Spotlight: Sexy Pre-Code Harlow (Post Seven)

Welcome to another Film Friday! Today we’re finishing our look at the Pre-Code work of Jean Harlow!

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Jean Harlow was born Harlean Harlow Carpenter in Kansas City, Missouri on March 3rd, 1911. The daughter of a dentist and an over-coddling mother named Jean, Harlean was nicknamed “The Baby” by family and friends. After divorcing her husband, Jean moved Harlean to LA, but the move lasted less than two years when Jean’s wealthy father threatened to disinherit her if she didn’t return. The pair soon moved to Chicago, to be close to Jean’s new boyfriend. Jean married Monta Bell in 1926, and Harlean followed suit by eloping with Charles McGrew, a wealthy heir, who took his new bride back to Los Angeles in 1928. On a dare, she strolled into Central Casting, and registered under the name Jean Harlow. Mother Jean and husband followed “The Baby” to LA and pressured her into accepting small extra and bit roles. She signed with Hal Roach studios, but tore up the contract due to the strain it was putting on her marriage. She and McGrew split anyway, and Howard Hughes cast the still unknown Harlow in Hell’s Angels (1930). An audience favorite (but not a critical one), Jean Harlow worked regularly for the next two years in films like The Public Enemy (1931) and Platinum Blonde (1931).

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By 1932, Harlow became romantically involved with MGM producer Paul Bern, who convinced the studio to buy out her contract with Hughes. Her career exploded at MGM and she married Bern, but the marriage ended with his scandalous suicide later that year. Harlow soon began an affair with Max Baer, but the studio, afraid of more negative publicity, paired “The Baby” up with cameraman Howard Rosson instead. Their marriage also lasted under a year. During this time, Harlow’s career continued to boom with films like Bombshell (1933) and Dinner At Eight (1933). Like Joan Crawford, Harlow also found success being paired opposite Clark Gable. Unlike Crawford, however, Harlow’s popularity continued to rise after the Code. Following her divorce, Harlow became romantically involved (and perhaps engaged) to actor William Powell. But at the height of her career, Harlow suddenly died of complications from kidney failure in 1937. She was only 26-years-old.

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So far we’ve featured the starry Dinner At Eight (1933), the steamy Red Dust (1932), the riotous Bombshell (1933), the infamous The Public Enemy (1931), the raunchy Red-Headed Woman (1932), and the epic Hell’s Angels (1930). Today we’re looking at the interesting Hold Your Man (1933).

 

Hold Your Man (1933)

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Ruby falls in love with small-time con man Eddie. During a botched blackmail scheme, Eddie accidentally kills the man they were setting up. Eddie takes off and Ruby is sent to a reformatory for two years.

Starring Jean Harlow and Clark Gable. Screenplay by Anita Loos and Howard Emmett Rogers. Based on a story by Anita Loos. Directed by Sam Wood.

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This flawed picture begins promisingly but ends up in a totally unpredictable artificial place. Is the chemistry of Harlow and Gable enough to save this mish-mashed story? Well, that’s up to the viewer. But first, the story…

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When his confidence game goes awry, Eddie Hall flees from two New York policemen and charges into the apartment of stranger Ruby Adams, who is in the bathroom taking a bubble bath. Terrified of being caught, Eddie convinces Ruby to cover for him and then, after jumping into her bathtub, pretends to be her soap-covered husband. Although she feigns indifference toward him, Ruby, a seasoned manipulator of men, is disappointed when the flirtatious Eddie slips away without saying goodbye. Determined to meet up with Eddie again, Ruby repeatedly drags Al Simpson, a sincere, adoring salesmen from Cincinnati, to a local nightclub whose name Eddie had dropped previously. When Eddie finally appears there, Ruby once again masks her interest with irritation and indifference, but eventually ends up at his apartment. During her visit, Eddie’s confidence game cohort, Slim, and Gypsy Angikon, a one-time lover of Eddie’s, burst into the apartment. After a brief fight with the drunken Gypsy, Ruby gives in to Eddie’s seduction and spends the night with him.

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The next morning, Slim and a friend approach Eddie with a robbery scheme, and against the warnings of Ruby, Eddie agrees to drive the getaway car. Unknown to Eddie, however, the getaway car has been stolen, and he ends up with a ninety-day jail sentence for auto theft. When Eddie is released from prison, he returns to his apartment, which has been redecorated by Ruby, and with Slim’s help, immediately plans another confidence scam. Although Ruby reluctantly goes along with her part in the “sucker” game, which involves luring Aubrey Mitchell, a well-to-do, married admirer, to Eddie’s apartment, Eddie, who is to pose as Ruby’s protective brother, suddenly becomes jealous and interrupts the set-up prematurely. Aubrey deduces the scam and threatens Eddie, who knocks him unconscious in the hallway. At last aware of his love for Ruby, Eddie proposes a visit to the marriage license bureau and leaves Slim in charge of Aubrey. While the couple is away, a neighbor discovers that Aubrey is dead, and the police are notified. Although Eddie escapes from the police, Ruby is identified by the neighbor and is arrested.

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Sentenced to two years in a woman’s reformatory, Ruby discovers that one of her three roommates is Gypsy, whose jealous hatred immediately reignites. While she adjusts to reformatory life, Ruby realizes that she is pregnant but has no way of contacting the fugitive Eddie. Although the still devoted Al proposes to her while she is incarcerated, Ruby refuses him, even though marriage would guarantee her parole. Eventually, however, the recently released Gypsy, who has seen Eddie and now understands the sincerity of the couple’s love, returns to the reformatory on visitors’ day with Eddie in tow. Because he is a fugitive, Eddie is unable to speak directly to Ruby but must pose as another inmate’s brother. Ruby and the other women’s strained behavior attracts the attention of the reformatory matrons, who finally deduce Eddie’s identity and contact the police. Before the police arrive, Ruby’s friends conspire to bring Eddie and her together long enough to be married in the reformatory chapel by the minister father of a black inmate. After serving a prison term, the rehabilitated Eddie is greeted at Grand Central Station by both Ruby and their young son and learns that the three of them are moving to Cincinnati, where Al has set him up in a job. (Summary courtesy of TCM.)

This film has a little bit of everything. It pulls on heartstrings one minute and is rip-roaringly funny the next. Unfortunately, this almost works against the picture — with the gradual tonal shifts becoming much steeper as the film progresses. It begins as a promisingly funny picture about two seedy characters:  a conman and a broad. Harlow and Gable sparkle in these first scenes; their chemistry is even better here than it was in Red Dust (1932). Anita Loos gives them delicious lines with which they can banter back and forth at each other, and it’s incredibly entertaining. Then the big turning point of the film — the death of Aubrey — results in Gable running off and Harlow being sent to a reformatory. The initial scenes in this moralistic prison are the picture’s best. Harlow’s encounter with Gable’s ex is undoubtedly the funniest and most memorable scene from the film. “You know, you wouldn’t be a bad lookin’ dame, if it wasn’t fa ya face.”

But things go from snarky to schmaltzy when it’s revealed that Harlow’s pregnant. Then Gable’s ex, the kookily titled “Gypsy,” is released and comes back with a change of heart. She recognizes how much Gable and Harlow love each other, and she’s brought Gable to see Harlow. Things get sappy fast, and not in a natural or organic way. The actors do their best to sell the triteness, and there is some dramatic relief at seeing them reunited, but it’s in such a humorless, witless, and out-of-character way. The shift in genre didn’t work for the film or for the characters. The picture began too amusingly and honestly to end in such a melodramatic and artificial way. If the film had began as a drama, then the ending wouldn’t have felt out-of-place. But it does — and the product is flawed as a result.

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Still the film has the unique chemistry of Gable and Harlow (better than Gable and Crawford, in my opinion), and some truly expertly written and played scenes. Unfortunately, those aren’t not consistent throughout the picture. But if you’re looking for some Pre-Code Gable and Harlow, Hold Your Man will suffice. Though, if given a choice — go with Red Dust (1932); it’s much smarter and less trite.

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Come back next Friday as we begin looking at the films of an entirely different star! And tune in on Monday for the start of a whole new week of fun on That’s Entertainment! 

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