Sunday 23 November 2008

Platinum Blonde (1931)

Here's a historic film that it's taken me a long while to find. It's an old Frank Capra, from the days when he still used a middle initial, but even more importantly it's the film that really set Jean Harlow's legendary status in stone. She already had Hell's Angels behind her, along with The Secret Six and The Public Enemy, and she hadn't really learned to act but yet, but she had all the charm and magnetism anyone ever had. No wonder half the country fell in love with her: it's watching films like this that make that entire concept believable. Loretta Young and Robert Williams may have the top credits but the title is all about Harlow, and while she could never really be a society girl, she's still enough to give you shivers.

And yet as fundamentally irresistible as she is here, she doesn't steal the film. I hadn't even heard of Robert Williams, who shines like a star as reporter Stew Smith from the Post. He's about two thirds Bing Crosby and a third Bill Murray, and what's most intriguing is that he was there first. Crosby's first film was in 1930 and Williams's last was this one in 1931: he died of peritonitis four days after its release. I wonder how much Crosby stole from Williams, especially given that anyone who hasn't seen this film wouldn't ever have known different. He's a riot and if anything he's the one who steals scenes: his timing is perfect and he plays the part so fresh that everyone else picks up on it and the enthusiasm becomes so contagious that it rubs off on us.

Stew Smith is a reporter and he's sent to the Schuyler residence to investigate the sort of unsavoury rumours that plague the rich. The Schuylers are very rich: you know that much when you see Louise Closser Hale is the matriarch. Apparently Michael Schuyler has fallen prey to a young lady known to the press as the Human Cash Register, who they've paid $10,000 to leave him alone, and Smith doesn't take long to root that little snippet out. He doesn't take long to fall for Anne Schuyler too, and she falls back, leaving them a surprising couple after a quick elopement.

The third wheel is Smith's sidekick at the Post: Gallagher, only ever referred to by her surname, is a rather lovely young lady played by the very talented Loretta Young. Her name is top on the credits but she has the least to do: as Stew Smith marries Anne Schyler, she can only sit back and quietly hurt because she's head over heels in love with him. For his part he thinks the world of her, but hardly even notices that she's a woman let alone one who's quite obviously pining for him. Of course she's an ever present third wheel because Stew is trying to turn Anne into his sort of woman and Anne is trying to turn Stew into her sort of man, neither attempt of which isn't going too well but Anne's winning. Stew now has a valet, is wearing garters and is turning up to dinners with the ambassador. He's also ceasing to be Stew Smith, he's 'Anne Schyller's husband', 'the Cinderella Man', and 'a bird in a gilded cage'.

The story isn't too surprising but it's executed wonderfully. Williams drives the film with an astounding energy and style, and his loss must have been seriously felt. He only made seven films, four in 1931, and this was the last of them all. I'll definitely be seeking them out now. Harlow is irresistible and Young is quietly charming. She's perfectly desirable while still being 'one of the boys'. Backing them up are reliable supporting players like Louise Closser Hale, Halliwell Hobbes and Reginald Owen and Capra keeps the whole thing rolling along nicely. It's not a deep story by any means, but it's done about as well as you could imagine.

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