March 29. 2016
Tay Garnett’s Her Man (1930) has had a small but enduring auteurist cult, for those lucky enough to have seen the Cinematheque Francaise print that circulated in the ’50s and ’60s. In his American Cinema, Andrew Sarris wrote of its “extraordinarily fluid camera movements that dispel the myth of static talkies”, while British critic Raymond Durgnat compared it favorably to Howard Hawks’ A Girl in Every Port (1928). Poet John Ashbery saw it in Paris in the late ’50s, and it was an inspiration for his “Pavane pour Helen Twelvetrees”, which you can read here. The film has seemingly disappeared from view since then, with David Thomson erroneously stating that it was a “lost film” in his Biographical Dictionary of Film. It wasn’t lost, but just hiding. The camera negative was discovered in the Columbia Pictures collection at the Library of Congress, and a 4K restoration was performed by Sony Pictures, with funding provided by the Film Foundation. This week the Museum of Modern Art, courtesy of Adjunct Curator Dave Kehr, is screening the restoration of Her Man, alongside some of director Tay Garnett’s other silent and early sound features (including Celebrity, The Spieler, and One Way Passage). Her Man is a redemptive romance that takes place in one of the scummiest bars in Havana: the Thalia. There Garnett wends his camera through a knockabout group of con artists, drunks and killers to get to his dewy-eyed lovers, who strong-arm their way out the door.
Her Man is an extremely loose adaptation of the folk murder ballad “Frankie and Johnnie” (aka “Frankie and Albert”), a turn-of-the-century tune about a young woman (Frankie) who kills her adulterous lover (Johnnie). The song emerged from the black community in St. Louis after the 1899 killing of 17-year-old part time pimp Allen Britt by his lover, and reported prostitute, Frankie Baker (she was acquitted of the crime due to a plea of self defense). The song went through many variations, all of them too risque for Hollywood. But they wanted to capitalize on the song’s continued popularity, the latest iteration of which was a controversial stage play, Frankie and Johnnie, which John M. Kirkland brought to the Republic Theater in September of 1930. It was raided by police during dress rehearsals for “its lines defending prostitution as ‘the only profession for which women are exclusively equipped.” (Body and Soul: Jazz and Blues in American Film, by Peter Stanfield).
The 1930 Pathé Exchange production of Her Man polished off the rough edges, going through several rounds of revisions due to suggestions from Studio Relations Committee readers (or SRC, a Production Code created unit created by Will Hays to enforce the code – before they had any real power to do so). Tay Garnett and Howard Higgin received story credit on the film, with Thomas Buckingham writing the screenplay. It begins with the life of Frankie (Helen Twelvetrees), a lifelong con artist raised in bars who seduces and then steals from local drunks. She feels fated to live her whole life in dives, like the local souse Annie (Marjorie Rambeau), a former beauty gone to seed. Frankie is dating Johnnie (Ricardo Cortez), a violent character with a hand in all variety of vice. Frankie seems resigned to her fate until she sees sailor Dan (Phillips Holmes) hit the Thalia. He is a bright-eyed blonde kid with a sweet voice, an optimistic attitude, and a helluva roundhouse punch. Dan and Frankie dream of life outside the Thalia, but have to devise a way out of Johnnie’s grasp. He is not willing to give up Frankie without a (knife) fight. The film ends in a big barroom brawl whose outcome will seal the young lovers’ fate.
SRC readers were insistent that the film had to erase any insinuation of prostitution from the script, although it is still implicit in the finished film. One note read (as quoted in Body and Soul: Jazz and Blues in American Film):
Johnnie is one of the most despicable types of men. He is nothing less than a worm…. There is as much moral value in this picture as there is in a five week old kippered herring…. There is so much drinking, carousing and scenes of bawdy houses that I do not see how this picture can get by as it is now. You are simply dragged through six or eight reels of filth. You wallow in it neck-high, and scream for the whole business to end. All this babble about reformed prostitutes and the creating of sympathy for harlots in general is a lot of tripe, made worse by the inclusion of songs about a vine-covered cottage.
You can’t sell a film any better than that. Eventually the film passed SRC inspection, but the relationship between Frankie and Johnnie is made intentionally ambiguous, their relationship less romantic than that of a boss and employee. He shakes her down for the night’s take – not from turning tricks, but from robbing drunk customers.
Director Tay Garnett got his start writing gags for Hal Roach and Mack Sennett – he brags in his autobiography that he was fired by Sennett “more often than anyone else who ever worked for him.” One of the great pleasures of Her Man is all of the incidental gags that Garnett packs into the film’s 83 minute runtime. James Gleason and Harry Sweet provide the comic relief as Dan’s soused sailor buddies Steve and Eddie. Steve plays a slot machine over and over again throughout the film, losing every time, only to see Harry pick up beer money with the next pull of the lever. This little gag plays out to perfection at the end of the brawl, with a bash to the skull finally giving Steve that last cash payment. The strangest routine involves familiar pre-code face Franklin Pangborn, who plays a stiff middle class tourist that makes an easy mark for Steve and Eddie. Every time Pangborn appears on-screen, he is getting knocked out – mainly for the expensive fedora that Steve and Eddie nearly fight-to-the-death over.
Her Man has earned whatever notoriety it has because of its elaborate, extended camera movement. Garnett and his DP Edward Snyder have a remarkable freedom of movement in this early sound film, as if they had no restrictions at all using the new technology. Using cranes to dip in and out of packed, clogged barroom dance floors, the film throws you headlong into its world, immersing you in its particular filth and argot. The location is never named, although there is a reference to an island. The whereabouts are kept intentionally vague. In the script the film takes place in Havana, and the Morro castle was included in some of the publicity material. So when the Cuban embassy objected to the film’s depiction of their city, and fearing Latin American markets would refuse to show the film, Pathé made an unconvincing case that the film actually took place in Paris (the Variety review says it takes place in a “Paris dive”).
But regardless of the location, it’s a formidable accomplishment. Phillips Holmes is a perennial discovery for me, as in recent years I have admired his trembling grace in Lubitsch’s Broken Lullaby and Von Sternberg’s An American Tragedy. Here he is a more virile type – in the concluding brawl his shirt is torn to shreds to show off his action movie torso – but he is equally moving as an inadvertent roughneck with a lilting voice. Helen Twelvetrees is appropriately off-kilter throughout, a woman who saw her future at the bottom of a beer glass starting to open up to the world. The film is almost entirely set inside the bar, so any vision of the outside, even just a shot of a carriage rocking back and forth in front of a rear projected city, is blissful artifice. Near the end of their date, when Dan says, his face beaming with sincerity, that ““St. Patrick’s Day, don’t it make you feel great?”, I can’t help but smile along with him.