Fox's Cinema Archives, its manufactured-on-demand program of library titles, has been real hit-and-miss, with its unpardonable use of old, panned-and-scanned transfers of CinemaScope titles bringing it a lot of deserved bad press.
But the label has also unearthed some real gems, in good transfers besides. Such is the case of Me and My Gal (1932), a crackling comedy-drama-romance-gangster film from director Raoul Walsh starring Spencer Tracy and Joan Bennett (their second of four pictures together). Everything about the picture works: it's funny, romantic, suspenseful, and sentimental in the good sense, the dialog is sharp and sassy, and the two leads are terrific. That it's so entertaining and satisfying makes it all the more surprising that it was a huge flop when it was new, reportedly setting an all-time low attendance record at the nearly 6,000-seat Roxy Theatre in New York.
A Fox picture made before its merger with Twentieth Century Pictures, Me and My Gal is one of the more obscure Fox titles, making its strong video transfer even more of a pleasant surprise than usual. No extras.
Most of the film takes place on and around New York's Pier 13, where newly assigned Irish cop Danny Dolan (Spencer Tracy) rescues an obnoxious drunk (Will Stanton) from drowning. This lands him a promotion to plainclothes detective, just as he begins to fall for chowder house waitress Helen (Joan Bennett), whose bank employee sister, Kate (Marion Burns), is menaced by her former gangster boyfriend, Duke Castenega (George Walsh, Raoul's brother) and his underlings.
Desperate to get out of their clutches, she marries milquetoast sailor Eddie Collins (milquetoast character actor George Chandler) and goes to live with him and his father, Sarge (Henry B. Walthall). Sarge is completely incapacitated by a stroke and who can communicate only by blinking Morse code with his eyes.
Castenega is sent to prison but escapes, robs a bank of $87,000 and holes up in Kate's attic while Eddie is at sea. She's still in love with the violent felon but terrified by his presence nonetheless.
Me and My Gal is fast and funny, with Tracy particularly mesmerizing. His naturalistic, seemingly laid-back working class geniality lends the film, otherwise chock-full of broad, breezy, mostly Irish ethnic stereotypes*, a colorful if not exactly authentic air. Bennett, a good actress when blessed with a top director like Walsh, is near Tracy's level, wise-cracking but believable, and their relationship is very appealing, each ribbing the other about the other's hoi polloi habits, which becomes a running joke: he cocking his derby, she chewing gum, etc. One amusing scene, a parody of Eugene O'Neill's Strange Interlude, has the pair alone in her apartment, their thoughts of his attempts to seduce her and her reluctance heard on the soundtrack. (Tracy mentions he saw a "swell picture" the previous night, "Strange Inner Tube or something.") Those familiar only with the Tracy-Hepburn films forget or don't realize the chemistry Tracy enjoyed with Bennett a full decade earlier. Where Hepburn always played the erudite Bryn Mawr type to his unrefined, unpretentious working stiff, Bennett as his social and intellectual equal results in an entirely different but appealing chemistry. Their Pre-Code flirting is sweetly funny.
Marion Burns, best remembered today for her later B-Westerns, is equally fine as the tormented sister, something like a less tragic version of Ann Dvorak's character in 3 on a Match (also 1932). A shame she didn't have a more prominent career.
The movie crams a lot of fun into its 80 minutes, and it makes the most of its Pre-Code freedom. At Kate's party Pop Riley (J. Farrell MacDonald) hosts a big Irish party that must have made Depression-era audiences' mouths water. Food is plentiful while Pop, in a tight close-up and with a giant smile on his face, looks directly into the camera, asking the audience, "C'mon, who'd like a drink?" The Prohibition era booze flows freely, and Pop's invitation is repeated for the satisfying fade-out.
Video & Audio
Me and My Gal is presented in its original full frame format, the image surprisingly good for a comparatively obscure and early talkie. The mono audio (English only, no subtitle options) is also fine on this region 1 disc. No Extra Features and even the menu screen has a generic Fox Cinema Archives background plate.
A really entertaining Pre-Code title, highlighted by Spencer Tracy's wonderful performance, Me and My Gal is Highly Recommended.
* Including, briefly, a stereotypical Jew ravenously diving into a giant ham sandwich.
Stuart Galbraith IV is a Kyoto-based film historian whose work includes film history books, DVD and Blu-ray audio commentaries and special features. Visit Stuart's Cine Blogarama here.