Fisherman Dutch marries cannery worker Hattie. He quits his poorly paid job to concentrate on getting better working conditions as union leader. Unfortunately, the union members disagree with Dutch’s ideas and kick him out. Without a job or union card to get another he leaves Hattie to look for work. Hattiee steals money to help him when she learns he is really down on his luck and she goes to jail. He gets a new job, foils a plot to dynamite the ship, and promises to wait for Hattie.
The Terror of Tuna Town
RIFFRAFF (MGM, 1935), directed by J. Walter Ruben, stars Jean Harlow, as Hattie who lives by the waterfront with her married sister, Lil (Una Merkel), her husband (William Newell) and their kids, Jimmy and Rose (Mickey Rooney and Juanita Quigley). She works as a tuna-cannery worker for Nick Lewis (Joseph Calleia), but her real interest is Dutch Muller (Spencer Tracy), a loudmouthed, conceited fisherman. Although she pretends to hate him, she keeps his picture in her room and follows him about. During a festivity, she proves herself lucky for him at the gambling tables, causing him to dump his beauties and change his interest towards her. Eventually they wed, becoming the typical married couple, constantly yelling and screaming at one another, usually saying things for which they mean the opposite. After Dutch rises from fisherman to union leader, he becomes responsible for a strike that causes many men, he included, to be out of work for a length of time. Being more concerned about his pride than his wife and those who look up to him, Dutch deserts. When Hattie learns of Dutch being sick and living amongst homeless bums, she steals some money from Nick to give to Dutch. Because of this, she’s arrested. While serving time in prison, Dutch takes time to think things over, unaware that Hattie is not only serving time for his sake, but has given birth to his child.
Although both Jean Harlow and Spencer Tracy have appeared in better screen material during their careers, RIFFRAFF ranks one of the most televised of their films, particularly during the golden age of local television late shows of the 1960s and ’70s. It has even been a viewer’s request at one time or another on Turner Classic Movies. Yet, it’s not as well known as Harlow’s DINNER AT EIGHT (1933), or Tracy’s CAPTAINS COURAGEOUS (1937), to name a few. Not that RIFFRAFF is a good or a bad film, but actually a total departure for both its stars. Yes, Harlow has played tough gals before, and handled her men with kid gloves, but due to the production code that went into affect in 1934, she still played it tough but a little more tamed.
On the comedic side, Dutch and Hattie start arguing right off after exchanging their vows, and politely smile and act as nothing’s wrong in front of their wedding guests. Then there’s the accented Joseph Calleia, whose double-talk along with another accented character actor, George Givot, add to the lighter moments, as well as Calleia delivering such a line following a big rumble, “I’m Okay, but I don’t feel so good.” A current hit tune, “You Are My Lucky Star,” first introduced in Broadway MELODY OF 1936 (MGM, 1935), is plugged here, sung by a quartet during the party scene.
The supporting cast includes Vince Barnett as Flytrap; Paul Hurst as Belcher; Roger Imhoff as Hattie and Lil’s drunken father, Pop; Lillian Harmer, Helene Costello, among others. In a notable performance is J. Farrell MacDonald as Brains, the more logical character in the story who plays his role as a soft-hearted union man with strong human quality. There is a scene in which the peaceful Brains tries to talk some sense into Dutch, and gets his face slapped for his trouble.
The central focus here is Spencer Tracy, a new resident to MGM, making his fourth appearance for the studio. Up to this point, MGM wasn’t sure how to use Tracy. His Dutch Muller character is so unsympathetic, so conceited, and as the title indicates, a “Riffraff.” Yet, it’s a wonder how Tracy succeeded in getting the audience sympathy. Aside from all the yelling and screaming to either add tension to the drama or lighter moments in comedy, RIFFRAFF also includes many extras, many crowd scenes to go around.
The acting is satisfactory, although Harlow, criticized as being a very bad actress at the time, was improving with each passing film. Her most notable weak spot in RIFFRAFF is the scene in prison where she must surrender her infant baby to her sister Lil. It might have worked had Harlow been given a little more direction in doing this scene with more conviction. She does, however, work well with Tracy, making his second of three movies opposite her.
Although set on the waterfront locale, Harlow is the only female character in the story with a more glamorized look. Character actress Una Merkel, as her sister, Lil, plays her role with more believability and conviction, wearing second hand clothes, hair unsoiled and minus facial makeup. But viewers and MGM couldn’t accept or present Harlow on screen looking like a second-rate character, even in poor man’s settings.
RIFFRAFF, which was available on video cassette in the 1990s, is a worthy look at an early film with future stars on the rise, particularly both Tracy and Mickey Rooney, who would appear together in BOYS TOWN (1938) and its sequel, MEN OF BOYS TOWN (1941), as well as Jean Harlow at the prime of her movie career before death took a toll in 1937 at the age of 26. (***)