From 1930 through 1933 it seemed that every John Gilbert film promised a "new" Gilbert. What this means was nothing was working for Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer's erstwhile romantic idol, whose lack of an effectively cinematic speaking voice was already a matter of legend. Fast Workers had an air of doom about it because the fan press had already made it known that it was Gilbert's last film for Metro -- though he'd be called back later that year at Greta Garbo's request to co-star in Queen Christina. This latest attempt to craft a "new" Gilbert was really like many of the others. The object was to make him seem more virile, as it had been when he played a seaman in Way For a Sailor and a gangster in Gentleman's Fate. The specific idea this time was to make him one of the working class, a riveter helping build skyscrapers and the sort of lout who'd have Robert "Carl Denham" Armstrong as his best pal. If this seemed an unlikely role for Gilbert, given his silent typing as a period romantic, it seems a still more unlikely film to be directed by Tod Browning, at least until a plot asserts itself. What's the director of Dracula and Freaks doing here? If it wasn't a punishment project, the idea probably was that, back in Lon Chaney's heyday, Browning specialized in stories in which jealousy drove men to diabolical extremes. A skyscraper under construction offers plenty of diabolical opportunities, but until it sort of becomes a Browning film Fast Workers is a knuckleheaded misogynist comedy whose title is a double entendre. The riveters work fast, or so they boast, with the ladies as well as the rivets.
The plot is a triangle pitting Gunner Smith (Gilbert) and Bucker Reilly (Armstrong) against each other and gold-digging Mary (Mae Clarke). The comic angle is that Bucker -- you can easily imagine him having a different but rhyming name, and that's probably no accident -- is one of these would-be wise guys who claims to know all about women, only to be whipped by one. He regales his pals on the girders by pantomiming how he'd treat a gold-digger, punting her down the stairs, through the halls and out the door. He and Gunner are eligible prey for gold-diggers because riveters make good money by Depression standards. Gunner, arrested for fighting, can pay a $10 fine without batting an eye. But when he gets too flippant within the judge's hearing the fine is jacked up to fifty bucks, and he can't cover that with his cash in pocket. Who should he call for the extra money but Mary, an acquaintance of his, and who should she have in her room but Bucker, who has just boasted to her that he'd figured out her schemes, only to have her turn the tables? He'd anticipated the sort of sob stories a gold-digger might tell, but she catches him flat-footed by asking tearfully how he knew about the spot she was in. Now comes an emergency call for urgently-needed money, which a conscience-stricken Bucker readily provides. Before long he wants to marry the girl.
Strangely, the avowed cynic Gunner grows jealous. He finally arranges for Bucker to see photographic proof that Mary had been cheating on her with him, and now our poor sap gets a murderous look in his eye. Armstrong seems to devolve before our eyes, somehow growing more stupid looking by the second until he stalks off in a slack-jawed, glassy-eyed passion. This is Tod Browning territory now, only Chaney never had a chance to drop someone off a skyscraper like Armstrong has. The mere shifting of a plank means that Gunner will fall to his doom, but at the last moment Bucker impulsively reaches out to catch his pal. In a scene that echoes through movie history from Saboteur to The Hudsucker Proxy, Gunner clings to the sleeve of Bucker's sweatshirt, which is rapidly coming undone. I guess he should have gotten the double-stitch. Still, he manages to save Gunner by helping him swing out enough so that he lands on a scaffold only a few stories below. The final reconciliation comes in the hospital as a repentant Bucker sends an unrepentant Mary away for good, only to appear instantly smitten with Gunner's nurse, leaving his bedridden buddy to lament that all his broken bones have gone for nothing.
Armstrong's moronic turn as Bucker reminds you of how exceptional his performance as the masterfully desperate Carl Denham was, and his coarseness could only remind audiences of how out-of-place Gilbert seemed in his milieu. If anything, Gilbert's problem here is that he speaks too well; his voice is too clipped and refined for his role in the lack of any backstory explaining a social scion's fall from grace. Despite that handicap, as the film darkens a funny thing happens: Gilbert gets better. No, he doesn't suddenly acquire a working-class voice. What he acquires is real emotion. You hear it in small moments like when he roars in anger at being lowered to ground level only to have to dodge a truck. As he broods over his jealousy during an extended sequence in Atlantic City, Gilbert does some of his best acting in talkies. He does a lot with little, mutely and drunkenly keeping time on a bass drum with the house band, the monotonous beat signalling the buildup to an explosion. Looking at one of his better sound films, The Phantom of Paris, I wondered whether Gilbert needed more arrogant, domineering roles. What he needed even more was passion, and Fast Workers shows that that passion could just as easily and effectively take the form of jealous rage, which he conveys far more convincingly and far less cartoonishly than Armstrong does. The sad part was that I started wondering whether Gilbert was drunk in his best scenes. But I know better to say that he should have worked drunk, because I've seen his miserable last film, The Captain Hates the Sea, where he seems to have been drunk much of the time,and I know that drink killed him soon afterward. Just maybe Browning got something out of Gilbert that none of his other talkie directors managed to elicit. Fast Workers is not a good movie, and must have been a step down from Gilbert's most acclaimed performance in Downstairs, the film he co-wrote (coming soon to the Pre-Code Parade!) but just as it may have justified Metro cutting him, it also proved that Gilbert still had something that he probably had all along, if only the studio knew how, or really wanted to use it.