Merrily We Live! (1938): My Man Godfrey Redux

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What a harebrained movie this is in all the best ways. The origins of Merrily We Live themselves are a tad murky or, at the very least, convoluted. It’s purportedly based on the novel The Dark Chapter, which subsequently received a Broadway adaptation, They All Want Something. There was a film in 1930, What a Man, with a similar vignette about a chauffeur falling in love with a woman. But for the classic film aficionado, basic similarities to My Man Godfrey are obvious enough to warrant some amount of comparison.

It is a shame ensuing generations have mostly forgotten Constance Bennett. (I must admit to paying more attention to her sister Joan.) Our leading man and amiable Englishman Brian Adherne is obliging if generally uninteresting. Certainly, we don’t have the pinpoint comic delivery of William Powell or the sheer frenzied force of comedic fury that is Carole Lombard so in this regard, Merrily We Live is a lesser effort, but that does not mean it can’t offer up its own mercurial delights.

We trade out a supporting cast of Alice Brady, Eugene Pallette, and Gail Patrick with one arguably just as good calling on the talents of Billie Burke, Clarence Kolb, and Bonita Granville. Alan Mowbray is one of the lone holdouts from the earlier picture. Thus, there is barely a drop in quality, which leads one to marvel at the sheer prolific nature of these character actors. It really was the heyday of the bit roles with actors building up such robust catalogues of appearances and seamlessly sliding into role after role.

The help, headed by Grosvenor (Mowbray), is constantly in disarray as the vexed valet threatens to walk out on his duties time and time again for all the egregious infractions he has to put up with. The latest affront was an unseen tramp named Ambrose (these character names are gold) who ran off with the family silver.

The breakfast table is an arena and a convenient microcosm for the wacky family dynamics to play out in farcical fashion. This particular morning, since there is a sudden lack of silverware in the house, the family must make do with any amount of ladles, chisels, and hammers. It’s highly irregular, but they are no normal menage.

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We are blessed with another ridiculously rich and dysfunctional family of bickering oddballs. Constance Bennett, as the eldest daughter Geraldine “Jerry,” has a grand old time being mildly amused by the utter chaos that makes up their day-to-day in the lap of luxury and excess. She’s not quite as high-strung as Lombard before her, but bouncing off her family members is entertainment enough.

Baby sister Marion (Bonita Granville) is ready to whine and prank her way into getting funds for her latest scheme. She’s part whiny brat and certainly a budding comedienne. One need only remember her chilling turn in These Three to realize how starkly different she is. Then, their brother’s always bickering and complaining about the siblings he’s been saddled with.

Billie Burke is at her most ditsy-headed cycling through absent-minded hilarity and bubble-brained insufferableness. What’s not to like? She even holds a dinner party a la Dinner at Eight. Consequently, she’s also the source of some of this constant disarray with her most recent hobby of collecting “forgotten men” and bringing them on as servants. Ambrose was her latest pet project and also the most recent disaster.

Clarence Kolb is at his most physically brilliant given more than a mere scene or two to flex his comic talents. He doesn’t disappoint alongside his wacky costars. I’ve never been so delighted with his characterization while attempting to eat his breakfast or taking a cab home after becoming completely wasted.

The family is rounded out by their two absurdly named pooches “Get Off The Rug” and “You Too,” not to mention Mrs. Kilbourne’s pride and joys “Fishy Wishy.” It’s not so much pure spastic energy but the off-the-cuff remarks and sudden jolts of absurdity and slapstick carrying the film to its conclusion. These elements are what drag the story along its merry path of craziness with or without major plot points.

Of course, we would be remiss not to mention Rawlins (Adherne), the most important new piece in the screwball equation, acting as a bit of a willing catalyst for all the mayhem inside the mansion’s walls. There has to be one normal lout, and so he conveniently fits the bill as the resident straight man.

It begins when his car goes hurtling over the side of the road. He’s an author with no means of communication. His only recourse is to find a telephone. His attire and Mrs. Kilbourne’s dull-headed insistence pull him into the house quite by accident.

All he wants is to make his phone call, but he good-naturedly acquiesces when Mrs. brings him on to work as their new chauffeur. It’s a bit of good fun. This is the key. He gladly enables their quirkiness playing along with their daily madcap rituals.

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One moment he’s assisting a fawning Jerry into the first-floor window after her flirtatious solicitation. Then, he’s covering for Mr. Kilbourne when he comes home from a bender with his buddies, as a cabbie tries to take advantage of him. The list of duties could go on and on, and very few of them have to do with his recently acquired occupation.

One of my personal high points from the movie includes Grosvenor repeatedly clunking into the chimes in the dining room, matched by the breakfast chatter. It’s not highbrow, but somehow I find this tromping around and people falling to the ground faint uproariously funny, in the right circumstances.

Merrily We Live is just the film, though one must admit it ends far too abruptly to do itself any favors. It’s a movie that’s never about the story anyway; it’s the brief instances of near serendipitous comic verve seemingly bottled more by accident than any amount of scripting. These are the interludes to truly relish and they just might be worth another viewing — once my blood pressure has settled down again.

3.5/5 Stars

Topper (1937): Cary Grant’s a Ghost

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We know what kind of movie we’re in for upon meeting Cary Grant, whistling a merry tune, as he drives his fancy wheels with his feet. His wife — a quizzical platinum blonde played to perfection by Constance Bennett — stares up at him in amusement. They are a picture of fun-loving decadence out of The Nick and Nora Charles mode.

Understandably, they are the main draw in Norman Z. McLeod’s corkscrew fantasy comedy but like its distant relative, The Thin Man, someone else’s name actually garners the title. In this particular instance, it is Mr. Topper (Roland Young), a highly successful businessman who is, nevertheless, enslaved by his rigid regimen, and it’s not of his own accord. His stifling spouse has cultivated his humdrum life like clockwork to her own liking. We don’t envy the man, hustled and harried as he is every day, with his breakfasts and innumerable sensibly scheduled appointments.

You quite forget Billie Burke can be insufferable in a different manner as the quietly exacting wife, giving the impression of a woman constantly on the verge of indignance, her voice teetering on the edge of fragility. I hardly believe myself saying this, but I like her at her more titteringly giddy spectrum. At least she’s allowed to be sympathetic; bubble-headed but sympathetic. If the point hasn’t been made apparent already, this enforced tedium is the baseline of the cinematic world needing to be spiced up by the Kerbies and their happy-go-lucky prodigality.

If we can hone in on a turning point, Topper really hits its stride in death — the death of Mr. and Mrs. Kirby, that is. Because as is the habit in the fantasy mills of Old Hollywood, our couple dies only to come back as ghostly versions of themselves, appearing and reappearing as easily as a snap of the figure.

They pull themselves away from the wreckage of their automobile and have their first out of body experience. Played straight, it would seem ghastly, but they are as gay and chipper as ever, nonchalantly debating how they’ll get through the pearly gates. Everything they did (or didn’t) learn in Sunday school says they need to do some good deeds. Regrettably, they’ve been living on the high horse for too long; they haven’t actually gotten around to the greatest commandment: loving their neighbors.

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Their pet project is “Toppy,” and he’s in need of vivification. His one act of rebellion against his wife is purchasing George Kirby’s old automobile. This is the foot in the door after he gets into a near-death fender bender of his own. It leads to his first out of body reunion with his old friends.

The movie effectively utilizes old-fashioned special effects dating back to the days of George Melies, making it effortless for Toppy’s two guardian socialites to drop in and out of his visual field. As an invisible Mr. Kirby makes himself useful changing the tire, Toppy is teased by the lady Kirby as she blows on a blade of grass like a giddy schoolgirl. It’s our first chance to play with the logic, the fact only the audience and Toppy are availed of seeing the deceased.

Because what’s really a treat are the ghosts and the ghosted. The ones who are oblivious to the somewhat explainable supernatural acts around them. We get similar moments in Here Comes Mr. Jordan and even It’s a Wonderful Life when the concrete and ethereal collide in a most comical fashion.

Roland Young does an admirable job in the part, and he’s on par with any number of the comparable characters of the day and age whether a Charlie Ruggles or Leo G. Carroll, though slightly less well-remembered for whatever reason. He finally has some pizzazz injected into his every day as the Kirby’s indulge his budding interests in wine, dancing, and song. He’s hardly a party animal, still, he gives it a go.

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It leads to a brawl in front of a restaurant that they must bail him out of and then a handful encounters with a hoodwinked doorman. At best, Mr. Topper is the hapless figure caught in the spectral screwball chaos with the Kirbys pulling all the strings for him. Unfortunately, the storyline becomes too stagnant without the constant presence of Grant and Bennett, visually or otherwise.

Toppy finds a new standard of living and comes to reconcile with his wife. These are wonderful things, mind you, but it feels like the movie itself has compromised and gone away from what really makes it zing — that is the screwball antics of its true leading couple. Without them, it feels insipid and frankly trite, arriving at its unequivocally saccharine ending.

He is the one playing it straight, in a boring perfunctory manner because this is what is requested of him. But there are a handful of quality character moments of note. Certainly, a befuddled house detective played by Eugene Palette is always good for a lark. Alan Mowbray is his typical snooty Jeeves-like valet and even Hoagy Carmichael shows up (in his screen debut) to knock back a tune on the honky-tonk with Cary and Constance.

I couldn’t help thinking, I wish our two dazzling leads had partnered in another rom-com. After all, Powell and Loy got together for over 12 offerings. Alas, it was not meant to be. It makes Topper even more crucial in charting the rise of the Cary Grant we would come to know and also an oft-forgotten starlet in Constance Bennett.

3/5 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!

Topper (1937)

e1812-topper_lobby_cardThis fantasy comedy starring Cary Grant and Constance Bennett opens with a married couple flying down the road in their automobile. The unusual thing is that George Kerby is driving with his feet and that pretty much sums of this pair straight from the beginning. They live a wild, fun-filled life full of wealth and parties. However, all this craziness gets them killed when George takes on a curve in the road too fast. They decide as a good deed they must brighten up someone else’s life. Their subject of choice is Mr. Topper, an older fellow from the bank where George had acquired a great deal of stock. He is rather like a grumpy but lovable old dog who just does not want any excitement. The ghosts’ of the Kerbys change that however causing “Toppie” to get his name in the gossip columns after a stay at a chaotic vacation spot. His stuffy wife is dismayed, and his butler is peeved, but finally Topper is starting to enjoy life thanks to the prodding and trouble making of the Kerbys. This film has some good moments, but I would say that Grant’s comedy roles would just keep getting better after this one. 
 
3.5/5 Stars