The Heavenly Body (1944)-Alexander Hall

 ★★

 

The Whitleys are a happily married couple. At least that’s what famed astronomer William Whitley (William Powell) thinks. His wife, Vicky (Hedy Lamarr), has grown increasingly tired of waiting for her husband to put the stars on the back burner, and promoting her to the major focus of his life. Hedy Lamarr and William Powell in "The Heavenly Body" (1944)She’s become impatient, and at the urging of her excentric neighbor (Spring Byington), she is convinced to look to the stars herself, only instead of a telescope, she uses an astrologer (Fay Bainter). Her astrologer tells her that she is going to meet someone special, and being a foolish, frustrating person to watch, Vicky explains to her husband that their marriage is now over.

William becomes more annoyed than concerned, until of course Vicky meets their air raid warden (James Craig), who just happens to fit the description of Vicky’s mystery man. William must now go on full alert to keep his marriage alive, all the while being consumed by the most important scientific event of his career.

It seems that “The Heavenly Body” (1944) may have been made specifically because of the success of William Powell and Hedy Lamarr’s previous film, “Crossroads” (1942). Hedy Lamarr and William Powell in "The Heavenly Body" (1944)Between Powell’s appearance in the fourth Thin Man, “The Shadow of the Thin Man” (1941), and the fifth installment, “The Thin Man Goes Home” (1945), his only starring roles were in these two Hedy Lamarr films. World War II, and Myrna Loy’s absence from acting during this time, unfortunately, hurt his career. Screwball comedy is well within his ability, but with the exception of a couple of good scenes and some nicely written dialogue courtesy of Michael Arlen and Walter Reisch, “The Heavenly Body” falls into the category of mediocre.

Hedy Lamarr is a good co-star for Powell, despite their 22 year age difference. In fact her youth and free-spirited attitude adds to the gullibility of her innocent and naive character. She is a good fit for “The Heavenly Body”, and shows her ability to do screwball comedy, paired with one of the best.

The downfall, or perhaps more appropriately, the serious cataclysm of “The Heavenly Body” is that Vicky so blindly listens to her astrologer, and casts aside her obviously loving husband, even though she has never believed in astrology before.

It’s new to her and she is willing to test it out, but to end a marriage on that test seems more than far-fetched or screwball- it seems stupid. The Heavenly Body (1944)As the plot continues, it is easy to get angry with Vicky, especially considering that William wasn’t even a bad husband, and obviously loves her. It’s hard to enjoy a romantic comedy when one of the characters behaves so ridiculously.

The supporting cast is fun to watch. Especially Spring Byington, in a role that is far too small, as well as the group of Russians  that come over a “teach” William the best way to drink vodka. Less emphasis on the astrology and more on the crazy situations that William keeps walking into, would have made for a funnier, laugh-out-loud successful formula. It also would have made a better screwball comedy. As hard as it is to find a William Powell comedy with flaws, “The Heavenly Body” is here.

It Started with Eve (1941)- Henry Koster

 ★★★★

 

“It Started with Eve” (1941) is the last of six films that had the dynamic creative collaboration of director Henry Koster, producer Joe Pasternak, and acting/singing sensation Deanna Durbin. It also (quite possibly) is their funniest. Of course instead of giving them all the credit, I must point out that what makes this film wonderful has more to do with a delightfully witty screenplay written by Norman Krasna and Leo Townsend,  and a commanding and hilarious performance from the somewhat surprisingly comical Charles Laughton.

You see, Jonathan Reynolds (Laughton), the towering, powerful man, who grabs headlines every time he leaves his home, is in fact, dying.It Started with Eve (1941) His loving son, Johnny (Robert Cummings), rushes to his father’s enormous mansion and kneels next to the bed in time to hear the dying man’s request to set his eyes on his only child’s fiance before death comes. Johnny, being an obliging son, frantically drives across town to the hotel where his fiance, Gloria (Margaret Tallichet), is staying with her mother (Catherine Doucet). Unfortunately, they aren’t in, and Johnny feels that all is lost.

But wait! Johnny’s luck is about to change as a hat check girl, Anne (Deanna Durbin), agrees to pose as Johnny’s fiance, just to help out. (Isn’t that sweet of her?) Anne meets Mr. Reynolds, who is impressed with her girl-next-door appearance and down-to-earth mentality. So much so in fact, that he makes a remarkable recovery and is back on his feet in no time. Good news for him- bad news for Johnny and Anne as they have to figure out some way to break the news of their lie to the old man, without him relapsing.

Although “It Started with Eve” is a highly predictable story, the entire production still benefits from a great script and a cast who clearly know how to get the job done. Robert Cummings spends the majority of the film running in circles with an I’m so confused and overwhelmed look on his face, but he steps things up when the scene needs him too. Deanna Durbin does what Deanna Durbin always does best- she looks cute and likeable, and she sings.It Started with Eve (1941) She also gets to mix things up with both Cummings and Charles Laughton, which gives her a chance to do some more physical comedy with Cummings and a more dialogue driven humor with Laughton.

It is the great Charles Laughton who deserves the most praise, in a role that is a far cry from his successful performances from the 1930’s. Don’t get me wrong, he can always be funny in a smaller, quieter way, as is evident in a film like “The Private Lives of Henry VIII” (1933). In “It Started with Eve,” however, his humor and comedic style is much more evident and substantially more appreciated. He also has the advantage of playing a character that is supposed to be substantially older than he was. In fact, Laughton was only 42 years old at the time of this film’s release, making Robert Cummings (playing his son) only 11 years his junior. Laughton sulks around many of his early scenes, reminding the audience of his deteriorating body and fragile bones, but it’s all just a set-up to show how youthful he now feels by having Anne in his and his son’s life. Truthfully speaking, I wish Laughton had made more films such as this one, as he has a refreshing and highly enjoyable style that truly does leave the audience wanting more.

Too Many Husbands (1940)- Wesley Ruggles

 ★★★★

 

The ultimate screwball comedy dilemma… “Too Many Husbands”. That is the problem that dear, sweet Vicky (Jean Arthur) must face in this witty, highly entertaining screwball comedy from 1940.Too Many Husbands (1940) Vicky was happily married to Bill (Fred MacMurray), who went away on a month-long boating trip, and after some kind of incident, was assumed drowned. Within six months, Vicky has remarried, this time to Henry (Melvyn Douglas), who not only is Bill’s former business partner, but also his best friend. Now, another six months later, Bill has been rescued from a deserted island and has returned, much to everyone’s surprise, as well as his own bewilderment. Vicky is now faced with the monumental moral decision: does she go back to her original husband, or just continue on as if he was still dead?

Just in case she needs any help, both men are dead set on competing for her affections, which incidentally, gives Vicky a little too much enjoyment. The more they fight over her, the more pleasure she seems to receive. She also has the guidance of her father (Harry Davenport), although she doesn’t seem very inclined to listen to him anyway.Too Many Husbands (1940) He’s just there for an extra bit of humor, and (much in the way Davenport did throughout his career) he doesn’t disappoint.

“Too Many Husbands” is based on the 1919 play “Home and Beauty,” by W. Somerset Maugham, which in turn is based (or at least inspired) by Alfred Lord Tennyson’s poem, “Enoch Arden”. It is also not the only film version based on Tennyson’s work that was released in 1940. Leo McCarey wrote and directed a somewhat similar version of this story, “My Favorite Wife” (1940), starring Cary Grant and Irene Dunne. Although many of the plot points are the same, each has its strengths, and focuses on separate details of the characters’ precarious situation, leaving plenty of room for screwball fun.

Where “Too Many Husbands” stands out is in the cast, with their amazing chemistry and highly enjoyable repartee. Too Many Husbands (1940)Arthur treats each of her husbands with a love and admiration that really exemplifies how deeply she cares for each of them. She loves them both, wants them both, and at several points seems to be contemplating how she might be able to finagle some way to remain with both of them. Jean Arthur thrives in screwball comedies, and “Too Many Husbands” is no exception. It gives her ample opportunities to make us love everything about her.

Despite MacMurray’s and Douglas’ characters despising the situation that has been thrust upon them, their still have a friendship and bond, that runs deeply underneath everything else. Their witty banter makes the uncomfortable nature of the story fade with a relative ease. Both are large, strong, towering men, but when faced with losing Arthur, they seem to revert back to young boys on a school-yard, vying for her attentions; and they do it well.

Too Many Husbands (1940)The strength of this film is also its greatest weakness, however. We love these three characters so much, we don’t want anyone to be left out. We want to see this situation work itself, even though it’s obvious that it can’t. The filmmakers were clearly undecided on how they wanted their own film to end, and therefore made it hard for everyone in the audience to be satisfied. Although there is no clear  “happy ending” waiting for everyone, that doesn’t make the ride any less enjoyable.

The Mad Miss Manton (1938)- Leigh Jason

 ★★★★

 

The lovely Miss Melsa Manton (Barbara Stanwyck) isn’t really mad, although she does tend to make some crazy and ill-advised decisions. For example,  just as the film opens and she arrives home from a costume party, she decides to take her dogs for a walk… alone… at night… in New York… in a costume. Sure that might not seem too crazy, but then when she witnesses a man sprinting from a dark house into his car and speeding away, she decides that it’s her responsibility to investigate. The Mad Miss Manton (1938)After tying the dogs up outside, Miss Manton proceeds inside where she stumbles across a dead body and makes the first smart decision of her evening by calling the police. Of course Lieutenant Brent (Sam Levene) has trouble believing Manton because of her history as a snobbish, trouble-making socialite, and the fact that she is wearing a highly provocative (and childlike) costume. It doesn’t help her case that the dead body has disappeared, leaving no trace to be found; even by a team of screwball comedy detectives that were born to be characters in a film like this one.

Melsa, however, is undeterred by the police and their lack of faith. She, along with her misguided and completely ridiculous group of friends, have every intention of proving that a murder was committed, even at the risk of their own peril. Just to make their mission one  of greater importance, a news editor, Peter Ames (Henry Fonda), printed an article about Miss Manton and her seemingly ridiculous antics. The Mad Miss Manton (1938)That’s when Melsa storms into Ames’s office, threatening to sue for libel. Of course, just as fast as she storms in she also manages to steal Ames’s attention. He’s instantly enamored by  her charms and beauty, and is perfectly willing to risk his own safety for her.

“The Mad Miss Manton” is exactly the kind of middle-of -the-road screwball comedy that was being produced in the late 1930’s. It has a delightful yet unrealistic plot, it’s full of characters that make jokes despite being in seriously danger constantly, and the police seem to be the most clueless people on the planet, while our average everyday people (like Melsa) are perfectly suited to be crime fighters. It is also just an average film technically speaking. Director Leigh Jason is not a name everybody knows, not because he didn’t have talent, but because his movies tend to be good, not great.

The funny thing here is that “The Mad Miss Manton”, despite the points I have mentioned, is an above average movie.The Mad Miss Manton (1938) The reason it is able to rise above its flaws is because of Barbara Stanwyck and Henry Fonda. This was the first of three pairings for the two legendary actors, with the others being “You Belong to Me” (1941) and “The Lady Eve” (1941). Their on-screen (and off-screen) chemistry is electrifying, and every scene that they share leaves a smile on your face. The humor is better and the story is more plausible because of the way they handle themselves as a comedic duo. With other actors in this film it would become quickly forgettable, but Stanwyck and Fonda have created something extremely enjoyable, even if it’s not perfect. It’s their comedic timing and undeniable screen presence that elevates “The Mad Miss Manton” to the level of a “must see”.

 

 

Mr. & Mrs. Smith (1941)- Alfred Hitchcock

 ★★★★

 

Has there ever been a film that so blatantly stuck out like a sore thumb in a director’s career as Alfred Hitchcock’s 1941 screwball comedy, “Mr. & Mrs. Smith”? I certainly can’t think of any. Don’t get me wrong, it’s not that there is anything wrong with the film, it’s just an extremely different kind of movie for Alfred Hitchcock to make. Mr. & Mrs. Smith (1941)For example (and I suppose a bit of a spoiler), this movie has very little violence, no real mystery, and absolutely zero murders! That’s right folks, not one character in the entire film finds themselves at the mercy of a ruthless killer, and what makes it even more shocking… I don’t think these characters are even thinking about killing each other. I almost can’t understand what’s happening.

There is, however, quite a bit that is going on that is worth mentioning in this delightful film. David and Ann Smith (Robert Montgomery and Carole Lombard) have been happily married for the last three years. He’s a successful lawyer, they seem to enjoy each other’s company, and they live in a nice apartment prominently situated in New York City. After a trivial argument, Ann asks David if he would still marry her, given the chance to do it all over again. David (perhaps too hastily) says that he doesn’t think he would- Mr. & Mrs. Smith (1941)not because he doesn’t love her, but because being married gives up a certain amount of freedom that he misses.

And then comes the twist. At work later that same day, David is visited by a government official from the city where he and Ann were married, informing him that their marriage isn’t “technically” real because of a discrepancy in state and county lines. David is told it’s no big deal, but just to make everything legal, he is advised to get “re-married” to his wife. David chuckles and smiles, seeming to rather enjoy the fact that he isn’t married, but he does not, however, embrace his freedom and go gallivanting off into the single world again. He also neglects to inform his wife of their precarious circumstance, but don’t fret… that same government official (who knew Ann as a child) takes it upon himself to seek out Ann and explain the situation to her.

Ann expects that David will “fill her in” that evening, but as the hours roll by it becomes increasingly clear he has other things on his mind. Having sex with an “unmarried” woman seems to be at the top of his list. Mr. & Mrs. Smith (1941)Ann has finally had enough, and in a fitful (and understandable) tirade, throws him out, vowing to be done with him forever.

Now David is on the outside, trying desperately to win his wife back, but her anger (and childish attitude) might be more than he can fight- especially once David’s law firm partner (Gene Raymond) seizes the opportunity and tries to marry Ann himself.

Alfred Hitchcock: The Master of Suspense… I mean The Master of the Screwball Comedy. It doesn’t really have the same ring to it, but is still true. If “Mr. & Mrs. Smith” accomplishes only one thing in the career of the great Hitchcock, it’s that he could do more than just suspense films; he just doesn’t seem to enjoy it as much. I’m not saying he could have had the Lubitsch Touch, but he still had a feel for the style. The story, credited to Norman Krasna, is far-fetched and at times ridiculous, but that’s what we love about screwball movies, right? Mr. & Mrs. Smith (1941)The witty rapport between Montgomery and Lombard is divinely entertaining, with each and every scene attempting (and accomplishing) to outdo the last. I’ve grown accustomed to seeing Lombard play these types of roles, mostly because she did them so well, but Montgomery is a bit of a surprise here. His ability to dig deep within and pull out such a comedic performance is surprising.

“Mr. & Mrs. Smith” is a film that works because its stars make it work. It’s their effort and dedication to being as laughable as possible that keeps the audience smiling. Case in point- the scene where David takes Ann to the restaurant where they used to eat before they were married. Things have changed, and change doesn’t look very good. Ann spends the meal trying to get David to tell her that they aren’t married, but David is so bewildered by his surroundings that he’s barely listening. Lesser actors could have played this as just one of many scenes in a comedy film, but not these two. They pull out all the stops, slowly pacing themselves so that the scene can be enjoyed to its fullest.Mr. & Mrs. Smith (1941) Slow and steady wins the race, and Lombard and Montgomery have proved it in this scene, and this picture.

It is refreshing to see Hitchcock branch out a little from his typical mystery and suspense films, yet his talents do feel somewhat wasted. Occasionally you’ll see some great shot or an impressive lighting technique that grabs your attention, reminding you who directed this film, but for the most part he seems to have made it with a very straightforward approach. It’s not that he doesn’t do a good job, it just doesn’t wow or amaze the way so many of his other films have. The best part about watching “Mr. & Mrs. Smith” (especially with someone who has never seen it before) is to see the look on the viewer’s face when they realize that they are watching a Hitchcock movie. Inevitably the question that comes from them is always, “This is a Hitchcock film?” “Yes, it is,” I say,” Now stop talking while the movie’s on.”

Hulu Tuesday: I Married a Witch (1942)- Rene Clair

 ★★★★

 

“Love is stronger than witchcraft.” That is the theme behind Rene Clair’s 1942 supernatural comedy, “I Married a Witch”. The film opens in Colonial Salem, Massachusetts, as two accused witches (a young woman and her father) are being burned at the stake. Their accuser is Jonathan Wooley (Fredric March), a well-respected puritan. I Married a Witch (1942)As the fire rages in front of him, Jonathan explains to another woman that just before burning the young woman, she placed a curse upon him and all his descendants to be unlucky in marriage. Appropriately concerned, Jonathan buries their ashes and plants a tree above them, in an attempt to “imprison their evil spirits”.

While the tree might keep the spirits away, it does nothing to help with the curse, as each and every generation of Wooley men (always played by Fredric March) seem to be involved in the worst possible marriages. Finally, in 1942, there is a storm on the eve of another ill-advised Wooley marriage. I Married a Witch (1942)This time the descendant, Wallace Wooley, is marrying Estelle (Susan Hayward), the daughter of his political backer (Robert Warwick). During the storm, lightning strikes the tree on the Wooley estate, releasing the witches’ spirits.

Now our two witches, Jennifer (Veronica Lake) and Daniel (Cecil Kellaway), have taken human form and are ready to exact revenge on the Wooley family once and for all. When Jennifer meets Wallace, however, she has a change of heart and decides to save him from marrying Estelle. She sets out to win his affections and love any way possible, but gets more than she bargained for when her father, still hell-bent on the destruction of the Wooley family, uses everything in his powers to keep them apart.

One of the original producers on “I Married a Witch” was Preston Sturges, although he ended up quitting and having his named removed, due to differences with director Rene Clair. I Married a Witch (1942)His name might be gone, but his style remains. This feels like a Sturges film from beginning to end, with its original story, whimsical dialogue, and of course, a triumphant love story that defies all odds and logic.

Veronica Lake is perfect in this role. Even those who find her to be whiny and lacking of any acting talent, must see that this particular role only works because she seems so juvenile and immature. Even her co-star Fredric March called Lake, “a brainless little blonde sexpot, void of any acting ability.” In many ways he was right. Lake then responded by calling March a “pompous poseur.” Again, she may be right too. In an ironic way, the beauty of their relationship in the film and the chemistry between these characters is reliant on them acting exactly this way. I Married a Witch (1942)A smart, sophisticated witch wouldn’t find herself in this situation. It’s because she acts like a child that we enjoy her so much. She’s a hopeless romantic witch, who actually believes in love at first sight.

March was not the original choice for this role, as Joel McCrea was initially in line. He chose to skip this film because working with Lake again, after “Sullivan’s Travels” (1941), was more than he could bear. Fortunately this worked out for the best, as an actor with natural comic charm like McCrea wouldn’t have come off near as well as March. His character seems confused and disillusioned about his surroundings. It almost seems as if he’s not sure that he’s in the right movie. He doesn’t understand his own feelings toward Jennifer, and even seems surprised that he is attracted to her. It is March’s ability to be a “pompous poseur” that creates the humor of their relationship. I’m sorry they didn’t like each other, but am thrilled with the effect it had on their characters relationships in the film.

Often times movies that are plagued with so much off-screen turmoil, end up being easily forgettable. Somehow despite all the problems, “I Married a Witch” is an endearing classic that still delights, even today.

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Double Wedding (1937)- Richard Thorpe

★★★★

 

William Powell and Myrna Loy are always a great combination. Of course once you take out their six collaborations in “The Thin Man” series (1934-1947), their other movies seem to be incredibly less popular. Their romantic comedy “Double Wedding” (1937), however, is a too much fun to miss.

Double Wedding (1937)In this hilarious film, Charlie Lodge (Powell) is a vagabond style director who lives out of a trailer parked in his favorite bar’s parking lot. Margit Agnew (Loy) is a successful business woman who enjoys having everything a certain way. Margit also acts as “mother hen” to her fully grown younger sister, Irene (Florence Rice), and her fiance of many years, Waldo (John Beal).

Irene has aspirations of becoming a movie actress, so she and Waldo are always sneaking off to rehearse with Charlie. Charlie enjoys the misguided couple’s company, but is irritated by the way they let Margit control their lives. Irene wants nothing more than for Waldo to stand up to Margit the way Charlie does, but when Waldo proves less than up to the task, Irene announces that she is no longer in love with Waldo and now plans to marry Charlie.Double Wedding (1937)

Charlie, who gets a glimmer in his eye every time he sees Margit, takes advantage of the situation and pretends to love Irene as well. Now he will use this to his advantage and try to win his way into Margit’s heart, while re-joining Irene and Waldo.

The story is based on the play that translates as “Great Love” by Ferenc Molnar. Really the plot isn’t anything too exciting- just a lot of mixed up confusion as everyone seems to be professing their love in different directions. The screenplay by Jo Swerling is what makes the movie begin to click. The dialogue between Powell and Loy is fast, sharp and extremely entertaining.

Of course this is one of those films that had different actors taken the roles it wouldn’t hold up near as well. Double Wedding (1937)Although I can’t say Powell does some of his best work here, he certainly does some of his funniest. He brings this Charlie to life, and he is quite a character already! His smile is electric, his laugh is intoxicating, and when he walks in a room he has every bit of your attention. William Powell ‘s got “Yumph”!

In many ways it’s Myrna Loy who has the hard job in the film, as the “straight” character. Of course she pulls it off admirably because that is what Myrna always does for us. It’s a less obvious humor than her usual comedy roles, but equally fun to watch.

The supporting cast is real hit or miss, as you get the pleasure of seeing professionals like Jessie Ralph in a small, underused part, but then the scenes with John Beal and Florence Rice seem overacted and slow. Beal, in particular, is abysmal in this film. I assume he played this awful character this way on purpose, but it doesn’t work. It’s a good thing most of his scenes are saved by Powell.Double Wedding (1937)

It was during the filming of “Double Wedding” that Powell’s fiancée, Jean Harlow, suddenly died. Understandably, it was hard for him to continue filming, even after taking a break in production. Myna also had trouble continuing on with the production, due to her close friendship with both Powell and Harlow. Needless to say, “Double Wedding” was never a film that they wanted to remember, but that doesn’t mean we can’t appreciate it today.