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The story of two skyscraper construction workers, Fast Workers (1933) juggles romantic entanglements with potentially deadly workday incidents such as the prospect of falling from high places. The irony was that for lead actor John Gilbert the fall off screen was much greater than any that could be taken by his character on-screen.
Fast Workers was the last movie made under John Gilbert's contract with MGM. When he signed that contract in 1928, he was MGM's biggest male star and he used that leverage to not only be paid $1,500,000 for his services, but to ensure that MGM's boy wonder Irving Thalberg produce his movies. Rumor had it that this last request was due to a feud between Gilbert and MGM's Louis B. Mayer that allegedly was sparked by a fistfight between the two at King Vidor's wedding in 1926.
Very shortly after signing his 1928 contract, Gilbert's career took a nosedive. His first released sound film, His Glorious Night (1929), was a disaster that was laughed off the screen. Why is a matter of some controversy. Gilbert had a reputation during the silent era as a great screen lover and his voice, although not high-pitched, did not match the masculine tones his fans had imagined. There was also the material, a Ruritanian romance that was completely out-of-date in the talkies' world of gangsters and jazz babies. After this disaster, more rumors made their way around Tinsletown, that Mayer had had his revenge by doctoring the movie's sound. Whatever the truth, Gilbert's career as a leading man never recovered; he was relegated to B-pictures (though some are now considered underrated gems) that failed to attract his former audiences.
In that atmosphere, Fast Workers has been seen as a final punishment for the actor. And also for director Tod Browning, formerly a star director for MGM when he created horror classics with Lon Chaney (The Unholy Three, 1925). He left for Universal in 1930 and enjoyed a huge success with Dracula (1931). Brought back at some cost to MGM, Browning made his ultimate horror movie Freaks (1932), now seen as a classic, but at the time considered too strong and a commercial failure. Fast Workers, a big city comedy, was the unlikely next assignment.
Nevertheless, both Gilbert and Browning managed to transform Fast Workers into a perversely fascinating melodrama cut with streetwise humor. Gilbert here continued the trend of his last MGM films, playing a not very likeable character. His Gunner is a total heel, conceited, untrustworthy and violent when drunk; the scene where he rails at the customers in a New Orleans speakeasy is particularly convincing. In their review of the film, the New York Times wrote "Gunner would have been pitched from a convenient skyscraper by his fellow workers for one tenth of the things he does in the picture."
As for Browning, he stages several strong scenes, particularly one in which Robert Armstrong's Bucker realizes the depth of his friend's betrayal. The director's style here has echoes of his work with Lon Chaney, Sr., approaching a level of masochistic tragedy in its depiction of the easily duped Bucker.
One detail that was lost was a scene in which Gilbert's character points out two women embracing in a speakeasy and exclaims, "They're making it tougher for us [men] every day." The Hays Office demanded this overt reference to lesbianism be removed, but MGM got its revenge later that year in MGM's Queen Christina (1933), a movie that would feature the screen's first lesbian kiss and innuendos about male homosexuality. In an odd coincidence, Queen Christina would also feature Gilbert's return to the studio he had so recently left when Greta Garbo insisted he play her lover after Laurence Olivier bowed out.
Gilbert's return to MGM was just for that one film, however, and he only managed to make one more movie (The Captain Hates the Sea, 1934) before drinking himself to death in 1936 at the age of 41. His work here, which shows he was developing into a great character actor, makes that loss all the more poignant.
Director: Tod Browning
Writers: Karl Brown and Ralph Wheelwright, from the play Rivets by John McDermott
Additional dialogue: Laurence Stallings
Music: David Broekman
Cinematographer: Peveral Marley
Editor: Ben Lewis
Art Director: Cedric Gibbons
Cast: John Gilbert (Gunner Smith), Robert Armstrong (Bucker Reilly), Mae Clarke (Mary), Muriel Kirkland (Millie), Virginia Cherrill (Virginia), Sterling Holloway (Pinky Magoo).BW-67m.
by Brian Cady