Tuesday, November 22, 2011

The Jean Harlow Collection: Reckless (1935)

This film in the Warner Archive's Jean Harlow Collection features some nice extras, including audio clips of Jean singing on the soundstage -- and she's got a passable, though husky, singing voice -- but what about the film?

1935's Reckless was written about, I recall, as something of a failure. And Jean in a musical is a bit of a departure from the usual sort of Jean role we all think of when we think of her.

Still, it's not a horrible film and, with a Jerome Kern title song thrown in, it's actually pretty enjoyable for Jean and MGM fans.

Add to that the pleasure of seeing Jean interact with her real life love William Powell.

Powell plays Ned Riley, a sports promoter and gambler, who shows up to bail out Mona (Jean Harlow). Seems like the gal's been busted and it's up to Ned and Mona's grandmother (May Robson) to get her out of the clink.

The early scenes are exceptionally well-staged by Victor Fleming. The backstage and early rehearsal shots have a distinctly big budget feel.

The show Mona puts on is for the one-man Mona Leslie Fan Club run by the rich Bob Harrison (Franchot Tone). The script doesn't exactly crackle but it's fast moving in these scenes and Powell and Harlow rarely disappoint a viewer.

When Jean first sings the title song, her singing voice is dubbed by Virginia Verrill. It's not too distracting as Jean apparently sing-speaks the song's introductory passages. The sets are spacious here and the whole production has a lavish feel that's missing in a lot of Jean's other titles.

Watching Reckless (1935) you get a sense of what might have been had Jean lived long enough to be trotted out in multiple genres by the MGM studio system. She's a game actress and she gives this part her all.

And, let's be clear, she looks fantastic here; maybe the proximity of lover Bill Powell put her at ease? One can only speculate but I like to think so.

From a fan's perspective, it's clear that MGM was pumping money into this film -- the title production number must have cost a pretty penny -- and it's refreshing to see Jean get the star treatment. Whether it's considered a failure by film scholars is hardly important; if you like Jean, this is, of course, essential viewing.

Compared to his role in The Girl From Missouri (1934), Franchot Tone is a bit annoying here: smarmy and too cocksure. Still, he's got the pretty-boy looks this role required. Next to Powell, he seems like a schoolboy, frankly.

Putting more of the money on-screen, Fleming stages the date between Mona and Bob at (presumably) Coney Island amusement park. These scenes sparkle and Jean has perhaps never been lovelier or more self-assured. She's just great here and watching her act so carefree is a delight for this fan.

Riley buys a racing horse named Mona -- look fast for Farina from The Little Rascals in this scene -- and it's clear that the gambler/loudmouth is falling for Mona a bit -- who wouldn't?

Mona is still being wooed by Franchot Tone and that gives the producers an excuse for more lavish sets -- his yacht -- and more costume changes for Jean.

Powell's Riley has his doubts and can't seem to commit to Jean's Mona. Mona is looking to get hitched and Franchot Tone's Bob could just be the man to do that deed.

Jean fans well know that in real life Powell couldn't commit to Jean either. By all accounts, he loved her, though. Like most of her best roles, there's some of the real Jean here.

I guess my question is always whether the film-makers were exploiting those things to sell tickets in 1935 or whether it was just a coincidence?

Rosalind Russell enters the picture as Bob's family-approved old girlfriend who's set to marry another guy. Riley begins to race the horse named after Mona as his funds dwindle.

That's the gist of the drama that sets film's final half off.

Things turn quite a bit more dramatic -- some would say hokey -- but it sort of works and gives Powell and Harlow some good scenes that play to their strengths as actors.

And, without giving away anything, let's just say that the final scene of this film is just marvelous.

It's the sort of thing that makes a viewer forget all the contrived business that got the two leads to this point in the story. I can forgive that since I like these two performers so much.

And things are expertly staged by director Victor Fleming.

Quite simply, this is second-rate material made into a near-classic film due to the strengths of Powell, Harlow, and Fleming.

Really, if you like William Powell and Jean Harlow, Reckless (1935) is worth the price of this box set alone.