Saturday 18 July 2009

Three Wise Girls (1932)

Director: William Beaudine
Stars: Jean Harlow, Mae Clarke and Marie Prevost

When a classic film is based on a story called Blonde Baby, whether you picture Marilyn Monroe or Jean Harlow in the lead depends only on your generation. This one is a 1932 precode, so that answers that question: Marilyn was only six years old so we're watching the original blonde bombshell, not her more famous successor. More importantly it's a rare Jean Harlow that fills another gap for me: I've seen the fifteen films she made after this one so now I'm down to only one post-Platinum Blonde to go. I wonder how many years I'll have to wait for that one.

Here she's playing Cassie Barnes, a small town girl who's struggling with all the usual problems that small town girls suffer with. She lives with her mother, where they get to share the same bed and make do on her meagre earnings, and she keeps losing jobs because her bosses think they can take liberties. However she has an old friend called Gladys, who pulls in $200 a week as a model at Andre's Gowns in New York and sends lots of cool gifts back home to the folks. So naturally off goes Cassie to join her and life is good with Gladys landing her job at Andre's too.

Well life is mostly good. There's one big problem: our heroines have a habit of falling in love with the wrong men. Gladys is besotted with a wrong man called Arthur Phelps. It's bad enough that his wife won't let him get divorced, but what's even worse is that we don't believe a word he says because the first time we meet him he tries it on with Cassie while Gladys is getting ready in another room. And while Gladys warns her against following suit, naturally she promptly follows suit, falling for a wrong man called Jerry Wilson (Jerry Dexter in IMDb, for some reason).

Now Jerry is in precisely the same spot, but it's not quite as simple as the situation that Gladys is in. She says that when they're rich and handsome and you're in love with them, they're always married, and it's true here, but unlike her wrong man Cassie's wrong man can get a divorce. He does too but this wasn't ever meant to be a simple love story, so we get a whole bunch of misconceptions, shouting matches and turned backs before we get to our finale, and being a precode it isn't going to be a happy ending for everyone.

It's obvious that the script was written by a woman because of all the little touches, which gifts the third name in the film most. Marie Prevost always plays a bubbly character that underpins the leads and she was great at it. Here she's even better than usual because she's given little gems of dialogue that mean nothing on their own but add up to a real treat when put together. The second name is Mae Clarke, playing Gladys Kane, who acts circles round Jean Harlow but is still not as interesting to watch.

There was something about Jean Harlow and it's hard to describe what it is. In the earliest film of hers that I've seen, 1930's Hell's Angels, she was frankly terrible, but she progressed up through The Secret Six and The Public Enemy to Platinum Blonde, where she utterly caught the moment. By the time she got to Red Dust in 1932 she ruled the screen, but it took her much of her career to really learn how to act. Her best films are really the last ones, films like Libeled Lady and Saratoga where she was up to the standard of her co-stars.

It's fascinating to watch her learn and progress and build her skills. Here she still can't act but her voice is mostly there. It's like she'd learned how to speak her lines with the right intonation and the right inflection but was concentrating so much that she couldn't make her face act at the same time. But even while she learns she was magnetic to the eye. It's hard to look at anyone else in a Jean Harlow film, because there's something that commands you to watch her. Perhaps it's her unpredictability, perhaps her charisma. Whatever it is it was there from the beginning and it never left her, even as she learned to act.

The film itself is not that bad but it's not that great. Jean Harlow struts her stuff while Mae Clarke anchors her and Marie Prevost makes us laugh. The men aren't much to write home about: Jameson Thomas is suitably sleazy as Arthur Phelps and Walter Byron does a fair job at decency as Jerry Wilson. Andy Devine is almost unrecognisable as Wilson's chauffeur until he opens his mouth and then, of course, it couldn't be anyone else. The story is there to let them do their thing and little more, and it's a little confusing at points. I must have blinked when Cassie moved to New York and it took me a little while to work out that she was there. It looks OK, it sounds OK and well, it's just OK.

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