In Name Only (1939): Carole & Cary

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If you know very little about In Name Only and only see the two acting forces who lead the charge: Cary Grant and Carole Lombard, you would come to expect a comedy on almost any given occasion. Oddly enough, this movie is very much a melodrama, though our two stars have fine chemistry and meet in what very well could have been the beginnings of a fine screwball romance under different circumstances.

Julie Eden (Lombard) is doing her best to fly fish, but the overhanging trees are trying even harder to impede her progress. The typical scowling Lombard stanky eye is hard at work, while another familiar face wonders into view from on horseback — only to have her line snag on the tree right near him. He eyes it wryly.

A moment later Alec Walker (Grant) introduces himself as she sheepishly continues — this was all perfectly normal and she meant to do everything — only for him to tell her there hasn’t been any fish in the pond for 20 years. They are one pratfall away from screwball comic proportions, and yet they chart an alternative course.

She has a young daughter. Her husband has died and so she gets by on her own. And Alec, while it’s easy enough to surmise he’s yet another happy-go-lucky Cary Grant playboy, not so fast with your judgments.

He wanders back to a family estate, uncomfortable in the rooms, dodging the needling questions of his concerned father (Charles Coburn), and avoiding the gaze of his perfectly upstanding wife (Kay Francis)…That’s it, isn’t it? He’s already married and these first impressions suggest, unhappily so.

Ironically, divorce proves a crucial element of the plot on this occasion like its counterparts within the subset of “Comedy of Remarriage,” most of which came into being solely because of the rigid structure of the Production Codes. The fact divorce is uttered at all — beyond simply a euphemistic trip to Reno — is, in itself, slightly novel.

If one is to find fault with In Name Only, in retrospect, the plot feels akin to putting such talented actors as Grant and Irene Dunne in a drama like Penny Serenade when you already had them together in such an uproarious movie like The Awful Truth.

In other words, despite the quality of the movie,  it’s a minor letdown because, in this case, we don’t even have another hilarious pairing of the two heavyweights to fall back on (although they were paired in two earlier dramas).

Regardless, we must take it for what it is and enjoy what does work. To dispel any fears, In Name Only isn’t primarily a sudser — at least not in the beginning. In fact, with a pair such as Grant and Lombard as they drum up their romantic rapport together, they can’t help but be sweet, sprinkling in their normally humorous proclivities.

It comes naturally when dealing with the situations around them. Namely, for Grant, it involves the gossips and snooty company he’s forced to parley with — folks he has no tolerance for. On one occasion over Thanksgiving, he very blatantly requests the waiter to bring a very sharp knife with his steak. All the better to poke or, better yet, cut the throat of the insufferable Suzanne (Helen Vinson).

For that matter, it’s a positive delight to see Kay Francis make a prominent return to the screen. Her box office pull had waned significantly since the first half of the decade. Still, despite the change in genre, she comes to play. Francis proves wonderfully manipulative — positively lowdown and conniving — those iconic features of hers intent on any cold mode of deception to get their way.

As Alec’s wife, she’s constantly nettling him in subtle ways — playing mental games to make his life miserable — as he’s made to look the cad. However, she hides her perfidiousness between a perfectly manicured matrimonial mask. The in-laws remain constantly on her side as she easily casts herself as the victim and makes her husband the unsung villain. But for the movie to work, we must be in his corner, despite all else. Who are we kidding? He’s Cary Grant. Despising him is a tall order (Notorious wasn’t released yet).

Mere friendship cannot be maintained under such conditions. Not only does society frown upon it, Julie cannot bear to exist in such a manner. Instead, she desires to never see him again, in an effort to not make life any harder and the feelings more complicated than they already are.

Because left untethered, humans can always play the wishful what-if games until you must actually deal with cold, hard reality. In this story, Grant is married and there’s no dismissing the facts.

Remember these were the days when the institution of marriage was taken very seriously (which is not necessarily a bad thing), but it does become an issue when people get into it who never seemed to love one another in the first place — it’s a bit like living a lie. The solution seems easy enough. They aren’t happy together. Surely an amicable split is in order. Cary asks. Kay condones it. Easy as pie…

And thus, the film lulls into an interim period that all comes too easily — no kicking and screaming spouse, no broken furniture or anything like that. After all, Maida’s M.O. is far more cunning. She has an altogether more insidious plan laid out for her husband, who is thanking his lucky stars he’s had such an easy time of it. He could not be more mistaken.

As alluded to, Maida is prepared for the long haul. She drags the proceedings out, tying them up with “red tape,” and handcuffing Alec and Judie in a constant state of prolonged limbo, month after month. It’s no life existing in purgatory. One after another, holidays come and go without any change, capped off with a Christmas surprise.

Narrative logic says reality must get worse before it can get better. In Name Only goes for the jugular. Maida seems to have achieved a satisfactory victory. Then, a defeated Alec goes on a binge and comes down with a horrible illness in the aftermath. It’s uncertain how any amount of solace or romantic equilibrium can be reestablished.

Gratefully, in one final moment of catharsis, she is ousted in front of the parents. We’ve waited long and hard for this justice, and it feels good. One is forced to ask, “At what cost?” The credits roll in providentially so we don’t have to linger on the consequence, only the emotion. Cary Grant on his deathbed isn’t an altogether familiar image or a welcomed one, for that matter. Still, this drama has its share of welcomed interludes bolstered by the main triumvirate of talent.

3.5/5 Stars

8 Underrated Screwball Comedies

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Screwball comedies, like film noir, have a fairly devoted following and although they were very much of their time, they still have descendants and influences on the movies coming out today.

Many of the heavy hitters from the 30s and 40s are household names, but I thought it would be fun to highlight a few titles that fewer people might think about in conversations surrounding screwball comedies. Let me know what you think!

Theodora Goes Wild (1936)

Irene Dunne is a great person to start this list off with because I always enjoy her films and yet she oftentimes feels woefully forgotten. In this zany vehicle, she is the eponymous title character who, while living a life of propriety in a small town, actually moonlights as quite the titillating author. Her life gets flipped upside down when one of the city slickers (Mervyn Douglas) finds out her secret.

Easy Living (1937)

It’s true a whole movie can be born out of a fur coat dropping from the sky, and it builds into a wonderfully raucous narrative thanks to the wonky scripting of Preston Sturges. Jean Arthur and Edward Arnold make a fine pair and send the town into a tizzy when rumors start circulating about the extent of their relationship. Ray Milland also proves why he was a much sought after rom-com lead.

It’s Love I’m After (1937)

It’s a dream cast with Leslie Howard, Bette Davis, and Olivia de Havilland in a dream scenario: a love triangle dressed up with Shakespearean theatricality. What better bedfellow for screwball comedy as Howard puts on a performance to rebuff a starstruck fan girl and earn back his jealous co-star. Eric Blore is stupendous as per usual.

True Confession (1937)

It’s courtroom drama meets screwball romance with Carole Lombard giving one of her most frenzied performances as a serial fibber who pleads guilty to an egregious crime so she can drum up some publicity for her husband (Fred MacMurray), a struggling lawyer in need of a big case. Una Merkel and John Barrymore show up to supply some added character.

Merrily We Live (1938)

Here is a movie that’s good-naturedly built out of the mode of My Man Godfrey. It’s about a family of idle rich: Constance Bennett, Billie Burke, Clarence Kolb, and Bonita Granville, of all people! They’re a constant whirlwind of ditzy entertainment around the breakfast table, and they quite unwittingly pull a passerby (Brian Aherne) into their comic vortex. Chaos ensues.

Vivacious Lady (1938)

Ginger Rogers and Jimmy Stewart have a glowing chemistry. However, their recent marriage has a wrench thrown into it when they head home to meet the parents. The word never got to them, and Charles Coburn, in one of his most obstinate performances, will never approve. Ginger uses all her tricks to woo her husband’s family over and fight off any rivals with her unparalleled catfighting skills. It’s as delightful as it sounds.

The Rage of Paris (1938)

Spunky Danielle Darrieux and Douglas Fairbanks Jr. spar across social lines with your typical screwball romance riddled with conflict transplanted to Paris and the French countryside. What Henry Koster brings is his usual heart-warming tone, and with support from the likes of Helen Broderick and Misca Auer, the material receives a dose of extra comedic oomph.

The Devil and Miss Jones (1941)

Here is the original uncover boss with the always cantankerous Charles Coburn slinking around his own department store. Not only does he come to understand his employees’ dissatisfaction with their work, through the eyes of Jean Arthur and Robert Cummings, he also learns what real friendship is. The movie is blessed with that wonderful one-two combo of uproarious antics and genuine heart.

Let me know what screwball comedies you would include!

My Man Godfrey (1936)

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There’s a key moment in My Man Godrey where the ditzy Irene Bullock (Carole Lombard) giddily announces to her mother, “Godfrey loves me. He put me in the shower!” Her mother’s response could best be described as one of indignance but it’s a barrel of laughs for the audience. Because this film is full of off-the-wall remarks which taken out of context are so peculiar you don’t even want to attempt to understand.

That’s the beauty of this screwball comedy from the often underrated Gregory La Cava, best known for this picture and the following year’s Stage Door. Otherwise, the script is courtesy of Morrie Ryskind a veteran of some of the Marx Brothers’ comedies.

It opens as a biting satire of the affluent masses occupied by inane decadence and a multitude of frivolous diversions from scavenger hunts to parading livestock around in front of their friends. The screenwriter’s efforts were well worth it no doubt but the cast indubitably breaths incredible gales of life into the material with each battling for laugh after laugh.

The following interludes repeatedly exhibit perhaps the wackiest, most melodramatic family of comedy from most any decade. It comes from having too much time on their hands, too much money, and not enough sense. They’re a real screwy bunch. We meet the two Bullock daughters (Lombard and Gail Patrick) as they try and outdo each other in the middle of the previously mentioned scavenger hunt, searching out “a forgotten man.” They have no concern for who he is and how he lives. Only that he might win them the game.

Still, the said man plays along and somehow finds himself hired on by young Irene as the family’s latest butler to not only spite her older sister but also so that she might have a protege and maybe due to an inkling of a girlish crush. It makes little sense, only to say her mother’s protege is a musician named Carlo (Mischa Auer) who is good for very little except offering up the pretense of culture and eating them out of the house.

But Godfrey proves to be just about the best butler that the Bullock’s ever could muster, navigating their morning routines of hangovers and playing straight-man to the incessant chaos that constantly swarms around him. On their part, they are so self-absorbed and obliviousness, they never seem to question how perfectly he has transformed into a butler. Surely, he cannot actually have been “a forgotten man” from off a trash heap? But no, they don’t concern themselves with such things. It goes unnoticed.

It seems like each member of the family has their special calling card.  They are a bunch of bubbleheads and Carole Lombard is the queen of them all, though mother (Alice Brady) is equally effervescent and a tad asinine. That’s  a part of her charm. She also flatters very easily.

Meanwhile, the other daughter Cornelia (Patrick) is more acidic, purring like a feline ready to pounce and make her sister pay for whatever trivial affront she’s perpetrated. Because, truthfully, they’re just a whole clan of boorish rich people who have no idea what’s happening to the world on the outside — if that point has not already been asserted enough. They’ve probably never heard of The Great Depression much less felt its true effects.

Mr. Bullock (Eugene Pallette) probably has it the worst as the long-suffering father — the nearest thing to a sane individual in the entire family. Still, you can’t live in a house of such madness and not have a few unhinged moments of your own. He’s constantly finding himself piping up amid the bedlam his gravelly voice trying to secure even a moments peace. He rarely succeeds.

Again, Godfrey is the calming force that brings a modicum amount of stability to such a place. He along with the veteran maid Molly (Jean Dixon) navigate the choppy waters of melodrama every day as Irene becomes increasingly infatuated, her emotional outbursts becoming more frequent, and Cornelia looking for any way to possibly make his life miserable to get him fired. Still, he goes about his duties.

And that’s part of the joke at the core of this film. The “forgotten man,” this tramp coming up against their own upper-class sensibilities and coming out looking like the true human being with brains and class and culture. Except it’s really a joke within a joke because maybe Godfrey is more than we first perceived him to be. In fact, he’s a lot more.

Pair such a raucous cast with some top tier comic patter that sizzles with wit and you’ve just happened upon the most wonderful mess imaginable. There might be other screwball comedies I enjoy more, but few are as hairbrained as My Man Godfrey and that is a grand word of praise for this brand of comedy. If it’s not stark raving bonkers it can hardly claim the name screwball honestly. No such problem exists here.

William Powell is a natural in this role showcasing that typical dry wit of his that effortlessly pokes fun at these people but also seems to appreciate them for all their shortcomings even finding time to truly respect them in the sincerest of ways. As per usual, Carole Lombard is so over the top to the nth degree with her sniveling zaniness spilling over into every scene.

In the past, I mistook her performances as a sheer annoyance but now I see how perfect she is for such a part. There’s an overwhelming commitment to the craziness that pays heavy dividends and by the film’s end, she’s overrun everyone with her energy — even Godfrey. He has no rebuttal.

For a time she was no doubt the greatest screwball actress though over the subsequent years the likes of Katharine Hepburn, Jean Arthur, Rosalind Russell, and Barbara Stanwyck no doubt gave her a run for her money. Still, there’s something undeniable about being the first and, in many ways, she was that woman.

If there were any residual ill feelings between Powell and Lombard now three years out from their divorce, there’s no visible animosity and together they succeed in forging My Man Godfrey into a classic screwball through and through.

4.5/5 Stars

 

Nothing Sacred (1937)

 13094-nothingsacred2Before His Girl Friday (1940) came, there was another screwball comedy about journalism, the perfect scoop, and deception. After getting on the bad side of his boss, newsman Wally Cook (Frederic March) is demoted from the living and forced to write obituaries. It’s quite the awful setup and Cook desperately looks for another story to get him in the good graces of the Morning Star’s editor.

The perfect news flash has just come up in the form of a woman who is soon going to die of radium poisoning, and so Wally Cook goes to meet her. Heading up from New York, he ends in the one horse town in Vermont. He meets a lot of unobliging people whose vocabulary is limited to “Yup” and “Nope.” He finally comes across the crying girl who has just left an appointment with a doctor. He comforts the girl cheering her up by promising a trip to the big city where she will be treated like royalty (And he’ll get his story). So Hazel Flagg soon becomes the sweetheart of New York with public appearances at Madison Square Garden, parades, poems, articles and special honors. It’s all going according to Cook’s plan, the only thing is that Hazel is not actually ill.

That’s a wrench in the plan and soon it becomes evident that Cook will look like a cad. To make matters worse, he’s falling for her and his editor Oliver Stone is all over him. Now he must take part in Hazel’s charade, despite his annoyance. She too is annoyed and ends the game so the two lovebirds can elope. Still, the story of Hazel is given a romanticized ending that the public deserves.

Frederic March is decent as the desperate and long-suffering journalist. Carole Lombard is her typical light-headed, whimsy, high-strung, scatterbrained, sniveling self. It proves to be a volatile combination partnered with Ben Hecht’s script. The news industry loses a lot of its self-respect for the sake of laughs because nothing’s sacred. Some might be interested to know that it was shot in glorious technicolor and it was the only time Lombard would appear in a technicolor film. She would, of course, die in a tragic plane crash in 1942.

This film was quite short so the story moved quickly and there were definitely some screwy moments. I am however partial to His Girl Friday and some of the other more well-known screwballs.

3.5/5 Stars

To Be or Not to Be (1942)

Starring Jack Benny and Carole Lombard with director Ernst Lubitsch, the film follows a group of actors in Poland during the outbreak of World War II. All too soon their act seems to be in jeopardy and they must put on the most important performance of their lives. Benny and Lombard are a husband and wife acting duo, who with the help of their troupe must stop a spy from giving damaging information to the Nazis. With the help of their acting and disguises, they are able to pull off the monumental task. This satire is so extraordinary because it made fun of the Nazis and found humor in that subject at the same time their villainy was occurring. Benny certainly seems out of place in Poland and he is not much when it comes to performing Hamlet, but I suppose that’s part of his charm. He is so vain and suspicious of his wife and yet he ends up a hero.

When I first saw this film I expected major laughs and it really does not have that, at least not in the way that Chaplin lampooned Hitler in the Great Dictator. Here Lubitsch weaves a somewhat darker story and yet it causes us to smile because of this Polish acting troupe that embodies the words of Shakespeare that “All the world’s a stage.” He meant it to be metaphorical but they take it to heart and their acting turns into reality. The bit player Greenberg goes as far as reciting the Jewish part of Shylock from the Merchant of Venice and it ultimately saves their lives. As such the film often switches back in forth from stage to actuality and pretty soon it is hard to separate them. The the plight of these people was close to Lubitsch, but he also was adept at the romantic comedy. Thus, despite the constant bickering and the trials faced by Joseph and Maria Tura, we cannot help but laugh at their love story. To Be or Not to Be is not your everyday comedy, but instead it occupies its own unique niche. Hopefully no one walks out on it!

4/5 Stars

My Man Godfrey (1936)

24635-my_man_godfreyStarring William Powell and Carole Lombard with a zany cast of others, the film follows a funny socialite daughter who takes a “Forgotten Man” as her family’s butler. Godfrey takes the job and soon learns how to cope with the scatterbrained girl, her stuck up sister, their ditsy mother, their long suffering father, and Carlo who is the man patronized by Mrs. Bullock. On accident Godfrey comes in contact with an old friend and his secret almost comes out. In the cover up Lombard’s character believes him to be married with children. Because she loves him, she goes away to Europe to try and forget him. However, upon hearing the truth, she is ecstatic and Godfrey finds himself being married all of the sudden. This is a good example of the screwball comedies of the 1930s and I will admit, it is a pretty good film.

4/5 Stars

Twentieth Century (1934)

63742-twentieth-century-post1Starring John Barrymore and Carol Lombard with direction by Howard Hawks, this archetypal screwball comedy revolves around a frenetic impresario and the emotional girl he made into a household name on Broadway. 

Oscar Jaffe is the undisputed king of Broadway and after he christens the inexperienced Mildred Plotka, Lily Garland, she becomes his box office Queen. He makes her into a great actress and their numerous collaborations turn out success after success. However, as several years pass Lily is fed up and she ends her connection with Jaffe in a volatile falling out after she finds that he has hired a private investigator to keep tabs on her. Without his starlet Jaffe produces flop after flop and he is endangered of being jailed by his backers. He escapes in disguise and boards the Twentieth Century Limited train. He is accompanied by his two quirky assistants and it just so happens that Lily has boarded that same train. Jaffe sees it as a chance to make amends, but Lily will have nothing of it. They have some more frenzied confrontations on the train as Jaffe tries to convince her to star in his next project. In a last ditch effort he pretends to be deathly ill after a scuffle so that she will sign a contract in her distress. In the end she proves to truly care for him and once again they are back on Broadway, Lily Garland star extraordinaire, and Oscar Jaffe the domineering visionary. 

Along with It Happened One Night, this is one of the early examples of the screwball comedies. This was a perfect practice run at it for Howard Hawks who would direct the more well-known Bringing Up Baby in 1938. The leading performers are absolutely chaotic and over the top in their performances, but it’s the way it should be. Furthermore, like most screwball comedies the odd supporting characters are often a great source of laughs. The extended train sequence here reminded me somewhat of The Palm Beach Story another raucous film.
 
4/5 Stars