Riffraff

Gasser

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.

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Saratoga

Saratoga (1937)

Gasser

     I had mentioned when reviewing Jean Harlow’s Platinum Blonde that it was odd to see the sexy, sassy gal playing a high-society dame, but in Saratoga that same sort of part fits a bit more comfortably on the star. She is like usual paired opposite Clark Gable in what would be her last picture before dying at age 26.

     Harlow had developed kidney failure, later attributed to scarlet fever in her youth, that slowly broke down the star’s health. Filming was 90% complete on Saratoga when she died much to the surprise of all around her. In order to produce a tribute and profit off the fans that wanted one last view of the blonde, MGM employed separate body and voice doubles to allow Harlow’s character, somewhat noticeably, to hide behind large hats or face away from the camera. Saratoga was top at the box office in 1937.

     The story follows Gable as Duke Bradley who is not just a horse-racing book keeper but a pal to Frank Clayton (Jonathan Hale) who owns a horse-breeding farm but is also in debt to the bookie. Frank hands over the deed to his farm as collateral just before dying. Duke naturally plans to give the deed to the daughter, Carol Clayton (Harlow) but when the snooty brat makes plans to pay him for it, he decides to take her for a ride. Carol plans to wed a Wall Street big shot Hartley Madison (Walter Pidgeon) whom Duke knows as a big gambler and the perfect mark. Duke continues to annoy Carol as the two travel to various horse races. Also along is Duke’s friend Fritzi, played by Una Merkel, who has married cosmetic magnate Jesse Kiffmeyer (Frank Morgan). She loves horses and tricks her hubby into buying one at auction despite his being allergic. Hartley has also been duped into buying Carol’s own horse.

     Duke has offered Carol a cut of whatever he takes her husband-to-be for in horse racing bets, but the girl is offended and the feud between them begins. Once in Florida, Duke is really set to put his plan in motion, but Carol works to send Hartley away so he is not tempted to gamble. In the process, a doctor diagnoses her with nerves related to …uh… eager anticipation of their wedding night. Duke also refuses to leave her hotel room when Harley returns, and so the intruder hides under a couch while Carol smokes his cigar and insists Hartley stay in Florida. Upon leaving, Duke gives the gal a smooch and we see a change in her disposition.

     From here it is clear Carol is working to help Duke make a mighty profit on her fiancée, whose resources are essentially unending. When the blonde tells Duke she loves him and that she is breaking it off with her beau, the man objects because he has yet to get him for a much larger prize. What he does not tell Carol, however, is that he wants to get enough money to leave the book-keeping business and fix up the girl’s farm. So the two are at odds again and Carol connives to have the horse Duke is sure will win a big race –Fritzie’s horse– lose by switching jockeys.

     Harlow and Gable for the last time get their on screen happy ending together. Their characters here are much more subdued than the harsh criminal or tough-guy/slut personas they embodied in the past, but it makes them more every-man. Despite playing a socialite donned in conservative dress and pearls, Harlow’s character still manages to pack a punch with her words and attitude so we get a nice mix of class and lively sass.

Source: TCM.com

True Confession

Ring a Ding Ding

True Confession (1937)

     I mentioned before that the first on-screen pairing of Carole Lombard and Fred MacMurray was a bit lack luster on the latter actor’s part, but when the two reunited two years later for True Confession they had something better going on. Lombard still far outshines her male counterpart but MacMurray at least is a more seasoned comedian by this point, which helps to back the hilarity the actress brings to the screen.

     Lombard brought all kinds of unique character traits to her role of Helen Bartlett, some of which were scripted and others that make me certain this part would have been entirely different if portrayed by another actress. We first see Helen scuffling up the stairs of her apartment building while muttering something repeatedly to herself before sitting down to the telephone in her flat and recounting some gossip to her lawyer husband (MacMurray) that could mean a case for the less-than-successful attorney. It seems the butcher’s son is charged with stealing a van full of hams. Having his scruples, however, means that lawyer Kenneth Bartlett will not defend a guilty party. The alleged thief says he did not steal the hams but will not be able to pay Kenneth until he gets money from selling the hams. Naturally, the attorney throws him out.

     We now have the groundwork for this ruthlessly honest lawyer and as we spend more time with Helen –an unsuccessful fiction writer– we find she is a compulsive liar, having duped a man sent to repossess her typewriter into believing her husband is insane and thinks the machine his baby. Looking to earn some money to support the family but wanting to hide the work from her disapproving husband, Helen takes a job with a rich man who needs a personal secretary four days a week, three hours a day for $50 per week. The deal is really too good to be true, which Helen learns as the man starts chasing her around his home office before she socks him in the gut and runs out.

     When Helen returns later with the moral support of friend Daisy (Una Merkel) to retrieve her hat, purse and coat, the police arrive immediately because it seems the man has just been shot dead. The confusion has Helen looking mighty guilty. She is taken to the police headquarters and as the detective begins to verbally construct his presumed sequence of events, Helen –story writer that she is– one-ups him with a better explanation of why she killed him, before again denying the crime. The police even find a gun in the Bartlett home with two bullets missing (Helen had fired them at a tree as research for her writing) and determine her gun killed the man.

     When Kenneth comes to his wife in jail he naturally presumes she killed the man as self-defense, and thinking that given the mounds of evidence against her make that explanation more likely than her innocence, Helen rolls with it. Here enters John Barrymore as the excessively creepy Charley, a mad man whom we quickly assume is the actual murderer. He follows the trial intently, sitting beside Daisy in court and noisily deflating a balloon throughout. He repeatedly insists Helen will “fry” but Kenneth gets the gal off. The now-successful writer-lawyer couple are enjoying a wealthy life when Charley decides he wants to claim the luxuries he naturally thinks belong to him, given he is the actual murderer.

     Lombard is possibly at her best in True Confessions, which I realize is a bold statement given the public’s general love of My Man Godfrey. Her character is so impulsive, often sticking her tongue into her cheek as a signal to us she has just thought up a doozy of a lie. MacMurray also has to hold her back as she attempts to throw things at the prosecuting attorney during the trial or threatens to beat him up. As I said, MacMurray –whom I generally consider to be a great comedic performer– pales in comparison to this woman, but as he should. The two characters are on the opposite sides of the spectrum in their beliefs and so too are the qualities of their personalities.

     Barrymore, who shows up about half way through, could have upstaged both the leads had he been given more screen time. In a purely comedic movie, he gives a dramatic performance that genuinely conveys the personality of a mad man. He makes no motion to gain a laugh deliberately, instead adhering to the sociopathic glitches for which his character calls. Barrymore also appeared with Lombard in 1934’s Twentieth Century in which the two play actors whose dramatic personalities lead to equally hair-brained action aboard a train. Also a very good watch.

Born to Dance

Gasser

Born to Dance (1936)

     If I were to grade Born to Dance based on its storyline and acting, I’d give it a Dullsville. When considering the dancing alone, however, this flick would be worthy of a Ring a Ding Ding rating. Assuming that my screwy rating system in some way equates to numbers, the math had me conclude an in-between rating of Gasser was appropriate.

     Eleanor Powell was one hell of a dancer. Growing up around tap dancers, I consider myself not easily impressed by the dancing performances of these bygone eras that stand up as mediocre against today’s performers. Powell, however, was top tier among on-screen dancers in the 1930s. In fact Born to Dance, her third film, was used by the dancer as a way to showcase her talent and attract the attention of other Hollywood dancing greats, such as Fred Astaire and Gene Kelly, who indeed took notice. Powell was a hoofer –or tap dancer by today’s terms– and could move her feet as fast as Astaire. She could also turn better than any other movie musical star of which I can think. On the acting front, however, I find her miserable to watch.

     Powell’s overly toothy smile has less emotion behind it than a smile would suggest. Her facial expressions seem terribly limited and the romantic story she finds herself in here seems utterly lost on the young woman. Her final dance routine in the flick is much more enjoyable if you avoid looking at her face.

     Powell is Nora, a girl who’s been living in New York a short while hoping to land a job as a dancer, if only she could get a break. She ends up rooming with a woman whose sailor husband has been at sea for all four years of their marriage and has no idea he has a daughter. This woman, Jenny (Una Merkel) works as a hotel desk clerk and seems to reside in a room behind the desk.

     So at the same time Nora is dancing around this hotel lobby, a naval ship is docked in New York harbor and Gunny Sacks (Sid Silvers) –that estranged husband– and Ted Barker, played by Jimmy Stewart, are heading to shore. Upon reuniting with her husband, Jenny is unthrilled with her selection of a mate and rejects him. Ted and Nora, however, hit it off immediately. Their romance is complicated, however, when musical theater star Lucy James (Virginia Bruce) looks to date Ted as a publicity stunt before actually falling for him. The drama leads to a break between Nora and Ted and eventually to Nora standing in for Lucy on opening night of her new musical.

     Cole Porter (my favorite song writer) wrote the music for Born to Dance. Although many of the songs would not find life beyond this picture, “I’ve Got You Under My Skin” and “You’d Be So Easy to Love” find a home here as well. Even the unmemorable songs are better than the average musical number found in many of the musicals of the 1930s, but that’s Porter for you. And thanks to Powell, the dance routines are more entertaining than average also, I found. Thankfully they rely less on mass groups of out-of-sync dancers and focus on Powell and a few accompanying dancers. No Busby Berkeley-style productions here.

     Stewart seems entirely out of place in a musical, but he survives alright. His acting makes up for the lack of performance coming from Powell’s face. His singing is rough, but not awful. Originally, another singer recorded the tracks for him, but producers found the singing too smooth and different from Stewart’s singing voice, so they were sacked. No dancing from Stewart in Born to Dance, so he at least saved face on that front.

  • Born to Dance is set for 10:30 a.m. ET July 22 on TCM.

Source: Robert Osborne

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