November 2, 2018
Manhandled – US, 1924
The title of Allan Dwan’s 1924 film Manhandled has a double meaning. The literal definition is handled roughly by dragging or pushing, and we get a good sense of this in the film’s opening scene. I believe, however, that word is intended to conjure up a different image, one that would have been easily understood even back in the supposedly simpler days of the 1920s, that of a woman handled roughly by men who think that wealth and power give them such privileges. It is a sentiment that unfortunately still exists in many countries today.
The title also of course suggests a drama, for what comedic moments could one honestly expect from a movie with such a scenario as its central plot? It came as a pleasant surprise then that Dwan devotes much of the first quarter of the film to making his audience laugh. These moments document the daily struggles that a young lady named Tessie McGuire (Gloria Swanson) endures during her commute home, and the results are side-splittingly amusing. We witness the pushing, the shoving, and the jostling that riders must put up with, yet we see them through the lens of a slapstick comedy. Hats get stepped on, belongings get dropped, and for some time, Tessie finds herself stuck between two men’s armpits. Oh, the indignity. However, my favorite part of the scene is a clever bit in which Tessie gets her arms stuck in the other men’s arms, and because of the two men’s height, finds herself levitating between them. It’s an excellent bit, and it reinforces my view of her as a comic wonder.
For here, though, the film turns somewhat dark. We get a sense of Tessie’s longing for an escape from the daily drudgeries of the department store she works at. To make matters worse, her boyfriend, Jimmy Hogan, a mechanic by day and taxi driver by night, is so busy that he can’t find time to take her dancing. In one of the film’s best moments, Tessie grabs a ukulele, yet can’t summon the joy to play it. She just sits there, her face swelling with disappointment and despair. All Jimmy can do is promise to take her to the movies the following night. Additional frustrations, though, lead Tessie to accept an invitation to a party fully of upper-class playboys, the last place that a decent woman like her should be.
What follows provides a good example of both the toxic nature of the playboy lifestyle and its enticing allure. We see the joviality, the blatant flaunting of Prohibition, and the confidence boost that comes with appearing in your best outfit. Swanson also makes us understand the appeal of moving up in class. Her face practically lights up in the presence of so many rich admirers, even though pleasing them seems to involve more than a little bit of self-mockery on Tessie’s part.
Manhandled, or at least what survives of it, is just over sixty minutes long, and so it is inevitable that it will have to pick up the pace in order to reach its predictable conclusion. That it does so in a way that casts all of her affluent suitors in the same light and renders them indistinguishable for one another is a mistake, though. Scenes fly by with little in the way of narration to explain where Tessie is, who she’s with, and why she chose to accept his invitation. Eventually all of them reveal themselves to be cads in similar ways, and this is less interesting not because the world is not full of them, but because, ironically, we saw it coming much earlier in the film, and this makes what follows an affirmation of our predictions, not a discovery. I could also quibble with the way the film devotes so little time to fleshing out Jimmy’s character. Sure, he’s romantic and hard-working, yet he’s also whatever the film needs him to be without establishing that it is in his nature to be so many things.
By the end of the film, Manhandle has gone in the direction it had to and ticked off all the boxes of a film of this sort – misunderstanding, competition, rejection, reunification. This does not mean the film is not worth watching, of course, only that the potential demonstrated by those opening moments on the train home are never quite equaled. The comedy we are teased evaporates and becomes a drama, and characters that we think are up to no good prove to be just that. And if only it were so easy to go from average joe to millionaire in one day.
Still, I enjoyed the film for Swanson’s performance. The beginning of the film demonstrates her superb comic skills, the rest her dramatic chops. I also admired the way she physically alters the way she walks and acts when she is playing the role of a Russian countess. Swanson was a revelation, and I’m eternally grateful for the opportunity to witness that for myself. (on DVD and Blu-ray from Kino)