Riffraff


1h 29m 1936
Riffraff

Brief Synopsis

Young marrieds in the fishing business run afoul of the law.

Film Details

Genre
Drama
Classic Hollywood
Release Date
Jan 3, 1936
Premiere Information
not available
Production Company
Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Corp.
Distribution Company
Loew's Inc.
Country
United States

Technical Specs

Duration
1h 29m
Sound
Mono (Western Electric Sound System)
Color
Black and White
Theatrical Aspect Ratio
1.37 : 1
Film Length
10 reels

Synopsis

On the waterfront, as fishermen are about to strike against tuna cannery boss Nick Lewis, Dutch Muller talks them out of it, realizing that Nick wants them to break their contract with him so he can hire cheap labor. On the day of Dutch's wedding to his feisty girl friend Hattie, Dutch shows her their installment plan-financed house and tells her that he will be the new union head because Brains, the present, older head of the union, is going to be replaced. As his first official act, Dutch calls a strike, worrying Hattie, who fears Dutch's ambition. Weeks after the strike has resulted in scab labor and poverty for the fishermen, Brains tries to work an equitable settlement with Nick and replaces Dutch when he refuses to listen to reason. Now broke, Dutch fumes as their furniture is repossessed, and refuses Brains's offer to take him back into the union with the rest of the men. Just then, "Flytrap," Nick's underling, arrives with Hattie's repossessed fur. Because Nick yearns for Hattie, he has paid the balance owed for her. Enraged, Dutch says that he will run for the state union official and slaps Brains when he tries to tell him to give up his conceit. When Hattie agrees with Brains, Nick walks out, saying that he needs to make good. Several months later, Nick convinces Hattie to obtain a divorce, but she still refuses to marry him. When Dutch's friend Lew tells her that Dutch is sick and has been living in a hobo camp outside of Sacramento, she asks Nick for money, but he refuses. She secretly takes it anyway, leaving a note promising to pay him back, but at the hobo camp, Dutch jumps a freight to avoid seeing her. Nick then presses charges against her and she goes to prison, even though she is pregnant. After the baby is born, Hattie's sister Lil takes care of him. Hearing that Hattie has been jailed, but not knowing about the baby, Dutch goes to Nick for help, but he refuses, and the union refuses to accept him back as well. Dutch then goes to see Hattie with an escape plan, but she says she never wants to see him again. Returning to work, she tells two other inmates the details of Dutch's escape plan, and they convince her that it is a good one. Meanwhile, Dutch goes to Brains begging for a job to help Hattie, and Brains gets him a job as a night watchman. Soon, on a rainy night, Hattie and two other women escape from prison through a drain pipe, but one of the women is killed. That same night, while Dutch is standing guard, his old pal Belcher and some other men approach him about sabotaging the docks. Dutch refuses to go through with it, then Hattie's brother Jimmy, who has been hiding nearby, summons Brains and the union men. They arrive just in time to see Dutch thrashing the saboteurs. Now a hero, Dutch is reinstated by the men, who keep Hattie's escape a secret from him. Meanwhile, Hattie has arrived at Lil's and asks Jimmy to go to get Dutch, who has finally heard about Hattie's escape. Jimmy tries to talk to him, but Dutch sends him away because, unknown to Jimmy, the police are there. Jimmy returns to Hattie, saying that Dutch would not come, but Hattie refuses to loose faith in him. Soon Dutch arrives, pursued by the police. Reunited with Hattie, he admits that he has been conceited and is now humbled. A finally happy Hattie now says that she will not run away. When Dutch hears the baby's cry, Hattie tells him that it is theirs.

Film Details

Genre
Drama
Classic Hollywood
Release Date
Jan 3, 1936
Premiere Information
not available
Production Company
Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Corp.
Distribution Company
Loew's Inc.
Country
United States

Technical Specs

Duration
1h 29m
Sound
Mono (Western Electric Sound System)
Color
Black and White
Theatrical Aspect Ratio
1.37 : 1
Film Length
10 reels

Articles

Riffraff


Jean Harlow took a stand for respectability on-screen and off in this 1936 dramatic comedy and came out the winner on both counts. The challenge this time out was to get the public to buy her not just as a good girl; they'd done that two years earlier when she played a modest miss in The Girl From Missouri (1934). This time audiences had a new challenge to face - the platinum blonde had gone natural.

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).
BW-94m.

By Frank Miller

Riffraff

Riffraff

Jean Harlow took a stand for respectability on-screen and off in this 1936 dramatic comedy and came out the winner on both counts. The challenge this time out was to get the public to buy her not just as a good girl; they'd done that two years earlier when she played a modest miss in The Girl From Missouri (1934). This time audiences had a new challenge to face - the platinum blonde had gone natural. 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). BW-94m. By Frank Miller

Quotes

Trivia

Notes

Reviews and news items variously list the title as Riff Raff, Riff-Raff and Rifraff. According to various news items in Hollywood Reporter, in late November 1934, Clark Gable and Gloria Swanson were originally announced as the pictures leads, and W. S. Van Dyke was to direct an Anita Loos, John Emerson script. In late May 1931, Tay Garnett was offered the job of directing Riffraff, but refused because he felt the story was "not his style." Bruce Cabot was tested for the lead opposite Jean Harlow in late June 1935, although Spencer Tracy had previously been announced as the lead. News items and production charts included Paul Porcasi, Dorothy Gray, Eileen Carlisle, Polly Bailey, Harry Savoy and James Marquies in the cast, however, their participation in the released film has not been confirmed. One news item noted that the picture was using forty-two contract players, the largest ever used in an M-G-M picture. According to a November 16, 1935 news item, forty female extras in the picture were given $15 checks as compensation for having been drenched in the film's rainstorm sequence after a charge of negligence was brought against M-G-M by Mrs. Mabel Kinney of California's State Industrial Welfare Committee. Mrs. Kinney's action charged that M-G-M should be responsible for possible work loss that some women might face if they became ill after working in the sequence. Parts of the film were shot on location at Fish Harbor in San Pedro, CA.