“PLATINUM BLONDE” (1931) Review
For over seven decades, many movie fans and critics have ignored the 1931 comedy, “PLATINUM BLONDE”. They have dismissed it as some mediocre, obscure film from the early talkies period deemed unworthy of any real film criticism. But due to recent interest in that particular era, the film’s reputation has grown over the past several years.
Directed by Frank Capra and written by Jo Swerling, “PLATINUM BLONDE” is a romantic comedy about a newspaper reporter named Stew Smith, who becomes romantically involved with Ann Schuyler, a wealthy young socialite, after writing an expose about one of her brother’s romances. Unaware of the romantic feelings of a female colleague named Gallagher for him, the reporter marries the socialite. However, both Stew and Ann ending up assuming that the other is the one whose lifestyle must change.
Personally, I believe that “PLATINUM BLONDE” is a decent effort by Frank Capra during the early period of sound. Swerling’s script provided an interesting and comic portrayal of a marriage doomed by the couple’s class differences and their own arrogance. Surprisingly, I suspect that many moviegoers in 1931 saw the Ann Schuyler character as the cause behind the marriage’s failure. After all, she was a woman and from a wealthy background. Many probably felt that she should have been the one to change her lifestyle for the sake of her marriage. The movie did portray Stew giving in to her demands on two counts – living with her family and changing his wardrobe. But he did so, protesting rather loudly and still believing that Ann should surrender to his demands. Instead of condemning both Stew and Ann for their joint failure to compromise for the sake of their marriage, Capra and Swerling decided to portray Ann as the “villain”. Even worse, the script provided Stew with a potentially perfect mate in Gallagher, after his marriage ended before the film’s last reel. Watching a professional journalist like Gallagher portray the little housewife, fetching and cooking for the now free Stew did not exactly leave a glowing feeling within me.
Many of the early talkies had a reputation for being nothing more than a filmed play. Most of ”PLATINUM BLONDE” managed to avoid getting bogged down with a slow pace. I found most of the movie surprisingly fast-paced. This is a miracle, considering that most movies during that period were bogged down in pacing, due to the studios’ inexperience and insecurities on how to deal with sound technology for films. Although most of ”PLATINUM BLONDE” managed to move at a brisk pace, the scene featuring Stew’s first meeting with Ann and the rest of the Schuyler family did not. Only during this sequence, did the movie threatened to bog down into a filmed play. Not even Swerling’s sharp dialogue or actor Robert Williams’ frenetic acting could prevent this.
I have heard that the movie was supposed to be a vehicle for Loretta Young and the movie’s original title was “GALLAGHER”. I also heard that “PLATINUM BLONDE” was supposed to be a showcase the 20 year-old Jean Harlow and the color of her hair (which was one of several aspects that made her a star), hence the name of the movie’s title. Yet, Loretta Young ended up receiving top billing. Frankly, I found this confusing. It seemed obvious to me that Robert Williams was the real star of this particular movie, given his exuberant performance. It is a mystery to me why Columbia Pictures’ boss, Harry Cohn, could not see this. Sure, I could see why they pushed Harlow’s role, considering that she was fast becoming a sex symbol. But Young’s role seemed a lot smaller than both Williams and Harlow’s roles. Why give Williams second billing? He deserved first billing. Another aspect of “PLATINUM BLONDE”that took me by surprise was that it did not seem much of a Pre-Code film to me. Despite Jean Harlow’s presence, the movie seemed too much like a Frank Capra film, with its emphasis on class warfare. Despite the main male character involved with one woman and another woman desperately in love with him, there is very little hint of sex or sexual innuendo in this film. The sexiest scene I could recall featured Harlow and Williams’ horseplay on a sofa that struck me more as adolescent than something worthy of a Pre-Code film or anything Post-Code.
Many critics and fans have claimed that Harlow had been miscast as an heiress. Apparently, many seemed to have the notion that Harlow was incapable of portraying a role that did not call for her to be a spunky member of the working-class. First of all, Harlow did not come from such a background. She came from an upper middle-class or upper-class Kansas City family and was indulged as a child. Which made her, in my opinion, capable of portraying an heiress. And she did a pretty damn good job, as far as I am concerned. Loretta Young was sweet and spunky as the love-sick Gallagher. However, her role did not struck me as strong enough to warrant her top billing. I have heard about Robert Williams in the past and comments about his road to stardom being cut off by sudden death from peritonitis three days after the film’s release. After seeing his exciting performance in “PLATINUM BLONDE”, I believe that he had what it took to become a star in 1930s Hollywood. He was generally good-looking, talented, adjusted to talking pictures like a duck to water, and possessed a strong screen presence. Alas . . . fate had something else in store for him.
And as much as I liked “PLATINUM BLONDE”, I found it difficult to get over my distaste toward the movie’s portrayal of the Stew Smith-Ann Schuyler marriage. I did not care for Capra and Swerling’s decision to make Ann the “villain” of the marriage, considering that both she and Stew were determined to be the one who controlled the marriage. I found the scene featuring Stew’s introduction to the Schuyler family rather long and slow-paced. And I believe that Loretta Young’s top billing undeserved. But aside from one scene, Capra directed a fast-pasted and entertaining movie filled with sharp dialogue written by Jo Swerling. And audiences were given a brief glimpse of the potential stardom that actor Robert Williams could have enjoyed, if fate had not stepped in.