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Riffraff (1936)

     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.


No Other Woman


No Other Woman (1933)

     Money (and its counterpart of greed) has been indefinitely linked with sin, and the movies have often told us tales of financial success bringing forth opportunities for infidelity. Thus is the case with No Other Woman and my upcoming review of Boom Town. The former is a roughly constructed tale of a factory worker and his wife and their rise to great fortunes through a friend’s invention. The latter addresses the ups and downs of an oilman and his wife as their level of success changes.

     What both pictures have in common is that they introduce towards each film’s end an additional female character whose interest in the male lead is primarily greed-based. Irene Dunne as Anna reluctantly marries factory worker Jim Stanley (Charles Bickford) despite having ambitions of leaving the dreary town in which they live. The couple end up supporting a friend who has found a way to use waste from the factory to create a permanent dye. The business takes off with Jim as the brains of the operation and the couple rises to great prestige.

     Jim’s powerful position, however, offers him the opportunity and excuses necessary to carry on an extramarital affair in New York City. The shallow woman (Gwili Andre) has Jim entranced with her sex appeal and works to pry her lover away from his wife and young son. Anna is unfortunately aware of the affair but refuses to grant her husband a divorce when he asks for one. The case therefore goes to court where Anna sits by and allows the opposing party to paint a false story about she having extramarital relations. Ultimately, Jim will send himself to jail and in the process destroy the value of his company’s stock. Only poverty can return the couple’s relationship to its origins.

     Stories about young love and the dutiful wife who stands by while her husband philanders are pretty common plots. They most often end with the man coming to his senses and returning to his original love and often giving up the lifestyle that elicited the external attention. No Other Woman does not put the story across in the best way. The production quality is low and Bickford is totally unlikable from the start, which makes the audience unable to accept Anna’s undying love for him and unwilling to wish for the couple’s reunion.  Dunne is sweet as ever as the unhappy wife and totally sympathetic while Andre makes herself perfectly despicable.

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