Pre-Code Crazy: Platinum Blonde (1931)
Loretta Young’s birth date is January 6th, and TCM is celebrating the occasion by showing a string of films starring this talented and lovely actress, including such pre-Code gems as Big Business Girl (1931), They Call It Sin (1932), Weekend Marriage (1932), and Employees’ Entrance (1933). In fact, TCM is airing so many first-rate pre-Code features that I wasn’t sure, at first, how I would be able to choose one for my Pre-Code Crazy pick for January.
Then I spied Platinum Blonde (1931) in the lineup, and my decision-making experience abruptly changed from a dilemma to a no-brainer. Platinum Blonde has Loretta Young at her pre-Code peak, Jean Harlow at a stage in her brief career when she hadn’t quite come into her own but was showing signs of the promise to come, and a top-notch performance from a talented newcomer, Robert Williams, in what was, sadly, his final film role. But more on that later.
What’s the story?
Platinum Blonde focuses on a love triangle between newspaper reporter Stew Smith (Robert Williams), who falls for “platinum blonde” heiress Anne Schuyler (Jean Harlow), not realizing that his co-worker and closest pal (Loretta Young), is in love with him. It’s really just that simple. But, oh, what goodies lie beneath this uncomplicated plot!
First off, the movie is directed by Frank Capra. Capra is perhaps best known for such “Capra-corn” as Mr. Deeds Goes to Town (1936), You Can’t Take it With You (1938), Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939), and Meet John Doe (1941). But during the pre-Code era, Capra helmed a string of pictures that were of an entirely different type – films like Ladies of Leisure (1930), Forbidden (1932), The Bitter Tea of General Yen (1933), and this month’s pick – which were pretty much completely devoid of Capra’s soon-to-be-trademark sweetness, morality, and lesson-delivering. (Not that there’s anything wrong with that.)
Small roles are played by Walter Catlett as a rival newspaper reporter, Louise Closser Hale as Anne Schyler’s mother, Reginald Owen as the Schyler family attorney, and Halliwell Hobbes as – what else? – the Schyler family butler. Each performer is only in a few scenes, but they make a memorable impact on the film.
Five writers were credited with working on the film; these included Robert Riskin, who was responsible for the dialogue, and also penned the screenplays for such Capra films as It Happened One Night (1934); and Jo Swerling, renowned for his work on classics that included Blood and Sand (1941), Pride of the Yankees (1942), Lifeboat (1944), and Leave Her to Heaven (1945). It’s no wonder that Platinum Blonde crackles with lines that are practically poetry.
The best part of the film is Robert Williams. I simply cannot say enough about this actor. He delivers his lines as if they’re all his own idea. He was such a natural performer, not a hint of artifice. Watching him portray Stew Smith is like eavesdropping on the character’s life, if you know what I mean. I’m not exaggerating when I say that he is one of the most talented actors I’ve ever had the pleasure to see. (Tragically, in October 1931, Williams suffered a ruptured appendix on the set of his next film, Lady With a Past, co-starring constance Bennett. Williams underwent emergency surgery, but he was diagnosed with peritonitis. Following a second surgery, he developed pneumonia, and died on November 3, 1931, just three days after the release of Platinum Blonde.)
There are so many great scenes (like, basically, every scene that Robert Williams is in) but I think my absolute favorite is the one in which Anne Schyler tries to convince Stew Smith to wear garters. Down-to-earth and unpretentious, Stew is firmly opposed to the notion. Anne employs baby talk and kisses to sugar-coat her insistence on the wardrobe modification. For his part, Stew is just as resolute that he will never add garters to his personal attire, but he does so with a playful, loving speech: “I love you, dear, I’ll eat spinach for you, I’ll go to the dentist once a year for you, I’ll wash behind my ears for you, but I’ll never wear garters.”
Anne promptly offers a sing-songy response to the tune of “The Farmer in the Dell,” informing Stew that he’ll wear garters and like it – and Stew responds in kind, warbling his unwavering refusal. The scene continues in this vein until the fadeout (after which, incidentally, Stew is seen sporting the hated garters), but the scene is so delightful that you want it to go on and on. It’s especially enjoyable because it’s obvious that Jean Harlow and Robert Williams are making up their lines, and they seem to be having a great time together. I dare you to watch it without smiling.
Platinum Blonde is fairly brimming with witty lines. Here are few favorites:
“Stewart Smith. My friends all call me Stew. An injustice, too, ‘cause I hold my liquor all right.” Robert Williams
“That’s the 14th crack you’ve made to me. I’m keeping count. When they get to 20, I’m going to sock you right in that nose. As a matter of fact, I ought to sock you right now.” Robert Williams
“There you go, talking like a woman. You’re my pal, aren’t you? Then don’t turn female on me.” Robert Williams
“It’s a good thing your father passed away before he saw insanity ravage the family. I can’t imagine what made you do such a thing. A reporter! Of all things, a reporter! A barbarian who lets his socks come down.” Louise Closser Hale
The film was originally titled Gallagher – the name of Loretta Young’s character. When the film was shown to preview audiences in September 1931, the title was changed to The Gilded Cage, a reference to a ribbing Stew Smith received from a colleague. But when the picture was officially released later that month, the title was changed again, this time to Platinum Blonde, to make the most of Jean Harlow’s burgeoning popularity.
In 2008, in an interview with TCM, actor Christopher Plummer was asked about the impact of “The Method” style, a type of acting that was popularized by such performers as Marlon Brando and Montgomery Clift. Plummer stated that Robert Williams was one of the “most realistic comedians the screen had. He made Cary Grant look like he was overacting…. To watch Robert Williams act was like seeing a comic using the Method, long before the Method became famous.”
As you may know, I love seeing goofs in movies. Keep your eyes peeled for this one. It’s in the scene right after Anne is trying to coax Stew into wearing the new garters she bought him. Stew is at work in the newsroom and, spotting the garters, his co-workers start razzing him about them. Stew receives a phone call from Anne, and when he picks up the telephone, he has a pipe in his mouth. A second later, though, when he says “Hello,” the pipe has disappeared!
Platinum Blonde is airing on the morning of January 6th on TCM. Do yourself a big, fat favor and make sure that you don’t miss it. And while you’re making plans for that day, pop over to Speakeasy and find out Kristina’s Pre-Code Crazy pick of the month.
You only owe it to yourself.