A young Spencer Tracy plays Dutch Miller, a highly arrogant, egotistical blow hard of a fisherman with the ability to lead men ever since he was a kid. He commemorates his marriage to the pretty cannery row beauty, Hattie (Jean Harlow) by quitting his job and encouraging his fellow fishermen to go out on strike. When the labor battle is lost, Dutch is tossed out as union President and with his oversized ego in hand, and no job, goes off leaving his wife and former friends to prove he can be a success. Later, Hattie learns the Dutchman is not doing well and is living in a hobo camp. She steals some money for him, but the ego driven Dutch refuses to accept her help or even see her. Hattie is soon caught for the thief and sent to prison. Pregnant with Dutch’s child on the way, Hattie escapes from prison. When Dutch learns about his child he has a sudden epiphany, coming to the realization being a good fisherman is good enough. He doesn’t have to conquer the world.
“Riffraff” is a paranoid piece of entertainment, written by Francis Marion, Anita Loos and H.W. Hanmann, based on a story by Marion. The film cannot make up its mind whether it wants to be a raucous waterfront comedy or a social drama dealing with issues of union labor, evil management and women behind bars. This is where the main problem with the film is, in the writing. Tracy’s character is not believable and his turn around at the end is just too quick and unconvincing.
This was Harlow’s first non platinum blonde hair film and she looks great. It was a bit of a risk, the studio was concerned whether the public would like the sassy Harlow without her trademark tresses.
Jean Harlow was always best as a comedic actress in films like “Libeled Lady,” “Bombshell” and “Red Headed Woman” (I never cared for her performance in Capra’s “Platinum Blonde”). As a dramatic actress, she left something to be desired. There is a strained effort in her performance here, at least in the latter more serious part of the film that is generally unconvincing. Harlow seems much more comfortable in the early, lighter segments of the film where she is battling with Tracy’s Dutch Miller, and fighting off waterfront boss, Nick (Joseph Calleia) who showers her with gifts and unwanted attention.
One of the more interesting aspects of the film is the morality of Harlow’s character which took a dramatic hit with the enforcement of the Production Code. Though she dates Nick to make Dutch jealous, she constantly fights off his advances avoiding any sort hint of sexual intimacy, her virginity is never in question. When she and Tracy have a child, though she is in prison at the time, we know they are already a married couple. Harlow’s Hattie is also willingly goes back to prison to serve her time once she knows old Spence will take care of the baby. Unlike her earlier films, here morality remains intact; Harlow was always at her best when she was pre-code and a free spirit. Her characters, post code, are a pale comparison of her wilder women in films like “Hold Your Man” where she is sent to prison, pregnant and unmarried.
Tracy’s Dutch, as mentioned, is an obnoxious blowhard; one has to wonder what it is exactly about him that has Hattie hooked on him. His ego is so hefty that during their wedding ceremony when someone tells him he’s a lucky man to have Hattie, his reply is she’s the lucky one to get a guy like him!
1936 was great year for Tracy. Two other films he made that year were “Fury” and “Libeled Lady.” “Fury” was Fritz Lang’s first American directorial effort, and one of the most notable films on the perils of mob rule. “Libeled Lady” is one of the great screwball comedies of the decade in which Tracy co-starred with William Powell, Myrna Loy and Jean Harlow.
The studio’s big concern when the film was released was whether the audience would accept the platinum blonde with brown hair? They need not worried, the film received generally good reviews, despite an implausible ending, and was a hit with the audience when it opened at New York’s Capitol Theater in January of 1936.
Sadly, less than two years after the making of “Riffraff,” Jean Harlow would be dead due to acute nephritis, a severe infection of the kidneys. Today this would most likely be cured with antibiotics or a transplant, neither of which were available back in those days. Jean Harlow was twenty-six.