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.

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