Manpower (1941)

Manpower (1941) starring George Raft, Marlene Dietrich and Edward G. Robinson is deserving of an honourable mention on classic film noir, for the habits it portrays and social directions  it takes.

While likely classifiable as a dramatic film with comic elements, Manpower still has something to relate to noir audiences. 

The story is about two friends and their supportive relationship, and essentially portrays the bonds between working men and their women. 

The slapstick jollity of the era is well captured and has certainly, as comedy usually does, aged poorly. Edward G. Robinson's character in hospital is styled as an 'octopus' because of the way his hands grab the nurses. And this is the least of it. 

Behold the casual and dominant stereotypes that film noir was pressing against. Corn is piled on corn, when the drama is over, and the jokes at the expense of women never cease. In hospital, as can well be imagined from what we know of other films of the 1940s, 1950s, 1960s and 1970s, everything is about 'bed baths' and pinching attractive nurses.

Then there is the romantic approach as symbolised by George Raft. Beware this is not safe for work. It's the Manpower approach to empowering men.

Dating in Raoul Walsh's Manpower (1941)
with George Raft

The wisecracking is quite typical of the scriptwriting of the time, and relative to 1941, it is not badly done. Relative to film noir, however, it is several ranks below in its take on the world. 

Insofar as it prepared us for the 1950s, the film noir of the 1940s often looks at how society is moving towards a more technological mode of being. The backdrop for this is the officiously named Bureau Of Power And Light. The business of powering America is writ large, and the brief set up scenes try to frame this.

Marlene Dietrich emerging from behind bars in
Manpower (1941)

This is the location of this gang of men, whom we are expected to admire because they are somehow powering up American society. If this was true film noir, however, we would be dealing with labour relations here, and in Manpower, despite the scenes of the workplace, being the pylons and locker rooms and trucks they work in, we never see their management, and we never even see their immediate team leaders.

Flirting, fancy and social boundaries
George Raft and Marlene Dietrich
Manpower (1941) by Raoul Walsh

Manpower as the title suggests is a man's film, about men doing manly things, and their manly relationships seen through the male lens.

George Raft gives Edward G. Robinson's character advice on women, and then shortly afterwards there is a locker room scene, which is perhaps bearable because the dialogue has a certain old world charm. The snappy banter is however still embarrassing.  

I'm telling you that dame was so thin that every time she took a drink of tomato juice, she looked like a thermometer!

And so on. The banter continues in the truck on the way to the repair job, and that is where the sexism ceases for a spell, as the man-power begins in earnest, and the guys begin to fix an electrical accident in a storm.

Alan Hale in Manpower (1941)

Edward G. Robinson and George Raft in
Manpower (1941)

The banter is however never going to stop. Within this group, the idealised male bonding is so strong between George Raft and Edward G. Robinson, that one even tells the other that he loves him, something quite unusual in film dialogue. The plot itself tries to be about the men's relationships with various women, but everything just highlights these two men's deep love for each other.

As Marlene Dietrich enters the picture, and she and George Raft begin to flirt, the snappy banter shifts from the men to the power relations between men and women. It's highly stylised banter, too, as if people are only able to talk to each other in wisecracks, something the mainstream cinema of the day seemed to wish to impose.

Manpower does share some ground however with another Raoul Walsh and George Raft film, They Drive By Night (1940).

Both deal with working men, in a dangerous profession, and another Raoul Walsh theme is that the job separates a man from his wife or sweetheart. Both films feature a road-side diners with a sassy waitress and pinball, and both show men being injured on the job.

Manpower, unlike a truly obvious film noir, promotes various messages of goodness, such as around alcohol.

Alcohol use and effects in Manpower (1941)

Drinks are for example associated with the clip joint where Marlene Dietrich's downward spiral leads her. It's in this joint that she is arrested in a typically film noir scenario, in which an attempt is being made to go straight but one's past life of crime won't leave alone. 

Alcohol, is also paired with the downfall of Edward G. Robinson's character, and is instrumental in breaking the relationship he has with his glamorous wife (Dietrich). In fact Manpower clearly hints that alcohol can cause impotence. 

By contrast, good guy Raft gets a root beer in the drug store, and it's here that he admires Dietrich when she is fresh out of stir, and fixing herself up. He is in fact of many Raoul Walsh heroes who like soda pop or other sweet drinks.

Dietrich also uses coffee to sober Robinson up, and this is explicitly depicted as better than a beer, as a morning cure for a hangover.

The manners of Manpower (1941)

The manners of Manpower (1941) are clear and not always desirable. The job is dangerous, and this is hammered home in multiple stormy scenes, during which an accident always occurs. The women however are as much a distraction, and there is so much hubaa-hubba-ing and wold whistling, much of it centred on the character of Jumbo, played by Alan Hale Jnr, who delivers so much ridiculous and often stale comedy that there is almost a jumble of genres. Suddenly its's comedy and suddenly it's drama, and suddenly it's film noir and suddenly it's romance.

The comedy of making fun of women however repeats and repeats. There is a fashion show at which the men behave appallingly, and it's hard to accept that Marlene Dietrich's character is in love with George Raft's character, even after he has punched her so hard she falls down some stairs.

The punch is one delivered of morality 1941-style, because she is a woman is leaving her husband after his drunkenness and impotence has become too much. The message that George Raft delivers with this slap and his berating language is that since she has married, she is obliged to stay with him, even through this. 

In these movies in the 1940s, resolution can be made by someone dying of an accident, which can make everything all right. And after the slapping and the rushing to judgement, Marlene Dietrich's character still walks off into, or rather away from, the sunrise, with George Raft; probably another ill fit.

If this is about anything however, it is about morality, and this is what is delivered, even if it is old school, out of fashion and 1940s style morality. In a more typical and classical version of the film noir style, there would certainly more depth, and the gender stereotypes would be easier to handle. It may be impolite to point it out, but as far as film noir goes, its very onw classic style film noir cinematic productions may not be progressive by the standards of our days, but they were in fact progressive by the standards of its own time. 

Power Up with Manpower (1941) on Wikipedia


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