Ralph Bellamy – the right wrong guy

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.

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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).

1935 Hands Across the Table

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.

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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.

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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.

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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:

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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.

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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…

Lady in a Jam (1942)

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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56 Responses Ralph Bellamy – the right wrong guy
Posted By Emgee : March 23, 2013 6:50 am

“people ought to marry for love instead of money” You mean there was a time when people chose money over love? Inconceivable!
Times sure have changed.

In My Favourite Wife Grant is just as awkward and slow-witted as
Bellamy was in the films mentioned here. It’s almost as if they decided to dispense with Bellamy’s services and let Grant play both roles simultaneously.

Posted By Emgee : March 23, 2013 6:50 am

“people ought to marry for love instead of money” You mean there was a time when people chose money over love? Inconceivable!
Times sure have changed.

In My Favourite Wife Grant is just as awkward and slow-witted as
Bellamy was in the films mentioned here. It’s almost as if they decided to dispense with Bellamy’s services and let Grant play both roles simultaneously.

Posted By MDR : March 23, 2013 11:18 am

While Ralph Bellamy perfected his “third wheel/doormat” persona opposite Cary Grant in screwball comedies, he played that type of character at least once before Hands Across the Table (1935) that same year … in producer Samuel Goldwyn’s The Wedding Night (1935), where his foil for Anna Sten was none other than Gary Cooper.

Posted By MDR : March 23, 2013 11:18 am

While Ralph Bellamy perfected his “third wheel/doormat” persona opposite Cary Grant in screwball comedies, he played that type of character at least once before Hands Across the Table (1935) that same year … in producer Samuel Goldwyn’s The Wedding Night (1935), where his foil for Anna Sten was none other than Gary Cooper.

Posted By Doug : March 23, 2013 1:04 pm

Bellamy plays second fiddle better than Jack Benny played first.

Posted By Doug : March 23, 2013 1:04 pm

Bellamy plays second fiddle better than Jack Benny played first.

Posted By robbushblog : March 23, 2013 2:22 pm

Patric Knowles is nearly as bland as Ralph Bellamy, albeit somewhat handsomer. Patric was lucky that Cary Grant wasn’t around. I wonder if Cary turned that role down?

Posted By robbushblog : March 23, 2013 2:22 pm

Patric Knowles is nearly as bland as Ralph Bellamy, albeit somewhat handsomer. Patric was lucky that Cary Grant wasn’t around. I wonder if Cary turned that role down?

Posted By idlemendacity : March 23, 2013 5:20 pm

His Girl Friday is a wonderful movie in many respects but if you look at it too closely it’s particularly galling for the movie to want us to root for Cary Grant’s Walter basically just because he IS Cary Grant but Walter is not a nice man and Ralph Bellamy’s character is and we have to wonder about Rosalind Russell’s Hildy who would not only countenance everything Walter has done to Bellamy’s character but got back with him at the end.

The first movie I ever saw Ralph Bellamy in is Trading Places when he was already an older man and he was fairly convincing as a villain. It makes one think how much Hollywood wasted by making his characters in comics TOO milquetoast.

Posted By idlemendacity : March 23, 2013 5:20 pm

His Girl Friday is a wonderful movie in many respects but if you look at it too closely it’s particularly galling for the movie to want us to root for Cary Grant’s Walter basically just because he IS Cary Grant but Walter is not a nice man and Ralph Bellamy’s character is and we have to wonder about Rosalind Russell’s Hildy who would not only countenance everything Walter has done to Bellamy’s character but got back with him at the end.

The first movie I ever saw Ralph Bellamy in is Trading Places when he was already an older man and he was fairly convincing as a villain. It makes one think how much Hollywood wasted by making his characters in comics TOO milquetoast.

Posted By AL : March 23, 2013 6:03 pm

…and don’t forget Bellamy’s hilarious turn in Dorothy Parker’s
TRADE WINDS…

Posted By AL : March 23, 2013 6:03 pm

…and don’t forget Bellamy’s hilarious turn in Dorothy Parker’s
TRADE WINDS…

Posted By tdraicer : March 23, 2013 10:49 pm

He’ll always be FDR to me.

Posted By tdraicer : March 23, 2013 10:49 pm

He’ll always be FDR to me.

Posted By jennifromrollamo : March 24, 2013 12:19 am

Poor Ralph Bellamy, he also lost Ginger Rogers to Fred Astaire in Carefree. I recently watched Rosemary’s Baby for the first time and imagine my surprise when Ralph appeared as Dr. Sapirstein, the evil, austere doctor giving Rosemary terrible advice all in the cause of nurturing Satan in utero! An early Bellamy appearance in a movie where he isn’t losing the girl is 1939′s Blind Alley, and here he is married, respectable, a psychiatrist, and dealing with a gangster and his gang who have walked into the doctor’s home and are now holding all in the house hostage.

Posted By jennifromrollamo : March 24, 2013 12:19 am

Poor Ralph Bellamy, he also lost Ginger Rogers to Fred Astaire in Carefree. I recently watched Rosemary’s Baby for the first time and imagine my surprise when Ralph appeared as Dr. Sapirstein, the evil, austere doctor giving Rosemary terrible advice all in the cause of nurturing Satan in utero! An early Bellamy appearance in a movie where he isn’t losing the girl is 1939′s Blind Alley, and here he is married, respectable, a psychiatrist, and dealing with a gangster and his gang who have walked into the doctor’s home and are now holding all in the house hostage.

Posted By Doug : March 24, 2013 1:58 am

idlemendacity wrote” we have to wonder about Rosalind Russell’s Hildy who would not only countenance everything Walter has done to Bellamy’s character but got back with him at the end.”

The way I figure it: some women are drawn to ‘bad boys’-hoping to improve the breed. Then they wise up and go with the good guy who doesn’t need as many alterations.
Hildy’s nature was to compete with Walter-I imagine their marriage was tempestuous…and thrilling.
By the way, how many times did Cary play the divorced-but-hoping-to-win-her-back card?

Posted By Doug : March 24, 2013 1:58 am

idlemendacity wrote” we have to wonder about Rosalind Russell’s Hildy who would not only countenance everything Walter has done to Bellamy’s character but got back with him at the end.”

The way I figure it: some women are drawn to ‘bad boys’-hoping to improve the breed. Then they wise up and go with the good guy who doesn’t need as many alterations.
Hildy’s nature was to compete with Walter-I imagine their marriage was tempestuous…and thrilling.
By the way, how many times did Cary play the divorced-but-hoping-to-win-her-back card?

Posted By Tom S : March 24, 2013 4:00 pm

I always saw the contest as between not so much Grant and Bellamy as between having a career and retiring to the most boring suburban life imaginable- Grant may be a jerk, but he’s manipulating Russell into remember that she’s really friggin good at being a newspaperman/woman, and that she enjoys it and it fulfills her. Bellamy wants her to give that up, and is acting like he’s doing her a favor by doing so. Screeeew that.

Posted By Tom S : March 24, 2013 4:00 pm

I always saw the contest as between not so much Grant and Bellamy as between having a career and retiring to the most boring suburban life imaginable- Grant may be a jerk, but he’s manipulating Russell into remember that she’s really friggin good at being a newspaperman/woman, and that she enjoys it and it fulfills her. Bellamy wants her to give that up, and is acting like he’s doing her a favor by doing so. Screeeew that.

Posted By Tom S : March 24, 2013 4:01 pm

Also, Bellamy’s role in Rosemary’s Baby is fascinating in the context of Bellamy as the nice guy everyone trusts implicitly, who represents good patriarchal morals and normality.

Posted By Tom S : March 24, 2013 4:01 pm

Also, Bellamy’s role in Rosemary’s Baby is fascinating in the context of Bellamy as the nice guy everyone trusts implicitly, who represents good patriarchal morals and normality.

Posted By Dou : March 25, 2013 2:46 am

Tom S. writ:
“Grant may be a jerk, but he’s manipulating Russell into remember that she’s really friggin good at being a newspaperman/woman, and that she enjoys it and it fulfills her.”
Can’t explain it, but that triggered a thought of “Kill Bill”‘s relationship between Bill and The Bride. Roz Russell’s Hildy is Lois Lane. Grant’s Walter Burns is J. Jonah Jameson.
Tom, you’re right. He is manipulating her because a reporter with her talent retiring to work on a ranch would be like a Kentucky Derby winner pulling an icewagon. He doesn’t think she would be happy living a normal life. I don’t know that he’s wrong.

Posted By Dou : March 25, 2013 2:46 am

Tom S. writ:
“Grant may be a jerk, but he’s manipulating Russell into remember that she’s really friggin good at being a newspaperman/woman, and that she enjoys it and it fulfills her.”
Can’t explain it, but that triggered a thought of “Kill Bill”‘s relationship between Bill and The Bride. Roz Russell’s Hildy is Lois Lane. Grant’s Walter Burns is J. Jonah Jameson.
Tom, you’re right. He is manipulating her because a reporter with her talent retiring to work on a ranch would be like a Kentucky Derby winner pulling an icewagon. He doesn’t think she would be happy living a normal life. I don’t know that he’s wrong.

Posted By kingrat : March 25, 2013 6:10 pm

For a movie in which Ralph Bellamy gets the girl–Ann Sheridan, no less–try BROTHER ORCHID. Who loses out with Ann? Humphrey Bogart.

He also finally gets Barbara Stanwyck in FORBIDDEN, but if you’ve seen that film, you know that he ought to have passed on that opportunity.

Posted By kingrat : March 25, 2013 6:10 pm

For a movie in which Ralph Bellamy gets the girl–Ann Sheridan, no less–try BROTHER ORCHID. Who loses out with Ann? Humphrey Bogart.

He also finally gets Barbara Stanwyck in FORBIDDEN, but if you’ve seen that film, you know that he ought to have passed on that opportunity.

Posted By Bronxgirl48 : March 25, 2013 10:55 pm

I’ve always had a soft spot in my heart for upright Ralphie, as I always go for the squares, lol. He’s even SEXY as a very amorous husband in GUEST IN THE HOUSE, so you get the best of both worlds with him there.

Patric Knowles…sigh! Handsome, reserved, and a just a tad mysterious.

Posted By Bronxgirl48 : March 25, 2013 10:55 pm

I’ve always had a soft spot in my heart for upright Ralphie, as I always go for the squares, lol. He’s even SEXY as a very amorous husband in GUEST IN THE HOUSE, so you get the best of both worlds with him there.

Patric Knowles…sigh! Handsome, reserved, and a just a tad mysterious.

Posted By robbushblog : March 26, 2013 12:55 am

For those who also watch new movies: James Marsden is the modern day equivalent to Ralph Bellamy. Search your heart. You know it to be true.

Posted By robbushblog : March 26, 2013 12:55 am

For those who also watch new movies: James Marsden is the modern day equivalent to Ralph Bellamy. Search your heart. You know it to be true.

Posted By jennifromrollamo : March 26, 2013 8:30 pm

Bronxgirl: I haven’t heard of Guest in the House-must seek it out!

Posted By jennifromrollamo : March 26, 2013 8:30 pm

Bronxgirl: I haven’t heard of Guest in the House-must seek it out!

Posted By jennifromrollamo : March 26, 2013 8:31 pm

robbushblog: Marsden does lose the girl in The Notebook, but does get another girl at the end of Enchanted.

Posted By jennifromrollamo : March 26, 2013 8:31 pm

robbushblog: Marsden does lose the girl in The Notebook, but does get another girl at the end of Enchanted.

Posted By robbushblog : March 26, 2013 9:57 pm

Ah, but not THE girl. He was also the least favorable option in the X-Men movies and that abominable Superman Returns garbage.

Posted By robbushblog : March 26, 2013 9:57 pm

Ah, but not THE girl. He was also the least favorable option in the X-Men movies and that abominable Superman Returns garbage.

Posted By swac44 : March 27, 2013 8:02 am

I spent much of my life being Ralph Bellamy, until I snared my own Carole Lombard (her hobbies include rappelling down office buildings, parachuting and salmon fishing) at 39. There’s hope for milquetoasts everywhere!

Posted By swac44 : March 27, 2013 8:02 am

I spent much of my life being Ralph Bellamy, until I snared my own Carole Lombard (her hobbies include rappelling down office buildings, parachuting and salmon fishing) at 39. There’s hope for milquetoasts everywhere!

Posted By robbushblog : March 28, 2013 12:08 am

Is she Catwoman?

Posted By robbushblog : March 28, 2013 12:08 am

Is she Catwoman?

Posted By swac44 : March 28, 2013 6:54 am

Heh, you’d think so, but she’s a bird lover and not so fond of cats, so maybe Birdgirl? Considering how much I love Paget Brewster’s interpretation of Birdgirl on Harvey Birdman: Attorney at Law (and how much my gal loves Paget Brewster as Sadie Doyle on the amazing Thrilling Adventure Hour podcast’s supernatural take on Nick & Nora Charles, titled Beyond Belief), that works for me.

BTW, if you haven’t listened to Thrilling Adventure Hour, you’re really missing out. It’s on iTunes, for free!

Posted By swac44 : March 28, 2013 6:54 am

Heh, you’d think so, but she’s a bird lover and not so fond of cats, so maybe Birdgirl? Considering how much I love Paget Brewster’s interpretation of Birdgirl on Harvey Birdman: Attorney at Law (and how much my gal loves Paget Brewster as Sadie Doyle on the amazing Thrilling Adventure Hour podcast’s supernatural take on Nick & Nora Charles, titled Beyond Belief), that works for me.

BTW, if you haven’t listened to Thrilling Adventure Hour, you’re really missing out. It’s on iTunes, for free!

Posted By Doug : March 28, 2013 1:01 pm

swac44, if you haven’t seen this yet, I may have a treat for you-TV show Castle, season four, has an extra feature with Molly Quinn ‘videoblogging’ a behind the scenes look at her and Nate Fillion’s turn on “The Thrilling Adventure Hour”. He’d been there before, but it was her first time doing the show. It looks like they have a lot on fun.
I had intended to hook up the podcast; with your reminder, I’ve now done so. Thanks again.

Posted By Doug : March 28, 2013 1:01 pm

swac44, if you haven’t seen this yet, I may have a treat for you-TV show Castle, season four, has an extra feature with Molly Quinn ‘videoblogging’ a behind the scenes look at her and Nate Fillion’s turn on “The Thrilling Adventure Hour”. He’d been there before, but it was her first time doing the show. It looks like they have a lot on fun.
I had intended to hook up the podcast; with your reminder, I’ve now done so. Thanks again.

Posted By swac44 : March 28, 2013 3:41 pm

Thanks for the heads-up, Doug! It’d be fun to see some footage of Nathan as “Cactoid Jim” (on the “Martian Western” Sparks Nevada, Marshall on Mars).

They’re actually in the process of making a Thrilling Adventure Hour concert film, plus a graphic novel with the characters of the various shows. It’s a good time to get on board.

Posted By swac44 : March 28, 2013 3:41 pm

Thanks for the heads-up, Doug! It’d be fun to see some footage of Nathan as “Cactoid Jim” (on the “Martian Western” Sparks Nevada, Marshall on Mars).

They’re actually in the process of making a Thrilling Adventure Hour concert film, plus a graphic novel with the characters of the various shows. It’s a good time to get on board.

Posted By Stacia : March 29, 2013 7:31 am

It was a shame that Bellamy became a punchline on some level, but he was so recognizable as the almost-ran to heartthrobs like Grant that Bette Davis reminisces about a fictitious movie in The Star (1952) where she had played a girl in love with two guys, one of them Ralph Bellamy.

He was a terrific comedian, even later in his career. When Sunrise at Campobello was on the other day, I pointed Bellamy out to my husband as “the guy who ended up playing a pharmacist in Amazon Women on the Moon” and he gasped, probably because I didn’t make it clear that it was a cameo, or that Bellamy had just been in Trading Places the year before so it wasn’t like he was a forgotten actor, though I think people unfamiliar with classic films sometimes think so.

Posted By Stacia : March 29, 2013 7:31 am

It was a shame that Bellamy became a punchline on some level, but he was so recognizable as the almost-ran to heartthrobs like Grant that Bette Davis reminisces about a fictitious movie in The Star (1952) where she had played a girl in love with two guys, one of them Ralph Bellamy.

He was a terrific comedian, even later in his career. When Sunrise at Campobello was on the other day, I pointed Bellamy out to my husband as “the guy who ended up playing a pharmacist in Amazon Women on the Moon” and he gasped, probably because I didn’t make it clear that it was a cameo, or that Bellamy had just been in Trading Places the year before so it wasn’t like he was a forgotten actor, though I think people unfamiliar with classic films sometimes think so.

Posted By robbushblog : March 29, 2013 9:29 am

Stacia- It’s funny that you said that, because the first thing I remember ever seeing Ralph Bellamy in was Amazon Women on the Moon, selling condoms to Matt Adler so he could get it on with Kelly Preston. I must have seen that movie about 20 times back in the 80′s and early 90′s.

Posted By robbushblog : March 29, 2013 9:29 am

Stacia- It’s funny that you said that, because the first thing I remember ever seeing Ralph Bellamy in was Amazon Women on the Moon, selling condoms to Matt Adler so he could get it on with Kelly Preston. I must have seen that movie about 20 times back in the 80′s and early 90′s.

Posted By Bronxgirl48 : March 29, 2013 6:23 pm

jenni, GUEST IN THE HOUSE is on YouTube. A must-see, but mainly I have to say for Anne Baxter, who gives a phenomenally chilling
performance!

Posted By Bronxgirl48 : March 29, 2013 6:23 pm

jenni, GUEST IN THE HOUSE is on YouTube. A must-see, but mainly I have to say for Anne Baxter, who gives a phenomenally chilling
performance!

Posted By Stacia : April 2, 2013 5:00 am

robbushblog, that was the first film I saw Bellamy in, too! It was probably one of the first rental tapes I watched, back in the days of renting those big suitcase VCRs and getting two movies for the weekend. Even though I was young and had seen only a handful of classic films, I knew Bellamy was a cameo performer in AWotM, but it was probably a decade before I truly knew who he was.

Posted By Stacia : April 2, 2013 5:00 am

robbushblog, that was the first film I saw Bellamy in, too! It was probably one of the first rental tapes I watched, back in the days of renting those big suitcase VCRs and getting two movies for the weekend. Even though I was young and had seen only a handful of classic films, I knew Bellamy was a cameo performer in AWotM, but it was probably a decade before I truly knew who he was.

Posted By cheriepeden481 : April 2, 2013 6:59 am

I think that Ralph Bellamy was the best thing about “Rosemary’s Baby”. That’s how much I like him.

Posted By cheriepeden481 : April 2, 2013 6:59 am

I think that Ralph Bellamy was the best thing about “Rosemary’s Baby”. That’s how much I like him.

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