Dark Cinema - Una Merkel: Saucy Sidekick

In her 1930s features, Una Merkel portrayed a variety of standout roles, including the shrill and frequently sobbing Sibyl in Private Lives (1931), the wronged girlfriend of David Manners in Man Wanted (1931), Jean Harlow's scheming secretary in Bombshell (1932), and a wisecracking chorus girl in 42nd Street (1933).

She also portrayed some of the best pals a pre-Code gal could ask for -- characters who were not only loyal, dependable, and wise, but also sassy and funny, to boot -- just the kind of person you want to have around you in good times or bad.

Merkel had the unique talent of elevating her relatively minor 'buddy' characters into among the most memorable in film. She did this best in three first-rate vehicles from the pre-Code era: Red-Headed Woman (1932), They Call It Sin (1932), and Beauty for Sale (1933).

Red-Headed Woman stars Jean Harlow as Lil Legendre, the 'red-headed woman' of the film's title, who uses her considerable feminine wiles to break up her boss's happy home. Merkel plays her best friend, Sally, who functions primarily as her conscience and voice of reason -- the type of friend who sees you for what you are, loves you anyway, and tells you just like it is. We see this in the first few minutes of the film; Lil is trying to finagle her way into the home of her boss, Bill Legendre (Chester Morris), by taking him a stack of mail from the office. On her way into the house, Lil admits she's nervous, and Sally rejoins, 'I'd be nervous myself if I didn't have any more brains than you've got.'

And when Lil shares with Sally that her ploy was even more successful than she'd hoped, Sally emits one of her trademark gasps, and says, 'Oh, you dirty little home wrecker!' Sally also isn't above tossing off a typical pre-Codian wisecrack -- one of my favorites is a scene where Lil accuses her friend of wearing her new pajamas, and insists she return them, stating that she was becoming too important to 'sleep informally -- what if there'd be a fire?' Sally doesn't miss a beat: 'You'd have to cover up from being recognized!'

Sally sticks with Lil throughout all of her exploits -- from her triumphant marriage to Bill and her blatant flaunting of her new wealth, to cheating on him with New York businessman C.B. Gaerste (Henry Stephenson) -- and then cheating on HIM with his chauffeur. But Sally neither champions her misdeeds nor admires her spoils. Instead, she's unimpressed, and frequently makes ego-deflating remarks to make it clear to Lil that she knew her when. Still, like a true-blue chum, Sally always has Lil's best interests at heart -- giving her the heads-up when everyone but Lil can see that the friends of her husband's former wife are turning Lil into a laughingstock, and trying to stop her from rushing headlong into disaster on more than one occasion.

The women continue their close friendship throughout the film, with Sally accompanying Lil every step of the way until Lil shoots her husband and makes her way to Paris where, afterward, we don't see Sally again. (Maybe this was too much even for her to tolerate!)

Released the same year as Red-Headed Woman was They Call It Sin, starring Loretta Young as Marion Cullen, a small-town church pianist who flees her stifling home life to follow visiting businessman, Jimmy Decker (David Manners), back to the big city. Merkel played the delightfully monikered Dixie Dare, a chorus girl who befriends Marion when the two show up at the office of stage producer Ford Humphries (Louis Calhern). I love Dixie's first scene -- she and Marion are seated beside each other in the waiting area and Dixie asks Marion if she has a cigarette. Marion replies that she doesn't smoke. Dixie gives an almost imperceptible shrug, then reaches into her handbag, withdraws a cigarette and nonchalantly lights it. This brief, seemingly inconsequential exchange, tells us this is a gal who can take care of herself -- she's not a user, but she is practical, and she'll take what she can when she can get it.

We soon learn even more -- she is virtually overflowing with self-confidence and moxie; when the receptionist announces her boss won't be seeing anyone else that day, and the room full of waiting women begin to file out, Dixie gives Marion a knowing wink: 'Stick around and watch Dixie Dare do her prelude to a job,' she says. When Humphries exits his inner sanctum a few moments later, Dixie talks him into watching her audition, with Marion accompanying her on piano. Both girls wind up with a job and, afterward, Dixie invites the homeless Marion to move into her apartment.

Turns out that Jimmy Decker, the fellow Marion trailed to New York, is actually engaged to another woman (a fact he neglected to disclose when he was taking Marion on boat rides and delivering her back home in the wee hours of the morning). When Dixie spies Marion reading about their wedding in the newspaper, she first tries giving her a pep talk, urging her to forget about Jimmy and pull herself together. When this tack doesn't work, Dixie tries another, more practical approach: 'Why don't you get wise to yourself?' (Don't you love that phrase?) 'This town's full of men who'd go goofy over you if you'd let 'em. So let 'em! Oh, don't take 'em too seriously -- just kid 'em along and get what you can out of 'em. Say, if I had your looks, I'd wear ermine underwear.'

Later, when Humphries fires Marion and appropriates a song she wrote, claiming he composed it, the still-employed Dixie accompanies her friend to confront him. With no thought to her own job, Dixie speaks up on Marion's behalf, calling her boss a 'horse thief' and getting physically tossed from the premises. And Dixie steps in again when Marion finds herself embroiled in a murder investigation, whipping into action to contact the one person who can save Marion's neck. Fittingly, it's Dixie who gets the final shot in the film, giddily celebrating, alone in her bedroom, when she sees Marion is settled with the man she deserves.

Finally, Beauty for Sale stars Madge Evans as Letty Lawson, a boarder in the home of Mrs. Merrick (May Robson), needing a job to support her and her recently widowed mother. For help, she turns to her closest friend and Mrs. Merrick's daughter, Carol (Merkel), who also lives in the house. From our first introduction to Carol, we see she is thoughtful and caring -- she rushes home from work with a box of candy for Letty's mother when she departs for Kentucky -- and feisty, as she proves every time she speaks to her endlessly annoying brother, Bill (Edward Nugent) who, incidentally, has eyes for Carol. And even though Carol asserts that her friend shouldn't have to work, she consents to Letty's request and arranges a job for her at the swanky beauty parlor where Carol is employed.

Carol and Letty share a close, unaffected relationship -- they can laugh together, exchange bits of gossip, and snark about the beauty parlor's hoity-toity clients, but they can also be serious when the situation warrants. Despite Carol's 'jokey' personality, she's more than capable of dispensing no-holds-barred wisdom; cautioning Letty about getting in over her head with a married man who sends her a bouquet of flowers: 'All I can say is, smell the roses, but don't let the thorns prick your finger.'

Carol offers more pearls in another scene, just before she embarks on a cruise with her wealthy, much-older lover, using her own experience to advise her friend against jumping into a relationship with the man who sent her the flowers. She doesn't pull any punches and doesn't hesitate to share experiences from her own painful past in an effort to spare her friend from a similar fate: 'If you ever fall in love with a man that can't marry you, run like a rabbit. 'Cause the best you'll get out of it is the worst of it. You don't want to have to hang around the back door of his life, begging for a handout. You don't want to have to sneak and hide and keep out of sight the way I do. And in the end, when he turns back to his wife and home, you don't want to be kicked out in the sacred name of respectability, the way I was.' When Letty has a particularly distressing encounter with the wife of the man she loves, Carol doesn't have to say a word -- she just offers Letty her hand.

In these three features, Una Merkel's characters were certainly not perfect; they weren't above engaging in extramarital affairs, using their lovers to amass an abundance of finery, or firing off a well-timed insult to an employer. But when it came to friendship, these ladies were the very embodiment of the term 'bosom buddies' -- sensible yet sassy, wise and experienced, unfailingly loyal and reliably shrewd. Not to mention a whole lot of fun!

We should all be so lucky.

Karen Burroughs Hannsberry writes about all things pre-Code and film noir at Shadows and Satin. She is also the author of two books on film noir, Femme Noir: The Bad Girls of Film and Bad Boys: The Actors of Film Noir, and edits a bi-monthly newsletter on film noir called The Dark Pages.