Stage starlet Mona Leslie (Jean Harlow) has been jailed for reckless driving, but luckily for the young lady, her grandmother (May Robson) is determined to bust her out of the place. Granny enlists the help of Ned Riley (William Powell), who is in love with Mona.
Ned comes through and manages to get Mona out of jail, just in time for the curtain to rise on her latest performance. She thinks the show is a benefit, but actually, admirer and oil heir Bob Harrison (Franchot Tone) is the sole audience member.
Ned is waiting in the wings, and when Mona realizes that the “benefit” is just a set-up for a guy who’s crushing on her, Ned joins Bob in the audience to watch the rest of the show. A battle for Mona’s affection ensues, with heavy consequences.
Victor Fleming directs 1935’s Reckless, written for the screen by P. J. Wolfson.
Ben Mankiewicz’s introduction to this film when it aired during Summer Under the Stars noted that it was originally filmed as a straight drama, with musical scenes added later.
Mankiewicz also shared that Jean Harlow was initially reluctant to take the role of Mona. As a close friend of the film’s inspiration, Libby Holman, and having recently lost her second husband to suicide, Harlow felt the studio was wrong to capitalize on the publicity surrounding such personal tragedies. William Powell eventually convinced Harlow to take the role, so as not to jeopardize her career.
Thank goodness for Bill Powell, that he was able to convince Harlow to take on this film. While the whole cast is strong, Harlow is the center of the film and does so well in the role of Mona. She’s delightfully bright-spirited in the light, romantic scenes and musical numbers (dubbed singing and all), but heartbreaking in later scenes. There’s a nice variety of emotion for her to play within the role, and the character is lovable.
Because Mona is so likable and Harlow’s performance so good, when trouble hits for Mona, the viewer whole-heartedly sympathizes with her. To me, the film seems to emphasize the unfair treatment of Mona by the press, the public opinion, and those directly involved in the tragedy. She may not have wanted to tell this particular art-imitating-life story, but Reckless gives Harlow a chance to play an incredibly strong woman, who gets through all of her trials and tribulations with her head held high.
The role was a win with the critics, too. Praise for the film wasn’t universal, but Harlow received quite a lot of acclaim. As quoted in The Films of Jean Harlow, The New York Times said she gave a “sincere, straightforward, and generally alluring performance”; The New York Daily Mirror said that “the Harlow fans [would] applaud it enthusiastically”; and Regina Crewe of The New York American wrote, “The show belongs to Miss Harlow, who, within lines and situations tossed like flowers at her feet, acquits herself right nobly.”
A small appearance by Rosalind Russell adds to the film’s appeal for me, as Roz is one of my favorite actresses (along with Harlow). Russell’s role is that of Tone’s jilted would-be bride, Jo. She’s an effective and important addition to the film, however minor the role may be. Another film may have cast them as romantic rivals, but Reckless plants Jo firmly on Mona’s side. Jo never once blames Mona or sees her as the relationship-ruining “other woman,” instead befriending Mona and standing by her through the scandal. She even goes so far as to attend the opening night of Mona’s newest show, in a public showcase of support.
With all of this talk of tragedy and heartbreak you may assume that Reckless is a full-on melodrama, but not quite. All of this comes quite late in the picture, and what precedes is a much more light-hearted, romantic story, with plenty of comedic banter. Harlow and Powell, Powell and Tone, and (most delightfully of all) Powell and Robson share plenty of snappy dialogue, making this portion of the film fun to watch and giving little indication of the trouble that will follow.
The film does drag at times, as much as it has going for it. It takes a long time to get to that plot twist that drives the most important conflict of the film. Reckless would probably engage the viewer more thoroughly had it focused on this plot twist, rather than spending so much time early on on the love triangle and the early days of marriage. What we have here is a somewhat clunky script elevated by great cast. Still, I would recommend Reckless for at least a one-time watch, especially for Jean Harlow fans.