Hard to Handle – US, 1933
What does it say that my first thought after finishing Mervyn LeRoy’s Depression-era film Hard to Handle was “Poor Mr. Hayden”? To understand the peculiarity of such a sentiment, it might help to know that Mr. Hayden is a relatively minor character in the film. If I had to speculate, I’d say he has about ten minutes of screen time (but as Anthony Hopkins can attest, it’s not the amount of screen time that counts; it’s what you do with it), and the character goes through the kinds of humiliations that you wouldn’t wish on your worst enemy – mocked by models he’s photographing, pushed out of rooms by greedy characters not content with his $25,000 salary. (Did I mention the film was released during the Depression?) In fact, by the end of the film, he’s been thrown aside as if he were a joke, and yet he’s the character I had the most empathy for. So, just what does that say for the rest of the film and its famous star? Nothing good, I’m afraid.
The central problem with the film lies with its lead character, an up-and-coming publicist named “Lefty” Merrill. (With a name like that, I expected him to be a boxer, but I digress.) The beginning of the film finds him financially backing one of those dance marathons in which the last couple standing is the winner. When we first see the dancers, they are exhausted, the spectators both enthralled and spent, the host throwing out sympathetic (and occasionally sexist) one-liners, and Merrill smiling all the way to the bank. This would be fine, except that almost immediately Merrill goes into a speech about how gullible the public is, going so far as to describe them as cows waiting to be milked. This from the film’s supposed protagonist. So, here’s a character who loathes the public, seeing them as easily manipulated, and plots ingenious ways to promote things to them that they have either no need for or no chance of profiting from. One of his efforts even results in a rather destructive melee. Gee, I hope he gets the girl in the end.
Lefty’s girlfriend, who just happens to be one of the final contestants, is Ruth Waters (Mary Brian), a nice-enough girl who loves Lefty when he’s down and out, but only likes him when he’s successful. Their romantic moments are awkward to say the least. At several points in the film, Lefty kisses her so “passionately” that Ruth says, “That hurt.” Her “loving” boyfriend’s reply: “That’s love.” My response: That’s ridiculous. While her character is clearly meant to be the moral conscience of the film, it’s interesting that the character never takes a position on the immorality of Lefty’s methods or his disdain for ordinary people. As long as her man does it, she seems to tell herself, it must be righteous. The problem is that our own eyes tell us differently.
The essential plot of the film is boy loves girl, boy loses girl, boy moves to the other side of the country to find girl, boy must make something of himself in order to get girl. This scenario is not a novel one and wasn’t even at the time of the film’s release, but for it to work, we have to get behind the boy. I never did. Cagney plays Lefty with the same energy and speed that he exhibits when playing gangsters, the only difference being the frequent twinkle in his eye, and yet even as great an actor as he cannot make Lefty entirely sympathetic, especially after he appears not to deflect the advances of another woman, which is probably what earned the film its “pre-code” credentials. Still, we’re expected to root for him to get his girl back as he darts down flights of stairs in pursuit of the wronged woman.
Adding comedy to the film is the character of Ruth’s mother, played by Ruth Donnelly, despite being just ten years older than Brian and looking it. The character is spirited and sarcastic, and her sole requirement for her daughter’s suitors is that they be rich. This means that she tells Lefty she hopes he rots in Sing Sing at the beginning of the film and lavishes praise on him when the dough starts rolling in. This would be fine if the contradiction were commented on, yet no one, not even Mr. Hayden seems bothered by it. A wiser film would have let Lefty and Hayden (Galvin Gordon) wax sardonically about the sudden changes and give Donnelly the chance to react. Hard to Handle doesn’t even let the men roll their eyes.
There’s also something inherently spiteful about the film. Made at a time when people were truly suffering, it presents a view of America that is an illusion. Sure, financial hardship is mentioned once or twice, yet no one appears to actually be suffering or in any danger of losing their job or livelihood. More time is spent trying to prove that a man like Lefty can manipulate people by promising them fame and fortune. Now there is some prophesy in this, for it’s hard to deny that these are the motivating factors in the rise of such things as reality TV and YouTube. However, the film is not set at a time when such efforts were choices. In the 1930s, that extra $500 offered in a contest could be the difference between having a home and being homeless, and the film conveniently ignores this. Instead, we get scenes of Lefty smirking as people scurry frantically for a lifeline. This says much more about him (and Hollywood) than it does the people he fancies himself superior to. It also makes him a character not to root for, and it doesn’t take a genius to see the challenges this presents. (on DVD as part of Forbidden Hollywood: Volume 5)