Comeuppances inside a cannery make for thrilling melodrama in J. Walter Ruben's Riffraff (1936) a sort of Americanized version of Eugene O'Neill's Anna Christie with Jean Harlow cast as Hattie Tuttle - a hardnosed, tough talking broad who scrapes by on the meager salary she earns as a tuna fish gutter. Hattie lives with her sister Lil' Bunt (Una Merkel) and her two kids. But her heart belongs to roughhouse scrapper and tuna fisherman, Dutch Mueller (Spencer Tracy). Dutch is desperately trying to convince his coworkers not to strike against their employer, Nick Lewis (Joseph Calliea) since doing so will force Nick to call in scab labour at a fraction of their cost and thereby dissolve the contract that has secured their current wages. After some fast talking, and some even faster flying fists, Dutch convinces the employees to go back to work. Nick doesn't care much for Dutch. In fact, he's a thorn in Nick's side. But Nick's very sweet on Hattie whom he attempts to lure into his clutches with oily charm and a fur stole.
Dutch's relationship with Hattie runs hot and cold, leaving her feeling rather undervalued and ripe for Nick's advances. Pete (William Newell) is Dutch's best friend. But after a particularly rough break, Nick fires Dutch and refuses to take him back. Dutch's coworkers turn against him and he falls on hard times. To ease his pain, Hattie - who has begun to date Nick - asks him to loan her money to give to Dutch so that he can regain his self-respect. When Nick refuses Hattie takes the money anyway. But she is too late to give it too Dutch who has ridden the rails out of town.
Nick learns of Hattie's theft and has her sent to the prison work house. Unbeknownst to Dutch, Hattie is pregnant with his child. When Dutch comes to the prison to visit her, suggesting that she make a midnight break through an open sewer so that they can finally be together, Hattie is appalled. She admonishes Dutch, telling him that she was ever the fool to ever believe he would make an honest woman of her and, more importantly, something out of himself. Demoralized, Dutch goes to Pete and begs for a job. Pete finds him one guarding the oil boat on the docks. After Dutch thwarts an attempt made to blow up the craft with a homemade bomb he earns the respect of his coworkers and a second chance from Nick to have his old job back.
Regrettably, at just the moment when Dutch has learned to appreciate his newfound respectability as a prospect for winning Hattie back, she has turned to a life of crime by making a break from the prison through the sewer as Dutch suggested. Hold up inside Lil's cramped waterfront shanty, Hattie sends for Dutch who tells her he will go with her anywhere so long as they can be together. But Hattie, realizing that their future as a family depends on the decisions made right now, begs Dutch's forgiveness and vows to return to prison to serve out the rest of her sentence so that they can start their lives together anew.
Riffraff is fairly engaging entertainment. Spencer Tracy is in the 'mug' or 'galoot' phase of his MGM career - a mantel he inherited from Wallace Beery. As such, Tracy was often cast as no accounts who eventually see the light and come to the side of virtue through their interactions with good women. Harlow's on screen appeal is in transition with this film. Her harsh 'gun mall' looks have been softened and her brassy veneer greatly tempered to reveal a tender and misunderstood virginal quality lurking just beneath her defensive facade.
Harlow and Tracy are indelible stars, the kind we don't see the likes of in our current cinema firmament. They have their own presence on screen working apart, but are united in Riffraff to produce an entirely new persona for each through their on screen chemistry. She gives Tracy respectability. He makes Harlow genuine with a real woman's heart. A very young Mickey Rooney is in this one too, happily so as Jimmie Thurger, an impressionable kid who worships Dutch as a god. In the final analysis, Riffraff is good solid entertainment. It coddles and wallops its audience with melodrama and comedy - as propriety demands.
Warner's Archive MOD DVD is adequate, though not exceptional. The gray scale is nicely balanced. But the image has a curious instability (most likely due to damaged sprocket holes). It wobbles continuously throughout this presentation - a distraction most noticeable in long and medium shots. Age related artifacts are everywhere and occasionally add another layer of distraction to the mix. But contrast levels seem bang on and the image is relatively crisp with fine detail evident in background information. The audio is mono with noticeable, though hardly distracting hiss and pop. The only extra is a theatrical trailer.
FILM RATING (out of 5 - 5 being the best)