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.

Sunday, February 2, 2014



K. S. Ravikumar's Muthu (1995) is the Tamil movie that, along with Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge (The Brave Heart Will Win the Bride, 1995), provides one of the main sources for Chennai Express (2013). And for the first hour or so, under the influence of its charismatic star Rajnikanth, its enjoyable A.R. Rahman soundtrack, and a screenplay that winks at time-honored movie conventions, I was convinced that I was undergoing a masala conversion experience.

Alas, as with Chennai Express, the good humor of Muthu's first half is increasingly replaced in the second by lengthy and very violent fight scenes. By the end, despite all of the move's early promise, I remained unconverted.

Muthu (Rajnikanth) is the good-hearted servant of the zamindar Ejama (Sarath Babu). But we're given some clues that not all is as it appears. Ominous music plays when the zamindar's uncle Ambarathar (Radha Ravi) drives up in his specially-accessorized Plymouth:

The zamindar's mother (Jayabharathi, who looks about the same age as her onscreen son), is harboring a secret:

Do you have any secrets?
And Muthu doesn't know who his parents are:

I don't know who my parents are

There's also a holy sage who bears an uncanny resemblance to Muthu wandering around the neighborhood:

Could these things possibly be connected?

Meanwhile, his mother is pressuring Ejama to marry, and has her eye on her niece Padmini (Subhashri) as a prospective bride. But the zamindar has fallen in love with Ranganayaki (Meena), the lead actress in a threadbare travelling troupe:

Muthu and Raganayaki are at first antagonistic. But after Muthu foils an attempt to abduct her, she starts looking at him with new eyes.

This is where the film took its first wrong turn for me. The chase scene where Muthu and Raganayaki elude the goons of a local head man involves dozens of horse carts. Some of the falls that men and horses take during this scene look absolutely brutal. I'll spare you the screencaps, but I would be amazed if stuntmen weren't injured and horses destroyed as a result. It just seemed cruel, not exciting or fun.

Raganayaki and Muthu return to the zamindar's house, where the stage is set for some romantic confusion. Particularly when a note suggesting a nighttime meeting in the garden goes astray and gets read by half a dozen different people, each of whom imagines that it was intended for them.

Yes, this is the original of the Chennai Express storeroom scene, except that here the comic possibilities are far more fully developed; it's like something out of The Marriage of Figaro. And of course it leads to a Deepavali dance number, "Thilana Thilana" (Sweet as honey):

Unfortunately from this comic high point things go downhill rapidly. Plots by Raganayaki's abusive brother-in-law and the zamindar's evil uncle mean that the goons take over, and the final hour is just an endless series of bloody fights.

Does Muthu emerge victorious, win the girl, and regain his birthright? If you're in any suspense, or if you don't mind fight scenes that go on, and on, and on, then by all means seek out Muthu. It left me with no doubts about why Rajnikanth is a superstar in South Indian cinema, or why Rajnikanth and Meena were paired in several films in the mid-1990s—they make a charming jodi. But I'm still looking for a masala film that won't force me to fast-forward through the final hour.

Thanks to Rajshri Films, you can watch Muthu for free on YouTube.