Hard to Handle (1933)Indifferent

Proof That It’s Pre-Code

  • One of those gold digging pictures that we’re all so fond of: “Who said anything about love? I’m talking about money.”
  • Ruth Donnelly, playing a mom, makes a suggestion to her daughter: “Don’t wear this. Wear your blue dress. Shows more of your… girlish laughter.” 😉
  • James Cagney, alone and seduced, ends up in the arms of a woman, and the next scene we see them eating breakfast in their PJs. Cagney’s fiancee busts in. “You don’t want a wife, you want a harem!”
  • He also loses his pants at one point. Considering how acerbic Cagney is, you’d almost imagine that that would happen more often.
  • Higher education is corruptible; Cagney promotes a college to drive up attendance with pretty girls and planted news story and gets an honorary degree in the process.

Particulars of the Picture

Hard to Handle James Cagney Hard to Handle Ruth Donnelly Hard to Handle Mary Brian
James Cagney
Ruth Donnelly
Mary Brian
Hard to Handle Allen Jenkins Hard to Handle Claire Dodd Mervyn LeRoy
Allen Jenkins
Claire Dodd
Directed by
Mervyn LeRoy

Hard to Handle: Cagney on the Loose

The best moments of Hard to Handle all come in the first five minutes. It’s set in a dance marathon, one of those horrifying affairs where contestants have to stay on their feet for weeks on end.

There’s two last pairs going at it at hour 1,412. Director Mervyn LeRoy frames this as a horror show, using fish eye lenses to distort the crowd and focus on the poor saps still stumbling on their feet. Allen Jenkins is the MC of the event, laying out smooth lines to the crowd that eagerly laps it up.

In the back room, though, organizer Lefty is busy planning with his business partner their next big event. When the business partner uses the end of the marathon to skeddaddle with the dough, we’re treated to a lovely tracking shot as Cagney desperately tries to make a break from the angry mob of unpaid employees and angry audience.

And that’s about most of the excitement of the movie. Lefty has a thing for Ruth, but Lil won’t let him until he’s got the money to prove he’s legit. We follow him through a number of get rich quick schemes, with a few working and some failing disastrously.

One notable one involves a contest to find a jackpot at the boardwalk a pair of wealthy brothers own. The pretend jackpot is certainly not the ten dollars they do end up planting, and the proprietors get to watch as the buildings are torn up by desperate treasure hunters.

Cagney’s dynamic magnetism eventually allow him to become a great salesman. It’s all about selling– sex, endorsements, whatever. The movie gets a lot of pokes in at the advertising industry, and Lefty lets all of this go to his head until he gets in over his head, selling shares in a disastrous grapefruit farm.

Hard to Handle hail mary

He eventually strays from Ruth with an obsessed student named Marlene who tracks him down on vacation and promises him a lot of things I’m too polite to reprint. Ruth walks in on this, and things look grim in that regard, too.

To get himself out of this, he creates a new sensation: The Grapefruit Diet. It drives up the prices of grapefruit, and proves that things never change when it comes to diet fads. He fakes getting arrested in front of Ruth (and proves to Lil that he’s still got plenty of money) and wins her back.

Cagney is energetic as always and Donnelly’s expressions are great. The film is still a slog though, with its ‘everyone is a sucker and you have to take advantage of it’ message pounded into the ground over and over again. It’s very much in the mindset of the Depression, but it’s fairly disheartening and dull for a comedy.

Trivia & Links

  •  Mordaunt Hall at The New York Times liked the movie, but since the entirety of his critical opinion always relies on the crux of how the audience felt, I feel safe disagreeing with him.
  • Just something I noticed: Cagney takes up in the same office that William Powell operated from in Lawyer Man.
  • The IMDB Trivia also had a good one: Cagney’s character Lefty writes and drinks with his right hand. Wonder what that nickname is really for…


  • Hard to Handle is on DVD as part of the Forbidden Hollywood Collection Volume 5. You can buy it from Amazon or Warner Archive or rent it from Classicflix.

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Danny is a writer who lives with his lovely wife, adorable children, and geriatric yet yappy dog. He blogs at pre-code.com, a website dedicated to Hollywood films from 1930 to 1934, and can be found on Twitter @PreCodeDotCom.


vp19 · January 9, 2013 at 8:51 am

I liked this movie a lot more than you did, perhaps for all the various in-jokes regarding grapefruit (remember, this is a Cagney movie), possibly for a marvelously funny turn by Ruth Donnelly is the mother of Cagney’s girlfriend.

Incidentally, Carole Lombard had the opportunity to be the female lead in “Hard To Handle,” but didn’t like the role and avoided penalties from Paramount regarding the lost loanout to Warners. (It was nothing personal against Cagney.) Find out more at http://carole-and-co.livejournal.com/565989.html.

    Danny · January 9, 2013 at 11:25 am

    Donnelly is definitely a hoot, but I think that the movie just retread a lot of ground I’d seen before– High Pressure and Lawyer Man with Powell and Cagney’s subplot in Footlight Parade all come immediately to mind. And thanks for the link, I’m always interested!

Dymon · March 2, 2013 at 7:41 am

The hour at the marathon dance contest was actually 1,412. =)
Here’s a screenshot: http://4.bp.blogspot.com/-iaKK8WWOC8w/UTIMigdxHpI/AAAAAAAAdR0/g_NRXT2iWNs/s1600/Hard+to+Handle+1933+4.jpg

    Danny · March 2, 2013 at 8:07 am

    I’m so bad with numbers that I can’t even write them down correctly. :/ Thanks for the info; updated the main post!

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