Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Tonight's Movie: Platinum Blonde (1931)

Last Monday evening UCLA showed Frank Capra's PLATINUM BLONDE as part of its series "Harlow Before the Code." Having thoroughly enjoyed HOLD YOUR MAN (1933) and RED-HEADED WOMAN (1932) at UCLA the previous Saturday night, I would have loved to be there for PLATINUM BLONDE, but I couldn't fit the trip to Westwood into my schedule.

I did the next-best thing and got out a video of the film I'd recorded some time ago from Turner Classic Movies. I'd never seen the film before and watched part of the movie late Monday night and just finished it this evening. I found it most enjoyable, livened by a zippy script, funny bits of business, and a very fresh performance by Robert Williams, who tragically died of complications from appendicitis just days after the film was released. The movies lost a unique personality when Williams passed on, at far too young an age.

Stew Smith (Williams) is a newspaperman who tangles with the wealthy Schuyler family over a story regarding some love letters written by son Michael (Donald Dillaway). Stew is as surprised as anyone to quickly fall for Ann (Harlow), the daughter of the family, and they marry after a whirlwind romance -- crushing the romantic dreams of Stew's "pal," fellow reporter Gallagher (Loretta Young).

Stew tries to convince Ann to move into his apartment but quickly finds himself agreeing to move into a wing of the Schuyler mansion. Before too long he feels like the proverbial bird in the gilded cage...

THREE-CORNERED MOON (1933) is often cited as one of the earliest examples of the screwball comedy, but PLATINUM BLONDE is an even earlier peek at the birth of a genre. Although Ann's family are more mean than screwy, there are some great bits of business, such as Stew and Grayson (Reginald Owen) constantly bowing toward one another, and Mrs. Schuyler (Louise Closser Hale) begging her butler for bicarbonate whenever she's stressed.

The butler, Smythe (Halliwell Hobbes), is a particularly marvelous character, whether he's dishing out double-strength bicarbonate, catching a reporter (Walter Catlett) socked by Stew, or demonstrating "puttering" to Stew in one of the best scenes of the film. This deceptively simple scene builds to one of the key moments in the film, where the butler helps Stew clarify his predicament, "Smythe to Smith."

A scene where Stew and Ann sing-song argue to the tune of "The Farmer in the Dell" is amazingly loose for the era and serves both to show their initially fun relationship and the fact that Stew is losing the battle to be his own man; it made me think just a bit of the characters singing "In the Cool, Cool, Cool of the Evening" in the much later Capra film HERE COMES THE GROOM (1951), which also helped establish the main characters' relationship.

Robert Williams plays the role with a drawling, cheery insolence, but he's also on target in the quieter dramatic moments. Watching his eyes and reactions in the final minutes with Loretta Young is like watching an acting class.

It's rather amazing to realize that Jean Harlow was just 20 when this was filmed, and Loretta Young was all of 18 years old. As some reviewers have pointed out, the film would have made a little more sense if Young were the high society woman and Harlow the newspaper reporter "pal."

However, it bears noting that this was so early in Harlow's career that she hadn't yet developed the familiar movie persona as the warm-hearted, wisecracking dame who would have fit right in on a newspaper staff. The woman of films like RED DUST (1932) and CHINA SEAS (1935) was still in the future, and Harlow is credible as a wealthy girl used to having her way. Young is top-billed, but in actuality has more of a third-billed role, waiting in the wings hoping for the man she loves to come back down to earth. She is quietly effective conveying her emotions without dialogue.

The movie runs 89 minutes. It was filmed by Joe Walker, who worked on countless Capra films.

PLATINUM BLONDE is available on DVD and VHS.

Recommended.

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