Wednesday, November 23, 2011

The Jean Harlow Collection: Riffraff (1935)

Yet another Jean Harlow title from the Warner Archive's Jean Harlow Collection, this is Riffraff (1936).

Opening at the docks, Riffraff (1935) is full of picturesque color even if it's of the backlot variety.

When we first see Jean she's being awakened by her sister (a well-cast Una Merkel) and the other kids in the family (notably a young Mickey Rooney). The scene echoes her first appearance in Bombshell (1933) but where that film was showing the real woman behind the bombshell image of the title character, here we are seeing the bombshell break through the real -- naturalistic? -- female character on screen. I can imagine that audiences in 1935 gasped when she strutted across the room after rising in this scene. She's unbelievably sexy here.

When people wonder why I don't like Marilyn Monroe, it's because I grew up watching Jean Harlow.

Harlow is Hattie and the role really benefits from her rough charms. One gets the impression that Jean is playing up those rough edges a bit, but the part really works for an actress of her temperament in that era. Living in the large family home down by the water, Hattie seems to be looking for something better. Enter Spencer Tracy's Dutch, a cannery worker at odds with the business types running the show at the docks.

Nick Lewis (Joseph Calliea), the cannery owner, is a a walking stereotype -- he actually says "Whats-a-matta-you?" at one point! -- and while the character is like something from an old Chef Boyardee commercial, he's in the film to serve as a simple foil to Tracy's Dutch as they both compete for Hattie's affections.

I remember thinking, on my first viewing of Riffraff (1935), that the characters here are very broad. Frankly, Spencer Tracy was never an actor of much subtlety.

Watching this flick again, I think it's not his fault; all of these characters are decidedly larger than life, painted with the same broad brush.

That approach works with Harlow -- frankly, this sort of role was her forte -- but it makes it hard to love Riffraff (1935) when it feels like a cartoon of the 1930s in some ways.

The action is well-staged here, with an effective use of the sets that gives one a sense of place, even if it's a false version of the real thing.

Astute viewers will notice a version of "You Are My Lucky Star" playing in an early bar scene. The song would go on to be more well-known for its use in 1952's Singin' In The Rain.

When the owner gives Jean's Hattie a fur, she briefly slips into a mock Mae West voice. It's funny and illustrates 1) what a great -- and self-aware -- comedienne Jean was, and 2) it highlights everything that made Jean so different from that other blonde sex-bomb of the 1930s.

There's a fight between Dutch and the owner in the bar that serves to set the otherwise unaware Dutch on a path of defending the workers' rights. Tracy reminds me of William Bendix in these scenes and that's not a compliment.

Hell, I like Spencer Tracy in some films but in this one, he grates on my nerves. When I watch Riffraff (1935), I always wonder what Clark Gable could have done with this role.

The plot progresses with Dutch suddenly wanting to be the union leader.

All that is secondary to the amount of hokum in this film.

By the time Hattie gets sent to prison, a viewer can be forgiven if he or she is scratching his or her head. It's just all slightly over-the-top nonsense.

But, even with all that said, it's still an excellent vehicle for Jean Harlow. Riffraff features one of her best tough gal with a heart of gold roles.

She alone in the cast makes what could have been a cartoon into an exciting screen portrayal. Not entirely realistic, Hattie at least feels like a fully rounded Jean Harlow creation.

So I'm left praising Jean and her role but condemning the rest of this as near-claptrap.

Good intentions here -- the strong union stance in the Depression era -- are not enough to render this riveting in any real way.

Still, for the Jean Harlow fan, there are enough moments to make this film nearly essential.