Riffraff - 1936

Riffraff - 1936

Riffraff - Released Jan 3, 1936. Dir. J. Walter Ruben

Jean Harlow appeared in a number of 1930s films that modulated between comedy and melodrama with finesse, but Riffraff isn't one of them. Not that Harlow appears to be to blame here, she attacks her scenes with the same energy found in thousands of other feet of celluloid with other directors, but in Riffraff it looks like she's pointlessly pedaling harder on a downhill grade.

Spencer Tracy (as "Dutch" Muller) overdoes it as a tuna fisherman-cum-labor leader, but it's hard to blame him for throwing off the balance of the film, either, as the whole cast seems to be overdoing it. Joseph Calleia and George Givot take on their roles as a factory owner and his attorney with so much caricature involved that it looks like they're competing with Chico Marx.

The question that plagued me while watching this film was how can Riffraff play at screwball comedy (i.e., Givot and Calleia) but still be a melodrama chock full of soap opera? The dilemma of Dutch's ego and the trouble it brings everyone else (eventually getting Harlow in prison) is the main plot action here, but the film portrays the union fishery workers as a lunk-headed mob, and Dutch as only slightly smarter, the factory owner (Calleia) as only a bit smarter than him, and Hattie clearly brainier than the whole lot (as are many of the other female characters). But Hattie's only interested in true love and so sticks to her man Dutch despite his overweening pride, knee-jerk jealousy and eventual desertion. Their on-and-off again love and marriage is supposed to be a drama of a cannery factory girl (Harlow) and the big-headed would-be "Trotskyite" union leader Dutch, and how they overcome adversity and their own inner-demons to finally triumph, and it is true that this tone eventually takes over the third act of the movie and evens out the histrionics, despite the unbelievability of the overwrought story (courtesy of a staff of writers: Frances Marion, H.W. Hanemann, Anita Loos, George S. Kaufman, John Lee Mahin, and Carey Wilson).

But usually in a classic era Hollywood film of this type, despite all the character flaws on display, we still end up sympathizing and liking the main characters as they go through their trial-by-ordeal, but in Dutch's over-the-top self-love he gets to be rather unbearable as either a comedic/dramatic lead or as a failed husband putting Hattie through the ringer.

On the other hand, Harlow certainly looks gorgeous in Riffraff while enduring the trauma. Despite being a lowly cannery girl, she wakes up in bed with perfect 1930s eye lashes, hair and makeup, and manages to wear silken outfits (a frequent wardrobe for Harlow in many other movies where she plays characters rather more well-off). This being black-and-white, we can barely tell Harlow is her true brown-headed self, instead of the Platinum Blonde of dozens of other films. All the same, Harlow's energy and looks can't can't carry the movie, and Tracy's mix-matched effort of comedy and drama doesn't gel either, and though it's only 94 minutes long, it feels more like 194 minutes of not-quite-sure-what-kind-of-movie-we-are-making.

By the end, Hattie finally finds happiness and will return home (after prison!) to a stable marriage and husband, because inexplicably Dutch has finally reduced his tumor-like egomania to a more modest size. In some ways, the film Riffraff resembles Dutch, both start off as out-of-control and bizarre, but end up humble, humdrum and puzzling.

Original Page July 11, 2015 | Updated March 2018

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