Poor Mae Clarke, she always seems to get the sour end of the lollipop when it came to men. Cagney shoves a grapefruit in her face in THE PUBLIC ENEMY. Two years later in the 1933 film, LADY KILLER, Jimmy drags her by her hair and kicks her out of his apartment. That same year in “Penthouse” poor Mae is dumped for a high society dame by her new love, Phillip Holmes and soon after is shot dead. The dame just can’t get a break!
But I am getting ahead of the story. We first meet Jack Durant (Warner Baxter), a hot shot lawyer for a big time law firm, who likes to moonlight working for underworld clients like hoodlum boss Tony Gozotti (Nat Pendleton) who he saves from jail and the death penalty. The problem is Durant’s law firm does not like the idea of his defending hoodlums. Jack, on the other hand, like the edginess of dealing with these types of clients as well as the nightlife and the women that come with it.
Jack’s fiancée, socialite Sue Leonard (Martha Sleeper), also hates the idea of his defending the scum of the earth and quickly breaks their engagement. Soon after Sue accepts the marriage proposal of Tom Siddall (Philip Holmes) a long time admirer, and her possible lover, as he has been keeping her company while Jack spends his days in court and nights preparing for those cases. With Sue on his arm now, Tom needs to break up his affair with Mimi (Mae Clarke), a former gun moll. Mimi doesn’t take kindly to being tossed aside by rich boy Tom, and in spite, calls up her old lover, gangster and Gozotti’s rival, Jim Crilliman (C. Henry Gordon). Crilliman invites Mimi to a party he is having that evening. At the party, he informs Mimi he also invited Tom over so she can tell him face to face that it’s over between them. When Tom arrives Mimi, encouraged by Crillman, takes Tom out to the balcony for some privacy. Soon after, a gunshot is heard and Mimi is dead on the balcony floor with Tom holding the smoking gun.
Sue pleads with Jack to take on Tom’s case. She’s convinced he is innocent and is being framed. Jack is at first irritated at the nerve of Sue to be asking him to take on Tom as a client, however he is soon convinced Tom is being framed. Tony Gazotti introduces Jack to Gertie Waxted (Myrna Loy), a call girl and close friend of Mimi’s who may be able to help Jack with the case. To pick Gertie’s brain about Mimi and her background, Jack has her stay at his apartment. Jack directs Gertie to a spare bedroom, otherwise he says, “I’m afraid you’ll think I’m taking advantage of you” she replies somewhat disappointedly, “I’m afraid you won’t.”
This was the first pairing of Myrna Loy and director Woody Van Dyke who would go on to work together in many of “The Thin Man” movies as well as other films, at least eight films in total. Confident actors were at their best on the first take, Van Dyke quickly earned the nickname, “One Take Woody.” According to Loy, Van Dyke had the ability to edit the film in his head and subsequently shot minimal footage leaving little on the cutting room floor. Like actor Lee Marvin, Van Dyke was an ex-marine and both men had the ability to drink in excess late into the night and come to work the next day functioning at one hundred percent.
The film is based on a story by Arthur Somers Roche from a screenplay by Frances Goodrich and Albert Hackett who co-wrote “The Thin Man” and “It’s a Wonderful Life,” among many others. “The Penthouse” combines a nice mix of comedy, crime and pre-code innuendo. It moves along at a nice pace keeping you interested the entire trip. Character actor Nat Pendleton (Buck Privates) has a larger than usual role as the loveable but not too bright gangster who gets a big kick out of Jack every time he tells him what a bad human being he is. Myrna Loy applies the same sense of comedic timing we would come to know her for as Nora Charles in “The Thin Man” movies. While Warren Baxter is no William Powell, lacking Powell’s smooth touch, he still comes across as engaging. In 1939, a cleansed post-code version of the film was remade as “Society Lawyer” starring Walter Pidgeon and Virginia Bruce.