I've been going nuts with my new DVD recorder, and burning my way through the recent flurry of pre-code Stanwycks on TCM. One maligned but lovely item - THE LOCKED DOOR (1929), one of Babs' first major speaking roles, sticks out not because of her performance, particularly, but because of Rod La Rocque as the requisite debauched womanizing cad!
The only review I could find of LOCKED online is from Dennis Schwartz who rates it a C:
The melodrama suffers from the static, stage-like look of early sound movies; it was a time when how to use sound was first being developed and still had many kinks to be worked out. Decades later when Stanwyck became a Hollywood legend, she was asked about The Locked Door and quipped: “They never should’ve unlocked the damned thing.”There's no denying its got its "kinks" but I've got a soft spot a mile deep for these old early creaky sound films. They're windows into a bygone age, a special in-transition age, all the more precious for their short window of existence (sound tech caught up pretty fast). Here we have the 'filmed play' sort of deal with what was clearly a bi-level stage, actors weaving in and out of boudoirs and titular doors to hide from one another; the old dark house as a giant bachelor apartment (danger, maidens!) vs. the spacious mansion with multi-generations of family living in it --all interesting as examples of the "pre-nuclear" family dynamic, a whole way of life that would be eradicated when the boys came home after the War and found outdated morality waiting for them back at their parent's homes; they left in droves and moved into prefabricated worlds of the future where they could have sex all the time without small town gossip.
That outdated, choking morality was the stuff of woman's pictures, which were huge at the time (I'm reading Thomas Doherty's excellent Pre-Code Hollywood right now, so consider him referenced), and most of the plots revolve around vicious old bats running free-loving hotties out of town--or, if the film is set in the city, avenging the honor of so-and-so's daughter. That's the angle of THE LOCKED DOOR, which has for its centerpiece an extended scene in La Roque's swanky bi-level bachelor pad, where Babs goes to retrieve a compromising picture (which Rod holds over her head in exchange for a tryst). Stanwyck was once (almost) taken advantage of by La Roque on an "outside the legal limit" party boat (all the rage during Prohibition) and the had their picture taken while running off the boat --her with her dress torn, under Rod's overcoat. But she can explain! Our story picks up years later where she's wealthy and married to some taciturn old duffer played by the soon-to-be-dead-from-drugs William Boyd. Rod's bought the pic to keep it out of the papers, but figures it may come in handy, when he gets real horny.
La Rocque may be the villain, but he's hilarious fun, refusing to be pigeonholed into the role of a mere cad. One can imagine Monroe Owsley or Conrad Nagel in this part being just tedious, but La Rocque will have none of their mewling surliness! No catalogue of sniveling blackmailer signifiers, he! Unabashedly tall and fey, completely at ease in his body and with the then-new trappings of sound - more so than Babs at the time, though she would have the hang of it by 1931's TEN CENTS A DANCE--he's having a grand time. I've never really soaked him up before, but he has a great Vincent Price-meets-Cary Grant macho fey vibe, contrasting his huge rows of teeth and ungainly tallness handled with a dancer's nimble grace and unabashedly feline purr of a voice. Whereas Babs and the rest of the cast seem to be acting out a drawing room drama, hitting their marks and speaking clearly and stagey, La Rocque is living his role, and his sexual ease is eye-popping. He's a complex three-dimensional villain, radiating the seductive humor and "owning my own un-okayness" of a man whose love of premarital sex, drinking, and debauchery is very anathema to its stodgy time, and rather than give them up he just gives up a pretense of morality, at least how these provincial upper dregs define it. Hell, when the moral code of the time is this repressed, it's almost a true free spirit's sworn duty to buck it. Of special interest here is Rod's rapport with his old valet (the incomparably named George Bunny), whom he treats as a co-conspiratorial equal, a mix of Leporello from DON GIOVANNI and a faux-shocked reprobate uncle in a Phillip Barrie play.
The ending has him even clearing all the suspects of his own murder via death bed statement, right before he dies, as if he feels sorry for these uptight socialites for whom a whiff of scandal is so horrific that they run around beating people up, waving guns, pleading and hiding corpses, just to avoid it. Better a murder than a quickie for these 'moral' types. His attitude all but screams "Jesus, maybe y'all wouldn't have had to shoot me if you would all just get laid once in awhile and shut up about it!" Amen, Rod, that's real morality, and in just a 40 years or so you'd be a man of your time.