When I was a freshman at NYU the Museum of Modern Art held an Ernst Lubitsch retrospective. Every day after classes I took the subway uptown in time to catch the 5:30 pm show, and every day I left the auditorium floating on air, having seen a movie that truly lifted my spirits.
Not long ago I stumbled onto a 1932 movie I knew nothing about—on YouTube, of all places. It’s called Evenings for Sale and the highest compliment I can pay it is that it reminded me of a Lubitsch comedy. (When I interviewed Billy Wilder years ago and told him that’s how I felt about his charming film Love in the Afternoon, he demurred, saying “Something can be Lubitsch-like but there was only one Lubitsch.” Agreed, but still…)
Herbert Marshall, Sari Maritza, Charlie Ruggles, and Mary Boland star in this Paramount production. The studio was in desperate financial straits at this time but you’d never know it from the quality of their movies. In fact, Evenings for Sale had the benefit of being able to use the best songs from Love Me Tonight and The Big Broadcast in its wall-to-wall score without paying a dime for them. Relative Hollywood newcomer Marshall had just made Trouble in Paradise for Herr Lubitsch and was riding high when the little-known Stuart Walker directed him in this modest 61-minute movie.
Marshall is almost always good, as is Ruggles. The revelations in this picture are the little-known leading lady Sari Maritza and one of the doyennes of character actresses, Mary Boland. Despite her exotic name, the lovely Maritza was raised in England; her mother was Viennese. She made little impression during her brief stay in Hollywood in the early 1930s, but she is perfect here.
Boland practically invented the archetype of a loud, brash, domineering woman, usually seen browbeating her unfortunate husband. She is well-remembered for her work in The Women and Pride and Prejudice, and reached her apotheosis as a boorish, bull-in-a-China-shop American in Ruggles of Red Gap, opposite her frequent costar Charlie Ruggles.
But in Evenings for Sale her character is nuanced. She’s a widowed Midwesterner who has come to Vienna full of unrealistic dreams and expectations. A scene in which she drinks champagne for the first time is played so touchingly, and realistically, that your heart breaks for her. She is a pathetic creature, spared humiliation only by Marshall’s gentlemanly treatment of her.
Marshall, you see, has come low: once the scion of a proud Austrian family, he is reduced to working as a gigolo at a swanky café. When we first meet him he is planning to take his own life. But I mustn’t reveal any more. Nor would I want to oversell this charming film, which runs a mere 61 minutes.
It is surely not coincidental that Evenings for Sale was written by women. The source material was a short story by I.A.R. Wylie, the prolific, Australian-born author who provided the framework for some thirty films, notably Four Sons and Keeper of the Flame. The screenplay is credited to S.K. Lauren (a playwright whose film credits include Blonde Venus and A Damsel in Distress) and Agnes Brand Leahy, who worked as a stenographer at Paramount before getting an opportunity to write for Clara Bow in the late 1920s. She died in 1934 at the age of 40.
This bright bauble of a film was not greeted with great fanfare in 1932. Perhaps critics and moviegoers alike were spoiled. The studio issued its fair share of oddities and clinkers that year, but also sent Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, Million Dollar Legs, Horse Feathers, One Hour with You, Love Me Tonight, Blonde Venus, Night After Night, Hot Saturday, and If I Had a Million into theaters. Warner Bros. uncharacteristically emulated the sophisticated charm that was Paramount’s specialty in two Kay Francis-William Powell films released in 1932, Jewel Robbery (which opened in July) and One Way Passage (which followed in August). By the time Evenings for Sale came along in November it must have seemed anticlimactic, although The New York Times sent its critic Mordaunt Hall out to the Brooklyn Paramount theater to cover it.
Evenings for Sale has never been released on home video, but J. Compton takes credit for “restoring” the version that is available for free on YouTube and the Internet Archive ( https://archive.org/details/EveningsForSale1932Restored). A friend of mine who restores films for a living says, “The ‘restoration’ seems to consist of running image sharpening software on the file. This increases the contrast of edges/borders in the image and gives an illusion of greater detail.” It is not a perfect copy by any means; it’s a bit washed-out and has one unfortunate jump cut, but it’s more than adequate. If there is any justice, some day Universal (which owns the Paramount library of this period) will unearth the negative and offer a sparkling copy online or to Turner Classic Movies. In the meantime, I encourage you to allow yourself to fall under its spell. What a charmer!