Today’s film almost feels like a sequel to yesterday’s film Bombshell, and by that I mean it has a very similar cast and story. Both films star Harlow, Lionel Barrymore, and Franchot Tone while detailing the life of a girl trying to escape a shattered past and be accepted by a lover. The plot of The Girl From Missouri didn’t irk me nearly as much as Bombshell, but with a script from Anita Loos and directed by Libeled Lady director Jack Conway…I have to say I expected a little more.
Eadie Chapman (Harlow) plans to marry a rich man and make something of herself. With her man-hungry best friend Kitty (Patsy Kelly) in tow, Eadie gets a job as an entertainer at a party for Frank Cousins (Lewis Stone). Thinking she’s hit the jackpot things take a turn when Cousins kills himself and Eadie is indebted to millionaire T.R. Paige (Lionel Barrymore). When Eadie meets Paige’s son, T.R. Paige, Jr. (Franchot Tone), the Senior Paige will do whatever he has to in order to prevent the marriage.
The Girl From Missouri is this retrospective’s first Harlow film post-Hays Code. The film opens touting its seal of approval, with 1934 being the first year the Code was enforced, and it’s a sharp step down in terms of the content that’s shown. Sure there’s a vague reference to someone “sniffing white powder” and we see Cousins hand falling with a gun in it, but that’s it for racy material. With a script written from the acclaimed Anita Loos, The Girl from Missouri could have played like Baby Face, with a character merely scheming and sleeping her way to the top. Instead you like Eadie because she wants to marry a wealthy man to make something of herself, give her future children financial security, and prove she’s not a floozy.
I think that’s what I ultimately find so refreshing about Harlow and her films. As much as I adore Marilyn Monroe, her characters were never strong-willed. Sure Monroe had a few role where she acknowledged her ditziness, but she never transcended it. Or if she did play a strong character there were male troubles that dominated the story more. Here, Harlow isn’t an idiot. Eadie gives a big speech to Paige, Jr. after he tries to seduce her by locking her in a room with him (someone call up Benson and Stabler) that she knows what people think about her, that she’s a floozy, but does that means she’s not entitled to respect? Her character understands that how she dresses and looks makes people judge her, but why does that mean they have to treat her like a piece of meat? That’s where I think Harlow becomes a stronger and more enduring star than Monroe (although most people forget that Monroe herself is an off-shoot of Harlow and Mae West).
Throughout the film men try to make Eadie sleep with them by giving her gifts. No, seriously, the movie is only an hour and eleven minutes and pretty much revolves around Eadie not trying to sleep with men. I have to believe with the short runtime and risqué premise that this movie had some cuts during the script phase (especially coming out the year the Hays Code was actually enforced doesn’t hurt my theory). Eadie sticks to her guns and refuses to compromise her morals. Not only because she wants that respect, dammit, but also because the Hays Code would have dictated that our heroine remained pure despite her mysterious and unspoken “past” in Missouri.
Harlow is great and plays a far stronger character than Bombshell. Her acting and character is on par with her work in Red Dust although I haven’t topped that movie yet. Franchot Tone continues to be a blank slate to me. I was shocked he wasn’t playing a Brit in this movie (and Tone wasn’t actually British himself), but he plays a daddy’s boy and kind of a pushover. He tries to seduce Harlow but I never felt any sexual vibes coming off him. I didn’t expect a Marlon Brando-esque or even a Clark Gable but for a playboy he was pretty weak.
The Girl From Missouri is cute and Harlow’s character is incredibly well-written and strong (it helps that Harlow was good friends with Anita Loos). The problem is the movie seems severely neutered by the Hays Code and isn’t as fun or entertaining as expected. It’s a weak sequel to Bombshell with a far better ending. Go watch director Conway’s far superior Libeled Lady (which will be on the blog in a few days!).
A freelance film critic whose work fuels the Rotten Tomatoes meter. I've been published on The Hollywood Reporter, Remezcla, and The Daily Beast. I've been featured in the L.A. Times. I currently run two podcasts, Citizen Dame and Ticklish Business.