Saturday, December 1, 2012

Stubs – Platinum Blonde


Platinum Blonde (1931) Starring: Loretta Young, Robert Williams, Jean Harlow, Louise Closser Hale. Directed by Frank Capra. Screenplay by Dorothy Howell and Jo Swering. Story by Harry E. Chandlee and Douglas W. Churchill. Run Time: 89 minutes. U.S. B&W Comedy, Romance

This is one of those films that on the surface seems to have a lot going for it. After all, it has two beautiful leading ladies, Loretta Young and Jean Harlow, and is directed by one of the all-time greats, Frank Capra. And the film is credited by some as making the original platinum blonde, Harlow, a star. But this is far from Harlow’s first film; she had already made sixteen films since making her debut in 1928 and had appeared in such films as Hell’s Angels (1930), City Lights (1931) and The Public Enemy (1931). But while she had garnered a lot of attention along the way, she became a star because of this film.

But watching it is like seeing a diamond in the rough. While Harlow and M-G-M would polish her image in such films as Red Dust (1932), Dinner at Eight (1933) and Bombshell (1933), this is still prototype Harlow, a star in the making. Originally called Gallagher after the character Loretta Young plays, the title was changed to reflect Harlow’s rising star.

The movie revolves around Stewart “Stew” Smith (Robert Williams) who is both lazy and the best reporter that the Post has. He is assigned to follow up on a story involving the Schuyler family which is embroiled in a scandal. Oldest son Michael (Donald Dillaway) is being blackmailed by a chorus girl, Gloria Golden, whom we never see. Michael had apparently written six letters to her expressing his love, but had reneged on his promise to marry her. Yes, at one time that was grounds for a lawsuit. When Stew won’t take a bribe, the way Tribune reporter Bingy Baker (Walter Catlett) did from family lawyer Dexter Grayson (Reginald Owen), Anne (Jean Harlow) flirts with him and convinces him not to print anything about the scandal. And while he agrees not to, he turns right around and using the Schuyler’s phone, in front of Michael, Dexter, Anne and Mom (Louise Closser Hale), calls his editor and gives him the story. That’s just the kind of reporter Stew is.

When he gets back to the office he tells his best friend Gallagher (Young) about the woman he’s met. It is obvious to everyone but Stew that talking about Anne hurts Gallagher’s feelings. The next day, he returns to the Schuyler’s under the guise of returning a novel by Joseph Conrad that he had “accidentally” taken. And with him, he brings the six letters that he stole from Golden when he went to interview her. Anne repays Stew’s kindness by offering him lunch. Stew tells Anne about his desire to write a play and she thinks about how she could turn this ruffian into a gentleman. And while they are flirting again, Mrs. Schuyler returns home.

A lightning fast romance, which takes place off screen, results in the two eloping with the news breaking in the Tribune rather than the Post. When Gallagher learns about the marriage she flees to a speakeasy to drown her sorrows. However, Stew goes to the same speakeasy to celebrate. He seems oblivious to her pain, which Gallagher tries hard to conceal. Conroy (Edmund Breese) shows up as well and accuses Stew of being a kept man, Anne Schuyler’s husband and a bird in a gilded cage. Stew acts determined not to live off Anne’s family’s money, but Anne cajoles him into moving into her mother’s house with her and even to wearing garters (pre-elastic) to keep up his socks.

When the Schuylers host a reception for the Spanish Ambassador, Gallagher goes, getting tapped as a substitute for the Post’s society editor. Stew is happy and excited to see her, but not so much Anne, who is rude to her. Stew had never told Anne that Gallagher was a pretty woman. Bingy from the Tribune shows up at the party to discuss a proposal from the paper. They want to pay him twice what the Post is paying him to write a column as Anne Schuyler’s Husband. Enraged, Stew punches Bingy. Naturally, the fight is in the Tribune the next morning, much to everyone’s chagrin, that is, everyone but Stew.

One night, when Anne leaves Stew to attend another party, he calls Gallagher and invites her to come over. She insists on a chaperone and Stew suggests she bring Hank (Eddy Chandler). Hank invites one friend, who brings one friend and pretty soon there is a party going on. But at the same time, Stew gets inspired by Gallagher, who tells him to write his own story, and works on his play. The two of them are working on it, when Anne comes home. When she asks what’s going on, Stew launches into a rant that ends with him packing up his things and going home with Gallagher.

There we see Gallagher making Stew breakfast while he tries to finish his play. Gallagher tells him that what happened last night was the start of his third act. Dexter arrives to discuss the divorce and Stew reacts to the idea of him taking money from Anne by punching the lawyer. Gallagher encourages Stew to write that the man goes back to his wife, but Stew has another idea. He tells Gallagher that the man would realize that it had been the woman friend that he had loved all along. The two kiss and the movie ends.

For a film that has two leading ladies, there is not enough of either one. When Jean Harlow is on the screen for long stretches you find yourself wishing for Loretta Young to show up. And when the emphasis is on the Gallagher character, you find yourself wondering why it’s called Platinum Blonde. The title is really only a marketing ploy; one that paid off from a historical point of view, but a ploy nevertheless.

The male co-star, Robert Williams, also seems like a work in progress. Like everyone else his acting is a little hit-and-miss. He seems to have a good sense of comic timing, though the script doesn’t always supply him with the lines to say. When he’s on he’s good, but so much of the time Stew comes across as nothing more than a confused hot head. He wants to be his own man, but can be wooed into doing whatever Anne wants him to do. He seems like someone you would have seen in more movies. If he got second billing in 1932, why don’t we see him in other films? Sad to report, Williams died of appendicitis three days after this films’ premiere. There is no telling what he might have become if he had the chance.

Jean Harlow was never a critic favorite and her acting is a bit stiff here. The exception is the scene wherein she tries to convince Stew to wear his garters. Harlow actually looks like she’s having fun while their impromptu song was being filmed. I don’t know if that was part of the script or not, but it was one of the brief moments in which Harlow seems genuine. Like Williams, Harlow would also die too soon. She was only 26 when she died in 1937. While she would appear in over 30 films, one can only wonder how big she might have been if she had lived longer.

Loretta Young, who was only nineteen when she made this film, would go on to have a long career. She was a veteran of films by 1932, having been in films, though sometimes uncredited, since 1917. She was an Arab child in The Shiek (1921) as an example. She would continue to act in films until 1953, when at the ripe old age of 40, she made her last feature It Happens Every Thursday. She would go onto success with her own TV series, the aptly named The Loretta Young Show, which ran from 1953 to 1961. In this film, Young seems to be somewhat under used, even though she gets top billing. She can certainly wear an evening gown and she never looks anything less than beautiful. But even though her name is first in the credits, this is still considered Jean Harlow’s star vehicle.

This is the third Capra film reviewed on this blog. The others You Can’t Take it With You and It’s a Wonderful Life are better examples of his work. This film falls flat. I’d say that it runs out of steam, but I don’t think it ever really gets going.

This is a film that has a lot of potential, two big starlets and one seasoned director. There’s a certain magic when it comes to filmmaking. Sometimes a film is bigger than its parts and becomes something rare and wonderful. In the case of Platinum Blonde, it seems that it is less than it could have been. It’s hard to watch this now and think that this would be the film that would make Jean Harlow a star.

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