RECKLESS (Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, 1935), directed by Victor Fleming, is an odd little title for a movie classified as a musical for that there's no reckless driving involved nor reckless living to classify its story. It is, however, a title tune for a production number delivered by the studio's platinum blonde bombshell, Jean Harlow (1911-1937). For Harlow starring in a backstage story where she gets to "sing" and dance, one would expect a sort of "gold digger" theme involving three sassy Broadway show girls (possibly Harlow, Una Merkel and Patsy Kelly) out to nab some rich husbands. Instead, RECKLESS is very much Harlow's as the center of attention for a scripted story by Oliver Jeffries supposedly based loosely on the life and incidents of an actual entertainer named Lilly Holman.
Set on Broadway in the Great White Way, Ned Riley (William Powell), is introduced as a sports promoter staying at the 43rd Street Hotel with his assistants, Blossom (Nat Pendleton) and Smiley (Ted Healy). His sleep is interrupted by the arrival of Granny (May Robson) coming to Ned to have him raise bail for her granddaughter, stage star Mona Leslie (Jean Harlow), who's being held on a reckless driving charge at the House of Detention for Women. Ned, being Mona's agent and discoverer, arranges her release in time for the upcoming charity benefit, only to discover the stage show arranged by millionaire playboy, Bob Morrison Jr. (Franchot Tone), who has bought every seat in the theater so he could be the only one to watch Mona perform. Later, Mona becomes romantically involved with Bob. They eventually elope, much to the chagrin of Bob's father (Henry Stephenson), having high hopes for his son marrying Josephine Mercer (Rosalind Russell), his childhood sweetheart. Though Josephine comes to like Mona, the rest of Bob's family and friends prove otherwise, making her feel like an outsider. After Josephine marries Ralph Watson (Leon Ames, billed as Leon Waycoff), Bob realizes the error in his ways, leading to tragedy involving Mona's custody battle over her baby and attempt of a theatrical comeback to a very unruly audience.
In the listing of players credited (in order of appearance rather than the standard billing), there's Mickey Rooney as Eddie, a little boy briefly seen in two scenes with William Powell; Robert Light (Paul Mercer, Josephine's brother); James Ellison (Dale Eberly); Charles Middleton, Harold Huber and Charles C. Wilson. There's also famous wrestlers of the day, Man Mountain Dean, Hans Steinke and Ernie Hayes, appearing as themselves. Look quickly for Allan Jones (singer) and Margaret Dumont (woman in audience), best known for their major supporting performances opposite the Marx Brothers in A NIGHT AT THE OPERA (MGM, 1935) each taking time away from that comedy classic in cameo appearances. Songs featured in this production include: "Reckless" (by Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein/ Ensemble: Jean Harlow, Allan Jones, Carl Randall and Nina Mae McKinney); "Everything's Been Done Before" (sung by Allan Jones); "Cyclone" (dance number); "Here's What My Heart is Saying" and "Reckless." Though Harlow sings, her vocalization is obviously dubbed with choreography lavish scale but forgettable. Interestingly, the "Reckless" number was selected in part of its musical segment profiled for the documentary on MGM musicals titled THAT'S ENTERTAINMENT (1974).
The problem about RECKLESS, clocked at 97 minutes and produced by David O. Selznick, is that it could have been a really fine musical, even better. Rather than presenting a full comedy with standard singing and dancing, the plot generally looks more like a setback to those melodramatic overtones found in those early talkie MGM musicals (1929-30). RECKLESS does have its share of amusements and wisecracks commonly found in thirties movies, however, with William Powell doing his share with Harlow and the rest of the cast. Powell and Harlow had much better luck in the hilarious comedy, LIBELED LADY (1936), but it's only during the latter portion of RECKLESS does the story weaken to conclusion that doesn't ring true. Harlow and Franchot Tone have worked amusingly well together in both BOMBSHELL (1933) and THE GIRL FROM MISSOURI (1934), but with RECKLESS having their serious moments together, especially during Tone's drunken tantrums, they are either satisfactory or a bit unpleasant. Rosalind Russell is a refreshing presence here while the rest of the cast tries hard to rise above this so-so script.
Considering mixed reactions then and now, RECKLESS wouldn't be classified as Hollywood's greatest musicals. It's somewhat all-star cast and MGM gloss does save it from being lost and forgotten to classic film historians, especially over the years with its presentations in revival movie houses in New York City as Museum of Modern Art (1980 to a full house) or the Regency Theater in the seventies and eighties, followed by availability on video cassette (1995), DVD and broadcasts on cable television's Turner Classic Movies since 1994. (**)