James Cagney stars as a career con artist who keeps trying to prove his worth to his girlfriend (Mary Brian) and her mother (Ruth Donnelly) through a series of promotional scams. From a rigged dance marathon and a bogus ocean pier treasure hunt, to a fat-reducing cream and a grapefruit-growing buy-in, Cagney’s character gets into one jam after another, all while his would-be mother-in-law’s allegiance shifts between him and whichever other suitor makes more money. But don’t expect any lessons to be learned in this fluffy romantic comedy. The moral of the story in this Depression-era flick seems to be, “Scam or be scammed.”
Hard to Handle is episodic in nature, without much urgency moving the plot forward, but you won’t care too much because the cast are so fun to be with. This is Cagney at his charming best in a refreshing, non-gangster role. Ruth Donnelly is the film’s other strongest asset. As the on-again, off-again mother-in-law, she provides a hefty dose of dark comedy, her affections always committed to the highest bidder among frequent exchanges. One of the funniest scenes involves Cagney’s discovery of a moisturizing cream that never rubs into the skin. To test the assertion, he practically assaults Donnelly, wrestling her to the floor and smearing her face with the substance.
The dialogue feels surprisingly modern, with witty one-liners ‘buttoning’ up scene endings, and a few repeated lines getting funnier with each echo (“Stick with me and I’ll put a gold spoon right in your kisser.”) A few sequences involve hundreds of extras and a bit of destruction — pleasant production value for any comedy. ‘Cute’ is a terrible thing to call a movie unless you really mean it, but Hard to Handle is legitimately just that.