Posted by David Kalat on March 3, 2012
Too Hot to Handle—a fairly forgotten romantic comedy from 1938, a passable entertainment but not the sort of movie likely to inspire much deep discussion. Or is it?
See, this unassuming movie ties together many of the themes we’ve been working with since the end of December—this is a movie about movies, specifically about how movies lie, and how people who lie tend to make movies. Like Melies’ faked coronation of King Edward VII, these are newsreels that lie—documentaries that are secretly fictional (which is the sort of thing we had on our minds at that very first film show in 1895, with the Lumiere Brothers’ very first film being a staged “documentary”).
The film in question is by Jack Conway, whose virtues I sang back on February 4, and is a quasi-remake of a Buster Keaton silent classic—one that calls into question the conventional wisdom of what happened to the silent clowns when the movie started to talk.
That’s a lot to pack into one movie—so let’s get started unpacking it. This week, Too Hot To Handle!
Of course, before we go too much farther, I need the address the “quasi-remake” aspect.
There are a variety of sources that cite this film as an update of Buster Keaton’s The Cameraman. This greatly overstates the case—the film is about a newsreel cameraman, yes, and it follows in a loose and very general sort of way the broad narrative trajectory of Keaton’s film, but it isn’t easily recognizable as the same story.
Too Hot to Handle follows the adventures of a roguish and unprincipled newsreel jockey named Chris Hunter (Clark Gable), whose reputation for snagging the most iconic images of any situations rests almost entirely on his habit of just faking them.
In an effort to entrap him, Hunter’s competition Bill Dennis (Walter Pidgeon) sets up an even bigger fake, involving the intrepid pilot Alma Harding (Myrna Loy), daringly flying medical supplies into a war-zone.
Things go wrong, and Chris ends up crashing Alma’s plane and nearly killing her in the process—but this disaster produces multiple alternate realities as a result. Alma misunderstands the incident as Chris saving her from certain death, and it serves as their “meet cute” for an intense romance to follow. But… Chris filmed the whole thing, and that filmed record not only clearly shows his culpability in causing the plane wreck, but also records Alma’s confession as being involved in a staged event that never involved any real medical supplies at all.
Just to make things more complicated, this film clip is then edited in such a way as to create one version that makes the two of them seem like heroes, and an uncut “director’s edition” version that smears them. (The consequence of the eventual public screening of that uncut version is the source of the movie’s title).
We’re barely 20 minutes into the movie and already we’ve got some heady stuff going on—the rest of the movie has a lot to live up to. But one thing should be obvious already—this isn’t a strict remake of The Cameraman.
What connects it most strongly to The Cameraman is Keaton himself, who worked on Too Hot to Handle as a gagman. William K. Everson spent some effort critically dissecting the film to parse out where he saw Keaton’s hand most evidently in the design of some of the physical comedy sequences.
It is not hard to agree with Everson—but the fact is, we aren’t entirely sure what parts Keaton shaped or not. Educated quesswork is all we have. Complicating the matter is that even though Buster was just a lowly uncredited MGM gagman at one the lowest points in his life, which would strongly suggest his contribution to the project would have been minor, but the resulting production feels informed by Keaton on a great many levels.
For example, the complex recursions of that “rescue” footage, which shift in meaning throughout the film as the context changes. Too Hot to Handle could have treated its film-within-a-film aspects as a mere gimmick—but instead the cinematic nature of film is never far from view.
In 1958, Buster Keaton sat down with Christopher Bishop of Film Quarterly, and clarified his idea of how the tradition of silent comedy ought to have progressed into the talkie age:
Q: You felt that you could function just as well in sound?
BK: Why sure. The only thing we did in laying out our material was to deliberately look for action laughs, not dialogue laughs. That has always been my fight with the brass. There were all these writers, and all these writers could think about was funny sayings and puns.
Q: I wonder how you feel about making a sound comedy—whether they are silent comedies with music and sound effects added.
BK: I wouldn’t want to do that today… [H]ere’s what I’m going to do. We go ahead and talk—put all the dialogue in the first fifteen minutes—let ‘em try for little laughs as we go—but for the second fifteen minutes deliberately go for places that just don’t call for dialogue. In other words, we don’t go out of our way to avoid them, but it is just a natural thing that two people busy building something—there’s no reason to talk, you just go ahead and build.
Setting aside the delicious irony that Keaton became one of those teams of MGM writers he so excoriated (and as one he sat around cooking up physical gags for films while his fellow gag writers thought up “funny sayings and puns”), the thing that interests us today is the fact that Too Hot to Handle actually follows Keaton’s paradigm—it is a film that is in places a rapid-fire dialogue comedy of the screwball tradition which also comfortably lets the dialogue stop to give room to elaborately choreographed and awe-inspiring set-pieces.
This is an A-list production from MGM starring two of their top stars. Money was spilled on this thing—it is proof that MGM was willing to adopt Keaton’s model. This is important to remember in terms of the debate over how silent clowns fared into the talkie age—the story is usually told of the great geniuses of si-com like Keaton facing unrelenting intransigence from studio brass in the 1930s, and being unable to function as physical comedians in an age dedicated to “funny sayings and puns.”
But the thing is, Too Hot to Handle isn’t a slapstick comedy. It may be reminiscent in places of a Keaton comedy, contain comedy sequences invented by Keaton, and reflect Keaton’s philosophy of comedy filmmaking overall—but it isn’t the kind of movie Keaton himself would ever have made. There is something else in its DNA.
If you were to go looking for this film’s closest relatives, you wouldn’t look among the works of Keaton and Lloyd—you’d look at screwball.
The closest relatives are His Girl Friday and Nothing Sacred—films about unscrupulous journalists and the not-entirely-upstanding women they love.
Well, for that matter, why stretch things? Clark Gable played a similarly roguish reporter in the movie that put screwball on the map—Frank Capra’s It Happened One Night.
What was Frank Capra doing prior to putting screwball on the map—why, he got his start at Mack Sennett making movies with Harry Langdon!
Who are the other key directors of screwball? Well, there’s Leo McCarey—who got his start at Hal Roach making movies with Charley Chase. Ernst Lubitsch was himself a silent clown in two-reelers before switching over to romantic comedy.
But how much of a switch was that, really?
The vast majority of silent comedies are at least nominally romantic comedies—they have a base-level plot about boy-meets-girl that then a bunch of absurd physical gags are layered on top of. What separates slapstick from screwball isn’t silence versus speech—there are silent romantic comedies in the proto-screwball mode and there are talkie-era slapstick throwbacks. What distinguishes one species from the next is the extent to which they took their respective romantic aspects seriously.
Or, put more precisely, the extent to which they took their female characters seriously.
I’m not just talking about Buster Keaton treating his female co-stars as props to be thrown around. I mean it across the board—the slapstick clowns rarely left much room for any co-stars, male or female, to compete for screen time or audience affection. Even Harold Lloyd, the most conventionally handsome of the silent clowns and a filmmaker whose movies are most overtly about boy-meets-girl, does not allow his female leads to develop meaningful personalities or characteristics. They are objects to be won, interchangeable all.
One of the few silent comedians to give priority to his costars was Charley Chase—and if he’d been allowed to have his way, his plan was to permanently bring on Thelma Todd as a co-star. Thelma Todd, mind you, was a bankable comedy star in her own right—in fact, her stardom was the reason Hal Roach refused Chase’s idea. Roach wasn’t keen on paying two stars to make just one set of films. In their few co-starring films, they are true co-stars—Thelma is allowed to be funny, interesting, and distinctive.
Even without Thelma Todd, Chase was atypically generous to his co-stars—at times his shorts seem more like ensemble comedies. It is therefore not coincidental that Chase survived into the talkie era unbruised by the transition.
If I had my druthers, here is where I’d spend some time talking about Modern Love. If we want to identify a “missing link” between slapstick and screwball, it is a better candidate than Too Hot to Handle—I mean, c’mon! Too Hot to Handle was made in 1938, long after even Charlie Chaplin gave up the ghost and abandoned the old model. But Modern Love emerged in 1929.
It is a hybrid in several senses: it is a silent film retrofitted with talkie scenes, and it is a screwball romantic comedy made out of the raw stuff of slapstick. When si-com fans talk of Charley Chase’s career, they grumble about how he never got to make a starring feature—and they can say this bizarre thing in flagrant denial of Modern Love because, to be precise, Modern Love is not a Charley Chase vehicle—he shares the stage fully with Kathryn Crawford, just as you’d expect from a rom-com.
I wish I could run some Modern Love clips for you but it isn’t available on home video (yet)—suffice to say, it is a signpost of how Chase could have survived into the screwball era, had his life turned out differently. Wouldn’t you have paid to see Charley Chase and Claudette Colbert in something (anything) directed by Preston Sturges? I know I would.
They key, though, is that in that above formulation the presence of Claudette Colbert is at least as important as Chase or Sturges. The rom-coms that worked were ones that let their female leads be as nutty, sexy, and unruly as the men. In fact, I’d cite as the biggest flaw of Too Hot to Handle as its failure to fully utilize Myrna Loy. She’s capable of playing a wilder sort of woman than the script lets her—and as such, she fails to come across as a worthy adversary/love interest for the wily Clark Gable.
Frank Capra, Leo McCarey, Ernst Lubitsch, and the other leading lights behind the transition to screwball and romantic comedy all proved their mettle in the days of physical comedy, but they saw room for improvement. They took the existing structure—a rudimentary romantic plot on top of which sits a bunch of looney stuff—and allowed the understructure to become more fully developed. The looney stuff on top was now held up by a more substantial foundation. The fact that the looney stuff started to drift away from elaborate physical comedy into situational comedy needn’t distract us—Modern Love and Too Hot to Handle can serve as examples that the slapstick traditions could be maintained within a screwball context, at least in theory.
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