Anna Nangle’s review of Skyscraper Souls in the August 2, 1932 edition of the Chicago Daily Tribune begins “This is the tale of David Dwight and his skyscraper.” And it is. But what I find most interesting in sitting down to look at Skyscraper Souls in detail is that is entirely not the case of the 1932 MGM film’s source material, Faith Baldwin’s novel titled simply Skyscraper, published a year earlier.
Dwight is a force across Baldwin’s pages and the MGM adaptation certainly captures the spirit of Dwight from the book, but by virtue of screenwriter C. Gardner Sullivan’s tweaking and the perfect match of an emerging Warren William in the role, Dwight leapfrogs Baldwin’s central characters, young lovers Lynn Harding and Tom Shepherd, to emerge as the indisputable main attraction of the film.
Baldwin captured that spirit of Dwight when introducing him, she writes, “He had that thing called magnetism. No man had it to a greater degree save those historic men who move mountains and make empires.” But Dwight of the novel never seems to live up to these words. We’re in his head as he obsesses over Lynn like a school boy. More importantly he is much less honorable when it comes to handling what becomes the central episode of the film, the Seacoast merger. This original Dwight, this alternate Dwight, sneaks behind the scenes obtaining his information through office boys and slyly investing on the side to make his fortune. Our Dwight, the Dwight of the sceen, is molded by Warren William into the magnetic force Baldwin hinted at but didn’t see through. Obsess over Lynn, she’s just a piece of candy to our Dwight. Office boys be damned, our Dwight is slippery, but he’s putting over the big boys, breaking titans and gloating in their midst after snapping them to pieces.
Warren William was riding high just months after release of his breakout role in The Mouthpiece and at the front-end of three very busy years which cement his pre-code legacy today. After completion of The Dark Horse he was loaned out to MGM for four weeks beginning May 16, 1932 for production on Skyscraper Souls. Baldwin’s Skyscraper had been serialized in Hearst’s Cosmopolitan Magazine prior to being published in book form in 1931. MGM bought the story in July 1931 and in September of that year announced Una Merkel, Madge Evans and Robert Young as the stars with Harry Beaumont set to direct. All those names were scrapped by the time production began as was much of Baldwin’s story which focused mainly on the Lynn-Tom romance and included barely any of the intrigue found in the business world of the film. How could it, David Dwight wasn’t even affiliated with the bank or the Seacoast building in the novel; there is no Dwight building, he is only a successful lawyer of some celebrity who’d had an affair with Lynn’s boss Sarah twenty years ago.
And that is the major difference. We’ll put the book down in a minute to concentrate exclusively on the film, but here just a few of the plot points and character traits which threw me for a little loop:
1. Lawyer Dwight is a Seacoast outsider
2. Dwight’s affair with Sarah Dennis (Verree Teasdale) was in the past. It’s been over for twenty years, but they remained friends after.
3. Jenny Le Grand (Anita Page in the film) is a much more important character in the book figuring as Lynn’s best friend and roommate. She’s still a model inside the building with much of the same character and attitudes that the Page character displays on the screen. In the book Jenny gives up a chance at a real relationship with Slim (Wallace Ford in the film) to go the sugar-daddy route with Jake.
4. Jake (Jean Hersholt in the film) is an entirely different character in the book, never really seen because he’s from out of town, he lands Jenny because of his money and nothing more. The only thing the Hersholt character has in common with this Jake is the name and an interest in Jenny.
5. Slim (Wallace Ford in the movie) is Tom’s best pal in the book and has a major crush on Jenny.
6. Tom (Norman Foster in the movie) of the book is split into both Tom and Slim in the film, ie: Novel Tom leaves Seacoast to work in radio, Slim’s job in the film; however novel Tom is more interested in the behind the scenes technical aspects of radio whereas film Slim is a radio personality.
7. Mara (Helen Coburn in the film, but as Myra) is a more important character in the book. Though her story is similar, cheating on husband Bill (John Marston in the film), it’s with a Frank Houghton in the book. She is not involved with Slim in the book and nothing like the safe incident involving Myra and Slim in Jake’s shop ever happens in the book.
8. The merger is much simpler and showcased much less in the novel. It’s important, but more due to issues with Tom’s character and Lynn and Tom’s relationship. As Dwight is a Seacoast outsider the merger of the book is between Norton’s Seacoast (George Barbier in the film) and another firm and the inside info becomes part of the story because Tom works as Norton’s assistant. In the film the merger is more or less Warren William’s co-star, or at the very least so tied to the Dwight character that it’s the main storyline.
What’s the same? Well, Maureen O’Sullivan is perfect as Lynn, matching her so well on screen that the part seems written for her. Lynn’s relationship with Sarah is the same, only more detailed in the novel. Most of Baldwin’s names and even characters have been retained in the screen version, just shuffled around some. The spirit of Dwight is captured in the book, but enhanced on screen.
David Dwight might be a character that a reader would dwell over when finishing the novel, but not one that you’d like. Reading Skyscraper and contrasting it with the experience of Skyscraper Souls definitely helps flesh out how Warren William’s version of Dwight manages not only to be an unscrupulous cad, but to do so in a way that leaves you admiring him. By expanding Baldwin’s nugget of Dwight into a towering personality, the Skyscraper itself come to life, and fleshing out Dwight’s backhanded dealings to show them to us on the screen, thus making us complicit to his dealings and better understanding his motivations, MGM succeeds in humanizing a Depression-era monster.
Dwight calls his skyscraper “a model of engineering, this spirit of an age crystallized in steel and stone,” and later, after successfully maneuvering ownership of the building he spits through clenched teeth “It goes halfway to hell and right up to heaven and it’s beautiful.” Co-swindler Ham (William Morris, actor Chester Morris’ father!), doesn’t get it–he’s not a man to be admired, as he went in with Dwight only to build his own wealth. Dwight on the other hand is a man who did it for his building, of which he remarks “One million men sweated to build it” and that “Nothing’s created without pain and suffering.” Ham got his money, nothing to celebrate there, just another sharp-dressed swindler swelling his bank account, but Dwight has earned something much more. By setting him on this quest from the first time we see him we’re along for the ride and we want him to succeed, no matter the cost.
Returning to Nangle’s review in the Chicago Daily Tribune: “You meet Dwight, a handsome, polished, unscrupulous man, and see his tall building, also polished and handsome. Dwight fights to erect his skyscraper, cheats to keep it, and meets his Waterloo within its shining walls. He’s a big business man with an eye for the ladies–several of them.”
Dwight has a wife (Hedda Hopper) who stops by a couple of times for money, but the relationship is acknowledged as open on both ends. He’s involved with Sarah (Teasdale), his fortyish secretary, handsome and polished herself, dedicated to her work and to Dwight. While Sarah recognizes Dwight’s marriage is a convenience that allows a certain distance for him in any of his dalliances she fails to see that despite their long-time arrangement his marriage is meant to put the same kind of restraints on their own relationship. It’s Mrs. Dwight who has the best understanding of David when in a very frank scene with Sarah she explains “marriage to him is just protection against other women” before comparing him to the geniuses of history such as Byron and Cellini–“We adore them, but we never own them.”
In the slice of David Dwight’s life that we’re privy to in Skyscraper Souls his relationship with Sarah is winding down. Lynn, more or less Sarah’s ward, the daughter of a hometown friend, comes to Seacoast with all of Sarah’s qualities and is twenty or so years younger. Dwight maneuvers her into his world when assigning her work one evening that must be turned in at his apartment later. Upon delivering the typewritten pages Dwight welcomes Lynn to his apartment where a party is taking place, insisting she stay as he tears her work in half behind his back and disposes of it in a nearby vase.
Plying the youngster with Champagne, Dwight’s plan is nearly foiled when drunken Charlie Norton makes Lynn his center of attention. Norton is the guest of honor whom Dwight is trying to grease into a merger with Seacoast to save himself from bankruptcy and jail. Dwight rescues Lynn from Norton by forcing another girl upon him but fears Lynn has run off for the evening. Willing to settle for a sexy blonde Dwight sends the other guests away, goes to slip into something more comfortable and finds Lynn passed out on his bed. With the classic line, “Sorry my dear, but I’ve suddenly developed spinal meningitis,” and a small bribe, Dwight sends the other woman on her way and he joins Lynn in his bedroom for a visit. “Do we have to visit on the bed?” Lynn asks when she’s stirred from her drunken sleep, to which Dwight chuckles and reminds her that he’s old enough to be her father. Lynn snaps him out of wolf mode by asking “But do you feel like a father?” They talk and Dwight comes away admiring the young girl’s scruples, though at the same time he doesn’t plan on cutting off his pursuit. Complicating matters Tom, who’d kept Lynn company as she typed Dwight’s report, spots him escorting her out of the building at a very late hour.
Lynn and Tom’s relationship hinges on money. This was better illustrated in the book, where after finally convincing Tom, he of the no wife of mine is going to work school, that she loved and needed her work is set to be married but then discovers that Seacoast policy prohibited married women of working men from being employed in the building. That was a simple case of Depression economics, not enough jobs to go around to employ a married couple when single people remained unemployed and in the gutter. This was also nicely shown through Mara (Myra) and Bill’s marriage, where Mara was allowed to work in the building because Bill was unemployed. It’s a shallower version of Lynn in the film who tells Dwight “I wouldn’t want to marry a poor man,” an outlook which leads to Tom’s obsession with elevating himself and his enthusiastically investing in Seacoast after being tipped to the merger by Sarah. Frankly I think if Tom could have seen the coquettish Lynn at Dwight’s side after his business success in the climax there’d be no way he’d ever accept her back after Dwight’s fall. This was better illustrated in the book, though again the circumstances were very different.
Said merger is the action of Skyscraper Souls. When we first meet David Dwight he’s faced with the other Seacoast investors who are calling him out for taking the bank’s funds for his own personal use, specifically $50 million to build the Dwight building. The men are worried but Dwight tells them “I may have a way out,” which given Dwight’s unspoken history is news they enthusiastically accept. Dwight plans a merger with Hamilton’s Interstate, but when Ham lays out the terms–he’s willing to merge with Seacoast, “but we won’t take you”–Dwight declines. “Love me, love my building!” he declares.
From there he sets about cementing a partnership with Norton for the express purpose of extending his sizable loan. After making the deal with Norton, Ham returns with the tempting offer of a deal which would repay Dwight’s loan fully and grant him outright ownership of the building. They’d drive up the price of Seacoast-Norton before selling short and taking everything they have–Dwight hesitates a moment, not wanting to do this to Norton, but the lure of the building wins him over and the fix is in. As the stock climbs all of the little people we’ve met, characters we’ve come to like: Tom, Slim, Jake, even Jennie, are shown buying Seacoast and we’re kept in the loop of it’s rising price. 257. 310. Norton bursts into Dwight’s office ecstatic, declaring predictions of the stock going over a thousand! They’re richer than beyond imagination. But Dwight’s plan with Ham involved cracking the stock at 350 and so it goes, crashing quick, wiping out some of our characters, 129 … 110 … 105.
Norton and the other investors confront Dwight the next morning, showing him a paper headlined by the suicide of one of their own, Brewster. They don’t get the reaction out of Dwight that they expected as he declares “For the grace of God and my own sense of self-preservation that might have been a picture of David Dwight.” Broken, the group of men can’t believe the monstrous Dwight who tells them that you can’t use friendships for margin. Then he justifies what he’s done by turning the situation on them, assassinating their own characters:
Listen, if I double-crossed somebody else for you I wouldn’t be a double-crosser. I’d be a financial genius. You’d profit by it. You’d love it. You’d love me. Id’ be your pal, your leader. But I put one over on you, so I’m a double-crosser. It’s all in the point of view, gentlemen. But don’t despair. There’s lot of small fry that you can double-cross. Just like the good old days … before you got out of your class.”
And then he dismisses them, walking away. Dwight earns our respect because we know it’s true. It doesn’t absolve him of blame, but it takes some of the pity away from the others. They were playing the same game, but David Dwight was the master. We’ve previously come to admire his motivations, the purity in his pursuit of the building, but now we’re left to admire his skill. In a pack of swindlers he’s the best of the bunch, no better man could have won.
But what of the little people? We see them cracked, especially Slim, but so too has Tom’s nest egg for Lynn evaporated in a fraction of the time it took to grow. But whereas in the book, lacking the motivation of the building, Dwight walks away as a heel, in the film, Tom and Lynn not nearly as developed seem to be a worthwhile sacrifice for Dwight’s securing the building. We pity them, but they’re young, they have fortunes yet to be built. Dwight does meet his comeuppance, but because of his personal affairs, not his business fortune.
Skyscraper Souls is an MGM film done in the Warner Brothers’ style. Not directly ripped from the headlines, but based on a book which takes place in this distinct time and place, director Edgar Selwyn moves the piece at a furious clip and manages to show us the stories of several more characters than you’d assume time would allow. After reading the book you’d assume Lynn Harding was written for 21-year-old Maureen O’Sullivan. Of course it’s not, but O’Sullivan is perfectly cast and up to the task. I’ve seen this movie so many times and Norman Foster’s Tom was always the main turn-off, but again, after consuming the novel I think it’s a better fit. Foster definitely captures the period speech of Tom, and the clumsiness was in the book as well. No more than a run-of-the-mill performance, but it doesn’t grate on me nearly as much now. Verree Teasdale, again, perfect casting, she’s a pro playing a pro, even the often annoying patrician accent a great fit here. Anita Page is right on as the good time girl Jenny and how could you not love Jean Hersholt’s timid Jake?
Then there’s Warren William, whose shysters of The Mouthpiece and The Dark Horse have been given an all new air of respectability as David Dwight, but his morals remain in severe question. William’s home studio would further polish the Dwight character into Kurt Anderson of Employees’ Entrance the following year at what is perhaps the peak of William’s pre-code run. At that point they’d have a property with enough regard to be loaned out for more prestigious work such as Cleopatra (1934) at Paramount and Imitation of Life (1934) at Universal. Unfortunately William was never given anything so important by Warner’s themselves and with the coming enforcement of the code the edge would be taken off the character they had created.