“My word, I thought, a ten- or eleven-year-old having that bright red polish put on, and suddenly the hood of the dryer went back and the child stood up and it was Jean. She was probably twenty-three at the time, but without any makeup and no eyebrows, she looked exactly like a little kid,” Rosalind Russell wrote of her Reckless co-star, Jean Harlow. Russell and Harlow became friends in the short time they knew each other, but Rosalind was often called upon to get Jean out of jams, such as dragging her out of bars before she got herself into real trouble. Rosalind described Jean as a very sad girl, and it was certainly devastating to all when her life was suddenly taken from her at the tender age of 26.
When Roz made Reckless with Jean Harlow, it was the year 1935 and she was still stuck in rather limited supporting roles. However, she got to work with two great stars in this one—Jean Harlow and William Powell. These two were in love with each other at the time and Jean was very excited to finally make a film with her beloved. Unfortunately, this film is a bit of a clunker and wasn’t the success they wanted it to be. Also along for the ride is Franchot Tone, who, unlike his usual characters, is a boozing jerk in this one. The actor was not very charismatic, but he got the job done.
The true star of Reckless is clearly Jean Harlow. She plays Mona, a singer and dancer who was a thorough professional, but sometimes got herself into trouble. Ned, played by William Powell, is an old friend of the family’s and is often called upon to help Mona out.
He is a sports promoter and as Mona’s grandmother (May Robson) says, Ned is “like a great big brother to Mona.” After Mona is jailed for reckless (just like the title) driving, he gets her out in time for a benefit performance, but he fixes it so she has to return to jail after she is done. The benefit is for a faux group called SAML (Society for the Admiration of Mona Leslie). Bob Harrison (Franchot Tone), drunk as all get out, has rented the entire theater just so Mona can perform for him. This movie gets its name from the song sung by Mona called “Reckless,” which is the first song she sings, and then reprises in the final scene. Jean Harlow’s singing is dubbed and she clearly does not do her own dancing, either. This is apparent because when Jean dances, you can only see the top half of her body, and then when the dancing legs are shown, it is filmed from such a distance, it could be anyone’s uncle in a platinum blonde wig.
Next we get to the story of how Ned has been in love with Mona for a while, but she never takes him seriously as anyone but a “great big brother,” so he does not know how to tell her.
At one point, he gets up the nerve to finally tell her that he loves her and wants to marry her, but feels foolish when he sees that Mona has fallen asleep during his heartfelt speech. He decides to forget the whole thing, thinking he dodged a bullet. However, even with this in mind, he buys a ring for Mona and plans to give it to her, but changes his mind when he realizes Mona has fallen in love with Bob. Soon after this, Mona and Bob suddenly elope while quite tipsy. Ned becomes so distraught by the news that he goes into a downward drunken spiral that night. Even Bob, who was there at the wedding, does not seem to realize what he has done and seems to regret it immediately. Mona has no regrets because she loves Bob very much. They are overwhelmed with telegrams that morning, two of them standing out. One is from Jo Mercer, his former fiancée, who says it’s all right with her. The other is a very disapproving one from his father who wants to talk to him right away. And so they go to Harrison, the town named after Bob’s father and where he grew up. His father, played by Henry Stephenson, is very ashamed of his son for marrying a “showgirl” when he has the family name and reputation to think of. Meanwhile, Mona ends up by a river and meets a girl who is fishing there. The girl teaches her how to cast, but Mona laments that she is better at “fishing for jobs.”
The girl says her name is Jo Mercer (Rosalind Russell) and Mona immediately realizes who she is. Jo does not seem to blame Mona at all for breaking her engagement, but Bob instead. After all, Mona didn’t know Jo existed before they got married. Soon after, everyone (Ned, Mona, Bob, Jo, and some other friends) are at the horse races and Jo announces that she is getting married. She also makes sure to glance over at Bob to gauge his reaction. Naturally, he looks rather upset. At Jo’s wedding, Bob proceeds to get smashing drunk and Jo confronts him about his behavior. At first, she jokes about how she felt she was “getting on in years” and decided to marry the first man who came along. This joking manner quickly turns to anger when she feels he is insulting his wife, Mona. Mona happens to be walking by when he tells Jo that Mona “trapped” him into marriage, keeping him away from the girl he really loves (Jo).
This is heartbreaking for Mona and although she is coerced into putting on a show for everyone, she has tears in her eyes as she sings and dances.
What happens next is tragic. Bob doesn’t feel he can live with himself any longer and shoots himself in his bedroom. This opens up a horrific scandal for Mona, as she is pregnant and subsequently gives birth to an adorable baby boy. Mr. Harrison, Bob’s father, tries to gain custody of the child by alleging that it is Mona’s fault that his son is dead and that Mona is an unfit mother, being a “show person.” He does not get her child, but in the end, she gives a performance to revive her sagging career caused by the bad publicity. Although Jo is there fully supporting her like a friend would do, once Mona starts singing, people in the audience start hissing, booing, and trying to disrupt her performance.
No longer able to stand it, Mona shouts at them, “How dare you! How do you dare?” In a moving speech, she tells them that what happened is no more her fault than anyone else’s, that Bob was a sad man always drowning himself in sorrow, and that the audience should not be rude and interrupt her performance. As she sings her signature song, Ned proposes to her again. As everyone applauds, she takes his hand, signifying “yes” to him.
Rosalind does not even appear in the film until almost 50 minutes after it starts. And since the movie is a bit bland, it is a long wait for any Roz fan. I try to console myself with the fact that I am watching two great stars in their prime—Jean Harlow and William Powell—but the movie falls flat. However, there is something that makes Roz stand out in this film, and that is her costumes, particularly her wedding dress.
It is a beautiful creation by Adrian and it flows gorgeously behind her as she walks down the aisle. It is nice to see a real life couple in a movie in which they end up together, but it is a shame that it wasn’t very well executed and has a mediocre script. I give the film 3 stars out of 5.
Here is the trailer for Reckless for your viewing pleasure…