Once upon a time, two young men, John Reeves and Tom Hartland, worked together at a shoe factory and became friends, forming a partnership to make their own shoes. But when a woman came into the picture, their partnership dissolved; Hartland won the girl, and the two men established their own respective shoe companies. Years later, both companies have grown and the men continue a friendly rivalry, fighting for market share while maintaining a deep respect for one another.
When Hartland passes away, Reeves (George Arliss), saddened to hear of his old friend’s death, takes off to Maine for a long-awaited fishing trip. A chance encounter in Maine soon introduces Reeves to Hartland’s two children, Jenny (Bette Davis) and Tommy (Theodore Newton). Appalled by their wastefulness and careless attitude toward their father’s business–and labeling them a “worthless pair of brats”–Reeves resolves to help them see the error of their ways. Passing himself off as a fisherman and out-of-work bookkeeper, Reeves–under the alias John Walton–maneuvers his way into becoming the trustee for the two young Hartlands.
Reeves/Walton inspires Tommy to wrest control of the company from the sneaky manager Fred Pettison (Gordon Westcott), while Jenny decides to get a job at Reeves’ own company in order to learn the business from the ground up. She christens herself “Jane Grey” and becomes the private secretary to Reeves’ conceited workaholic nephew, Benjamin Burnett (Hardie Albright). Soon enough, “Jane” and Benjamin have (somehow) fallen for each other. In the meantime, Reeves/Walton has turned the Hartland company around, and when Benjamin makes a crack about him being too old to run the Reeves Shoe Company, an outraged Reeves determines to bury his own business!
Running a brisk 77 minutes, The Working Man (1933) is an effective, enjoyable mix of proto-screwball farce and domestic comedy, marked by an outlandish plot, some genuine laughs, and an all-too-convenient happy ending. Arliss leads the proceedings with an engaging gleam in his eye, presenting a less buttoned-up persona than was typical for the actor. The result is one of Arliss’ more appealing and lighthearted performances.
Arliss and Davis share a warm chemistry in the film–not surprising considering their warm personal relationship. This marked their second film together; the previous year, they had starred in the drama The Man Who Played God, in which the forty-years-younger Davis played Arliss’ fiancee. Davis credited Arliss as a kind of cinematic father figure who aided her career considerably in the 1930s and helped her score a contract with Warner Bros. For his part, Arliss considered Davis an immense talent and professed a great deal of pride in her accomplishments, remarking on the set of this film, “My little bird has flown, hasn’t she?”
And indeed she had. In the scant year since they had worked together in The Man Who Played God, Davis had appeared in eight films–some great, some not so much, but all helping her to hone her craft and grow increasingly confident in her own ability as an actress. While she is not given overmuch to do here (as the film really does center around Arliss’ character), Davis still manages to make an impression. Her Jenny is feisty and determined, and just as gleefully manipulative as Reeves at times.
The Working Man has been recently released on MOD (manufactured on demand) DVD through Warner Archive. As with many of these MOD DVDs, extras are practically nonexistent, save the film’s original trailer. But special features aren’t the draw here; it’s the delightful, long-unavailable film itself, of which I’m glad to say the Archive’s new edition boasts a fine, clear print.
True Classics thanks Warner Archive for providing a copy of The Working Man for the purposes of this review.