Monday, April 29, 2013

Pre-Code Parade: HOLD YOUR MAN (1933)

Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer may not have made the grittiest Pre-Code pictures, but theirs are some of the earthiest. In Clark Gable and Jean Harlow they had two of the most unapologetically sexy performers of the period. There's a carnality to them that sometimes makes the Warner Bros. crew of gangsters and gold diggers look merely cartoonish by comparison. After Victor Fleming's Red Dust Metro knew they had a combination that clicked. Sam Wood reunited them, with Harlow billed on top, for Hold Your Man, a grifters' love story. Gable's a clean-shaven con man fleeing the cops; he seeks refuge in Harlow's apartment, walking in on her bath as he searches the place. She screams but adapts quickly, like sympathizing with like. When the cops arrive and she answers the door Gable has settled into her tub and lathered his face so they won't recognize him. He only had time to take his shirt off and his pants are soaked. She has men's pants to spare and a photo of Stuart Erwin on her bureau. For those unfamiliar with Erwin, just read "schlub" or "loser." Harlow's out to drain him of everything she can get; we see her with him on a dinner date dumping her handbag in the ladies' room and whining that she must have lost it on the street -- with her rent money inside. Erwin hands the same amount over just as a washroom attendant returns the handbag. Erwin's a forgiving soul and a good guy at heart -- too good for her, Harlow will eventually decide. He's simply no competition for Gable. Harlow and Gable are soon working a con together, she enticing men to the apartment, he bursting in, in the role of her brother, to shake the mark down. Except that Gable starts jumping the gun and getting too rough with the marks. He can't stand to see them laying hands or lips on Harlow for even a moment. After punching the last mark through a doorway, he storms out with Harlow to get a marriage license. They leave the man laying and he stays laying.

In fact, Gable has killed the man, the mark having bashed his brains against a corner wall. By the time our lovebirds come back home there's a crowd outside and cops crawling through it. Once they figure out what's up they flee and are separated. Harlow is caught, tried and sentenced to a reformatory without ratting out Gable. There are all kinds of interesting people at a reformatory. It's a politically and ethnically diverse environment. There's a house socialist expounding on the class struggle to anyone who'll listen; Harlow makes the mistake of asking what the difference is between socialism and communism and comes to regret it. Theresa Harris (Barbara Stanwyck's maid and sidekick in Baby Face) plays Lilly Mae, a preachers' daughter gone bad whose race is no barrier to mingling freely with the white cons. There's also Gypsy, Gable's ex-girlfriend and Harlow's enemy. They've tangled before and they tangle now. Gypsy's a slapper and Harlow's a puncher; that's how you tell the real women of Pre-Code Hollywood. Harlow may be able to wipe the floor with all of them, but somehow she isn't happy. She misses her man at the worst possible time; as the picture takes its time saying outright, but makes clear early enough, she's carrying Gable's child. Erwin shows up for a visit, learns of the trouble, and offers to do the stand-up thing, but Harlow drives him away, only to break down and cry. Gypsy finally gets to gloat when her time is up first. She threatens to take Gable back and when she learns of Harlow's plight she gives her the horselaugh. But something happens offscreen to get a happy ending started. Somehow Gypsy returns as a visitor to facilitate a meeting between Gable, still a fugitive, and Harlow. It so happens that Lilly Mae's father is coming to visit that same day, and it also so happens that Gable still has that marriage license. It's all very tearjerking at the close, if not also transgressive in true Pre-Code style for the lovers to be united in the sacred bonds of wedlock by a black man. Too weepy in the end, perhaps, with Gable and Harlow promising to reform, but I guess that's the price you pay for the good stuff in the first hour. It's a fun film overall, a star vehicle carried along by the lead couple's charisma and some nice touches from the director. It has more honest erotic energy than most contemporary films and certainly helped cinch Gable's claim to the Hollywood He-Man throne. He wouldn't be second-billed for much longer, and he had Harlow, among others, to thank for that.

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