Personal Property (1937)

 “I’m in ladies’ underwear.”

personalPersonal Property is a light, romantic comedy starring Jean Harlow and Robert Young. Robert Young is Raymond, the ne’er-do-well youngest son of the snotty Dabney family. He returns home after a prison sentence to find that his mother is the only one who’s happy to see him. His brother Claude (Reginald Owen) and father, Cosgrove (E.E. Clive) who own and operate a company that manufactures women’s underwear make it clear that they don’t want Raymond around, and they offer him some money to just disappear.

Raymond goes to London where he meets a lovely debt-ridden American widow Crystal Weatherby (Jean Harlow). Posing as a bailiff, he takes up residence in her home and ends up masquerading as her butler.

Personal Property satirizes snobbery, hypocrisy and the quest for materialism, and this is achieved on several levels. Crystal Weatherby poses as a wealthy widow in order to snare Claude Dabney, but in reality the Dabneys don’t have any money either. But the fact that everyone is penniless doesn’t stop them from maintaining lavish lifestyles or treating tradesman like something they’ve found on the bottom of their shoes. The Dabneys are seen as venal people who place money above all other moral considerations, and while they are troubled by a lack of money, and perfectly willing to do what it takes to get their hands on a fortune, they see the threat of a social scandal caused by Raymond as a worse sin than honest poverty. Raymond, the black sheep of the Dabneys is outside of his family’s quest for wealth and status. At one point, the Dabneys admonish Raymond for his crime–selling a car before he’d actually paid for it, and he compares this act to their own business behaviour, emphasizing that their conduct is considered legal while his is not.

Like many of the madcap comedies of the 30s Personal Property has a momentum that doesn’t stop. The best scenes occur during a dinner party at Crystal’s house as she attempts to impress her soon-to-be in laws. One of the guests is a man whose speech affectations render him incomprehensible–although other snobs at the party apparently have no difficulty understanding him. Crystal’s faux posh accent, mannerisms and snotty manner slip when she’s frustrated or caught off guard, and Raymond seems to delight in peeling away her false pretenses. Personal Property directed by W.S. Van Dyke, isn’t Jean Harlow’s best film, but it’s well worth catching.

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