HAT CHECK GIRL (1932) sounds pretty swell on paper: it has a solid pre-Code release year, a snappy-sounding 64-minute running time, sexy stars Ginger Rogers and Sally Eilers, and a plot involving blackmail and bootlegging. And yet… as seen tonight in a world premiere restoration from the Museum of Modern Art (introduced by MoMA’s Katie Trainor and Anne Morra), the picture seemed a tad disappointing. Perhaps we’re spoiled by the availability of truly great pre-Code films like Baby Face, Red-Headed Woman and Employees’ Entrance (which screened here Friday night), but HAT CHECK GIRL, while entertaining, does lack a bit in the oomph department. It certainly has its share of enjoyably racy moments, and it boasts some imaginative camerawork, but the story is not well-defined and the film runs out of gas before its hour is up.
Things get off to a promising pre-Code start, however, with an image of a horse’s rear end combined with a love song on the soundtrack. This might well have been a spoof of the opening shot of Ernst Lubitsch’s Trouble in Paradise, which was already in production when this film started rolling. Very quickly, Sidney Lanfield goes on to fill his movie frame with bare legs and lingerie, as the hat check girls (Ginger Rogers and Sally Eilers) dress and undress.
Eilers is the star of the film and the central character, and the plot concerns a tension between her romance with a playboy millionaire (Ben Lyon) and her job working at a nightclub run by bootleggers. Her boss wants her to sell booze, but Eilers is determined to remain straight; in fact, the story presents her with one temptation to sell out after another. Rogers, on the other hand, is a bad girl here and gets all the best lines, as in a scene on the subway train when a man puts the moves on her and even feels her leg. She pushes his hand away and says, “I must be the depression that everybody’s feeling!”
This was Rogers’s tenth feature, and even though she’d played leads in three pictures already, she was relegated by Fox to a supporting role here. But she is by far the liveliest element of this movie, to the point that I wished it were about her instead of Eilers. As Rogers gradually disappears from the story, her presence is missed. She shows so much spark that it’s a wonder it took so long for her career to really kick into high gear. Flying Down to Rio was still eleven films away.
All this is not to disparage Sally Eilers. On the contrary, Eilers was a popular and beautiful star of the era, and even today, when fans discover her work, they usually want to track down more of it. She’s memorable in films like The Black Camel, Central Airport, Remember Last Night?, and most of all, director Frank Borzage’s Bad Girl. Sadly, Eilers’s career sputtered out in the mid-1930s and she was relegated to smaller roles until her final appearance in 1950.
HAT CHECK GIRL got mixed reviews in 1932. Photoplay said, “The story is old, but the treatment is not. It is all done with so much sparkle and pep.” Variety praised Rogers (“she delivers”), as well as Eilers (“always better than her part”) and Ben Lyon (“may lead to a new chapter of picture life for him”), but criticized the film for being simply the latest in a long line of “scandal” programmers. “When things get slow,” Variety complained, “[Eilers] starts stripping… After the first peeling, which occurs before the picture has gone five minutes, she takes two encores.”
Little did Variety realize that 80 years later, fans of pre-Code movies would find that description to be not a criticism but a ringing endorsement! Still, I have to say that Variety was right in assessing HAT CHECK GIRL to be a bit too slow and routine. It’s not bad, but it’s not a true hidden gem.