Monday, June 28, 2021

Stubs - Her Man

Her Man (1930) Starring Helen Twelvetrees, Marjorie Rambeau, Ricardo Cortez, Phillips Holmes. Directed by Tay Garnett. Screenplay by Thomas Buckingham. Produced by E. B. Derr. Run time: 83 minutes. USA Black and White. Romance, Drama, Pre-Code.

It is sad to consider how many films have been lost over time. Sometimes, when you look up some older actors on Wikipedia, there are usually one or two films from the silent era or early sound that will be listed as a Lost film. Either because they were made and stored on highly flammable nitrate film, or through plain neglect or because the negative was destroyed in the name of censorship (Convention City), a survey of American films will often times have holes that cannot be filled.

Such was almost the case with Her Man (1930). What prevented this film from disappearing was a single copy being stored at the Library of Congress. Recently, the camera negative was discovered in the Columbia Pictures collection at The Library of Congress. Restored in 4K by Sony Pictures, with special funding from The Film Foundation, the restored film was shown in 2016 and, more recently, on TCM.

Made by Pathé Exchange, Inc, the film is loosely based on “Frankie and Johnnie,” an anonymous poem written in the nineteenth century about a scorned woman named “Frankie” who shoots her unfaithful lover, “Johnnie.” While Variety once reported the title as Frankie and Johnnie the title was later changed to Her Man out of concern that the public was unfamiliar with the characters of Frankie and Johnnie. However, the character names were retained for the film.

The film opens with a ship arriving in a US port. Departing the liner is Annie (Marjorie Rambeau), who is stopped by port authorities. They know who she is and what she does for a living, so they force her back on the boat for a return trip.

Annie (Marjorie Rambeau) returns from a failed attempt to get to the U.S.

Later, Annie disembarks back in Havana, where a long tracking shot follows her back through the streets to Thalia, a dancehall. Annie is known there and welcomed back by the bartender (Mike Donlin). Frankie (Helen Twelvetrees) takes pity on her and gives her money so that Annie can indulge in her favorite pastime, drinking.

Frankie (Helen Twelvetrees) attempts to pickpocket an unsuspecting drunk (Frank Brownlee).

Frankie is approached by a large drunk man (Frank Brownlee) who sits with her. He orders two gins from the bar. The bartender fills one of the glasses with gin and the other with water, which the waiter (Vince Barnett) makes sure Frankie gets.

Ricardo Cortez plays Johnnie, Frankie's protector (read: pimp).

When it comes to paying, the drunk flashes a wad of cash, which is too much of a temptation for Frankie, who tries to pick his pocket. He catches her and they briefly get into an altercation, but before it gets out of hand, Johnnie (Ricardo Cortez) steps in and has the drunk kicked out. Turns out he is Frankie’s protector, what we would now call her pimp, as he wants the money she’s made that night but she had already given to Annie.

Red (Matthew Betz) makes a play for Frankie and pays with his life.

The next night, Red (Matthew Betz) comes to the bar and tries to convince Frankie to come away with him. While she is resistant, Johnnie doesn’t want to take any chances. He has two of his henchmen start a fight and, in the confusion, throws a knife in Red’s back, killing him instantly. He manages to give himself an alibi by conveniently breaking up the staged fight. It turns out that Annie was the only one who saw the murder, though she doesn’t say anything right away.

Dan Keefe (Phillips Holmes) charms Annie with his good looks and the promise of a better life.

Later, at Thalia, Dan Keefe (Phillips Holmes), a sailor, arrives at the club with two shipmates, Steve (James Gleason) and Eddie (Harry Sweet). While Dan makes an impression on Frankie with her singing, Steve and Eddie provide comedic relief. A running gag throughout the film includes Steve putting money into a slot machine but it only pays off when Eddie puts money in it. They also have a running feud over a $20 hat they take off Sport (Frankin Pangborn), another customer at the bar.

Despite her apparent attraction for Dan, Frankie still tries to pick his pocket, something he gets annoyed with. Once again, Johnnie intercedes and Dan leaves. However, it is apparent that he is also taken by Frankie.

When it comes time for Dan, Steve, and Eddie to leave, Dan makes the decision not to go, staying behind to see Frankie again. However, before they can board the ship, Steve and Eddie get into an incident that lands them in jail.

Frankie goes to the docks to see Dan's boat off.

The next morning, Frankie is at the port waving a tearful farewell to Dan, whom she doesn’t know has stayed behind until he reveals himself to her. For whatever reason, Frankie pretends not to care about Dan, but he slowly wins her over. He starts out by giving her a taxi ride in a horse-pulled trailer and then by buying her a new pair of shoes after one of hers is lost when it gets sucked down a sewer opening.

Frankie and Dan spend the day together and fall in love.

Dan and Frankie spend the day with each other and eventually confess their love for each other. He knows of a ship they can leave on if they agree to get married and settle down on a farm. She insists that they meet at Thalia since she has to retrieve something before they leave. But Johnnie is aware of her plans to leave him and has prepared a fake fight to give him the opportunity to kill Dan.

Annie tells Frankie about Johnnie's plan for Dan.

When Frankie goes back to the bar, she’s there to retrieve a medal of Dan’s from Annie. It is there that Annie tells her about Johnnie’s plans to kill Dan just like he had Red. Fearing for his life, Frankie sends Annie out on the street to intercept Dan before he makes it inside the Thalia and to arrange for their meeting at a new time and location.

Thelma Todd appears as Nelly.

However, Annie doesn’t carry out her assignment. Nelly (Thelma Todd), another prostitute who also has a crush on Johnnie, invites her in for a drink.

Annie chases Dan down and explains to her that Frankie loves him.

Needless to say, Dan gets past her and when he arrives at the club, Frankie tries to protect him by telling Johnnie that she was only putting him on. Dejected, Dan leaves. However, Annie, now back on the street, sees him and runs after him. When she catches him, she convinces Dan that Frankie is deeply in love with him. Dan then returns to the club.

Dan returns to the club to fight for Frankie.

A major fight ensues and Dan fights for him and Frankie. Johnnie tries to set Dan up for a knife in the back, but Annie foils his attempt by opening a door to the backroom just in time. But the fight continues with Dan and Johnnie fighting in the backroom while Frankie escapes through the window.

Publicity still of the fight in Thalia between Dan and Johnnie.

Steve and Eddie originally run away from the club, but they return with hordes of other sailors who fight on Dan’s side against Johnnie’s henchmen.

Meanwhile, in the backroom, Dan pushes Johnnie off of him and Johnnie falls back on the blade of his knife still stuck in the door. This delights Annie and frees her from being under Johnnie’s thumb.

Dan and Frankie reunite outside and head out to catch the boat leaving port for the United States.

While Her Man nearly disappeared, the film itself is quite remarkable for the time it was made. There are very few contemporary reviews of the film available; in fact, I couldn’t find one to read. One of the few write-ups about the film is on the site All Movie, previously called All Movie Guide. Their description of the film seemed to miss the boat. All Movie called the film “As creaky as they come and technically not even up to the usual standard of 1930s.” They don’t know what they’re talking about.  For such an early sound film, which are known for their stationary cameras, Her Man features extreme long takes and an almost constantly moving camera, something that wasn’t common in 1930.

Harry Sweet, who, along with James Gleason, provides comedic relief.

The site also calls out Slim Summerville's comedy relief, which it states “quickly becomes grating.” Again, it’s as if no one had really seen the film. Summerville does appear in the movie, as a drunk sailor who seems to have a thing for hats. However, he is in only one scene. The actual comedy relief is supplied by Gleason and Sweet and they don’t become “grating” in the least. These two have a real good sense of comedic timing and are expressive enough to make the gags work. Their performances are a little bit of a gem in the film.

Helen Twelvetrees is the star of Her Man.

The star of the film, Helen Twelvetrees, may not be a household name and I don’t know if she ever really was. Pretty, Helen had just enough acting experience to be welcomed in Hollywood when the studios were transitioning to sound and needed actors who could handle lines.

Born Helen Marie Jurgens in Brooklyn, New York on December 25, 1908, Twelvetrees was the surname of her first husband and the name she adopted for her stage name. While Helen acted on stage in New York, she didn’t make it to Broadway until after her film career was over.

Her first job was with Fox in the film Ghost Talks (1929). After three films there, she moved to Pathe where she, along with Constance Bennett and Ann Harding, starred in dramas. She would leave after that studio was absorbed into RKO.

Her role in Her Man would set the standard for the rest of her film career, in which she was often cast as suffering women fighting for the wrong men. Her last film was Unmarried (1939), after which she left Hollywood for summer stock theater. She retired from acting after her third marriage.

Twelvetrees is well-cast in the role of Frankie, a prostitute by trade but only because life never gave her an even break. When she finally sees a chance for happiness, she wants to take it.

One of those keeping her down is Johnnie, played by Ricardo Cortez. Born Jacob Krantz, Cortez was actually Jewish and capitalized on his handsome Latin-like features and silent film’s popular “Latin Lovers” like Rudolph Valentino, Roman Navarro, and Antonio Moreno. Johnnie is more one-dimensional than Frankie and Cortezs bring enough sense of menace to the role to make it work.

The other male lead, Phillips Holmes, also had a short career. Spotted in a crowd scene in the movie Varsity (1928) while attending Princeton, Holmes was offered a screen test. He would become a popular actor, appearing in such films as Josef von Sternberg's An American Tragedy (1931). But as the decade went on, his career was in decline and he had made his last Hollywood film, General Spanky, in 1936, a spin-off from Hal Roach’s Our Gang shorts. He would make a few films in the UK before returning to the US to act on stage. When World War II broke out, he joined the Canadian Air Force and was killed in a mid-air collision.

In Her Man, Holmes has just enough charisma for the romantic lead.

The film marked the first talkie for Marjorie Rambeau, who plays Annie. The role was originally written for Marie Dressler, whom Rambeau would appear with in her second sound film, Min and Bill (1930). Rambeau had appeared in a few and unsuccessful silent films and was already in her forties when sound films started. This meant that she was often delegated to character roles, like the one she plays here. Rambeau is a good actor, twice nominated for Best Supporting Actress for Primrose Path (1940) and Torch Song (1953). Rambeau’s Annie is a sort of an observer to the action, but I think she was well cast in the role and she was very entertaining to watch.

I happened to come across Her Man almost by accident. This is a film that is somewhat overlooked but it shouldn’t be. Well-acted and well-directed, the film was quite enjoyable and I would recommend it.  This is one film that you should see and judge for yourself.

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