John Gilbert‘s film, “Fast Workers” is a rugged picture about the men who built the skyscrapers during the depression era (1930’s) where lots of new construction was taking place during the Roosevelt Administration.
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The film Fast Workers is a testament to the fact that silent film great John Gilbert did not have vocal issues, but was sabotaged by MGM and Louis B. Mayer. The movie also exemplifies the talents of Director Tod Browning, who’s career was also ruined for making a movie so ahead of it’s time Freaks, that to this day even a supposed “studio tampering” cannot destroy for it’s ability to shock and horrify to prove that those who are “different” are no better or worse than you. Mostly considered a minor effort of Browning’s, this film is an enjoyably racy little Pre-Code concoction.
Fast Workers was Gilbert‘s last film under his MGM contract. He had been drinking heavily and he has a sadly dissipated look in the film. He made only two more films — Queen Christina (1933) and The Captain Hates the Sea (1934). He died of a heart attack on January 9, 1936 at age 36.
With exciting scenes on top of a skyscraper under construction, and liberal dose of humor and heartbreak, the film never slows up or fails to entertain. An enjoyable supporting cast adds to the fun, including Sterling Holloway as “Pinky Magoo” and an uncredited Mayo Methot. Such folks as Bob Burns and Sterling Holloway are wasted in the kind of parts they normally play.
The cast includes: John Gilbert as Gunner Smith, Robert Armstrong as Bucker Reilly, Mae Clarke as Mary, Muriel Kirkland as Millie, Vince Barnett as Spike, Virginia Cherrill as Virginia, Muriel Evans as Nurse, Sterling Holloway as Pinky Magoo, Guy Usher as Scudder, Warner Richmond as Feets Wilson and Robert Burns as Alabam.’
The film shows the construction boom in New York City at the time. Even though there was a great depression going on, the riveters were never out of work.
Fast Workers is a film set in the early 1930s, in the time of the film’s release. The story is about the life of riveters on high-rise construction projects; very dangerous work. So dangerous in fact that it’s main character, Gunner Smith (John Gilbert) is living it fast and loose and has no interest in a long last relationship with a woman. He is living for the moment, just like most of his fellow riveters.
Gunner’s buddy, Bucker Reilly, is just the opposite, often losing his heart to the various “dames” he meets and quickly becoming entangled with them. Gunner therefore sees it as his ongoing duty as a pal to save Bucker from rushing headlong to the altar. True to form, Bucker one evening after work meets and becomes enamored with Mary (Mae Clarke), not knowing that she is one of the women whom Gunner dates regularly, although not seriously. He is also unaware that Mary generally supports herself by fleecing men of their money. Once she learns that Bucker has a nest egg of $5,000 in the bank, she accepts his rather clumsy marriage proposal. Gunner soon learns of his friend’s engagement, but he waits too long to scuttle the marriage plans. By the time he reveals to Bucker his own involvement with Mary, Bucker has already married her.
Bucker’s anger builds over his perceived betrayal, and the next day while working at their construction site, he tries to kill his friend by sabotaging a walkway between two iron girders. As a result, Gunner falls, is seriously injured, and is given little chance to live. Wracked with guilt, Bucker tells Mary what he has done. She is furious. She tells him their brief marriage is over and that if Gunner dies she will make sure he is convicted of murder and is executed. She then openly admits her feelings for Gunner, as well as to her wanton past.
By the time Mary and Bucker arrive at the hospital, they learn that Gunner is now awake and will survive after all. Gunner deflects Bucker’s bedside attempt to confess his murderous intent and in a roundabout way says he forgives him. Both men now turn their wrath on Mary, who is ordered out of the hospital room. After she departs, Bucker begins ogling the attending nurse, who smiles at him. Gunner now thwarts his friend’s romantic intentions yet again by tossing a coin on the floor behind the nurse as she now leaves the room. Disgusted by the ploy, which intends to get her to bend over to retrieve the coin and insinuates that her affections can be bought, the nurse turns and glares at Bucker, thinking he had done it. “Please forgive him,” Gunner pleads facetiously from his bed, “He was born with a dirty brain.” The film ends with the reconciled friends squabbling once more over their differences in how they relate to women.
Fast Workers is a very watchable film, but also gives evidence that John Gilbert‘s voice was just fine. The daring world of working as a construction worker, specifically a riveter on the high skyscrapers is very dangerous work, but these guys take it all in their stride. I know I’d be scared to death if I ever had to do such work.
As noted above, Gilbert‘s voice was fine for sound films, so that myth would have been dispelled easily Fast Workers has been more successful so that more would see and hear Gilbert‘s voice. Also, it seems that while Gilbert was good in the part, he was miscast. Read an excerpt about this below:
The sound track of Fast Workers belies many the claim that John Gilbert‘s film career declined due to the advent of talking pictures and, more specifically, to the movie-going public’s negative reaction to his “unsuitable” voice. Contrary to some descriptions of Gilbert‘s voice being high-pitched and somewhat effeminate, his recorded dialogue in Fast Workers reveals a pleasant, rather rich voice, one that in both its pitch and tone is neither unusual nor somehow incompatible with the man being projected on the movie screen. In its review of the film in 1933, the trade publication Variety describes Gilbert as being “miscast in his final appearance for Metro” (actually his last as a contract star for MGM), adding that his “voice is okay but the part doesn’t suit.”
Personally, I thought Gilbert was fine for this role. While movie goers may have been more used to him playing upscale gentlemanly parts, I thought this was a good change for him. After all, in real life he did have a very modest upbringing and always had to fight to get ahead. Still, this film nor the ones that followed could undo the damage that had already been done to his career and sadly, he died in 1935.
Some photos courtesy of “DoctorMacro”