' Cinema Romantico: Friday's Old Fashioned: Riffraff

Friday, June 08, 2012

Friday's Old Fashioned: Riffraff

If sitting down to watch a film from 1936 called “Riffraff” about striking dockworkers that stars Jean Harlow, The O.B.B. (Original Blonde Bombshell), and a then up and coming Spencer Tracy the viewer could be forgiven for thinking it to be along the lines of, say, a Nora Ephron-ized “On the Waterfront” in which the strike is merely a backdrop to a mismatched romance between Terry Malloy and Edie Doyle. And J. Walter Ruben’s film (produced by the inestimable Irving Thalberg) gets itself going in just that sort of context.


Harlow’s Hattie lives down on the wharf with her whole family, including a younger brother played by a young Mickey Rooney which goes to show that young Mickey Rooney was just as annoying as old Mickey Rooney. Tracy is Dutch, a cannary worker who seems indifferent to his co-workers’ calls for a strike until he is made to realize their unctuous boss Nick Lewis WANTS them to strike so he can bring in cheaper labor. Thus, Dutch leads his co-workers back to work only to eventually make an about-face and push for a strike anyway.

That happens often in “Riffraff” – about-faces. Hattie clearly loves Dutch but Dutch is just too ornery and so Hattie parades around the docks on the arm of Nick which makes Dutch jealous and so Hattie and Dutch have a top-volume shouting match that ends with Dutch declaring he would NEVER marry Hattie, not even if she was the last woman on the long shore, and she declares right back that she would NEVER marry Dutch, not even if he was the last man on EARTH. And then the very next shot is of Hattie and Dutch’s wedding. And within about 1.5 seconds of exchanging vows the two are exchanging insults. Their entire union brings to mind the wise words a girl I once knew said of a couple we both knew: “Their entire relationship is based on giving each other shit.”

But don’t presume that they don’t love each other, because they do in their own morbid way which they will prove again and again as a film that seems ripe and ready to be a comedy of bickering jarringly, and kind of awesomely, transforms into something darker. You really don’t see it coming.

A second go at a strike leads to Dutch losing his job and his union card and the majority of his and Hattie's belongings and leads to Dutch determining that he will go west to make a name for himself which leads to him warming his hands around a measly fire at a hobo camp. But Hattie still loves him and tracks him down but he flees on the back of a train instead, refusing to face his better half in the face of failure, and so Hattie decides to steal some cash in the name of love and this, of course, lands her in prison and in prison......her baby is born.


I get the distinct sense movie audiences didn't see a lot of babies being born in the clink on screen in the same year Jesse Owens went over to Berlin to show Hitler what was what. That seems like something the MPAA would have frowned upon - like, if you get sentenced to prison you should be under the impression that you have officially revoked the right to have children. But that's just the start because then it glorifies breaking out of prison and harboring fugitives and so on and so forth. The tonal shift is jarring, so much so that at the appearance of the baby I actually said out loud to myself "Woah, I didn't see that coming" and the original review in the venerable New York Times in '36 seemed offended. Frank S. Nugent wrote: "It hardly seems fair to subject one of the screen's best comediennes to the rigors of mother love and a husband with an acute social consciousness." It hardly seems fair? Says who? You? Translation: How DARE, Ms. Harlow, you choose to try something different???!!! This wasn't exactly what I was expecting!!!

Is this to suggest "Riffraff" is a smashing success? Not at all. To start, the end lacks the punch that the second and third act set-up would dictate, as if the creators realized they were sullying Harlow's image and quickly reasoned they needed to restore it in the last second to make sure people went home from the theater without the wrong idea. Have faith in the idea, boys! See it through! The film also can't quite shed the airy tone it establishes at the outset as it goes along which prevents the drama from going all the way. And while her intentions were more than admirable, Harlow, to be fair, didn't quite have the necessary reach for this type of role yet.

Still, it was an admirable wonder to watch her try and the real shame of it is that she did not have many more chances to try again.

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