If it could grab a wider audience Tay Garnett’s Her Man would be considered a pre-Code essential. Populated by a variety of screen drunks, thinly veiled prostitutes, criminals, up to and including a murderer, and culminating with an all-out brawl that was, according to Film Daily, “generally conceded to be the best fracas ever shown on a screen” to that time, this first movie adaptation of the Frankie and Johnny ballad is every bit exciting today as it was when it was a critical and popular success in 1930.
“He was her man, but he done her wrong.”
Her Man features Ricardo Cortez as Johnnie, owner of a Havana* dive called the Thalia, and stars Helen Twelvetrees as Johnnie’s most prized possession, Frankie. With wild hair and a series of outfits that make you think Her Man’s designer was Cyndi Lauper, circa 1983, Twelvetrees tosses her head back, thrusts her chest out and swings her hips and shoulders while proudly trailing Cortez’ Johnnie through the mass of drunken sailors gathered on the streets outside of the Thalia and neighboring bars, each separated by race, on their way back to her room. “Look what I done for you,” Johnnie says, after discovering Frankie had given away part of that night’s take. “What was you when I found you?” He tells Frankie to stick by him and she’ll “be wearing silks and jewels some day,” adding, “Just trust me, baby.” The famous tune bearing their names plays in the background, their jazzy theme as much a character in the early portions of Her Man as “St. Louis Woman” is in pre-Code classic, Baby Face (1933).
* According to Peter Stanfield in Body and Soul: Jazz and Blues in American Film, 1927-63, Havana was only one of the possible settings, but the most identifiable in the end because of the inclusion of Morro Castle. Stanfield wrote that Garnett and Howard Higgin’s original script set Her Man at San Francisco’s Barbary Coast and post-release publicity turned the Thalia into a Parisian dive. In between the setting became Havana and then ”an unidentified island off the coast of America” (62). You get the picture though. Her Man is basically set in Any Dive, Near to the U.S.A.
As Peter Stanfield commented upon the film in a chapter about Frankie and Johnny adaptations in his Body and Soul, the challenge was “to maintain the story of Frankie and Johnny and not make it obvious that he is her pimp and she his prostitute” (60). But Johnnie had asked Frankie what she was when he had found her and then later Dan Keefe, the man who eventually comes between Frankie and Johnnie, dismisses her past: “If it’s what you’ve been that’s worrying you, forget it. The worst you ever done was to get by the only way you knew how.” So just what was Frankie doing by the time she met Dan Keefe?
On screen, at least, she engages in another type of hustle. She lures the male clientele of the Thalia, mostly hard-drinking sailors, to her side, tells her sob story and then picks their pockets after they drink the Mickey Finn that Johnnie directs his bartenders to serve them. While her Frankie is a willing enough employee in Her Man, the character played by Helen Twelvetrees in Panama Flo (1932) feels terrible when forced to take part in the exact same scam with hopes of raising enough cash to make it back to America. No such regrets here. Not until she becomes attracted to a handsome young sailor, Dan Keefe, played by Phillips Holmes.
After Dan spots her, joins her and sings her a song, Frankie, momentarily touched, catches herself and tells him, “Them kind of songs always gets me down. I guess its because they make me think, huh?” Dan tells her not to worry her pretty self over thinking and she snaps back, “Rules don’t stop no one from thinking,” adding, “I wish they could.” Dan begs Frankie to spill her troubles and so she begins her well rehearsed sob story:
“It's this life, it's killing me. Sometimes I think I can't stand it no longer. You know, I ain't never known nothing but dumps like this, I was born in one of them. How I hate 'em."
"Well, why don't you get out?" Dan asks.
"How far would I get? I ain’t no man. I wisht I was. Sometimes I think of--if I could get away off somewheres where there was green grass and trees and things. Where things was clean and good. Ah, gee. I could start all over again then. Things would be different.” She drops her head along with all of the enthusiasm that had been building to add, ”But there ain’t a chance.”
She’s cuddled up close to him as she spins her yarn, but Dan catches her wandering hand and pulls it from his pocket. “I’m sorry you did that,” he says of her attempt to rob him.
“Well, what are you gonna do about it?” Frankie demands. Over at the piano Johnnie spots Frankie’s troubles and motions to the bartender to send over a couple of drinks: One spiked gin and one plain water masquerading as a gin for Frankie. But after Dan tells Frankie he isn’t going to do anything her soft spot returns and she knocks the drink from his hand just as he’s ready to slug it back.
Dan smells the spilled drink in his hands and looks up to Frankie, knowing what she has saved him from.
“Much obliged, sister,” Dan says, rising to leave and gather his sailor buddies, played by the comedy team of James Gleason and Harry Sweet, who were assuredly more funny in 1930 than they are today. This duo went over big in the trade papers of the time, but Her Man wound up the only time Gleason and Sweet appeared together on screen. Sweet subsequently directed Gleason in five comedy shorts co-starring each of the Gribbon brothers, Eddie and Harry, but Sweet's life was cut short in a 1933 plane crash. Gleason enjoyed a long and successful screen career as a character actor almost up until the time of his own death in 1959.
Gleason and Sweet play a pair of fun loving drunks throughout Her Man, their peak moments coming courtesy of a “twenty dollar skimmer” stolen off the head of Franklin Pangborn, cast here as possibly the most unlikely tough guy in screen history. They defend their prize from a scruffy Slim Summerville, who appears in one scene, as a drunk, to smash down any hat he sees adorning any head, including Gleason and Sweet’s ill gotten pricey skimmer.
All of these drunken antics are only intended to bring a bit of levity to Her Man, but it’s a far more seriously portrayed alcoholic who serves as perhaps the heart and certainly the eyes of the film. Marjorie Rambeau, who had been a stage actress since the age of twelve and later appeared in a handful of silent films in the late teens (also her late teens) makes her talkie debut in Her Man as Annie, a perpetually sloshed middle-aged woman whose been working these hellholes for a very long time.At the open of Her Man a ship docks on the U.S. mainland and a cop immediately picks Annie out of the disembarking passengers. “The only place you’re going, baby, is right back where you came from,” he tells her. For the benefit of others in the crowd he adds, “This little girl’s from the wrong side of the island.” Annie is busted, knows she can’t do anything about it, but takes time to plead that she is, “on the level, honest I am. I’ve gotta have a job. I gotta have one. I got a reason,” for wanting to get off the island. Luckily she has a round trip ticket, which she all but waves in the cop’s face as she climbs back on board. The focus is on her feet, her ankles turning over with every step building to a full stumble by the time she bellies back to the Thalia.
Back at that bar, where she’s served by another character actor favorite, Stanley Fields as Al the bartender, the younger girls all pick on Rambeau’s Annie for having to come back. Twelvetrees makes her first appearance as Frankie coming to Annie’s aid. “Lay off!” she barks to the other girls. “Can’t you two see the old bag is all in?” The others leave them together and Frankie tosses Annie some spare change, those missing earnings that Johnnie is soon angry over. “You’ve got the heebies bad. Grab yourself a couple of snorts,” Frankie says before departing to her next victim.
Meanwhile Annie and Al talk admirably of Frankie. Al calls Frankie “a grand little worker,” noting, “she’s the straightest dame in the joint.” Annie worries though. “When Frankie’s been working these joints as long as I have, believe me, she won’t be no bargain neither.” Annie does her best to look out for Frankie throughout Her Man, though the offer of a free drink from a neighboring hostess played by a raven-haired Thelma Todd nearly keeps Annie from assisting Frankie when she needs her most.
I had mentioned Annie as Her Man’s eyes. She sees all that happens in the Thalia from her barstool and none of it seems to surprise her. It’s during this first extended scene at the Thalia that she turns out to be the only person in the packed house to witness Johnnie murder rival saloon owner Red (Harry Betz). And Annie ain't squealing.
Jacob Krantz had become Ricardo Cortez as one of a few 1920’s silent screen rivals and heirs apparent to Rudolph Valentino. When talkies came he kept his screen name, as would his younger brother, the more celebrated cinematographer Stanley Cortez. Ricardo Cortez excelled at playing gangsters and other heavies throughout the pre-Code era and into the mid-thirties before transitioning to a successful career on Wall Street. He appeared in films sporadically throughout the 1940s and was a success when brought back by John Ford in a supporting role in 1958’s The Last Hurrah, in which Her Man co-star James Gleason also appeared.
Cortez faired well with critics as Johnnie in Her Man, but he’d soon have to weather a storm of publicity when his estranged wife, Alma Rubens, died in January 1931, just four months after Her Man was released. Rubens, a former silent screen beauty, was just 33 at the time of her death. A heroin addict who had just nationally serialized her story of addiction and recovery, there was a good deal of potentially negative backlash from which Cortez somehow emerged with an enhanced reputation and the sympathy of the public. His next film, Illicit, released in February 1931, a month after the death of Rubens. It would be the first of ten features he would appear in that year, including one of his best known, the original adaptation of The Maltese Falcon which saw him star as Sam Spade.
For those familiar with Cortez’ seedier characters of the era, add Johnnie from Her Man to that list and put a circle around it. Johnnie wears each of Cortez’ top expressions throughout Her Man, the smirk and the scowl, with emphasis on the former as there is often menace behind a Cortez smile. He carries around a small blade, practically a pen knife, that he constantly fingers and sometimes uses to blow off steam by repeatedly stabbing it into surfaces such as his bar. But after he allows rival Red into the Thalia and eavesdrops on his attempt to lure Frankie away (“Listen, baby. I can show you more real sugar than Johnnie had ever thought of.”), it’s a much larger switchblade that Johnnie draws from his inside pocket and launches across the distracted bar into Red’s back. After breaking up the fight that he had a couple of his boys stage as his alibi, he grabs Frankie to leave and stops to apologize to police for not knowing anything about the murder. He catches himself playing with his little blade and almost fumbles it as he quickly hides it back in his pocket.
No doubt Johnnie believes that he loves Frankie, though he mostly he values her as his top earner. But, as if witnessing the murder and his all-around crookedness weren’t enough, we’re also made aware of Johnnie’s relationship with the statuesque Todd, who leaves us wanting more, as another piece of evidence clearing Frankie of any wrongdoing once she falls for Phillips Holmes’ sailor, Dan Keefe.
Holmes, mocked the following year by Andre Sennwald of the New York Times for not presenting a believable physical challenge to Walter Huston in Night Court, manages to convince audiences that he can take on an entire bar filled with Johnnie’s soused sympathizers in Her Man. Fists fly, bodies propel through the air, one poor fellow is even power-slammed across a table by Holmes. Backed into a corner Holmes rips a table from the floor and uses it as a weapon, slamming the table top over the head of anyone within reach, before using it as a shield to protect he and Frankie from the oncoming barrage of drunken wild men. The climactic brawl, which comes to a creative ending highlighted by Rambeau’s celebratory cackles, lives up the hype, which was more or less universal in period reviews.
But that is Dan Keefe unhinged. Holmes and Twelvetrees enjoy their best scenes together on their own, falling in love on the beach after celebrating her inaugural “boithday” over the candles of a cupcake and, for the sake of moralists seeking more concrete redemption, inside a church where Frankie mimics Dan’s prayer and looks all the more solemn thanks to Twelvetrees’ sad down-slanting eyes.Back when I wrote about Twelvetrees in Panama Flo, I hedged a little when sharing the Saturday Evening Post cover that I believed was the one she had posed for. After watching several additional movies featuring this unfairly forgotten talent, I have no further doubts because illustrator George Bradshaw Crandall completely captures those somehow strange set eyes and eyebrows. With my own illustrative talents advancing no further than stick figures, I would just draw a pair of inverted triangles to capture those haunting eyes, always ready to burst tears.
Even in the looser atmosphere that existed before the Production Code was enforced the script for Her Man required several rewrites to get past the Studio Relations Committee, the movie monitor during the pre-Code era. Once cleared it still faced issues with some local censors. Pathe even pulled the movie from playing in Canada because so many cuts were otherwise demanded. Their loss.
Critics greeted Her Man with near universal praise, the New York Times being the only naysayer I could track down. The Times ripped Twelvetrees for overacting and called the film, “a hodgepodge of sentimentality plastered on thickly.” They even had the nerve to knock the celebrated climax, concluding their own review by mentioning, “there is a prodigiously energetic brawl that is only remarkable for its obviously staged situations.”
On the other hand was everybody else. Exhibitor’s Herald proclaimed Her Man “different” and Hollywood Reporter went two steps further calling it, “Different—beautiful and exciting.” Variety seconds that stating, “The picture is almost continuously full of action,” while Jimmy Starr of the Los Angeles Record more specifically wrote of, “The greatest fight sequence I have ever seen.” Motion Picture News adds, “The fight is a thriller from start to finish,” while Louella Parsons congratulated Helen Twelvetrees on her success, praising her performance and all at once remarking that Her Man was, “A lucky break because the picture is so good that it has attracted attention all over the country.”
Proof of that widespread appeal comes courtesy of Cari Beauchamp in her book about the Hollywood years of Joseph P. Kennedy, who ran Pathe Exchange at the time of Her Man. Beauchamp wrote that Her Man brought in $800,000 at the box office (310).
Photoplay Magazine named Her Man one of their Best Pictures of the Month and additionally cited Twelvetrees for having given one of the Best Performances that month. To give an idea of what was playing alongside Her Man, other films named by Photoplay in that November 1930 issue were The Big Trail, Outward Bound, Liliom, The Sea Wolf, The Spoilers, Half Shot at Sunrise and Sweet Kitty Bellairs. Her Man was called “a grand piece of work,” and praised as, “a talking picture with all of the color, drama and vivid action of the best old-time silents.”
Her Man was huge. It’s success unfortunately pigeonholed Helen Twelvetrees into a career of weepy repeat performances, best recalled today, if at all, in Millie (1931), because of its widely available video release. If you have yet to bump into Miss Twelvetrees, then I came across a great comparison of her to Pathe stablemate of the period Constance Bennett in an entry by Richard Griffith in the 1976 collection Movies and Methods:
“But her [Twelvetrees] regret was too lachrymose — the game was hardly worth the candle if you had to cry that much to win. Constance Bennett’s method of achieving the same end was far more reassuring” (114).
While the extremely weepy Millie is better known, Her Man is the better movie. Given the current popularity of films of the pre-Code era, especially its most sinful hits, this 1930 charmer is way too hard to find. I couldn’t even figure out who holds the rights to it today, though my best guess is Sony via Columbia Pictures by way of a mid-30s sale.
Her Man had it’s greatest modern exposure by way of a pair of clips included in A Personal Journey with Martin Scorsese Through American Movies (1995). While Phillips Holmes, as Dan Keefe, is shown storming towards his ultimate confrontation with Cortez’ Johnnie, Scorsese remarks that the “myth of the static camera has been dispelled now that so many films of the period have been rediscovered.” But despite this one very high profile fan Her Man has yet to gain anywhere near the exposure of wider seen titles of the period.
Someone has posted the final six and a half minutes of Her Man to YouTube. While this clip does reveal the ending it also shows the ballyhooed fight scene in full. If you can’t get your hands on a copy these few minutes will certainly send you hunting for one!
If you do have a copy I recommend pairing it with Safe in Hell (1931) for a few hours of dark tropic grit and sin. It’s hard to believe that Her Man was produced over a year before Safe in Hell, but that just goes to prove how dead-on Scorsese was in naming it as an example of how much some of these early films did move. There are plenty of other movies of the period that sit still and easily live up to the very myth he proclaims shattered, and so the always active Her Man winds up feeling like it would have been produced at least a couple of years after it was.
Ahead of its time. Exciting. Shocking. Still very worthwhile.
- Beauchamp, Cari. Joseph P. Kennedy Presents: His Hollywood Years. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2009.
- Griffith, Richard. “Cycles and Genres.” Movies and Methods: Vol. I. Ed. Bill Nichols. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California, 1976.
- Parsons, Louella O. “’Her Man’ Star for New Movie.” St. Petersburg Times 26 Nov 1930: 17. Google News. Web. 18 May 2013.
- Stanfield, Peter. Body and Soul: Jazz and Blues in American Film, 1927-63 University of Illinois Press, 2005.