Wednesday, April 9, 2014

Classic Films in Focus: HOLD YOUR MAN (1933)

Directed by Sam Wood, Hold Your Man (1933) is a Pre-Code women’s prison story with Jean Harlow as the primary jailbird and Clark Gable as the career con man who lands her there. Put those elements and stars together, and you’re certain to get one crackerjack of a picture, but despite its focus on rocky romance Hold Your Man also reveals a deeply benevolent interest in the lives of women behind bars. This is a story about tough guys and dames with surprisingly soft hearts, even those we little expect to see jumping ship to the side of the angels. With Anita Loos on the screenplay and an ensemble of fine supporting actresses populating the reformatory, Hold Your Man sympathizes with its women instead of exploiting them, which gives viewers all the more reason to love Jean Harlow as the impetuous, streetwise heroine.

Harlow plays Ruby, who gets a shock when fleeing con man Eddie (Clark Gable) bursts into her apartment in order to hide from the cops. Despite being surprised while taking a bath, Ruby covers for Eddie, and after a short while they reunite and become lovers, much to the disgruntlement of Eddie’s former squeeze, Gypsy (Dorothy Burgess). Eddie decides to con one of Ruby’s admirers by luring him into a compromising tryst, but Ruby gets nabbed by the police after Eddie accidentally kills the mark in a jealous scuffle. In the reformatory, Ruby contends with the angry Gypsy, realizes that she is pregnant with Eddie’s child, and wonders if her lover has abandoned her to her fate.

Gable and Harlow appeared in six pictures together, with Hold Your Man coming just after their steamy collaboration in Red Dust (1932). As Ruby and Eddie, they prove that their chemistry in the previous film was no fluke. Gable tosses Harlow lines, and she knocks them out of the park, but all the while they both have a look that says they really enjoy this sort of game. The second half of the movie offers them more serious scenes, especially when Eddie sneaks into the reformatory to see Ruby and then hatches a crazy plan to marry her on the spot. Love proves powerful enough to make both of them go straight, especially when Eddie realizes that Ruby is carrying his baby. Both actors are perfectly cast as these dynamic characters, since both can play crooks without making us like them any less. If Ruby is fleecing lovers like the gullible Al (Stuart Erwin), well, a girl has to make a living somehow, and since Al doesn’t hold it against her we can’t, either.

The supporting cast really shines in the reformatory scenes, where we find a world of characters who defy stereotypes in their emotional complexity. Dorothy Burgess fills Gypsy with jealous spite during her first encounters with Ruby but later reveals her own capacity for change and becomes an important ally. Blanche Friderici gives a subtle but effective performance as the reformatory matron, Mrs. Wagner, who sympathizes with her charges in their sorrows and their hopes. Most striking is the uncredited appearance of the fantastic Theresa Harris as Lily Mae, a preacher’s daughter whose own father sends her to the reformatory not because he rejects her, but because he loves her and wants her to become a better person. Even though she is African-American, everyone in the prison treats Lily Mae as an equal, but the racism of the period denied the actress the credit she thoroughly deserved for her work. Muriel Kirkland and Inez Courtney add to the reformatory atmosphere but don’t actually contribute more than Harris. George Reed, also uncredited, makes the most of a few brief scenes as Lily Mae’s father, who listens to a higher power when he agrees to hide out in the reformatory in order to marry the desperate couple.

Some viewers might complain that the ending of Hold Your Man is too sentimental, but for most its sincerity about love will add to its appeal. Pair it with Ladies They Talk About (1933) for another Pre-Code take on women in love and behind bars. For more of Harlow and Gable, see China Seas (1935), Wife vs. Secretary (1936), and Saratoga (1937). Be sure to appreciate Theresa Harris in Baby Face (1933), Jezebel (1938), and I Walked with a Zombie (1943). Sam Wood earned Oscar nominations for Best Director for Goodbye, Mr. Chips (1939), Kitty Foyle (1940), and Kings Row (1942), but he also directed the Marx Brothers in A Night at the Opera (1935) and A Day at the Races (1937). Anita Loos, who wrote the screenplays for many memorable films of the 1930s, also wrote the novel from which Gentlemen Prefer Blondes was adapted in both 1928 and 1953.

Hold Your Man is currently streaming on Warner Archive Instant.