Wednesday, July 13, 2016

Johnny Doesn't Live Here Anymore (1944) and the Gold Key Scandal

Johnny Doesn't Live Here Anymore (1944)
Johnny Doesn't Live Here Anymore (1944)

The sub-genre of WWII housing shortage films has a following among classic movie enthusiasts. Add Johnny Doesn't Live Here Anymore (1944) to The More the Merrier (1943),  Government Girl (1944) and Standing Room Only (1944). You'll find this film is the most unusual out of the bunch. Sure it's a comedy about the housing shortage situation but it's also part fantasy and part sex comedy. I could have said romantic comedy but I didn't and you'll see why.

Simone Simon plays Kathie Aumont, a young Quebecoise on her way to Washington D.C. to stay with her friend Sally and take a government job. A fantastical incident on the train puts her face-to-face with a bad luck gremlin (played by Jerry Maren, voiced by Mel Blanc) who follows her around for 7 weeks.

Her first stroke of bad luck comes when she discovers Sally (Gladys Blake) recently eloped with a new guy George (Grady Sutton) and Kathie is no longer welcome. Kathie finds a vacancy with a marine named Johnny (William Terry). He gives her the key to his place so she can stay there while he's on duty. But he's too besotted with the pouty ingenue and forgets to tell her that he's also given out keys to her apartment to several men. Kathie thinks she has the place to herself but a string of male visitors prove otherwise. With every new guy comes Kathie's frequent declaration: "Johnny doesn't live her anymore!" The rotating cast includes James Ellison, Chick Chandler, Billy 'Froggy' Laughlin and others.

Kathie's bad luck, with the help of the gremlin, spirals out of control. The neighbors think she's a floozy, some of these male visitors want to get to know her better and in the end she picks one to marry. Who will it be?

I came to this movie because it features a relative unknown Robert Mitchum had a minor role in the film as the married CFO Jeff Daniels who just needs a place to crash while he waits for his wife. He gets more than he bargained, an epic fight scene ensues and everyone winds up in court. When the film was re-released, Mitchum's star was on the rise and he was given top billing despite his small role.

Johnny Doesn't Live Here Anymore (1944)

 "Say you're purdy"- Mike
"I'm beautiful" - Kathie

A 1944 review labeled this film "morally unobjectionable". The crux of the story, the fact that Johnny doesn't live here any more, is a plot device to deliver one type of story while seeming to be another. This is really about a young single woman in the city who playfully calls all the fellows Johnny and they all happen to have keys to her apartment. Everyone else within the world of the story thinks she's promiscuous. However, the movie audience knows better. It's all one big misunderstanding. This type of plot device fascinates me. It's one way film makers in the era of Hays Code enforcement titillated audiences while staying "morally unobjectionable".

Simone Simon's Kathie is a strong character in many regards. She's self-assured and understands the power of her beauty. Kathie travels from far away to help the war effort and become a Rosie the Riveter. While Johnny is away, she becomes a veritable handyman and fixes the many problems with the apartment. However, she's a victim of her time and the confines of her story. What I call "the fix" comes when it's necessary for her to fall in love with one of the guys and get married. When the film was re-released four years the title was changed to And So They Were Married further sanitizing the sexy plot.

"I don't want to talk." - Kathie
"Neither do I." - Mike

And this film is sexy. If you don't see it you're blind. Simone Simon's Kathie has incredibly charged interactions with the various men in the film. A sleeping Kathie gets a slap on the rump from the ice man who thought she was Johnny. The confines of a crowded taxi cab forces Kathie to sit on Johnny's lap and their fellow passengers encourage Kathie to give Johnny a kiss because what if she never sees him again?  Kathie plays rough with a sailor, shares a soda with two guys, walks in on a guy taking a bubble bath who then offers to show her his tattoo. Even private things like taking a shower, slathering her face with cold cream, walking around in her pajamas are done around the men. The ending of the film, set five years ahead, strongly suggests Kathie's promiscuity as we try to figure out who is the father of her three kids.

"Don't watch me." - Kathie
"I like to." - Mike

"How did this movie ever get made?" I asked myself many times. And it's not just because of it's sexy plot. It's because of Simone Simon and the Gold Key Scandal of 1938.

"When I saw all those men with those keys…" Mr. Collins

In 1944 Simone Simon was enjoying the height of her Hollywood career. Cat People (1942) was a success and The Curse of the Cat People would follow a couple years later. Simon hadn’t always been successful in Hollywood. She's made a crack at it before. In the 1930s, Simon was new to the US and didn’t speak much English. Ralph Baum of 20th Century Fox took pity on her and assigned his secretary Sandra Martin to be Simon’s full-time assistant.

Nicknamed the “Tender Savage” in Europe and marketed as Europe’s sweetheart in Hollywood, Fox tried to make Simon a star but proved unsuccessful. Simon’s bad luck continued. She took her assistant Sandra Martin to court charging her with embezzling money, forging checks and stealing luxury items from Simon’s home. Martin fought back claiming that Simone Simon had a promiscuous lifestyle that involved scandalous parties and that she favored lovers two 18 karat gold keys to her home. When the defense attorney asked Simon to name one of the lovers she proclaimed “you’ll never know!”.

Martin proved to be a shady character. Her real name was Athena Alexandroff and she had a criminal record that included check fraud. She was found guilty and sentenced to nine months in jail. Fox ended Simon’s contract and she fled to Paris to work with Jean Renoir only to come back at the start of WWII.

“She was like a cat... as long as you smoothed her, she purred; when you stopped... she scratched.”  - Sandra Martin on Simone Simon

The gold key scandal became part of Simone Simon’s reputation and eventually her legend. I’m sure producers Frank and Maurice King of the King Brothers were well aware of this when they hired her for Johnny Doesn’t Live Here Anymore. Maybe Val Lewton remembered Sandra Martin's observation of Simon's cat-like nature she was cast in Cat People (1942).

(Further reading and sources: book, article, article)

Johnny Doesn't Live Here Anymore (1944) is a fun film, a bit bizarre and a nice curio from the past. It's essentially a promiscuity tale disguised as a chaste romantic comedy. It's made chaste with the circumstances and contemporary audiences will have fun with the not so subtle suggestiveness.

Johnny Doesn't Live Here Anymore (1944) is available from the Warner Archive on DVD-MOD.

Warner Archive Wednesday - On (random) Wednesdays, I review one title from the Warner Archive Collection.

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