' Cinema Romantico: Friday's Old Fashioned: Reckless (1935)

Friday, January 24, 2014

Friday's Old Fashioned: Reckless (1935)

"Don't forget that weakness of yours. Wanting to make people happy. It's a mean one."

This is what Mona Leslie (Jean Harlow) says to her suitor, Bob Harrison Jr. (Franchet Tone), even though she's really talking to herself, and in those words she neatly, sadly summarizes her own primary flaw, suggesting a fatal self-awareness. Harlow's character is a famed Broadway showgirl, drawing a clear-cut parallel with her own life, and, in fact, Harlow initially did not want to take on the role for fear that it hued too close to actuality. Still, she succumbed, and earned a role with singing and dancing - that is noticeably dubbed (even though, it seems, others testify that most of it was not dubbed) - but also rich with drama and pain.


Evoking the title rather insistently, "Reckless" opens with light-heartedly ominous tones when Mona is jailed for, ahem, reckless driving. Not to worry, as her longtime friend, Ned Riley (William Powell), a sports promoter, is on the scene to bail her out, albeit with a little back and forth. She has to make it to the stage in time for a charity event put on by the S.A.M.L. As it happens, the S.A.M.L. stands for Society for the Admiration of Mona Leslie and is run by and consists of a single man - Bob Harrison Jr., the sole audience member. He is the wealthy son of a wealthy father, and this is how the rich woo the women they love.

They also woo them tirelessly, and perhaps this should have been the warning to Mona that for all his affectations not everything is quite as it seems. But then, as established, her weakness is wanting to make other people happy, and it is that desperate need that drives her forward. It is also the need that threatens to leave Ned out in the cold. William Powell is known so well for his quick wit and one-liners, and those are on display in "Reckless", but so too is a cigarette smoke cloud of melancholy. He also pines for Mona, but can't quite bring himself to admit his feelings, perhaps from fear, perhaps from timidity.

A majestic sequence finds he and Mona kicking back with ice cream cones under the night sky, Powell gradually hinting at the genuine feelings underneath, and then imagining a marriage proposal to a theoretical girl free of all the timeworn pomp and bluster. "I'd simply say: how 'bout it, kid?" Of course, he's really saying it to her. Alas, she has gently dozed off. The Accidental Doze is usually for laughs, but here it's for all the pain Powell can muster. And so is another moment, when Mona jaunts off the rehearsal stage to sit side-by-side and crack wise with Ned, both trying to cover their belief that true love is but a poetic myth. Above all, notice the shot of Mona gently grabbing his arm, the tangible illusion of the physical touch they both crave.


Eventually, having eloped, Mona returns home with Bob to meet his parents, including his requisitely disapproving father, dismissing Mona as a mere "Broadway Bride". But she also learns Bob had been set to marry his childhood sweetheart, Jo (Rosalind Russell), only to jilt her for Mona instead. On the surface, Jo appears to have squared with it, and is nothing but nice to Mona, only to quickly turn around and marry the first guy that asks. This drives Bob to depression and Mona to confusion and will eventually drive Ned to desperation in order to protect his friend.

David O. Selznick produced and concocted the story, and he based the story on the real-life tragedy of Libby Holman, whose husband Zachary Smith Reynolds, heir to a fortune, committed suicide - supposedly - after an argument with Holman upon learning she was pregnant. Harlow's own husband, however, Paul Bern had also committed suicide roughly three years before the release of "Reckless", which is precisely what made Harlow reluctant to do it. Indeed, when Bob commits suicide in the film, the public turns against Mona

Unfortunately this third act dissolve into scandal, combined with the film's song and dance numbers and its relentless reliance on Exposition Via Newspaper Headline, result in tonal inconsistency that prevents "Reckless" from officially achieving greatness. Even so, it's hard not to obfuscate its faults in your mind and merely focus on the good stuff.

The insatiable need of the artist to please everyone, and the eternal inability to do so (at least, in his/her mind), weaves throughout the whole narrative. It is the need that would appear to leave them so emotionally unlucky, Mona observing with a wryness only a stage performer could manage, "The joy of real love is not for us." Oh, how my heart weeps to hear it. And it weeps at the final shot, Powell making one more plea and Harlow reaching out to take his hand.

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