Hold Your Man isn’t the best of the movies Jean Harlow made with Clark Gable, but it’s just about perfect anyway. It begins by riffing on the famous bathing sequence in Red Dust by having the two of them alternately discover each other in the tub. This opening act is a sexy comedy co-written by Anita Loos and bristling with clever repartee. Before we know what’s hit us, it shifts gears seamlessly from a saucy lark about a charming grifter and a woman who’s “been around” into the tearjerking territory of the woman’s melodrama, complete with unwed pregnancy. According to Turner Classic Movies, Loos was obliging MGM boss Louis B. Mayer’s request that the characters be punished, but she managed to do it in a way that still feels subversive.
Since Harlow’s character is 19, she can be sentenced to a reformatory; during this era she’s underage until 21. This pre-Code film then presents a vision of the solidarity of women of all races and ethnicities, with a sly series of close-ups during an Easter service implying that not all the women are necessarily Christians. Harlow’s former romantic rival converts into an ally, and even the uniformly prunish old matrons are presented as basically sympathetic. A political commentary is provided by a strident, self-proclaimed socialist who launches into diatribes about capitalism and the working class at the drop of a cue.
There’s also a radiantly friendly, non-stereotypical black inmate (the marvelous Theresa Harris) whose preacher-father provides a fascinating plot development that’s somehow rigidly old-fashioned and progressive at the same time, involving a conspiracy of inmates against institutional power and a crossing of racial barriers. When a white cop barks “Who said you could do that?” he smiles and replies “I think it must have been the Lord!” He’s close; in fact it was Mayer, then Loos.
Available on demand from Warner Archive, this is a sparkling print of a film that still feels engaging and vital despite (or because of) the dated bits of business. Sam Wood’s direction and Harold Rosson’s photography are sleek, with an instinct for the right close-ups and an eye for nice compositions.