It was 1930 when the catchy piece of hokum “Her Man,” which took its cue from the classic crime-of-passion ballad “Frankie and Johnny,” first made its way into the public consciousness.
The somewhat provocative romance, with lightly disguised whores and pimps, became a point of dispute among critics familiar with classic Hollywood decades later.
Film is available for streaming in a fresh digital restoration via the Virtual Cinema at the Museum of Modern Art. While the auteurship of American filmmaker Tay Garnett is a matter of some debate, there can be no disagreement that his high-energy lowlife drama is excellent.
It was with the slapstick comedy he wrote for Mack Sennett and Hal Roach that Garnett (1894-1977) made his film debut.
In “Her Man,” which came out four years before the Production Code was enacted, the action takes place in a spacious Havana “dance hall” called the Thalia, frequented by intoxicated American sailors whom the protagonists plunder.
The Story is Rife with Comedic Scuffles.
In his seminal work “The American Cinema,” critic Andrew Sarris labels Garnett a “rowdy vaudevillian” and “an artist with the kind of raw edges that lead the overcivilized French sensibility to weep in sheer physical frustration.”
Regardless, the film “Her Man” was a favourite of the French film archive’s namesake, Henri Langlois. According to the poem, John Ashbery viewed the film in Paris and was inspired to write about Helen Twelvetrees, the frail Brooklyn native who plays the young “bar-girl” Frankie.
Twelvetrees, Who Took her Own Life in 1958, was a Popular Star in Sad Melodramas.
A more feisty version of the character, she finds herself between her “protector” Johnnie (Ricardo Cortez, née Jacob Krantz) and a Sir Galahad figure, the sweet-singing American sailor Dan (Phillips Holmes, described as “awkwardly attractive” in Ashbery’s poem). On their St. Patrick’s Day date, Dan informs her, “You’re simply a dame and a pretty normal little dame at that.”
The Broadway diva Marjorie Rambeau, playing an elderly hooker with alcohol problems and a parental interest in Frankie, is largely responsible for the staginess that occasionally permeates “Her Man,” as befits an early talkie.
However, it is enlivened by a number of interesting supporting characters. Comic actress Thelma Todd, who has appeared in several Marx Brothers films, dons a black wig and spit curls to become Nelly, the other woman.
Actor Franklin Pangborn, who typically plays calm characters, is surprisingly aggressive, always tangling with Danny’s sailor friends (James Gleason and Harry Sweet). Garnett’s work with Laurel and Hardy is evoked by the two morons’ continuous stupid argument over a bowler hat.
The fluidity of “Her Man” is what really separates it from other comedies, despite the fact that it features numerous running gags. The camera, guided by Garnett, dollys through the red light area of Havana while people, horse carts, and fistfights pass by. The soundtrack is as as swoon-inducing as the visuals.
There’s a lot of fighting in this movie, and it all culminates in the destruction of the Thalia set. Several college football players and ex-boxers were apparently hired by Garnett to appear in the film as background actors.
Her Man is a throwback in more ways than one. While the Production Code was still in its infancy in 1930, Prohibition was still in full swing, as evidenced by the parade of drunken antics.