Jean Harlow's career undeniably crests into the 'sheer magnificence' category of movie acting with Victor Fleming's Reckless (1935); a glowing example of the studio bound melodrama that unexpectedly wallops its audience with genuine heart and soul. The film is loosely based on a 1931 scandal involving torch singer Libby Holman's marriage to tobacco heir Zachary Smith Reynolds and was first proposed as a project for Joan Crawford by writer/producer David O. Selznick. A bit of well-timed verisimilitude extended beyond the project's history. Jean Harlow replaced Crawford after Selznick felt that Harlow's real life romance with William Powell (her co-star) would deliver added cache at the box office. But Harlow was initially reluctant to accept the role. Her own husband, MGM producer Paul Bern had committed suicide the same as Zachary Smith did and her on screen husband, played by Franchot Tone, would have to.
The screenplay by Selznick and P.J. Wolfson changed the names 'to protect the innocent' but kept pretty much everything else in this high octane tear jerker. Harlow stars as Broadway chanteuse, Mona Leslie. We first meet Mona in jail for reckless driving. She is salvaged from the tank by sports promoter Ned Riley (William Powell) who has come to Mona's aid at the behest of her concerned Granny (loveably cantankerous May Robson). Granny knows that Ned carries a torch for Mona. However, at present that flame has been transferred from Mona to wealthy playboy Bob Harrison Jr. (Franchot Tone). Certain that his affections will not be reciprocated, Ned is reluctant to confess his true feelings to Mona. The one time he musters the courage to propose he finds that Mona has slipped off to sleep before he can find the words.
Bob is the rather devil-may-care sort. Although engaged to socialite Josephine Jo' Mercer (Rosalind Russell) he enjoys slumming with Mona. She, in turn, has mistaken his affections for genuine love. Out on a drunken bender, Bob decides to marry Mona, then quickly comes to regret his haste. Although Jo accepts their marriage and Mona without any sort of personal resentment, Bob's father, Colonel Harrison (Henry Stephenson) is unable to bring himself to be anything less than utterly condescending towards Mona.
Mona tolerates his paternal abuse, all the while hoping that he will someday warm up to her genuine kindness. Jo's brother Paul (Robert Light) is equally unwilling to let bygones be bygones. He deliberately excludes Bob from the country club fox hunt. This snub leads to the first of many scenes as Bob quickly realizes he is no longer welcome amongst the people he once regarded as his family and friends. Their alienation leads to his declining self-respect and his frequent turning to the bottle for solace. Mona does all that she can to win her husband back but it's no use. As Bob grows more sullen he begins to suspect that Ned is getting designs on his wife.
After making a public spectacle out of Jo's wedding to blueblood, Ralph Watson (Leon Ames), a severely drunken Bob confronts Mona and Ned in his hotel suite before taking his own life. The tabloids brand Bob's suicide a murder and suggest that Ned and Mona were in cahoots to finish him off for a million dollar settlement. Although a coroner's inquest eventually exonerates Ned and Mona of any such crime, the court of popular opinion refuses to surrender the rumors surrounding Bob's death. Ned and Mona are branded social pariahs and ostracized from all 'good' society.
Mona quickly discovers that no Broadway producer will take a chance on restarting her stage career. At the same time Mona learns she is pregnant with Bob's baby. The Colonel attempts to gain custody of the child but surrenders all claims when Mona agrees to forgo the million dollar insurance payout that is rightfully hers. Ned comes to Mona's aid by secretly raising funds to produce her comeback Broadway revue. But the mood at the premiere turns ugly when the Colonel stacks the audience with his own friends who hiss and boo Mona during her debut song. In her own defense, Mona confronts the audience. She tells them once and for all that she had nothing to do with Bob's death and further admonishes them for their arrogance and ignorance in preventing her to go on. Her sheer defiance softens their hearts and Mona concludes her song to resounding applause and a proposal of marriage from Ned backstage that she gratefully accepts.
Reckless is a masterpiece on many levels, only slightly marred by the obtuse interjection of a severely botched musical number near the beginning of the film. Bob has bought out the house for a command performance. Harlow lip syncs the title track 'Reckless', then has her dancing done by an obvious double for most of the routine that follows. Musical comedy was never Harlow's strong suit.
Why anyone at MGM would have force fed her into this claptrap production number (that migrates its action from an absurdly over produced art deco nightclub backdrop that inexplicably transitions into a southwestern mariachi routine topped off by Mona's onstage murder) is beyond me. Only the inconsequentially painful ending of Dancing Lady (1933), set to Rhythm of the Day narrowly tips the scale of bad taste exercised in this sequence. But even that had Nelson Eddy do his own singing and Joan Crawford schlep her own feet to the beat. Otherwise, what we have with Reckless is a lavishly produced melodrama with decorous accoutrements and top notch performances. Everyone is giving it their all and it shows in spades. George Folsey's elegant cinematography and Cedric Gibbons' superb art direction deliver a glamorous showcase that is eye-popping. Reckless is high art with high quality written all over it. It deserves better than what it's been given on DVD.
And on that note, here are a few words about the transfer. Warner's MOD Archive release is good but not great. The gray scale is fairly accurately represented. But age related artifacts are prevalent throughout and at times quite distracting. Advertised as 'remastered' the image is only a tad sharper and more refined than that offered on other titles featured in the Harlow 100th Anniversary Collection that do not advertise as much. At times contrast levels seem just a tad weaker than expected. Thankfully, we have all been spared the obnoxious inclusion of edge enhancement on this outing. But film grain occasionally looks more gritty than grainy. Overall, the transfer will not disappoint, but it's hardly worthy of a film as good as Reckless. The audio is mono but adequate with minimal hiss and pop. Extras include an audio vault of outtakes and radio promos plus the film's theatrical trailer. Highly recommended for content. Moderately recommended for transfer quality.
FILM RATING (out of 5 - 5 being the best)