Manpower (1941 USA 105 mins)

Source: BFI, London and Hollywood Classics Prod Co: Warner Bros. Prod: Mark Hellinger and Hal B. Wallis Dir: Raoul Walsh Scr: Richard MacAulay and Jerry Wald (others uncredited) Phot: Ernie Haller Ed: Ralph Dawson Art Dir: Max Parker Mus: Adolph Deutsch

Cast: Edward G. Robinson, George Raft, Marlene Dietrich, Egon Brecher, Alan Hale, Frank McHugh, Eve Arden, Joyce Compton, Barton MacLane, Ward Bond, Cliff Clark, Walter Catlett.

* * *

Manpower may seem a questionable choice for a Marlene Dietrich programme. It is one of the rowdiest, action-packed male-oriented movies to come out of Hollywood. In this strenuous celebration of male bonding, Dietrich, as the agent of heterosexual love, is the ghost at the party. With respect and affection for the hazardous brotherhoods created by Hawks and Ford, I consider Manpower pre-eminent in the ‘men at work’ genre – as distinct from the ‘rags to riches’ and ‘mission and achievement’ genres, where the working class are usually viewed with condescension. In this unlikely context Dietrich succeeds in a characterisation as self-possessed and strong as the roles she played for von Sternberg.

In order to keep the wheels of industry turning the Power and Light Company maintains a gang of trouble-shooters (and what a gang!) to repair power lines, on call at any time in the worst weather at the risk of their lives. What keeps them going is their vitality and group pride, continuously reinforced by banter and larrikinism. They can break other people’s rules but the only sin amongst themselves is to be “out of line”.

Hank (Robinson), a man of prodigious energy and appetites, becomes their foreman, a job that might have gone to Johnny (Raft). Hank’s excess is counterbalanced by Johnny’s stoicism – he controls his emotions, guards his tongue. A powerful attraction exists between these opposite poles of the masculine ideal.

Johnny helps workmate Pop (Brecher) whose daughter Fay (Dietrich) is coming out of prison. (“She clipped some sucker’s wallet in a clip joint and did time for it, so what? Some of the best families get their mail at the cooler.”) There is veiled hostility – which we read as attraction – between Fay and Johnny.

Hank meets Fay after she has become a ‘hostess’ at another clip joint. She has formed a bond with her fellow working girls. They have a code as hard-boiled as that of the gang of men, but cynical and defensive rather than exuberant and work proud. When Hank proposes to Fay, Johnny tries to bribe her to decline. Prison’s nothing to be ashamed of but marrying his best pal is “out of line”.

She marries Hank in defiance of Johnny. They settle into domestic routine for a time, with Johnny as their ‘son’. In one of the quiet scenes away from the gang Fay tells Johnny what he refuses to admit to himself: they love each other.

She walks out on the marriage but Johnny drags her back to Hank. Now Hank misjudges her as arrogantly as Johnny had. Roused to herculean rage, Hank sets out to kill his best friend in one of the most spectacular melodramatic climaxes ever filmed.

Considering the dramatic dominance of the male characters and their ethos, the role of Fay, the short end of a lop sided triangle, was a thankless one. It is hard to imagine that any of the female stars of the time who were versatile actors (Irene Dunne, Barbara Stanwyck perhaps) could have stood up and held her own against such a blitzkrieg of muscular energy as this film has. Dietrich did.

The character she plays is not a radical individual, alluring and inviolable, as those in the brazenly stylized worlds of von Sternberg. In their seven films together, von Sternberg and Dietrich proposed a succession of idealised strategies of resistance to the patriarchy. Their third, Dishonored (1932), is the cinema’s most scornful repudiation of the fallacy (no pun intended) that history means glory and excitement. In the conventionally stylized world of Manpower Fay Duval’s situation and resources are no different from those of a million women of her time. In a world shaped by the clash of men’s desires she wins no victories, symbolic or otherwise, but she endures. And Dietrich’s performance endures, as an effective counterweight to the two extremes of Robinson and Raft.

The polarisation of masculine excess and masculine stoicism is exemplified in the film’s mannered dialogue – on one hand a superficial stream of colourful yarns and wisecracks, on the other a sparsity of expression replete with meaning. When Hank and Johnny bring Fay the news of her father’s death on the job, it is the ebullient Hank who is lost for words. She looks at them questioningly. Johnny says unemotionally “He tangled with a hot wire. We brought his things.” The simplicity of the words and their delivery cracks like a whip (the camera is on her, not him). At the end of the film Hank’s words “I’m glad nobody got hurt”, are poignant and ironic, transcending excess.

Significantly, Fay’s manner of speech is as economical as Johnny’s. As the triangular relationship develops, her proud emotional control is able to neutralise Hank’s whirlwind vitality more effectively than Johnny’s can. Hers is the finer stoicism: while both can take the knocks without squealing, only he has the licence to lash out occasionally (man’s honour!). Her unblinking pride faces reality, his “noble” pride blinds him to it.

Raft was perfectly suited to the role of Johnny. Boyhood friend of hoodlums, gigolo (he worked the same beat as Rudolf Valentino), tango dancer (Fred Astaire said Raft was the best he had seen), and subsequent victim of the blacklist (on “moral”, not political grounds), he was a narrow and inflexible actor, a rasping tightlipped steely icon whose definitive star quality was not stiffness (as he is often described) but stillness. With deftly judged lighting to catch the glitter in his eye he could do more with the slightest movement than anyone else in the business – male or female. And when the story called for rough stuff he could strike with the suddenness of a snake.

As an aesthetic object (the domain of the feminine, in the view of theorists such as Laura Mulvey) Raft gets more camera attention in Manpower than Dietrich! Which is not to say that Walsh and Haller don’t lavish attention on her too. Her first appearance, emerging from prison, is a clear tribute to her first scene in von Sternberg’s Morocco. It’s a revelation to hear her handling of American vernacular (to a sleazy customer: “It’s always the cheapest who squeal the loudest. Breeze, muzzler”) and insolently chewing gum while singing “He lied and I listened”.

Unfortunately for our sensibilities 60 years later, Fay is reduced to mere spectator in the climactic clash on the job between Hank and Johnny. But the central problematic of Manpower is embedded in the emotional imbalance of the physically stronger sex. It critiques what it appears to celebrate: the culture’s licence of man-power.

We are left to speculate (fantasise) about the ending that might have been if Fay had reacted to the final collision of the male polarities with the hard-boiled independence of earlier scenes, instead of powerless ladylike distress. Studio bosses might well have worried about the effect of such a portrayal on Dietrich’s future marketability. Besides it may not have occurred to tough guy Walsh whose subversive preoccupation was with the secret vulnerability of tough guys. Even so the final ‘romantic’ image is not without diegetic ambiguity (who’s catching the bus?).

About The Author

John Flaus began writing film criticism in 1954, and was sacked during the same year when he wrote that On the Waterfront was right-wing propaganda. He has been writing film reviews intermittently ever since. These days he makes a living as an actor, script editor and occasional lecturer.