[Originally published on Straight Shooting at Queen Anne News, September 30, 2012]
Ed. note: republished to mark its availability streaming on Criterion Channel this month.
Just a quick recommend, before it’s too late. One of my very favorite movies is making a rare TV appearance Monday, Oct. 1, at 5 p.m. West Coast time on Turner Classic Movies. To “very favorite” let me add an endorsement from an erstwhile colleague and friend, the late Donald Lyons. When, in the early 1990s, a New York City–area PBS station was about to show Me and My Gal as part of a package of rare Fox Films productions from the 1930s, I urged Donald to catch it. A few minutes after the telecast ended, he phoned to say, “You told me to be sure and watch Me and My Gal. You didn’t tell me it was one of the best movies ever made.”
Now, that’s a heady trip to lay on a little 1932 comedy–love story cum gangster picture elements. It hadn’t occurred to me to make such a claim. I’d loved the movie ever since discovering it in a Fox series that played the Edgemont Theatre in Edmonds in autumn 1970. And when, a few months afterward, my friend Peter Hogue and I were hailing the top film experiences of 1970 on KRAB-FM, I included Me and My Gal among them. In particular, I saluted it as a French New Wave movie that had somehow got made in Hollywood three decades before the New Wave rolled.
Here was this breezy jeu d’esprit about a sassy waterfront cop (the young and feisty Spencer Tracy) courting a perhaps-even-sassier waitress in a diner (Joan Bennett, blond, snapping wisecracks and gum) whose dreary sister (Marion Burns) is about to marry a seaman with teeth like a horse (George Chandler) but is still in thrall of neighborhood bad boy Duke Castenega (George Walsh). Complications comedic and melodramatic ensue, with additional spice from Bennett’s boisterously Oirish pop (J. Farrell MacDonald), an epically sozzled, near-ubiquitous drunk (Will Stanton), and the haunted presence of a paralyzed Great War veteran named Sarge (Birth of a Nation star Henry B. Walthall, continuing silent for the occasion). All fairly standard movie stuff, efficiently if somewhat absentmindedly satisfying a mix of generic requirements … but often from unexpected angles, visually and temperamentally, while also finding time to introduce us to an entire Lower East Side community and its lifestyle, talk trash about the current political and economic climate, tell jokes straight to the camera, and make outrageous fun of a certain pretentious movie of the day that otherwise has nothing whatsoever to do with what’s going on in Me and My Gal. As I said on that KRAB broadcast: “Jean-Luc Godard, hang up your hat!”
The Godard precursor was Raoul Walsh—who also had been in The Birth of a Nation, come to think (John Wilkes Booth), and whose stellar directorial career had taken a hit with the box-office failure of his 1930 widescreen epic The Big Trail (also a damn good movie, as we discovered six decades later). Me and My Gal was typical of the sort of no-big-deal assignments he was fulfilling for Fox in those days … except that it is so vibrant and funny and inventive that it’s a marvel. I read somewhere that Spencer Tracy deplored the movie (in which he is absolutely wonderful) and took it as cue to head back to Broadway. Joan Bennett recalled it fondly for a Fox retrospective show on TV in the Seventies and praised director Walsh as having “a marvelous sense of humor.” The Internet Movie Database records that in addition to credited “story” writers Philip Klein and Barry Conners and screenwriter Arthur Kober (the onetime Mr. Lillian Hellman), the film boasted writerly input from Frank Dolan, Alfred A. Cohn, future Fox superstar screenwriter Philip Dunne (How Green Was My Valley), and Charles Vidor (director of Ladies in Retirement, Gilda, et al.). The movie is so gregarious, so open to scampering off in any number of directions almost simultaneously, it’s easy to believe that all those gentlemen may well have contributed something to it. Yet anyone who has seen a few Raoul Walsh pictures will be in no doubt who’s the auteur here. He’s slapping us on the back in every scene.
Please take this opportunity to see Me and My Gal. I can’t imagine anyone failing to have a grand time watching it. And don’t get hung up by that “one of the best movies ever made” stuff. Even if, as I have long since realized and gratefully accepted, it’s true.
Copyright © 2012 by Richard T. Jameson