Wednesday, July 01, 2020

Tonight's Movie: Whirlpool (1934)

Jean Arthur glows in WHIRLPOOL (1934), a tender melodrama costarring Jack Holt.

As this Columbia Pictures film begins, Buck Rankin (Holt) is preparing to sell his traveling carnival and settle down with Helen Rankin (Lila Lee); the pair have fallen madly in love in a matter of days and Buck plans to leave behind his old life for marriage and respectability.

The couple marry and have a brief honeymoon but a brawl results in Buck being sentenced to 20 years in jail for manslaughter. Buck wants to set Helen free and asks her to divorce him but she's determined to wait for the man she loves. When Buck learns Helen is expecting a baby, he forges a letter from the warden saying that he drowned attempting to escape and the body was not recovered.

Two decades pass and Buck, now out of prison, is known as Duke Sheldon; he's become a nightclub owner with shady connections. His newspaper reporter daughter Sandra (Arthur) is assigned to cover Sheldon, as he's about to testify in a trial, and she immediately recognizes his true identity from a photograph.

Father and daughter have a loving reunion, but Duke also realizes he can't testify; Helen is now happily married to a respectable judge and will be exposed as an unknowing bigamist if he's recognized by anyone else. A refusal to take the witness stand will anger the mob, but nothing is more important to Duke than protecting his daughter and the woman he still loves.

This film was recommended to me by several fellow classic film fans, and I quite enjoyed it. It's moving without being maudlin; the early, tragic part of the story unfolds quickly, and the scenes with Arthur and Holt are lovely. I especially liked that there was no drawn-out game playing regarding Duke's identity as Sandy's father; she immediately confronts him and they enjoy several sweet scenes getting to know one another.

It was also interesting that Sandy never resents her father having faked his death; she grasps his noble intent and accepts it. Instead the conflict comes from outside their relationship; her boyfriend (Donald Cook) is suspicious about who she's spending her time with, and the mob won't let Buck off the hook lightly for refusing to testify.

Arthur is delightful as always and by this point in her career she had evolved from her more awkward early screen persona, as seen in films like THE SILVER HORDE (1930). Here she's gorgeous and in full flower as a confident career woman with that delightfully unique Arthur voice.

Holt is excellent, a no-nonsense type who shouldn't be messed with but who is pure mush inside when it comes to Helen and Sandy. His reaction to seeing a new portrait of Helen is deeply touching.

Cook is a bit of a drip as the boyfriend, playing the same type of role often played by the likes of Norman Foster or Tom Brown, but he's adequate. The always-welcome Allen Jenkins is on hand as Duke's loyal assistant. Also in the cast are Rita LeRoy, John Miljan, and Ward Bond.

The movie was sensitively directed by Roy William Neill, who also keeps things moving quickly; the film clocks in at 72 minutes. I felt as though the director, well known for the Sherlock Holmes series, hit some of the same deep emotional chords here as in his final film, the wonderful BLACK ANGEL (1946), a dozen years later.

The script was by Ethel Howell and Dorothy Hill, based on a story by Howard Emmett Rogers. The movie was filmed by Benjamin Kline along with the unbilled Joseph August and John Stumar.

A side note for anyone who might wonder: This film has no connection to the 1950 20th Century-Fox film of the same name starring Gene Tierney and Richard Conte.

WHIRLPOOL is available on DVD in the four-film Jean Arthur Drama Collection in the TCM Vault series.

I watched it streaming on the Criterion Channel where it just ended its run as part of a Jean Arthur series.

Fans of Arthur or Holt will want to catch this one.


Blogger Vienna said...

Thanks for your fine review of this Jean Arthur film which is new to me. Must try and get that drama set of her films.
I finally caught up with another of Jean’s films, More Than A secretary and was disappointed - she and George Brent deserved a better script.

1:04 AM  
Blogger Caftan Woman said...

I caught this once on TCM years ago and it lays lightly and fondly in the memory. Of all of Hollywood's directors, a look at my movie shelf might show that Roy William Neill is the most represented.

5:21 AM  
Blogger Laura said...

Vienna, I hope you can get the Drama set. I enjoyed PARTY WIRE from that set as well.

I agree MORE THAN A SECRETARY wasn't a top film though I enjoyed it well enough. Looking back I see I called it "mildly entertaining." Sounds about right.

Caftan Woman, how interesting you have so much of Neill's work -- I assume due to Sherlock Holmes! We have some of those as well although I haven't delved into them yet. Someday I'll get there...

Best wishes,

2:46 PM  
Blogger Vanessa Buttino said...

Yay! So glad you enjoyed it. I wasn't expecting to like this film as much as I did. I was feeling bored one evening and decided to fire it up on the Criterion Channel. I love when that happens, though, when a film totally surprises you with how good it is. Happy accident :)

4:45 AM  

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