Saturday, December 31, 2011

PERSONAL PROPERTY (MGM 1937) Warner Archive Collection

A sparkling romantic comedy based on H.M. Harwood's play The Man In Possession, W.S. Van Dyke's Personal Property (1937) shimmers with a playful zest. MGM, the purveyors of such glossy/frothy entertainments during Hollywood's golden age, are working with stellar material here, and an impeccable cast too. The film stars the studio's resident bombshell Jean Harlow in her second to last feature, opposite the undeniably handsome heartthrob Robert Taylor.
On this occasion both give peerless performances. Harlow is Mrs. Crystal Wetherby - a gold digger whose late husband left her with a fashionable home in London and his good name, but precious little else. Starved for cash, Crystal has become engaged to stuffed shirt, Claude Dabney (Reginald Owen); heir to a ladies undergarment factory. Claude's brother, Raymond (Robert Taylor) has just been paroled from a six month prison sentence for illegally selling automobiles. Although Mrs. Dabney (Henrietta Crosman) dotes on her prodigal, Raymond's father, Cosgrove (E.E. Clive) has taken Claude's side in the matter. Raymond will have to leave the family estate and seek his livelihood elsewhere.
Raymond accidentally bumps into Crystal inside the lobby of his favorite hotel. Not knowing that she is his brother's fiancée, he doggedly pursues her with flirtatious aplomb, then tails her to the opera and later, her home in an attempt to get to know her better. Crystal rebukes Raymond at every turn. But a saving grace arrives in bailiff Herbert Jenkins (Forrester Harvey) who has come to collect on some outstanding debts. Because Herbert's wife is about to have a baby, he appoints Raymond as his sheriff's deputy and assigns him the task of living on the Wetherby estate until such time as the debt can be paid in full or his men arrive to confiscate the contents of the home.
At first this arrangement does not sit well with Crystal. In fact, she's about to have a lavish dinner party in Raymond's presence. How embarrassing! Not to worry, though. Raymond has thought of everything. He decides to help Crystal along by playing the part of her butler for the evening. Only the rouse curdles when he discovers that Crystal is Claude's wife to be. The dinner party is most certainly the highlight of this Hugh Mills/Ernest Vajda screen adaptation - a potpourri of witty one liners haughtily dispatched with superb comedic timing by all concerned. At the party are Crystal's girlfriend with a roving eye, Catherine Burns (Marla Shelton), her mother, Mrs. Burns (Cora Witherspoon), stuffed shirt Lord Carstairs (Lionel Braham) and musician with marbles in his mouth, Arthur Trevelyan (Barrett Parker). All will play a farcical part in entertaining us with the obtuse stupidity of the evening as Raymond - rechristened Ferguson the butler - subliminally threatens to expose his true identity (and much to Claude's chagrin) to the rest of the unsuspecting gathering.
By night's end Crystal has decided for herself that she cannot marry Claude whom she finds even more boorish and ill tempered. But what to do? She's penniless and still unaware that she might find an escape from her debts by marrying his brother. Raymond decides to play a percentage. He cons Claude, telling him that he has decided to vacate Crystal's home for four hundred pounds. Instead, Raymond uses the money to buy up the Jenkins' debt, thereby making him the guarantor of Crystal's estate. She has become 'his' personal property!
Personal Property has wit, elegance, charm and genuine sparkle - all hallmarks of a classic 'classy' comedy. There is real chemistry between Harlow and Taylor, the kind no amount of good acting can forge. As a pair of lovable frauds they're both real charmers. But there's something more added to the mix - that intangible quality that authenticates their burgeoning on camera romance. Surrounded by a superior supporting cast, these Hollywood greats take charge and lead the audience into a sumptuous concoction of chic good taste and sardonic drollness. In the final analysis, Personal Property is a comedic gem through and through. They certainly don't make 'em like this anymore and more is the pity.
A pity too that Warner's MOD Archive release hasn't done a better job mastering the film for this release. The gray scale has held up remarkably well for a film over 70 years old. But age related artifacts (dirt, scratches, pocks and chips) are everywhere and, at times, distracting. Worse, there seems to be some rather obvious aliasing and edge enhancement applied to the transfer. When the image is solid (which is for a good portion of the film's run time) it's a middling mastering effort that we can tolerate though hardly accept. But when the shimmering of fine details kicks in it all but dismantles our appreciation for the movie. The audio is mono and adequately realized with minimal hiss and pop. Extras include a Lux Radio broadcast of a different play starring Taylor and Harlow, plus the film's original trailer. Highly recommended for content, not for transfer quality.
FILM RATING (out of 5 - 5 being the best)

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