Dick Powell must have accomplished one of the more remarkable mid-career transformations of any actor from the Golden Age of Hollywood. I still experience a sense of cognitive dissonance whenever I try to think of the boyish, endearing, and dulcet tenor as the wry cynic of hard-boiled noir. He’s convincing in both manifestations, but it’s hard to think of him as the same person.
Happiness Ahead is squarely in the boyish tenor mode of his early years at Warner Bros. The film was released in 1934, around the time the Production Code was more strongly enforced, so there is little to set this film apart as a pre-code film, but it is simple, unpretentious fun.
Joan Bradford (Josephine Hutchinson) is the rich daughter of a wall street tycoon who is bored with her stuffy life and the financial pragmatism of her mother. Her father (John Halliday), however, is sympathetic to her feelings, especially since he worked his way up from newsboy. Her mother wants her to marry an equally rich man, but Joan rebels and goes out on the town to mingle with the masses.
At a Chinese nightclub, she meets Bob Lane (Dick Powell), office manager at a window washing firm and they are instantly attracted to each other. Bob and his party of friends think she’s poor and out of work (the women of the group even offer to help her find a job), so Joan decides to set up an apartment and pretend to be a working class girl like them, fearing knowledge of her wealth would change how they interact with her.
In a way, she’s trying to have the best of both worlds. The camaraderie and unaffected pleasures of the working classes (roller skating rather than opera and polo) with the wealth to be able to afford to do and live however she chooses (she even rents a piano in her apartment so she can have her new friends over for a party). However, she doesn’t know exactly how to live as a working class girl. She forgets to turn off the lights in her apartment when she leaves (something no person counting their pennies would do) and is nonchalant when one friend breaks the window in her apartment kitchen. In various ways, the film contrasts the way the rich and the poor live, though it seems to want to have it both ways, too. The film ends up like a reverse Cinderella tale for Dick Powell’s Bob.
He works in the office, as well as a window washer (trying to inspire the men, who are being threatened by a rival window washing company – a side-plot that hovers on the periphery of the film). He has a scheme to go into business for himself and he has his sales pitch down pat. And once the misunderstandings that naturally arise when Joan’s deception is discovered are cleared up, you know that his association with her father will bring him unexpected wealth.
The film is a musical, with all the songs sung by Dick Powell (with one duet with Frank McHugh). None of the songs are especially memorable or became standards, but they are pleasant and were composed by Allie Wrubel (who is best remembered for composing the music for “Zip-a-Dee-Doo-Dah”).
The film also has Warner Brothers’ usual array of character actors: Frank McHugh, Ruth Donnelly, Allen Jenkins, Jane Darwell. I was a little surprised to see Jane Darwell’s name at the bottom of the cast list, but I don’t think she really achieved wide recognition until she played Ma Joad in The Grapes of Wrath. I’ve seen her play a motherly sort so often, it was interesting to see her play the sour and irascible landlady in Happiness Ahead.