Sunday, April 13, 2014

Rita Hayworth and Raj Kapoor

A few nights ago my partner and I watched Down To Earth (1947), a musical sequel to Here Comes Mr. Jordan (1941). The title Down To Earth is apt: the movie is indeed kept firmly earthbound by its inert leading man, Larry Parks, who couldn't sing or dance. However, the real star of the movie is Rita Hayworth in all her Technicolor glory. She was then at the peak of her popularity, just coming off the triumph of Gilda (1946), and having a few years earlier starred opposite Fred Astaire in You'll Never Get Rich (1941) and You Were Never Lovelier (1942), and opposite Gene Kelly in Cover Girl (1944). As her partnering with Astaire and Kelly suggests Hayworth certainly could dance, although in most of her movies, including this one, her singing voice was dubbed by Anita Ellis.

In Down To Earth Hayworth plays the muse Terpsichore, goddess of dance. She's offended by Broadway director Danny Miller (Parks) and his comic musical about two Air Force pilots who crash-land on Mt. Parnassus and then have to fend off the advances of the man-hungry Muses. So she descends from Parnassus, joins the cast of the show, and tries to change it to make it suitably reverent, with dismal results.

Terpsichore's complaint about Miller's original version of the musical is that it portrays the Muses in an unflattering light. You be the judge: here is the play's (and the movie's) first number, "The Nine Muses":

In this play-within-the-movie, Terpsichore is portrayed by Adele Jergens and voiced by the amazing Kay Starr. By the way, the red-haired pilot is Marc Platt.

This number segues into a scene on Mount Parnassus, where the real Muses have gathered to hear Terpsichore's complaints. And this is where I began to notice some visual parallels between Down to Earth and Raj Kapoor's Awāra (1951).

As I showed in an earlier post on Awāra, it has many parallels to the Rodgers and Hammerstein musical Carousel, including Raj's central dream / vision / nightmare of heaven and hell. That sequence also seems to draw on Down to Earth for some of its imagery.

There's the man prostrated on the steps of the goddesses' temple:

Down to Earth
There's the vision of the temple among the clouds:

Even some of the choreographic gestures seem similar:

Awara, despite the occasional dissent from carping critics like me, has become one of the most acclaimed films in Hindi cinema. Down To Earth has followed a reverse trajectory: although a hit at the time, it has faded into relative obscurity. But even though its script and leading man are weak, Down To Earth is worth seeing for its musical numbers (by Doris Fisher with lyrics by Allan Roberts), for its savage Martha Graham parody, and especially for Hayworth, who transcends the material through sheer star power.

Friday, March 28, 2014

My Life in Middlemarch

"We have often wished that genius would incline itself more frequently to the task of the biographer—that when some great or good personage dies....we could have a real 'Life,' setting forth briefly and vividly the man’s inward and outward struggles, aims, and achievements, so as to make clear the meaning which his experience has for his fellows....But the conditions required for the perfection of life writing—personal intimacy, a loving and poetic nature which sees the beauty and the depth of familiar things, and the artistic power which seizes characteristic points and renders them with lifelike effect—are seldom found in combination."
—George Eliot, "Carlyle’s Life of Sterling"

The conditions required for the perfection of life-writing are fully met in Rebecca Mead's My Life in Middlemarch (Crown Publishers, 2014). It's a record of the changing meanings that George Eliot's Middlemarch has held for Mead as she has reread it over the course of her life. It's also a concise and highly compelling biography of Eliot, a description of the creation and reception of her great novel, and a frank and moving account of Mead's life and experience as it has been reflected in and informed by Middlemarch.

Eliot lived a remarkable life: she was a public intellectual in an era where the home was considered to be women's proper sphere and silence her proper state. Scandalously, Eliot lived openly with a married man (the writer and editor George Henry Lewes), and took his given name as part of her pseudonym. (Blanche Williams, a biographer of George Eliot, has speculated that the second part of her pseudonym is also a tribute to Lewes: "To L—I owe it.")

As Mead writes about her lifelong relationship with Eliot's masterpiece,
"Reading is sometimes thought of as a form of escapism, and it's a common turn of phrase to speak of getting lost in a book. But a book can also be where one finds oneself; and when a reader is grasped and held by a book, reading does not feel like an escape from life so much as it feels like an urgent, crucial dimension of life itself. There are books that seem to comprehend us just as much as we understand them, or even more. There are books that grow with the reader as the reader grows....This kind of book becomes part of our own experience, and a part of our own endurance." (p. 16)
My Life in Middlemarch is essential reading for lovers of Eliot's great novel, but also for those, like Mead (and myself), for whom books have been a crucial element of their "self-fashioning." It's also essential for those looking back from the vantage point of middle age at their young adulthood and wondering at how little temporal and emotional distance seems to separate them from their 20-year-old selves. Like Middlemarch itself, My Life in Middlemarch is a book to reread and treasure for its vision of "the beauty and the depth of familiar things."

Friday, March 14, 2014

Pride and Prejudice (1940)

Darcy proposes to Elizabeth

I've long been skeptical about the 1940 MGM Pride and Prejudice with Greer Garson and Laurence Olivier—the glossy classic Hollywood treatment just seemed wrong for Jane Austen. And the 1995 BBC adaptation with Jennifer Ehle and Colin Firth is so good that I haven't been eager to seek out other versions.

But lately my partner and I have been seeing a lot of films from the 1930s and 1940s, including Mrs. Miniver (1942), which featured Garson in the title role as a stalwart wife and mother trying to hold her family together during the Blitz. Garson was wonderful in that role, and it made me curious about her Elizabeth Bennet.

Greer Garson as Elizabeth Bennet
My misgivings about the MGM Pride and Prejudice weren't misplaced, but Garson is almost reason enough to watch it. She's a bit mature for the role of Elizabeth: she was in her mid-30s at the time of filming, while in the novel Elizabeth reluctantly tells Lady Catherine that she is "not one-and-twenty." Many actresses can successfully play characters a decade or more younger than their actual age: Jean Arthur played 20-something ingenues well into her forties, and in the 1995 Pride and Prejudice Julia Sawalha does a brilliantly convincing job as the 15-year-old Lydia Bennet (although Sawalha was actually older than Jennifer Ehle, who played Elizabeth). It's not only Garson's looks that are a bit too mature for Elizabeth, though, but her characterization—Ehle captures more of her vulnerability and uncertainty. Even so, Garson is highly enjoyable in the role, conveying all of Elizabeth's intelligence, wit, and kindness (and of course, she has many of the best lines).

Laurence Olivier as Darcy
The other key role in Pride and Prejudice is, of course, Mr. Darcy. And on the basis of his smoldering Maxim de Winter in Rebecca (1940), Laurence Olivier would seem to be perfect for the role. But while he captured Darcy's fundamental shyness as well as his arrogance, I wanted more evidence of the passions under all that aristocratic composure. Olivier plays the role with a coolness that at times seems to border on detachment.

Edmund Gwenn as Mr. Bennet
The rest of the mixed cast of North American and British actors is generally good, although none of the other Bennet daughters looks the age of her character either. Maureen O'Sullivan, the adventursome Jane Parker in the Johnny Weismuller Tarzan movies, is cast against type as the reserved Jane Bennet, although she is scarcely believable as Elizabeth's older sister. And Ann Rutherford, Scarlett O'Hara's flirtatious sister Carreen in Gone With the Wind (1939), plays the flirtatious Lydia. Edmund Gwenn is an excellent Mr. Bennet, and Mary Boland a suitably annoying Mrs. Bennet (although again, she's a bit too old—she could be the girls' grandmother).

Mary Boland as Mrs. Bennet
If you poke around online you'll discover that the costumes come in for a great deal of criticism, and indeed (especially for the women) they're far out of period. The novel was published in 1813, but full skirts with layers of crinoline date from the 1830s at the earliest, as do enormous puffed sleeves. And the absurd dinner-plate bonnets depicted in the film are a Hollywood version of those worn by actresses onstage to keep their faces unshadowed by stage lighting; they would never have been allowed near the heads of women who wanted to appear respectable (or avoid looking ridiculous). The fashions of Jane Austen's day were much simpler:

Jane's niece Fanny Knight; watercolor by Jane's sister Cassandra (ca. 1810)
But the variable accents of the cast and the out-of period or inauthentic costumes can be forgiven. Where this version really fails is in Aldous Huxley and Jane Murfin's script, adapted from a play based on Austen's novel by Helen Jerome. It's at least one layer of adaptation too many. While it's to be expected that compressing a 350-page novel into a film with a 2-hour running time requires major cuts, some of the missing scenes are critical—for example, there's no visit to Pemberley, the moment in the novel when Elizabeth begins to view Darcy differently.

But worse than what's missing is what's changed: there are scenes with no counterpart in the novel, alterations of the plot, and modifications of the characters. The changes are most notable in the actions and character of Lady Catherine de Bourgh (Edna May Oliver in one of her last roles), and they have implications that radically shift the story. There's no way to discuss these without giving away the ending, so be forewarned that spoilers follow.

First, the changes in plot: In her interview with Elizabeth towards the end of the movie, Lady Catherine claims to be able, as the trustee of her sister's estate, to "strip Mr. Darcy of every shilling he has." In the novel this is not a possibility, nor is it a claim ever made by Lady Catherine. Also, the revelation to Elizabeth (and us) of Mr. Darcy's role in Lydia's marriage to Wickham comes from Lady Catherine during this interview, and not (as in the novel) from the thoughtless Lydia.

After her interview with Elizabeth, Lady Catherine goes out to her carriage, where (in another departure from the novel) it turns out that Darcy is waiting. She tells him,

She's right for you, Darcy.
Edna May Oliver as Lady Catherine
What?! Lady Catherine approves of Elizabeth as a match for her nephew? The implication is that the interview was intended as a test by Lady Catherine (and perhaps Darcy, who seems to have had advance knowledge of it) to see if Elizabeth is fortune-hunting. It also implies that Lady Catherine's revelation of Darcy's role in forcing Wickham to marry Lydia was intended as a signal to Elizabeth of Darcy's continuing romantic interest in her—again, perhaps with Darcy's foreknowledge if not outright collusion.

This utterly changes the meaning of the scene and the character of Lady Catherine (so splendidly portrayed by Barbara Leigh-Hunt in the 1995 Pride and Prejudice), not to mention Darcy himself. She and Darcy become calculating co-conspirators sounding out Elizabeth about her feelings (and giving her a strategic nudge or two). Needless to say, this has nothing whatsoever to do with the characters created by Austen.

In Chapter 8 of Pride and Prejudice Austen has Darcy remark of women's romantic stratagems, "Whatever bears affinity to cunning is despicable." To which I'll only add that the word applies as well to those who apparently felt that their inspirations improved on those of Jane Austen.

Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Films of Jean Arthur, part 2

A continuation of Films of Jean Arthur, part 1. This part discusses If You Could Only Cook, Too Many Husbands, The Devil and Miss Jones, The Talk of the Town, and The More The Merrier.

If You Could Only Cook (1935, directed by William Seiter and written by Howard Green and Gertrude Purcell)
By including this movie I'm departing from strict chronological order, but I'm doing so because it may be the original Jean Arthur "sleeping under the same roof" movie. In film after film, her character spends the night (or several) with her main romantic interest. It's a situation that recurs in Easy Living, Too Many Husbands, The Talk of the Town, and The More the Merrier, and it may have begun here.

Auto designer Jim Buchanan (Herbert Marshall), unhappily engaged to a woman he doesn't love (Frieda Inescort) and frustrated by the conservative board of his car company, sits down on a park bench next to recently evicted job-seeker Joan Hawthorne (Jean Arthur). She suggests that they apply for a position she's found in the want ads for a married couple to serve as cook and butler. Needing a break from his harried existence, Buchanan agrees without revealing his identity.

The two pretend to be married and are hired as live-in domestic staff by gangster Mike Rossini (Leo Carrillo). They're given a single room; at night, Jim sleeps on the porch, while Joan takes the bed. Once he thinks Joan is asleep, Jim sneaks out, goes back home and takes lessons from his own butler so that he can do his job convincingly. Rossini, discovering their sleeping arrangements and Jim's nocturnal escapes, thinks that their marriage is in trouble and declares his love for Joan.

This may also be the first Jean Arthur movie where a parody relationship starts to turn into a real one, as Joan and Jim begin to develop feelings for one another. When Jim reluctantly returns to his fiancée and is about to submit to his loveless marriage, Rossini finds a distraught Joan and sends his gang to the church to seek revenge.

This is the kind of movie that Hollywood doesn't, can't, and probably shouldn't make any more: the plot is highly contrived and the characters are deliriously incorrect, with Carrillo and Lionel Stander portraying broad Italian gangster stereotypes. But it's a lot of fun all the same, and the breezy 70-minute running time means that no scene has a chance to overstay its welcome.

Too Many Husbands (1940, directed by Wesley Ruggles and written by Claude Binyon)
Based on the 1923 play Home and Beauty by W. Somerset Maugham, which itself is loosely based on Tennyson's poem "Enoch Arden," Too Many Husbands is like a more daring, gender-reversed version of My Favorite Wife (both films were released in 1940). Vicky and Henry Lowndes (Jean Arthur and Melvyn Douglas) are still basking in the glow from their recent honeymoon when her first husband Bill Cardew (Fred MacMurray) shows up unexpectedly. Lost at sea and presumed dead, he has been stranded on a desert island for the past year, and is outraged to discover that his wife has gotten remarried so quickly—and to his supposed best friend Henry.

While she thinks about what is to be done, Vicky banishes both men from her bedroom and sends them to sleep in the spare room down the hall. Each husband, of course, tries to sneak back into her bed, but even more desperately wants to prevent the other from doing the very same thing. Unusually, there's a double bed in the marital bedroom, as opposed to the two single beds so often and so ludicrously shown in 1940s films:

It's a clever twist on the "sleeping under the same roof" situation that recurs again and again in Arthur's films; that each man is her husband heightens, rather than lessens, the suggestiveness of the situation.

Too Many Husbands features terrific comic performances by the cast, hilarious (and at times amazingly risqué) dialogue, and an ambiguous ending that manages to offer the suggestion of a continuing ménage. Perhaps when it was released the reception of this classic farce was blunted by the looming war and the near-simultaneous release of My Favorite Wife; it's an overlooked gem.

The Devil and Miss Jones (1941, directed by Sam Wood, written by Norman Krasna)
The devil of the title is John Merrick (Charles Coburn in one of his irascible old rich guy roles; he would reprise it in The More the Merrier). Merrick owns "Neeley's" department store on New York's 38th Street (Macy's, of course, was famously located on 34th Street). He decides to combat a unionizing attempt at his store by going undercover as a new employee to ferret out the ringleaders. It doesn't take him long to discover the organizers: they're firebrand Joe O'Brien (Robert Cummings) and his girlfriend, clerk Mary Jones (Jean Arthur).

Through Jones, Merrick also discovers that the workers have many legitimate grievances: long hours, low pay, and overbearing, dictatorial and exploitative managers. He discovers as well a growing affection for clerk Elizabeth Ellis (the lovely Spring Byington), whose grueling schedule barely earns her enough money to feed herself but who selflessly gives the lion's share of her meager lunch to the unwitting Merrick.

With its combination of heartfelt emotion and pointed social message, The Devil and Miss Jones is one of the best of Arthur's comedies. Sure, the final scene rivals the "head and heart" handshake at the end of Fritz Lang's Metropolis for detachment from any recognizable reality of capitalist-labor relations, but if it's reality you're looking for classic Hollywood comedies probably aren't the place to find it. The Devil and Miss Jones imagines a world in which a rich man comes to recognize his immense debt to those who created and sustain his wealth, and that's a fantasy that all of us can appreciate.

The Talk of the Town (1942, directed by George Stevens and written by Dale Van Every, Irwin Shaw and Sidney Buchman)
This is another Jean Arthur movie featuring a paternal matchmaker, with the twist that the matchmaker is also a potential romantic interest for Arthur. Famous law professor Michael Lightcap (Ronald Colman), seeking a quiet summer place where he can write a book, rents a room in the small town of Lochester in a house owned by the comely teacher Nora Shelley (Arthur). But quiet is elusive. The Lochester mill has burned down, the mill foreman has seemingly died in the fire, and arson by millworker and political activist Leopold Dilg (Cary Grant) is suspected. Dilg, a fugitive from the police, seeks refuge in the home of childhood friend Nora. When Lightcap arrives earlier than expected, Nora must scramble to conceal Dilg and divert Lightcap's suspicions.

This is another movie where Arthur's character spends the night under the same roof with a man (and in this case, two); even more suggestively, she winds up borrowing a pair of Lightcap's pajamas. The next morning, in classic screwball comedy fashion, her house is invaded by her mother, a newspaper reporter and photographer, furniture movers, Dilg's lawyer Sam Yates, police searching for Dilg, and a Western Union man, all before she can change out of her eyebrow-raising sleepwear.

Dilg refuses to leave the house—where could he be safer than in the house of a law school dean?— and so Nora tries to pass him off as her gardener "Joseph." Soon Joseph and Lightcap are engaging in games of chess and discussions of the law, and form a fast friendship. Nora urges Lightcap to take an interest in Dilg's case, but with a possible Supreme Court appointment looming Lightcap is reluctant to play any role in a case that is bound to be controversial.

Will Nora and Dilg reawaken Lightcap's sleeping conscience? Will Lightcap come to realize the true identity of his chess partner? Will Dilg escape the clutches of Lochester's corrupt court system? And will the passionate Dilg or the cerebral, courtly Lightcap win the girl? (Apparently both outcomes were filmed, and the choice left up to preview audiences.)

The Talk of the Town is a charming romantic comedy with a socially-conscious message. The only flaw is that in the second half the intellectual and romantic contest between Lightcap and Dilg tends to pull focus from Nora (although she asserts her right of choice to the very end).

The More the Merrier
(1943, directed by George Stevens and written by Richard Flournoy, Lewis R. Foster and Frank Ross, Jean Arthur's husband)
The More the Merrier brings to the fore a subtext found in many of Jean Arthur's comedies, hinted at in the "sleeping under the same roof" trope and made explicit in Too Many Husbands and this film: sex.

In Washington D.C. in what looks to be late summer of 1942 there are key wartime shortages. The first of these is housing, and Connie Milligan (Jean Arthur) is determined to do her part for the war effort by renting out the second bedroom in her four-room apartment. She's looking for a woman, but instead gets Benjamin Dingle (Charles Coburn), an irascible older man who decides to play Cupid despite the fact that Connie is already engaged. Dingle concludes that she needs a new beau, a "high-type, clean-cut, nice young fella."

But the second major wartime shortage is men. Washington has becomes a city of women, and sexual mores are turned on their head: women ogle and whistle at passing men, openly approach them, and blatantly proposition them.

But not Connie. She's still waiting patiently for her fiancé of two years, the milquetoast bureaucrat Charles J. Pendergast (Richard Gaines), to marry her. Perhaps as a result, everything about Connie is wound up tight, from her hairstyle to her clothes to her minute-by-minute morning schedule.

Dingle explodes all of Connie's comfortable routines because he's incapable of following her rules (or anyone's; he loves to quote Farragut's "Damn the torpedoes, full steam ahead"). He invites new acquaintance Sergeant Joe Carter (Joel McCrea), an aircraft engineer who is about to be shipped out overseas, to share his half of Connie's apartment—a choice that clearly involves some ulterior motives.

Joe Carter is not a typical screwball comedy hero. He doesn't engage in witty repartée or flirtatious banter and he has no charm of either the roguish or debonair variety. In short, he's Joel McCrea rather than Cary Grant or Clark Gable. But he's tall, broad-shouldered and handsome (enough, anyway), and Connie is young and pretty. (In fact, Arthur was in her early forties, and was older than McCrea by half a decade, but she convincingly plays a character 15 years younger than her actual age).

The movie makes the basis of their attraction explicit as Connie and Joe gradually shed clothes and as she literally lets down her hair: they go from seeing each other in their concealing morning bathrobes, to sunbathing together on the roof, to Connie wearing a négliée in the final scene that's so sheer that it's amazing it got by the censors. The Cole Porter song "What is This Thing Called Love?" plays throughout the film at key moments. One of its lines is "Who can solve its mystery?" but the movie suggests that when two attractive people are involved, there's not really so much mystery.

Dingle takes every opportunity to throw Connie and Joe together and let nature take its course. As in If You Could Only Cook, the couple living together in Connie's cramped apartment is a parody of marriage that Dingle is trying to turn into the real thing. And when their living arrangement becomes known, a quick marriage of convenience followed by an annullment after Joe ships out seems the best way for Joe and Connie to avoid a scandal...

Coburn's performance is widely praised, but for me it's Arthur who makes this film work. She's both funny and moving as she portrays the confusion and tremulous uncertainty of a woman who thought she knew what she wanted, but whose heart winds up overruling her head.

And perhaps that's part of her lasting appeal as a comic actress: in film after film she finds herself going against her better judgment. She's not a remote goddess or a wisecracking dame who is the master of every situation. She's vulnerable and confused, but good-hearted and kind to a fault. She's an ordinary person struggling to do the right thing, even if it lands her in trouble. And that's what makes her so endearing.

Monday, February 17, 2014

Films of Jean Arthur, part 1: Mr. Deeds Goes To Town, Easy Living, You Can't Take It With You

Lately we've been having a mini-festival of films from the 1930s and -40s featuring the wonderful comedienne Jean Arthur. Other actresses in the comedies of the period portrayed eccentric socialites (Katherine Hepburn, Carole Lombard); wisecracking, cynical dames (Barbara Stanwyck); wry, unflappable wives (Irene Dunne, Myrna Loy); or fast-talking working women (Rosalind Russell, Ginger Rogers). In her best roles, Jean Arthur portrayed the sweet-natured, endearing Everywoman Next Door. Her slim, petite frame, rosebud lips and remarkably youthful looks meant that she was able to convincingly play the ingenue well into her forties.

Mr. Deeds Goes To Town (1936, directed by Frank Capra and written by Robert Riskin)
In the movie that made her a huge star, though, her character was more in the fast-talking Hildy Johnson mold. She plays star reporter Babe Bennett, who masquerades as poor working girl "Mary Dawson" to gain the confidence (and soon, the love) of Longfellow Deeds (Gary Cooper). Deeds has come to New York from rural Vermont after inheriting $20 million from a rich uncle, and the vultures immediately start to circle. Using "Mary Dawson"'s access to Deeds, Babe writes a series of "hick-comes-to-the-big-city" articles that hold him up to ridicule by highlighting his tuba-playing and other countrified quirks.

Of course, she has a change of heart and begins to fall in love with him (he is Gary Cooper, after all). But Deeds finds out about her deception and, heartbroken, refuses to defend himself when crooked lawyer John Cedar (Douglas Dumbrille) attempts to have him declared unfit to manage the money. Will Babe be able to convince Deeds that her love is true in time to thwart Cedar's plan?

Naïve-but-honest hero confronts the corrupt big city with the aid of a woman who discovers her conscience and stands by her man: the plot of Mr. Deeds provided the template for two later Capra films, Mr. Smith Goes To Washington (1939, with Jean Arthur) and Meet John Doe (1941, with Gary Cooper, and also written by Riskin). Capra won his second Best Director Academy Award for Mr. Deeds, but entertaining as it is I think the two later movies make better use of the basic story.

Easy Living (1937, directed by Mitchell Leisen and written by Preston Sturges)
Banker J.B. Ball (Edward Arnold, later of You Can't Take It With You (1938) and Mr. Smith Goes To Washington), enraged when he discovers that his wife has bought yet another hugely expensive fur coat, throws it out of the window of their palatial apartment—and onto the head (and hat) of Mary Smith (Arthur) on the street below. Ball insists that Mary keep the coat, and buys her a new hat to match. Her new coat and hat lead to the widespread assumption that Mary has become Ball's mistress. Those assumptions get her fired from her job at a boys' magazine and send the stock market plummeting as rival investors try to extract insider information from her. There are also some perks, though: the amazed Mary gets a free stay in the super-luxury Imperial Suite at the Hotel Louis when the owner mistakenly thinks he's ingratiating himself with Ball.

But it's Ball's handsome son John Jr. (Ray Milland) who winds up staying there with Mary after he also loses his job (determined to make his own way in the world, he's been working at the Automat (!)). Of course, the two are soon in love. Will John Jr. rescue his father's financial fortunes and win his approval for the match?

Ball is the first of a long line of wealthy older men who offer Arthur's characters (semi-)paternal attention. And John Jr. is the first in a long line of Arthur's romantic interests who wind up sleeping with her—that is, literally spending the night under the same roof, and in this case, on the same chaise (head to toe):*

It's perfectly chaste. Well, perhaps not perfectly—the sleeping-together setup is sexily suggestive, and John Jr. gives Mary a goodnight kiss that she receives with surprise and evident delight—but it was just chaste enough to satisfy the puritanical Hays Code. This device would later become virtually the entire plot of The More The Merrier (1943).

You Can't Take It With You (1938, directed by Frank Capra and written by Robert Riskin)
This film, based on the hit play by George Kaufman and Moss Hart, won the Best Film and Best Director Academy Awards, but it hasn't aged particularly well (in my opinion, the awards that year should have gone to The Adventures of Robin Hood and its director Michael Curtiz).

Arthur plays Alice Sycamore, the one conventional member of a family full of "charming" (i.e. gratingly irritating) eccentrics. Alice, a stenographer who works for industrialist Anthony Kirby (Edward Arnold), has fallen in love with his son Tony (James Stewart), and he with her (to his parents' dismay). She arranges for her fiancé to bring his highly skeptical father and snobbish society-lady mother (Mary Forbes) over for dinner to meet her family, and of course wants everything to go perfectly. But Tony deliberately brings his parents on the wrong night so that they'll see Alice's family in all their oddball, chaotic reality. Disaster ensues. There's also a subplot in which Tony's father pressures Alice's grandfather (Lionel Barrymore) to sell his house and land so that he can build a massive weapons factory.

A major mistake made by Capra and Riskin is to marginalize the winsome Arthur and Stewart, who disappear for long stretches while screen time is taken up by the "zany" (i.e. gratingly irritating) antics of the other family members. The excellent cast (which includes Spring Byington, later of The Devil and Miss Jones (1941)) can't make up for the script's creaky machinations. Better things were to come.

Next time: Films of Jean Arthur, part 2: If You Could Only Cook, Too Many Husbands, The Devil and Miss Jones, The Talk of the Town, and The More The Merrier


* John Jr. and Mary actually shower together as well—although it's by accident, and they're fully clothed at the time.