Three Wise Girls (1932) William Beaudine

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Women hooking up with married men. This pre-code (1932) reads like the do’s and don’ts of, as well as the perils of being involved, with a married man. And while Jean Harlow is gorgeous, it’s Mae Clarke, as her long-time girlfriend, and kept woman, who has the meatiest role. Poor Clarke, whenever she teamed up with Harlow she always got the raw end of the lollipop. Here she advises Harlow not to get involved with a rich married man who swears he’s going to divorce his wife. She warns Harlow, “You always end up behind the eight ball.” That’s exactly what happens to Clarke by the end of this short 68 minute programmer. In their earlier film the ladies were in together, The Public Enemy, it was poor Mae who got the grapefruit in the face from James Cagney while Harlow just got Cagney. Continue reading

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Wife versus Secretary (1936) Clarence Brown

Poor Clark Gable, he has Myrna Loy as his loving sophisticated wife, so confident in her own womanhood and her marriage that she does not mind hubby having Jean Harlow as his beautiful secretary. Harlow is not only a snazzy looking woman, she’s smart and essential to Gable’s corporate executive’s success. In fact, she seems to be the real brains of the organization and by 2012 standards it becomes a bit hard to believe she remains just a secretary. But this is 1936 and equality in the workplace is non-existent. Gable knows she’s good. When there is a chance for Harlow’s character to advance her own career he selfishly wants to keep her on board with him.

Directed by Clarence Brown with a script by Norman Krasna, John Lee Mahin and Alice Dure Miller based on a novel by Faith Baldwin; “Wife vs. Secretary” is both a sophisticated and a charming piece of fluff with a typically glossy MGM cast that includes James Stewart and May Robson in supporting roles. Baldwin authored more than one hundred novels, many focusing on women juggling the duel life of career and family. Other works by Baldwin made into movies include “Skyscraper,” “Office Wife,” “Men Are Such Fools” and “An Apartment for Peggy.” Continue reading

China Seas (1935) Tay Garnett

Gable and Harlow battle it out on the high seas. A typhoon, marauding pirates and hidden gold are no competition for the fiery heat generated between two of MGM’s biggest stars. Gable is the hard drinking Allan Gaskell, Captain of a freighter heading from Hong Kong to Singapore. He wants to change his lifestyle, turn over a new leaf, after meeting upper class British lass Sybil Barclay, surprisingly played by Rosalind Russell. He plans to marry Sybil, and forget about the sassy  talky dame Dolly Partland, aka China Doll (Jean Harlow), who he has had an on again, and off again, love affair with.  Dolly still has a thing for the Captain and arranges to get herself on board the freighter for the trip in an attempt to win back him back from the upper crust Sybil. Also on board is Jamesy McArdle (Wallace Beery), a conniving worm who is in cahoots with Malaysian pirates to attack the ship seeking the stash of gold being transported. Losing out to Sybil in the Gable love triangle, Dolly licks her wounded heart by teaming up with the slimy McArdle in a revengeful attempt to steal the gold. Continue reading

Riffraff (1936) J. Walter Ruben

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. Continue reading

Libeled Lady (1936) Jack Conway

William Powell and Myrna Loy made fourteen films together marking them as one of the most recognized and great screen team pairings. They first appeared together in 1934’s “Manhattan Melodrama” which was soon followed by “The Thin Man,” the first of six films they would make as Hammett’s Nick and Nora Charles. They would go on to make eight more films with Powell always elegant and charming while Loy emoted style, wit and a flirtatious naughtiness. In 1936, they were teamed with two other of MGM’s grand stars, Jean Harlow and Spencer Tracy, and made one of the most delightful and funny screwball comedies to grace the screen, “Libeled Lady.”

Nominated for a Best Picture Oscar, “Libeled Lady” moves at a quick pace barely giving the viewer time to catch one’s breath. Directed by MGM house director, Jack Conway, Loy is Connie Allenbury, an heiress who is suing  a local newspaper for five million dollars for  printing false accusations about her stealing another woman’s husband. The paper’s editor is the scheming, crusty Haggerty (Spencer Tracy) who plans to obstruct the lawsuit by creating a scheme that will make Connie appear to be a real husband stealer. His plan is to enlist the services of Bill Chandler (William Powell), a former reporter for the paper, along with his own frustrated fiancé of two years, a reluctant Gladys  (Jean Harlow). Haggerty convinces both Bill and Gladys to get married to each other, but only for appearances sake, and not certainly not to be consummated! Bill will then “seduce” Connie, who is unaware that he is a married man, into a romantic relationship only to have Gladys come barging in causing a public scandal with  Tracy’s paper  breaking the news, forcing Connie to drop the suit.

Filled with one hilarious scene after another, arguably the most hysterical is the wedding scene of Bill and Gladys. At the end of the ceremony, the justice of the peace tells the bride and groom they can now kiss. The two uncomfortably peck each other reluctantly on the lips. When Haggerty congratulates the new bride with a kiss, it is a long and passionate, shocking the justice of the peace. The new husband, Bill looking on informs the flustered justice of the peace not to worry, “they are old friends… very old friends!”

A fishing scene is also a highlight with Bill pretending to be an expert on trout fishing to impress Connie’s father, a delightful Walter Connelly. He unnervingly finds himself in the stream soak and wet, yet somehow managing to bag the largest catch of the day (This whole sequence reminded me of Howard Hawk’s 1964 comedy, “Man’s Favorite Sport” where Rock Hudson passes himself off as an expert on fishing but has actually never fished). As the film progresses, the plot becomes thicker and wilder, with Gladys beginning to believe she is really falling in love with Bill, while Bill  actually falls in love with his supposed mark, Connie, and the two impetuously getting married. A jealous Gladys will accuse them of arson when she really means bigamy.

Marriage of convenience has been a common plot device in many comedies over the years, “Hired Wife,” “Come Live With Me,” “The Lady is Willing,” “Next Time I Marry,” and “The Doctor Takes a Wife” are a few films that have used the same theme.  I  actually watched the last of these film’s mentioned recently, a pleasant entertaining movie with Loretta Young and Ray Milland, though not in the same league as “Libeled Lady.” If “Libeled Lady” has a flaw it comes in the final minutes when all that is going on in the convoluted plot needs to be sorted out to ensure a happy ending, particularly the problem of Powell’s character who married Harlow during the course of the movie, but is in love with, and marries Loy, making Powell a bigamist. Well, we can’t have that, after all, this is 1936 and the production code is in effect, so as the film comes to its conclusion, Bill announces he looked into Gladys’ past and found that her Yucatan divorce from her first husband was illegal, subsequently, she was not free to have married him, making it legal for Bill to have married Connie. Only the put upon Gladys has her day, coming back with an unexpected topper, by announcing to everyone she followed the fiasco Yucantan divorce with a legal Reno divorce, freeing her to have married Bill! Unfortunately, both of these plot points come out of nowhere, like a mystery writer who injects a totally unexpected twist, an unseen and contrived idea into the storyline in the last chapter, with no previous hint earlier in the story, to surprise the reader. The entire scene is too manufactured and feels forced in order to resolve Bill’s double marriage dilemma.

That said, this is a not to be missed fun filled farce with a spectacular MGM cast. Myrna Loy who can express witty and naughty looks by just the raise of an eyebrow is matched flawlessly against her ideal screen partner, William Powell. Jean Harlow is a comedic gem with  the right touches of cunning and naiveté, and Spencer Tracy is perfect as the calculating newspaper editor who puts the paper above all else.

****

Red Headed Woman (1932) Jack Conway

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    “Red Headed Woman” is a prime example of an enjoyable film; it is a lot of fun, with some good performances and snappy lines though in fac,t it never reaches the level of quality that would be considered great. 

    Lil’ Andrews (Jean Harlow) is a young woman from the wrong side of town who wants to get ahead in life and will do anything to accomplish her goal, including seducing her boss Bill Legendre (Chester Morris) and wrecking his happy marriage with his wife Irene (Leila Hyamns) in the process.  Lil’ sees this move, as her entrance into society, however, just because you marry up does not mean you will be accepted into the upper classes inner circle. Snubbed by Bill’s friends, Lil’ decides to seduce coal magnate Charles Gaerste (Henry Stephenson) enticing him to throw a big social gathering at her place that for sure the town’s upper crust could not ignore. Comes the night of the dinner party, the guests conspire to leave early. It is her best friend and confidant Sally (Una Merkel) who informs her that they all left her party early only to go over to Irene’s place across the street.

Embarrassed by this set back, Lil’ goes to New York leaving Bill, behind. When Bill’s father suspects Lil’ is having an affair, he hires detectives to follow her. They discover she is not only having an affair with Charles Gaerste but with his chauffeur Albert, Charles Boyer in a small role.  When Lil’ comes back home she finds Bill is back with Irene. Enraged and ever vengeful she shoots Bill. He survives the shooting and eventually divorces Lil’ going back to Irene. A few years later we find Lil’ in Paris with a rich elderly gentleman at the racetrack. When they leave the track, they get into a limo driven by the Albert the chauffeur.red-head-pic

    Harlow’s character has to be one of the most immoral wanton and vengeful women of the pre-code era, using her physical attributes to seduce men as she tries to climb the social ladder. When she asks how a dress looks on her, she is told, you can see right through it, she replies, “good I’ll wear it.” Low-cut tight fitting clothes and even a quick flash of Harlow breasts can be seen in one quick shot. The men are amazingly gullible or just plain dumb, easily being seduced by this lower class heartless woman. Bill, a happily married man with a beautiful sophisticated wife is effortlessly taken in by Lil’s crude charms, as are all the other men she gets her claws into.    

    As for the acting, Harlow is well cast as the callous Lil’ Andrews, reaching her comedic zenith here and a big improvement over her performance from the previous year in Frank Capra’s Platinum Blonde where Robert Williams reporter, marries, in this case, a rich though still unsophisticated Harlow while the real class act is co-reporter and beauty Loretta Young.  Harlow was truly miscast in Capra’s film.

That said, I never found her persona that attractive and could not understand Bill’s attraction to her when he had a beautiful stylishly sexy wife in Irene. I felt the same way when watching Capra’s Platinum Blonde.  LorettaYoung was the real class prize. In addition to Harlow, Red-Headed Woman is served well by Una Merkel as Lil’s best friend and confidant who sticks by her. As for the men, Chester Morris, Henry Stephenson and Charles Boyer well, they just seem to fall all over Harlow.    red-vhs

    In a 1932 TIME magazine article, it was announced that Clara Bow was originally set to star in Red Headed Woman as her return film from retirement. Instead, Bow signed a contract with 20th Century Fox to star in Call Her Savage. Harlow was announced as her replacement. Anita Loos wrote the script based on a novel by Katherine Brush. Loos script is certainly one of the highlights of the film. Like some of Loos other works, The Girl from Missouri, again with Harlow, and How to Marry a Millionaire, they center on female characters that are looking to marry rich and socially upward. The film was directed by MGM director Jack Conway

     Red-Headed Woman caused, as you could probably image, a stir with the censors even in the pre-code era. According to Mick LaSalle in his book Complicated Woman, an Atlanta censor complained “Sex, sex, sex! The picture just reeks with it until one is positively nauseated!” The film is loaded with sex and even a little sadism (After being slapped by Bill, Lil’ seemingly aroused tells him to “do it again, I like it” as she throws her arms around him).  In her obvious and unrepentant use of her sexuality in bedding men to get what she wanted, Lil’ Andrews parallels another Lil’ from the pre-code era, Lil’ Powers (Barbara Stanwyck) in Baby Face. Lil’ Powers, whose childhood was anything but idyllic (her father pimped her out at the age of 14), is given cause for her choices and thus I her find a more sympathetic character than Harlow’s Lil’ Andrews who other than coming from a poor background is given no excuse other than greed for her actions. That said, these two films would make a great double feature.