Sunday, January 11, 2009

“No, Jean, the T is silent…like in Harlow…”

Last night—since I had nothing to do and plenty of time in which to do it—I settled in for a TCM festival of Jean Harlow films, which kicked off at 8pm with a showing of Dinner at Eight (1933), a film which I had seen bits and pieces of in the past but never all the way through. I was kind of amused when “Bobby Osbo” (as Rick “Sparky” Brooks at Cultureshark has dubbed him) opined that Eight was the first of the “all-star” movies—only because the TCM sage seemed to have forgotten about Grand Hotel (1932). (I should probably lighten up on Roberto; he’s due to host his annual Classic Film Festival here in Athens March 19-22 this year…and he’s just crazy enough to come looking for me. Sunset Blvd. and King Kong are among those movies scheduled…I wonder if the ‘rents would be up to a big screen showing of Mom’s favorite cinematic monkey?) Anyway, I really got a kick out of Eight—a peerless comedy-drama with indeed a roster of “all stars”: Harlow, Marie Dressler (Jean’s in good form here, but Marie pretty much walks off with the picture), John and Lionel Barrymore, Wallace Beery, Lee Tracy, Billie Burke, Edmund Lowe, Jean Hersholt, Karen Morley…the list goes on and on. (I think I need to start out seeking more early Lionel Barrymore films—I’m always startled when I don’t see him in a wheelchair.)

Bombshell (1933) – Though I’m kind of partial to Libeled Lady (1936) as my favorite Harlow film, Lady has an unfair advantage over this hilarious Hollywood satire because it’s also fortunate to have Spencer Tracy, William Powell and Myrna Loy (and that’s just the tip of the iceberg) in its cast. So Bombshell kind of fluctuates back-and-forth from #2 to #1—though it doesn’t skimp on the supporting cast, either. Jean plays a flighty, glamorous movie icon whose stardom isn’t worth the headaches caused by the demands made on her by her unscrupulous press agent (Tracy again), drunken father (Frank Morgan), wastrel brother (Ted Healy) and conniving servants and staff (including TDOY fave Una Merkel as her secretary and Louise Beavers as her faithful domestic). This film, based on a successful stage play that used silent screen siren Clara Bow as its inspiration (Harlow is referred to in the film as the “If” girl), features a screenplay by Jules Furthman and John Lee Mahin that has enough laughs and in-jokes for three film comedies—not to mention supporting contributions by Franchot Tone, Pat O’Brien, Ivan Lebedeff, Isabel Jewell, C. Audrey Smith and June Brewster. (For you Our Gang fans out there, that’s Dorothy “Echo” DeBorba as the moppet who asks for Harlow’s autograph.)

Platinum Blonde (1931) – The title of this early Frank Capra-directed comedy is partly responsible for supplying Harlow with one of her famous nicknames, and while I liked Jean in this movie she’s clearly miscast as a socialite who marries a rough-around-the-edges newspaper reporter (Robert Williams)…only the gentleman of the press soon begins to chafe at the “high society” standards set for him by Wifey and her snooty mother (Louise Closser Hale). Why Williams is dumb enough to overlook his fetching co-worker (Loretta Young) on the paper in the first place is a question Blonde doesn’t attempt to answer; but despite the presence of these two lovelies (Loretta’s a real dish in this one) Williams—who was marked for stardom after his first-rate performance in this film but died three days after the movie’s release—takes hold of the film from the get-go and it’s his show all the way. My other favorite performer in Blonde is Halliwell Hobbes, who gets big laughs (from me, anyway) as a deadpan butler, and there’s also welcome contributions from Reginald Owen, Walter Catlett and Edmund Breese. (I’ve had this DVD in the dusty Thrilling Days of Yesteryear archives for some time now, but I’ll probably offer it up in the next eBay sale which will start as soon as I find some motivation.)

Hold Your Man (1933) – It has been ages since I’ve seen this Harlow-Clark Gable concoction—so much so that I forgot about the incredibly sappy ending that they tacked onto the end (which I won’t give away in case you haven’t seen it but it really does hurt the movie). Gable’s a con artist who meets Harlow (taking a bubble bath!) while on the lam from the cops; a relationship develops between the two—much to the consternation of Jean’s boyfriend (Stuart Erwin) who really didn’t have much of a chance because…well, he’s Wend…er, Stu Erwin. Jean, Clark and Gable’s partner Gary Owen have set up a pigeon in a blackmail scheme but Clark accidentally croaks him and takes it on the lam…leaving Jean holding the bag and doing a stretch in a woman’s reformatory. According to Mr. Osborne, there was an alternate version of a scene in this movie that was filmed (with Henry B. Walthall as a clergyman) for those theaters who refused to show a black preacher (George Reed) marry Harlow and Gable near the film’s end—something I would be curious to see only because Reed’s character is the father of one of Harlow’s fellow reformatory friends (Theresa Harris)…did they have to change that part of the story as well? Again, if it weren’t for the ending, Man would be my favorite Harlow-Gable teaming…but it’s still worth watching, with a screenplay that nicely blends comedy and melodrama by famed scribe Anita Loos.

The last film of the evening was the old standby The Public Enemy (1931), and at the risk of being a noodge…would it be possible to give this chestnut a rest and show another Harlow film in its place? (I’d certainly be up for a repeat performance of The Beast of the City [1932].)

1 comment:

Rick Brooks said...

"Sparky"? This is an outrage!

If I were you, I wouldn't pay it!

Wait, I mixed up my Groucho quotes there...

I recorded "Platinum Blonde" the other day as well and will have to fire it up soon.

As for "Dinner at Eight," I'm a sucker for anything with Wallace Beery, though the more I read about him, the more reprehensible his off-screen persona becomes.