Riffraff (1936 film)

Riffraff is a 1936 American film starring Jean Harlow and Spencer Tracy. The movie was written by Frances Marion, Anita Loos, and H. W. Hannaford, and directed by J. Walter Ruben.

Theatrical release poster
Directed byJ. Walter Ruben
Produced byIrving Thalberg
Written byGeorge S. Kaufman
John Lee Mahin
Carey Wilson[1]
Screenplay byFrances Marion
Anita Loos
H. W. Hannaford
Music byEdward Ward
CinematographyRay June
Edited byFrank Sullivan
Distributed byMetro-Goldwyn-Mayer
Release date
January 3, 1936
Running time
94 minutes
CountryUnited States
Box office$1,047,000[2]


Spencer Tracy plays a rough and tough fisherman ("Dutch" Muller), who leads in a strike with his fellow fishery workers against the "fat-cat" owners of a tuna cannery. The love interest Hattie (Jean Harlow), is also a tuna cannery worker. Her character has a tough exterior with her "bombshell" good looks.

Jimmie (Mickey Rooney) is a teenager who is the uncle of the two youngest children. They all live with "Pops" (Roger Imhof), Hattie, and his Aunt Lil (Una Merkel) together in the same small, apartment-like "shack" on the wharf. Aunt Lil runs the home.

The thuggish cannery owner, Nick Lewis (Joseph Calliea), is also trying to romance Hattie with his money and gifts. He has wealth, Dutch does not. Hattie falls for Dutch in the end, but this antagonism creates many struggles throughout the film. Pete (William Newell) is a family friend, along with many colorful characters.

The movie explores some cutting edge sub-themes that were socially current at the time of its release in 1936. Some scenes involve a woman having a baby while in prison, and a hobo camp deep in the woods.



Contemporary reviews from critics were generally positive, both for the film and Harlow's new "natural" look, as she darkened her hair to what the press dubbed "brownette" before the film went into production.[3] Frank S. Nugent of The New York Times praised the moments of "robust comedy", but lamented the instances when it turned serious and a "boisterous jest skids down the slopes of melodramatic routine".[4] Variety ran a positive review, praising the "excellent cast" and dialogue that was "vigorous and well-written".[5] Film Daily was also positive, calling it a "lusty picture, full of action and comedy", with "fine performances" from Harlow and Tracy.[6] The Prescott Evening Courier wrote that "Jean Harlow has never displayed her versatility to a better advantage".[7] The Milwaukee Sentinel wrote that there was "much hilarious comedy and robust action which takes away the sting of too much pathos", and that Tracy did an "excellent job".[8] John Mosher of The New Yorker wrote a negative review, regretting that the film "leaves Miss Harlow in the background for longish and rather dreary stretches ... I'd say of the picture that there is too much tuna fish, and not enough Harlow."[9]

The film's depiction of organized labor drew some controversy. Max S. Hayes of The Cleveland Citizen attacked the film as "propaganda to prejudice the public against trade unionism".[10]

Box office

According to MGM records, the film earned $717,000 in the US, and $330,000 elsewhere, resulting in a loss of $63,000.[2]


  1. http://www.afi.com/members/catalog/DetailView.aspx?s=&Movie=6074
  2. The Eddie Mannix Ledger, Los Angeles: Margaret Herrick Library, Center for Motion Picture Study.
  3. McLean, Adrienne L. (2011). Glamour in a Golden Age: Movie Stars of the 1930s. Rutgers University Press. pp. 190–191. ISBN 9780813549040.
  4. Nugent, Frank S. (January 13, 1936). "Movie Review – Riffraff". The New York Times. Retrieved August 14, 2015.
  5. "Riffraff". Variety. New York: 18. January 15, 1936.
  6. "Reviews of the New Films". Film Daily. New York: Wid's Films and Film Folk, Inc.: 7 December 24, 1935.
  7. "Jean Harlow Dynamic in "Riffraff" At Elks". Prescott Evening Courier. Prescott, Arizona: 4. February 15, 1936.
  8. Herzog, Buck (February 21, 1936). "The New Films". Milwaukee Sentinel. Milwaukee: 19.
  9. Mosher, John (January 11, 1936). "The Current Cinema". The New Yorker. pp. 60–61.
  10. ""Riffraff" Attacked by Cleveland Unions". Motion Picture Daily: 2. January 18, 1936.
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