Monday March 16, 2020
Movie Review: Platinum Blonde (1931)
“Platinum Blonde” is named for Jean Harlow but Loretta Young gets top billing, and the two actresses could probably switch roles. Harlow, a brassy type, is cast as a rich society dame, rather than the newspaper reporter Young plays, while the fine-featured Young could totally play the socialite. Overall, it’s not bad. Directed by Frank Capra before he became Frank Capra.
He became Frank Capra with “It Happened One Night,” in which a rich girl falls for a rougish reporter, and that’s basically this, too. Quick question: How often was this the plot of early talkies? And how often was it written by a former reporter?
“Platinum Blonde” has four credited screenwriters and at least one of them was a journalist. Jo Swerling had a helluva life. Born in Ukraine, his family immigrated to the U.S. when he was young and he grew up on the Lower East Side. As a kid he peddled newspapers, then became a journalist, then a playwright. That led to Hollywood, where wrote “Pennies from Heaven,” “Pride of the Yankees” and “Lifeboat.” He also helped write, or added scenes to, “Gone With the Wind” and “It’s a Wonderful Life,” before writing the Broadway book for “Guys and Dolls” in the 1950s. For “Blonde” he gets an “adaptation” credit but it makes me wonder: Adapted from what? There’s no play, novel, or short story listed. From the story by Harry Chandlee and Douglas Churchill maybe?
The fourth writing credit, for “dialogue,” goes to Robert Riskin, who became a frequent Capra collaborator: “It Happened One Night,” “Mr. Deeds Goes to Town,” “You Can’t Take It With You,” and “Meet John Doe.” Apparently it was on the set of this last film that Riskin, who resented Capra for taking credit for their collaboration, finally blew up. He waggled 120 blank pages in his face and yelled, “Put the famous Capra touch on that!” They never worked together again. Riskin married Fay Wray in 1942, they had two kids, he had a stroke in 1950. His last five years were spent in a home/hospital for old movie stars, where, according to Ian Scott’s 2006 book, “In Capra's Shadow: The Life and Career of Screenwriter Robert Riskin,” his regular visitors included Edward G. Robinson, Jack Benny and Jo Swerling. No Capra. When he died in 1955, the funeral was well-attended. Again, no Capra.
If all of that sounds tragic, wait until we get to the male lead of “Platinum Blonde.”
So who’s the rougish reporter who somehow rates both Jean Harlow and Loretta Young? His name is Robert Williams, and if you’re saying “Who?” welcome to the club. It’s partly the name. Could anything be more bland? It’s partly the tragedy. He died shortly after the movie was released.
Just what was it about actors in 1931 movies anyway? I recently reviewed “Behind Office Doors,” starring Mary Astor and Robert Ames. Astor would, of course, go on to win an Oscar as well as play the femme fatale in “The Maltese Falcon” starring Humphrey Bogart. Ames would die of alcoholism that same year. For Williams, it was peritonitis.
Williams had sad, hooded eyes and a natural acting style. Other actors see him as ahead of his time. In 2008, on Turner Classic Movies, Christopher Plummer said: “To watch Robert Williams act was like seeing a comic using the Method, long before the Method became famous with Marlon and Monty.” Is he just talking about this movie or others? There’s not many others. Williams was mostly a stage actor who was just beginning his Hollywood career—making four movies in 1931. This was the last.
It begins with a rumor of a scandal among the high-brow Schuylers, and cynical society reporter Stew Smith (Williams) is sent to check it out. The Schuylers bribe Bingy (Walter Catlett), the comic-relief reporter from the Times (who seems like an early, outre version of Phil Silvers), and try the same with Smith but “no soap” as they used to say. He gets Mrs. Schuyler to spill the beans and they run it big. The Schuylers don’t forgive him, but Ann, the original Schuyler sister, does. She makes eyes. Initially I was wondering what kind of game she was playing but it turns out she has a thing for working-class types; and she likes this one enough to marry him.
Some of Riskin's dialogue isn't bad:
Stew: I begin to get goofy ideas and they concern you, Ann.
Ann: None of your ideas could be goofy, Stew, if they concern me.
Stew: Well, my name is Smith. ... I am white, male and over 21*. I‘ve never been in jail—that is, not often. I prefer Scotch to bourbon, I hate carrots, I hate peas, I like bad coffee, and I hate garters. I make seventy-five bucks a week, and I got eight hundred and forty-seven bucks in the bank, and I don’t know yet whether your eyes are blue or violet.
Ann: That's because you‘re too far away, Stew.
*Is “white, male and over 21” a play on “free, white and 21”?
Each assumes the other will give up their lifestyle—she’ll shack up in his apartment, he’ll become a kept man in her mansion—but money talks and his lifestyle walks. He winds up with a valet and those garters he hates. For a time, I got whiffs of “The Blue Angel”—the man who loses himself in love or lust—but it’s not so grotesque or horrific as in von Sternberg. The two clash, and the clashes culminate when one old reporter friend after another shows up at the mansion to bend an elbow in prohibition times.
If you’re wondering where Loretta Young is in all of this, it’s mostly on the sidelines. She plays Gallagher, the “sob sister” of the paper, who’s often hanging around Stew with her big doe eyes. She obviously loves him but he thinks her one of the guys:
Stew: There you go, talking like a woman.
Stew: Well, you’re my pal, aren’t you? Don’t turn female on me.
Don’t know which requires a greater suspension of disbelief: a reporter marrying into society, or seeing Loretta Young as just a pal. And prefering Harlow to her? To be honest, I never really got the Harlow thing. There’s something thick and even mannish about her features. She turned 20 this year, Young—who’d been a star for several years—turned just 18. Williams was 37. So it goes.
Theory of continuity
As with another 1931 “Blonde” title—“Blonde Crazy” starring Jimmy Cagney—we get an Albert Einstein reference. Stew says, “Say, I interviewed a swell guy the other day: Einstein. Yeah, swell guy. Little eccentric, doesn't wear any garters. Neither do I, as a matter of fact.” That’s how the garters thing begins.
In the end, of course, the scales fall from Stew’s eyes and he and Gallagher wind up together. Boy meets girl, boy goes for richer girl, boy leaves richer girl for the girl we knew was right for him all along. Classic Hollywood.
Interesting thing about the above poster? All the writers are listed but not Riskin. Because he was merely “dialogue”? Instead, the third-billed writer on the poster is Dorothy Howell, for “continuity.” Howell actually started out as Harry Cohn’s secretary at Columbia. Can't find a Times obit for her but there's more on her here. Riskin and Sweberg didn't get Times' obits, either. Capra, of course.