After each TCM Film Festival, I’ve had a film that I considered my “discovery” of the Fest. It helps that TCM has a Discovery section dedicated to lesser-known and rediscovered films, but even out of that group, there’s usually one I latch on to as the one that makes me grateful for the Fest and for going in blind to so many of the Discovery films. In previous years, it’s been Lonesome, Hoop-La, or This is the Night – almost always late ’20s, early ’30s films. This year I pegged Hat Check Girl as most likely to be that film because it was one of only a couple Discoveries from that era; turns out I was wrong and the delightful The Stranger’s Return turned out to be my discovery, but that doesn’t mean Hat Check Girl wasn’t immensely enjoyable.
Sally Eilers plays Gerry Marsh, a hat check girl who wants to stay clean and honest, but keeps being pressured by her boss to sell bootlegged liquor and be an escort at fancy parties. At one such party, she winds up staying late and taking up the host on his offer to stay in a neighboring apartment whose tenant (Buster) is out of town – only he comes back IN town while she’s sleeping in his bed. Yes, this is a Pre-Code. There’s a lot more plot, with Buster romancing Gerry and getting involved in a murder, and it kind of goes off the rails because of course in a 64-minute movie you want to throw in everything but the kitchen sink.
The film literally has everything you’d expect to find in three or four different Pre-Codes – slimy bosses asking too much of their female employees, bootlegging and criminal activity, murder in mysterious circumstances, fast-talking best friends, shady newspaper guys willing to do anything to sell some papers, a good girl in compromising situations, playful sexual cat and mouse games, glamorous parties, etc. It’s actually pretty charming, though, because there’s no way anything that goes this many directions at once would get made today, and there’s something to be said for watching slackjawed thinking “I can’t believe they’re adding ANOTHER plot element, but okay!” every five minutes.
The real reason to watch this, though, is the zingy dialogue, and there is PLENTY of it. Despite the brief running time, this film probably has more innuendo and off-color remarks than 90% of the Pre-Codes I’ve seen, most of them delivered by Ginger Rogers, Gerry’s best friend who is constantly and happily doing all the things that Gerry balks at. She’s awesome, as always. Meanwhile, Sally Eilers is utterly charming. I’d never heard of her before, but she apparently worked pretty constantly throughout the 1930s, with a spike in the Pre-Code era (she made eight films in 1931 alone!). She’s definitely someone I’ll seek out in the future.