“It’s like a giraffe marrying a monkey!” ~ Conroy
The nucleus of Capra regulars are all present and accounted for including a script adaptation by Jo Swerling and dialogue by Robert Riskin. The cast, on the other hand, is an interesting array of talents that simultaneously proves a major asset.
Foremost among them and most notable in this picture right off is Jean Harlow. It’s certainly true Platinum Blonde was one of those that helped build the mythology around her that still seems to linger following her death in 1936. Thanks in part to its title alone. And yet it’s a role that feels contrary to the Harlow archetype. Further still, it’s nearly a misnomer because this is somebody else’s picture entirely and it’s very likely you’ve never heard his name uttered before.
Anyways, his name is Robert Williams and he plays our main protagonist Stew Smith, a newspaperman who works the beat with not only shrewdness but an understated affability and integrity.
Idle moments at his typewriter are spent penning a play set in Siberia and then Araby and finally Old Madrid. He’s planning to figure out the plot later. Either that or he’s killing time playing his handheld puzzle with his co-conspirator Gallagher (Loretta Young) instead of doing work like any gainful employee. He’s the thorn in the side of his editor Conroy but the man can’t fire him. He’s too good at his job.
In this respect, it’s a picture that shares the same world and figures immortalized in comedies such as The Front Page (1931), Libeled Lady (1936), and His Girl Friday (1940). In fact, it seems like the newspaperman had a certain appeal during the 30s and 40s at least in cinematic terms.
Smith’s the man who digs up a story on the well-off Schulyer clan who are currently embroiled in a breach of promise suit that involves the family playboy Michael and a chorus gal. Though a reporter from The Tribune is easily bought, Stew’s not and comes out with a major scoop. He’s got his editor’s thanks and the family’s ire. Still, they are more surprised that he’s an actual honest-to-goodness newshound and not an opportunist.
Soon enough Ann Schuyler (Harlow) has fallen for him. So this is also a class picture and there’s the expected chafing when a man of working stock falls in love with a woman with means. They can go batty for each other but that doesn’t make acclimating to a new life any easier. And someone has to give. In this particular instance, it’s Smith and he goes absolutely stir crazy.
He and Harlow are beyond cute together having a playful marital tiff over garters. For him, he would lose all respectability in the newsroom and his own individuality if he went back to donning this archaic emblem of the old elite. For her, it would help make him into a gentleman.
But far from just glowing with Harlow, Williams can’t seem to put a step wrong. Whether it came purely out of the script or not, he translates the actions with a sincerity that feels utterly disarming. When he has the mansion all to himself, he starts hopping about and testing out the acoustics with his vocal chords. Then there’s an extended sequence with a discourse between Smith and his valet Smythe about the art of “puttering.” Don’t try and figure it out.
And he keeps the lamp burning with Gallagher too. Loretta Young at 18 years old and radiant as ever is not exactly a “one of the boys” prototype and she can’t pull it off like a Rosalind Russell or Barbara Stanwyck might. But that doesn’t downplay her usual effervescent and winsome charm, bouncing off Williams nicely. There’s no doubt about it; they’re pals. You know a girl’s one in a million when she’ll help you get out of a jam with your play. She advises him to write about something he actually knows about like his own life story with Ann.
Of course, the aforementioned play proves imperative to the final act of the film because we see the very events occurring in real time being used as perfect fodder for the fiction. The man finally stands up to his wife. He finally moves out and plans to get a divorce without “alimony” attached. He’s too proud for such an arrangement. Always has been.
But most importantly the play’s ending gets written right in front of us too. He goes back to the girl he’s always loved without ever realizing it. He tells her what a fool he’s been. End scene. Call me a sentimental sop but I couldn’t have envisioned a better ending for the picture if I’d written it myself.
The great tragedy of this particular film is not that Harlow was gone in 5 years time but that Williams would pass away only 3 days after the picture was released. And that’s why the film history books don’t have as large a page on this man as they very well might have. There’s no question he’s a charming dope with a touch of understated comedy and certain charisma.
It’s a testament that in a movie boasting Frank Capra, Jean Harlow, and Loretta Young, Robert Williams is the undisputed standout, holding together all its various relationships with aplomb. He elevates the picture. It’s a shame that we lost him on the precipice of what could have been such a rewarding film career. I admit it’s a bit selfish. I would have loved to see him in more