Sunday, November 20, 2011

The Jean Harlow Collection: The Girl From Missouri (1934)

Running a scant 72 minutes, this Anita Loos-penned hit was a post-code feature for Jean. It's still a hoot, though!

The Girl From Missouri (1934) opens with Eadie (Jean Harlow) and her friend Kitty (Patsy Kelly) hoping a train out of Missouri for New York City. Even though Eadie weeps tears when bidding goodbye to her family home, she soon gets back to her goal of bagging a millionaire. A quick course in a dancing school puts her in with a pack of dancing gals who get invited to the home of the rich Mr. Cousins (Lewis Stone).

These early scenes crackle along with some nice dialogue by Ms. Loos. Code or not, Harlow's outfits in the dance-hall scene early on are quite revealing. As the bra-less Harlow bounces into the office, she seems at once sexy and innocent. Or at least Jean's Eadie is playing innocent despite the fact that she's a gold diggin' dance-hall gal.

I get the sense that viewers in 1934 knew how to read between the lines and figure out what was up. It's never spelled out clearly, but Eadie's parents were not up to any good in Missouri and I think a viewer is supposed to know that she's running away from one dance-hall racket and into another.

When Eadie finally gets some alone time with Mr. Cousins, it's the Jean of China Seas (1935) that graces the screen. She's brash, and funny, and a bit bold. Her persona, the one Jean was so good at using on film, was of a gal who knew she was the hottest thing in the world and wasn't above flaunting it to get what she wanted.

But there was still a sweetness to Jean's characters, especially Eadie here, where Jean seemed to let her guard down and get a bit sentimental. It's hard to tell if her character is entirely faking it when she comes onto old man Cousins.

Of course she is but it's like Jean's gals knew how the world worked, they wanted to succeed, and then they'd reveal the soft heart under the hard-and-slutty exterior.

It's the sort of thing I can watch Jean do in movie after movie and never get tired of. The Girl From Missouri (1934) is perhaps one of the better examples of her skills at this sort of performance in her filmography.

Eadie buddies up to T.R. Paige (Lionel Barrymore) and follows the rich old codger to Palm Beach. There she runs into the guy's son (Franchot Tone from the previous year's Bombshell) and a romance develops. Tone is quite good here, more carefree and charming than I remembered him being in other roles.

When Eadie finds out that Tone's Tom is the son of T.R., her plan unravels. Tom wants to marry her but she's got her sights set on bigger targets.

"You can make me cheap and common like a million others but, gee, I wish you wouldn't."

That line of dialogue, delivered by a tearful Eadie, really gets to the heart of Jean's appeal. She may look like a "hotsy totsy" -- as another line goes -- but she's really a good girl at heart.

And while in the world of this film it's a bit odd -- a gold digger who cares -- it works. The limitations of the Production Code made screenwriters with genuine wit and talent -- like Anita Loos -- work a bit harder at being clever. That cleverness allows a film like The Girl From Missouri (1934) to do subtle things with such a craven character like Eadie.

The film falls apart a bit near the end. It still feels a bit rushed and forced as Eadie gets duped and proceeds to turn the tables on her dupers. It's silly, manic, and somewhat unfunny stuff considering that Loos wrote this.

That final third of the film is dull, frankly. There's not much wit. And it's not a very good showcase for Jean the way the first half of the film is.

Still, Jean triumphs and that's what matters. Her persona succeeds, more or less on the terms she laid out earlier in the picture.

The Girl From Missouri (1934) is not a masterpiece but it contains a few classic Jean Harlow moments and that's reason enough to consider it essential viewing for her fans.