Posted in Examining Harlow

Movie Review: Red-Headed Woman

Our examination of FilmStruck’s Jean Harlow series continues today with a look at Red-Headed Woman. The 1932 drama marks what can best be termed as the beginning of Harlow’s tenure as MGM’s resident “Blonde Bombshell”. The highly problematic Pre-Code film is a fascinating and definitely complicated viewing, especially when approached from a contemporary perspective. The movie is an interesting study in star persona, and also in sex and gender, continuing to show just how interesting the Pre-Code era in Hollywood was.

Red-Headed Woman follows secretary Lillian “Red” Andrews (Jean Harlow) as she burns her way through the love and friendship of the men around her in hopes of landing a rich husband. Along the way, she destroys a marriage (Chester Morris and Leila Hyams) as well as breaks a heart (Henry Stephenson). The film is directed by Jack Conway from a script by Anita Loos and F. Scott Fitzgerald (to name a few).

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What is striking is how thoroughly unlikable Lillian is in this film. While she’s played gold diggers in other films, most notably The Girl from Missouri, this part is as close to unreedemable as she seems to get. Both films show Harlow’s characters as girls just trying to make something of themselves (it is the Depression, dearie). However, while Eadie values her respectability in The Girl from Missouri, Lil doesn’t care who she hurts (or screws) if it means getting what she wants. In fact, in a particularly annoying pattern, whenever someone (male) attempts to call her out on her behaviour, Lil somehow manages to baby-talk her way out of it. Lil is not a character for women. Rather, this one is written for the boys. While Harlow’s later roles are not always the most likeable, her “neighbourhood girl” quality is always relatable. Red-Headed Woman feels like a stark contrast from her other work, as Harlow is very much the antagonist of this picture. In fact, it is a definite stretch to see just how Red-Headed Woman (outside of a likely fierce studio publicity effort) built what would later become her star persona.

Red-Headed Woman is the first film where we truly see Harlow’s accepted star persona taking shape. Prior to this film, most of her filmography includes bit parts and uncredited roles. The only exceptions are Public Enemy and her breakout in Hell’s Angels. One more film, Platinum Blonde, features Harlow billed third under Loretta Young and Robert Williams. Red-Headed Woman opens with a self-reflexive line, a smiling Harlow stares straight into the camera, “Who says blondes have more fun?”. Even those who are unfamiliar with Harlow’s in-depth career are still likely familiar with her platinum blonde hair as well as her blonde bombshell reputation. This is truly a star-making vehicle for the young actress.

In Red-Headed Woman the narrative sets up an early example of the uncontrollable, toxic masculinity. In fact, it is set-up almost in the opening scene that Bill (Chester Morris) is so completely aroused by Harlow’s “Red” that he actively avoids her out of his fear of what “he’ll do” to her. We see this same character trait pop up two years later in The Girl from Missouri when Eadie is finally alone with Tom (Franchot Tone). He tells her to get far away because, “You’ll be sorry, and I’ll feel like a heel”. This view is still disturbingly prevalent in contemporary popular culture, allowing men to place blame for crimes of a sexual nature squarely on the shoulders of their victims. They just shouldn’t have been so beautiful. How can men be expected to control themselves?

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Like Red, it’s a challenge to truly feel bad for our protagonist, Bill. However, this admittedly results from examining the film through a contemporary perspective. Ultimately, he is responsible for his own actions. Red is not a demon who pulls a man in with every hip wiggle… it doesn’t matter how many times the narrative tries to tell us otherwise. Men do have a say in cheating on and leaving their wives. However, Morris brings a definite youth and vulnerability to the role, which plays into this perceived helplessness (and at the same time, his likability). Interestingly, Morris later developed a reputation as somewhat of a heavy, playing lead in a number of crime and detective pictures. However, his youth which comes across in his performance is absolutely vital to this role, setting Red firmly as the antagonist. Ultimately, Bill would have been a completely different role in the hands of a Gable, or even a Robert Montgomery, once again showing just how important star persona can be in the casting of a movie.

However, perhaps most worthy of discussion is the presence of violence against Red, particularly early in the film’s narrative. We’ve seen this in two of Harlow’s later films (so far!) in The Girl from Missouri and Red Dust. In both of these films, we see Harlow on the receiving end of some fairly substantial physical violence. However, in this first film it is at a new level. We see the tension escalating between Bill and Irene (Hyams) early in the movie. He soon goes to see Red after she makes yet another play for his affections. Holding her roughly by the arms, Bill gives the (much smaller) Red an open palmed slap across the cheek, to which she responds “Go ahead, do it again! I liked it!”. Later, he throws her to the ground. The shot then cuts to see Sally (Una Merkel) listening at the door. We hear thuds and cries. After a few minutes the shot returns inside to see Lillian still on the floor, crying. It’s not a huge stretch of the imagination to assume that Bill just raped her. The audience hasn’t seen her true colours yet, but as we said after The Girl from Missouri, she’s a gold-digger, she deserves it… right?

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Perhaps even more surprising, at least when viewed through a contemporary perspective is that the very next shot after the assumed rape shows the Legendre’s getting divorced (followed then by his quickie marriage to Red). How is this ultimately productive for either one of them? It doesn’t get much more problematic than this…

Perhaps one of the most difficult jumps to make about this film involves the narrative progression towards the ending. Coming at Red-Headed Woman from a contemporary perspective, it is quite difficult to shake the expectations of The Production Code. All of these characters are horrendously unlikable and they each do some pretty terrible things. It ultimately feels right that there should be some punishment doled out at the end. However, in Pre-Code fashion, this isn’t the case. After the drama peaks (with Lillian shooting Bill as he tries to go off with Irene), the action cuts to a few months in the future, and everyone is happy. While this is fascinating to watch, it feels forced when considering this particular group of characters. Someone almost needs to be punished.

In watching Red-Headed Woman, the film stands as yet another fascinating study in star persona. With only one exception prior, the film marks the beginning of Jean Harlow’s rise to popularity during the 1930s. However, the movie is also drastic outlier in terms of Harlow’s work. How does this baby-talking somewhat detestable gold-digger  turn into the fondly remembered star she would become?

Red-Headed Woman is currently streaming on FilmStruck.

Posted in Uncategorized

Movie Review: Red Dust

Our latest look into Jean Harlow’s filmography jumps very early into the actress’ career with the 1932 gem, Red Dust. The romantic dramedy is an exotic Pre-Code spotlighting Gable and Harlow (both soon to be cinematic legends) on the cusp of their exploding popularity. The movie proves to be a fascinating study in not only star persona, but also in Pre-Code cinema. This phase would be short lived however, with the introduction of The Production Code changing cinema drastically just a few years later.

Red Dust follows the action in and around a rubber plantation owned by Dennis Carson (Clark Gable). The operations of the company are interrupted by the arrival of a young prostitute named Valentine (Jean Harlow). The tension grows when a new employee (Gene Raymond) falls ill just after he arrives, with only his new wife (Mary Astor) there to care for him. How will this diverse crowd live together in such close quarters. The film is directed by Victor Fleming from a script by John Lee Mahin.

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Looking at this movie along with the other Harlow films covered in this column, this is the first to not struggle with pacing issues. The narrative features the perfect amount of characters while also squeezing an appropriate amount of storyline into the less than 90 minute run time. Everything feels smooth, the character arcs make sense and nothing is rushed. As years passed, Harlow’s films grew much larger and far more complicated, leaving the stories struggling under the weight of their massive budgets.

Star persona is a fascinating thing. Clark Gable, and particularly Pre-Code Gable, is a study in this. Let’s draw a comparison between a Pre-Code Gable in Red Dust (1932) and a equally Pre-Code Franchot Tone in The Girl from Missouri (1934). In both films, the men treat Harlow’s character in much the same way: rough and borderline abusive. However, it doesn’t feel the same. Interestingly, it actually feels somewhat less offensive coming from Gable, almost more acceptable. The same treatment coming from Tone’s character feels more hostile and threatening. While this behavior (especially in the build-up to a romantic pairing) is most definitely problematic, it is fascinating to watch how Gable’s star persona plays, especially in comparison to Harlow’s other male co-stars. What is it about Gable’s star persona which makes us forgive him for this behaviour?

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Meanwhile, the Gable/Harlow combination on screen is refreshing. It would have been very easy for the film to fall into a stereotypical good girl/bad girl narrative, placing Valentine and Barbara into direct competition with each other. Rather, in constructing the narrative as it eventually concludes, the film puts our leads (Gable and Harlow) on more equal footing. Harlow is not shown as a “fallen woman”. We see her standing on her own two feet, perfectly able to match pace with the leading man. There is a throw-away line late in the film explaining the pairing,

Dennis: It’s a dirty, rotten country.

Valentine: And we’re dirty, rotten people, I suppose…

Ultimately, these two are supposed to end up together and the narrative knows this. They are the couple we’re supposed to be rooting for. The narrative embraces its characters, rather than choosing the “acceptable” sexuality over the more complicated as often occurred during the coming years.

Barbara (Astor) and Gary (a very young Gene Raymond) are our other couple. The newly weds are young, preppy and deeply in love. That is, until a Pre-Code Clark Gable enters the picture… he’s catnip for women. Suddenly, our “good” girl isn’t so good anymore. With her husband laid up with a fever, Barbara does everything she can to get with Dennis. Just a few short years later, the narrative would have punished Barbara for her behavior with either Gary’s death, or her own. However, the Pre-Code landscape does this film proud, allowing things to wrap up relatively happily.

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The narrative is aware of Barbara as the “good” girl and Valentine as the “bad” girl. In fact, it is Dennis who repeatedly drills in that these women aren’t the same. We hear him threaten Valentine to stay away from Barbara. He doesn’t want to see “her sort” threaten the newlywed’s delicate sensibilities.

Most problematic in this film is the treatment of race. The movie likely takes place in southeast Asia (Saigon is mentioned repeatedly in the narrative). The depictions of Asians in the story are largely in-line with other contemporary films of this era. While the story actually makes use of Asian actors (as opposed to the “yellow” face- popular in other movies of the period) , the depictions are typical. Actor Willie Fung is the only credited actor in one of these roles (playing Dennis’ house-man “Hoy”). His role is one of comedic relief, played for its over-the-top nature. Think of Prissy (Butterfly McQueen) in Gone with the Wind. There’s no question as to how problematic these takes are; however, this film stands as no-better and no-worse than the work being made in Hollywood during this period.

Willie Fung was reportedly born in China. The actor worked extensively, wracking up 138 credits between 1922 and 1938. He is billed in some classic films, ranging from this movie to The Gay Falcon (1941) and The Black Swan (1942). Unfortunately, it is always in character roles. He’s often billed as “Chinese Man”, “Cook” or “Farmer”. Fung passed away in 1945 at the age of 49.

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Red Dust is an early entry into Jean Harlow’s filmography and it’s no wonder that her career exploded after this role. The film features her amazing chemistry with Clark Gable, showing two actors on a meteoric rise. While the film features some definite problematic elements, it also avoids a number of issues common of early cinema. This film is a must see for fans of early cinema.

Red Dust is currently streaming on FilmStruck.

Posted in Uncategorized

Movie Review: Blessed Event

Last week, we examined the 1933 Jean Harlow comedy, Bombshell for this website. The little film features Lee Tracy starring opposite the popular actress. Evidently, the dam behind Lee Tracy’s work is finally starting to break. While somehow missing his work for almost ten years as a film historian, I’m finally catching up to the awesomeness of this performer. In fact, in the last two weeks, I’ve seen the fascinating Tracy’s name pop up in a number of movies… and I’m intrigued. This week, FilmStruck dropped Blessed Event, a Pre-Code comedy which also happened to be one of Tracy’s biggest career roles. As such, I had to check it out.

Blessed Event follows the meteoric rise of Walter Winchell like gossip columnist Alvin Roberts (Lee Tracy, once again gracing our screen). We see him quickly grow from an advertising man who’s handed a gossip column to cover for a vacationing journalist (the always fun Ned Sparks) into a writer in his own right. While the topic of his column (unexpected “Blessed Events”) raises the ire of the local New York City society set, it also sells papers. However, Roberts’ on-going feud with band leader and crooner “Bunny” Harmon (a pre-everything Dick Powell) might prove to be his undoing. Roy Del Ruth directed the film from a script by Roy J. Green. It is based on a Broadway play of the same name.

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Probably the biggest struggle the film experiences (as with some of our other recent selections) stems from pacing and character development. The roughly hour and twenty minute runtime is not enough to get a feel for our characters, especially as the film is currently structured. The character which seems most effected by this is Gladys (Mary Brian). Ultimately, her storyline (the romantic one) takes the biggest hit in terms of development. We see her introducedand she pops up occasionally throughout the story. However, with strikingly little development, Gladys and Alvin are suddenly a romantic item. While the two have absolutely fine chemistry, the lack of development makes the relationship feel sudden in the scope of the story-telling.

It seems a shame that Lee Tracy’s name is one which hasn’t transcended the decades. Watching this film, Tracy’s take on Alvin is truly a career defining role. His strength is clearly in his dialogue delivery, and he absolutely shines when his character is allowed to run free. An early scene in Blessed Event sees Alvin give a massive speech. Not only is the dialogue delivered at Tracy’s typical break-neck pace, but the actor’s emoting behind the words feels spot on as well. This guy was good. While light research shows there was most definitely personality issues standing in-between Lee Tracy and true stardom, his acting style holds a place in this very distinctive time in Hollywood in the late 1920’s and early 1930s. Performers like Katherine Hepburn, Rosalind Russell and Cary Grant all came of age during this time (and showed a flair for this performing style), but each adapted to the changing styles in an ever evolving industry. The questions of what stood in Tracy’s way is yet to be answered (at least by this writer), but he definitely holds a place in a challenging era in Hollywood.

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Meanwhile, as the film continues, the movie makes some fascinating editing choices (James Gibbon receives credit). Perhaps most interesting involves the use of music, actor Dick Powell (this is reportedly his first role) and diagetic sound within the narrative. Powell appears in the movie as crooner, band leader and radio celebrity “Bunny” Harmon. The film features a number of musical performances, all but one featuring Powell. Musicals during this era were incredibly distinctive with massive music numbers, usually staged as a gigantic stage show. In the case of Blessed Event, rather than feeling like a stage show, they are staged as a radio program. A lengthy sequence in the middle of the movie is set in Alvin’s apartment as his mother listens to Bunny’s radio show. As we watch her listen to the radio, the camera cuts to a recording studio where Powell performs the song. The repetition of this editing feels quite sophisticated for this early cinematic period. In structuring this sequence like this, the movie enters the mind of Mrs. Roberts (Emma Dunn). While music numbers from this period are known for their interesting scale and their experimental structure (Pettin’ in the Park, anyone?), the editing and creativity behind the numbers in Blessed Event turn this non-musical into an interesting piece of musical cinema.

Finally, the supporting cast brings an amazing who’s who of 1930s cinema. In fact, fans of director Busby Berkeley will recognise a number of performers who regularly recurred in films like Gold Diggers of 1933 and Footlight Parade. This makes for a colourful (and fun) supporting cast behind the already entertaining Tracy. Keep an eye out for the always fun Frank McHugh as press agent “Reilly” and the already mentioned awesomeness of Ned Sparks as George Moxley. The cast is completely entertaining, and 100% sells the lightening paced slap-stick script.

Unless you’re a fan of Pre-Code cinema, you might not be familiar with Blessed Event. However, the movie features a spot-on performance by actor Lee Tracy, to create a newspaper film which belongs on the same level as His Girl Friday. If you’re at all a fan of the classics, be sure to add this one to your list.

Blessed Event is currently streaming on FilmStruck.

Posted in Fifty Shades of Franchot

Movie Review- The Man on the Eiffel Tower

Within the last month, streaming website FilmStruck dropped a little mystery called The Man on the Eiffel Tower into their library of content. The film is a work of detective fiction based on the Inspector Maigret series. An interesting combination of visual aesthetic, shooting style and acting performances combine in this feature to create a lurid, dime-store novel of a movie. The work is a complicated one, and while the film does have a number of issues, it’s well worth a viewing.

The Man on the Eiffel Tower follows Inspector Jules Maigret (Charles Laughton) as he investigates the brutal murder of an elderly woman and her live-in maid. The evidence initially ties to a mousey knife grinder, Joseph Huertin (Burgess Meredith), as well as a former medical student, Johann Radek (Franchot Tone). A cat and mouse game follows as the men chase each other across the Parisian landscape. The film is directed by Burgess Meredith from a script by Harry Brown.

This film has a fairly loaded history, and as a result is a fairly deep cut in the FilmStruck archive. Until recently, the little mystery has been difficult to find. Watching this movie, it feels a bit like a relic of its era. The Man on the Eiffel Tower utilizes a color process called Anesco, which gives the film a distinctive color palate. Think vintage travelogues. Combine this with the Paris location, The Man on the Eiffel Tower feels lurid and pulpy. This is like the dime store novel of feature films.

That being said, the movie has some definite awkward moments especially as it relates to the direction (by actor Burgess Meredith). The pacing is slow and feels even more dragged out thanks to some lengthy sequences. Perhaps the team was in awe at their Parisian locations… perhaps they were filling time, but when Huertin finally escapes from prison, we see every moment of his journey. There’s a great many shots of Burgess Meredith simply running. The feature is the first directing credit for the actor, and he really only came back to direct one other film. Naturally, there are some questionable choices from the novice director, and they can (and do) effect the film’s pacing.

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Probably most impressive in this film are the performances. The top-of-the-line acting cast includes Meredith, the always amazing Charles Laughton as well as Franchot Tone. Each of these actors are been better known for other roles, but prove to be an interesting combination on screen together. Adding to this impressive starring cast is an interesting troop of supporting characters: Robert Hutton, Jean Wallace and Patricia Roc. While each spent most of their careers in B-pictures, they are fascinating additions to this storyline. The dysfunctional (but most assuredly colorful and layered) characters leap off the screen, contributing heavily to the unique feel of this movie.

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Tone and Laughton in 1935’s Mutiny on the Bounty

Actor Franchot Tone is particularly interesting as Johann Radek, a disgraced medical student. Tone’s first roles date back to 1932. He rode a string of success for much of the decade, but the following years saw his career go through peaks and valleys as parts dried up, forcing Tone to evolve with the passage of time.

This stretch saw Tone seemingly unafraid to play against type. The actor looks to be having a blast playing the unhinged Radek. Casting Tone is actually quite a savvy move on the part of the filmmakers. He brings more than a hint of his former star persona left-over from early in his career. Tone came from a “blue-blooded” society background, having started his career as a member of “The Group Theater” in New York City. This translates itself to Tone playing a number of rich boys in his early years. While so many of the heroes of the 1930s were somewhat world weary (Clark Gable, Spencer Tracy and William Powell to name a few), Tone has a wide-eyed look to him. There’s something incredibly earnest about the actor when he’s at his best. Interestingly, this lends itself incredibly well to a particular sense of unhinged menacing, which serves Tone very well throughout the late 1940s and into the 1950s when film noir saw Hollywood unafraid to get dark… real dark.

Perhaps it is in this earnest and intelligent soft-spoken demeanor or perhaps a sense of what may be hiding behind it, but this aspect of Franchot Tone’s star persona which turns him into a stunningly unhinged villain. In the narrative, Radek is a former medical student with a promising background. However, his career is tainted by manic-depressive episodes leading to his… dark proclivities. While the role isn’t as interestingly layered as some of Tone’s other parts, as the action plays out he manages to hone in on this character. He may be the villain, but he also allows us to see the man underneath.

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Bette Davis and Franchot Tone in Dangerous

Check out the film’s final sequence which makes fascinating use of not only the movie’s Parisian setting, but the Eiffel Tower. The chase sequence is tightly edited and tense. Few films have duplicated a scene like this before or since. If you check out The Man on the Eiffel Tower for no other reason, stick it out to the ending.

The Man on the Eiffel Tower is tremendously deep cut in detective fiction. While the film struggles with some awkward direction, the movie is a fascinating piece of cinema history. Between the narrative, the action and the visual look of this movie, it’s a difficult one to describe. Fans of detective fiction in the vain of Agatha Christie as well as fans of Laughton and Tone should definitely add this one to their lists.

The Man on the Eiffel Tower is currently streaming  on FilmStruck.

Posted in Examining Harlow

Movie Review: Bombshell

While Jean Harlow passed away more than eighty years ago, there are a few of her movies which have seemingly transcended the decades. One of these is Bombshell. Watching the 1933 film, it seems deeply tied in with Harlow’s star persona. After all, the actress was known as “The Blonde Bombshell”. In our continuing examination of Jean Harlow’s work, we look at how the comedy plays when looking at Harlow, the narrative, and the men working alongside her.

Bombshell follows actress Lola Burns (Jean Harlow). The “Blonde Bombshell” quickly grows frustrated with her lack of control of the chaotic goings on that is her life. Desperate to evolve her image, she goes through a whirlwind of changes: marriage, babies, etc. However, as studio press agent Space Hanlon (Lee Tracy) is quick to remind her, this isn’t what the people want! People want her to be sexy. Marriage isn’t sexy. Victor Fleming directs from a script by (among others) John Lee Mahin and Jules Furthman.

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We see Harlow’s traditional star persona in play in this film. The way the narrative is structured, we see Lola (and through her, Harlow) actively reeling against her heavily studio-developed star persona. Her actions get increasingly dramatic, until she finally runs away from Hollywood. She’s done being a sex object. Rather, she wants to be a woman… however Lee Tracy’s hyper-active publicity man won’t let this happen.

Bombshell is crazily self-reflexive. Early in the film, we see Lola arrive at her movie studio. She quickly preps for a bathtub scene, which we learn from director Jim Brogan (Pat O’Brien) is for a movie called Red Dust, co-starring Clark Gable. Interestingly, Harlow actually starred in a film entitled Red Dust only one year before Bombshell. That film too starred Clark Gable. In fact the scene they’re recreating involves Lola bathing in a rain barrel, which is a famous sequence from the now classic Red Dust. As a result, there’s very little apart from her character’s name change to remind us that this is actually Harlow playing a role. It’s constructed in a very true to life form.

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Bombshell is very much a slapstick comedy, making it stand out against the films we’ve looked at thus far. Reckless and The Girl from Missouri have been far more dramatic in tone. As such, Harlow’s performance in the film doesn’t feel quite as spot-on as she has in these other films. In her later work, she feels more in-tune with emotional depth of the material. That being said, Harlow doesn’t struggle with the content. Rather, she is very funny, and more than keeps up with the dialogue, easily going toe-to-toe with the unbelievable pace of co-star Lee Tracy. However, dramatically, her character simply doesn’t feel as emotionally fleshed out as some do in her later works, more than making sense as Harlow continued to develop as an actress after this film.

Ultimately, the film is packed to the metaphorical rafters. Backing up Harlow and Tracy are character actors Frank Morgan, Una Merkel, Pat O’Brien and a pre-almost everything Franchot Tone. This is a lot, especially jammed into a less than 100 minute movie. Luckily, the crowd doesn’t feel particularly noticeable until late into the second act. This is most noticeable as the film comes to its romantic conclusion. There has been so much romantic exploration, but nothing has seemingly reached a boil. As a result, Bombshell’s ultimate conclusion doesn’t feel supported by the narrative. Of her love interests in this film (O’Brien, Tone and Tracy), Harlow achieves the best physical chemistry with Tone; however, this plot-line is barely developed before it is taken away again. Much like her later film Reckless, Bombshell feels like it could easily be two movies.

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The most interesting performance in this film comes from actor Lee Tracy, a name largely unknown to film viewers today. He made his last screen appearance in 1965, shortly before his death in 1968. The actor is a spot-on choice for publicity man “Space” Hanlon. Tracy’s performance is borderline manic, his dialogue is delivered at a pace which makes a film like His Girl Friday feel calm. Fun fact: Tracy originated the part of Hildy in Front Page… the play from which His Girl Friday is based. The actor was part of an initial wave of Broadway performers who came to Hollywood with the advent of synced sound in pictures, and he worked steadily throughout the 1930s, playing primarily newspaper reporters.

Much has been written about director Howard Hawks and the zany slap-stick comedies of the late 1930s and early 1940s (Bringing Up Baby and His Girl Friday to name two). Interestingly, Lee Tracy feels like an instrumental piece of this era of cinema. Listening to him in Bombshell, he could easily out-talk Cary Grant. In fact, he took on this persona nearly a decade before the release of these Hawksian movies. Those well-remembered performances likely stemmed from Tracy’s work (as well as other performers of this era). Stay tuned to this website for more from Lee Tracy in the coming weeks.

Finally, Bombshell is an interesting slice-of-life from Harlow’s career in the early 1930s. While there is some fascinating work done, particularly with the self-reflexivity in the narrative and actor Lee Tracy as her co-star, it feels hindered by the restrictions of cinema the era. It could use so, so much more. Ultimately, while Harlow is great in a comedic role, her part feels shallow in comparison to her later dramatic work. However, this film is a definite must see when looking into Harlow’s developing star persona.

Bombshell is currently streaming on FilmStruck.

Posted in Uncategorized

Movie Review: The Girl from Missouri

There’s nothing like a Pre-Code film to put dated questions of sex and gender into perspective. To continue our examination of Jean Harlow’s FilmStruck series, we take a look at the 1934 romantic dramedy, The Girl From Missouri. Interestingly, the film takes on a brand new identity in this post #MeToo era, and with it a new examination of Jean Harlow’s star persona, this series couldn’t be more timely.

The film follows Eadie Chapman (Harlow) who follows her friend Kitty (Patsy Kelly) into the wilds of New York City. Upon reaching the Big Apple, the ladies throw themselves into the happening Broadway scene. Late nights hoofing in the chorus line of a show, dinners, drinks and questing to land themselves a millionaire… no matter what the age. Lionel Barrymore and Franchot Tone co-star. Jack Conway directs from a script by Anita Loos and John Emerson.

The film is a pre-code dramedy romance, and everything that implies. From the opening frames, Eadie struggles to be a “good girl”. She’s going to get everything she wants in life, and she’s going to keep her virtue to boot. Early in the film Eadie says, “People always think showgirls are wild. But, take me for instance, all the time I’ve been on Broadway, I’m still the same girl as when I left”. Later, Eadie looses her composure as things with Tom (Tone) become particularly heated:

You’re pretty clever aren’t you, shoving me around because I a’int got a Park Avenue accent and a family to stick up for me and make a holla…. I’m not afraid of you, you and your diamond bracelets. A lot of guys think they can buy you for a good meal, but its all the same. I’ve been in spots like this before, and I can take care of myself….Other people have feelings too. I haven’t had an education, alright. I look like a hotsie totsie, alright. No one ever cared whether I amount to anything, but I care!

The moment is a powerful one. Harlow’s delivery is passionate, while Tone doesn’t break eye contact. We’re supposed to be focused on her. The moment builds to a crescendo as Tom pulls Eadie into a passionate embrace… he must have her. The girl has spunk… However, the moment breaks as she dissolves in tears. He looks her over, “That gag of yours about being a good girl… that isn’t on the level, is it?”. Her response is poignant, “I love you so much Tom. You can make me cheap and common like a million others, but I wish you wouldn’t”. Luckily, the camera cuts into a close-up of the pair. Tone in particular is really good in a more simplistic scene. His eyes say a lot without dialogue, and all at once we can see the break in Tom’s character. He suddenly understands her and everything she is feeling.

Once again, we see Franchot Tone playing the rich, fast-living, n’er do well. Of the three most recent performances, this is probably his best in this particular character archetype. He doesn’t play up the bad boy as over-the-top as he does in the other films. As a result, he allows his internet likability to come through a bit more and he doesn’t feel as miscast as he does in something like Reckless.

The complexities in Harlow’s star persona are clearly seen in The Girl from Missouri. Harlow is the blonde bombshell after all. While she’s struggling to move ahead in the world, she’s driving men bonkers. They only see her as a sex object. We see this in the interactions with Tom. As their earlier encounter cools down, he hands her a wad of bills, “Here’s some money. Get some place where I can’t find you. If you don’t, you’ll be sorry and I’ll feel like a heel”. There are many points throughout the film where are adorable leading man gets… more than a little bit rape-ey. There’s encounters that border on abusive and sexual molestation, and thoughts of rape simmer just beneath the surface. However, it’s all justified because she’s a gold-digger… she deserves it… right?

This good girl/bad girl dichotomy is one that keeps popping up in cinema… who are we kidding… it’s something we still struggle with. However, what is interesting in this film is how Eadie is punished. By the WWII era, there was a hard line between good girl and bad girl. Harlow’s character struggles, because while she’s vowing to be a “good” girl, each of the men around her simply assume she’s “bad”. Take Tom’s earlier quote, he can’t believe a girl who looks like Eadie could possibly be good. It must be a gag. So, even as Eadie struggles to do the right thing, it is the perceptions of the people around shaping her place in the narrative. As such, it’s almost frustrating to watch through a contemporary perspective because Eadie goes through such a struggle.

Ultimately, it’s difficult to remember that the actress was dealing with this explosion in (complicated, sexually charged) popularity at a crazily young age. Harlow was reportedly 26 when she passed away in 1937. This would have made her roughly 23 years old at the time of filming. Perhaps most unfortunately, you can see her age on screen. In the age of #MeToo, the treatment of Harlow on-screen is almost less cringeworthy than what could have been (and likely was) happening behind the scenes.

The Girl from Missouri is a fascinating viewing, especially coming from a twenty-first century, post #MeToo era. The film is a solid romantic dramedy, but as the years pass there becomes an increasing amount of problematic material to unpack. In fact, FilmStruck’s newest series on Jean Harlow is perfectly timed. The shifting contemporary landscape necessitates a new take on the legendary actress’ work.

Stay tuned.

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Movie Review: Reckless

Jean Harlow’s career straddles the thin line in Hollywood seemingly separating legendary and infamous. While her name is not as well known as it once was, the Blonde Bombshell of the 1930s is still the stuff legends are made of. In just a few short years, Harlow saw the highest of highs and the lowest of lows, all before her premature death at age 26. Luckily, FilmStruck decided to drop a new collection of Jean Harlow’s greatest films. Today, we’re looking at her 1935 dramedy musical, Reckless.

Reckless follows showgirl Mona Leslie (Jean Harlow) who finds herself caught in a love triangle between wealthy man-about-town Bob Harrison (Franchot Tone) and the more rough-and-tumble Ned Riley (William Powell). Things get complicated when Harrison’s betrothed (Rosalind Russel) enters the picture. Victor Fleming directs the film from a script by PJ Wolfson.

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The film takes an interesting melodramatic turn at the end of act two. The shift in events is a fascinating one, especially taking into account the previous three years in Harlow’s life. (Her husband, producer Paul Bern reportedly committed suicide in 1932). The events were well documented and his supposedly straight forward suicide became more complicated with tales of a deceased first wife, and squabbles about a will. However, that is for another article. Some light research on Reckless also draws comparisons to torch singer Libby Holman, who was briefly indicted for murder after the reported suicide of her tobacco heir husband. Why would the studio tie the actress to something closely mirroring her personal tragedy… especially one so riddled with scandal?

Reckless’ late shift in tone is quite drastic, especially considering the earlier (and much lighter) feel in the first two acts. However, this change doesn’t hinder the film in anyway. In fact, the only real negative is how rushed the action feels on screen. In fact, in contemporary Hollywood, the span of material in Reckless would make up two films. Reading into the content as well as historical context, it’s easy to look to the Production Code as a potential reason for the whirlwind third act. We’re dealing with suicide, scandal and illegitimate babies… all things frowned upon by the Hays Code. However, the Code’s effects on the film are debatable, as Reckless’ April 1935 release date places the movie right on the cusp of its sphere of influence.

The performers are an A-team with Harlow backed up by Franchot Tone and William Powell. Powell had cemented his A-list status with roles in films like Manhattan Melodrama as well as The Thin Man. Powell and Harlow were romantically linked off-screen, remaining close until her death in 1937. The two’s chemistry is incredibly evident as the narrative plays out. While Harlow is very much on-type in the picture, Powell gets an opportunity to shine as the third point in the love triangle. He has a number of emotionally vulnerable moments which are against type for the usually wise-cracking actor. He’s (once again) a joy to watch on screen.

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Meanwhile, Franchot Tone is an actor who seemingly struggled to carve out a niche in Hollywood. He broke out in 1932 and worked steadily throughout the decade. He’s probably best known to audiences for his work in the 1935 classic Mutiny on the Bounty. This actually sums up Tone’s star persona. He belongs in the Thalberg era at MGM. He’s sophisticated, urbane and literary. However, Tone found himself stuck in the 1930s, often playing “The Other Man” to popular, rugged and likeable A-list actors (usually Clark Gable). Unfortunately, these roles don’t give the talented actor the right material to shine.

Reckless begins with Bob as a devil-may-care rich boy. We see him dining, drinking, and making merry. He’s supposed to be the kind of bad boy that gets a girl in trouble in these movies and then vanishes… or has Daddy save the day. However, this isn’t Tone. He’s the furthest thing from a bad boy on screen. Ultimately, he ends up feeling a bit miscast.  However, the actor is at his best as Bob spirals into depression. He’s impeccably good at conveying a sense of fragility and vulnerability. Furthermore, Tone shows his strength in the character’s emotions, demonstrating so much feeling without dialogue. In fact, one of the best scenes in the film puts Harlow and Tone together in a quiet moment and the result is incredibly powerful. It’s a shame these two didn’t get to do more understated work of this kind.

As a first time viewing, it was surprising to see this film constructed as a musical. The numbers feel rather hastily constructed, but are very much like an MGM musical of the 1930s. Keep an eye out for the adorable Allan Jones in his first film role. (The Nelson Eddy-esque actor would join the cast of the Marx Brothers comedy A Night at the Opera later that same year). The music numbers are glitzy, glamorous and there’s also no way those would fit onto a Broadway stage. Mona’s singing is inconsistent (Harlow was reportedly dubbed) and the camera work bends over backwards to hide the use of a double in a number of her dance sequences. Ultimately, the choice to make this a musical feels like a poorly calculated one. Reckless could have survived just as well as a comedy/drama. Much better musical work was going on around MGM at the time, and this doesn’t showcase the studio’s strength.

Reckless is currently streaming on FilmStruck as an inclusion in their newest Jean Harlow collection. Ultimately, the film is not the brightest spot on Harlow’s filmography and did not carry the weight MGM wanted. However, the film is a strong character drama. The three talented cast members do absolutely stunning work as the movie goes through a number of complicated twists and turns. This is a definite must see for fans of Jean Harlow and (particularly William Powell).

Reckless can currently be seen on FilmStruck.