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Friday, July 27, 2012

RIFFRAFF (1936)

Spencer Tracy took featured billing in this ramshackle Jean Harlow pic which had been planned as his M-G-M debut after producer Irving Thalberg brought him over from FOX. It wound up being shot second, and then got released third. So his big debut looked a bit like a demotion from above the title to below. Things could only improve after this . . . and they did. (His next three in this same year were FURY, SAN FRANCISCO & LIBELED LADY!) In the event, this one feels second-hand with fading scripters Anita Loos & Frances Marion phoning in situations from earlier, better efforts. (Professionally, they went all the way back to D. W. Griffith, collaborating on THE NEW YORK HAT/1912.) Tracy & Harlow play bickering waterfront pals, fisherman & canning girl, too stubborn to admit they’re in love. The story jumps around madly with Tracy pushing for, then against, then for a strike against cannery owner Joseph Calleia, who’s also wooing Harlow. She’s just as confused, feuding & making up not only from scene to scene, but within every scene, until she winds up going to jail for love, making a break out of jail for love, then deciding to do the time back in jail for love. It’s all more strenuous than entertaining, barely saved by star power and some good harbor town atmosphere during the early strike sequences. Una Merkel does wonders as Harlow’s no-nonsense sister and young Mickey Rooney is a bit too startling as a cute kid with anarchistic tendencies that put Tracy’s ‘Red’ labor advisor to shame.

WATCH THIS, NOT THAT: Before the Production Code started to draw blood in ‘34, Anita Loos spiced up most of Jean Harlow’s pics with deliciously racy dialogue. Hear the fun commence with RED-HEADED WOMAN/’32. Co-writer Frances Marion covered the waterfront to grand effect in her sweet & salty early Talkie MIN AND BILL /’30, directed with a remarkably fluid touch by George Hill (who she was briefly married to) and with an astonishing perf from Marie Dressler. Don’t be misled by its early comic doings, it’s an apotheosis of sentimental drama.

READ ALL ABOUT IT/SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: Larry Swindell’s once standard Tracy bio has been overtaken by a fat, new book from James Curtis. But Swindell makes a telling error when he lists Robert Z Leonard rather than J. Walter Ruben as RIFFRAFF’s director. According to Swindell, it was on this pic that Leonard insisted Tracy watch his own ‘dailies.’ Tracy did it . . . once, then never again. And Swindell may well be right on the director since Irving Thalberg used whomever was available that day for his many reshoots. It’s why so much Thalberg product has a sort of Stop/Start quality with unmatched inserts & zero internal rhythm.

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