By David D. Robbins Jr. | The Fade Out
There’s been a good deal of talk about the lack of quality of the Twentieth Century Fox Cinema Archives’ releases. It’s not that the films are bad, but that Fox is choosing to put whatever quality it has, without or without remastering, on these DVD-Rs. It seems like this is the process companies go through when it comes to made-on-demand discs: They test to see what the consumer will pay for, and then adjust. The same thing happened with Warner Bros. too. Except now, WB generally makes decent DVD-Rs, and tries to put “remastered” on the covers, if indeed they are.
All that being said, Fox’s discs are still a gamble. However, we’re lucky with one of its latest releases, the wonderful Raoul Walsh Pre-Code film, “Me And My Gal” (1932). It stars Spencer Tracy, in one of his more charming, and least hammy roles (this isn’t the over-the-top Tracy later seen in “The Actress”, “Father of the Bride”, or “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner”) and the sassy, wise-cracking Joan Bennett. The picture may have flopped at the Roxy, but it’s surely a gem today. It’s a film that famed critic Manny Faber described as Walsh’s best, encapsulating the theme as, “Life is sunny, if you don’t stir it up.”
The plot is nearly of little consequence (there are gangsters, a robbery, and a shootout), compared to the script, the humor, and the New York docks atmosphere that takes the lead. This Depression-era gem opens the way many do, with the stopping of a suicide, albeit with a twist. Freshly-minted waterfront beat cop Danny Dolan (Tracy) sees a desperate man, ready to drown his dog, because he can no longer afford to keep his best mate. Of course, Tracy finds a solution to this, along with humorously breaking up a fight among school kids and trying to keep the town drunk from getting into trouble. Writers Arthur Kober, Barry Conners, and Philip Klein, use these scenes to set up Tracy’s character, that of a laissez-fairer cop, with a heart of gold under his rough, meaty exterior.
The Vaudevillian slapstick could get a little grating at times, as might the “eh, wise guy, eh?” kinda dated dialogue, but for the fact that the script is so well written and funny. There’s some fun banter between Tracy and the town drunk, who asks the cop what he’s going to do about a fish that stole his bait. But the best bits come from the sparks that fly between Tracy and diner girl, Helen Riley (Bennett), the charmingly insolent, slinky beauty he’s been bird-dogging at the local greasy spoon:
Danny: “Hiya , Red. (She’s actually blonde.) Meet my friend, Al.”
Helen: “How do ya do, Al? Well, now that you’ve introduced me to Al why don’t you get somebody to introduce me to you?”
Danny: “You’ve got a sweet little disposition. How would you like to go over to the park with me, and help me tramp down all the flowers?”
Helen: “With feet like yours you don’t need me to help you.”
Danny: “Let me know when you get a day off, will ya? I’ll take you for a nice trip through the cemetery.”
Helen: “Love to. Let me know when you’re making your last trip.”
There’s even an inspired scene where Danny gets Helen alone in an apartment, and turns on the swagger, as he tries to make his moves on the couch. The pair are sprawled together on the couch, and talk about having recently seen a film called “Strange Innertube or something”, where the thoughts of the characters are vocalized. (It’s a reference to a film released earlier in the year, called “Strange Interlude”, a story based on a Eugene O’Neill play, starring Clark Gable and Norma Shearer — where yes, voice-overs were used to hear the internal ruminations of the characters.) Mentioning the film could be a needling, or perhaps it’s simply a tip of the cap from the writers of “Me and My Gal”, who felt the need to acknowledge where the original idea came from, especially considering the audience would be very familiar with the source. Whatever the case many be, the humor is priceless:
Danny: “You know you remind me an awful lot of the leading lady? Good looking and a swell figure.”
Danny’s voice-over: “That oughta hold you for awhile baby.”
Helen: “Hey, come to think of it, you remind me of the leading man — so big and strong.”
Helen’s voice-over: “Probably won’t be able to get into that derby (hat) now.”
Danny: “Hey, what a squawk your old man would put up if he came and saw us like this, huh?”
Danny’s voice-over: “If he does, it’s every man for himself.”
Helen: “Well, it wouldn’t be anything to squawk about.”
Helen’s voice-over: “Not much. If he walked in here and saw me like this, they’d have to put you under ether to extract his foot.”
It’s fantastic, fun writing, showcasing what was best about the Pre-Code era: the level playing field between male and female characters. Yes, often the era is known for its salacious stories, all the rule breaking, and women leads who are gold-diggers who sleep their way to the top of companies. But what is sometimes forgotten is that these actresses gave as much as they took, battling the men in words and deeds. They’re grand roles, that allowed audiences to see the best actresses show off their charm, wit, and delivery.
“Me and My Gal” is notable too for cinephiles that love to watch films that reveal archaic phrases from the era, or mannerisms that have since gone out of fashion. For example, Tracy and Bennett’s characters both refer to each other as “beezock(s)”, a word that seemed to be positive for a female and bad for a male. The plain definition of the word is that it was a type of underground slang for a woman, but suggests femininity in a man. There are also a number of uses of words any 1930s film fan would be more familiar with, such as “jake” (all good), and “fresh” (impertinent). The film also stands as a counter to what’s understood as Walsh’s more well-known works, such as the silent “The Thief of Bagdad” (1924), “What Price Glory?” (1926), the early John Wayne vehicle “The Big Trail” (1930), two James Cagney films, “The Roaring Twenties” (1939) and “The Strawberry Blonde” (1941), a few Humphrey Bogart pictures and Westerns starring Robert Mitchum and Joel McCrea.