I would not necessarily think of Jean Harlow and Spencer Tracy as a logical couple. Although he played notable lower-class parts, I generally think of Tracy as a gentleman, something Harlow’s characters do not often find themselves with. In Riffraff, however, Tracy creates a character just low enough for a slightly more conservative Harlow to love.
Harlow as Hattie lives in a cramped shack of a home with her father, brother, sister, brother-in-law and their kids. She still manages to keep her hair curled and her face fresh despite working in a tuna cannery, where most women in this sea-side town are employed. The same cannot be said of sister, Lil (Una Merkel), who has let her looks go as she endeavors to keep up with her children.
Tracy as Dutch, meanwhile, is one of many men in the fishermen’s union working under Nick Lewis (Joseph Calleia), who has gotten rich from his tuna business. Dutch starts the film brushing off affections from Hattie, who has been in a love-hate state with the man for some time.
Dutch’s affections warm toward Hattie when she starts going around with and accepting furs from Nick. Dutch and Hattie, therefore, get married, and the groom buys a house full of fine furnishings purchased on the installment plan. Dutch soon becomes the union president and calls for a strike, which is eventually resolved to the union’s detriment and Dutch is replaced at the helm. Penniless, debt collectors come calling and take all of the couple’s furniture. Ashamed, the man leaves for another city and says he will send for Hattie when he has made his fortune.
Months later, Hattie discovers her husband is living in a homeless camp and steals money from Nick to help him. The crime lands her in jail, however, and to make matters worse, she’s pregnant. The baby is taken away from her in prison and no one in the family tells Dutch as Lil looks after him. The disgraced fisherman returns to town and discovers the union will not take him back, but he manages to land a security job on the docks. In that role he saves the whole town from being blown up and is thrown a hero’s party.
Hattie has meanwhile escaped for prison and is waiting for Dutch to rescue her and take her to Mexico. The couple, celebrating the revelation of Dutch’s child, opt not to run.
There is not much to be said about Riffraff. It is a moderately amusing movie with a plot that seems to make things continually worse as the story goes on. There are few moments of happiness between the couple –when they move into their house and the ending– but their passion for one another is evident. The fact that they stand on the precipice of again being separated at the film’s conclusion and yet are their most happy is what embodies their relationship. Unfortunately, the love and passion between the two lovers is not portrayed in such a way that we ache for their reunion. This is no Wuthering Heights or Splendor in the Grass in terms of gut-wrenching performances. Nevertheless it’s an enjoyable picture. I should mention a young Mickey Rooney also adds some humor as Hattie’s brother. His performance is fun, but one wouldn’t watch Riffraff just for him.