Manpower (1941)

I saw this film a decade or more years ago at a Toronto Film Society festival weekend.  A goal had been to see all of Miss Dietrich’s films and so, before DVDs, I was excited that we were able to find and borrow this film in 16mm.  Before watching it the other night, I could still remember the gist of the story, how I felt about the characters, but believed it had been long enough that I could revisit.

Hank McHenry (Edward G. Robinson) and Johnny Marshall (George Raft) are best buddies.  Were they always or did they just team up while working together while employed at their respective hydro company, and for how many years?  On one hand, you feel like they’ve known each other for years, yet you also feel like these men are transient, moving around frequently from job to job.

Marshall, the cool guy, is respected and looked up to by his peers, while McHenry seems to be mainly respected because he has an inherent understanding of the electric beast they service; otherwise he’s thought of as a nerd–or a gimp as he is liberally called  by his peers in this case, when his leg is damaged in a work-related accident.  But nor is he the only ridiculous, juvenile adult man working this dangerous job.  There is Jumbo Wells (Alan Hale) and Omaha (Frank McHugh), and the more manly Eddie Adams (Ward Bond), along with old timer Pop Duval (Egon Brecher) whose daughter, Fay (Marlene Dietrich) has just been released from a stint in jail.  When Pop asks Johnny to accompany him to meet Fay on the day of her release, Marshall has preconceived ideas of the two types of woman that live amongst men, good and bad, and he knows hands-down that Fay falls in the category of the latter.

Dietrich is gorgeous in this film.  She is not quite 40 and looks timeless.  Her character, Fay, is hard edged but straightforward.  You get what you see.  What you see is hard to take your eyes off of and her bluntness is meant to be believed.

She attempts to win over Marshall when he accompanies her father to pick her up from her year in jail. He’s not having any of it, choosing to believe her father wasn’t such a bad parent, believing that Fay wasn’t innocent of whatever charges put her behind bars, and then, for ever after, saying as many cutting remarks that come to him any time she addresses him.  We don’t know what background he comes from, but even if our guess is it wasn’t so great, he’s not letting this woman get away with disrespecting her father.

Becoming foreman of the team, McHenry is forced to break the news to Fay that her father has been killed in a work-related accident and asks Marshall to accompany him in this task. When she doesn’t break down crying, it again emphasizes for Marshall what a nasty, hard-hearted female this Fay is.  He never is able to acknowledge that her father was almost a virtual stranger to her, and that her childhood memories of him were not kind.  But McHenry, who is so desperate to be in love and married, falls for the direct-talking Fay.  What he never seems to hear, although she agrees to marry him–because she is thunderstruck that a man with a good, solid job would want to marry her–is that she isn’t in love with him.  Her promise to herself, is that she will do good by him as long as he does the same by her.

So here are two diametrically different people tying the knot.  As the foreman of his team, he’s work-smart, while she’s much more thoughtful, aware and street-smart.  The wedding night is a bust because the groom gets hammered, yet it’s hard to imagine a more unlikely romantic couple of gimpy Robinson and the alluring Dietrich.  In any event, Fay can now quit her taxi dancing while fleecing men-out-of-their-money job and live the respectable life of cooking and cleaning for her man–Dietrich as the hausfrau.

Before she marries McHenry, Johnny decides that its his business to protect his best buddy from her by going to her place of work to tell her to keep her paws off of the poor sap.  There were a lot of good lines in this film by writing team Richard Macaulay and Jerry Wald but my favourite was the one that occurred while Dietrich was singing and Johnny is waiting at the bar to speak with her.  The bartender quips, “She’s got a great voice, eh.”  And Johnny mutters, “Why don’t you get your ears tuned.”  I almost questioned that I heard correctly, because, as we all know, even though Marlene was famous for her delivery, not many of us can say she was a particularly melodic singer.

The tension between Johnny and Fay lighten as he notices that Hank appears happy in the marriage and in particularly when Johnny is brought into their home to convalesce after a freak accident at work nearly kills him.  If there were any sparks between the two from the beginning, and we’re meant to think there were in this very typical story, then things get worse, especially for Fay.  By now, Johnny is quite civil to the woman who probably had much more to do with helping him to recover his health than her husband did, and she now has a more attractive man around to compare to her sweet but uncouth husband who holds no sex appeal whatsoever.

In the end, after all she’s done for him, when the chips are down for her, Johnny is right back into his old way of thinking–good woman, bad woman–and he never reflects for one moment that things are not the way he’s perceived them.

If film ideas were graphed out, and the long-running story that a woman who is perceived as bad and deserves to be abused both verbally and physically by a man who knows better, than this is the film that had reached the pinnacle.  Almost every time Raft opens his mouth to speak to Dietrich, he’s a condescending, rude, hateful, hurtful, arrogant s-o-b and I wanted her to tell him where to get off.  Instead, if there’s ever a film about women falling for men who like to belittle and smack them around, this one is it!  The wallop is quite something to behold.

Helmed by the very manly veteran director Raoul Walsh, the film also features Barton MacLane and Eve Arden in a slightly less typical “Eve Arden” role.  It is interesting to note that Victor McLaglen turned down the role of McHenry, while Raft, who had turned down The Maltese Falcon 1941 remake to make Manpower instead, resented sharing leading man status with Robinson when he was cast in place of McLaglen.  Although McLaglen is good at playing a dumb oaf, I can’t quite imagine Raft being dominantly physical with the larger McLaglen.  Manpower, so I’ve read, is a remake of another Robinson film, Tiger Shark (1932), based on the original story “Tuna” by Houston Branch, which isn’t given credit for the 1941 film.


I was curious to know what the three main principles of Manpower had to say about the  making of this film.  In Dietrich’s autobiography “Marlene”, she says: I also can’t forget George Raft, my partner in Manpower.  His unique, lovable kindness belied his appearance an his tough roles.  We became good friends, in contrast to many actors with whom I was often together and with whom I worked.  Shooting a film can take months that are not always marked by a spirit of harmony, but in spite of everything you get to like the other members of the team.  Nevertheless, as soon as the last shot is “in the can”, some actors just take off without the slightest nostalgia or the slightest feeling of having experienced a loss.  That was never the case with me….

Raft was simply wonderful throughout the shooting.  Raoul Walsh loved each and everyone of us, and we thanked him.  The film was success.  A stroke of luck for us all.


Eddie Robinson wrote in his autobiography, All My Years:I followed Sea Wolf with Manpower, in which I played with Marlene Dietrich.  You are by now certainly aware of me less than generous habit of assessing people by first impression.  My first impression of Miss Dietrich made me nervous, because, to carp, she appeared to have such arrogant self-assurance and security.  I had never met her before, though I had seen all her pictures and was aware that she was sexy, temperamental, demanding, beautiful, and perhaps the synthetic creation of Josef von Sternberg.

Playing with her, I learned that we shared a common passion: work.  More than that: Be on time, know the lines, toe the marks say the words, be ready for anything.  God she was beautiful–and still is–but I don’t think it interested her very much.  Beauty, that obsessive sexual thing she had, and her superficial self-confidence were simply instruments to help her bank account and her art.

One of the thing about her that astonished me most was her knowledge of the technical side of motion pictures.  She seemed to know everything.  She constantly watched the camera and the lighting, and she would politely superintend, make suggestions to the cameramen and gaffers to subtly and so sexily that no one was offended, and she got precisely what she wanted.  (I didn’t mind; what possible difference could it make which side of my face was photographed?  Bot sides were equally homely.)  She was one of the first actresses I ever knew to have her own makeup table and mirror placed in the same lights in which she would have to play–a trick she told me Von Sternberg had taught her.  Between takes she was constantly in front of the mirror, adjusting her hair and her makeup, and the instant the director called her, she was ready.

She came to my house often, loved the pictures, understood them, knew many of the artists personally, and waring some of the most breathtaking gowns on record, would come off as an intellectual, which, indeed, she was (is).

We never became friends, but we became close acquaintances.  If that requires an explanation, I am not able to give one.  I know Marlene; I see her every so often; I knew nothing of her personal or private or semiprivate life; she knows nothing of mine; we will always keep it that way.

My view of her as an actress?  I am not sure I would call it talent; it is something beyond that–mystery, unavailability, distance, feminine mystique (before those two words got to mean something else).  I gladly risk the sneer of Germaine Greer: I like the Dietrich mystique better than the Greer.  Certainly, while Betty Friedan may be mor intelligent, I’d rather spend my time with Marlene, who, by the way, is one of the best gourmet and family cooks about and certainly could and should be called Ms. Kleen.  She is the quintessential sex goddess; she is also the quintessential German hausfrau.  She is mother as sex; sex as it was intended.  She is rough and tough–and absolutely and uniquely and gloriously herself….

Back to Manpower.  A lot of it was inane, yet Dietrich and I (I say this in no immodesty but rather as a fact) were a stunning combination, and our joint presence was tough box office.  Add George Raft, and you had showmanship casting.  Bad–but showmanship.  Raft was touchy, difficult, and thoroughly impossible to play with.  He threw a punch at me, and I was ready to walk; Hal Wallis had to act as peacemaker.

I was in the hospital, and the first flowers I received carried a card that read: “Get well, your pal, George Raft.”  I guess he forgave me for whatever infraction caused him to clop me on the “chops”–an expression for which I am indebted to Damon Runyon.


In George Raft’s biography by Lewis Yablonsky, there are many pages written about this film.  Here they are: The making of Manpower was far from tranquil.  George had several heated arguments with Jack Warner and Edward G. Robinson.  When Warner viewed the early rushes, his happy liaison with Raft was shaken because he bullishly objected to “the George Raft longpoint shirt collars.”  They were, he believed, too long, and would “distract the audience’s attention.”  Jack Warner’s executive opinion was transmitted by note to Raft and he was ordered to change his shirts for the picture.  Raft complied, but felt strongly that he had been unnecessarily censured, and humiliated, by the studio’s executive producer.  Criticism about the length of a collar would mean little to Robinson or most other men–but with George Raft Warner had dealt a uniquely personal blow that deeply wounded him.

Mirroring their screen roles, wariness developed between Raft and Robinson.  Raft was enamored of Dietrich; and he believed, perhaps with reason, that Robinson also was interested in their leading lady.  It was this unstated rivalry for Dietrich that might have provided the spark to their animosity, and Little Caesar and Gino Rinaldi threw real punches at each other in several scenes.  This friction on the set received wide press attention.  The September 1940 issue of Movie Life did not mention any romantic triangle.  They put the blame on Robinson’s being a ‘camera hog.

George recalled his conflict with Robinson from his own standpoint: “I had top billing for the movie, but I was willing to co-star to get Marlene in the film.  I was always nuts about her.  Then Jack Warner insisted on Robinson.  I never thought Robinson was right for the role, which was written to be played by a big guy.  I’m not sure why I got mad at Robinson.  I resented his trying to put me down with advice, you know, how to handle lines and business.  He made me madder and madder.

“In one scene, I’m supposed to take him out of a bar.  And Eddie suggest, “George, let me struggle a little bit.  Let me fight back.”  Our director, Walsh, thinks exactly the opposite, and said to me ‘Just pick him up and carry him out–without a struggle.’  Now who was I supposed to listen to?  So in listening to Walsh, in doing the right thing, I lost out with Eddie.

“From then on, we didn’t get along too well.  Finally we had this one particular scene where it’s raining.  Dietrich of course was tuck on me, but out of spite she marries him.  I don’t know if you ever looked up into rain.  It’s pretty tough.  And the scene calls on us to repair what’s wrong with the high tension wire way on top of the pole since the power failure’s blacked out the entire city.  Yet it’s raining cats and dogs.  Okay, we’re supposed to go up the poles without dialogue, since we’re climbing, but Robinson wants to add dialogue before we start up.

“Robinson said, ‘I want to say some new lines down here.’  And I told him, ‘I don’t want to say anything down here.’  When we get to the top of the pole, and work on it, then we can say a few lines.  I explained, ‘That would be more authentic.’

“What I think is right Robinson tells me is wrong.  So he continues to insist that he wants to say something down here.  His attitude burned me, so I said, ‘Fine.  Talk to yourself, because I’m not gonna answer you.’  Now we’re all standing on the outside of the set because of the rain that’s pouring down.  There’s Frank McHugh, Ward Bond, and a lot of the other characters in the film.

“Finally the dialogue director comes over and says to me.  ‘Do you want to go over the scene you’re supposed to do down at the base of the pole?’ I says, ‘I’m not gonna say anything at the base of the pole.’  Robinson repeats, ‘I think we’ve gotta say something.’  Again, I repeat myself, ‘We don’t know what is wrong on top of the pole yet with the wire.’  He says, ‘Well, I want to say something.’  I says, ‘Why?  To me, silence is golden.’  We began to argue.”

One thing led to another and the “two linesmen” threw a few real punches, before they broke it up.  A photographer snapped a picture of the fight and it was a front-page story around the country.  Both Robinson and Raft refused to continue with the movie.

The problem was partly a clash between a “personality” and an “actor.”  George always preferred acting with a look or a body gesture.  Robinson, on the other hand, was an accomplished actor who attempted to integrate all aspects of his acting talents including the verbal in any scene.  The hassle was finally resolved by Raoul Walsh and representatives from the Screen Actor’s Guild in discussion with Raft and Robinson.

There were other mishaps.  One concerned the scene where Raft was supposed to slap Marlene.  In keeping with his code, he refused to hit a woman, especially Dietrich.  Also George knew by now that when he warmed up anything might happen, because he was not a man who could always pull his punches.  Marlene convinced him “it was only a movie” and that he should follow the script.  When Raft at last agreed to play it, he hit her so hard that she fell down a flight of stairs and fractured her ankle.

Another accident occurred when Raft was climbing a pole.  Over thirty feet above the ground his safety belt broke.  He fell eighteen feet, hit a crossbar, and then fell another twenty feet to the ground.  In shock and unconscious, he was rushed to a hospital with three broken ribs and contusions of the abdomen.  In the film’s hospital bed scene, Raft didn’t require any bandages from the costume department.

Despite their differences at the time, Robinson was one of Raft’s fans and boosters, and in their later years both men valued their long association and friendship.  In an interview with Robinson some months before his death in April 1973, he spoke with insight of Raft.

“George always wore this fantastic, arresting mask when he acted, yet you sensed that underneath his cool façade he was seething–boiling–writhing.  I’ve worked with many great actors both in Hollywood and on the stage.  And in my opinion no one matched George for this quality of personal power and manhood.  His range was limited–he always played George Raft.  But that character–there was no other like it–always evoked a sympathetic response and identification from a mass audience.

“He believed so completely that he was George Raft in the role, not George Raft playing a role, that there were times when he could get carried away with his inner forces.  Why, when I worked with him in Manpower he reacted so personally to a scene with me that it turned into something I’d never experienced before.  And it never happened again.  The scene called for George to drag me out of this bar.  Raoul Walsh put us through the scene, then called, ‘Cut.’  George went right on shaking me furiously and he wouldn’t let go of me until several people pulled him off.  It was as if the role had taken over the man.

“Also, we had that misunderstanding that I still can’t figure out.  I’ve never had a physical fight on a set with anyone.  First of all, in spite of being Little Caesar, I’m not a physical person.  I think George just resented my being in the picture.  He once told me later on that he felt my role called for a bigger guy, someone like Victor McLaglen, whom he wanted.  I guess tension built up and we clashed….

Manpower was important for Raft because it gave him a chance to fulfill his dream of working with Marlene Dietrich.  “over the years I’d known her casually, and I ran into her now and then.  Nothing eer developed because in the early thirties, when she was at Paramount also, Josef von Sternberg was her director and I guess her man.  Still, when I knew she was at the studio I’d be on her set just to look at her….

On and off the set of Manpower, George apparently did fulfill many of his fantasies about Marlene Dietrich, although it is a part of his past he refuses to discuss.  She stayed at his Coldwater Canyon home for a time.  Because of the complications of their other relationship, the Raft-Dietrich romance never went as far as it might have.  They both admired each other immensely, and during the time when Manpower was filmed their names were frequently romantically linked in the columns.

If you don’t have your own copy, you can watch a pretty good print of the film here.

2 thoughts on “Manpower (1941)

  1. “If it’s got Barton MacLane, it will certainly entertain.” That’s a handy mnemonic I made up for when I’m choosing a movie to watch. This sounds great, possibly in the same masculine vein as the Walsh/Raft collaboration from the previous year, They Drive By Night.

    Robinson’s comments about Dietrich make them both sound very endearing.

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