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.


  1. You sure are on a Jean Arthur roll! If You Could Only Cook sounds delicious (pun intended). I will look out for it.

    I loved Too Many Husbands. It was such a fun romp, and the polyandrous Vicky was such a welcome change from Bollywood's self-sacrificing, martyred heroines. Even today, I cannot imagine Bollywood ever letting a heroine fall into such a predicament.

    While I enjoyed Talk Of The Town a lot, I couldn't help but feel that Cary Grant made a very unlikely working-class hero, and Ronald Coleman a very unlikely American!

    The More The Merrier sounds a lot like Walk Don't Run - Cary Grant's last film.

    1. Bollyviewer, Walk Don't Run was based on the same Frank Ross story as The More the Merrier, and Ross was one of the screenwriters for the earlier film, so you're absolutely right about the connection. I haven't seen the Cary Grant version of this story, but I will say that I'm not sure that Samantha Eggar can match Jean Arthur's appeal.

      And I agree with you about the unlikelihood of Talk of the Town's male leads being either working-class or American, but as with many classic Hollywood comedies somehow it doesn't matter: the sparkling dialogue and onscreen chemistry among the actors mean that we don't need to allow mere realism to get in the way of our enjoyment.

      Too Many Husbands must have been quite shocking in its day, and as I write in the post it's far more daring than the similar My Favorite Wife—after all, Jean Arthur actually remarries after her first husband goes missing, and a fair amount of the comedy centers on who will get to share her bed after his return. (The ending is delightfully, and again shockingly, ambiguous on this point.) I'm not sure how they got away with it in 1940...

      And If You Could Only Cook is a fun romp. Arthur would go on to do better movies, but this one definitely has its moments.

      Thanks for your comment!

    2. At the time of The More the Merrier, by the way, Frank Ross was Jean Arthur's husband, so presumably the story was written as a vehicle for her.