Based on H.M. Harwood's 1930 Broadway play Man in Possession and already filmed by MGM in 1931 as The Man in Possession, Personal Property stands as Jean Harlow's last completed film effort and unfortunately one of her less popular starring vehicles with modern audiences. I enjoyed it myself and am going to try to give it a little boost here in explaining.
B.R. Crisler correctly states that "the union of Mr. Taylor and Miss Harlow in 'Personal Property' is more an affair of the marquee than of the heart--a marriage of convenience, performed with a slightly sordid eye to the box office" in his New York Times review published April 16, 1937.
We now know that other than Saratoga Harlow had already played all the parts that made the legend, she's firmly entrenched at the top of the heap of the star pantheon by the time of Personal Property, while Taylor held the title of being the hottest male sex symbol under MGM's employ. Fresh off leads opposite Crawford in The Gorgeous Hussy and Garbo in Camille he was naturally teamed with Harlow for what would have likely been the first of many such pairings had not Harlow tragically died just a couple of months after the release of Personal Property.
The modern lament is that Personal Property is a weak sister to the earlier The Man in Possession, all the wit and sex appeal neutered away by the Production Code. And that may be true. But how does it stand on its own?
I've not seen The Man in Possession, so perhaps I'm in a better spot to raise a case for Personal Property. While the Times certainly didn't love Personal Property period reviews from small town America went out of their way to stress how smart it was, often crediting director W.S. Van Dyke's famed fast pacing, on both sides of the camera, for the film's abundance of wit--one paper even going so far as to compare the humor to that of Van Dyke's The Thin Man. I'm not going to go anywhere near that claim, but I will say that Personal Property is a slightly above average romantic comedy of the period, strengthened by it's star appeal and a fine supporting cast. In the cases of Reginald Owen and Forrester Harvey even the same players in the same roles as the earlier The Man in Possession.
As to the sex, well, I'd imagine our stars take care of that. Both Harlow and Taylor have had their talents overshadowed by their sex appeal and basically either of their names on the bill would have had many customers panting on the way to their seats. I get the feeling that what happens today is that Harlow isn't Harlow enough for modern audiences wishing her every performance were either as daring as Red Headed Woman or as perfect as her comedic turn in Dinner at Eight. At the same time my guess is that most folks just wish Robert Taylor were somebody else. Say Gable, or William Powell. Harlow doesn't help Taylor's case along those lines today when she calls Powell to mind by flashing the famed star sapphire ring that he gave her throughout the picture. And this is all just too bad for Taylor, forever damned as the pretty boy whose work remains solid through the decades despite his handsome features.
The biggest problem I had with Personal Property is that I cannot think of two more unlikely actors to be paired as brothers than Robert Taylor and Reginald Owen. No one seems to say it, either then or now, but uh, Robert Taylor isn't British. Okay, neither is his screen mother (or would that be mum?), Henrietta Crosman, but she at least pulls it off. There's no doubt about father E.E. Clive, who I swear is in every film of the period. Now I'm not saying I would have enjoyed Taylor bumbling through a British accent for 80 plus minutes (especially after recently cringing through Franchot Tone's Irish brogue opposite Harlow in Suzy), but couldn't we have just tossed in a line about his being schooled in America or something so I could get over the fact that he is no more British than I am? That said it does add some unintentional humor to Personal Property, especially on repeated viewings, and we even have Taylor poke fun at it himself by butchering traditional English pronunciation and once even remarking "Ah yes, the old pronunciation," upon Forrester Harvey's correcting him.
Personal Property opens with the Dabney's, a father-son ladies underwear team comprised of E.E. Clive and Reginald Owen, lamenting the release of Claude's (Owen) brother Raymond from prison. We learn that the Dabney's need money and Claude has a pidgeon named Crystal lined up for marriage so he and his father emphatically agree that she absolutely cannot learn about Raymond's embarrassing past or even his existence as a Dabney family member. "We must keep it dark," they say.
Meanwhile, troublemaking Raymond turns out to be young and cocky Robert Taylor who's welcomed home by his loving mother (Crosman) and retires to a bath when his stiff brother and father happen home to confront him. Father Dabney offers Raymond a bribe to leave town, but Raymond isn't biting. We're told about his crime: Buying a motor car and then selling it without having paid for it. Raymond points out that that's what the Dabney's business does with ladies' underwear all day long. Claude and Father leave in a huff and Raymond finds out from his mother that Claude is engaged to a well off girl leaving Raymond to figure that a bargain has been struck between Claude and an old spinster. He kisses his mother good-bye and heads off to do some drinking.
When the waiter, Frank (Billy Bevan), suggests Raymond have a champagne cocktail he also imparts a line of wisdom which seems as though it's crying out to be repeated throughout Personal Property: "Zest in quest. Keep it going. Get somewhere." Taylor says the line once, maybe twice more, and then it's dropped.
While soaking up Frank's philosophy Raymond is taken aback by the beauty entering and seating herself next to him. It's Harlow, whom we see just enough of before learning her name is Crystal that there's a very good chance you may have forgotten that's also the name of brother Claude's fiancee.
Crystal is immediately turned off by the very forward Raymond and winds up telling him off at the opera where to the dismay of the crowd Crystal's scolding voice raises above the performers. Raymond tails her home from the opera and by the time she cozies herself inside exchanging small talk with Clara, her maid (Una O'Connor), Crystal's eyes tell us she has already fallen for Raymond. Not that she's going to let him know anytime soon.
While standing outside leaning on Crystal's buzzer Raymond meets the Bailiff, Herbert Jenkins (Forrester Harvey) with whom he has an amusing conversation that leads to his discovering Crystal is in debt. Inside Crystal has called the police, she thinks on Raymond, but when the officer arrives he's standing with both Raymond and Jenkins and politely asking for Crystal's patience as the men are only at work trying to collect a rightful debt. Jenkins has deputized Raymond and made him Sheriff's Officer, which enables Raymond to set up camp inside Crystal's home in order to make sure she doesn't run out on his debt.
As Crystal climbs the stairs in a huff Jenkins notes, "She's a bit stuffy, you know," to which Raymond mutters back "She's glorious." "What?" declares Jenkins. "Eh, she's furious," replies Raymond catching himself.
That's the basic set-up that works Raymond into Crystal's home where he can start laying on the charm, but we still have an obvious curveball to come with the eventual revelation of brother Claude as Crystal's fiance. That's where Personal Property gets interesting and eventually leads to it's most rewarding scene, the dinner party whereby the unsuspecting Dabney family are guests of honor and Crystal manages to hide her debt from them by putting Raymond to work as her butler, rechristened Ferguson. Up until the time Raymond Dabney morphed himself into Ferguson the butler he'd been playing a game against Crystal to gain entrance into her home and heart. The moment he accepts the Ferguson persona he's won Crystal over and they begin an unspoken conspiracy together versus Raymond's brother, whom we've already learned at the star of the picture is a total boor.
Of course romance isn't that simple and the dinner serves as the playground slowly turning Crystal's interest from Claude's imagined money to Raymond's very real romance. The plotting alone brings Raymond and Crystal closer and the appearance of the guests closer yet, especially Crystal's friend Catherine (Marla Shelton) who unmercifully flirts with Ferguson while we see the steam rising from Crystal's ears. Ferguson is allowed to make a fool of Claude, and Claude's insistence to Crystal that her butler be dismissed falls upon deaf ears. When the party breaks it's quite clear that Crystal won't be able to marry Claude, however the wedding is still just two days away and we're not sure how she, and Raymond, are going to wrangle her way out of it.
Perhaps because she was ill, but Taylor actually outperforms Harlow, though Harlow does get off a few of her best lines so smoothly they nearly fly under the radar. In one she offers Raymond her late husband's very oversized pajamas and comments, "Well, you may have a little trouble getting them over your, uh, head," not the only slap she delivers to Raymond's big-headedness. Soon after she tells Raymond a little about herself and mentions she's an American from Des Moines, Iowa. "Have you ever heard of Des Moines, Iowa?" she asks. Raymond replies that he has not to which Harlow's Crystal immediately counters "Well, that'll give you a rough idea of where it is."
While Harlow and Taylor alone serve to make Personal Property more than mediocre, it's the fine character actors who put it over the top. Una O'Connor, best known for her high pitched yelps in Universal horror classics Bride of Frankenstein and The Invisible Man, has the laugh out loud line of the first half of the film when first confronted with Raymond's intrusion she practically out of nowhere asks Crystal, "Would you like me to poison him, madam?" I thought Harlow was going to laugh in her face but instead she restrains herself to a smirk while very calmly replying, "Now let's not be too enthusiastic."
No surprise the best laughs come when the entire crowd is packed together at the dinner Raymond is buttling as Ferguson. Here we have Catherine's mother, Mrs. Burns (Cora Witherspoon), asking Claude what line of business he's in and Reginald Owen responding with the classic "I'm in ladies' underwear." His father immediately adds, "We're both in ladies' underwear," to which a stunned Mrs. Burns replies "Really. How very odd." But very nearly stealing not only the scene but the entire film is the character of Arthur Trevelyn, played by Barnett Parker, who mumbles his talk in an indecipherable stuffy English, which somehow everybody but Robert Taylor and the audience can understand and reply to. Mimicking "Trevy" at his introduction with his own brand of mumbling, Taylor's Ferguson later overhears him in conversation and practically shouts, "Oh, Trevelyn!" upon discovering the actual name of marble-mouthed Parker's character.
It must be the dinner table scene that caused that previously mentioned review to remark on Personal Property's resemblance to The Thin Man. Trust me, you'd be hard pressed to find any comparison and I'd imagine our anonymous reviewer likely found his similarities through an MGM press release. I'm also willing to accept, sight unseen, that the 1931 version of the film was likely superior to the Harlow and Taylor vehicle from '37. In Complicated Women Mick LaSalle even uses the two films as an example of the Production Code wreaking havoc on our formerly frank cinema as he writes "Bad enough that Breen was killing good movies in the crib and rendering remakes pointless," the pointless part putting its finger directly on Personal Property. But I'd also imagine that Personal Property is going to suffer in comparison with a wide range of movies, that does not mean that it is without any merit on its own.
I'd call it a 2-1/2 star movie out of four with extra applause reserved for returnees Reginald Owen and Forrester Harvey, who were both, again, in 1931's The Man in Possession, plus strong work by the rest of the supporting cast, notably Clive and especially Parker's "Trevy." If you're a Harlow fan or a Taylor hater I can imagine mild disappointment because she's a little off and he's actually a bit on in this one.
Personal Property wrapped in mid-February 1937 and opened in theaters March 19 with work on Harlow's final film Saratoga beginning soon after that at the end of April. Work on Saratoga was interrupted by Harlow's death, June 7, 1937, and after much internal debate the film was finished with Harlow's stand-in, Mary Dees, filling in for her in some of the scenes. Dees always has her back to us making her presence a bit too obvious and leaving Jean Harlow's final screen appearance just as often eerie as depressing.