It’s safe to say that most films that have tackled The Great Depression did so in a melancholy fashion; befitting the mood of the nation and “properly” dignifying the experiences of those who suffered through it, and even those who never lived to see the economy recover. It was, after all, the most devastating economic depression in the whole of the 20th century. Its effects were felt worldwide, with unemployment reaching astronomic heights and economies contracting seemingly beyond repair. The US alone saw unemployment skyrocket to 25%, which wasn’t even the worst recorded during the depression, and crop prices fall as much as 60%, and being as how this was the 30s, cash crops were a major sector of the US economy. This information, in its own way, finds itself weaved into the narrative of Hard to Handle, Mervyn LeRoy’s tragi-satire filmed during the height of the depression. During this period, LeRoy was being commissioned to churn out multiple films a year — as many as 20 from 1930-1933, and the attitude of the country had producers demanding real life drama; “ripped from the headlines.” This kept literary sourcing costs at a minimum and kept the money rolling in. But did the producers care that precisely this type of puppet-string-pulling was to be at the center of this far-ahead-of-its-time work?
Hard to Handle begins with a series of advertisements, dissolved into one another that quickly give way to a show of shoes on a rack that foreshadows the dance contest staged by Lefty Merrill and his partner for a $1,000 prize; a veritable fortune in 1930s America during the depression. Lefty is a fast-talking ad man constantly seeking his next fortune, always at the expense of the desperate and stupid, as he proudly deems them. But Lefty intends to be a man of his word in this instance since he’s tried rigging the dance contest to award the prize to his crush. The announcer chimes in sporadically to bring light to the humanity on display and explicate details of the crowd and the dancers to polish the image of the event. A widow is singled out, and she rises to happily receive applause from the crowd, then quickly sulks down in despair. This contest being one of endurance; the dance lasts well over 1,400 hours, cheered on by a full stadium of destitute citizens eager to see such an extraordinary amount of cash given to someone even if it wasn’t them. This collective turmoil is further reflected in the entire stadium chasing down Lefty for the winners’ sake after his partner takes off with the prize money and Lefty’s left trying to sell a delay to a poverty-stricken public, arguably the only instance in which his wit and charm don’t work to some extent. “I’ll put a gold spoon in your kisser,” he recites like so many slogans designed to sell an invisible product — in this case, trust.
His crush and her mother are as desperate as anyone for security in an uncertain America. The mother’s favor shifts as easily as the winds to any lead that promises wealth for her and her daughter regardless of her daughter’s interests. In her bitterness, further exacerbated by the money her and her daughter didn’t win, she promises to take advantage of anyone for the sake of her own well-being, falling right in line with how she perceives California as full of corruption. Through his attempts to secure his, his crush’s and mother’s futures, he breezes through various opportunities to exploit the public out of their hard-earned money. After the dance contest fails, he sets up a treasure hunt on the pier with signs proclaiming there to be no depression during this hunt as there’s $50,000 hidden for any and all to find. It’s split in numerous packages, so the majority will be satisfied. Unbeknownst to them, Lefty’s new partner only hid two $5 bills to keep heat off of him and took it out of Lefty’s commission. This contrived microcosm of the American dream of wealth for all was as prescient and relevant then as it is now, and it speaks to a greater cynicism burning beneath Robert Lord and Wilson Mizner’s clever screenplay.
Each new scheme is a paring down of broader societal concerns, topical at the time. Referring to the plummeting crop prices, Lefty gets caught up with yet another crooked business man selling grapefruit, a fruit they’ve been dumping in the river for lack of sales. Lefty’s marketing schemes involve the exploitation of women as sexual objects for commercial appeal, and he’s not above using his crush as a means to an end in that matter. He says her curves will get them both rich, and she replies that she hopes they can withstand it. After re-branding a facial cream that won’t rub in to become transparent as a fat burner, he does the same with the now defunct sale of grapefruit after seeing the man who’d previously cheated him in the dance contest in jail, 50 lbs slimmer having eaten just grapefruit for some time. This, in a strange way, is a vaguely uplifting occurrence as it makes rich so many farmers who now have raised their prices and can’t even meet the overwhelming demand. If this and the cream scheme speak to our consistent through-line of superficial vanity, even through that most defeating of circumstances, it’s not absent in Lefty, who uses the little money he has initially to make sure his suit looks nice and clean, which will undoubtedly benefit his ability to sell snake oil to a trusting public. Lefty’s brain is always seeking get rich quick schemes and conjuring slogans and sales pitches, an all too common and disturbing product of economic desperation. His opportunism is mirrored in his crush’s mother, an unflattering comparison that Lefty deflates a bit by being so utterly charming and charismatic. Cagney is brilliant in the role; speaking quickly and contriving even quicker. Such a nuanced portrait of an economy and people in crisis, both financially and morally, is rare, and Hard to Handle is a real hidden treasure.
– Chris Clark