Manpower (1941) is quirky; at times a evoking the iconic working man of the WPA art images, but somehow never glorifying it. It is a hard-bitten tale of the unlucky and the foolish, and yet manages to be unexpectedly humorous in spots. It’s not so much the movie doesn’t know what it is: it most certainly does, but it proudly and defiantly defies to be locked into any genre. Its stars George Raft, Edward G. Robinson, and Marlene Dietrich don’t care if we take them or leave them. Director Raoul Walsh seems to have the same chip on his shoulder.
Images of great generators and turbines, of high tension wires and metal towers could provide a visual tribute to the great infrastructure projects of the 1930s when so much of America was finally electrified, but most of this background is used as a setting to reflect the esprit de corps of the cast of daring linemen. They are not technicians as much as they are roustabouts, and they climb to the heavens with little to protect them from lightning or keep them from falling, but they are fatalistic, and bolstered with ego.
The crew is packed with our old friends: Frank McHugh and Alan Hale as a couple of comic stumblebums; Ward Bond as a wiseacre; Eve Arden, too-little used in her role as a ten-cents-a-dance girl. The linemen-roustabouts go to work at night in thunderstorms, and during their “high wire act” they talk about the dames.
The wind, the lightning, the torrential rains, the sizzling live wires broken and flapping around them make for treacherous work. One older fellow, of course called “Pop,” played by Egon Brecher, warns of death by live wires. He is not a climber; he works on the ground. The most sensible guy is George Raft. His best buddy is Edward G Robinson, in a role markedly different from his sinister sneering gangsters and his shrewd detectives: he plays a happy-go-lucky, and hapless lineman desperate for a date, too awkward and bumbling to be attractive to the world-weary dance hall girls. He is exuberant, quick-tempered, but joyfully oblivious to the dangers around him. That includes the dangers from women as well as high wires. The when Raft gets into trouble upon the tower, Robinson comes to his aid and gets electrocuted. Ward Bond does a curious form of CPR by pressing on his back and brings him back to life, but Robinson’s leg is broken, so Edward G goes off to the hospital. His injury is such that he will not be fit for climbing towers anymore, but his heroism merits a promotion to foreman. This happy hooligan will stay on the ground from now on and direct the action.
Pop has a grim chore of his own. He is going to meet his daughter who has just been paroled from prison. He feels guilty about meeting her, because he abandoned her and her mother when she was a child and he feels responsible for her wayward course in life. He asks Raft, because he is the most sensible and unflappable guy around, to go with him to meet her. The daughter is played by Marlene Dietrich. Her black beret tells us she is sophisticated and tough (recall our post on the black beret in movies here). And glamorous, despite being a person.
There is an interesting scene where they stop to go to a drugstore so Marlene can pick up some cosmetics. George Raft was sometimes considered a kind of Humphrey Bogart 1.0 because his fame came along earlier than Bogart’s and he got a lot of the tough guy roles (and turned down a few that made Bogart famous). Raft was not the actor that Bogart was; he did not have his range, and yet there is something so wonderfully cool about Raft in this movie that I’m not sure Bogart could achieve. Raft is unruffled, even apathetic about Marlene’s needing to buy lipstick and powder, even steps in to help her shop, though he is somewhat disgusted by Marlene’s cold reception of her father. He does not know yet that she has had a hard life because her father abandoned her in childhood. Raft sits at the soda counter in a drugstore and orders a soda, with a straw. It is such a tough guy cool thing to do with a completely unconcerned attitude as he if just belted down a Scotch. He is one tough guy, and despite spending so much time up in the high wires, he is grounded.
All the happy hooligans appear to live together in a boarding house. They kid Edward G Robinson about his girl troubles. When Pop is killed on the job, Edward G., as foreman, has the miserable task of having to tell his next of kin – Marlene Dietrich. As usual George Raft gets drafted to go along with them because Raft is the sensible one, and just his coolness steadies the nerves of others. They break the news and Raft is disgusted by Marlene’s lack of grief. She actually hardly knew her father. But Edward G. warms up to her in a curiously courtly way. He does not chase her or push himself upon her the way he does the dance hall girls, but he is very gentle and feel sorry for her.
She gets a job at pretty much the only place she’s qualified to work: the dance hall, where we meet the other world-weary ladies including Eve Arden. Miss Eve refers to one of their clients as “laughing boy,” shades of her line in Mildred Pierce (1945). She is hard-bitten and wisecracking, but unfortunately, she doesn’t get quite the screen time as she did in other films, so it is a promise unfulfilled.
Edward G. pursues Marlene with naïve gallantry. He wants to buy her a present, so he takes Alan Hale and George Raft to go to a department store to buy her a négligée. Alan Hale has the funny lines about watching the live manikins model the clothing. He remarks, “How about some underwear? Can we see some models?” The movie is filled with sudden and surprising flicks of risqué dialogue and topical references that keeps the whole story off kilter and rides a fine line between a sophisticated farce and something utterly daffy. At times we don’t know if we’re dealing with Oscar Wilde or the Marx Brothers.
At one point Marlene sings in her own inimitable, and rather indescribable, fashion. George Raft has come to see her to warn her to stay away from his buddy. The owner of the joint, seeing George’s interest in Marlene says, “She’s got a great voice, huh?”
To which George responds, “Why don’t you get your ears tuned.” In one moment Marlene has been presented as a glamorous and exotic talent and in the very next moment she is insulted.
However, Edward G. proposes, Marlene excepts, not because she loves him – she tells him frankly that she does not – but with the attitude that this might be a new turn in her life for the better. After a raucous wedding reception in a Chinese restaurant with all the gang, the movie shifts interestingly to Marlene’s domestic abilities, which are considerable. Instead of showing her as the ex-con no-goodnik who hasn’t the slightest idea how to live like a decent person, we see she is remarkably domestic. She is an excellent cook. She keeps their house immaculate. She spoils Edward G. with appetizing treats and tries to be a good wife to him. Eventually it comes out bit by bit that, because her father left her mother, Marlene learned from a very young age how to keep the home fires burning. She had to take charge to cook, to care for her mother, to manage the household. When she turned to dance halls and crime it was not because of the love of the lurid excitement; indeed, that sort of life bores her silly. It was because she had no other skills and was too honest to market herself as a wife to the first man who came along.
Deciding on a change of course, she decides to take this second man who came along.
In another plot twist, Raft is injured at work – the setting is Southern California but evidently they have a whole lot of thunderstorms. Raft recovers in the hospital and when he is discharged, Edward G. insists on taking them home so that Marlene can nurse him. Raft warms up to her, sees that she is a nice person and a good wife and he feels comfortable and part of the family. We see, though he does not, that Marlene is falling in love with him. Eventually, she sees no hope in the situation but to be honest. She plans to leave Edward G. and go to Chicago and resume the life of a dance hall girl. Raft, upset that she would abandon his buddy demands an answer, and keeping with the honest course, tells him she’s in love with him.
In a final climactic scene, and yet another storm, there is a showdown in this tragic love triangle and, of course, in true movie fashion one of them has to go. I’ll give you a break this once and not give you a spoiler.
Manpower a good movie to consider for Labor Day in the sense that like so many movies of the 1930s and 1940s, much of the story involves working men in the setting of their jobs. (And reminds one of Slim-1937- which we covered here.) Sometimes the job is a theme of the movie, sometimes it is almost like another character in the movie, but if filmed today, the job would be relegated to only the setting of the story and not necessarily the meat of the story. In one sense, the common working man was given greater attention in movies back in Hollywood’s heyday, but in another sense, it is simply that the minutiae of everyday life was given greater attention back then. That is what makes films of that period so fascinating. They are like scrapbooks we can open and take our time and examine all the little things in the pictures, and have questions about and imagine all kinds of stories that are sidebars to the main story, but are just as interesting. One story inevitably leads to another.