James Cagney had been absent from first-run screens for seven months when Mervyn LeRoy's comedy opened in January 1933. Back when studios churned out features assembly-line style, that was a noteworthy layoff. Fans knew that Cagney had had a contract dispute with Warner Bros. and had walked off the lot. Hard to Handle was his first film under a new deal befitting his stardom. To some extent, it's also an essay on Cagney's star quality. What makes him a "red-headed sex menace," in the ad's words? It may have been his masterful virility and cocky courage, but in this picture Cagney spends a lot of time running from angry people, when he's not exiting a scene babbling like a madman. He's as much huckster as hustler as Lefty Merrill, introduced as the co-promoter of a dance marathon. Pre-Code cinema in a nutshell: what later generations portrayed as tragic exploitation, as literature would do this same decade -- The novel They Shoot Horses, Don't They? was published in 1935 -- Hard to Handle treats as a joke. Allan Jenkins is the master of ceremonies, regrettably present only in this sequence, and yet you can imagine the same patter coming out of Gig Young's mouth in the They Shoot Horses movie from 1969. Lefty's girlfriend Ruth (Mary Brian) is dancing in one of the two surviving couples while Jenkins introduces her mother Lil (Ruth Donnelly) as a brave but pitiful widow, while Lil leads the applause for herself, striking a boxer's victory pose even before Ruth and her partner prevail. That's a thousand-dollar payday, only Lefty's partner has run off with all the proceeds, leaving Lefty to flee an enraged mob of temp employees expecting their pay, not to mention Lil expecting hers. Ruth feels differently, though, and their feelings toward Lefty reflect their conflicts with each other. Lil can't stand Lefty if he isn't successful; she'd rather match Ruth with society photographer John Hayden (an uncredited Gavin "Lord Byron" Gordon from Bride of Frankenstein). Whenever Lefty's fortunes change for the better, Lil practically pushes Ruth back into his arms while giving poor Hayden the brush-off. Yet a successful Lefty seems to repel Ruth, and not just because that's what Lil wants for her. She likes the scrappy energy he displays as an underdog; a successful, established Lefty might be boring by comparison.
Ruth doesn't have too much to worry about on that score. Hard to Handle consists of a succession of Lefty's get-rich quick schemes, all essentially hare-brained but some more successful than others. The most catastrophic is his plan to stage a treasure hunt at an amusement pier, with $1,000 in bills hid among the concessions. "THERE IS NO DEPRESSION" at the pier, his ads proclaim, but as a mob demolishes everything in sight Lefty's partners reveal that they've only planted two five-dollar bills in the entire place. Soon enough, Lefty's on the run again, but his gift of gab gets him back in the game soon enough. Ruth's frustration with ill-made cold cream gives him an idea; seeing her exert herself in vain rubbing it into her skin, he realizes that the slop would make a great reducing cream simply because people would work so hard rubbing it on themselves. "It won't rub in! It won't rub in!" he screams maniacally as he dashes off in search of fresh fortune. After some hard bargaining to win a society maven's endorsement, Lefty becomes a successful public-relations man and the apple of Lil's eye, if not Ruth's. But if Lefty is still basically a con man, he's not the biggest or the canniest of the lot. He's soon bamboozled by a father-daughter team into promoting Grapefruit Acres, a tract of land in Florida, little realizing that there's no way anyone can make the money the promoters promise growing grapefruit. By the time this sinks in for our hero, his clients have skedaddled to Rio and he's left holding the bag. But by one of those coincidences that are the stuff of popular cinema, who should share his cell but his erstwhile partner from the dance marathon. After greeting him with a punch in the jaw -- his only act of real violence in the picture -- Lefty chats him up as if nothing serious had happened ("So how are you?") and notices his slimmer figure. How did he get that way? Why, it was a grapefruit diet! Cue the maniacal laughter again as Lefty figures out how to make good on Grapefruit Acres -- but after his crowning success he needs to pull off one more con to win Ruth, ever unimpressed by success, for good.
Some are determined to see this talk of grapefruit as an in-joke on the star of The Public Enemy, but whatever Pre-Code is, I don't think it's as in-jokey as today. In any event, Lefty Merrill is a Cagney virtually free of Public Enemy's thuggishness, more rascal or even mountebank than "menace" of any sort. He's a safer if not necessarily more scrupulous Cagney, with just enough transgressive brazenness to maintain his original appeal. We'll see this Cagney periodically for the rest of his career proper, culminating in his Coca-Cola salesman in Billy Wilder's One Two Three. The depression note of desperation adds to the fun of his mania in Hard to Handle, but I'm not sure if the huckster mode shows Cagney at his best. It does prove him an entertaining if overpowering comic actor -- and I think overpowering was what everyone was looking for.