"I got a living to earn for two and I can't do it in Kentucky. You got to take your spoon where the soup is." - Letty
"Well, the soup's hot in New York, kid. You're likely to get burned." - Carol
Letty ( Madge Evans ) is a small-town girl who heads to New York City to work at Madame Sonia Barton's beauty salon. While there, she falls in love with Sherwood ( Otto Kruger ), the husband of one of her clients ( Alice Brady ). He does not want to divorce his wife and so Letty must decide whether to leave him or have a backstairs relationship with him for the rest of her life.
MGM's Beauty for Sale was one of many variations of the oft-used three-working-girls plot first popularized in Sally, Irene, and Mary in 1925. It was still fresh in the 1930s and by altering the setting MGM was able to reuse it successfully throughout the decade in other films, none quite as good as this one.
The three beauty parlor girls are played by Madge Evans, Una Merkel, and Florine McKinney, all of whom are low on lover's luck. Carol ( Merkel ) had a sour experience with real love that left her bitter and so she sets her eyes on catching a rich sugar daddy instead...which she does. Jane ( McKinney ) has fallen in love with Madame Sonia's son ( Phillips Holmes ) but is quickly abandoned when he learns she is pregnant.
Letty judges her relationship with Sherwood in the light of both of her friend's experiences and decides to part ways with him. She reluctantly returns to her hometown beau ( Eddie Nugent ) but quickly regrets this decision.
"I didn't make the world the way it is, but I gotta live in it."
A 1933 review from Variety magazine pegged Beauty of Sale perfectly: "Pulp magazine fiction made for subway-riding stenographers...romantic hoke skillfully dressed up."
It may be hoke, but mighty entertaining hoke it is! Beauty for Sale has a well-shaken blend of drama and comedy. It begins with sentimentality, reaches a dramatic climax, and then takes a sudden and brief dip into screwball comedy. This may sound like a potent mixture for an MGM film, yet the final result is quite pleasing. The film was the forerunner of the lush - and much more dramatic - melodramas of the 1950s ( e.g. Three Coins in a Fountain, The Best of Everything ), and like those films, even when you know the ending you can sit through them over and over again and still enjoy it.
"It's a pity mother didn't drown you as a pup!" - Carol
Eve Green and Zelda Sear's script, based on the Faith Baldwin novel "Beauty", is positively sparkling with wit. Una Merkel is given the best wisecracks, Alice Brady the most humorous lines, and Madge Evans has some of the sauciest remarks in the script. The direction, by Richard Boleslavsky ( Theodora Goes Wild ), is fast-paced and the cinematography is lovely. James Wong Howe used some clever angle shots and an abundance of soft-focus lenses. Madge Evans' close-ups are particularly beautiful.
Evans was one of the most irresistible actresses to ever come out of Hollywood. She was also one of only a handful of child stars to have made a successful transition into being a leading lady of the screen. Her pre-code films were her best and Beauty for Sale ranks as one of her most popular films.
In 1933, Evans and Merkel were the most in-demand players on MGM's roster with Evans making 16 films between 1933 and 34. She was often teamed with Robert Montgomery but Madge seems more enthralled by Otto Kruger than she ever was with Mr. Montgomery. They have wonderful on-screen chemistry together which is especially evident in one scene early in their relationship. Letty comes out of a restaurant during a thunderstorm and runs under a stoop only to bump into Sherwood. "There are only two things I am afraid of," she tells him, "thunderstorms and caterpillars!" Then a clap of thunder sends her flying into his arms.
Kruger is quite effective as the unassuming lover even though Edmund Lowe or Warren William could have made an equally charming Sherwood. The cast is a who's-who of recognizable 1930s film characters. Alice Brady plays one of her usual dithery society dames, Charley Grapewin has a great part as Carol's benevolent boyfriend, Hedda Hopper plays the lofty Madame Sonia, and the great May Robson has a wonderful part as the mother of Letty's hometown boyfriend, Bill.
Beauty for Sale is available on Warner Archive's DVD and is shown periodically on television. If this film catches your fancy then be sure to check out Danny Reid's fabulous review at Pre-Code.com. He has loads of screenshots to enjoy, plus some neat gifs ( some of which we stole above ).