Posted by David Kalat on March 23, 2013
Just in case my love of screwball comedies wasn’t evident from all the times I’ve posted about it here before, I’m here this week to celebrate Ralph Bellamy’s contributions to the genre.
I need to note that upfront, because Ralph Bellamy had such a massive and sprawling career that you could be a huge Bellamy fan and not actually have seen any of the movies I’m going to talk about–even though Bellamy was a major force in the development of the screwball comedy, and was so singularly associated with it he became a punchline in and of himself.
It starts with Hands Across the Table in 1935–which is inexplicably underrated given its significance in the evolution of screwball. Ernst Lubitsch had taken over as chief of Paramount, and one of the first things he did was note that Carole Lombard was being grossly misused in romantic dramas that emphasized her glamour and beauty butt ignored her singular comic gifts. “This won’t stand,” he said, and promptly orchestrated the production of the giddy screwball farce Hands Across the Table, directed by Mitchell Leisen (another underrated comedy force).
The premise of the movie is that Carole Lombard is looking to marry a rich guy so she can find some economic stability in her life, and while she’s trying to engineer this jump in social status, she is living platonically with Fred MacMurray, who is also looking to marry for money for much the same reason. Of course, the thrust of all this is to show how marrying for love is better than marrying for money, and she and Fred MacMurray are truly soul mates who belong together.
That it even makes sense to have a movie that argues people ought to marry for love instead of money speaks to the fact that social attitudes about romance and marriage have really changed over a short period of time. It’s almost as odd as running across a story that bothers to argue why child slavery is wrong. You almost feel like saying, “Duh!”
That being said, the movie doesn’t make the distinction easy. Fred MacMurray may be obviously the right guy for Carole, but her potential sugar daddy Ralph Bellamy is not obviously the wrong guy. He’s a profoundly decent, forgiving, loving, upright gentleman. Rejecting him is hard, and that’s what gives the romantic triangle its bite.
Bellamy proved himself excellent at playing such roles, and was quickly typecast as the earnest good guy who the female lead would reject in favor of the dangerous bad boy. But as time went on, Bellamy’s performance of such roles drifted more and more into comic interpretations of what was originally designed as a straight-man role.
Consider LeoMcCarey’s The Awful Truth from 1937. Cary Grant and Irene Dunne start the thing off by getting divorced, foolishly, and then spending the rest of the film proving that if they aren’t good for each other, they’re way worse for everyone else. So Irene Dunne has as her new beau that bastion of wrong-right-manliness, Ralph Bellamy–all rich and decent and irksome in every respect.
Howard Hawk’s His Girl Friday is in many ways a repeat of The Awful Truth but grafted onto a remake of The Front Page. Cary Grant and his costar this time, Rosalind Russell, were once a couple, now apart, and destined to be reunited–because they’re too awful for anyone else to stand. But when we meet her, she is happily engaged to a decent, upstanding man, and looking forward to the “normal” suburban life of an American housewife. Yup, Ralph Bellamy.
And what does he get for all his upstanding goodness? Insulted to his face, manipulated, robbed, thrown in jail repeatedly for crimes he didn’t commit, forced to tarnish his own reputation and seek bail from his colleagues back home, his mother is very nearly killed, and in the end he loses his fiancée to this tawdry world. And we’re supposed to cheer his humiliation on, because the “point” of the movie is to get Rosalind Russell back together with the lying, cheating scumbag Cary Grant.
By 1940, the fact that this role was a routine expectation of the genre, and that it so often went to Bellamy, became an opportunity for a fourth-wall breaking gag by Cary Grant:
But even if the movie wasn’t self conscious about Ralph Bellamy’s presence, His Girl Friday already riffs on the usual Bellamy-isms by exaggerating his character to absurd extremes.
But it was in Stanley Gardner’s 1942 Lady in a Jam that Bellamy finally became the punchline he was already barreling towards. Because this movie is less well known than the others described above, let me spend a little time setting the stage:
Irene Dunne plays a spoiled rich girl whose irresponsible behavior has bankrupted her but she is too self-absorbed to even realize the reality of her situation. Patric Knowles is a psychiatrist who has developed a thing for her and wants to help her, but she can’t stand him. Already this is a bit of a deviation from the usual pattern, because Knowles is the “right” guy for her, but he also represents stability and reasonability, where these movies usually push their heroines into unstable and high-risk romantic relationships as their celebration of the power of love. So already the structure of this film means that Knowles’ rival for her affections will be a deviation from type…
But look, it’s Ralph Bellamy! But it’s some bizarro-world counterfeit of Ralph Bellamy, whose over-earnestness has gone over the edge into outright weirdness. He is a ridiculous parody of the uber-decent rural rube, with the added conceit that he’s obsessed with composing the perfect “lament.” Was that lament sad enough?
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