Cast & Crew
Rod La Rocque
Frank Devereaux, son of a wealthy businessman, takes Ann Carter, his father's secretary, to a floating cabaret under innocent circumstances and locks her in a private dining room; the club is raided, and their picture is taken by a news photographer. Anne leaves her job and gets another with Lawrence Reagan, whom she marries and with whom she lives happily until Devereaux begins to call on Helen, her sister-in-law. Reagan is informed by Dixon that Devereaux ruined his home; and during a confrontation between Reagan and Devereaux, the latter is accidentally shot. Ann, who is discovered locked in the room with the body, confesses to the crime; then Reagan admits his guilt; Devereaux, however, reveals on his deathbed the actual circumstances.
Rod La Rocque
Greta Von Rue
The Locked Door
Newly married Barbara Stanwyck arrived in Hollywood in February 1929 with her husband, comedian Frank Fay. She had won accolades as a stage actress in New York for her dramatic role in The Noose and her performance in the crowd-pleasing Burlesque. Several studio stalwarts had caught Stanwyck in Burlesque and made tentative offers of movie contracts, including Louis B. Mayer of MGM, an executive from Paramount, and Joseph Schenck for United Artists. But, Stanwyck did not want to leave Fay, and he discouraged her from making this career move - literally and figuratively - without him. The egotistical comedian changed his mind when Hollywood began courting him; then both he and Stanwyck rode west with producer Schenck in the latter's private rail car.
Schenck offered the 21-year-old actress The Locked Door, which she always called her first film. However, back in New York in 1927, she had done a screen test for Cosmopolitan. The test did not go well primarily because the director did not take advantage of Stanwyck's dramatic skills and because the cinematographer made unwelcome advances on Barbara. She did end up with a tiny role in a forgettable film called Broadway Nights (1927), which was released through First National, but she had nothing good to say about the experience.
The Locked Door tells the story of working-class girl Ann Carter, who is taken to an illegal floating cabaret by her boss's son, Frank Devereaux (Rod La Rocque). During the Prohibition era, yachts harbored off the coasts of major cities were often used as temporary night clubs. Called floating cabarets, these joints offered illegal gambling and bootleg liquor, so Ann's rendezvous with the wealthy playboy is not a proper date for a nice girl. When the police raid the cabaret, she and Devereaux are photographed together by the press. Some time later, Ann marries her new boss, prominent attorney Lawrence Reagan (William Boyd), and settles downs to a better life. Their happy marriage is disrupted when the bride discovers Devereaux is dating her sister-in-law, Helen (Betty Bronson). Ann demands Devereaux leave Helen alone, but he threatens to use the photograph of him and Ann to expose their notorious night together. Later, Reagan and Devereaux clash over the playboy's sordid behavior, leading to Devereaux's accidental shooting. When Ann is discovered in the playboy's locked apartment with the body, she confesses to the crime to save her husband from prison. But, Reagan will not let his wife take the rap.
Ann Carter was the first in a series of roles that helped the young actress establish her screen persona as the sympathetic dame with a past. After The Locked Door, Stanwyck began to specialize in playing social mavericks or working class girls who didn't always follow the rules of proper behavior in their efforts to get ahead, or to just survive. These were women who had grown weary of financial burden, cynical from constantly dodging the passes of rich men, and hardened from having children out of wedlock. Yet, these characters had strong hearts and fiery spirits, and audiences could see the suffering beneath the hardened exterior. Her characters may have taken a wrong moral turn, but they remained sympathetic. Depression-era Americans, who were struggling with economic hardships themselves, could relate to the difficult decisions and impossible situations her characters faced. Over the next few years, Stanwyck played this type of role in such films as Ladies of Leisure (1930), Forbidden (1932), Ten Cents a Dance (1931), and Baby Face (1933), among others. In 1934, after the introduction of the Motion Picture Production Code (the Hays Code of censorship), her screen image was altered or expanded to include more traditional female protagonists, because adulteresses, women with illegitimate children, or party girls were no longer acceptable as sympathetic leading ladies. But, the "tough-talking dame" aspect of her screen persona remained.
Stanwyck's throaty voice and no-nonsense delivery were part of her tough but vulnerable screen persona, and it was fortuitous that she arrived in Hollywood just as talkies were all the rage. The reason why so many studio executives had seen her stage performances in the first place was because most of Hollywood was scouting Broadway looking for actors who could handle dialogue. Aside from Stanwyck, other actors from the 1928 theater season who had been lured to the West Coast included Claudette Colbert, Cary Grant, Ann Harding, and Miriam Hopkins.
Likewise, studio script departments were looking for dialogue-driven plays to bring to the screen. The Locked Door was adapted from Channing Pollock's 1919 play The Sign on the Door. While the story had been turned into a silent drama in 1922 starring Norma Talmadge, the dialogue was the attraction for the Stanwyck version.
The entire industry may have been mobilized into action to please audiences hungry for talking films, but most studios and their personnel struggled to conquer the new medium. George Fitzmaurice, the director of The Locked Door, had worked with such big names as Rudolph Valentino and Vilma Banky, earning a reputation for getting the best out of his actors. Unfortunately, this was his first sound film, and he was so frustrated by the cumbersome sound technology that he had little time to help Stanwyck adjust her acting technique for the big screen. Fitzmaurice was at the mercy of the sound engineer on this film, whose concern was not whether the actors were good or the blocking dynamic but whether the dialogue was audible. The emphasis on clarity of speech as opposed to acting is evident in the way the actors tend to pause at the beginning and end of each line, making conversation among the characters forced or unnatural. Also, most of the actors enunciate slowly and deliberately so that each syllable is obvious. In the opening scene, Frank Devereaux tempts Ann with the promise of jewels and furs, but Rod La Rocque doesn't sound very debonair when he offers her "di-a-monds, rooo-bies, and furrrrrrrs."
The sets were designed by William Cameron Menzies, one of the studio system's most notable production designers, though his work in The Locked Door is overshadowed by the many flower vases, flower arrangements, and fruit bowls used to conceal the microphones. The characters are blocked based on where the mikes are hidden and nary a conversation goes on in the Reagan mansion without flowers lurking nearby. Devereaux's apartment contains several fruit bowls and objets d'art, revealing the obvious hiding places for the microphones in that set.
During the early sound era, the cameras were encased in sound-proof booths with intricate and tricky wiring, making film crews loathe to move the camera very much. Subsequently, the number of shots and camera positions for any given film were greatly reduced. The Locked Door not only suffers from the static, stage-like look of early sound movies, it contains few close-ups of the actors. Those that do grace the film tend to be stilted or awkward looking.
Though the sound quality suffers from the cumbersome equipment and the inexperience of the crew, the film exploits sound in a variety of ways to appeal to the audiences' fascination with the new medium. Zasu Pitts appears in a small role as a telephone operator, and her heavy New York accent makes the character more memorable and humorous than was written on the page. During the fight between Devereaux and Reagan, Ann stands behind a door growing ever more agitated as she listens - along with the audience - to every grunt, gasp, bang, and thump. And finally, Ann's planned confession near the end involves the sound of gunshots heard over the telephone as proof of the crime and her involvement.
Stanwyck did receive some positive critical responses for her performance in The Locked Door, as did the other cast members. The New York Times noted that Stanwyck "acquits herself favorably," while complimenting William Boyd's "excellent work." Variety allowed that Stanwyck, La Rocque, Boyd, and Bronson saved the film from "dullness," and they singled out veteran Zasu Pitts for supplying comic relief, noting she "never misses a studio trick." While the film was not exactly skewered by the reviewers, the plot and genre were taken to task for being "rusty and worn." The final word on the film's worthiness comes from Stanwyck herself who was never happy with her early work. Decades later, when the Hollywood legend was asked about The Locked Door, Stanwyck quipped, "They never should've unlocked the damned thing."
Producer: George Fitzmaurice
Director: George Fitzmaurice
Screenplay: C. Gardner Sullivan; George Scarborough (dialogue), Earle Browne (additional dialogue); Channing Pollock (play "The Sign on the Door")
Cinematography: Ray June
Art Direction: William Cameron Menzies
Film Editing: Hal C. Kern
Cast: Rod La Rocque (Frank Devereaux), Barbara Stanwyck (Ann Carter), William 'Stage' Boyd (Lawrence Reagan), Betty Bronson (Helen Reagan), Harry Stubbs (The Waiter), Harry Mestayer (District Attorney), Mack Swain (Hotel Proprietor).
by Susan Doll
The Locked Door
Remake of The Sign on the Door, 1921.