By a pure fluke, I watched The Golden Arrow (1936), starring Bette Davis and Platinum Blonde (1931), starring Jean Harlow, on successive days (a couple of weeks ago now, so my memories are already starting to fade). I was startled by how similar the plots of these two 1930s movies are – although, unsurprisingly, the pre-code is by far the more daring of the two.
In both, the leading man is a journalist who is thrown together with a beautiful heiress in the line of work and marries her very quickly – and, in both, the relationship then turns sour when the man finds his new wife and her family trying to groom him and using him for publicity purposes.
I’m noticing that the leading man in 1930s movies often seems to be a journalist – I suppose because it seemed like quite a glamorous, hard-boiled profession and also gave him opportunities to mingle in all kinds of different social worlds. (Both these movies also suggest how during hard times like the Great Depression one form of uneasy escapism was to watch the lives of glamorous people – I’ve read of how some of the Warner stars felt awkward when they were sent on publicity tours on a ‘golden train’ through impoverished areas.
Spoilers behind cut
However, as well as the plot similarities, there are also a lot of differences. Platinum Blonde is by far the better of the two movies and I can definitely see why it is regarded as a classic – a fast-talking pre-code comedy drama directed by Frank Capra, and full of snappy dialogue. Robert “Bobby” Williams is wonderfully naturalistic in the lead role as newspaper reporter Stew Smith. I couldn’t understand why I’d never heard of him before, and eagerly looked at the imdb to see what else he’d made, only to find that, sadly, he died of appendicitis just days after the release of this movie, which would surely have made him a star.
There is loads of chemistry between Stew and his bride, Anne Schuyler (Harlow), and they have several very sexy scenes together, including one where they are lying on a bed kissing – yet it’s made clear that they don’t have much in common apart from sex. Stew’s colleague Gallagher (Loretta Young), a newspaper reporter regarded as one of the boys, is in love with him – and at the end, after the collapse of his marriage, he realises he loves her too. The happy ending sees him announce that he will get divorced and propose to her, with a passionate clinch, although he is still married! I have a feeling that after the code came in Capra would never have got away with this. All three leads give fine performances.
By contrast, The Golden Arrow, directed by Alfred E Green, has one of those far-fetched romance plots about a marriage of convenience. Supposed heiress Daisy is fed up with being pursued by assorted fortune-hunters, and marries Johnny (George Brent) just to get them out of her way, a deal he agrees to in return for a small allowance so that he can write a book.
A lot of the misunderstandings between them are not very funny, especially some silly slapstick involving accidents which result in both of them having black eyes . Adding to the general daftness, it turns out that Daisy is in fact a cafe waitress hired by a soap firm to promote their products. I can see why Davis was fed up at getting a script like this from Warner after she’d just won the Oscar for best actress in Dangerous – even though she and Brent do their very best with the mediocre material.