It is interesting to look at a Directors work when they move out of there comfortable genre hence we look at Tod Browning FAST WORKERS from 1933. Mr Browning was known for his work with Lon Chaney Sr in the silent cinema. He primarily worked the best within the “circus’ or ‘sideshow” world of which he was from in an early part of his life. Tod Browning’s made this picture after doing his misunderstood masterpiece is FREAKS (1932) which one could say was the mixture of revulsion and revenge. FAST WORKERS takes him out of the comfort zone and into still an enclosed world of the construction worker on a high rise building yet with still the same theme of revenge on a lower scale.
FAST WORKERS features silent matinee idol John Gilbert as Gunner Smith Riveter and a “Man’s man” in an tough occupation. Robert Armstrong of KING KONG (1933) fame is his buddy Bucker Reilly. The vastly underrated Mae Clarke plays Mary; the love interest that comes between the two friends which results in the rather odd ending. Mae Clarke’s Mary supports herself by taking money from men that she can play for yet she still marries Bucker. Mary is often bitter and cynical yet loves the money under that sweet exterior that breaks during an argument scene with Bucker.
Tod Browning and James Whale both share the trait of an underlying sense of cruelty in their films. The James Whale Directed SHOWBOAT (1933) has a image of a crying lost child inserted into a song sequence. Tod Browning for some reason puts armadillos in Dracula’s crypt in the DRACULA (1931). FAST WORKERS (1933) features characters that do cruel things to each other like Gunner Smith tossing a dime on the ground so a woman Bucker is interested in will pick it up. Socially that action means you think the woman is cheap and will do anything for a dime. This happens twice in the film each time making sure Bucker is never going to be happy. What sort of friend does that to another? This act also sets the stage for Bucker doing what he does on the job site to Gunner once again bring the revenge aspect forward.
John Gilbert talks in this picture contrary to belief that his voice was not suitable for the new media. Gilbert was also the on screen and off screen lover of Greta Garbo and a few other along with a prolific career at MGM in a variety of roles. Various stories came out regarding why Gilbert’s career failed the most prevalent being that he upset Louie B Mayer who ran MGM like a fiefdom with his continued affairs and disregard for following rules. Mayer in an act of revenge that he apparently did before sped up Gilbert’s voice recordings and told the press he was unfit for talking film. John Gilbert died of a heart attack resulting from alcoholism in 1936 never again to be a star he once was. Mirroring the plot of FAST WORKER: Mayer’s revenge was complete.
Keep in mind Mayer was the head of MGM who was called first when Paul Bern was found dead after wedding Jean Harlow. Mayer re arranged the crime scene before the police were called supposedly planting the suicide note. This is all conjecture of course but the studios all has Fixers and MGM’s was one hard nosed Eddie Mannix.
FAST WORKER (1933) is a quirky film filled with people all with bitter past that takes its toll. It is actually from a play called “RIVETS” with Tod Browning as the film’s producer and director. John Gilbert’s image has already been destroyed in the public eye as he was thought of as not being a talking tough guy so he was given this rough role to change it yet many say he was miscast in. I tend to agree with that to an extent since it could have been a Clark Gable role as he was on same lot. FAST WORKERS is still a good watch for the character dynamics and the presence of Mae Clark the other supporting actors including young Sterling Holloway. FAST WORKERS perhaps refers to people getting what they want by pulling a ‘fast one”.