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Wednesday, 30 January 2008

Personal Property (1937)

While it's always great to notch off another entry on a favourite filmography, the inevitable downside is that there's less left to find. This is the only Jean Harlow film I had missing from The Beast of the City in 1932 to the sadly early end of her career in Saratoga in 1937. At least I still have Platinum Blonde to look forward to. She plays a young and wealthy widow called Crystal Wetherby who is engaged to Claude Dabney, who really just wants her money. The twist is that she's engaged to him for precisely the same reason.

Unfortunately for Claude, his brother Raymond has just got out of prison after receiving what is apparently a hard deal. Raymond is Robert Taylor, romantic lead of the era and real life husband to Barbara Stanwyck. He's as calm as his brother and father, in the respective forms of Reginald Owen and E E Clive, are not. Owen in particular overacts to the point of apoplexy. They want to send him to another country and are quite happy to pay for it but Raymond doesn't want to leave London. Naturally he soon bumps into Crystal and falls in love with her though she has a terribly inconsistent accent that isn't sure what nationality or class it belongs to. Maybe he falls in love with her because of it.

The key part of the plot is that in pursuing her he manages to become a sheriff's officer acting for a bailiff to whom she owes a large sum of money, and thus gets to stay on the premises until the bill is paid in full. It's an intriguing law that may or may not be real but certainly sets the scene for an intriguing love story. What's most intriguing though is the humour. For twenty minutes or so the humour is as inconsistent as Crystal's accent and just as annoying. There are moments of genius, then nothing, then moments of genius again.

However once that long introduction is over, everything picks up. Harlow finds her way into the part and settles in nicely, proving as she did in many of her later films that she was becoming something of an actress. She certainly wasn't a natural and she was far from good in her first few roles, but through hard work and perseverance she became a joy to watch far beyond just her looks. The jokes pick up along with her performance and there are a bunch of classic lines that often slip by so easily that it takes a moment to realise how great they were. If only they weren't buried in so much clumsiness.

Taylor is deliciously calm and, posing as Crystal's butler, proves that William Powell wasn't the only good American butler in comedies, and the rest of the cast assist ably though completely stereotypically. Cora Witherspoon plays the dedicated socialite, Marla Shelton her nymphomaniac daughter, Lionel Braham as a forgetful lord and Barnett Parker as a snooty Englishman with an unfathomable accent. Luckily there's Una O'Connor as the one real servant Crystal has left. She doesn't get much of a part but she could always wring something out of nothing.

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