Two lovers, locked in a room—the future of the state itself depends on whether their roiling lust for each other will override their other emotions and compel them into a marriage. The last time these two saw each other, Danilo (Maurice Chevalier) thought Sonia (Jeanette MacDonald) was a whore. The first time they saw each other, Sonia knew Danilo was a gigolo. And if all this talk of prostitution sounds tawdry, just remember that is in fact what this is all about: the King has ordered Danilo to seduce Sonia because unless she has a compelling reason to stick around in the Ruritanian kingdom of “Marshovia” she’ll take her wealth with her, crippling the economy. This is about trading money for sex, and sex for money.
Fans of high culture of course know this story as the beloved Merry Widow (which is just this weekend finishing a glorious run at Chicago’s Lyric Opera–awesome stuff). Franz Lehar’s opera had been entertaining audiences around the world since its Vienna premiere in 1905. But the prudish censors who governed Hollywood in 1934 weren’t what you’d call fans of high culture. For them, Ernst Lubitsch’s film version of The Merry Widow was just a piece of smut.
So how exactly did this thing get made in the first place? And what did it have to do with the Marx Brothers?
If you were so inclined, you could convincingly argue that Ernst Lubitsch’s Heaven Can Wait is a representative example of its time: a costume drama that luxuriates in period detail (playing to the strengths of 20th Century Fox); .a character study told with inventive narrative techniques and non-chronological structure (ike Preston Sturges’ The Great McGinty or Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane); in glorious Technicolor (surging to popularity in the wake of Snow White and The Seven Dwarves).
Except…this is Ernst Lubitsch we are talking about. He did not make movies like everyone else.
If you have patience for yet one more Cinderella story, I’ve got a 1935 romantic comedy with an interesting behind-the-scenes twist.
This week’s Cinderella is Alice Adams, a Katharine Hepburn vehicle by ex-Laurel & Hardy cameraman George Stevens, adapted from a Booth Tarkington novel of the same name. It garnered Academy Award nominations for both Best Picture and Best Actress, and revived the moribund career of Hepburn (or at least until the next time her popularity hit the rocks, or the next time after that) and was a breakthrough career moment for Stevens, who reinvented himself as a serious director of significant Hollywood pictures and not just that guy who used to make “Boy Friends” comedies for Hal Roach (never heard of ‘em? You’re not alone). And yet, both Hepburn and Stevens fought to prevent the film from being as successful as it came to be. And therein lies our story.
“One of the dullest towns in America is the dreary community of Hotchkiss Falls in the mid-Hudson Valley. The odds are 1000 to 1 against our finding anyone there with an interesting story. However that’s where we are, so let’s take a look around.”
Screwball comedies generally came in one of two flavors. The Heiress On the Run, as the name implies, presented rich girls fleeing their lives of privilege to take up with working-class men (see It Happened One Night, Next Time I Marry, Lady in a Jam, My Man Godfrey, Holiday). The Cinderella Story is also self-descriptive: a destitute and desperate girl is mistaken for a rich debutante, pampered by an older Sugar Daddy, and ultimately takes her place among the social set (see Easy Living, Midnight, and Fifth Avenue Girl, and Ruggles of Red Gap is a gender-reversed variant).
But once, the world of screwball combined these two flavors: Slightly Dangerous is both an Heiress on the Run film and a Cinderella Story, and it gives us a chance to dig into what made these two screwball subgenres work.
Gregory La Cava’s 1939 comedy Fifth Avenue Girl is an excellent example of the 1930s style of romantic comedies, and possibly my favorite Ginger Rogers film of all. It is also a decidedly deviant 1930s romantic comedy that breaks more rules than it follows, and uses Ginger Roger’s natural downtrodden deadpan persona to tamp down the usual screwball shenanigans in favor of something altogether more quiet, and bitter. And if that doesn’t quite sound like comedy to you, then read on…
Ruggles of Red Gap is an odd duck. It is a crucial turning point into the formative genre of screwball comedy, but it isn’t easily recognizable as a romantic comedy nor is it especially female driven. It was Charles Laughton’s favorite screen role, but he’s not known for comedy, and his performance here consists substantially of standing still and trying to suppress an awkward smile. It’s a 1930s Hollywood comedy for the Downton Abbey set, whose most famous scene involves a British valet reciting the Gettysburg Address to a bar full of Wild West toughs.
In other words, it’s a movie that calls for some unpacking. So let’s get started!
Up above, that’s a picture of the back of Joan Crawford’s head.
You might be wondering why I think that’s worth looking at, or how I expect to squeeze 1500 words out of it. I happen to think this is a potent and symbolic moment in the history of American screen comedy.
Longtime readers are used to my familiar soapbox rantings by now—I’ve spent most of my time here at TCM’s Movie Morlocks spinning my argument that the transition from silent slapstick to talkie screwball is *not* about the advent of sound. Most historians, if asked to demonstrate why screen comedy changed so radically in the 1930s, would point to a blackface Al Jolson singing his heart out and say, “here, lookit.” Not me. I’m going to point to the back of Joan Crawford’s head. “Here, lookit.”
Here’s where we find ourselves–the proverbial wild west. A shapely blonde dancehall singer, clutching a smoking gun. She’s trembling with residual anger, surrounded by friends and allies who are aghast at her latest escapade. She’s just shot a judge, in the buttocks, for the second time in as many hours.
That’s what’s onscreen, in the opening salvo of Preston Sturges’ first Technicolor picture. To step out of the screen, though, we must acknowledge the disappointing truth. This was a disastrous flop for all concerned. Preston Sturges had just tossed 2 million of 20th Century Fox’s money into a hole. Betty Grable had just ruined her streak of profitable hits. Darryl F. Zanuck had just alienated one of Hollywood’s true geniuses. No one came out unscathed.
None of which is to imply that The Beautiful Blonde From Bashful Bend is a waste of your time. Far from it. In fact, set aside that even lesser Sturges is still imminently watchable fun, let’s approach this more coldly. Not as a movie to be enjoyed, but as an archeological artifact to help us better understand Sturges’ genius, and its limitations.
Jean Arthur is a writer for the Boy’s Constant Companion.
No, Jean Arthur is an actress, and in the movie Easy Living she plays a writer for the Boy’s Constant Companion, but let’s not get bogged down in such hairsplitting. In any event, she barely holds that job and is fired early in the film. It wasn’t much of a job anyway–the harridan spinsters who policed that magazine must have been insufferable coworkers.
But it paid the rent. Well, no it didn’t–she’s behind in her $7 a week rent when we first meet her, and has only a single dime for her bus fare, so it’s not like the job was some fabulous boondoggle. But things are tough all over–haven’t you heard there’s a Depression on? Of course, if times are so tough, how to explain the fur coat that just dropped out of the sky onto her head?
Posted by R. Emmet Sweeney on January 20, 2015
Struggling stage actors Henry Fonda and Margaret Sullavan were married on December 25, 1931. They divorced two months later. In 1936, Fonda and Sullavan were both burgeoning movie stars, and appeared together in the romantic comedy The Moon’s Our Home, whose story of whirlwind romance and hurricane breakup recalled their brief fling. Recently released on DVD from the Universal Vault, the studio’s burn-on-demand service, the film is an aggressive farce that gained added oomph from Fonda and Sullavan’s fraught, passionate relationship (the transfer looks soft and interlaced, but it’s watchable). Director William A. Seiter was a sensitive shaper of star personas, having helped mold the Dadaist antics of Wheeler and Woolsey and the blossoming sass of Ginger Rogers. The Moon’s Our Home, with the aid of some acidic dialogue contributed by Dorothy Parker, is a bumptious battle of the sexes, with Sullavan a bite-sized Napoleon and Fonda her arrogant outdoorsman opponent. Their fights are shockingly violent, and the film ends with one of them in a straightjacket.
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