|Released by Pathe (RKO) | Directed by Tay Garnett
Proof That It’s Pre-Code
- Look, you can’t say it, but this movie is filled to the brim with prostitutes.
- Oh, and murder.
- And drinking!
- And more murder.
- And even more prostitutes, just for good measure.
Her Man: Doin’ Her Wrong
“Well, why don’t you get out?”
“How far would I get? I ain’t no man. I wish’d I was. Sometimes I think of–if I could get away off somewheres where there was green grass and trees and things. Where things was clean and good. Ah, gee. I could start all over again then. Things would be different. But there ain’t a chance.”
Her Man is a remarkable movie for 1930. Set in the slums near the docks, women work the beer halls where gruff sailors have their pockets lightened while the pimps work the women. It’s a rowdy, wild place, set up for the audience through a long tracking shot where there are brawls, beatings, and drunks littering the street.
One bar is the home of Frankie (Twelvetrees), prostitute who pretty much everyone thinks is too nice and sweet to deserve such a life. The only exception in that feeling is Johnnie (Cortez), who possessively guards the beautiful woman, controlling her and pledging his eternal love, even when Nelly (Todd) slinks by, winking. Johnnie also has a habit of killing men he doesn’t like with a knife he keeps around, usually casually playing with as he simply bides his time until another patsy stumbles away. Frankie loves him well enough, but, considering that we get two renditions of the song “Frankie and Johnny” within the first twenty minutes, it’s safe to say that their romance may not last very long.
Well, this situation won’t do, so one day in walks Dan (Holmes) and his two sailor pals, Steve (James Gleason) and Eddie (Harry Sweet). The latter two are big time fans of the drink, and spend most of the movie on running gags. Steve can’t seem to win the slot machine, while Eddie wins every time. They also acquire a rather swanky hat from a surprisingly gruff Sport (Frank Pangborn) (no, really) and spend a good deal of time defending it from both its rightfully owner, the many spontaneous bar brawls and, of course, each other.
Dan has blonde hair and, as far as I can tell, blue eyes, and a smile like Adonis. Or whatever it is that Adonis is famous for. Look, I usually don’t comment on actors’ attractiveness or anything, but if Holmes had been around in Ancient Greece, we’d nowadays be tripping over a hell of a lot of statues of him. And there’d probably be a lot more blonde-haired, blue-eyed Greeks running around today.
Good looks are one thing, but Holmes’ Dan is applesauce. He’s a gruff sailor who launches into a winking song with any opportunity, and his accent comes and goes, sometimes even within the same scene. He’s supposed to be tough but innocent, sweet but fun… and Holmes doesn’t stick the landing. He’s prancing around the map, which makes him hard to care for despite everyone’s desperate attempts to reign him in.
Dan and Frankie fall for each other after the prerequisite moments– she steals his money, but feels bad and saves him from a mickey. There are a number of barfights and makeups. Frankie sells Dan the same old story about how she longs for the country, the outdoors, and freedom. Then he comes in the next night and laughs at her as she tries to sell the same story to another customer, word-for-word. She breaks it off and starts bickering with Dan instead, and it’s clear that they’ve gotten under each others’ skin. Good for Frankie. Bad for the carnivorously jealous Johnnie and that knife that seems to be weighing more and more in his hands by the minute.
Marjorie Rambeau plays Annie, who’s kind of the Lewis Stone in Grand Hotel of the film. Not so much a narrator, but an observer and a cynic. She’s tried to escape the island– a Cuba stand-in– before, but is turned back by the American authorities who know quite well who, and what, she is. Frankie is the only character who shows her any sympathy, even though Annie is a raging drunk. If Frankie is the flower that’s wilting, Annie is the weed. But Annie’s secret is that she still cares, she just has to be pushed out of her heavy fog of cynicism and drink to do the world any good.
Rambeau imbues the character with weary charm, but Twelvetrees (whose depiction of a prostitute foreshadows a remarkably prescient picture of a sauced up Elizabeth Taylor several decades hence) is the one to watch here. Twelvetrees really puts all of herself into the performance. One nice shot shows us as she walks down the street behind a striving Cortez, bouncing about with carefree thoughtlessness– she’s been raised her whole life to be a tramp, and her whole body expresses that. She shows genuine sweetness as her core, and honestly even fooled me a few times with her act. It’s a really smart, sweet role.
On the other end of the spectrum is Holmes. Sweet and Gleason do some okay comedic banter, but there’s a lot of it and some of the gags grow tiresome after a bit. Ricardo is all smirking, predatory glee this time out, but there’s not much else to it. His Johnnie is a force, not a person.
Her Man is an artful, nice looking film, centered on a good Twelvetrees performance and a nice sense of romantic justice. The bar brawls here are remarkable, dirty and raw in ways few films of the time were. I honestly wish I liked it more, but the male half of the cast and the tedious comedy just drove me out. People with higher tolerance levels would do well to track it down.
Hover over for controls.
Trivia & Links
- Not to be confused with 1934’s He Was Her Man, which I’ve done like three or four times in the course of writing this review.
- Cliff at Immortal Ephemera, who is also Twelvetrees’ biographer, really adores this one, calling it exciting, shocking, and “still worthwhile.” He really digs into this one, and really, really loves it. (Sorry, Cliff.)
Her Man was huge. It’s success unfortunately pigeonholed Helen Twelvetrees into a career of weepy repeat performances, best recalled today, if at all, in Millie (1931), because of its widely available video release. If you have yet to bump into Miss Twelvetrees, then I came across a great comparison of her to Pathe stablemate of the period Constance Bennett in an entry by Richard Griffith in the 1976 collection Movies and Methods:
“But her [Twelvetrees] regret was too lachrymose — the game was hardly worth the candle if you had to cry that much to win. Constance Bennett’s method of achieving the same end was far more reassuring” (114).
While the extremely weepy Millie is better known, Her Man is the better movie. Given the current popularity of films of the pre-Code era, especially its most sinful hits, this 1930 charmer is way too hard to find. I couldn’t even figure out who holds the rights to it today, though my best guess is Sony via Columbia Pictures by way of a mid-30s sale.
- The contemporary review in the New York Times notes, “It is difficult to determine from one viewing what it was all about” but adds later, “There is a prodigiously energetic brawl that is only remarkable for its obviously staged situations.”
- Some really beautiful posters over at Doctor Macro.
Awards, Accolades & Availability
- This film is available on YouTube.
Comment below or join our email subscription list on the sidebar!