Welcome to a new Wildcard Wednesday! Today we’re hosting a bonus Film Friday, a post that was written but never made it to “air” in our fall 2015 spotlight series on the Pre-Code work of Joan Blondell (1906-1979), an iconic Warner dame known for her snappy speech and straight-shooting style. We’d covered Illicit (1931), The Public Enemy (1931), and Night Nurse (1931), and in her spotlight series, we featured Blonde Crazy (1931), Union Depot (1932), The Greeks Had A Word For Them [a.k.a. Three Broadway Girls] (1932), Miss Pinkerton (1932), Three On A Match (1932), Lawyer Man (1932), Blondie Johnson (1933), The Gold Diggers Of 1933 (1933), Goodbye Again (1933), Footlight Parade (1933), Havana Widows (1933), I’ve Got Your Number (1934), and Smarty (1934). Today…
He Was Her Man (1934)
A safecracker goes straight to get back at some fellow crooks. Starring James Cagney, Joan Blondell, Victory Jory, and Frank Craven. Screenplay by Tom Buckingham and Niven Busch. Story by Robert Lord. Directed by Lloyd Bacon.
“Recently released from jail, Flicker Hayes plans revenge on the men who were responsible for his time in prison. He sets up a burglary and tips the police. In the ensuing encounter, a policeman is killed. When Red Deering, one of the gangsters, is sentenced to death, a contract is placed on Flicker’s life. While hiding out in San Francisco under the alias Jerry Allen, Flicker is recognized by Pop Sims, but does not realize it. When he meets Rose Lawrence, a former prostitute who is leaving to marry Nick Gardella, a Portuguese fisherman in a small town to the south, Flicker invites himself along, thinking the town would be a good place to hide out. Pop learns Flicker’s destination and, after transmitting the information to the gangsters, follows Flicker and Rose.
Upon his arrival, Pop rents a room at the Gardellas’. Rose hopes that Flicker will leave, having delivered her to her destination, but the Gardellas invite him to stay for the wedding. Nick knows about Rose’s past, but believes that they can start fresh after they are married. In spite of herself, Rose falls in love with Flicker and decides she cannot marry Nick. She intends to leave with Flicker; however, he has second thoughts. Discovering his gun is missing and Pop’s bed is empty, Flicker sneaks out in the middle of the night. The gangsters arrive at the Gardellas’, finding Rose alone in the house. They believe Rose knows more than she is saying and decide to use force on her to get her to talk . . .” (This summary, abbreviated to avoid spoilers, is brought to you courtesy of TCM.)
I don’t have much to say about this film. It’s a slow-paced drama that features a lot of fine, quiet moments, and thus would be an ideal piece to be performed live in the theatre. But on celluloid and intended for the big screen, He Was Her Man isn’t as excitable as it needs to be. This is perhaps due to the lifelessness of the direction, which kills the piece’s tension by not servicing the plot. In other words, the film seems to set itself up as an intimate study of human beings, but the plot centers on an ex-convict who’s on the run from a group of mobsters, thus begging for a more rapid plotting and louder, action-heavy beats. Sure, there are the moments when the story has no choice but to make itself known, bringing in some danger and raising the stakes, but the film would have been better serviced by a less delicate directorial approach.
All of the leads are surprisingly understated, and aside from Jory, the other two members of the principal love triangle — Cagney and Blondell — are almost miscast. On paper, it seems like a good fit: he’s an ex-con with a score to settle with the mob, and she’s a hooker who’s leaving the old life and getting married to a decent fellow. But the portrayals of the characters, and much of this comes from the scripting, doesn’t allow for their individual joie de vivre, which drives both of their cinematic personas. The audience excepts certain things from each performer, and they knowingly don’t deliver. I’m sure the idea of simpler, more “human” performances appealed to both players, but in a quasi-action film, I miss the spark which typifies their Pre-Code careers. That noted, their chemistry is always a delight, and there are moments of genuine beauty in their scenes. (I also appreciate the unhappy ending, but I shan’t spoil it here!)
Yet it’s ultimately not what we want from a Cagney-Blondell Pre-Code, nor what we want from the story at hand. Thus, He Was Her Man is designed only for the hardcore fans of either performer.
Come back next Wednesday for another Wildcard post and tune in tomorrow for another Jerome Kern musical!