Wednesday, July 17, 2013

Tonight's Movie: Personal Property (1937)

One of Robert Montgomery's most charming early films was THE MAN IN POSSESSION (1931), a saucy, witty comedy with a decided pre-Code flair.

Half a dozen years later MGM remade THE MAN IN POSSESSION as PERSONAL PROPERTY (1937), toning down the double entendres and risque moments, transforming the film into a glossy, perfectly proper post-Code romantic comedy with two of the decade's most glamorous stars, Jean Harlow and Robert Taylor.

Crystal Wetherby (Harlow) is an American widow living in London. She's broke and behind on her bills, so a bailiff (Forrester Harvey) with a writ installs a representative, Raymond Dabney (Taylor) -- "the man in possession," as he was termed in the previous film -- to stay on the premises and make sure that Crystal makes good on what she owes.

Dabney is just out of jail for a minor offense and the job is a godsend, as he needs money and was attracted to Crystal on first sight. Little does Raymond know that Crystal's fiance, the man she's counting on to wed her and pay her bills, is his own brother Claude (Reginald Owen) -- who actually is rather broke himself.

Matters come to a head when Raymond serves as Crystal's butler when she hosts Claude and their parents to dinner...

PERSONAL PROPERTY is a pleasant movie with a few scenes which are quite funny and charming, notably the sequence where Raymond practices being a butler. Harlow is a stitch imitating her soon-to-arrive dinner guests.

However, despite some good moments and the talents of the gorgeous lead actors, PERSONAL PROPERTY never quite gels. It felt a bit that the rewriting of the H.M. Harwood play for the Production Code era rather let some of the air out of a light souffle. The original film, in fact, had sharp dialogue by none other than P.G. Wodehouse.

The original also had some memorable romantic scenes which could not be replicated in the remake; the writers seemed stymied on replacement ideas to develop Crystal and Raymond's relationship, and it seemed to me their romance never really caught fire. PERSONAL PROPERTY would have benefited from a stronger script.

One of the interesting things about the movie is that both Forrester Harvey and Reginald Owen repeat their identical roles from THE MAN IN POSSESSION. I'd be curious to know how many times it happened that an actor recreated his role in a remake!

The supporting cast includes E.E. Clive and Henrietta Crosman as Raymond and Claude's parents, Una O'Connor as Crystal's maid, and Cora Witherspoon, Marla Shelton, Lionel Braham, and Barnett Parker as dinner party guests. I didn't really "get" the cartoonish humor with Parker's character, who is apparently incapable of speaking and just barks out random syllables.

Some miscellanous side notes:

...I was curious when I came across a lobby card for this film which bears the title of the original movie; it's seen here to the left.

...Robert Taylor's character is British but he makes no attempt at a British accent -- perhaps he was dissuaded from trying it by the way Robert Montgomery's accent tended to fade in and out in the original version!

...It seemed as though much of the humor was cut from the dinner party scene, with Raymond's family seeing him immediately in this version. I seem to recall this sequence was more drawn out and funnier in the earlier film. I need to rewatch the original -- no hardship! -- and see whether I remember it correctly.

...The huge rock on Harlow's hand in a number of scenes was a sapphire from William Powell, with whom she was engaged in a serious romance.

...I noticed that Harlow was not always filmed to best effect in this film and her face seemed a bit drawn and puffy at times. One wonders if she was already suffering from some of the ill health that would claim her life at too young an age. PERSONAL PROPERTY was Harlow's next-to-last film; it was released in mid March 1937 and by early June of that year she was gone.

(July 18th update: I had a chance to take a look at HARLOW IN HOLLYWOOD this morning, which confirmed Harlow was unwell during the filming of PERSONAL PROPERTY and looked tired. She then became quite ill with the flu on a trip she and Taylor took to Washington, D.C., in late January 1937, and her health took its final turn for the worse upon her return home; she suffered a near-death experience while having her wisdom teeth extracted, and then passed on, due to complications from kidney failure, before completing her final film, SARATOGA. It seems likely to me that she was already starting to show some effects of kidney failure during PERSONAL PROPERTY.)

PERSONAL PROPERTY was directed by W.S. Van Dyke (THE THIN MAN) and filmed by William H. Daniels. It runs 84 minutes.

PERSONAL PROPERTY is available on DVD-R in the seven-film Jean Harlow Collection from the Warner Archive. The DVD can be rented from ClassicFlix.

It was also released on VHS in 1998.

PERSONAL PROPERTY can be seen on Turner Classic Movies.

The original version of the story, THE MAN IN POSSESSION, is part of the eight-film Robert Montgomery Collection from the Warner Archive.


Blogger barrylane said...

Re Jean Harlow's health -- yur speculations seems well founded. I have had some experience observing ill health over an extended time frame and the trajectory is not straight up or down. It is variable. People do well, or better, and then they don't. Soem of the scenes in Saratoga are shocking. This one a little less so but for a twenty-something young woman not at all right.

8:27 AM  
Blogger Laura said...

I had the time to do a bit of reading this morning and have updated the post with information gleaned from the wonderful book HARLOW IN HOLLYWOOD. She was indeed unwell and I suspect was already showing the effects of kidney failure in this film.

Best wishes,

10:32 AM  
Blogger the tactful typist said...

How common is it that a scene from a lobby card is not in the actual film? In "Personal Property" there is a lobbycard with Taylor and Harlow being spooked by a man carrying a stuffed tiger, but this is not in the actual film. Odd it would be used to advertise the film.

8:12 PM  
Blogger Laura said...

I've found it happens surprisingly often that lobby cards have scenes cut from the film (THE BRASHER DOUBLOON jumps to mind the fastest) -- this also happens with trailers.

Best wishes,

8:15 PM  

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