Hard to Handle (1933) Mervyn LeRoy

Hard to handle Cagn donllele80_

The dance marathon became a phenomenon beginning in the 1920’s. Unlike flag pole sitting, another craze of those times, dance marathons had many participants who at first danced for just the pleasure of the wild heady experience, but later on as we entered the 1930’s and the depression, danced out of necessity for much needed money. The winner would get $1,000. Even if you did not win, you were fed, and had a place to keep warm. With the Great Depression going at full speed, there were many people in desperate need looking for any way possible to make a few dollars. The contests were long grueling endurance affairs going on for weeks, even months at a time before there was only one couple left standing and declared the winner.

lfRules were different depending on who held the contest. Some allowed 15-minute breaks on the hour allowing time for a bathroom pit stop, sleep and change of clothes. Horace McCoy’s 1930’s novel, They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?  gives a notable account of what these contests entailed. While the contestants were hard pressed folks out of work and luck, the promoters did create jobs for many other people like nurses, doctors, janitors, announcers, and others involved in putting on the event.  McCoy’s novel, not surprisingly, was ignored by the public when first published in the middle of the depression; however, it was eventually made into a magnificent movie in 1969, directed by Sydney Pollack and starring Jane Fonda, Susannah York, Michael Sarrazin and Gig Young.

Hard to Handle Cagney Brain

Over thirty years earlier, Mervyn LeRoy directed the 1933 film, Hard to Handle, a James Cagney vehicle, which starts on a somewhat serious tone during the opening dance marathon, providing a realistic harsh look at what these lengthy contests involved, and reminding me much of the Pollack classic. However, soon after, the film moves into a different direction more toward a lighthearted energetic comedy. It could have just as easily turned into a con game/gangster drama from the early tone of the film.

Cagney is Lefty Merrill, who along with his shady partner are running a dance marathon, which, “surprisingly” is won by Lefty’s girlfriend, Ruth Waters (Mary Brian). The opening scenes, reminiscent of Pollack’s excellent downbeat 1969 film, finds Allan Jenkins, in the Gig Young role, as the marathon’s emcee, rousing the audience to cheer on the final two surviving couples who are barely able to stand, (the second couple’s male dancer is a young Sterling Holloway).  Watching this scene with the audience’s bloodthirsty cheers edging the couples onward, reminds me of the vulture culture, that today’s TV audience has for shows like Survivor and other reality type shows. The similarities between this film and They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? quickly end with the marathon scenes conclusion. Horses goes on to be a bleak dark vision of the depression times and its toll on a group of people, while Hard to Handle veers off in the direction of a fast moving light comedy.lf

The second dancing couple soon falls by the wayside, and Ruth and her partner are declared the winners. What should be a happy moment for Ruth, her clinging mother, Lil (Ruth Donnelly) and for Lefty turns into a nightmare when Lefty’s partner runs off with all the proceeds from the contest, leaving Lefty to face an angry crowd who believe they have been swindled. Lil is more outraged at Lefty for the loss of the money than Ruth is, but Lefty has more immediate problems, like quickly getting away from the massive angry crowd.

Lefty soon falls on hard times financially when he finds Ruth, now a model, on the cover of Vogue, and finds her dating a successful fashion photographer. He begs to stay with Ruth and her mother just until he can get back on his feet. Lefty, ever the ingenious publicist gets a new idea when he spots Ruth struggling to rub facial cream on her face one day, and comes up with the absurd notion that women can lose calories this way, and promotes the facial cream as a diet treatment! The idea is “unbelievably” successful, and so lucrative that even money conscience Mamma Lil decides Lefty is marital worthy material again for her daughter Ruth.

197388_1020_ALefty financially successful again, next promotes a fund raising campaign for a small college where he successfully raises one million dollars and gains the attention of young student Marlene Reeves (Claire Dodd), who has eyes for him. Marlene’s father hires Lefty to promote a real estate deal in Florida, Grapefruit Acres.  Lefty wants to marry Ruth but she is still resistant, saying she will marry him only after he comes back from his big deal in Florida. While in Florida, Lefty is surprised to find Marlene there who makes it plain that she is very interested in Lefty, who defensively, declares his love for Ruth. Ruth and Lil decide to fly down to the sunshine state to surprise Lefty, and are surprised themselves when they find him and Marlene having breakfast together in their pajamas. Lefty claims that nothing happened, though that is hard to believe, since he is in her hotel room in his PJ’s. The Waters women fly quickly back to New York with Lefty chasing after them trying to explain. Soon after, Lefty is arrested for false advertising related to the Grapefruit Acres project. While in jail, he meets his thieving dance marathon partner who happens to tells him he lost weight over the past few days just eating nothing but grapefruit. Lefty’s new idea, The 18 day Grapefruit Diet, which becomes the nation’s latest fad.   A success again, and in Mama Lil’s favor again, Lefty finally, with some trickery, gets Ruth to say yes and marry him.

Hard to Handle is certainly entertaining enough with the usually fine performance by Mr. Cagney, and a especially entertaining performance by Ruth Donnelly who plays the  money hungry Mama Lil, despite in real life being only three years older than Jimmy and ten years older the Mary Brian. Her character has plenty of sharp funny lines, delivered with fine timing, constantly referring to her daughter and herself as “we” when marrying and not marrying Cagney’s Lefty Merrill. Anyone marrying Ruth was definitely getting two for the price of one.  While Mary Brian is competent, I would have liked to have seen Joan Blondell in the role of Ruth. She and Donnelly would have been two quick pistols together and the charisma between Cagney and Blondell is always electric. The picture moves at lightening speed, thanks to Cagney’s exceptional flair for rapid speech, which gives no one any time to pause.

The film unfortunately has never been released in the home video format and remains a hard film to see, undeservedly so. Hopefully, Warner Brothers will see fit to release this film in the near future. Hard to Handle was originally brought to my attention by Judy of Movie Classics’s who has written her own great review some time back, and as a Cagney admirer, is certainly worth reading to get her perspective on this film and other classics.

14 comments on “Hard to Handle (1933) Mervyn LeRoy

  1. Sam Juliano says:

    Well John, I have also fallen victim to the failure of this film to get a proper DVD release, and I’ve never managed to get hold of a bootie, nor have I seen it on Turner. But like you I found the 1969 film THEY SHOOT HORSES, DON”T THEY? as a most fascinating account of these Golden Age marathons, and of the competition that fueled them. You do American cinema great servive by provided a review of this depth, replete with both historical and analytical insights, and as a Cagney starrer it is automatically essential. I was going to ask you if this lightweight comedy was a bit dated, considering its release date, but you later admit it moves along briskly. I’m definitely interested.

    And kudos to Judy! And to you for this great review and striking layout.


  2. Judy says:

    I’m so glad you saw and liked this movie, John – and enjoyed reading your review very much. I do agree there is a similarity between these marathon dance events and reality TV contests, Big Brother and the rest. Thanks also for mentioning my review and for the kind comments!
    Sam, I think you would enjoy the movie. I wish Warner would release more of the early Cagneys on DVD – however I now fear that, if they do, they will probably be part of their new Warner Archive series, which are all very expensive and not available in Europe as yet.

    I did see ‘They Shoot Horses Don’t They’ earlier this year, though I didn’t get round to writing about it, and thought it was great, a powerful dark look at the Depression… dare I say except for the ending, which to me doesn’t ring as true as the rest of the film.


  3. Sam Juliano says:

    Judy, I am inclined to agree with you, as I greatly admire Le Roy, and the subject and of couse Cagney make sit essential, not to mention Ruth Donnelly, who John issues much praise for here. Yeah Judy I fear that Archive series too for the reasons you mention. My colleague Allan resides in the UK too, so he would lose out too.

    I forgot to mention my adoration for Gig Young in the 1969 film, but that’s a given.


  4. Sam Juliano says:

    Allan Fish reminded me today that Mervyn Le Roy’s 1937 social drama THEY WON’T FORGET is also unavailable on DVD.


  5. Dave says:

    I haven’t seen this one either… but agree with Sam that the combination of Mervyn LeRoy and Jimmy Cagney immediately makes a movie I need to see.


  6. John Greco says:

    Sam – Thank you very much for your kind words, I really appreciate it. After reading Judy’s review I eventually found the movie on the following website and fairly reasonable priced (about $10).


    LeRoy, for me, did some of his best and most socially significant work during the 1930’s. Not knocking his later work but he was on a great roll during this Warner Brothers period. “They Won’t Forget” which you mention is on TCM, is another socially significant work and on a lighter note a very young Lana Turner in her famous tight sweater.
    Thanks again for your input.


  7. John Greco says:

    Judy – It took a while but I finally got around to seeing it. I was amazed how fast Cagney talked! It reminded me of his rapid fire speech in Wilders “One, Two, Three.”

    “They Shoot Horses, Dont’ They?” is one of my favorite films of the late sixties with wonderful performances by Jane Fonda and Gig Young. I don’t think Pollack made a better film.


  8. John Greco says:

    Dave – I felt the same way when I first read Judy’s review. Cagney never dissappoints and as I mentioned to Sam, LeRoy was doing some wonderful work during this period.


  9. Sam Juliano says:

    Although I do need to see this film, I would venture to say that GOLD DIGGERS OF 1933 is Le Roy’s greatest film, with I AM A FUGITIVE FROM A CHAIN GANG as the runner-up. Many would have LITTLE CAESAR in the mix.


  10. John Greco says:

    A tough choice between “Gold Diggers” and “Fugitive.” The final number, “Remember My Man” is an amazing number and a stunning finish to the film, though the ending in “Fugitive” is just as stunning in its own way. I really am ambivalent toward which I rank one and two.

    “Little Caesar” would rank slightly below the above classics.


  11. Judy says:

    I love ‘Fugitive’ too – not quite so keen on ‘Gold Diggers’ because of the Dick Powell overload, but I do think the final number is astonishing. Both great endings, as you say. I’d also say ‘Three on a Match’ is another great LeRoy film from this period, and I probably slightly prefer it to ‘Little Caesar’.

    It’s a pity LeRoy didn’t do more work with Cagney, as I think he also got a fantastic performance from him in ‘Mister Roberts’ much later in both their careers. I love scenes where he talks fast too, John, though I often find it hard to hear exactly what he is saying!


  12. John Greco says:

    Judy – I actually had to replay the opening of “Hard to Handle” just to catch what Cagney was saying. He was like an out of control machine gun! LeRoy definitely did some good work with Jimmy.


  13. Jeff Clarke says:

    `Grapefruit Acres` is sung in the movie `Hard to Handle` by `unidentified singer`.
    It looks & sounds to me like Allan Jones who later appeared in the 1936 version of Show Boat with Irene Dunn. What a voice that man had.


    • John Greco says:


      Thanks very much for the additional information. I have never seen SHOW BOAT but I am familar with Allan Jones from his two appearances in the Marx Brother films A DAY AT THE RACES and A NIGHT AT THE OPERA and as the father of 1960’s singer Jack Jones.


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