Saturday, August 6, 2016

Stubs - Hard to Handle (1933)

Hard to Handle (1933) Starring James Cagney, Mary Brian, Ruth Donnelly, Allen Jenkins, Claire Dodd, Gavin Gordon. Directed by Mervyn LeRoy. Screenplay by Wilson Mizner, Robert Lord. Based on a story by Houston Branch. Produced by Robert Lord. Black and White, U.S. Comedy

By the middle of 1932, James Cagney was feeling like a star at Warner Bros., his home studio. In the two and half years since he’d come to Hollywood to star in Sinner’s Holiday (1930), he’d already made a name for himself and had become a star thanks to The Public Enemy (1931). But there was one thing that Cagney didn’t have and that was a star’s paycheck.

When he asked for a pay raise, studio head Jack Warner said no and put him on contract suspension for asking. Cagney wasn’t the kind to do nothing so he tried to get out of the contract all together, offering to do three films for free. Warner might be a lot of things, but he wasn’t stupid. He knew he had a star on his hands and refused.

This wasn’t the first time that Cagney had asked for a raise. After the success of The Public Enemy, Cagney had begun to compare his pay with his peers and found his lacking. He felt that his contract allowed for adjustments based on the success of his pictures. Warners disagreed, so Cagney walked.

His brother, Harry, acting on Cagney’s behalf, was able to get a raise for his brother to $1000 a week. Cagney came back, but it wasn’t too long before he wanted more, asking for $4000 a week, the same salary as Edward G. Robinson, Douglas Fairbanks Jr. and Kay Francis, with a raise to $4500 a week by 1935.

The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences asked Frank Capra to arbitrate and in the end Cagney got $3000 a week, but demanded that he only have to make four films a year and receive top-billing in all of them. By September 1932, the new deal was signed.

Prior to the contract dispute, Cagney had been scheduled to star in 20,000 Years in Sing-Sing (1933), but that film had already gone into production with Spencer Tracy in the lead opposite Bette Davis. For a new vehicle, Warners decided on Hard to Handle, an adaptation of a story by Houston Branch.

The production had already gone through various name changes including A Bad Boy, The Inside and Hard to Hold. The writer of the screenplay was Wilson Mizner, known around town as having a great wit, but considered by Jack Warner to be a lovable con man. While Mizner was always able to ad-lib for big laughs at writers conferences, he never seemed to produce much else. It should come as no surprise that Cagney was apparently very fond of the writer who was on the outs with the studio head.

Mizner’s story went into production in late October, 1932. In it, Cagney plays Myron C. “Lefty” Merrill, a California promoter. When the film opens, it is a marathon dance contest. There are only two couples left on the dance floor, including Ruth Walters (Mary Brian), with whom Lefty is in love.

Lefty (James Cagney) secretly encourages Ruth Walters (Mary Brian) during a marathon dance he's co-sponsoring.

We’re told this by a radio announcer at the dance (Allen Jenkins), who seems to delight in telling everyone what should have probably best been left private.

Allen Jenkins plays the announcer at the dance contest.

Ruth and her partner win when the other couple, Andy Heaney (Sterling Holloway) and his partner (Mary Doran), falls to the floor. But when Lefty goes back to the office to retrieve the $1000 prize money, he discovers that his partner Ed 'Mac' McGrath (John Sheehan) has absconded with all the money they’d made, leaving Lefty holding the bag, so to speak. Not only are the winners mad, but so is Ruth’s mother, Lil (Ruth Donnelly), and she manages to agitate the workers, who realize they won’t get paid either. Lefty manages to escape with his life.

Lil Walters (Ruth Donnelly), Ruth's mother, manages to
agitate the workers, much to Lefty's chagrin.

Meanwhile, Ruth has grown tired from the empty promises of California and longs to move away. No man they’ve found in Los Angeles is good enough for Lil’s daughter, especially the low down Lefty, who shows up unexpectedly looking for a place to stay and a friendly face. Thanks to Lil, he finds neither.

Determined to pay Ruth her share of the winnings (forget her dance partner), Lefty promotes a treasure hunt at a pier. But the owner, Col. H.D.X. Wells (Berton Churchill), has other plans. While he agrees to pay Lefty five hundred dollars for the scheme to bring hundreds to his pier, the prize money he hides is only $10. But the crowd, thinking there could be much more, tears the pier apart, causing much more damage. Lefty manages to escape before the mob gets out of control.

Lefty's get quick scheme goes awry as treasure seekers destroy the pier.

He shows up at the Walters’ apartment with the $500, but finds Lil sold the furniture to a second-hand furniture salesman, Abe Goldstein (Harry Strang) and used the money to move back to New York. The problem is that Lil didn’t own the furniture and once again Lefty has to hurry away before everyone tries to get the money from him.

Lefty follows the Walters to New York, where he discovers that Ruth is working as a model as well as dating the photographer John Hayden (Gavin Gordon). Lefty talks up a good game, but no matter how fast he talks, he knows he needs to make a quick score of money to win her back.

Lefty follows Ruth  and her mother to New York, but finds Ruth in a
 relationship with her photographer, John Hayden (Gavin Gordon), when he arrives.

His next get rich quick comes to him while he watches Ruth struggle with a thick and sticky face cream. The idea is to sell the cream as a reducing cream, since her efforts to spread it were surely burning calories. With the endorsement of Mrs. O.H.P. Weston-Parks (Louise Mackintosh), a socialite, he is extremely successful.

Lefty takes charge of the advertising campaign for his reducing cream.

Money makes him a good catch according to Lil, but Ruth wants to see how being rich affects him. 

Now Lefty is a promotional man in demand. When Bedford College comes to him to promote their school, the campaign is so successful that he is awarded an honorary doctorate.

Lefty receives an honorary doctorate after helping the school raise money.

He also draws the attention of pretty student Marlene Reeves (Claire Dodd) and her father, Charles (Robert McWade). Charles hires Lefty to promote his development in Florida, Grapefruit Acres. Lefty asks Ruth to accompany him down to Florida and to marry him there, but she insists on waiting until he gets back.

While Ruth doesn’t go, Marlene does and she makes a play for Lefty. But Ruth changes her mind and she and Lil decide to go to Florida to surprise Lefty. But the surprise is on them, when they enter Marlene’s hotel room and find the two of them having breakfast in their robes. (Ah, pre-code Hollywood.)

Marlene Reeves (Claire Dodd) follows Lefty to Florida.

Not only does he lose Ruth, but his campaign for Grapefruit Acres gets him in trouble. (Grapefruit is a call back to The Public Enemy with its infamous breakfast scene.) The promotions promise that the first harvest of grapefruits will more than pay for the house. But with the price of grapefruits at an all-time low, Lefty is thrown in jail for false advertising.

In jail, Lefty is reunited with Mac, his former partner in the marathon dance contest. He manages to get a little revenge by punching Mac, but he also learns that Mac had lost weight on a grapefruit diet.

In jail, Lefty is reunited with Mac (John Sheehan), from whom he takes out his revenge.

With that idea, Lefty invents the 18-day grapefruit diet. So successful is this promotion that the price of grapefruit spikes and suddenly his original claims are legitimate. The charges are dropped.

Lefty wants Ruth back, but Lil tells him that her daughter is going to marry Hayden. Not to be outdone, Lefty tricks Ruth into admitting that she still loves him.

Like most Cagney films from that era, this one was generally well-received by critics of the day. From the reviews I’ve read, Mordaunt Hall’s in The New York Times seems typical: “James Cagney's shadow burst into Warner's Strand [Theatre] last night as the dynamic publicity man in Hard to Handle, an adaptation of a story by Houston Branch. It is a violent, down-to-the-pavement, slangy affair which has many a mirthful moment...Mr. Cagney as Lefty Merrill leaps from the frying pan into the fire, from the fire into the frying pan and lastly from the pan to the kitchen floor...The episodes fly by like the wind, or as fast as Lefty Merrill runs in several of the episodes...And like virtually all Mr. Cagney's pictures, there is no time for pausing. The picture must go on, and on it goes." Variety commented “While his material isn’t up to average, Cagney’s playing is as usual and as effective in its way as always.”

Everything they said in those reviews back then is still true today. Hard to Handle seems to fit in well with Cagney’s early films at Warner Bros. The stories in these early films are usually very fast paced. And Lefty seems like a slightly more sophisticated cousin to Harry Delano, the penny arcade barker with bigger ambitions he played in his first film, Sinners’ Holiday (1930).

The supporting cast includes Mary Brian as Ruth, a role that would seem to have been a good fit for Joan Blondell. However, it was first offered to Carole Lombard, who was under contract to Paramount and turned it down. Mary Brian, also under contract to Paramount, was hired for the role. Brian, whom I don’t think I had seen before, does a good job in the part, but I still think Blondell would have been ideal for the role.

Mary Brian plays Ruth in Hard to Handle, a role for which Joan Blondell was a good fit.

Ruth Donnelly is a very good comedienne, but her character here is a little one note. A mother only wants what’s best for her child, so what’s the harm if some of that fortune rubs off on her or ends up in her pocket? She is good, though perhaps underused.

No matter who is in support, Hard to Handle belongs to Cagney and the enjoyment is in watching him. Don’t get me wrong, this is not a great film, but that doesn’t mean it’s not fun to watch.

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