A young woman from a very rich family impulsively marries a reporter, but each assumes the other is the one whose lifestyle must change.
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Platinum Blonde (1931) is an early Capra film and a good pre-requisite for his films to follow because of its themes and comedic situations. Although he had made nearly twenty films by 1931, this film stands out with its stars and its story, as well as its comedy. The first film that he garnered great success from was It Happened One Night, but Platinum Blonde most likely made his name well-known, in Hollywood at least. It's a great classic to watch, not only for his direction, but also for the stars: Jean Harlow, Loretta Young, and the much lesser-known Robert Williams (who died right after the film was made) make up a very entertaining love triangle.
The film focuses on a reporter, Stewart Smith (Robert Williams), who writes a story about the scandal of a high-society family called Schuyler. He falls for the daughter of the family, Anne (Jean Harlow), and despite the story he printed, she falls for him as well and they promptly bring even more shame to the Schuyler name by secretly getting married. Now the husband of a rich heiress, his reporter friends make fun of him for marrying into money, and warn him he'll come to be known simply as Anne Schuyler's husband. His best friend from the newspaper, Gallagher, happens to be the lovely (and indeed very young) Loretta Young, who has always been in love with him, and takes the marriage the hardest. He gradually realizes the truth of the predictions after he moves into the Schuyler house and becomes stifled and humbled by his new wife and the high-society lifestyle.
The film offers great comedic situations and witty repartee between characters (written by Robert Riskin) as it is a battle between the high class and the lower or middle class, and since reporters are always fast-talking and witty in Hollywood. This film does not yet display Capra's serious commentary on different classes, but it certainly shows his strong preference for the lower classes. Of course, making fun of the upper class on the lower class's account was quite common in Hollywood during the Depression, and an essential aspect of screwball comedy. This film fits in nicely with other screwball comedies of the era such as Dinner at Eight (1933), My Man Godfrey (1936), and Holiday (1938), which all get most of their laughs by poking fun at the rich, in order to make the many lower class viewers feel better.
Many scenes and details are distinctly Capra, however. One scene is almost exactly replicated in Mr. Deeds Goes to Town: Stewart, alone and restless in the Schuyler mansion, calls for the butler, Smythe (the excellent Halliwell Hobbes), and makes him yell in order to hear the echo that resounds throughout the house— the same action that Mr. Deeds engages in with his butler and servants. Stewart also becomes to be known as the Cinderella man, the title that Mr. Deeds will be given, although the title has different meanings in each film. There is also a scene in which the entire newspaper staff follow Gallagher to the mansion and throw a wild party, which the outraged Schuyler family comes home to discover, and it's very prescient of the clashing of the wild middle-class family and the rich family in You Can't Take it with You.
In addition to the excellent comedy and situations that will become familiar further on in Capra's career, the stars in the film are wonderful to watch. The two female stars, Harlow and Young, are pointedly opposites and both portray their characters with ease and talent. Young was only 18 when the film was made, but had been acting since she was a child, and is a glimpse into the independent career woman we see being played by Jean Arthur and Barbara Stanwyck in later Capra films. Harlow is also always a pleasure to watch, especially since she had a career that was cut short not long after this film. But speaking of short careers, Williams had probably the shortest of anyone in Hollywood, and is perhaps the best reason to see this film. He was only 24 when he died the same year the film was released, and it truly was a tragedy because he has the kind of comic wit and manly but real persona in this film that Clark Gable and Spencer Tracy would come to epitomize. He also has a style all his own; a very focused but natural comedy about him, and he brings out the smarts and kindness in his character, who is a tough guy but also a gentle soul who always does the right thing. The right thing, in this instance, is to gain back his independence and self-respect and marry the girl who really cares for him.
Platinum Blonde is a charming screwball comedy to watch, with a great love triangle between some of the best stars of the 30s. They are all quite young, just starting their careers (sadly not very long ones for Williams and Harlow) and honing their talents with a witty story. It's the beginning of Capra's career as well, which would be of course a very successful one, and he obviously looks back to this film more than once to find some of the comical moments, clever details, and timeless characters that he would use in his films to come.