Friday, November 28, 2014

Her Man (Pathé, 1930)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2014 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Charles and I watched a quite interesting movie last night: Her Man, a little-known 1930 cult film made by Pathé Studios in its death throes, directed by Tay Garnett (who also co-wrote it with Howard Higgin and Tom Buckingham) and starring Helen Twelvetrees as a “B”-girl in an unnamed Caribbean island — well, at least it’s somewhere in Latin America because it’s clearly a semi-tropical environment and the locals speak Spanish (the crew did four days of location shooting in Havana — Pathé and MGM did this as a joint venture because MGM needed background footage of Cuba for their film Cuban Love Song — and though the country’s name is never specified in the film, Cuban officials protested at the depiction of a locale that was at least physically their nation as an anything-goes land of bars, drinkers, “B”-girls and sailors being rolled) — torn between the requirements both of her job and her employer Johnny (Ricardo Cortez, showing some of the Valentino-esque mannerisms with which he had launched his career but also warming up for his magnificent portrayal of Sam Spade in the first version of The Maltese Falcon a year later) and her innocent attraction to sailor Dan Keefe (Phillips Holmes, displaying real charisma and masculine attractiveness despite his typecasting as a pathetic nerd in other films). And he’s not the only actor here who's cast against “type” — Franklin Pangborn appears, not as the nellie stereotype he usually played but a surprisingly butch hanger-on at Johnny’s bar who holds his own with fistfights with the other patrons. This is one movie that actually makes believable Pangborn’s insistence in an early-1930’s interview quoted by Vito Russo in The Celluloid Closet that though he might play the “pansy” on screen he could more than hold his own with his fists against anybody who dared call him one for real!

Her Man actually takes its own sweet time getting us to its Latin location; it begins in New York City, where a boat is docking but one of its passengers, sleazy-looking good-time-girl Annie (Marjorie Rambeau), is denied entry into the U.S. and put right back on the boat because a customs inspector (Richard Cramer) who makes the house detective in Peacock Alley look like an Esalen staffer by comparison identifies her as “undesirable.” She spends most of the return voyage pacing on the deck until she finally arrives from whence she came and reports back to work at the Thalia, Johnny’s establishment. Only then do we meet this film’s lead, Frankie (Helen Twelvetrees), who greets Annie as a long-lost sister before they get to work. There’s also a third woman, a sort of “B”-girl in training named Nellie (played by Thelma Todd, taking a break from her usual jobs as comic villainess for Laurel and Hardy and the Marx Brothers). The Thalia is such a sleazy establishment that they don’t content themselves with sending “B”-girls to the sailors that make up most of its clientele and divesting the sailors of most of their money by getting them to buy overpriced shots of gin. No, the “B”-girls in this bar are obliged to get the sailors so drunk (while they themselves are drinking only water) they can pick their pockets and turn over the proceeds to Johnny. Then Dan Keefe — a genuine hero with a medal (which Frankie steals from him) to prove it — shows up with two other sailors, comic-relief parts Steve (James Gleason) and “The Swede” (Slim Summerville).

Dan catches Frankie trying to pick his pocket but eventually forgives her, and the two start a relationship under difficult circumstances — particularly the watchful eye of Johnny, who’s in love with her himself and also needs her on his good side to cover up his crimes, including murder (he killed one bar patron who threatened to go to the police by throwing a knife into his back). Frankie loses a shoe when she gets it caught in a bicycle wheel — she extricates it but it gets knocked into the air and then washed down a storm drain; Dan is sitting there and could have caught it but didn’t, thereby having the excuse to buy her a new pair (between the business with Frankie’s shoes and the long scenes earlier showing Annie pacing up and down the deck of the boat, Charles wondered if director Tay Garnett was a foot fetishist) — and the scene kicks off a series of courtship sequences whose innocence contrasts vividly with Frankie’s work life. The two hang out at the beach and write their names in the sand (indeed, the opening and closing credits of this film both consist of names written in the sand), and later spend an afternoon inside an otherwise deserted church in what appears to be intended as a D.I.Y. marriage ceremony à la Lucia di Lammermoor and the 1933 William Wellman film Safe in Hell (a much better movie than Her Man but one clearly influenced by it). The two lovebirds arrange to meet at the Thalia before she joins him on the next boat he’s working on, but Annie learns that it’s a trap: Johnny intends to kill Dan as soon as he shows up. Annie means to warn Frankie but she doesn’t get the chance because Nellie lures her away with the promise of a free drink. Up until its final scene Her Man has been a quite unusual and compelling drama, limning Frankie’s central conflict — love and marriage with a decent guy or continuing in a sleazy lifestyle with a no-good crook — far better than the writers and director of Peacock Alley did with their female lead, but the end shades over into risibility: Dan’s arrival at the Thalia and Johnny’s attempt to kill him triggers an all-out bar fight (which Garnett makes the mistake of staging in fast motion; it may have been an accepted custom of action movies and serials in 1930 but today fast motion automatically conjures up comedy) from which Frankie, Dan and the other two sailors barely escape with their lives, and Garnett and his co-writers supply a predictable happy ending instead of the deeply moving tragic one of Safe in Hell.

Still, Her Man is quite a remarkable movie, one of a fascinating run of films Tay Garnett made (including Prestige and One-Way Passage) in the early 1930’s about doomed couples in exotic locales before his career degenerated into hackdom with only an occasional shot at a dramatically powerful and erotic story like The Postman Always Rings Twice to liven up his filmography. He’s particularly remarkable in how he handles Helen Twelvetrees compared to the performance Ralph Murphy got out of her in the similarly themed Panama Flo; while Twelvetrees’ acting in Panama Flo vacillated between the simpering coyness expected of a silent-era heroine and deeper, richer, more world-weary playing anticipating film noir, here she’s a world-weary noir heroine from the get-go and her performance (as well as the atmosphere Garnett creates around her) is strikingly reminiscent of what Josef von Sternberg did for (or to) Marlene Dietrich in The Blue Angel and especially Morocco. (A decade after making Her Man Garnett got to direct the real Dietrich in Universal’s Seven Sinners, but it was a campy spoof of the flea-bitten-cabaret-in-an-exotic-locale genre instead of a serious film exploiting it.) I’d assumed that Twelvetrees, with that rather silly name (she was born Helen Marie Jurgens and the “Twelvetrees” actually came from her first husband, Clark Twelvetrees, whom she married in 1927 and divorced in 1931), had been a silent-era star, or at least a silent-era starlet, but no-o-o-o: according to[1] she was actually a New York stage actress who came to Hollywood in 1929 to make talkies, and she worked quite often through most of the 1930’s until her film career came to a skidding halt in 1938 before she retired, moved to Pennsylvania with her last husband and died of an overdose of sedatives at age 49 in 1958. Her biography page contains a couple of quotes that show her on-screen attitude of world-weary fatalism carried over to her private life as well; “Between pictures I go away,” she said. “I think that is the best way to achieve happiness in Hollywood, the only way to keep one’s perspective. If you stay too close to the motion picture colony you lose your sense of values.”

[1] — Incidentally,’s page on Her Man has a couple of really bizarre errors: it describes the film as taking place in Paris (wherever that mythical country is, it’s certainly in the Western Hemisphere!) and it gives the name of Helen Twelvetrees’ character as “Frankie Keefe,” implying that she and the Phillips Holmes character are married in the film — which they’re not, at least not officially!