients, Drury Darling (Chick Chandler), and decides to run away with him. Drury has robbed a bank, and Bill has provided bail. Drury sends Elaine to give Bill his payoff, but she decides they’ll need the money, and gives Bill the worthless bonds from the theft.
Bill finds Drury and sends him back to jail, which aggravates his sister Ruby (Judith Anderson). She’s also Bill’s mistress (now ex) and runs a speakeasy. She gets all the other criminals in town to skip on Bill for her revenge. She thinks Bill double-crossed Drury, not realizing that it’s all because Elaine is greedy. Bill’s life is in danger, until Elaine visits Drury in jail and tells him what she’s done.
Ruby finds out the truth and rushes to save Bill from death via an exploding billiard ball. Drury dumps Elaine. She returns to Bill’s office building, but before she can go back to him, she bumps into a crying woman in the lobby. And here’s where her character is defined.
In response to Elaine asking her what happened, the woman explains that she was answering a newspaper ad for a model, but the guy in the office wanted something else. He tried to assault her, leaving bruises on her arm. She was lucky to get out of there, she says between sobs, since she had to fight her way out. Eyes shining, Elaine grabs the paper and confirms which office she needs to visit. She’s thrilled with the idea of being manhandled.
Blood Money was Anderson’s first role; she’s better known as the housekeeper, Mrs. Danvers, in the Hitchcock-directed Rebecca. Seeing her here as a woman-done-wrong demonstrates her range.
I didn’t care much for the film overall — although it’s definitely got pre-Code elements, the kind of portrayal of life among criminals that wouldn’t be seen later in the decade without much stronger moral messages imposed on top — but Frances Dee’s portrayal will definitely stick with me.
If you’d like another view, here’s the 1933 New York Times review. (Note the typo: “Blossom Seeley, who wears a big bat and sings”. No, she wears a big HAT.)