erik lundegaard


Wednesday July 10, 2019

Movie Review: Hard to Handle (1933)


It’s a movie of its time. We see dance marathons and holes in dress shoes. We hear about Walter Winchell, Clark Gable and Hoover collars. There are even references to long-forgotten ad slogans, such as “Four out of five have it,” which, it turns out—I had to look it up—was a 1920s campaign to warn against gum disease while promoting Forhan’s Toothpaste. According to a 2007 New York Times article, it was “one of the decade’s most popular advertising slogans.” 

It’s also a movie ahead of its time. Is “Lefty” Merrill (James Cagney) the first publicist-hero in Hollywood movies? Publicists, PR and propaganda were relatively new concepts back then—with Edward Bernays publishing “Propaganda” just five years earlier. And, hey, is Lefty also the last publicist-hero in Hollywood movies? It’s kind of giving away the game, isn’t it? If you show a man manipulating the public to buy a product, the audience might wonder whether they were manipulated to buy this product. 

They were.

“Hard to Handle,” written by Robert Lord (“Black Legion”) and Wilson Mizner (“One Way Passage”), and directed by Mervyn LeRoy (whom Cagney couldn’t stand), has no compunction about letting the public in on the scam. It lays it all out for the yaps/saps to see.

Early on, Lefty has this conversation with his partner Mac (John Sheehan):

Lefty: Listen, Mac ... where did all this money come from?
Mac: A lot of yaps.
Lefty: Sure, yaps, suckers, chumps, anything you want to call them—the public. And how do you get ’em? Publicity. Listen, Mac, here’s the idea: You take the bankroll, open a publicity agency. Exploitation, advertising, ballyhoo, bull, hot air—the greatest force in modern-day civilization. ... Look at the guy who added halitosis to the national vocabulary—and a million bucks to his own payroll. Look at Ivy League, Rockefeller’s press agent. Look at the guy who coined the expression “four out of five have it.” Made more out of that than Shakespeare made out of “Hamlet.”
Mac: Ah, it’s a lot of hooey!
Lefty: Sure, it’s hooey. The most profitable hooey in the world. I’m telling you, Mac, the public is like a cow bellowing, bellowing to be milked.

Again, this is the movie's hero.

Fall and rise
It’s taken me awhile, but I’ve finally realized the formula for these early Cagney flicks:

  • Working class job, often on the shady side
  • Blonde girl
  • Catchphrase

Here, he’s a publicist, the blonde is Mary Brian (who has a Christina Applegate thing about her), and he’s got two catchphrases. The main one is: “You stick with me and I’ll put a gold spoon right in your kisser.” And whenever he kisses his girl, Ruth Waters (Brian), invariably she pulls back and says, “That hurts.” To which he responds: “That’s love.”

“Handle” opens with a dance marathon that’s treated with mirth more than concern. We’re told that after 1,412 hours (which would be 58 straight days), there are two couples left, both of whom have had one fall. They’re only allowed one more. One of the couples is led by Sterling Holloway, soon to be the voice of Winnie-the-Pooh. The other is a short squat guy and a stunning blonde—Ruth. Her mother, Lil (Ruth Donnelly), is introduced as well: “A widow, folks! A widow!” says the radio announcer, played by Cagney pal Allen Jenkins, who gets third-billing for this slim role.

When the other couple finally falls, Lefty goes back to the office to bring Ruth and her partner their winnings ($1,000). Except Mac has absconded with all the dough. Bravely Lefty returns to the stage, says he’s concerned they might get robbed, says he’ll give them the dough tomorrow. At which point, Lil storms the stage—and the movie. She gets all the good lines:

Lefty: But Mrs. Waters, there’s a crime wave!
Lil: Yeah, and it looks like you’re it.
Lefty: Now, now, do I look like a thief?
Lil: You look like you’d steal two left shoes.

She works the mob against Lefty and he barely escapes with his life. Turns out Lefty is Ruth’s guy, though Lil is against it. She also says she’s tired of being on the receiving end: “I’m going to do something to somebody.” That somebody is the very Jewish Mr. Goldstein (William H. Strauss*), to whom she sells the furniture in her apartment. Except it’s not her apartment nor her furniture. By the time Goldstein figures it out, she and Ruth have scrammed back to New York. You could do that back then.

(*Strauss acted in movies from 1920 to 1939, starting out with several starring roles, but mostly cast as a supporting Jewish character. He played five different bergs (Gins, Gold, Silver, Fein, Tim), three tailors and three pawnbrokers. A study of his career would be fascinating.)

Lefty, meanwhile, has another scheme in mind. He sells the owner of “Sea Breeze” amusement parks on a treasure hunt: Hide $5,000 on the premises and let the public try to find it. Problem? The owner hides only $10 and the public tears the park apart trying to find the rest. So Lefty, too, scrams for New York.

He’s down to his last 30 cents when Ruth complains that her “Velvet Bar Milk Cream” won’t rub in, and—snap!—he’s got it. He sells the Velvet company on the idea of pushing their crappy product as a “reducing cream” and winds up with a check for $3500.

Lefty: I always knew the public was dumb but they panned out even dumber than I thought.

Again, that’s our hero.

In this way, his fortunes rise. He convinces society dame Mrs. Weston Parks (Louise Mackintosh, who died later that year at 68) to promote the product, it becomes an even bigger hit, and suddenly he’s a big shot with a team of receptionists. Problem? Ruth doesn’t know if she wants to marry him now that he’s a big shot. Cue her mother’s exasperation.

Donnelly is one of the joys of the movie: grasping for money, gasping at her daughter, shifting 180 degrees depending on the shifting fortunes of Ruth’s pursuers. Initially, she talks up nice-guy photographer John Hayden (Gavin Gordon) and his $25,000-a-year business. But when Lefty comes into his own, Hayden suddenly becomes a “cheap, $25,000 a year man.” She constantly uses the first-person plural for herself and her daughter. After the dance marathon: “Ruth, we won it!” After Lefty comes into his own: “We don’t love that mug. We love you.” Halfway through the movie, and without comment, mother and daughter begin wearing the same outfits. It’s a glorious performance.

Fall and rise, part II
The drama for the second half is all about whether Ruth will come around, and whether Lefty’s publicity schemes will pan out. He’s able to raise $1 million for Bedford College by turning their “hot, skip and jump champ” into a movie star, and by talking up the college’s beautiful co-eds—one of whom is Marlene Reeves (Claire Dodd), who has pre-code eyes for Lefty. She introduces him to her father, Charles, who runs grapefruit farms, and Lefty agrees to handle the advertising.

Bad move. Arlene’s attentions land him in hot water with Ruth, while the ad campaign’s outlandish promises land him in hot water with the feds. The solution comes in jail, when Lefty meets up again with his old crony Mac, who’s lost weight. How? Grapefruit. So Lefty conjures up the 18-day grapefruit diet: “American women will beg, borrow, steal, torture herself, for one thing: a slender figure,” he says. Soon grapefruit prices skyrocket, Lefty’s outlandish promises are no longer outlandish, and the fraud charges are dropped. And with ma’s help, he gets the girl and puts a gold spoon right in her kisser.

Question: Did he sleep with Marlene? I think he did. But the movie makes him seem somehow traduced. Ditto with Grapefruit Farms. It was his ad campaign that concocted the fraud; yet the movie blames Reeves, who skedaddles to Rio.

I like the in-joke about the grapefruit, given its association with Cagney. Particularly when Lefty proclaims to the feds, “What do I know about grapefruit! I never even saw a grapefruit!”

Cagney, with his rat-a-tat delivery, makes a great pitch man, and it’s interesting that Warners thought a man suckering the masses would appeal to the masses. Maybe, to them, it seemed a harmless step up from Cagney’s grifter role in “Blonde Crazy.” It isn’t. Grifters make suckers out of those guys; propagandists make suckers out of us all. Or worse—as Josef Goebbels was beginning to demonstrate.


  • The full line is: “I'm telling you, Mac, the public is like a cow, bellowing, bellowing to be milked.” Plus ça change. We‘re still a bunch of yaps.

  • Cagney, wary of the mother; Brian, with a touch of Christina Applegate about her.

  • “There is no Depression”: I think the Republicans tried that one, too. 

  • What happens when you include only $10 in a $5,000 treasure hunt; they might tear down your place looking for the rest. 

  • If the product doesn’t work? Rebrand. This movie could still be shown in business classes.

  • Lefty with honorary degree in hand about to go into the grapefruit business.

  • Claire Dodd displaying pre-code interest in Lefty.

  • Did he or didn't he? Mother and daughter are standouts, never more so than when wearing the same thing.

  • The movie's great inside gag.

  • “You stick with me and I'll put a gold spoon right in your—” “Kiss her!” *FIN*
Posted at 07:00 AM on Wednesday July 10, 2019 in category Movie Reviews - 1930s