Saturday, November 26, 2011

The Jean Harlow Collection: Personal Property (1937)

Of the extras on the discs in the Warner Archive's Jean Harlow Collection, Personal Property (1937) features the most significant of any of the 7 DVDs: a one hour CBS radio drama called "Madame Sans-Gene" with the film's stars. The radio show was broadcast on CBS radio in December 1936, a few months before the film opened, and it features Jean Harlow, Robert Taylor, and Claude Rains.

The drama is a curio, at best, and the interview segment with Jean and Robert Taylor and Cecil B. DeMille is so clumsily scripted that it's hard to get a sense of the real Jean there.

The most interesting tidbit in that interview is news of an upcoming film with Jean Harlow and Wallace Beery called The Foundry. I have never heard of this title but I'm guessing it's one of the projects her tragic death in 1937 prevented the world from ever enjoying.

Personal Property (1937), from famed Thin Man series director W.S. Van Dyke, is a frothy comedy with Robert Taylor as a rich guy returned from prison. He attempts to woo Jean's Crystal Weatherby at the opera and the comedy is a bit forced.

Una O'Connor from Suzy (1937) shows up as Crystal's maid.

In a famous scene, Jean flashes the rock she got from William Powell. Famously, Powell wasn't going to marry Jean right away but he did show his devotion with an enormous ring. When Jean's Crystal wearies of Robert Taylor's attempts to enter her residence, she flashes the stone as she reclines on the couch and her maid answers the door.

Taylor works his way into the place by posing as an investigator. Taylor is not nearly as annoying as I remembered him being. He's handsome -- if a bit overly made-up! -- and he's young. Here he brings a bit of life to a visibly tired Jean.

Only a few months younger than his costar, he looks so full of life here where Jean looks older and weary.

Part of the problem with Personal Property (1937) is that it's obviously based upon a play. Most of the film's short running time takes place in Crystal's apartment. It's stage-y stuff and not entirely suited to the new actor Taylor nor the glamour queen Harlow.

Still, it's refreshing to see the actress being used by MGM studios in a new way.

When Taylor's Raymond agrees to play Crystal's butler, it allows the leads to have some fun as they play-act the evening's dinner. Jean is much better in this scene and she's quite funny given the limited material.

Quite frankly, I'd say that this scene at least is essential viewing if one wants to get a sense of Jean's real talents beyond just her visible charms.

The family arrives and it's Raymond's family. Let the hi-jinks begin.

The presence of comedy vets like Cora Witherspoon helps the final third of the film succeed. Certainly there are better films from this era that mine a similar vein -- My Man Godfrey (1936), for one -- but Personal Property (1937) is not a failure. It's just tedious stuff in spots.

And it's a sad comedy too as it constantly reminds a viewer that Jean was sick and only a few months away from her tragic, early demise. And with that knowledge, another layer of sadness is added when one considers the film a hint of other genres Jean could have triumphed in. She's a game comedienne here, and the material sparkles in spots -- like that big ring! -- but it's really hard to enjoy this film in the way that one can enjoy earlier Jean comedies.