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– Autumn/Winter 2003

A Film, a Painting, a Photograph: Some Notes on Pictorialism

Mark Lewis

Her Man (Tay Garnett, 1935)

Garnett's 1930s studio film Her Man stars now-forgotten Hollywood-actress Helen Twelvetrees, who plays a tragic young woman trapped in a cycle of forced prostitution and petty thievery. Working her trade in a fictional Caribbean port, she falls in love with one of her prospective marks played by Phillips Holmes. Towards the end of the film she is walking in the street and collides with a cyclist. For a moment her shoe gets stuck in the wheel of the bike and, as she frees herself, the shoe is catapulted across the street into the gutter where it disappears into a nearby sewer. To the immense and cruel entertainment of the collected passers-by, she walks away from the accident, hobbling on one high-heel shoe until she passes Phillips Holmes who, having secretly watched the whole episode, gathers her up forcefully in his arms and bundles her into a passing horse-drawn taxi. It is a slapstick moment; difficult to describe, it has to be seen. And it is just one of a series of visual gags and comedic moments that makes this highly formulaic and stage-bound film memorable in ways that are almost inexplicable.

Up until the moment of the shoe gag, the love story between Helen Twelvetrees and Phillips Holmes has not really begun. It has, from time to time, been the subject of some flirtation and banter between the two of them, and indeed other characters in the film