Punchy

Being a big Tod Browning fan, when I was invited to jump in on the Jean Harlow Blogathon hosted by The Kitty Packard Pictorial, my thoughts turned to IRON MAN, a pretty much despised MGM boxing melodrama which pairs La Harlow with Lew Ayres. He’s a boxer, she’s his no-good gal. Robert Armstrong is the kid’s manager.

People, this film is kind of a zombie. I’m generally iffy about MGM flicks unless they’re properly splashy, which this ain’t, apart from Jean’s spectacular furs and gowns, proof of her shameless leaching of Ayres’ winnings. Browning had just come off DRACULA, and was about to make FREAKS (unless IMDb chronology is off — it’d make sense if this were his punishment for the latter film), but while this movie has some of the stilted awkwardness of both — dead pauses, flat delivery, static, airless shots — it doesn’t have the bizarre elements that alchemise that lead into weirdo gold. (Correction — it seems that, as the saying goes, “It’s a Universal Picture.”) Browning could have worked wonders with a boxing story, since it relates to his love of cheap, grotesque showbiz, sadism and exploitation, but this one isn’t it. It plays pretty much like the Wallace Beery wrestling picture Barton Fink is expected to write: generic and soulless. Even Robert Armstrong, who at least was a dynamic (read: shouty) performer, is slowed down to moderately loud drone. Browning did like his talk pretty ssslllooowwww (but his last movie, MIRACLES FOR SALE, is unexpectedly zippy), but here the sheer lack of interest in the situations seems to seep through everything and everyone.

But those furs are pretty impressive.

After grooving to THE WHITE TIGER, which restored my faith in Browning’s abilities with both dramatic tension and performances, I swiftly gathered up another obscure Harlow ~

Remarkable how Oliver Hardy can express frustration/desperation by raising and lowering his hat with both hands — a bizarre gesture, but completely transparent to the viewer.

BACON GRABBERS is one of two Laurel & Hardy shorts Jean breezed through on her rise to fame. Later, in BEAU HUNKS, there would be an excellent gag about everybody in the foreign legion being there to forget a woman, and they all carry a photograph of her: it’s Jean, of course.

Despite buying the mighty L&H box set when it was on sale, and being pleased as punch about it, I’d never watched BACON GRABBERS, a 1929 silent where Harlow appears very briefly as heavy Edgar Kennedy’s wife. The short sees the boys on the right side of the law for once, as repo men trying to reclaim a radio from Kennedy. Said radio gets smashed by a steamroller, needless to say. Kennedy, having already given it up, is amused, until his wife appears to tell him she’s just paid for the thing.

Fiona: “I was always fascinated by those blasted sub-urban landscapes in Laurel & Hardy. When I saw them as a kid, I thought, ‘That looks like a terrible place!'”

Although L&H are maybe unique for actually getting funnier when sound came in — wait, no, W.C. Fields virtually becomes funny with sound — their later silents are pretty close in quality to the better-known talkies. This one has a classic “failing to leave the room” sequence where Stan keeps forgetting his hat, or the list of instructions, or both, and a fairly early example of tit-for-tat violence and destruction. Plus a very funny, ridiculous bit with Stan up a ladder which is caught in Ollie’s trousers and wagging violently about, while Kennedy throws things at Stan from an upper window.

A guy like Kennedy, married to a gal like Harlow, ought to look happier than THAT.

In her tiny appearance, Jean doesn’t have to act much beyond looking happy, and the weather seems to have buffeted her about so her hair is in her face and the sun is in her eyes. She’s swaddled in huge furs again, so we can barely see her. How’s a girl going to get her talent spotted in these circumstances?

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10 Responses to “Punchy”

  1. Todd Borwning had the uncanny ability to make the most un-MGM-like movies anyone has ever seen , and do them at MGM.

    Jean harlow’s dazzle has never diminished. Mr. Cukor says she was a very smart girl.

  2. david wingrove Says:

    David E – speaking of ‘dazzle’, I’ve finally watched SERPENT OF THE NILE. Sheer joy! Thanks so much for shaming me into it.

  3. If I can manage it, I’d love to get some more Harlow watched before the blogathon is up. It’s been years since I saw China Seas.

  4. You’re welcome.

    China Seas is a pip. It’s Red Dust all over again, this time on a boat. And Hattie McDaniels has a perfect Hattie McDaniels moment at the end when she says goodbye to her former employer, “China Doll” Harlow “Well goodbye Miss Doll. Sure hope they don’t hang ya.”

  5. Christopher Says:

    Jean Harlow was in 3 Laurel and Hardy silents..In probably my favorite, Liberty-1929 and directed by Leo McCarey..She and a man are about to enter a Cab when Stan and Ollie get out pulling up their pants!..lol..a running gag where they’re trying to change their trousers (after getting them mixed up while trying to quickly change after a jail break)but keep getting caught by people casting a questionable eye on the duo.

  6. Yes, Liberty is a really good one. Interesting to see both Leo McCarey and George Stevens cutting their teeth on these two-reelers.

    Harlow appears to be brunette in Liberty, which is a surprise.

  7. Christopher Says:

    I wasn’t aware,or didn’t remember that Harlow was in Bacon Grabbers till I watched it several weeks ago…Sad that Roach’s 2 biggest glam queens,Thelma todd and Harlow never made it out of the 30’s..

  8. [...] is a cineaste playground and it rounds out today’s digest with “Punchy” — a spotlight of a Harlow rarity, Tod Browning’s Iron Man, and a Laurel and Hardy [...]

  9. David Boxwell Says:

    IM was made at Universal, where Ayres was under contract at the time. But you’re right: Browning is just hopelessly inept, and he seems incapable of moving the camera. Shirtless Young Lew is adorable, though.

  10. Ahah, so this may have been part of what drove Browning away to MGM. He was apparently very unhappy on Dracula too (and it certainly shows in the later scenes), due to the studio’s cheese-paring budgets.

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