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 Major and The Minor (1942) and The Taking of Sudan

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Billy Wilder obviously got his start in screenwriting but much like Preston Sturges before him, he desperately wanted creative control to sculpt the vision of the meticulous scripts he helped forge with writing partner (and producer) Charles Brackett.

He got his breakout chance with The Major and The Minor and hardly squandered the opportunity. This might sound silly and high-minded given the plot of the picture:  a young woman posing as a child to claim half-fare on the train to her home state with ensuing complications…

However, the film flows not only out of the script but the execution and total commitment to the gag by Ginger Rogers. At first, it seems like a curious decision. She went from lavish musicals and heady drama to something so zany. Even today her legacy is first and foremost galvanized out of the magic she created on taps with her legendary partner Fred Astaire.

And yet, she took a chance on the neophyte because he had charisma and a gentlemanly manner, and she wholeheartedly believed in his talents. If you take a look at his trajectory after The Major and The Minor, her observations were very well-founded. From these promising albeit still humble beginnings, Billy Wilder shot to the top of Hollywood remaining one of its premier storytellers for decades.

It comes down to his almost holistic approach to comedy and drama. Somehow they become one and the same, tackled with the same gleeful, frequently trenchant wit no matter the subject matter.

This one begins with a typically pointed tagline: “The Dutch bought New York from The Indians in 1626 and by May 1941 there wasn’t an Indian left who regretted it.”

To put the statement in context, we get to know jaded and long-suffering Susan Applegate (Rogers) as she pays a visit to her latest client for a reinvigorating scalp treatment. Everyone including the bellboy gives her a whistle or a fresh word. It’s little better meeting Albert Osborne (Robert Benchley) as he offers her a martini, and she retaliates with an egg shampoo. While she maintains her business-like demeanor, he begins to flirt, mix martinis, and tell a string of increasingly lame cracks, making her fume.

It’s the final straw. She’s had it with the Big Apple and is now prepared to catch the first train back to the welcoming cornfields of her native Iowa. Here’s the catch. They’ve upped the fare, and she doesn’t have the funds to cut it. This calls for a creative solution.

All these types of screwy comedies have to involve some harebrained scheme, the type of fodder made to order for some of the best I Love Lucy episodes. In a similar manner, what is a screwball comedy without a train?

Since she can’t swing a ticket back to her hometown, she dreams up the wackiest solution. Pose as a child… It’s just about as outlandish as it sounds and looks just as strange.

Ginger goes into the Women’s Lounge and comes out a certified bobby soxer no doubt ready to swoon over Frank Sinatra. It becomes increasingly evident we are witnessing a forerunner to Some Like it Hot, as she pulls off the shenanigan with the help of a purloined balloon, a willing accomplice, and an extra high-pitched tone.

As an added alibi for the conductors, she fibs being of Scandinavian stock even speaking Swedish like the great Garbo (“I Want to Be Alone”). Wouldn’t you know, they catch her smoking underage, setting up the obligatory chase scene giving way to the ever-necessary meet-cute.

Enter Ginger Rogers into Ray Milland’s compartment. In a film crammed with cringe-worthy awkwardness, it has to be one of the definitive moments. To his credit, Milland does the storyline a service by committing to the setup in all earnestness. It’s possible to accept his candor, in various moments, chiding her for using her spare change to buy sweets or stumbling through “The Facts of Life.”

He legitimately believes this is a young girl he’s happened upon and treats her accordingly, even as the irony sets in. His one footfall is failing to defend her better against the ravenous boys under his tutelage.

Because he is a military man with a sterling record who, nevertheless, feels stuck in his current post at the military academy. His fiancee’s daddy is his commanding officer and Pamela (Rita Johnson) is used to having everything her way. So when she comes aboard the train to welcome her man home, boy, is she surprised to see another “woman” in his room (unbeknownst to him, of course). In jealous retribution, she sends a tray full of breakfast clattering into his face, which is more worthy of a few hearty chortles. The game is afoot now.

“Susu” as she’s now called is able to smooth things over while maintaining her cover and keeping the good major from public disgrace. As a reward, she gets to experience all the pleasures and perils of Wallace Military Institute, including Rita’s baby sister. However, the aspiring Madame Curie named Lucy, though initially skeptical becomes a willing accomplice in the other “girl’s” ever-evolving plans.

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What begins as a fundamental story of escape morphs into a mission of mercy to salvage the life of Phillip Kirby from soul-crushing mediocrity. On his behalf, “Susu” weathers an army of handsy young Cadette Adjutants, who have been trained in, among other things, “The Taking of Sudan,” a handy piece of history if you want to kanoodle.

Using her beguiling feminine wiles to her advantage, Applegate tries to snag the switchboard to send an outbound phone call to get Uncle Phillip’s orders altered. Not only does her ineptitude throw the camp into an uproar; she also raises suspicions.

It only makes sense that the academy’s ball is a space for everything to implode. But first, we must take a moment to acknowledge what a peculiar pairing it is having all the kiddos dancing with Ginger Rogers. Again, she takes it like a sport sans feathery boa or suave dance partner.

Although this is the least of her worries. Something is fated to go awry. It comes in the form of a ticking time bomb of a man who finds little Susu very familiar indeed. The final act falls heavily on the shoulders of the leads’ charismatic powers to rescue it from utter triteness.

Since I’ve been in the habit of mentioning Wilder in the same breath with Preston Sturges as of late, it’s fitting enough to note how The Major and The Minor steals liberally from The Lady Eve‘s playbook. In the end, the after-hours military maneuvers and “The Taking of Sudan” are its own contributions to the screwball genre courtesy of Brackett and Wilder.

3.5/5 Stars

The Palm Beach Story (1942): Another Screwy Sturges Freight Train

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“After you’re married… That’s a funny thing to hear your wife say!” – Joel McCrea as Tom Jeffers

All the timeless Preston Sturges pictures have the pace of a freight train barreling down the tracks in loop de loops and figure eights. The Prologue of The Palm Beach Story sets up a raucous race to make it to a wedding ceremony involving a bride and a groom…and a woman tied up… It’s gone in a blink. Hold that thought.

Cut to present. There’s Franklin Pangborn, always hustled and harried. This time as an apartment manager trying to show off the new apartments he has for lease to the grouchy, incessantly deaf Wienie King and his bubbly wife.  These two initial scenes are textbook examples of how to juxtapose people and places for comic effect. In fact, sometimes Sturges will gladly lean into the joke before giving us any indication of what his story really pertains to.

When we finally find a premise, he’s already taken us for a spin. Because the previously revealed bride and groom, Tom and Gerry Jeffers (Joel McCrea and Claudette Colbert), sunk all their money trying to get a bite — namely the $99,000 he needs to get his suspended airport project off the ground. As of right now, there are no takers, and their marriage has tanked. Strangely enough, they still love each other madly. At the very least, their constant quarreling seems to hint at their continued devotion. That’s the wrinkle.

She wants to get a divorce (sacrificially, of course) so she might hook a rich husband to pay for his pet project. He selfishly wants to stay married to her. He tries to hold onto her, racing out of their apartment, in only the bed linens, as she resolves to go to Palm Beach — to find herself a millionaire — for him.

Sturges relishes the comic situation, which verges on the risque, especially for the day and age. The script was even repeatedly balked at by the Production Codes for the very same reasons and still they manage to mention the word “sex” quite frankly (Gasp)!

What becomes most evident is this increasingly flippant disregard for the institution of marriage. The ensuing world and the situations arising make sense originating from a man who himself came out of affluent circles with a row of marriages left in his wake. He’s in a sense writing what he knows intimately while still utilizing his own idiosyncratic perspective.

It’s a glorious trip to Palm Beach as he loads the cars end to end with his stock company, comprising a traveling circus of dopey millionaires making up the Ale and Quail Club. Gerrie gratefully becomes their mascot as they pay her way to the far off land of the Florida coast.

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In typical Sturges fashion, he overwhelms the screen with the sheer force of bodies and figures from the likes of William Demarest, Al Bridge, and just about anyone else you’ve ever seen in a Sturges film before. They divert themselves with any number of dalliances including hiccups, trap shooting crackers, and nighttime serenades of “Sweet Adaline.”

What’s even more hilarious is how we never actually see these characters again. They serve their purpose and service the writer-director’s scatterbrained devices. The extended sequence functions as its own standalone vessel of amusement.

He really is the king of writing robust character parts that, while never throwaway, need not be overly important. Today it feels like every bit role must be functional. For Sturges, a character functions, first and foremost, if they add to the comic maelstrom he’s whipping up. When they serve their purpose he can zip onward toward further zaniness.

Likewise, aside from being entertaining, The Wienie King is Sturges’s great enabler within the entire picture, gladly shoveling out money as if it were nothing, for rent and plane tickets — whatever the story requires — and despite his apparent obliviousness, he has these near-surreal bouts of hyper-lucidity. In considering his character, one cannot help surmising a stopped clock is right twice a day – even a tone-deaf one.

There must be a story, but the script gladly supplies a vehicle full of hilarity to deliver the goods for the benefit of the audience. As we progress with the ever-whirling thingamajig of wackiness, there’s the introduction of Rudy Vallee. The former matinee idol shows a certain penchant for comedy in his own right, added to the Sturges hall of fame of crazy aristocrats.

His dry idiosyncrasies serve him well, from the methodical removal and placing of his specs to the ongoing accounting he does in his little black book. Even a couple rueful in-jokes to his earlier crooning days, including “Isn’t It Romantic?,” send a few knowing winks toward the perceptive viewer.

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Although she purportedly struggled with her director’s style of mile-a-minute dialogue, Mary Astor, nevertheless, does the corkscrew language a major service as the ably speedy-mouthed Princess Centimillia, who bowls one over with her mixture of glitzy upper crust exuberance and ready-made amorousness. The perfect foil for her dry brother dear “Snoodles.”

To round out the quartet (quintet if you include the single misfire Toto), Tom Jeffers arrives to reclaim his wife but finds himself being turned into a brother named Captain McGlue before he can get in a word edgewise. The quarreling goes on behind closed doors as estranged husband and wife both find themselves romantic objects — currently pursued by other people.

One can’t help to compare it to Midnight, the Billy Wilder penned film with all sorts of little white lies and shenanigans being pulled to keep the charade going for as long as possible. It’s true often the best screwball farces — including some of Sturges’s successes — involve people donning aliases with highly comic ends, of course. Even in this frenetic company, The Palm Beach Story might be more outlandish than most, on par with the rambunctious insanity of Some Like it Hot.

What a glorious wisenheimer Sturges is holding off on the one loose end we’ve been wondering about since the outset of the movie only for it to be the final payoff, setting in motion another story that we’ll never hope to see. Everything is bookended by this ultimate gag that plays as pure Sturges. He’s shoehorned the whole story just so he can swoop in from left field with the most propitious footnote.

At its best, The Palm Beach Story exudes all the zany charms of Sturges’ screwiest works between a finely wrought cast with plenty of whiz-bang patter that time and time again gladly succumbs to silliness. Preston Sturges does his secondary characters a major service, and they more than return the favor. It’s a picture totally stolen away by the supporting cast and rightfully so.

4/5 Stars

 

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

It’s Love I’m After (1937): In Honor of Olivia De Havilland

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There is a very significant reason to be watching It’s Love I’m After at this time. Her name is Olivia de Havilland, and by some brilliant piece of Providence, she has just recently turned 104 years old! She, of course, was in her early 20s when this movie came out and what a charmer it is.

A few years before To Be or Not To Be, here is another movie hamming up Shakespeare on the stage. This time it’s Leslie Howard and Bette Davis as they act out their version of Romeo and Juliet for a rapt audience. What makes the sequence is the dueling couple whispering snide asides to one another mid-performance. Barbs about garlic breath and upstaging come out because they’re both conceited and jealously in love.

But where is Olivia in all of this? She’s up in the balcony swooning over the sublime eye candy down on the stage. She’s seen all of his performances and is positively devoted to his very essence. Her boyfriend (Patric Knowles) looks on with frustration as he’s having to compete with a rival who has never even met his girl before.

This is soon remedied when she promptly goes backstage to pay her respects. It’s all quite innocent. Basil and Joyce continue their incessant bickering from their adjoining dressing rooms, still at each other’s throats, despite the wall between them.

Then, Marcia West presents herself positively agog by the image of her idol thoroughly in the flesh before her. He’s flattered but he hardly knows what he’s doing when he accepts her compliments. Worse still, Joyce sees the young woman on her way out. Harmless or not, it adds further fuel to their relational fires.

What a delight it is to see such beloved thespians and titans of dramaturgy like Howard and Davis doing comedy, of all things, and doing it quite well in the screwball vein. After all, this would be their third picture together following Of Human Bondage and Petrified Forest. There’s no comparison.

The movie is totally overtaken by bipolar swings in fortune. First lovers’ quarrels — it’s the worst New Year’s Eve ever — then there are marriage proposals, and finally, Basil resolves to help a young fellow out.

They do have some handy support. There were few better in this department than Eric Blore, and he has a readily available supply of birdcalls and advice on his master’s matrimonial habits on the “precipice,” as it were.

Being your typically theatrical, philandering type, Basil resolves to shirk his impulses and pursue his own moral salvation. In this case, his good deed is for a lovesick fellow whose best girl is smitten with the stagebound Romeo. The actor doesn’t know it’s the same girl. How can he? No one in these movies ever stops to compare notes.

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Still, he resolves to turn up on her doorstep and rudely ruffle her illusion of him. He and his man Digges (Blore) pay a late-night housecall to the West residence. Their shouts of “ire” soon become “fire” and brief pandemonium sets in as an impromptu round of “We’re here because we’re here” comes out sounding a lot like “Auld Lang Syne.”

He schmoozes his way into the house, making himself at home in the company of the avuncular father, befuddled mother, and a gossiping sister (Bonita Granville) always peeping through keyholes. But in Marcia’s eyes, he can still do no wrong. Now he’s got quite the prompting audience, and he’s all but ready to do his part.

His bit of showmanship has him playing up his image as an egotistical malcontent tearing through the guests and their breakfast table with ferocity (and some help from the Bard). Digges does his best to complain about the lack of kippers and other inadequacies. None of it congeals as they were hoping, in fact, it has an adverse effect. Marcia agrees with his every word.

As someone fed on a steady diet of P.G. Wodehouse and Jeeves and Wooster, there’s something familiar and comforting about the picture’s comic situation. Basil is no Bertie Wooster. Digges is no Jeeves, but they are stuck in the same madcap realm of romantic entanglement mixed with comedic hijinks.

Whatever Basil tries is quite unsuccessful in quelling the ardor or the affection of Ms. West. The best-laid plans all too quickly go awry and poor Digges can do little to stop the inevitable. Joyce makes her reappearance at precisely the most inopportune time. She catches her man in the arm of another. The jealous boyfriend feels affronted as he watches his girl be ripped away from him, albeit unwittingly.

The story couldn’t look bleaker and further from its agreed-upon happy ending and yet, eventually, it comes, like any good rom-com. Don’t ask me how it happens. Maybe it’s the youthful fickleness of De Havilland’s ingenue. Perhaps cinematic serendipity gets in the way. Regardless, the partners shuffle around only to get back together with their ordained.

Leslie Howard and Bette Davis are, again, madly in love, then yelling and screaming and pushing each other across the room. Digges is busy packing the suitcases only for the contents to come tumbling out as future husband and wife make up and share a passionate embrace. What light through yonder window breaks? It is the East and Juliet is the sun! End scene.

3.5/5 Stars

 

Review: What’s Up, Doc? (1972)

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I’ve always been fascinated with individuals who have blurred the line between the film critic and actual contributors to the industry. Notable examples, of course, being the boys at Cahiers du Cinema, Frank S. Nugent, James Agee, Paul Schrader, even Roger Ebert, and certainly Peter Bogdanovich.

It’s this bridge between the intellectual and the actual practicality of the craft that seems so crucial. Because Bogdanovich might come off as an erudite individual who would end up making stuffy philosophical pictures. But What’s Up Doc is nothing like that. He loves the cinema and it shows.

Yes, this movie becomes a tossed salad of cinematic references and yet in the midst of the chaos, there is the finest rejuvenation of the screwball genre we’ve probably ever received. If neo-screwball were to be readily adopted in academic circles, you just might have to start the conversation here. It’s crazy; it’s destructive; it goes careening out of control. Maybe it’s just me, but I find it genuinely uproarious like a sprawling sitcom episode. It’s what the genre was made to be.

“You’re The Tops” plays, as the credits roll, sung by Barbra Streisand in a very casual manner that hints at the enjoyable jaunt we are about to undertake. Using the most basic terminology to break down the picture, What’s Up Doc is essentially a comic shell game. Except the shells are replaced with four identical plaid overnight duffles and the con is simultaneously being pulled on everyone on the screen and in the audience alike.

One bag holds the prized rocks of a musicologist Howard Bannister (Ryan O’Neal) who is traveling to San Francisco from his conservatory in Ames, Iowa to vie for the prestigious Larabee Grant. If he is lucky enough to reel in the award, it will help fund his research on the musical properties of igneous rocks. Don’t ask me to explain.

The other case comprises the possessions of one Judy Maxwell (Streisand). It’s not the contents of her bag as much as her whirlwind personality that will wreak havoc on the picture. Then, a third bag holds one lady’s prized collection of jewelry and the fourth holds secret government documents. Again, don’t ask.

But everyone seems to have a shtick. That’s a product of a screenplay crafted by Buck Henry, David Newman, and Robert Benton. There’s a repetition to the script’s comedic cadence that puts an indelible stamp on the material. Coming from such people like Madeline Kahn it can almost drive you insane while O’Neal is playing a stereotypical sterile intellectual type that generally goes against his well-suited image.

Still, with some people playing the film straight, or at least as flat and square as they come, it makes other people pop even more. Is that Barbra Streisand I hear? She drives us crazy but in a different way — arguably a much better one.

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She throws the anal Eunice (Madeline Kahn) off the scent and winds up accompanying Howard to his important dinner to schmooze Mr. Larabee (Austin Pendleton) and outfox the competition represented by the snobbish Hugh Simon (Kenneth Mars). Alone Howard wouldn’t stand a chance but taking on the name Burnsy and masquerading as his fiancee, this intolerable girl who accosted him in a gift shop essentially wins him the grant.

Pendleton is an utter dork but there’s also something personable about him. He finds Burnsy to be just delightful and soon they’re on a first name basis. Howard’s trying to explain all the mix up as the real Eunice attempts to claw her way into the affair putting on a hissy fit. Meanwhile, Howard doesn’t know what to do because Burnsy’s got him all turned around amid the ruckus.

Various side plots continue crisscrossing as people sneak around the periphery involving the aforementioned travel packs. A concierge and the house detective are in cahoots to abscond with the priceless treasure trove of glittering gems. Meanwhile, a mysterious man is tailed every which way by another man saddled with a golf bag as a measly attempt at a disguise. It would be astoundingly absurd if we weren’t already distracted by everything else going on in front of us. As it is, these diversions only succeed in adding to the cacophony of it all. A perfect visual articulation comes in the form of a hallway lined with doors, leading to rooms, and the people inside.

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It comes to an abrupt end when they all wind up in Howard’s room with one girl out on a ledge, his outraged Fiancee asking him to turn the TV down, and everyone else making a cameo appearance. What follows is the total annihilation of a hotel room suite, a fitting foreshadowing of coming attractions.

Even if it can’t quite reach the same heights, What’s Up Doc is unabashedly homage to Bringing Up Baby (1938). We have a man’s coat being ripped, dinosaur bones being traded out for rocks, and the similar antagonizing relationship between our leads. However, I didn’t realize that we also have much of the character dynamic from The Lady Eve (1941) because Streisand like Barbara Stanwyck before her has an incredible aptitude for manipulating her male conquest. Katharine was the whizzing hurricane of constant disaster. Stanwyck was whip-smart. Streisand channels a decent dose of both legends.

The Larabee Gala hosted at Frederick’s estate proves to be the beginning of the floor show as the camera leaps into action and the final act kicks into a frenzy of slapstick, flying pies, and all sorts of comedic violence.

This might be blasphemy, but as much as I admire Bullitt (1968), Bogdanovich’s film might feature my favorite car chase through San Francisco. It involves a famed giant pane of glass, wet cement, offroading down stairs, a Chinese dragon, and a big splash in San Francisco Bay among other visual kerfuffles. We even have a courtroom drama on our hands!

The laundry list of other references is nearly endless from Cole Porter to nods to Bogart and “As Time Goes By” in Casablanca. Ryan O’Neal even drops a fairly inconspicuous “Judy, Judy, Judy” in the airport terminal, no doubt a nod to Cary Grant’s misattributed catchphrase.

His plane is leaving to return him to his life of everyday tedium. But between in-flight Bugs Bunny shorts and one lethally pointed barb aimed at Love Story (1970), there’s also one final smooch. And we’re done. This is a movie you’re lucky to survive. It’s certainly laced with references, and, more importantly,  it’s a successful giggle fest. The screwball comedy proves to be alive and well in San Francisco.

4/5 Stars

Love Crazy (1941)

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Love Crazy puts William Powell and Myrna Loy in their wheelhouse as the lithe and sprightly romantic partners placed at the center of this screwball comedy.  Steve Ireland (Powell) is in a terribly good mood getting home in his taxi singing ditties as he makes his way up to surprise his wife Susan on their wedding anniversary.

All of which is an encouraging change of pace because Hollywood often made the nagging of marriage look like a real ball and chain. For once that’s not the case. They want a romantic second honeymoon full of dancing, escapades, and a dinner served backward. It’s the fact that he can never get enough time with his wife to suit either of them. Well, there you have the film in a nutshell anyway.

Except storytelling 101 tips us off that the film will have to begin swinging like a pendulum in such a way that both our lovebirds in this connubial comedy will no longer be so inseparable. The main instigators prove to be his overbearing mother-in-law who inserts herself into all their plans. The other is a former flame, Gail Patrick at the most delightful I’ve never known her to be, who playfully cajoles him to have some fun. She’s married but acts as if she’s still single and ready to mingle.

You would think he already had more excitement than he could take getting trapped in the elevator shaft with this frisky female and the elevator boy (Elisha Cook Jr.). Proving I’m no comic snob, I heartily enjoyed watching Powell’s head get clunked around. It’s a resoundingly hilarious image.

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However, he forgot about who was waiting for him back home. It’s the lesser of two evils to sneak out for a drink with Isobel and while his wife has to step out he uses his worst possible lifeline to get away from his aggravating mother-in-law. It doesn’t take too much for the root of doubt to sneak up and it only gets worse when Ward Willoughby (Jack Carson) is introduced as a studly archer in an undershirt. What else? Now both spouses have someone to be jealous of.

It hearkens back to the days where the sitcom hadn’t been invented yet because we didn’t have TV so instead, there were films like this which function around all the most cringe-worthy bits of comedic irony, namely mistaken identity and all sorts of misunderstandings. But like its predecessor from the year prior, I Love You Again, the steam slowly begins to evaporate off about midway through.

Because the main subplot becomes the whole plot in a way that provides some gags but on the whole feels tired and worn out. I want to see Powell and Loy together or at least more of Patrick and Carson who actually bring a lot of comedic chops to the picture. In fact, one of the more hilarious wrinkles involves Powell getting the other man interned at the sanitarium only to have him escape later. But it means very little to the integrity of the story. That’s part of what makes it so enjoyable.

Otherwise, Powell plays up his insanity to string along his wife so she can’t divorce him. His main showcase is at a party where he emancipates a fleet of hats trying to play up his looney side, followed thereafter by a string of other coincidental mishaps. His wife knows it’s a game but the man he’s christened “General Electric Whiskers,” who he met at the party, is actually a doctor who thinks he’s very sick indeed.

This all feels like fairly uninteresting fluff. Meanwhile, the film’s finale relies on another bout of concealed identity but to its credit, it circles back on the things that made it laudable before, entering back into the apartment complex. There the chaos of all those individuals from earlier is heightened in close proximity with a supposed crazy man on the loose and the police after him. They are aided by Willoughby and Steve is helped first by Isobel and then his wife.

But the crowning piece of comedy has to do with Powell’s ultimate masquerade as he even sacrifices his beloved pencil-thin mustache for the sake of it all. While not particularly inspired by today’s standards, Love Crazy boasts Powell and Loy in as fine a form as ever. That is enough to enjoy the picture even in its middling moments.

3.5/5 Stars

Bachelor Mother (1939)

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Of course, Bachelor Mother is a blatant oxymoron and it’s a perfect summation of that vestige of a genre the screwball comedy — a genre that’s about marriage and divorce and the gray areas in between conveniently skirting past issues such as adultery or people “living in sin” as it were. The norm was not a genre of divorce but of remarriage.

As such this Ginger Rogers vehicle has her playing a woman who doesn’t actually have a child out of wedlock but it’s assumed as much and that’s where the roots of the comedy get their traction. Because therein dwells so many societal taboos that are subsequently turned into marvelous fodder for misunderstanding though no actual moral statutes have been broken. It’s that line of dramatic irony that the rom-com, in general, has always needed in order to survive.

Just think how perfectly it all happens. In one moment Polly Parish (Ginger Rogers) finds herself laid off from her department store gig just in time for Christmas and between the unemployment agency and home she happens upon a lady leaving a cute little bundle of joy on the doorstep of the local orphanage. She says it’s not hers. She found it somewhere and now she’s leaving.

But Ginger Rogers being our concerned heroine can’t just let the baby sit there so she takes a course of action, delivering the child inside and enlightening the staff about the situation. Of course, they all believe she’s simply shirking her maternal responsibility and running out on her child and they pass the news along to David Merlin (David Niven), one of her former employers.

By now, Polly is already long gone. She’s agreed to take part in a dance competition at the local hall the Pink Slipper. There’s $50 in it for her and her partner Freddie (Frank Albertson of It’s a Wonderful Life prominence) if they can win. Waiting, babe in arms and valet in tow, Mr. Merlin tries to rectify the situation and get Polly to take back her child.

If the film was born on the steps of the orphanage, then it is solidified right here as a full-fledged screwball comedy of motherhood and misconstrued circumstance. Polly finds herself called into Mr. Merlin’s office and is offered her old post as long as she takes her child back. Still, they don’t listen to her renunciation so she has no course but to become a mother, after all, babies are cute. They can’t be that much work…

The fact that this is a screwball and not so much a domestic comedy is made clear by the fact the baby is more of a plot element than an actual character and Rogers and Niven find time to fall in love even with the added strain of motherhood.

What seems to do it is a lovely night together on New Year’s Eve which is highlighted by an extended gag where Niven introduces Rogers as his date from Sweden who conveniently does not speak a lick of English. It’s punctuated by the definitive punchline of the film. Simultaneously, Rogers struts her stuff all night long (though we miss Fred Astaire) in a reverie of pure joy.

But that’s not all that’s capped off amid the pandemonium of the festivities. Love Affair is far from just the movie up on the nearby theater billboard. It’s also something coming to fruition between our two stars. However, if this was the end it could hardly claim the name screwball. That’s when the baby comes in. J.B. Merlin (Coburn) finds his son with this single mother and draws conclusions of his own and…he’s very happy to be a grandfather and not so happy with the spineless conduct of his son.

What follows is a mad dash by our two leads to try and conjure up other stand-ins for a game of Who’s the Father? Three eligible contenders are brought in to play the charade. We already know Merlin, then there’s the dancing fiend and disgraced floorwalker Freddie, and the landlady’s bespectacled son.

In the end, everything is squared away nicely and the corkscrew comes full circle. Though Charles Coburn plays a very small part it proves to be a crucial one. Meanwhile, I adore Ginger Rogers and once more following Stage Door and Vivacious Lady, she proves in yet another film her genuine skills as an actress of immeasurable smarts and humor. Sometimes I’m admittedly unfair to David Niven — he’s never been the most compelling actor — but he’s fine in this picture.

This film also shares much the same world as the Devil and Miss Jones (including Charles Coburn) and the toy store environment provides the perfect arena for a terrifically comical shoplifting sequence full of excitement. It’s this movie to a tee. Positively quacking.

3.5/5 Stars

The Rage of Paris (1938)

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It’s one of those anomalies of life that only a few days before I write this, the renowned Danielle Darrieux celebrated a century on this earth and I watch a film from some many years ago that showcases her budding screen presence. While so many others deteriorate with age, she seems the epitome of aging gracefully. Perhaps it’s the French way in some respects.

But going back into her catalog of films and finding The Rage of Paris you see a fairly straightforward romantic comedy that’s sweet, adorable, cute all those apt superlatives but there’s that one thing stands out nigh 80 years later. I am always squeamish about praise sounding shallow but at 21 years of age, this young actress who came on the world stage with Boyer in Mayerling is a bouncy precocious beauty–a real looker–absolutely mesmerizing to watch as bright eyed and bushy tailed as she manages to be.

Yes, the script follows that time-honored tradition often found in these types of screwball storylines where two individuals who initially despise even to look at each other ultimately fall madly in love and into the same bed with the wedding bells chiming soon thereafter. It’s that sexual tension that is able to develop some sort of romantic passion that gets audiences invested supposedly.

However, as the years have rolled on and I’ve seen more films by Henry Koster I have grown affectionate of his very particular outlook. There’s a certain vein that runs through all the material that he directs–an inherent good-natured charm to it no matter the topic that is always and fundamentally enheartening. He never leaves you melancholy because each picture ends with a smile.  That’s the greatest compliment I can honor him with.

So despite the typical nature of the material, Koster’s always sincere perspective and Darrieux’s intoxicatingly endearing performance as a gold-digging yet genuine French model make this one a minor winner.  The class divide that always seemed to find its way into screwball plots of the 1930s such as this (sentiments left over from the Depression no doubt), helps to complicate matters but also allows for the necessary amount of empathy to be developed for not only Nicole, the girl desperately trying to find a husband just to survive, but also her main opponent Jim (Douglas Fairbanks Jr.) who has a rustic background of his own.

To be honest, for me Fairbanks doesn’t hold a candle to his father or Darrieux for that matter but the film does have a wonderful assortment of supporting players. The most important ones include Nicole’s core conspirators the worldly wisecracker Helen Broderick and her maitre d’ accomplice (Mischa Auer). All minor criticisms aside and barring any complaints about being overly sentimental or somewhat predictable, The Rage in Paris really is the paragon of a cute picture. I bow in deference to Danielle Darrieux’s career and thank my lucky stars that unabashed sentimentalists like Koster are still available in this oft cynical world that we live in now.

3.5/5 Stars