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Riffraff (1936): A Capsule Review

Riffraff is the kind of movie Hollywood forgot to make sometime during WWII; lightning-paced, fast-talking, plot-driven with only the scantest regard to any meaningful characterisation, it's the kind of 30s staple that promised – and delivered – nothing other than pure entertainment for the masses.

The unusual setting of the Californian tuna fishing industry is the backdrop for this bittersweet depression-era comedy that pitches Spencer Tracy and Jean Harlow together as a bickering couple who end up on the wrong side of the law, largely due to the pride and pig-headedness of Tracy's character, Dutch Muller. The pair spend a large amount of time yelling insults at each other (Tracy gets so bug-eyed at times he looks as though he’s about to explode), which makes it difficult for them to generate any real rapport until the latter stages of the film when, ironically, they share much less screen time. In fact, the film calms down considerably in the second half when proud Dutch Muller inevitably undergoes a fall and learns a little humility.

The supporting cast are terrific, with special mention going to Joseph Calleia as Nick Lewis, the Italian owner of the tuna canning factory, who mangles the English language with effortless skill (`What is past is gone out and over done with,' he proclaims, about his failed romance with Harlow's character). The script is sprinkled with pithy one-liners (`To think, my grandchild being born in a jail. And such a crummy jail!') to complement the cracking pace, and demonstrates how even a movie steeped in the depression-era could be escapist fare in the hands of experts.

(Reviewed 9th May 2002)

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