The Man in Possession (1931) and Personal Property (1937)

The Story: Raymond Dabney returns to his family after serving a prison term. His adoring mother welcomes him back with open arms, but his uptight father and brother Claude want to pay him to leave town. Raymond refuses the insulting offer and stumbles into a job working for the sheriff as a man in possession, assigned to the home of socialite Crystal Weatherby. Crystal is formerly wealthy, but has fallen on hard times after the death of her husband and cannot pay her bills, so Raymond must stay at her house and make sure she doesn’t try to sell any of her possessions. Crystal, meanwhile, is attempting to marry a rich man who can take care of her problems.

The fundamental difference between these films comes down to the times in which they were made. Six years may not seem like that much of a difference, but in terms of filmmaking it’s an enormous difference. The Man In Possession was made in the middle of the pre-code era, when a story about a morally questionable man staying alone in a big house with a sexy socialite could flourish. In 1937, the production code was being strictly enforced, and so many possibilities for this story are simply not allowed.

The Man In Possession….. Directed by Sam Wood
Starring…..
Robert Montgomery, Charlotte Greenwood, Irene Purcell, C.Aubrey Smith, Reginald Denny, Alan Mowbry

Robert Montgomery is cast as Raymond, and there’s nobody who could have played the role better. He was the best actor of the era. He had a huge range, but he seemed to delight in playing these kinds of roles – sexually charged, morally questionable, but ultimately decent and incredibly romantic men. He rules the role with a special gleam in his eye. He’s sexy, he’s mischievous, and we can tell from the very beginning that no lady would stand a chance resisting him. He’s not at all intimidating, though. He’s charming, and as the film goes on he becomes more and more romantic.

Irene Purcell is his leading lady. Purcell was a stage actress, and she made less than 10 films (and only a few of note). But she’s really a delightful actress. She has a quality that makes her perfect for Crystal in a way no other actress could be. She doesn’t feel like a movie star, which makes her more believable and likeable as social climbing schemer. Actresses like Joan Crawford or Constance Bennett could have played the role, but not as convincingly as Purcell. Crystal is a really unique character. She’s classy in a way, but it’s a feigned class. Like Montgomery, there’s a little gleam in her eye. She’s just coarse enough to be his perfect match.

The Man In Possession uses its pre-code status to perfect advantage. Like I said before, it’s a story that’s tailor-made for the era. These two beautiful, mischievous people spending the night in a house alone together? How can that be anything else but a pre-code set up. Their chemistry alone in scenes where they’re simply verbally sparring almost seems indecent. And then there’s the sex. It’s some of the most blatant I’ve ever seen in classic film. Obviously, it’s not an explicit sex scene, but it’s more than implied with the two of them kissing, falling back on the couch, the light turning off, and Crystal sighing Raymond’s name. And then, if there was any doubt about what happened, the next morning the maid finds Crystal’s nightgown at the end of the bed. Ripped in half.

But beyond the pre-code goodness, it’s just a great romance because of the chemistry between Montgomery and Purcell. They don’t just have sexual chemistry. They fell like two souls who are perfectly matched. It’s more than sex. It’s completely believable that in the span of one night together the two have fallen completely in love. That’s why the film works so well. It’s more than just a fun sex romp. It’s a wonderful love story.


Personal Property
……. Directed by WS Van Dyke
Starring….
Jean Harlow, Robert Taylor, Reginald Owen, Una O’Conner

Robert Taylor doesn’t really fit into the role of Raymond. He’s incredibly handsome, and he has a certain sex appeal to him, but not really the kind that the character needs. Try as he might, Taylor never seems like he can really be a bad boy criminal, at least not in this point in his career. In the 1940s, he created a fantastic gangster in Johnny Eager, but obviously in 1937 his talent hadn’t really evolved past the handsome good guy leading man roles. He never pulls off the mischievousness that is the main characteristic of Raymond. Nor does he really pull of that raw sexuality that initially draws Crystal to him in the first place.

I adore Jean Harlow, but she isn’t right for the role of Crystal either. Harlow was a wonderful actress with a huge range, and it seems like she should be able to play Crystal, perhaps as a lighter version of her Dinner at Eight character. But somehow in this film she doesn’t find the proper balance that the character needs between crass gold digger and romantic heroine. Most of the time she simply comes off as too unlikable and completely without class. It’s such an odd performance, because Harlow was one of the sexiest, most charismatic actresses of her time, but here she is neither charismatic nor sexy.

Of course, the biggest flaw of Personal Property is that it’s not a pre-code film. It’s kind of baffling that anyone would think it was a good idea to make this story into a movie during enforcement, and it’s a little baffling that the Hays Office would even allow the story to be made. What results is one of the most ridiculously tame films that’s just huge film of untapped potential, and the whole thing just feels completely off.

Perhaps some of the film could have been saved had Taylor and Harlow had the chemistry to at least make this a decent love story. You’d think that two such beautiful people would have better chemistry, but there’s absolutely none there. It’s impossible to believe these two are even attracted to each other, much less falling in love with each other. It seems possible that they don’t even like each other. Personal Property doesn’t work as a sex romp, it doesn’t work as a romantic comedy. It doesn’t work at all.

By Katie Richardson

Year: 1933

Director: Sam Wood

Starring: Clark Gable and Jean Harlow

This rollicking good time at the movies features Jean Harlow and Clark Gable in arguably their best film together. Hold Your Man wears the pre-code banner with pride encompassing all the traits of the genre: double entendres, snappy dialogue, racy situations, and street-wise comedy. When the feature opens we see Eddie Hall (Gable) running a short con using a fugazi, a fake diamond ring. His mark figures out he’s been hoodwinked and pretty soon, our grifter is on the run. When he scrambles into an open apartment, he comes across Ruby Adams (Harlow) naked in her bathtub. Her initial reaction is to scream and find out what this nutjob is doing in her home uninvited. Eddie hears the police coming up the stairs and he pleads with Ruby to stall them so he can hide. Not a big fan of law enforcement herself, she reluctantly gives in. When the police come barging in, Ruby gives them her two cents but they barge into the bathroom to find the protagonist covered in soap suds in the tub. Harlow’s character claims that he’s her husband and Eddie yells at them to mind their own business. When the boys in blue leave the grifter jumps out of his bath and we see that he was in the water pants and all. It’s hilarious sequences such as the one I’ve just described that make this motion picture a delight to watch.

The heart and soul of Hold Your Man is the working relationship between Harlow and Gable. They are just like a couple of tennis pros volleying one sizzling barb after another. Quite full of himself, Eddie flirts w/ the curvy blonde like a determined bulldog. Facing one zinger from Ruby after another he accuses her of knowing all the answers. She replies, “Yeah, to all the dumb questions.” Eddie to this point in his life has been a good-for-nothing con artist and Ruby doesn’t have any delusions. She even points out that “… even your smile is crooked.” Eventually his charms prove irresistable to the point where when he tells her to dump her date and come over to his place in Flatbush, Ruby complies. When Gable’s character pours a Scotch and hands it to the blonde firecracker she asks, “Scotland or Brooklyn, which is it?” As Eddie tries to work more of his greasy charm, he invites Harlow’s character to join him on the sofa. Ruby sagely declares, “I got two rules when I go out visiting; keep away from couches and stay on your feet.” Of course, with the overwhelming chemistry these two have onscreen, she inevitably succumbs and spends the night. Eddie gets pinched and ends up doing time on the farm. The scene where she visits and teases him in jail works well. Ruby watches Eddie’s apartment for him and even re-decorates it. The grifter is quite pleased to find her there waiting upon his return. In typical pre-code fashion he follows Ruby into the bedroom, closing the door behind him with just his leg, slowly enough for the audience to infer what will ensue.

While the first two acts of this movie are wonderful, the last morphs from delicious comedy to sappy melodrama. Eddie finds a drunk they were trying to grift pawing Ruby all over. He slugs him so hard that the louse hits his head and dies. While Eddie is on the lam, Ruby gets left holding the bag as a witness spots her as the blonde who’d been with the deceased at the time of the murder. All the momentum this film achieved comes to a grinding halt as our female protagonist does time in prison. She runs across a rival for Eddie’s affections while in the can, and the women almost come to blows several times. When the brunette (Dorothy Burgess) tells everyone else in the barracks how sweet Eddie is on her, Ruby won’t stand for it. She offers this rejoinder instead: “You wouldn’t be a bad looking dame, if it wasn’t for you’re face.” Eventually our two lovers end up with a happy, if contrived, ending. But it’s the third reel that prevents this movie from reaching greatness. Still, this is the sexiest I’ve seen Harlow look onscreen. Hold Your Man is the best pre-code picture I have seen to date. It is mandatory viewing for fans of the platinum one or the king