Harlow's hair was the distinctive feature that had gotten her into the movies in the first place. But ever since her arrival at MGM in 1932, she'd been fighting for the chance to adopt a more natural color. By 1936, with her star power at its height, she finally had the clout to have her way. "I've gotten over acting with my hair," she announced, and the studio finally agreed to let her use her natural, reddish brown color. MGM Publicity Chief Howard Strickling even came up with a new word to describe it, "brownette."
Harlow had more than a little help in making her transition to good-girl roles. With Riffraff (1936) she had a solid script from Frances Marion and Anita Loos, both of whom had played a key role in her rise to stardom. Marion, who wrote the original story about romance and labor problems in a fishing community (with Harlow as "the toast of the tuna fleet" according to The New York Times), had worked on the script for Dinner at Eight, one of the films that had put Harlow over as a film star and helped create her image as a dumb but goodhearted tart. Loos had written Harlow's ultimate role as a seductress, the social climbing secretary in Red-Headed Woman, a racy tale turned into a box-office hit by Harlow's uninhibited comic playing.
Once they agreed to Harlow's new look, MGM pulled out all the stops for Riffraff. The picture was shot on location in the tuna canneries near Venice Pier with a cast that featured 42 contract players, more than any other MGM film to that time. In addition to a top supporting cast including Una Merkel, Joseph Calleia and the young Mickey Rooney, they assigned Harlow their most talented new leading man, Spencer Tracy.
Production chief Irving Thalberg had brought in Tracy after Fox fired the star. Nobody else at MGM knew quite what to do with him, but Thalberg was determined to use his dramatic talents in a series of one-of-a-kind roles that would bring prestige to the studio (particularly when he won back-to-back Oscars for Best Actor in 1937 and 1938). But first, Thalberg built Tracy's box-office appeal by teaming him with the studio's top female stars: Myrna Loy in Whipsaw and then Harlow in Riffraff. This was not his first picture with the former platinum blonde, however. During her early years in Hollywood, Harlow had starred with Tracy in a 1931 circus drama called Goldie, whose chief distinction was that it made Harlow the first actress in screen history to have her character referred to as a "tramp."
Though her character in Riffraff ends up in prison, Harlow was far from a tramp now. She and Tracy clicked perfectly shouting insults at each other in the film's comic first half. Then, when things grew more serious, she matched his gritty realism with a subtly de-glamorized portrait of working-class angst.
It would be nice to say that Riffraff was a smash hit that cemented Harlow's new image, but that would have to wait until her next film, Wife Vs. Secretary. Riffraff did respectable business, but audiences were confused by Harlow's new look. The critics admired her attempt at something new, and were particularly complimentary about the picture's working-class atmosphere, but some wanted the old Harlow back. Writing in The New York Times, Frank Nugent said, "It hardly seems fair to subject one of the screen's best comediennes to the rigors of mother love and a husband with an acute social consciousness. With so many Kay Francises around, Metro really should be able to stake off one small section of ground and post it with placards reading, 'Miss Harlow's Plot: No Children Wanted.'"
Director: J. Walter Ruben
Producer: Irving Thalberg
Screenplay: Frances Marion, H.W. Hanemann, Anita Loos
Based on a story by Marion
Cinematography: Ray June
Art Direction: Cedric Gibbons, Stan Rogers
Music: Edward Ward
Principal Cast: Jean Harlow (Hattie), Spencer Tracy (Dutch Miller), Joseph Calleia (Nick Appopolis), Una Merkel (Lil), Mickey Rooney (Jimmy), Victor Kilian (Flytrap).
By Frank Miller