After all, Andrew Carnegie, Jay Gould, John D. Rockefeller and J. P. Morgan were all actual tycoons who were extremely ruthless with their own employees, who wanted to privatize their gains and socialize their losses, who never failed to kick any debtors when they were down, yet nobody finds their stories remarkable. Could it be Universal found this story film-worthy because Hetty Green (model for the film's protagonist) was a female tycoon at a time (late 19th, early 20th century) when no woman took charge of her own fortunes, especially after marriage, and prevailed? Plus, given her Quaker roots, her stinginess in her personal life was legendary while the aforementioned male tycoons made ostentatious displays of their wealth. I think these two things set Hetty apart. The reason I am talking about all of this is, as other reviews have noted, this film is supposed to be based on the life of Hetty Green, with the main character being Harriet Breen, skillfully played by the wonderful May Robson.
For all but the last 15 minutes or so you are convinced that Harriet cares about nothing but money. She disowns her son when he runs up a gambling debt and uses his inheritance to back the loan given to him by Breen's worst enemy, fellow tycoon William Remington. She fires the right hand man in her finance company when he falls in love with her daughter. Harriet won't let her daughter go out and be young, instead insisting that she study bookkeeping and investing so she can handle her inheritance when the time comes. She also berates the family servant to the point where the poor woman behaves like an often kicked dog. Finally, Harriet dresses in drab black outfits that others make fun of. And then comes the ending....
Surprise! (or not!) Harriet really has a heart of gold! She has been pretending all of these years and being hard on everyone she cares about just so her enemies won't use the love that she hides so well against her! And her real mission in life? To stop Remington from messing with the price of wheat and causing people to starve. It's Harriet to the rescue who has bought up all of that wheat and plans to distribute it to the hungry. Oh, and by the way, all of the villains are ruined financially by her other maneuvers. She takes back the son she really never actually disinherited and gives her blessing on her daughter's romance. The thing that is really crazy here is Harriet reveals all of this "Thin Man" style - with the villains all gathered in a room - and with Harriet wearing a grand evening gown that the actual Hetty Green would not have been caught dead in! So even in the precode era, the heroine MUST be feminine (thus the evening gown when she reveals her true self) and must have a kind heart.
Robson blows away every other performer on screen, as usual. About the only negative thing I can say is May Robson at the time this film was made was 73 years old, much too old to be playing the mother of two people in their early 20s at most. Also, as I've said before, her energy almost makes you forget the improbability of the age differences. I'd recommend it if it ever comes your way.
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