“You know something, lady? If you sold life insurance, I’d go for a policy in sixty seconds.”
After the success of the Frank Capra-Barbara Stanwyck collaboration on The Miracle Woman in early 1931, Capra wanted to make another film with Stanwyck and quickly concocted a script for a film to be called Forbidden. Stanwyck, however, was in a dispute with Columbia over money and Forbidden was put on the back burner for the time being. Capra, as a result, filled in the time by making a romantic comedy that was first titled The Blonde Lady and later Gallagher. Shooting was carried out in August 1931 and the film was released at the end of October. By that time, it had been re-titled Platinum Blonde reflecting the presence of the increasingly hot box-office draw, Jean Harlow, in the cast.
Columbia has now pleased Capra fans by making the film available on DVD. Hopefully, the rest of Capra’s early Columbia sound films won’t be far behind.
Stew Smith is an ace newspaper reporter assigned to get the lowdown on a breach of promise suit involving a member of the rich Schuyler family. In the course of his efforts, Ann Schuyler, the daughter of the family, charms him. The two begin seeing each other and eventually elope, much to the chagrin of Gallagher, Stew’s female colleague who is secretly in love with him.
The Schuyler family is unhappy about the marriage, but Ann assures them that she can rub off Stew’s rough edges. Stew agrees to move into the Schuyler mansion and settle into life among the rich. He soon tires of parties and begins to write a play in his spare time. One night he refuses to attend a reception, and Ann goes without him. Feeling bored, he calls up Gallagher and asks her to come over to help him with his writing. She comes, but a whole group of Stew’s former colleagues comes with her and soon settles into a raucous party of their own at the Schuyler mansion. When Ann returns, she finds the mansion in a mess and Stew and Gallagher working alone in Stew’s room. Furious, she orders all of Stew’s friends to leave, but Stew is fed up and packs to leave himself, realizing that just maybe he’s been with the wrong woman all along.
In Platinum Blonde, it’s easy to see the elements of the sort of films that now define Frank Capra — titles such as Mr. Deeds Goes to Town and Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. The fish out of water, the smart female assistant who goes unnoticed at first, the baleful eye cast on the lives of the rich and powerful, the equally sympathetic eye cast on the lives of “ordinary people” — they’re all present in Platinum Blonde without the obvious production gloss, extensive casts, and more overtly political stance that characterize the later masterpieces. For those who find the “Mr. Smith” and “Mr. Deeds” films a little too self-important (not I), Platinum Blonde may be more to your liking because of its stripped-down nature.
This film also represented the first collaboration between Capra and writer Robert Riskin. Riskin reportedly wrote the original script, but by the time the credits were actually finalized, he was only recognized for the dialogue. It was Riskin’s writing that provided much of the social conscience in Capra’s most well-known films, but in later years Capra seemed to downplay Riskin’s contribution. One may well wonder if the lesser recognition for dialogue that Riskin got on Platinum Blonde wasn’t an early Capra effort to deflect credit away from Riskin.
The male star of Platinum Blonde was Robert Williams, a young stage actor who had three or four films under his belt and whose fine work in them was beginning to raise eyebrows around Hollywood. Unfortunately, Platinum Blonde would be Williams’ last film, for soon after he suffered from appendicitis and peritonitis, and died as a result. In Platinum Blonde, it’s clear to see what had people excited — Williams had a natural, forthright style that allowed him to fit in fine with his newspaper cronies as well as survive in, if not enjoy, high society. He didn’t have the energy of a James Cagney, but one could see him playing the sort of roles that Clark Gable was doing over at MGM although he lacked the level of charisma that would take Gable to the heights of stardom.
Jean Harlow, despite the recognition of her presence by the retitling of the film, is the weakest link among the main players in the film. She looks the part of a rich young society woman well enough, but whenever she speaks, you get the impression that it’s a struggle to sound suitably upper class. She was most effective as a lower class dame and no amount of voice training could hide that. Still, the role was a good showcase for her overall and allowed her to demonstrate some facility with bits of humorous business.
Playing Stew Smith’s friend Gallagher, Loretta Young is the class of the film. Young was already a veteran actress by 1931, even though but 18 years of age, and it showed. While part of it is the sympathetic nature of the role, you are immediately drawn to her every time she appears on the screen. Her own brand of subtle sexiness is far more appealing than Harlow’s overt style. Young parlayed her understated approach into a lengthy Hollywood career that culminated in her Best Actress Academy Award in 1947 for The Farmer’s Daughter.
The appearance of the likes of veteran character actors Halliwell Hobbes as the Schuylers’ butler and Walter Catlett as one of Stew’s rival newspapermen presaged Capra’s tendency to people his films with numerous familiar faces in small supporting roles.
Given the age of this film, Columbia’s DVD full-frame presentation (in accord with the original aspect ratio) is quite acceptable. There’s a fair bit of speckling and scratches, but the image is clear and is characterized by fairly deep black levels and clean whites. Shadow detail is decent. Edge effects are not an issue. The mono sound is clear enough but there is quite noticeable background hiss. The only supplements are trailers for His Girl Friday and It Happened One Night.
Here is a great opportunity to see some early Frank Capra work and the genesis of his later, better-known films. Fine acting from two of the main leads and a leisurely plot that lingers affectionately rather than bores add up to a solid hour and a half of entertainment. Here’s hoping that Columbia continues to mine its early production years. Recommended.