Saturday, July 30, 2011

Joyce in Manpower (1941)

The Edward G. Robinson actioner Manpower has a strangely magnetic pull on me; I first saw it in the early ’90s on one of my local UHF outlets’ pre-TCM version of the “Late Late Show,” then jumped when the film finally became available on DVD via the Warner Archive. Part of its appeal it that, although it’s not an especially standout film in any particular area, it has a bit of something for everything mashed together in a way that somehow comes together beautifully. Robinson plays a power line worker who shares his dangerous vocation with a bunch of rowdy buddies which include Alan Hale, Frank McHugh (who does his signature nasal laugh a few times), Ward Bond, and best friend George Raft. Robinson is something of a big brother to the crew and takes it upon himself to aid the daughter of an elderly co-worker who dies in an accident. The daughter is an exotic beauty and ex-con played by Marlene Dietrich, whom the earnest Robinson falls for despite cynical pal Raft’s knowledge that she belongs in the sleazy clip joint where she sings and dances for tips. Seeing it for the fourth or so time, I can see that the ending is rather ludicrous, but otherwise it’s a pip that just oozes with 1940s verve. Part of that verve lies in the camaraderie that director Raoul Walsh sets up with Robinson and his onscreen buddies; all that onscreen clowning looks kind of obnoxious, but it’s also spontaneous and real (and strangely not common in studio-bound pictures from this era). Walsh also has a good eye for interesting setups and places, with scenes in a nightclub, hospital, dressing room, hash joint and even a department store ladies’ fashion section brimming with flavor. It’s a swell picture, all right!

Although Joyce Compton was slumming in bit parts around this period (her funny, brief scene in Ziegfeld Girl is a good example), with Manpower she has a great turn here as Scarlett, a bubbly nightclub hostess who shares a workplace with Dietrich's character. She and Eve Arden (as Dolly, another clip joint lady) are oddly cast as hotsy-totsy gals, but they both have a genial appeal as the supportive friends that Dietrich turns to for advice and comfort. For such a testosterone-heavy flick, the three women hold their own. They even get a rather subdued scene to themselves, a nice break from all that macho rowdiness.

As I mentioned above, Manpower made a belated home video debut with the Warner Archive made-to-order DVD edition in 2010. Buy at here.

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