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Platinum Blonde

Platinum Blonde
Columbia TriStar
1931 / B&W / 1:37 flat full frame / 90 min. / Street Date November 4, 2003 / 24.95
Starring Loretta Young, Robert Williams, Jean Harlow, Halliwell Hobbes, Reginald Owen, Edmund Breese, Don Dillaway, Walter Catlett, Claud Allister, Louise Closser Hale
Cinematography Joseph Walker
Art Direction Stephen Goosson
Film Editor Gene Milford
Written by Jo Swerling, Dorothy Howell, Robert Riskin, story by Harry E. Chandlee, Douglas W. Churchill
Produced by Harry Cohn
Directed by Frank R. Capra

Reviewed by Glenn Erickson

Platinum Blonde is a prime example of the early sound film breaking away from stage conventions and finding new life in wise-cracking, idiom-laden stylized dialogue. Frank Capra pioneered the emphasis on casual speeches that sound as if real people might be saying them, and at this part in his career he was attracting big audiences and big attention with his freewheeling style.

Rather ordinary in plot, the Jo Swerling/Robert Riskin story soars on its funny dialogue. It helped make a star of Jean Harlow, and is an excellent place to judge her initial appeal, and compare it to the less gaudy beauty of top-billed Loretta Young.


Crashing stately Schuyler manor while investigating an alienation of affections lawsuit, reporter Stew Smith (Robert Williams) falls in love with Schuyler miss Anne (Jean Harlow). Soon they're married, to the chagrin of Stew's newspaper buddy Gallagher (Loretta Young), who never was able to catch Stew's eye. But when the proud reporter finds out he's to become a 'bird in a gilded cage' for the Schuyler family, there's trouble in the air.

Frank Capra's main crime in his autobiography is not properly crediting his writers. Jo Swerling and Robert Riskin were instrumental in his string of 30s and 40s successes, and everything that came to be known as 'Capracorn' is in evidence in their work here. The eccentric reporters with their colorful expressions and fast-talking banter show up, as do the scenes where people break out into little songs. Minor characters like the butler are given major moments with the stars. There's even a key component of 'Capracorn', the examination of a single whimsical word, like 'doodle' in Mr. Deeds Goes to Town. Here, he word is putter. There are the familiar abbreviated literary allusions in the dialogue. The hero is a brash & scrappy man of the people, resolutely opposed to the high-toned upper class, and likely to punch people in the nose. No wonder that one of Capra's writers once pushed a blank sheet of paper into a reporter's face and said something to the effect of, "Let's see Capra singlehandedly make magic out of this!"

Capra was obviously a superior director, and Platinum Blonde shows him doing technical wonders on the studio sound stages. The film is beautifully shot by Joseph Walker, positively glowing when compared to many other dull-looking films from 1931. It's vibrant and alive and never static for a moment. The sound is also expertly recorded - Capra had a CalTech degree in engineering and surely applied himself personally to the limitations of the audio equipment of the day. He plays with speech loud and soft, with singing, echoes, and audio perspective, and enriches the film greatly. If I didn't see '1931' on the copyright, I would have thought the picture to be at least four years newer.

Capra helped cement the stardom of Jean Harlow, and Platinum Blonde shows why. A proletarian beauty if there ever was one, Harlow here plays a society girl and Capra's direction has a lot to do with the functioning of her performance. She's not given the fast-talking dialogue, and she still literally glows off the screen, especially in her introductory scenes where Capra encourages cameraman Walker to make her skin seem incandescent. She looks incredibly white, healthy and sexy, and it's an attraction that communicates directly to viewers even 72 years later. She's also allowed to be controversial, at least at the beginning when Capra wants us to be as entranced as his reporter hero: a long tracking shot through Schuyler manor retreats before Harlow as she walks braless for at least thirty seconds. We therefore get Harlow's audacious screen image out of the way early; the men in the audience melt and frustrated depression women marvel at the star's mastery over the power of sex. 1931 would have been a good year to invest in a company that made hair-dyeing products.

From then on Harlow's sexuality is kept carefully in check. Although she's a beauty in a number of great outfits, Capra stops 'selling' her to concentrate on story and other characters. She is given only third billing, with the drop-dead beautiful Loretta Young (already on her 30th film and scarcely eighteen years old) holding top position.

Young makes a great contrast to Harlow. She's a more natural actress and beautiful in an entirely different way. Harlow eventually overcame the essential cheapness of her basic appeal but Young comes across as intelligent and profound. She's clearly a great looker but must have been devastating in person; when she tagged along to nightclubs at age 15, Joan Crawford was so afraid of her as competition that she demanded Loretta be left behind.

Capra's fairness to his characters allows Young to be sincere and deserving, while not condemning Harlow's disapproval of her husband's distaste for society manners. In this way the story's dull theme, the incompatibility of rich folk and ordinary stiffs like us, stays interesting.

The male lead and the scripted center of the tale is Robert Williams' reporter Stew Smith. Williams is great with the dialogue and a little lacking in the star personality department, but that's okay as it allows us to concentrate on the women. It's possible that he might have developed into something bigger, but he died of appendicitis soon after the film was finished. He's a younger and less brash version of Lee Tracy, the fast-talking, cynical reporter type known from pictures like Blessed Event and the later Harlow vehicle Bombshell, made after she was gobbled up by MGM.

The pre-code dialogue is a lot of fun, with plenty of abbreviated 'son-of-a ...'s and people advising others where they can put things (where the sun don't shine) and where they can go. Platinum Blonde is an enjoyable film from Frank Capra's sparkling early career, and a great picture for female stargazing as well.

Columbia TriStar's Platinum Blonde has a really great transfer from elements in terrific condition, picture and sound. Even Columbia's chintzy-looking early logo looks fine. No complaints whatsoever. A couple of trailers are the only extras. Neither is for this film.

On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor, Platinum Blonde rates:
Movie: Very Good
Video: Excellent
Sound: Excellent
Supplements: none (two trailers for other films)
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: October 30, 2003

DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson

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