The Manichean in the Garden

Hold Your Man (1933)
July 30, 2007, 3:07 pm
Filed under: Harlow, Sam Wood

So I’ve been snarfing up old VHS tapes (of films not available on DVD) through interlibrary loan… This weekend it was Fritz Lang’s incredibly underrated You and Me (which I hope to discuss here very soon) and MGM’s Hold Your Man (1933), directed by Sam Wood. As Mark noted in the comment threads a little while ago–very often, in the thirties and forties, the studios which gave their names to the era were the true auteurs of the movies they produced, distributed, and (as a general rule–with Universal and Columbia being the major exceptions) exhibited. That’s certainly the case with Hold Your Man, a textbook MGM star-vehicle.

This movie is not about anything–it’s an exercise in applied iconography. Which is not to say that nothing happens–on the contrary: everything happens! The classic stars were no vapid pinups–with very few exceptions, they excel in the peripatetic climate of melodrama, in the best tradition of the 19th century novel. Nor are these films concerned with “character development” (all of that stuff about “round characters” that your high school teacher filled your head with). A star vehicle reacquaints us with a dynamic personality that the storytellers assume we already know and love. Star acting (and exhibition) is not about “development”–it’s a journey into Whitmanian “multitudinousness”! For instance, when Gable bursts in on Harlow in her bathtub (a scene which almost certainly triggered memories of a similar meeting between these stars in the previous year’s even more impressive Red Dust–another film which Warner had better commit to DVD forthwith!)a few minutes into Hold Your Man, we are not meant to wonder “who is this woman?”, but rather, “hey! there’s the woman I came to see–how’s she gonna react to this situation?”(and which aspects of her persona will come to the fore?)

And Harlow has a lot to react to in this movie!

1. Gable’s softer-than-usual precode thug (these things are all relative–all Gable has to do, during this period, to qualify as comparatively “soft” is not threaten to hit any women), who begins inquiring about the possibility of a kiss the minute the police go off looking for him in another apartment… Here she busts Loos(e) with some great tough dialogue (“you try it and lay this iron on your pan” “suppose I wait until it cools?”, “then I won’t lay it, I’ll swing it”)

2. Stu Erwin’s “right guy”, who wants to “take her out of all this” (this being, as usual, a life in which Harlow’s source of income is “conjectural”)

3. Gable’s pal Slim (Capra-favourite bit-player Gary Owen–this just has to be the biggest part he ever had! usually he gets stuck painting names on office doors over and over or stands around wondering if the newlyweds are ducks), who wants him to use his new “moll” to clip an unsavoury laundryman, played by ace bastard Paul Hurst, who often finds himself knocked down by the boyfriend of the leading lady–sometimes he dies, sometimes he doesn’t–but he always deserves to!)

4. a women’s “reformatory”, which is populated by wonderful people like Sadie Cline (a “socialist, not a communist”), Lily Mae Crippen (another fine portrayal by Theresa Harris, of Baby Face fame–you know it’s an MGM film because none of the African-American players are credited! her career really declined during the Breen era), and Gypsy (an old rival for Gable’s attention that Harlow gets to punch a few times–not that this will stop them from having their moment of sisterhood! everyone loves Jean in this movie–and you really cannot blame them)…

5. and, finally, a reformed Gable (he even cries!), who gives Harlow a chance to “get out of the life” (and even to take the same escape route–to Cincinnati–that Erwine, still a “right guy”, had proposed!)

There are some very characteristic MGM touches in this film. The matrons are played by lovable people like Elizabeth Patterson–they’re stern, but, ultimately, they care. Not a sadist in the bunch–at Warners, there’d be at least one (actually, there might only be one non-sadist!) Everyone is redeemable (except, I suppose, for the lecherous Paul Hurst), and no one (except for Sadie the Red–who is treated surprisingly sympathetically, given that the film is directed by Sam Wood, future HUAC-supporter deluxe–although let’s not overstate the case–we’re supposed to like Sadie in spite of her “kooky” dialectical materialism, not because of it! And, like everyone else, she winds up pulling out all of the stops to help validate Harlow’s bourgeois desire to marry Gable…) questions the viability of the system which created the absurd economic situation they all find themselves in (and Wood gives us some pretty nice proto-neorealist shots of the squalid apartments these people occupy–although he also shows us that they do, with a domestic little effort, clean up quite nicely!)

The characters played by Harris and George Reed (as her father, Rev. Crippen) are real rarities in the MGM canon–and the moment when Gable begs the preacher to perform a clandestine marriage ceremony (after the African-American man had tellingly asked: “why don’t you get one of your own ministers?” this kind of interracial interaction was REALLY big stuff in 1933–one really wonders whether this film was cut to pieces in the South) is genuinely affecting (precisely because of the constraints we know the filmmakers were working under–even during the “pre-code” era)

And a word, before I go, about Sam Wood–whose entire career is a slap in the face to auteur theorists everywhere… I mean, this guy made tons of GREAT movies (from A Night at the Opera to Kings Row: sometimes I feel that I could write a daily blog about that one movie and never get tired–although I’m sure YOU probably would; from Our Town to The Devil and Miss Jones)–and almost none of them bear any discernible trace of his hard-right sensibilities… this guy was no faceless stooge–he definitely brought something to the films he made, but it’s not anything like a “directorial touch”–what he does is magnify the talents of the stars, writers, and technical personnel under his watch (compare Harlow in this film to the same actress in J. Walter Ruben’s–who?– pretty lame Riffraff). Hold Your Man is no exception–every element of the film is exponentially modified to the power of Wood!

gotta go!

see you soon friends!