Together Again (1944): Boyer and Dunne

The film’s title couldn’t be more true as Irene Dunne and Charles Boyer pooled their talents for a third go-around, and what a pleasant experience it is. If it wasn’t evidenced by the soaring romance and light comedy of Love Affair and When Tomorrow Comes, they share that thing that is so often conveniently distilled into the word “chemistry.” You can’t bottle it, and it’s rarely a given. Still, on the screen together, something tangible happens.

In this regard, the plot almost feels of secondary importance though Together Again begins with a quirky and, frankly, intriguing premise. One of the most prominent landmarks in the town of Brookhaven, is a giant statue to the late Mayor Crandall.

After his sudden departure from this mortal coil, his wife Anne (Dunne) was quick to shoulder the responsibility. Now she lives in their home with her curmudgeonly father-in-law (Charles Coburn) and a histrionic daughter (Mona Freeman), who is beside herself with hysteria. You see, the head of her beloved father is knocked clean off his body by a stray lightning bolt.

Being the faithful civil servant that she is, the mayor sets aside her day-to-day duties post haste in order to enlist the services of a sculptor. She takes a day trip to the city in order to requisition the new statue, but the artist she calls upon is hardly who she was expecting. Then again, George Corday (Boyer) was hardly expecting to meet such a beautiful mayor. Every mayor he’s ever known was a stodgy old man. They’re both taken aback.

Despite her misgivings, she manages to get talked into going to a quiet little club only to renege their partnership. He’s not the kind of innocuous creative type she had in mind to do justice to their sleepy little town. Obviously, Boyer smolders too much with latent passion and charisma. He unnerves her.

Could the movie be over? She wanders off to the powder room. She looks curiously like the showgirl providing the floorshow. Then, the attendant offers to iron her dress with a wet spot. Minutes later, a raid and someone running off with her garment, means she’s caught in a compromising position when the police waltz in. If we see it coming from a mile away, the beauty of the character is how she walks into it all so innocently.

Anne flees her hotel before Corday can catch her, and she tries to ignore her obscured face on the scandal sheets. It’s all a horrible misunderstanding that she tries to dismiss. When she returns home, a new extravagant hat in tow (she can’t seem to misplace it), she’s practically jumping out of her shoes.

The evolution of Dunne in the picture might be familiar to those who’ve witnessed her about-face in Theodora Goes Wild. There’s this sense of propriety that all a sudden is besieged with all the fits and giggles, quirks, and foibles one comes to expect in a screwy brand of comedy. As her daughter observes, she’s become a little “leapy.”

As mayor, she’s supposed to “keep her shirt on,” but she’s concerned what happened on her little excursion will come out and, of course, it does. This time it’s not Melvyn Douglas but Charles Boyer catching her in her “lie” so to speak. She’s traded out a salacious novel-writing career for a wild night of accidental indiscretion that might rattle her upright standing as mayor of her small town. Her beau even winds up sleeping on the premises much in the same manner of Douglas before him.

It doesn’t offer too much in the realm of invention, but the ongoing rapport of Dunne and Boyer keeps things convivial enough as they get caught up in your typical entanglements. Upon meeting him for the first time, Diana swoons and young love sweeps over her as she tries to dress the part and act more cultured, spending extra time plonking away at the piano. Why she even addresses him in French, when heading off to school, dropping a refined “Bonsoir” bright and early in the morning.

As her daughter tries to impress upon this gentleman her newfound womanhood, Anne unwittingly shows off a bit of her youth, with a becoming new hairstyle and a less fastidious demeanor. As Diana’s main beau, the lanky Gilbert “Good Night” Parker (Jerome Courtland), finds himself more and more scorned; his spirits are lifted by a show of kindness from Mrs. Crandall. He simultaneously alights on his own amorous advances.

There’s nothing particularly inspired in these beats. It’s Dunne and Boyer who continue to make it amicable. Under the circumstances, it’s difficult to consider any two people we would rather see together in the scenario. Coburn for one is tickled pink to finally see his daughter-in-law going in with another eligible man.

The denouement of the movie does provide some mixed signals. Granted, they feel like the status quo dichotomy in 1944. It seems Anne must make a choice between love and duty — her job as mayor or a life away from the stifling town — they are presented as mutually exclusive.

Boyer plays a bit of the cad in the final act when it seems almost laughable that she might have to choose. He draws a comparison between himself and that hat she tried to hide away on the top shelf of her closet. It doesn’t seem quite fair. There’s not much to spoil, but I won’t divulge what happens next.

Instead, my mind drifts once more to Charles Coburn; he was made for these types of supporting roles: crotchety yet secretly good-natured matchmakers. Surely he could deliver on them in his sleep.

Although it’s not quite as stellar as Theodora in the comedy department, Dunne still shows her usual aplomb, and out of personal preference, I fancy Charles Boyer over Melvyn Douglas on most occasions. This one is little different. Forgive my impudence. It’s just so good to have Boyer and Dunne together again.

3.5/5 Stars

When Tomorrow Comes (1939) and Romantic Shelter From The Storm

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Waitresses bustle about on their beats passing along the news like busy bees: eight o’clock tonight unity hall! It caused quite a stir in the ranks and the girls are currently walking on eggshells afraid to get canned. A few of the gals are especially jumpy including poor Lulu who drops a whole tray laden with plates.

So when a Frenchmen sits down during the dinner rush it’s how do you say, disconcerting. He’s not rude by any means. His manners are fine. But he’s a foreigner and he asks for things outside of her comfort zone like bouillabaisse for instance (I had to look up the spelling just now). For instance, we can’t hold it against her when she says “To me all foreigners are spies until I learn different.”

The prevailing thought is he might be with the management to check them out. So they put their most level-headed colleague on the assignment. It’s none other than Irene Dunne. He has no malicious intentions at all. In fact, it’s quite the contrary. After making the acquaintance of such a charming lady, he wishes to see her again.

Irene Dunne feels like the original Norma Rae. She has spirit — the kind of spirit that stands up against injustice and will not allow others to be bullied into submission. But this is grounded by a charitable heart and a sense of decency. It’s what makes people get up and take note within the clamor. Because there’s genuine substance to her words. We believe them to be true.

Amid the host of admirers is one very special one. He’s attended in hopes of seeing her, a man oozing with names (and the Boyer charm). What might have been a chance encounter in real-life, in turn breaths life into an entire movie romance. The humid streets of New York don’t exactly scream love nest, but the man is so taken with his company, he doesn’t mind if he has to meet half the city just to be with her.

There are other interludes in this budding relationship, though we might as well focus on the focal point. It comes during the onslaught of a tropical storm. The man, she now learns is the famed pianist, and he welcomes her into his home to get out of the elements. Far from feeling surreptitious, it seems like an oasis from the world outside.

She walks around one of the bedrooms scanning around, leafing through an album of pictures, trying to glean more about the man downstairs. What follows is an enchanting zoom mimicking Dunne’s gaze as she returns from freshening up. She’s brought down the stairs by the sound of his playing. There’s a forceful authority to it to, matching the gale raging outside the windows. On her face, we see the love brooding right in front of us.

The dramatic situation is made plain by the inclement weather (that’s an understatement) and falling trees overhead. Blaring coast guard bullhorns warn of waters rising. They must find high ground.

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Rest assured, this is hardly a survival film. The scenario itself is ripe with more intimate pleasures as Helen and Philip seek asylum in a church during the brunt of the storm. After the crowded, liveliness of the city, the actors are contented in one another’s company, and it provides an understated satisfaction.

They light candles, she raises a prayer to the unnamed Providence for getting them to safety. He has the subtle tact to take her up into the balcony to the organ as the water starts to flood inside. It’s a thoughtful act, and they continue their genial conversation unencumbered. As she sits, listening to him quietly play “Fur Elise,” she thanks him. Because she saw what he did too.

What a lovely digression it is for those willing to partake of the solace. The gentle hospitality of the minister and church organist is yet another touch of decency in a picture ripe with such encounters.

If this sounds blase, rest assured, it plays to the rhythms we might attribute to a Stahl melodrama. They somehow bend away from the brunt of drama and pierce our hearts far deeper. Like Tay Garnett’s One Way Passage, there’s the sense of a destined love of the highest most ethereal kind — a love that can never be — it can never fully acted upon.

Because if it’s not evident already, they are people of principle and conscience. It goes unspoken for so long — the impediment between then. But she knows. He is not free. He is married to someone else, albeit loosely, as Mrs. Chagal (Barbara O’Neil) is a sick woman.

When Helen’s roommate notes it looks like she’s been away for 20 years like Rip Van Winkle upon her return, there’s some truth in the words. Even an evening can feel like a lifetime under the circumstances.

She eventually meets his catatonic wife and lovely mother-in-law. There’s no malice or ill-will, only a bit of sadness on her part to see what his life really is. She feels obligated to leave him behind — to not make this any more difficult for either of them. So she goes back to her picketing and wins the victory she helped champion. The film has gone too far though. It is no longer about unions or these type of ideals. At the very least it is about romantic ones.

There is another scene where she answers a caller at the door. It’s the wife, out on the street, as if she’s perfectly fine, and she might very well be. The scene has been written many times before: A wife confronts the other woman. We’ve seen the scene play out in so many stories it’s mind-boggling. Here it’s different. You almost don’t realize what is upon you.

There is a curious energy about it. Quieter and yet not unsure. Forthright and devastating in its very simplicity. What could be incisive and vindictive feels blunted and equally delicate in the hands of Stahl, and I believe this is quite purposeful. The main characters pull back, compelled by their sense of good and decent feelings. The “villain” in actuality is a helpless victim.

In another film the ending of When Tomorrow Comes would feel uncomfortably abrupt. Here it somehow works for me and not because the swelling music is cued. It’s because we know there is a foregone finality. It might not be today or tomorrow exactly, but it will have to end, going their separate ways and holding onto the love they had and what could have been. That is all.

Because unrequited love is not the most tragic form; it is the uninitiated followed closely by the unfulfilled romances that sear the most. If you are inclined, this is a tender drama more than capable of inducing a few misty eyes. I’ll never get over the grace of Irene Dunne, the adroitness of her reactions, touching on each and every emotion. Boyer has never been more gentlemanly. Together they feel sublime.

If my praise sounds too effusive, I’ll admit I haven’t seen Love Affair for some time. Have I simply forgotten what their chemistry was like? I’d like to believe Stahl brings something of his own to the material as well.

3.5/5 Stars

Magnificent Obsession (1935): Stahl Vs. Sirk Again

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As I continue my mini odyssey considering the differences between the melodrama of John M. Stahl and Douglas Sirk, one of the finest exhibit pieces is an early scene in Magnificent Obsession.

The beloved Dr. Hudson has died because the life-saving pulmotor he needed was being used on someone else. An irresponsible playboy, named Bob Merrick, is saved in his place, having capsized his boat during one of his typically drunken evenings. It just doesn’t seem fair. One man so good is lost and the man who probably doesn’t deserve to live regains his life. It’s a rather blatant allegory of Christian grace and it makes sense, after all, Magnificent Obssession was supposedly penned by a minister: Lloyd C. Douglas.

Here is my long-winded point. This plays as a critical scene in Sirk’s picture. We see Merrick on the water and we see it happen right in front of us. However, in Stahl’s rendition, it’s all over and done with after a few throway lines of expositional dialogue between doctors. It’s as if he’s purposefully shying away from the drama. It’s this quality that might save Magnificent Obsession from being a total bore.

I never gave much thought to it before, but Robert Taylor makes a modest approximation of Rock Hudson a few decades earlier. One could say Rock’s career was far more successful and well-remembered, but they both manage the smart-aleck ne’er do well quite easily. In both cases, this was one of the early movies helping to put them in the public eye as legitimate star power.

Regardless, a curious dichotomy is purposefully set up by the movie, with one man unseen a beloved martyr, and another one alive, the incorrigible playboy. Dr. Hudson’s goodness hangs over Merrick’s life — haunting him in a sense — making him feel even worse about who he is as a person.

Soon he’s struggling with self-loathing. Although it feels more complicated than that because he’s still overtly narcissistic; deep down he knows everyone dislikes him vehemently.

It becomes a movie of who Merrick falls into company with after sneaking out of the hospital against protocol. First, it’s Masterson (Charles Butterworth) who might as well be his comic sidekick unwittingly carried away by all his mischief.

Next, it’s Mrs. Hudson (Irene Dunne) the beautiful young wife of the man he indirectly killed. When he actually finds out who she is he feels even more ashamed to show his face in front of her. He just wants to get drunk and try to forget.

Then, by some curious bit of Providence, he winds up at the home of a stonecutter. The man happened to be a close friend of Dr. Hudson. Similar to Sirk’s rendition, he imparts the wisdom the good doctor provided him. He was taught how to make contact with a source of infinite power. If you think this sounds like a seance and pseudo-science, you’re not alone. It feels like the strangest introduction of religion into the storyline imaginable with electrical energy acting as some mystical metaphor for God.

This layman makes another fascinating statement that might not sound all that foreign to us today. He’s not interested in religion but interested in Jesus — the God-man — who was so successful in the science of generating human power. It’s as if he was a mere humanitarian or an entrepreneur in human capital.

I always have trouble dealing with these kinds of expressions in relation to the Christian doctrinal claims. It’s not that it’s simplistic; rather it seems to totally disregard some of the things this God-man purportedly said. They feel radical, unsettling, incisive at times — surely not warm and fuzzy enough for a movie like this.

Still, this pseudo-Gospel becomes a journey to find people who need help and then giving it to them. But, of course, there’s a catch. You must give to others in absolute secrecy — it’s a scrooge-like endeavor and there’s some truth in this kind of altruism, still, it feels laughable even folly to call it a theory to be followed.

It’s a kind of pay-your-way to the good person’s club, whether you believe in the afterlife or just in being a good person in a legalistic sense. Either way, surely we can agree these strict parameters seem suspect.

Regardless, Merrick somehow gets swept up by them as he vows to put this “theory” into practice. He’s done so much to injure and totally destroy Helen Hudson’s life through his own selfish negligence.

However, in a strange way, it’s as if he’s in pursuit of his dead rival’s wife. Although it might be totally out of the goodness of a changed heart, he looks to reconnect with her, and give her life new joy. It all feels rather twee in comparison to Sirk’s update, which at least swells with the kind of grandiloquence which seems, at the very least, self-aware.

As much as I admire Irene Dunne as an unsung and ever adaptable talent and my mild affinity for Robert Taylor has gotten a boost in recent days, Magnificent Obsession is rather hard to take. It’s an outlandish drama full to the brim with preposterousness that doesn’t even attempt to court any semblance of reality. Similarly, its religiosity, romance, and just about everything else feels sugar-coated and simplified. Somehow it hasn’t maintained its flavor as well as some of Stahl’s earlier efforts.

3/5 Stars

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

Theodora Goes Wild (1936): Irene Dunne The Comedienne

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The Lynfield Bugle, led by their fearless leader Jed Waterbury (Thomas Mitchell), keeps their nose to the proverbial grindstone printing the news as it happens in “The Biggest Little Town in Connecticut.”

Their latest act of rebellion constitutes printing a spread from the latest lurid bestseller from author Caroline Adams. It causes quite the to-do in such a proper, God-fearing community.

Because it’s true Lynfield has all the customary facets of a town its size, including emblematic moral watchdogs such as Rebecca Perry (Spring Byington), a key member in the Lynfield Literary Circle, the key force in swaying public opinion and consequently, keeping the town’s gossip in a state of constant flux. Rebecca just happens to be the most insufferable of them all.

With their mouths, they openly condemn Adam’s latest piece of titillating prose as they secretly relish its vivid detailings of passionate romance. One of their younger members, who sits zealously by, next to her two austere aunties (Elisabeth Risdon & Margaret McWade), is Theodora Lynn (Irene Dunne). She’s a devoted Sunday School teacher and plays the organ at church on a weekly basis.

Theodora also has a secret in the form of a pen name and a mendacious life as a writer, although that is rather harsh because this is Irene Dunne we’re talking about in a generally raucous screwball comedy. You see, she is the one and only Caroline Adams!

Her Uncle John is the so-called black sheep of the family (Robert Grieg) because he escaped the puritanical lives of his sisters for a much more “worldly” life in the city. He’s a jolly fellow and with a twinkle in his eye, he believes Theodora to be different. There’s still hope for her yet.

In fact, she has a streak in her that old Uncle John might just be downright proud of. It’s a decent streak mind you — helping a young woman be with her husband and setting her up with her job — but it’s the kind of activity people back home might turn their nose at. This all happens as she makes a meeting with her publisher incognito to talk business as part of her double life.

Although he does his best to keep her under wraps, that miracle elixir: whiskey has a habit of loosening the tongue. Their prying dinner companions are fascinated by the very contradictory nature of her character. Among them is a wry ne-er-do-well, Michael Grant (Melvyn Douglas). Soon the small-town gal finds herself in a fairly big city situation, in Grant’s bachelor pad, with deeply comic underpinnings.

Of course, nothing happens at first. That is until Theodora, that is Caroline Adams, has her cover blown — an old friend wanders through town quite by chance, with a furry companion Jake. He railroads his way into the aunties’ shed as a gardener and quickly sets up shop. As he sees it, he’s her deliverance from the clutches of her town, and he gleefully whistles his way into her life, tearing up their gardens backward and forwards.

She has very little in the form of a rebuttal aside from retaliating through a song of her own, “Be Still My Heart” through gritted teeth. This could be the end of the movie right there or else it wouldn’t have enough gas to wheeze its way to the finish. In this specific moment, it’s not what I would term a screwball in the strictest sense though, it does have a feel of some of the Loy and Powell comedies of the same vintage. Be it Libeled Lady, Love Crazy, or I Loved You Again.

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Mervyn Douglas often feels like a version of Powell I don’t take a shining too quite as much. He has a similar playful banter at his disposal, even mustachioed good looks, but it doesn’t tickle the fancy in the same way — at least for me.

Irene Dunne, of course, in her first foray into out-and-out comedy is exquisite, although she would continue to up the ante with the likes of The Awful Truth, arguably her best film and the finest pairing she ever had with Cary Grant (or anyone for that matter).

But we must attend to this story because it doesn’t end right off, instead, it turns the tale on its head and once Theodora has been handily liberated of her small-town’s repressiveness, it gives her the freedom to have a go at Michael. Because it turns out they’re not all that different. He needs his own push of encouragement.

Instead of church choirs, temperance, and women’s book clubs, it involves high society, governorships, and public appearances. His father expects him to keep out of the newspapers and remain married to his estranged wife — at least until the public office is secured. Meanwhile, Michael becomes unhappier by the hour.

Dunne takes the movie by the horns now and truly kicks it into overdrive right when it could use a good jolt. The way she trollops and sashays around, first through her lover’s bachelor pad, and then making her way up the totem pool on the dance floor, with her new pal the governor, is the picture of jovial inhibition. She redefines our perceptions and the underlining dynamics of the movie shift wildly — and humorously — as a result of her antics.

She goes back to her publisher in fancy new duds absolutely gobsmacking him as she proceeds to drum up all the publicity she possibly can. Theodora Lynn is going to become a household name. Accordingly, she gets the newsboys in her corner, and they go to great lengths to help her (and themselves).

Soon she’s plastered over the front pages, and the ever-fastidious Bugle gets the scoop out. Like clockwork, the town is shaken into an uproar, and it even reaches the upper echelons too as Michael gets dragged into it. What a beautiful mess; just what the movie required to spruce it up. Theodora’s making waves like never before.

The key is how Dunne always has a firm handle on everything — turning the sass on and off as needed — she knows what she’s doing. Whereas other heroines are often dizzy and ditzy, like frantic hurricanes of passion and emotion, she’s probably the most controlled of all of them even as she does bring her own “wildness” to the party.

What’s even more hilarious is watching public opinion rise up like wildfire and turn in her favor. She gets as good a homecoming as the war heroes in Hail The Conquering Hero a few years down the line. All her decency and newfound transparency are met with affection.

By now, she’s harnessed the power of her neighborhood and finds a way to be a beacon of change in an uproarious manner with a romance to complement the major strides in her personal life.

As such, Theodora Goes Wild becomes a surprisingly pointed (and poignant) portrait of a young woman casting off the shackles of religious hypocrisy, societal repression, and general small-mindedness, all conveniently wrapped up in a quasi-screwball, rom-com format.

3.5/5 Stars

The Silver Cord (1933): Loving Joel McCrea is a Battlefield

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“Surely I can be a good son and a good husband.”

Whether it means to or not, the opening interlude of The Silver Cord plays like a comic inversion of typical Hollywood. It opens in Heidelberg, and they make us blink; they’re actually speaking German and Irene Dunne is one of them!

Then Joel McCrea wanders in, Dunne at the microscope deep in her work. He kisses her on the nape of the neck, and she responds coolly in English. I got the same sudden delight out of this moment that I did in the train car at the start of Design for Living. Why? For a brief instance, it caught me off guard and I smiled.

The rest of The Silver Cord begins as nice as you please like a hunky-dory sunbeam. She is a world-class biologist. He is an up-and-coming architect. New jobs beckon in New York, marital bliss swells around them, and meeting the brother and his new wife gets off to a grand start. It’s only the mother who remains to be seen.

It just so happens Mrs. Phelps (Laura Hope Crewes reprising her stellar stage role) is the lynchpin. She’s a maternal hurricane of frenzied energy, shouting her son’s name elatedly in the drawing-room, and obsessed with him a bit more than what feels kosher. She also meets her new daughter-in-law even as the ripples of slight agitation show themselves in how she subtlety rebuffs her younger son’s fiancee. There’s already tension.

In fact, she dominates the entire household with her ways, whether it’s her views on parenting or how she conveniently puts Dave in his old room so he’s separated from his wife. It becomes plainly apparent she a smothering woman; It feels like she’s playing a desperate game of tug-of-war as she lauds an old-fashioned conception of motherhood while coveting a piece of her son’s heart.

In another moment, Mrs. Phelps literally tucks her grown son into bed. But there’s an ulterior motive. She wants all the dirt on his new wife and then she proceeds to natter on about how possessive, exacting, and selfish she is. “If only she learned to care for me as I care for her,” she says. The irony of her words fails to leave an imprint on those actually involved in the conversation. Of course, a moment later finds the belittled wife awkwardly walking in on mother and son. Yet another disconcerting scenario.

We have a two-front war on our hands. The fight is first over Robert (Eric Linden) and then David (McCrea). First, dear old Mom talks her impressionable younger son out of his love for his wife, Hester (Frances Dee), going so far as to poison his mind so her undue influence is felt in full force even when she’s not in the frame. After all, she is an insinuating, controlling woman who plays mind games and whether she does them subconsciously or not, it doesn’t much matter. She’s a genuine terror.

Crewes is so infuriating in her effectiveness making it so difficult to be civil and to concede without falling over backward like a bowling pin. If we learn anything about Christina (Dunne), it’s the fact she has a life and aspirations to go with them. A husband is part of it but as things unravel, she’s going to stand up for herself. One thing’s for certain. It moves fast.

Soon Christina makes a plea to her husband to relinquish the arid places in his heart where he retires. She plays another card by supplying a grand surprise of her own. Mrs. Phelps home is a swath of his heart on a larger scale — one she is looking to hold onto as her own by any means possible, but Christina makes it clear she will not go down without a fight.

Meanwhile,  Hester, who has been subjected to the torment the longest, is about ready to burst. They have “shocking” conversations about something as controversial as babies, and she’s just about had it. She can’t take how her marriage and her own aspirations for children have been twisted and trampled into something bad.

She’s left a trembling hysterical mess driven to get out of the house. And she cannot be anything if not a portent for what might happen to Christina as well if she doesn’t take her own leave.

Because among Mother’s many attributes is also diabolical hypochondria. The jaundice doctor rightly acknowledges a stick of dynamite would be needed to subdue her. In fact, she peps right up just when things come back around to what she’s always envisioned for her sons with wives out of the way.

If you’ll afford me a brief tangent, even with Irene Dunne wedged between them in the frame, it’s hard not to look at France Dee and Joel McCrea and think of what a fine couple they would make. What’s even more remarkable is how long they made a couple: 57 years!

Although the story’s internal logic is purposefully maddening, it gives way to a fine bit of melodrama because it manipulates the scenario in such a way to make us feel almost immediate revulsion, and it builds for little over an hour in fairly splendid fashion.

A standout moment comes with Irene Dunne ably stripping her mother-in-law down to size with a perceptive deconstruction of all her various hangups and maternal misdemeanors. She puts words to all the many things we take issue with but are unable to say as passive observers.

Her is a woman finding romance in motherhood where she didn’t find it in marriage, highlighting the peculiar dynamics the movie is being drawn up on. Mrs. Phelps reaches her own point of hysteria though she’s too delusional — too set up in her own ways — to understand who she is and what she’s doing. Still, if you can bear it, The Silver Cord is an effective drama for all it manages to heap on top of us.

3.5/5 Stars

Back Street (1932): Irene Dunne and Director John Stahl

Back_Street_1932“There’s not one woman in a million who has ever found happiness in the back streets of any man’s life.”

John M. Stahl is a bit of a neglected craftsman, even by me. Like others, I became aware of him solely for Leave Her to Heaven, a noirish technicolor melodrama positively dominated by Gene Tierney.

However, as with any director, he wasn’t formed in a vacuum and during the 1930s he worked on some of his most intriguing efforts like Back Street. Then, the following year’s Only Yesterday offered up similar dynamics, featuring Margaret Sullavan front and center. Sullavan and Dunne implement different personas and yet in trying to put my finger on what might draw them together, my mind goes instantly to one thing: class.

This particular story was adapted from a Fannie Hurst novel. Dunne ably anchors the leading role of Ray Schmidt, earning a bit of a reputation because she’s a glamorous girl who likes to get out and have a good time. However, there is a distinction to be made between a girl who has no standards and one who probably opens herself up too much. Ray fits in the latter category. She says it all in one fleeting line of dialogue, “It’s all the way or zero with me.”

Opposite her is John Boles as a gentleman narcissist somehow managing to suggest the jarring contrast of mild manners and infidelity in bodily form. Coincidentally, he would also reappear opposite Sullavan the following year. Here he meets Ray, this extraordinary girl while he is still engaged, and he’s instantly smitten. It happens when a mutual acquaintance introduces them in passing, as he makes his way out of Cincinnati. It’s the beginning of something that will define their lives.

One key benchmark occurs in a local park in front of the bandstand. Walter is to bring his mother to see the performance, and he conspires to have Ray show up, making a glowing appearance, as if by accident. It’s the bit of manufactured serendipity they need to gain approval in their relationship. And yet it never happens like it’s supposed to in the movies (at least the ones we usually play in our heads).

The story starts to construct itself out of these vignettes.  It’s now 5 years later. We’re on Wall Street in New York, and the two former flames bump into each other right where they left off. The fire hasn’t died because old habits die hard. Ray willingly waits for him because it’s true there’s something electric between them. Unfortunately, it disregards reality. He’s married with two children (all but unseen).

Instead of meeting on street corners and hiding in doorways, they get a bit more sophisticated. He furnishes her with a room and so now we have the new status quo where this clandestine, illicit thing feels almost mundane.

But that’s a curious factor to Stahl’s picture. Surely it is melodrama — especially on paper — but he makes it feel instinctively human. Of course, humanity isn’t always high-minded and righteous. It can be selfish and lonely and confused. In fact, we often embody these feelings most of all.

It’s not about the accumulation or even the escalation of scenes to the apex of a bigger climax. Instead, each moment supplies an impression to add another layer to this searing romance. And it’s in these successive snapshots from which we must fill in the gaps for ourselves. It’s a testament as much to what is shown onscreen as off. This is not in the sense of Production Codes getting in the way, but a concerted choice to have ellipsis set up all around the story. We drop and then pick up the narrative at these various intervals in the cycle of life.

Later he’s too busy to get away from all his professional and personal responsibilities. These are his excuses. She’s waiting on his words, for the ring of a telephone, playing solitaire. It feels like a thankless position to be in.

Down the hall from her, a woman is burnt badly in a house fire — all but disfigured, though she won’t call her husband — she is another kept woman. Is this the writing on the wall? Ray chides her to get out, preaching independence, although she doesn’t quite know how to put it into practice. She still believes she might just be the one in a million who will make it work.

It’s the film’s first true wrinkle when she makes a decision to break with convention. It remains to be seen what the consequences might be. Kurt (George Meeker), who’s had a crush on her since childhood, comes a-calling again, goofy and endearing as ever but having made good. He casts his usual line, and it might as well be the same old story. Ray looks at him and there is sadness even pain in her eyes. He thinks she’s rejecting him again because she’s not free, and he’s right, but not in the way he thinks.

The reunion with Walter, now a successful businessman in his own right, is a complicated thing. He has a way of exerting his will on her but making it feel like it’s her decision to determine whether he is happy or totally devastated.  It’s this driving, prevailing selfishness and woebegone attitude that dominates the story.

We settle into another scene. It’s on an ocean liner. Walter is with his wife and a grown son and daughter. It has the flavor of One Way Passage and a very different sort of Love Affair. One of the most heartbreaking scenes comes when the young upstart son comes to confront Ray to try and get her undesired presence out of their life. And in another movie this scene would play out like so — at least like how he’s imagined it. She’s the wicked, opportunistic woman ready to tear through a household with blackmail and scandal.

Still, we know Ray to her core, how much she loves — how decent and thoughtful she is — and yet she has somehow found herself in such a frowned upon station in life. It doesn’t seem fair. Then again, how much does she have herself to blame? Worse yet, is the fact that the men — the ones with money and the benefit of the doubt — are allowed the position of victim.

The whole family must come to terms with reality. Walter continues with his entitled streak telling his son, “a corner of my life belongs to me alone.” There Ray is somewhat loved but literally waiting on the end of the line for him even unto death. The ending is a kicker, a fitting dream for it to coast off on even as Ray’s own light finally goes out.

Back Street is a love story that could not have existed in mainstream Hollywood a mere 5 years later. It more than lives up to its title as this little, cofounding film working not in the mounting drama but the quiet splintering of a lovelorn soul. It befuddles my own sensibilities even as it makes me sympathize with the lovers in its grips.

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 undercover 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!

Classic Movie Beginner’s Guide: Cary Grant

It’s that time again to profile a classic Hollywood star by briefly looking at 4 of their films. Today’s centerpiece is Archibald Leach more commonly remembered as Cary Grant, the suave, debonair, screwball extraordinaire who groomed himself into one of Hollywood’s preeminent leading men.

Philadelphia Story (1940)

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He’s rude and obnoxious and yet something about him makes it hard for Katharine Hepburn to say no to her old beau even as he tries to scandalize her latest marriage. The dynamics between Grant, Hepburn, and Stewart are what you dream for with such a pairing. While you’re at it, Bringing Up Baby is a must.

His Girl Friday (1940)

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This is a true Cary Grant tour de force as he whizzes through the newsroom sparring with his old matrimonial partner in crime Rosalind Russell. Their verbal jousts are truly frenetic poetry, and the turbulence they churn up is some of the best conflict any screwball comedy was ever blessed with. The Awful Truth and The Favorite Wife with Irene Dunne are swell as well.

Notorious (1946)

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He’s always a bit of a debonair or lovable cad. In this one there’s no pretense. As the callous government agent Devlin, he makes Ingrid Bergman cry. This total revision of his persona is powerful, and it would lay the groundwork for one of the great Hitchcock movies. Not only that, their amorous kiss fest would slyly obliterate Hollywood convention.

North By Northwest (1959)

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What makes him so great in North By Northwest is how ordinary and amicable his Roger Thornhill is only to be thrown pell-mell into a cross-country murder plot. The advertising exec finds himself fleeing from the authorities and the perpetrators in this delightful man-on-the-run pulse-pounder.

Worth Watching:

Holiday, Only Angels Have Wings, Gunga Din, Suspicion, Talk of The Town, The Bishop’s Wife, People Will Talk, To Catch a Thief, An Affair to Remember, Indiscreet, Charade, and many more!

Show Boat (1936)

ShowboatposterMost of what I know about riverboats can be gleaned from Mark Twain, Davy Crockett and the River Pirates, and that ever beloved Snoopy incarnation The World Famous River Boat Gambler. The 1936 musical Show Boat falls into that very same rich tradition but some clarification is in order.

In truth, this is not the most remembered or even the first adaptation, for that matter, of the wildly popular stage hit of the 1920s. Those laurels go to the 1951 version starring Kathryn Grayson and Howard Keel and then the original partial-talkie released in 1927. But it’s easy to go out on a limb and reckon this is the best of the lot.

James Whale noted for such reputed monster movies as Frankenstein and The Invisible Man proves an equally compelling helmsman of musicals. Here his obvious attention to period authenticity is highlighted making the riverboat world of Missippi circa the 1880s incredibly atmospheric.

The story starts exactly where its title suggests with a Show Boat and the traveling crew of performers who turn up in every town to add a little gaiety and charm into every man, woman, and child’s life. The personable mastermind of it all Cap’n Andy Hawks promises big things to the general public who turn out in droves to get a chance on the entertainment.

But as is the case with any such narrative the true meat and potatoes is either on the stage with every song and dance or behind the curtains where people are living life and trying to get by the best they know how. Hawk’s wife is constantly nagging him and demanding that their daughter never become an actor. Instead, young Magnolia (Irene Dunne) is relegated to sit behind the piano.

Still, there is another plot thread with major implications on the contemporary constitution of race relations. I personally had no idea what was at the core of Edna Ferber’s Show Boat. I assumed it was only a musical perhaps bred in the rather sorry tradition of Gone with the Wind and other such pictures when it comes to depictions of African-Americans.

It’s true that there are some of those stereotypes present but this is a surprisingly forward-thinking narrative at first because at its core is miscegenation–in simpler terms the marriage of a white man with a woman of color. The two tragic lovers are actually depicted in a sensitive light while at the same time giving Magnolia her break with their sudden ignominious departure in the midst of the public scandal.

Still, in this small way,  it’s not unlike Ferber’s later work Giant in how it begins to dissect the hypocrisy in society. For his part, singing giant and future blacklist casualty Paul Robeson’s epic rendition of Old Man River is one of the true capstones of the film imbuing the story with even more meaning and power. For another minor instant, it seems like the point of view of the downtrodden and marginalized is, at the very least, being acknowledged and given a place of significance. as if to say even for a split second that there are dignity and worth there.

Of course, it loses all the credibility it could have in one regrettable stage number where the happy notes make the blackface feel even more abhorrent. Though I have no major qualms enjoying this movie on a whole, any discussion must come with a substantial caveat.

In its second half, Show Boat does admittedly succumb to some pacing problems hitting its peak early on and slowly dropping off from its frenzied and energetic openings to more wistful conclusions that are understandingly less diverting even purely from a tonal perspective. It seems to even acknowledge its own weaknesses by condensing decades for the sake of time and the audience’s attention span.

It all began with lively commotion, spirited passion, and young love. In the end, it settles for a sentimental reunion of two lovers torn apart by destitution and time itself. It’s a lovely feel-good conclusion but it’s not nearly as satisfying as it could have been if Show Boat had kept its steam from the starting gates.

Though this is far from being Irene Dunne’s greatest role, she still gives a winning performance that memorably showcases her vocal training opposite her romantic co-star the rich-toned tenor Allan Jones.  As a side note, she also exhibits the most unique churning dance you’ve seen rather like a caterpillar in a dress–only surpassed by Lauren Bacall’s shoulder shimmy in To Have and Have Not.

Still, Paul Robeson stands as one of the titans of this film. I hope he got the respect that he deserved for this role and if nothing else time seems to have honored him as “Old Man River” still remains one of the great musical numbers out there.

4/5 Stars