During the opening credits of Tay Garnett’s Her Man (1930), all of the cast and crew’s names are written in the sand. A wave washes over them, and the camera turns away, but later in the movie Frankie (the magnificent Helen Twelvetrees) writes a name in the sand, too and, having been trained to expect a wave, this gesture feels more ominous than romantic. The name, of course, is of the man Frankie has fallen in love with but while Her Man takes its inspiration from the murder ballad, “Frankie and Johnny,” it’s Dan (Phillips Holmes), not Johnnie (Ricardo Cortez), who Frankie loves.
Anytime a romance involves someone having to “go straight” you can always expect complications, but the way Garnett creates this sense of doom without letting it spoil the moments Frankie and Dan do have is what makes this Pre-Code drama so dreamy. On the one hand, Dan and Frankie’s future never feels secure. He’s a sailor who’s supposed to go back to sea. She’s a con artist who tries to steal his money the first time they meet. Nothing about this relationship is built to last, yet as Her Man addresses with the character of Annie (Marjorie Rambeau), who’s been working at The Thalia a lot longer than Frankie, ignorance can be bliss. There’s no way getting Frankie away from The Thalia is going to be easy. Johnnie, alone, is an obstacle they won’t be able to miss, yet Frankie and Dan’s naivete serves them well. It gives them the will to try.
Her Man’s story is familiar yet there isn’t a moment in this movie that’s wasted. Take all of the times characters are shown walking down the street that leads to The Thalia, Johnnie’s bar. Every one of those walks is different and tells you something about how the character is feeling in that scene, whether it’s Annie pushing people around, even though it’s technically not crowded enough to warrant physical contact, or Frankie’s saunter when she’s walks out of The Thalia with Johnnie. Garnett’s power is repetition, and he employs it like a knife.
It’s telling that the film begins with Annie, not Frankie, as she’s denied entry to America. For one thing, it sets up the hell of a time Frankie is going to have trying to leave Havana. It also raises the question of who this film is about. While Frankie is the obvious protagonist, the film doesn’t treat her that way and goes off with other characters all the time. Sometimes this leads to too much time spent with the comic relief (played by Harry Sweet and James Gleason), but it also means the film gets to be an ensemble piece, with Twelvetrees at its center.
Instead of playing Frankie as someone who’s been hardened by her experiences, Twelvetrees’ Frankie is more of a stunted child, who learns from observing. She’s never had a chance to grow up and the scenes where she mimics other peoples’ gestures are heartbreaking for what they say about how small her world has been. With Dan, though, Frankie is seen – literally, with Garnett setting Dan up as a voyeur – and has a chance of starting over.
With a script that saves viewers a lot of aggravation by not drawing out misunderstandings, Her Man airs May 9th on TCM.
For another film that keeps you on your toes about who the main characters are, Irving Pichel’s They Won’t Believe Me (1947) airs May 8th on TCM and stars Robert Young and Susan Hayward. Not only has the film been restored but it’s the original cut (a shorter version was re-released in 1957). In it Larry (Young) is on trial for murder and the film begins right as he’s about to testify – a testimony that lasts the entire movie.
What stands out about this noir is how much Larry is allowed to control the conversion. His lawyer talks in the beginning and the witnesses who spoke out against him are shown, if not named (which makes it harder to pick them out in context), but that’s it. Larry’s voiceover gets the final say, creating the impression that he’s telling the truth when he might not be.
The other highlight of this movie is its female cast, who get more scenes in the restored version but lose some of their unflappability. Going by the cover for Warner Archive’s upcoming Blu-Ray release you would think Hayward’s Verna was Larry’s only love interest, but he has three – Verna, his wife, Greta (Rita Johnson) and another girlfriend, Janice (Janet Greer). None of these women are easily bamboozled but, again, you’re always seeing them from Larry’s perspective, so is he a reliable narrator?
Visually, They Won’t Believe Me looks great but while the extra scenes are significant, they’re not always an improvement, adding to the melodrama instead of keeping to the leanness of the re-release.
TCMFF runs from May 6th to May 9th. Besides TCM, there’s also going to be a module on HBO Max that includes different titles from the ones airing on TV.
They Won’t Believe Me premieres May 8th at 8 PM EST on TCM.Her Man makes its TV premiere on May 9th at 8:45 AM EST on TCM.