Posted by Susan Doll on November 11, 2013
This could be the title of my autobiography, since I do not cook for anyone—not even myself. But, it is really the title of a minor screwball comedy. Released in 1935, just a year after It Happened One Night launched the subgenre dubbed screwball, If You Could Only Cook stars Jean Arthur and Herbert Marshall as the mismatched couple destined to be together. The film airs on TCM this Friday night, November 15, at 4:45am.
To be honest, this is not a long-lost gem that will rival classics like It Happened One Night, Philadelphia Story, Bringing Up Baby, or other films that defined the genre. I did not feel it was special to recommend it as one of my “Forgotten Films to Remember.” The script lacks the fast-paced dialogue and snappy comebacks associated with screwball, the supporting characters are not zany enough, and the actual screwball situations are few and far between. But, the film provides a good example of how the systems and practices of the Golden Age could elevate the most mediocre of material, and I found myself admiring If You Could Only Cook for that reason.
Herbert Marshall stars as James Buchanan, the wealthy, successful head of an automobile company who is about to wed snooty Evelyn Fletcher, because it is “a logical marriage.” His gnawing ambivalence about his upcoming nuptials is magnified by professional disappointment when his board of directors refuses his designs for next year’s cars. He departs for a short vacation, but ends up on a park bench with unemployed Joan Hawthorne. Jean Arthur costars as Joan Hawthorne, an ordinary gal desperately looking for a job in the want ads. Because it is the Depression, and James is on a park bench in the middle of the day, Joan assumes that he is out of work, too. When she finds an ad for a husband/wife team of butler and cook in a ritzy section of town, she suggests the two of them pretend to be married and apply. Joan wins over the employer—a bootlegger named Mike Rossini—because she knows the proper way to cook with garlic, and the two get the jobs.
The screwball situations that spark comedy include Joan and James’s living arrangements. Because Rossini thinks the two are married, they are given quarters together above the garage, which is awkward since they have just met. Later, when Joan discovers James’s true identity, she never wants to see him again, prompting Mr. Rossini to play matchmaker with the help of his tough-talking partner, Flash.
Part of the success of screwball comedies is the way they make use of the star system, which is an approach to Hollywood storytelling that is getting lost over time. Most movie lovers know that Hollywood stars from the Golden Age had images or personas that were consistent from film to film. A star’s image was partly based on fantasy and partly based on the star’s own personality. Viewers of all ages during the Golden Age became familiar with stars’ images relatively quickly because they went to the movies weekly, or even bi-weekly. Stars were the bait to lure audiences to the movies, and they became the primary reason for viewers’ loyal attendance. The star system was much more than celebrity worship; it was a storytelling system used to create characters and drive storylines. Scripts were written with stars’ images in mind; in other words, characters were empty shells until the stars stepped into the roles and flushed them out. Stars did not lose themselves in their characters, which is a trait today’s reviewers consider the hallmark of good acting. Instead, the characters were defined by the images of the stars. Good performances were judged by how well a star played into facets of his or her star image to satisfy the expectations of the fans without embodying the exact character in film after film.
Just how well that star system worked is revealed when stars managed to create larger-than-life characters in movies with weak, slight scripts. They could turn a mediocre film into an entertaining viewing experience. Jean Arthur and Herbert Marshall breathe life into Joan Hawthorne and James Buchanan in If You Could Only Cook, though their characters lack back stories and description. Arthur’s vivaciousness can enliven any character, but recently while watching If You Could Only Cook, I was struck by the casual charisma of Herbert Marshall, a star who seems forgotten compared to such Golden Age stalwarts as Wayne, Grant, Stewart, Mitchum, and Fonda. Marshall specialized in urbane sophisticates who were mature, cultured, and refined. Superficial bios of Marshall claim that he was “the ideal romantic lead,” but I don’t agree. Stardom aside, Marshall was not a physically attractive man. He had a too-round face, a high forehead with a receding hairline, and a tall but shapeless build. He lost a leg during WWI, and his wooden replacement caused him considerable discomfort, limiting his movements during a performance. Marshall did make a wonderful romantic lead, however, though it was not contingent on his physical looks. Instead, he exhibited considerable charisma and charm, which were communicated through a finely modulated voice and smooth line delivery. The character James Buchanan is shown in only two scenes before he sits down next to Joan in the park, but there is no doubt that she is in safe hands despite asking a complete stranger to pretend to be her husband. Any potential threat or risk does not even cross the minds of viewers familiar with Marshall because ungallant behavior does not match his star image as the consummate gentleman.
Marshall could play opposite anyone and exhibit chemistry or camaraderie. One of the film’s best scenes finds James taking lessons from his butler, Jennings, on how to be a good servant or valet. A bit actor named Romaine Callender played Jennings, and his exchange with Marshall is humorous because of the physical and verbal interplay between them. James learns butlering skills from Jennings by repeatedly asking him to come through the door so he can practice taking his coat and hat, while the latter advises James to pretend to “hang onto” his boss’s every word even when it is “drivel.” As with most of his leading ladies, Marshall worked well with spunky Jean Arthur. His civil and suave exterior balanced her bubbly personality, just like his smooth, dulcet tones complemented her raspy voice. He even exhibited charisma opposite costars Leo Carrillo and Lionel Stander, who played the nouveaux riche bootleggers.
One of the conventions of screwball comedies is the clever use of zany secondary characters. Unfortunately, there are too few in If You Could Only Cook, though Stander is memorable as the henchman Flash. I remember the gravelly voiced Stander as the chauffeur on the television series Hart to Hart during the 1980s. At the time, much was made of Stander’s return to America after several years working as a character actor in Europe. In the 1960s, he had to re-establish his career in Europe after falling victim to the HUAC witch hunts of the 1950s, which resulted in his blacklisting from film, television, and radio. Stander had just begun his Hollywood career when he appeared in If You Could Only Cook, but his voice was already so gruff and croaky that it is immediately recognizable. That voice adds to the humor of a scene near the end when he and another gangster pretend to be a lovey-dovey couple sitting in their honeymoon car in order to avoid detection by the police. Nothing in a classic Hollywood film is ever wasted—not even an opportunity to exploit a character actor’s unique voice.
Movie stars are still a part of the film industry, but their star images are not cultivated and controlled like they were in previous eras. Consequently, they are not used with the same deliberateness and effectiveness as they were in the Golden Age. Those viewers who tend to lump movie stars in the same category as celebrities don’t appreciate the function of stars like audiences of the past, while fewer directors are clever with their casting. The young demographic that Hollywood prizes so much cares more about recognizable characters (that is, comic book and graphic novel characters) than the stars who play them. With the commercial film industry unraveling because of the high costs of its simple-minded blockbusters and franchises, which are long on CGI but short on character and story, modern movies have lost their identity as the art of the people.
Today’s filmmakers and studio heads could learn a lot from If You Could Only Cook.
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