Hold Your Man (1933)
Many people would list Red Dust as their favorite Gable/Harlow pairing, but I have a special fondness for Hold Your Man, perhaps their least-known, most serious, and most scandalous pairing. It’s a great, dramatic Pre-Code through and through, and one of those films I watch again and again and again.
Gable is a con man named Eddie Hall. While running away from the cops (just another day in the life I suppose!) Gable barges into the apartment of a nineteen year-old Brooklyn dame (hey, sound familiar?) named Ruby Adams (Harlow). She helps him hide from the cops and covers up for him. Ruby is an expert manipulator of men, and Eddie is a hit-and-run guy, but sparks fly between them, they realize their love is real, and soon they are sleeping together (the film makes this blatantly obvious…gotta love the Pre-Codes!). When one of Ruby’s admirers writes her a letter, Eddie and his cronies quickly hatch a plan to con him out of money, and much to her chagrin, Ruby is forced to participate in the plan. However, it doesn’t work out when Gable gets jealous and accidentally kills the man. When the cops get to the apartment, Ruby and Eddie are on their way back from getting a marriage license, and Ruby is wrongfully arrested for the murder and sent to two years in a women’s penitentiary. While there, she discovers she’s pregnant, and she and her inmates map out a secret plan to get Eddie and marry them. Will it work or will Ruby get caught by the matrons and Eddie arrested by the cops?
Although this film deals with a lot of serious topics (murder, imprisonment, illegitimate pregnancy, abandonment) it does have its comedic moments. There is a cute running gag in the film about Gable’s crooked smile, which Harlow imitates to a T. In return, Gable imitates her famous hip-swaying walk. The script is excellent, with lots of acidic, witty one-liners, with which Harlow practically steals the picture from Gable. This film also reprises the famous bathtub scene from Red Dust (MGM as we all know, was never ashamed of repeating its successes). Not only does Gable walk in on Harlow bathing, he gets some tub time too–with a face full of soap, hiding from the cops!
I also love the scenes with Harlow in the women’s penitentiary. She has some crazy inmates there: a Socialist, a daughter of a preacher, a girl who’s obsessed with sailors, and one of Eddie’s ex-girlfriends, Gypsy Angikon. Funny moments include: a scene in which the Socialist girl rips a missal in half during a church service, a scene where Eddie has to pretend to be one of the girl’s brother and kisses her, and the whole “sneak Eddie into the penitentiary chapel for the secret wedding” part is quite funny. Another great thing about the film is that it takes place in Brooklyn! (Flatbush to be exact) We all know that the film was shot on the MGM lot and not really in Brooklyn, but I think they did a really good job portraying Old New York: organ grinders, children playing on the sidewalks, mothers popping out of windows to tell their kids that dinner is ready…it’s so cute!
For you Pre-Code fans out there (and who isn’t?) Hold Your Man is chock full of racy-for-the-1930s dialogue and scenes. There’s a great bit in which Gable tries to lure Harlow into his bedroom, and a not-so-subtle scene with Gable and Harlow the next morning after their first night together. As the film goes on, it becomes obvious that Harlow is living with Gable. But most scandalous of all is Harlow’s–GASP!–unplanned pregnancy. Of course, the poor girl becomes the talk of the women’s jail. This is why I like Pre-Codes: they are a lot more realistic and they aren’t afraid to show the more difficult, and in some other Pre-Codes, the more ugly side of things (remember Three on a Match?). And from what I understand, this film was supposed to be even racier, and suffered some cuts from the Legion of Decency.
Hold Your Man also gave us the rare opportunity to see Harlow as a dramatic actress. In the beginning of the film she is all sass and dry humor, but the second half of the film allows her to show emotions such us love, hate, angst, and sadness. The scene in which she sings the title song, “Hold Your Man” on the piano is poignant because it shows the confusion over her feelings for Eddie, her worry over her own situation, and the angst that comes with difficulties in love. I don’t want to spoil the ending, but it’s a real terjerker, and Harlow does a great job of breaking your heart with her performance. I wish she got to act in more dramatic films like this one.
I hope you see why Hold Your Man is my favorite Gable/Harlow pairing. It has it all: great acting, snappy script, comedy, drama, murder, romance, scandal, and a very strong message. It also proves that Harlow isn’t just some dumb blonde like so many idiots out there think; she was a smart, intelligent woman with great talent. The film isn’t on DVD, sadly, and it’s so rare to come across, but it’s worth the trouble trying to find it. You’ll thank me later!