A night out at the hottest club in NYC. Image: Wikimedia Commons

Hollywood likes to make movies about poor, kindhearted individuals who acquire sudden wealth.

But what happens when that unexpected windfall ruins your love life?

Just ask Betty Hutton’s character in the musical comedy The Stork Club (1945). Hutton plays a hat check girl who works at the glamorous See-And-Be-Seen night spot, New York’s famed Stork Club.

Alas! On her day off, she has the misfortune of rescuing a miserable millionaire (Barry Fitzgerald) when he falls off a pier. Not only that, she thinks he’s homeless, and she arranges for him to be hired as a busboy at the club. As a gesture of gratitude – for saving his life, not for the crummy job – the stingy Fitzgerald decides to become her anonymous benefactor.

Fitzgerald’s lawyer (Robert Benchley) delivers a letter to Hutton that outlines her new benefits, including a luxurious apartment and an account at a swishy Fifth Avenue department store.

However, Benchley’s letter also thanks Hutton for being “very accommodating”, a phrase that can be taken a number of ways – especially by her boyfriend (Don DeFore) when he returns to New York after WWII.

DeFore doesn’t believe Hutton lives the Luxury Life for nothing, and who can blame him? So Hutton invents a wild story involving Fitzgerald: See this homeless man? I saved his life, but he’s really very rich and he’s given me all this in gratitude.

It’s not a story any reasonable person would believe. Indeed, we ourselves wouldn’t have believed it if we hadn’t been watching the movie.

DeFore certainly ain’t buying it, and, far as he’s concerned, his relationship with Hutton is Over.

The disapproving Dan Defore (left). Image: Pinterest

Manhattan’s Stork Club was an actual place and, during its Heyday, it was one of the most illustrious clubs in the world. It was famous for enticing celebrities who – then, as now – created a buzz and attracted hordes of well-heeled customers. It was, as they say, a License to Print Money.

It was established in 1929* by Sherman Billingsley, an ex-bootlegger whose life would make a fascinating film.

Stories about the joint are legendary, whether true or not. Humphrey Bogart was allegedly banned after he argued with Billingsley, and Ernest Hemingway supposedly cashed a cheque for film rights to clear his bar tab.

The club was so exclusive. You could get in only if the doorman allowed it, and he had to unhook a (14kt) gold chain to let you through. According to Untapped New York, owner Billingsley “pampered the most famous celebrities by buying them booze…and he employed a photographer to document every night and give the photos to the tabloids.”¹

“Guests were expected to dress to high standards,” says Wikipedia, “with men wearing evening suits and the women wearing ‘gowns with silk gloves reaching the elbow’. … A requirement for all men was a necktie; those who were not wearing one were either lent one or had to buy one to gain admittance.”²

For years, Billingsley made shrewd business decisions – until he didn’t. But in the mid-1940s, his club was the focal point of a Hollywood film, and he himself was portrayed in a Very Flattering Light.

As for the use of the name “Stork Club” in the movie, Billingsley’s fee was $100,000.³

Inside the real Stork Club, 1944. How many celebs do you see? Image: Untapped New York

The Stork Club (the film) has a predictable outcome, but the characters are delightfully cynical. Their jaundiced outlook makes for some amusing scenes and surprisingly funny lines.

For example, when the misanthropic Fitzgerald tells his lawyer he’s going to become a generous benefactor, Benchley barks, “Well, you can count me out.”

In another scene, Hutton introduces the freshly-rescued Fitzgerald to her friend and co-worker (Iris Adrian):
Hutton (to Fitzgerald): “You’re still alive!”
Adrian: “Is he?”
Hutton (to Adrian): “I pulled him out of the ocean.”
Adrian: “Why?”

Naturally, being a musical, there’s lots of singing – DeFore’s character is a band leader, after all – but this film doesn’t feel like mindless fluff. It has a bit of an Edge.

*The Stork Club closed in 1965. But you can still catch the movie at The Film Detective in February.

The Stork Club: starring Betty Hutton, Barry Fitzgerald, Don DeFore. Directed by Hal Walker. Written by B.G. DeSylva & John McGowan. Paramount Pictures, 1945, B&W, 98 mins.


¹Untapped New York. (Retrieved February 9, 2020.) Vintage NYC Photography: The Swanky Stork Club Where Hemingway, the Vanderbilts and the Kennedys Hobnobbed, by Sabrina Romano.
²Wikipedia. (Retrieved February 6, 2020.) Stork Club.

Happily blogging about old movies and using the royal "We".

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