Monday, May 24, 2021

Riffraff (1936)

There are multiple movies with the title Riffraff. TCM recently ran the 1936 Riffraff, which I recorded and eventually sat down to watch.

Spencer Tracy, who had recently come over to MGM from Fox such that MGM didn't quite know what to do with him yet, plays Dutch Muller. He's a tuna fisherman in the fleet that operates off the California coast, supplying the cannery owned by Nick Lewis (Joseph Calleia). Working at the cannery is Hattie (Jean Harlow), who lives with big sister Lil (Una Merkel), who has a family of her own.

The fishermen are thinking of striking against Nick to try to get better wages, but Dutch realizes that this is precisely what Nick wants them to do, as Nick would love the chance to bring in non-union labor to be able to pay them lower wages to get the good but higher-priced fishermen out of the market. Dutch's speech to the other fishermen brings him to the attention of Hattie, and he falls in love with her, despite not wanting to be tied down with children.

The two eventually get married and Dutch gets voted the new head of the union, but Dutch lets power go to his head. He does the very thing he was railing against in the first reel, that being calling a strike. The strike drags on and Nick brings in outsiders to catch the fish, bankrupting the union fishermen and leaving Dutch to run off without Hattie, by now pregnant with their child, to try to find his fortune.

Nick has always held a torch for Hattie, so when Dutch leaves, Nick starts putting the moves on Hattie to try to get a divorce and marry him, not that she wants to marry him. When she hears that Dutch is in a hobo camp up near Sacramento, she "borrows" some money from Nick, something that eventually runs her afoul of the law.

Dutch returns, and tries to get honest work by petitioning to rejoin the union, but his fellow members blackball him. Dutch comes up with the brilliant idea that Hattie should break out of prison and follow him to Mexico where the living is supposedly easy, but Hattie wants to do things the honest way.

Riffraff may seem like an odd movie to put Spencer Tracy in, although this was one of his first films for MGM, and at the end of his time at Fox, he had made Dante's Inferno. A career turn like San Francisco would be some months in the future. But if it's odd for Tracy (and I don't really think it's that odd), then it's really odd for Harlow, who I think is badly miscast here. She tries, but I don't think she's quite able to succeed. Maybe Joan Crawford could have pulled it off, or else bringing in Barbara Stanwyck from whichever studio she was working at at the time.

Riffraff is also not helped by MGM's glossier production values and the casting of Mickey Rooney as one of Merkel's kids. He's in obnoxious mode here, probably scripted that way because the script has him be too dense to figure out what's going on in the run-up to the climax.

Still, while Riffraff has its share of flaws, it's probably worth a watch to see Harlow as miscast as she is.

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