Unfinished Business (1941) for Irene Dunne

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Unfinished Business commences with a wedding ceremony we’re trying to place. Because it is not Irene Dunne getting married, although she stretches her famed vocal cords in lieu of a wedding march. It is her baby sister — the girl she’s mothered her entire life up to this point. Now that the responsibility is over with, she wants to give up motherhood to be herself. After all, she’s been settled down her entire life and now she wants to get unsettled.

She’s a rural Ohio gal and intially feels like the most simplistic, idealistic I’ve ever seen Irene Dunne in a picture. However, this might establish the wrong impression. Because Unfinished Business gives an inclination of being in the mold of Theodora Goes Wild, though it does make its own digressions in favor of a softer even sadder tone. It’s actually more complicated than it appears, and Dunne’s character is very much the same.

The whole conceit is in the title really, although it takes on multiple meanings. First, there’s the unfinished business in reference to her life thus far. And then, when she has a romantic encounter rudely sidelined and left unrequited, it’s quite something else entirely.

The heart of the story starts aboard the train she boards to who-knows-where to live a little. Instead, she gets seduced by a handsome man who’s waging a bet he can find the most attractive conquest on the train. Their expectations and the meaning of the encounter mean two very different things to both of them. She will never forget him with a starry-eyed infatuation. He’s moved on to other things and over women soon thereafter because that’s who Steve Duncan is.

Not to be totally paralyzed by love, Nancy, endeavoring for an opera career, spends her waking hours on her arias. By day she must settle for singing telephone messages to customers, a rather demeaning art compared to what she’s used to. Though it does wind up getting her a new job; the pays better even if it’s hardly a more glamorous turn.

Billy Ross is the first truly curious character actor out of the rank and file old Classical Hollywood normally bequeaths us in pictures like these. He has this sense about him that screams screwball comedy as does Eugene Pallete, though he comes later. But the distinction is how La Cava’s film never resorts to this plane of existence. This is a far cry from My Man Godfrey. At first, it seems like this is a bad thing.

Nancy’s still a few rungs below hatcheck girl hidden behind a counter at a switchboard still singing messages. At least this time she gets some company with a touch of humor in the form of Tommy Duncan (Robert Montgomery) who is, among other exploits, a noted alcoholic.

Montgomery’s delivery always feels abrupt and unsorted to me. Though I’m admittedly coming around to him because in this picture, in particular, he’s the one man who notices Nancy’s tears — going so far as to commandeer the switchboard for her. If you’re beginning to connect the dots, you’ll realize his older brother is Steve, her one-time, one-day love.

Nancy and Tommy prove to be a strange company going out together. It’s almost like they have a shared camaraderie however thinly connected. He can’t stand his brother with typical sibling syndrome, and she still harbors a melancholy flame. At any rate, they drown their sorrows with some extra hard milk.

They wake up in the morning — the valet (Eugene Pallette) calling on Mr. Duncan, his musical shoes needing a grease — and they have flown to South Carolina and gotten themselves Married! But it almost plays as matter-of-fact, not one of those wonky sitcoms episodes. The whole movie functions like this.

Nancy dresses up and goes “wild” in an effort to make up for her ho-hum existence thus far. It comes with mixed results, eliciting the grouchy contempt of their sleep-deprived butler Elmer. Part of the issue is how we only hear word of her merriment after the fact. We are robbed of the delight of Dunne going a little ditzy and a little wacky and breaking up the screen. This is not that kind of movie (although Montgomery does get an extended number with a pair of opera glasses).

Otherwise it feels subdued in comparison to other contemporary examples like My Favorite Wife or Here Comes Mr. Jordan. It’s very possible La Cava’s film was striving for a more delicate tone somewhere in between, which is certainly admirable, but it never seems to reach its optimal effectiveness.

While Dunne is always lovely and we do appreciate here more often than not, somehow the movie never feels centered even as Preston Foster and then Robert Montgomery drift into her life for different reasons. There is an emptiness to it. Can we say purposelessness?

But then maybe there you have a bit of Dunne’s predicament. Shall she wait around for love, focus on her career, marry for money? The options are in one way bountiful but no less restricting for a woman in her position.

One visually impactful scene comes right after the wrong Mrs. Duncan kisses the wrong Mr. Duncan. That is Dunne and Foster. The catty blonde at the party passes what she’s witnessed along gleefully, and the camera takes a hop, skip, and a whip across the various partygoers as the words catch like wildfire. It’s the most blatant of ripostes in a film where stories begin to quietly overlap. Still, it hardly unloads on the drama.

What sets the movie apart is probably the honesty — this underlying sense of pragmatism. I have no illusions that it is similar to Daisy Kenyon, but I remember watching that film and Joan Crawford’s role in it, which somehow felt unextraordinary. And yet I realized it was extraordinary for the ordinariness, at times, because it was so very unlike the cultivated or perceived Hollywood of the 40s, not to mention its lack of emotional hyperbole.

I’m curious if my gut reaction to Unfinished Business is very much the same. There’s an undue skill and finesse to it no doubt, but this never moved beyond observation and then admiration for an underrated director. It didn’t get to my core through laughs or drama like My Man Godrey or Stage Door, and I must simply come to terms with it.

3/5 Stars

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 oblivious, 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 the greatest screwball actress though over the subsequent years the likes of Katharine Hepburn, Jean Arthur, Rosalind Russell, and Barbara Stanwyck 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

 

Stage Door (1937)

Stage_Door_(1937)Watching Stage Door illustrates one of the pleasures of film because it’s an unassuming classic that very easily could be overshadowed by other films. Its main stars are Ginger Rogers and Katharine Hepburn, who both have numerous films more well known than this one.

However, this story about a boarding house for aspiring stage actresses is a light piece of sassy fun while still finding moments for poignancy. Rogers is a cynical dancer named Jean, and she is not too pleased to be getting a new roommate. The last one moved elsewhere after constant fighting. But the new girl, Terry Randall (Hepburn), is different. She is from a well to do family, but she is pursuing a career in acting so that she might stretch herself.

The other girls look on with an air of contempt thanks to her fine clothes and pristine manners. She doesn’t fit the mold of many of the other struggling actresses looking for their big break. Many spend their evenings trying to grab hold of a sugar daddy such as famed theatrical producer Anthony Powell (Adolph Menjou). Several of the girls have their eyes on him as they try and land a role in his next big production.

Kay Hamilton is the most well-liked girl in the house and arguably one of the most gifted performers. She opened the year before in a production that won her rave reviews, however, a year later she has yet to get another break, and she is running out of funds. Powell’s show is her last big chance. Thus, when Powell cancels her audition last minute for a trivial reason, Kay faints and an irate Terry bursts into his office to confront him. He is initially turned off, but then he chooses her for the lead role of the upcoming Enchanted April.

Although the girls were beginning to warm to Terry, Jean has trouble forgiving her as tragedy strikes. In fact, Terry almost refuses to go on stage altogether, and yet she goes out and gives an emotional performance that is hailed by critics. In the end, Terry and Jean are reconciled which is far more important than any type of fanfare.

In many ways, Gregory La Cava’s Stage Door feels similar to The Women (1939). Both films have casts with women in the primary roles and the stories are at times volatile, with so much drama and many zinging comebacks. Some of this was courtesy of the supporting cast which included such legendary comediennes as Lucille Ball and Eve Arden. Ann Miller is even present, but at its core Stage Door is Ginger and Katharine’s film. Pardon my curiosity, but did Fred and Spencer ever do a film like this?

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