Made For Each Other (1939):  Carole Lombard Gets Serious

Carole Lombard wanted to get serious.  She was the undisputed Queen of the screwball comedy, but audiences were growing tired of the genre by the late thirties so she pivoted to stay relevant.

Plus, she wanted an Oscar.  Though she’d been previously nominated for her role as the zany Irene Bullock in My Man Godfrey (1936), she knew physical comediennes rarely won Academy Awards.

In Made For Each Other (1939), she starred opposite up and coming actor James Stewart.  At the time, Carole Lombard was the bigger star.  Though both were thirty years old during production, Lombard had been making talkies for 9 years (with some work in the silents before that), while Stewart was a mere 3 years into what would become a legendary career. 

Stewart plays Johnny Mason, a young lawyer who surprises his mother and boss when he impulsively marries Jane (Lombard), a woman he’s just met and fallen in love with, instead of the boss’ daughter.

Jane and Johnny embark on married life with all of its trials and tribulations—starting with a cancelled honeymoon when lawyer Johnny is called back to the office for an important case.  Jane tries to get along with her mother-in-law, whose disapproval and criticism are all the more stifling because Mrs. Mason lives with them.  And there’s never enough money, especially after the baby comes along.

And yet their problems are ultimately small, the normal ebb and flow of any young marriage.  In my favorite scene, Jane insists that Johnny ask his boss for a raise and promotion.  She wants more money, sure, but she’s mostly indignant that his boss doesn’t appreciate him enough.  While Johnny eats a drumstick of cold chicken, he practices standing up to his boss while Jane encourages him.

It’s sweet and funny (without being the least bit screwball), and endears both Jane and Johnny to us.

But after the light and airy first half, the film’s second half takes a dark turn.  Johnny and Jane have let their problems overwhelm them and are on a brink of a break-up the audience knows won’t stick.  But their arguing is interrupted when their baby becomes deathly ill.

All hope will be lost unless the baby receives a life-saving serum, but it will require a pilot to fly it to the hospital in a terrible storm.

Instead of tearing them apart, the terror of tragedy cements Johnny and Jane together.  Even Johnny’s mother can appreciate their love in this moment—as indeed she always could, her anger coming from her own widowed loneliness rather than any true dislike of Jane.

I’ll spoil the ending by saying the pilot arrives in time and the baby is saved. 

(The plot point around the serum, preposterous as it sounds, was actually based on an incident when producer David O. Selznick’s brother Myron became deathly ill and serum was flown in to save his life.)

Carole Lombard followed the film up with In Name Only (1939), another romantic drama, this one with Cary Grant.

Both are tender, lovely films that are well worth your time.  They didn’t get their due at the time because when audiences went to a Carole Lombard film they expected her to play the fool.  And they don’t get their due today because they’re lost in the sea of legendary films made in 1939, Hollywood’s greatest year.

After the lackluster box office receipts of both films, Lombard returned to comedy. 

Her roles in Made For Each Other and In Name Only, wonderful as they are, were not quite Academy Award worthy.  But she showed enough acting chops, that I’m convinced that if she’d lived (she died 3 years later in a plane crash at the age of 33), Carole Lombard would’ve found her way back into more dramatic roles and eventually won the Oscar she coveted.

As for James Stewart, he would get his first Oscar nomination in 1939, not for Made For Each Other, but another little film released that year called Mr. Smith Goes to Washington.

You can watch Made For Each Other for free on You Tube.

Sources

  • Swindell, Larry.  Screwball:  The Life of Carole Lombard.  1975.
  • Eliot, Marc.  Jimmy Stewart:  A Biography.  2006.

Want more?  Click here for an index of all posts in the series, as well as source notes and suggested readings.

5 Classic Films to Watch this Mother’s Day Weekend

Clockwise from left: Bette Davis in Now, Voyager, Joan Crawford in Mildred Pierce, Greer Garson in Mrs. Miniver, Irene Dunne in I Remember Mama, Barbara Stanwcyk in Stella Dallas

The Golden Age of Hollywood is rife with tales of motherhood.  These often provided plum roles for some of Hollywood’s best actresses.  As we celebrate mothers this weekend in the United States, here are 5 great films (and 5 legendary actresses) who portrayed memorable mothers and were nominated (and in some cases won) an Oscar for their efforts.

All are available for free or under $4 to stream in the United States on Amazon Prime.

The Unconventional Mother:  Stella Dallas (1937)

There are many definitions of a “good” mother.  Barbara Stanwyck stars as Stella, a tacky, low class divorcee who pals around with losers and yet is a spectacular mother to her daughter Laurel (Anne Shirley).  Their Gilmore Girls-esque friends first relationship doesn’t prevent Stella from making the ultimate sacrifice to ensure her daughter will have the social standing she herself could never achieve.

Stay until the last scene, which will tear your heart out if you have one.

*2 Oscar nominations:  Stanwyck for Best Actress, Shirely for Best Supporting Actress

*Available free in the U.S. with an Amazon Prime Subscription

Wartime Brit with a Stiff Upper Lip :  Mrs. Miniver (1942)

Greer Garson plays Kay Miniver, an ordinary Brit living her ordinary life when Hitler brings the fight to her doorstep.  Without a fuss, the Minivers rise to the occasion—her son joins the war effort and her husband sets off with his small boat to help rescue the boys in Dunkirk.  Through it all, Mrs. Miniver keeps hope alive and does what needs to be done to preserve the British way of life.

Stay for a harrowing—at the time—scene in which a Nazi soldier breaks into the Miniver house when Kay is home alone.

*12 Oscar nominations, including wins for Best Picture, Greer Garson as Best Actress, and William Wyler as Best Director

*Available to stream in the U.S. on Amazon Prime for $2.99

A Mother Too Good for Her Daughter:  Mildred Pierce (1945)

She may have been Mommie Dearest to her real-life children, but Joan Crawford plays Mildred Pierce, a mother who nearly breaks herself apart in over-sacrificing herself for her daughter.

In a role reversal from Stella Dallas, in Mildred Pierce it’s the daughter Veda who longs for social status.  Mildred works as a waitress and then a baker to make her daughter’s dreams come true.  She’s a hardworking success, and though her eventual restaurant makes her a wealthy woman, in spoiled Veda’s eyes she will always be low-class and not good enough.

Stay until Mildred delivers cinema’s most deserved slap to bratty Veda. 

*6 Oscar nominations, including a win for Joan Crawford for Best Actress

*Available to stream in the U.S. on Amazon Prime for $2.99

The Immigrant Matriarch :  I Remember Mama (1948)

Fifty-year old Irene Dunne, whom you may have seen in screwball comedies with Cary Grant, plays a Norwegian immigrant mother in this heartwarming tale of a mother with a “wide open heart for other people’s trouble.”  Daughter Katrin writes the story of her life and reminisces about the joy and heartbreak inherent in growing up in a loving family.

Stay for the scene when Katrin realizes her mother pawned a family heirloom to buy Katrin the dresser set she desperately wanted.

*5 Oscar nominations, including Irene Dunne for Best Actress

*Available to stream in the U.S. on Amazon Prime for $2.99

The Substitute Mother:  Now, Voyager (1942)

Sometimes the mother we need is not the one who gave birth to us.  Bette Davis masterfully plays Charlotte Vale in an ugly duckling tale.  Charlotte is a frumpy spinster, beaten down by her overbearing mother.  When she goes on a cruise and gets away from her mother, she blossoms into a beautiful swan and even has a love affair with Jerry Duvaux Durrance (Paul Henreid.)

But Charlotte’s fate is not to become Jerry’s wife—or even long time lover.  Once back home, Charlotte meets Jerry’s troubled daughter Tina in a sanitarium and recognizes a kindred spirt.  Both are unloved and unwanted by their own mothers, and Charlotte takes Tina under her wing in a relationship that fills the holes in both their hearts.

Stay for the scene when Davis utters her famous line of, “Oh, Jerry, don’t let’s ask for the moon. We have the stars.”

*3 Oscar nominations, including Bette Davis as Best Actress and a win for Musical Score

*Available to stream in the U.S. on Amazon Prime for $3.99

The Petrified Forest (1936):  NO BOGART NO DEAL

Bette Davis, Leslie Howard, and Humphrey Bogart in The Petrified Forest (1936)
The Petrified Forest (1936) Opening Banner.  Bette Davis, Leslie Howard, and Humphrey Bogart.  Directed by Archie Mayo.

I want to tell you a love story.

There never was a match less destined for success—a monumental age gap, a jealous wife, and two people who had not grown up in homes with happy marriages.

He’d seen it all, done it all, and already had two divorces under his belt.  She was a teenager in her first film, so nervous she had to hold her chin down to disguise her trembling.

This is the story of Bogie & Bacall.

PART ONE:  Bogart Before Bacall

We begin in 1935, with a down-on-his luck Humphrey Bogart.  After thirteen years in show business, he was broke, drinking too much, grieving the death of his father and on the brink of his second divorce.

He’d had some small early successes on Broadway, then went to Hollywood and landed a dozen parts so small that no one at Warner Brothers remembered him.  He returned to New York and found Broadway gutted by the Depression.  Work was scarcer than ever.

His friend Robert Sherwood suggested him for the role of the gangster on the run in his new play The Petrified Forest, starring Leslie Howard.

Humphrey Bogart as Duke Mantee in the Petrified Forest (1936)
Humphrey Bogart as Duke Mantee in The Petrified Forest

The play was a success, and Warner Brothers bought the rights.  They wanted Howard to reprise his stage role in the film, and cast Bette Davis as his leading lady. Howard was a star with serious clout in those days, and he insisted Bogart reprise his role as well. 

When Jack Warner dithered, Howard sent him a telegram saying, “NO BOGART NO DEAL” and the die was cast.

Bogart got fifth billing.  He was down to his last shot, and he knew it.

The Petrified Forest opens on a bar-b-que joint in the middle of the Arizona desert.  Gabrielle (Davis) works there with her father and grandfather.

Alan Squire (Leslie Howard) arrives dusty, broke, and looking for a meal.  He’s a well-traveled but world-weary writer and intellectual, and Gabrielle is instantly smitten.  She tells him of her desire to see France.

Bette Davis and Leslie Howard in The Petrified Forest (1936)
Bette Davis and Leslie Howard

The budding love story is interrupted when escaped convict Duke Mantee (Bogart) shows up at the diner demanding a place to hide for the night.

Bogart is ferocious in the role, a desperate man with haunted eyes.  None of his hostages doubt for a moment that he will kill them if they cross him, and yet he shows glimpses of humanity toward the grandfather, who is thrilled he will have a story to tell future customers about the time he was held up by the infamous Duke Mantee.

The Petrified Forest

It becomes clear during the standoff that the Arizona forest isn’t the only thing that is petrified—nearly all the characters long for the past or have effectively finished living.  Grandpa tells stories of the time he was shot by Billy the Kid.  Alan Squire believes time has passed him by, and Duke is bone weary of the world.

Only Gabrielle lives for the future—a future in France she will likely never see.

Alan carries a life insurance policy among his meager possessions, and he secretly changes the beneficiary to Gabrielle.  He asks Duke to kill him so that she can use the money to escape the Petrified Forest and live out her dreams in France.

At the end of the film, gunfire erupts and Duke does as Alan asked.  Gabrielle cradles Alan as he dies, unaware of his sacrifice as the credits roll.

The Petrified Forest garnered good reviews, and it’s a good if not great film that mostly holds up today.  Though it is really just a filmed version of the play, with no real touches to shape it into a movie.

Critics and audiences responded to Bogart—enough that Warner Brothers gave him a long term contract.  But one didn’t become a star in a fifth billed role.  Even with the contract, Bogart knew he was hanging onto the cliff of his career with a single finger.

His marriage wasn’t in much better shape.

And what was the future love of his life doing in 1936?

Lauren Bacall was at the Highland Manor Boarding School for Girls.

Their paths had not yet crossed.  The time was not yet right.

Both had some growing up to do first.

The Petrified Forest (1936) Verdict - Film Buffs Only

Sources

  • Sperber, A.M. and Eric Lax.  Bogart.  1997.

Want more?  Click here for an index of all posts in the series, as well as source notes and suggested readings.

Bette Davis, Leslie Howard, and Humphrey Bogart in The Petrified Forest (1936)

Show Boat (1936):  Ferber’s Glamour Girl

Paul Robeson, Irene Dunne, Hattie McDaniel, Helen Morgan in Show Boast 1936
Paul Robeson, Irene Dunne, Hattie McDaniel, Helen Morgan
Show Boat 1936 Opening Banner

In 1924, Edna Ferber collaborated with George Kaufmann on one of their rare failures, a play called Minick that closed after only four months.  As Ferber recounts in her memoir A Peculiar Treasure, after a disappointing opening night, Ferber and her producer Winthrop Ames were doing a post mortem on what had gone wrong.  Winthrop joked that they should forget Broadway plays and instead perform on show boats.

“What’s a show boat?” Ferber asked, in no mood for jokes.

The question—and its answer—sent Ferber down a path that would electrify her, her readers, Broadway, and finally Hollywood.

Ferber learned that show boats were floating theaters that traveled through the American south from the 1860s to about the 1880s.  The cast and crew lived on the boat, and they docked at rural towns where hard-working and often poor people would come aboard to watch a show. 

Ferber fell in love with show boats and was stunned to discover there was very little written about life on show boats—no fiction, no memoirs, no recollections.

She threw herself into the task of researching a novel about life on a show boat.  As she writes in Treasure, “I was hot on the trail of show boats.  Here, I thought, was one of the most melodramatic and gorgeous bits of Americana that had ever come my way.  It was not only the theater—it was the theater plus the glamour of the wandering drifting life, the drama of the river towns, the mystery and terror of the Mississippi itself.”

She called the resulting novel Show Boat, and it told the story of Magnolia Hawks, a naïve young girl who grows up on The Cotton Blossom, her father’s show boat, and gets her chance to perform—against her mother’s strong objections—when the show’s leading lady has to abruptly leave the tour.

It was the eighth best-selling book of 1926.

The next year Florenz Ziegfeld produced a musical based on the novel, with music by Jerome Kern and lyrics by Oscar Hammerstein.  Though she had no active role in the musical, Ferber loved it—as did the rest of America.  Kern and Hammerstein added more whimsy and fun to Ferber’s tale, while keeping the serious undertone of race relations.

As Ferber wrote approvingly, “Show Boat had been adopted by foster parents and was being educated to be a glamour girl.”

It ran for two years straight in New York and the original cast included Helen Morgan as Julie LaVerne and Charles Winninger as Cap’n Andy Hawks.  It played in London for ten months with Paul Robeson in the role of Joe.

In 1929, Irene Dunne was a thirty-one theater actress who was considering retiring (having never made a film) when she and her husband saw Show Boat.  As Dunne’s father (who died when she was very young) worked on steamships and Dunne had a childhood memory of floating down the Mississippi with him, she fell in love with the show and was determined to play Magnolia.  She eventually won the part for a road show version that ran for a record forty weeks all along the eastern coast.  The show put Dunne on the map and led to her first Hollywood film at the age of thirty-two.

At an age when many actresses had to start thinking about their post-film career, Irene Dunne was just getting started.

So in 1936 when Universal Pictures decided to pull out all the stops to make Show Boat—the most expensive film the studio had ever produced at the time—the film cast itself.  Dunne, now a bona fide movie star with an Oscar nomination under her belt for her role in Ferber’s 1931 film Cimarron, would play eighteen-year-old Magnolia.  Helen Morgan, Charles Winninger, and Paul Robeson would reprise their stage roles on screen.  Add in Allan Jones as Magnolia’s suitor Ravenal and Hattie McDaniel as Queenie, and the stage was set for greatness.

James Whale, who’s known then and now for horror films such as Frankenstein, was an unusual choice to direct. But the mix of his outsider view and the experienced actors made for a wonderful film.

Magnolia Hawks (Dunne) is the daughter of Cap’n Andy and Parthy Ann Hawks, owners of the Cotton Blossom Show Boat.  She falls in love with gambler Gaylord Ravenal.  Leading lady Julie LaVerne is discovered to be a half black woman passing as white.  As she’s married to a white man, they are committing a crime at the time, and are forced to leave the show, paving the way for Magnolia to take over the show.

There are moments of true magic—when Dunne performs a shuffle dance inspired by the black levee workers as Helen Morgan sings, “Can’t Help Lovin’ Dat Man.”  Or a Romeo-and-Juliet inspired scene when Magnolia and Ravenal sing a duet from their windows, hers on top of his. 

And of course, Paul Robeson’s rendition of “Ol’ Man River” will make the hair on your arms stand up.

It’s no revelation to say that black actors in the 1930s were never given the chance to play fully fleshed out roles, and were instead relegated to roles as slaves, maids, and laborers.  But it’s a testament to the immense talent of both Robeson and Hattie McDaniel that they were able to do so much with so little, and Show Boat is no exception.

Ferber’s novel and the film deserve credit for the way they handle the illegal interracial marriage—the villain is the man who exposes Julie’s history out of spite, and not Julie and her husband.  Everyone on the Cotton Blossom is sick to see her go, Magnolia most of all.  Robeson’s Joe and McDaniel’s Queenie use nothing but their eyes to convey a weariness at the injustice of the world as they watch Julie marched out of polite society for having a “drop of negro blood.”

So much with so little.

Paul Robeson - 1936 - Show Boat
Paul Robeson

The film has romance, drama, whimsy, and melancholy.  There’s moments of great humor as well—Queenie and Joe’s bickering, and Dunne brings that slightly mocking laugher to Magnolia that she would later hone in screwball comedies like My Favorite Wife.  And the scene in which Cap’n Andy acts out the final scene onstage alone after an audience member shoots the villain is worth the price of admission.

The film has a happier ending than the novel, as any good glamour girl musical should.

The American Film Institute ranks it as the 24th best musical ever made, and “Ol’ Man River” as the 24th best movie song ever.

And don’t even think about watching the 1951 MGM remake.  Despite the addition of technicolor and Ava Gardner, this film just doesn’t hold a candle to the 1936 version.  In it’s conversion to a big-time MGM musical, it becomes bloated, overblown, and loses all its humor and charm.

Ava Gardner in Show Boat- 1951.
Not even Ava Gardner could save the 1951 MGM film version….

I can think of no better place to end our discussion of Edna Ferber than Show Boat, the property that both made her the most money (through book sales, musical and film royalties) and the book she had the most fun writing.

I’ll quote one last time from Treasure before we turn the page on the great Edna Ferber:

“It doesn’t seem possible that anyone ever had so much sheer fun, gaiety, novelty, satisfaction and money out of the writing of any one piece of work as I have had out of Show Boat.”

And few movie review bloggers have ever had as much fun researching, watching, and writing about films than I have had with the work of Edna Ferber.

Show Boat 1936 Verdict - Timeless - Watch It Tonight

 Sources

  • Ferber, Edna.  A Peculiar Treasure.  1939.
  • Gehring, Wes D.  Irene Dunne:  First Lady of Hollywood.  2003.

Revisit The Films of Edna Ferber:

Want more?  Click here for an index of all posts in the series, as well as source notes and suggested readings.

Come and Get It (1936):  Bad Adaptation, Great Film

Frances Farmer and Edward Arnold around the gambling table in Come and Get It (1936)
Come and Get It 1936 Opening Banner

Sandwiched between Cimarron and Saratoga Trunk, Edna Ferber wrote Come and Get It, a novel criticizing the American logging industry of the 1880’s and detailing what she called “the rape of America.”

By this Ferber meant the non-sustainable practices of cutting down trees without replanting, polluting rivers and streams, and using barely legal tactics to scoop up huge tracts of land.  (The same illegal tactics the robber barons used to steal the farm of Clint Maroon’s parents in Saratoga Trunk.) 

Thus, the provocative Come and Get It title refers to the trees—and the wealth—there for the taking in the lush and seemingly endless American forests.

Ferber sold the film rights to producer Samuel Goldwyn, extracting a promise that he would make a prestigious “issue” film that got to the heart of her story. 

Goldwyn had every intention of honoring this promise, until fate—and Howard Hawks—intervened.

Goldwyn assigned Hawks—never known for “issue” films—to direct Come and Get It, with the plan to keep a close eye and tight leash on the independent director who had a habit of bending source material to his version of the story.

During the filming of Come and Get It, Goldwyn was hospitalized due to problems with both his gall bladder and appendix.  While Goldwyn recuperated, Hawks began a wholesale rewrite of the script.  His film begins with thirty minutes of impressive footage showcasing how trees are felled and then sent down the river to the saw mill using dynamite and the flow of river water.

After that brief nod to the logging industry, Hawks introduces us to Barney Glasgow (Edward Arnold), a big, gregarious, and ambitious lumberjack.  He’s clutch in a barroom brawl (and we get to see a mighty one) but he’s also got big plans for his future.  He pitches a partnership to his boss based on a legally dubious plan to gobble up Wisconsin land for their logging operation.

Barney falls in love with Lotta Morgan (Frances Farmer), a beautiful barmaid he meets on the night of the aforementioned brawl.  He teases marriage, but in the end he throws her over to marry the boss’ daughter and secure his rise up the logging ladder.

Walter Brennan, Frances Farmer, and Edward Arnold in Come and Get It (1936)
Walter Brennan, Frances Farmer, Edward Arnold

Of her own novel, Ferber wrote many years later that it was, “about 70 per cent good.  In it I committed a serious error.  A little more than halfway through the book I killed the character called Barney Glasgow, and with his death the backbone of the book was broken.  He was the most vital and engaging person in the story.”

Howard Hawks didn’t make the same mistake.  He knew Barney Glasgow was the heart of the story, and he intended to keep the gregarious lumberjack turned magnate onscreen until the final frame.

We fast-forward a few decades to find Barney a rich and successful paper mill tycoon.  He butts heads with his son, who wants more sustainable logging practices, dotes on his daughter, and has a cordial if not loving relationship with his wife.

He has everything he’s ever wanted—except Lotta, the love of his life who (reluctantly) married his best friend (Walter Brennan) after he threw her over.

His life is upended when he meets the now-deceased Lotta’s daughter, also named Lotta (and also played by Frances Farmer), the spitting image the woman Barney loved all those years ago.

The rich and powerful Barney makes an absolute fool of himself in pursuit of young Lotta.  He gives her father a job in his company so that they can move closer to him.  He showers her with expensive clothes, buys her an apartment, pays for her education. 

He’s infatuated with now-Lotta, confusing her with the woman he once knew.  And confusing himself with the much younger man he once was.

Lotta is at first flattered, then increasingly alarmed and eventually repulsed by Barney’s attentions.  She fears retribution against her father if she outright rejects Barney.

Frances Farmer and Edward Arnold in Come and Get It (1936)
Frances Farmer, Edward Arnold

When she falls in love with Barney’s son Richard (Joel McCrea), the film has completely transformed from a critique of the logging industry into a highly entertaining yarn about an old man and his son being in love with the same woman that bears little resemblance to Ferber’s novel.

At this point of the film, I’m on the edge of my seat—how will Lotta manage this lecherous patron who has given her family so much?  What will Richard do when he finds out that his father has been making advances on the woman he hopes to marry?

What will Barney do when he realizes Lotta loves not him but his son?

Frances Farmer and Joel McCrea in Come and Get It 1936
Frances Farmer, Joel McCrea

It was about this time in the filming that Samuel Goldwyn recovered enough from his gastrointestinal issues that he first asked—then demanded when he met resistance—to see Hawks’ footage.

When he saw what Hawks had done to Ferber’s material, he blew a gasket.  Hawks felt that the second half of Ferber’s novel was “lousy,” and he’d made it into a good story for film.  They had a heated argument, and depending on who’s telling the story, Goldwyn either fired Hawks or Hawks quit. 

Either way, Hawks was off to RKO to make Bringing Up Baby with Katharine Hepburn and Cary Grant, and Goldwyn was left with an unfinished picture.

Samuel Goldwyn called in William Wyler to finish directing the film.  William Wyler would go on to have a stellar career making prestige films, including Mrs. Miniver (1942), The Heiress (1949), The Best Years of Our Lives (1946), Roman Holiday (1953), and Ben-Hur (1959).  He would collect three Academy Awards for best directing and twelve nominations throughout his long career.

Had Wyler directed Come and Get It from the start, I’m certain he would’ve better captured the spirit of Ferber’s novel.  But I’m not sure he would’ve made a more entertaining film.

Regardless, Wyler was loathe to finish the work of another man, and only did so after Goldwyn threatened to sue him for breach of contract if he refused.  He ended the film but kept Hawks’ vision intact.

In the final moments of the film, father and son get into a physical altercation over Lotta.  She breaks them apart, begging Richard to stop hitting his father, and calling Barney, “just an old man.”

The words land harder than any punch he’s ever taken.  He suddenly sees himself through Lotta’s eyes—not a legitimate rival for her affection, but a pathetic old pervert.

His ambition has brought him money, wealth, and power.  But it never brought him either Lotta, and it can’t preserve his youth.

Wyler never counted Come and Get It as one of his films; he’d completed only 14 days of shooting vs. Hawks’ 42.  He fought against Goldwyn’s desire to remove Hawks’ name completely from the film.  Wyler insisted they share screen credit (though he would have preferred his name left off entirely) and insisted Hawks’ name come first.

Come and Get It is an unjustly forgotten film; perhaps because of the two directors, perhaps because the stars aren’t as well remembered today.  And although it doesn’t tell Ferber’s story, it does tell a good one.  Hawks wasn’t one to moralize, but he knew how to keep an audience’s attention.  Watching Barney throw over one Lotta only to leer at another is a fascinating study of human behavior.

It’s got a quick pace, a good cast, and Edward Arnold nails his part as Barney Glasgow.  Perhaps due to Wyler, the somewhat zany story comes to a poignant end.

For future Jeopardy players, take note that Walter Brennan won the first ever Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor for his role as Swan, Barney’s best friend and young Lotta’s father.

And what did Ferber think of this fast and loose adaptation?

Across two memoirs, she never once mentions the film.  She had no problem praising or criticizing the films made of her books, so we’ll all just have to draw our own conclusions regarding her silence.

Come and Get It Verdict:  Give It A shot

Sources

  • Ferber, Edna.  A Peculiar Treasure.  1939.
  • Madsen, Axel. William Wyler:  The Authorized Biography.  2015.

Want more?  Click here for an index of all posts in the series, as well as source notes and suggested readings.

Frances Farmer and Edward Arnold around the gambling table in Come and Get It 1936.

So Big (1932):  “Epic of American Womanhood”

Barbara Stanwyck riding in a wagon as Selina Peake De Jong in So Big, 1932.
Barbara Stanwyck
So Big 1932 movie opening banner

Few novels have ever been as successful as Edna Ferber’s 1924 epic novel So Big.  The story of Selina Peake De Jong, a woman who triumphed over widowhood, sexism, and the unforgiving midwestern soil captured the hearts of critics and audiences.

It was the first novel to both win the Pulitzer Prize and be the best-selling novel of the year.1  This is a feat so rare and impressive that only three additional novels have achieved it—Thornton Wilder’s The Bridge of San Luis Rey (1927), Pearl S. Buck’s The Good Earth (1931), and Margaret Mitchell’s Gone With the Wind (1936.)

For those of you keeping score at home, Ferber’s novels Cimarron and So Big were both the top selling novel of the year.  From 1918-2017, only 14 authors have the distinction of writing more than one best selling book of the year. 

Who’s on that list with Ferber?  Zane Grey, Sinclair Lewis, Stephen King, Jean M. Auel, and John Grisham.

Who isn’t?  Mark Twain, Ernest Hemingway, Joyce Carol Oates, and John Updike.

(To be clear, my point is not to disparage these writers.  I love them all.  It is merely to point out that Ferber’s fall from the public consciousness is truly inexplicable.)

So Big tells the life story of Selina Peake, a young woman whose life is upended when her adored gambling father is shot dead and penniless.  Well-educated but broke, Selina takes a job in a rural farm town outside Chicago.  She’s a fish out of water, a delicate beauty who appreciates art, poetry, and beauty in a town filled with Dutch immigrants in a fight to the death with their farms, trying to wring just enough of out the land to survive.

No one understands her but little Roelf Pool, a young boy who longs to escape farm life and become an artist.  He’s the only one who doesn’t laugh when Selina says the cabbage fields are beautiful, and she takes him under her wing.

Quote from Edna Ferber's novel So Big

Selina falls in love with a local farmer, marries, and becomes widowed shortly thereafter, left with a young son and a farm full of land that can’t seem to grow anything.  Against all odds and the town’s predictions, Selina makes a success of the farm, making enough money to send her son Dirk to college.

Years later, when Selina is old and withered from a hard life of farming, Roelf Pool returns after many years away, having made it as a successful artist.  Selina notes the contrast between him and her own son, who is embarrassed of his mother’s farm, carrying on with a married woman, and working a job he hates for the money and trappings instead of pursuing his dream of becoming an architect.

She’s proud of Roelf but disappointed in her own son.

In 1932, William A. Wellman directed a remake of the original silent film version of So Big.  Barbara Stanwyck, queen of the tough girls who grit it out, starred as Selina.  George Brent starred as a grown Roelf Pool, and one Bette Davis starred as Dallas O’Mara, a young painter whom both Roelf and Dirk fall in love.

It is the only time in sixty years that Stanwyck and Davis shared the screen.

Hardie Albright and Bette Davis is So Big (1932)
Hardie Albright, Bette Davis

I was determined to watch this film, despite the difficulty in obtaining a copy—nothing at the library, nothing on Amazon Prime, YouTube had a single grainy clip.  I ended up buying a homemade disc on eBay from someone who had recorded if off Turner Classic Movies.

With Ferber’s most prestigious novel as source material, a director who would go onto win an Academy Award for writing the original A Star is Born, and two of the best actresses to ever live, this film had to be a winner.

Yet watching So Big is like drinking flat champagne—all the elements are there but there’s just no fizz.

Ferber, who assessed her films with clear eyes, wrote, “Two motion pictures—a silent one and a talkie—were made of the novel.  Both seemed to me very bad indeed.”2

A third version was filmed in 1953 with Jane Wyman, but Ferber likely felt—as most do—that it was strike three.

There’s a reason it’s so difficult to find a copy.

There’s no doubt that So Big is a difficult novel to film, and it may have been beyond the capabilities of Hollywood in 1932.  Selina ages from a young girl to an old woman, and while the story has some cinematic moments, much of it is a meditation on what makes a good life.

Barbara Stanwyck riding in a wagon with Dickie Moore in So Big
Barbara Stanwyck, Dickie Moore

Stanwyck was only twenty-five and had not grown into the actress she would become.  I’d love to see what Stanwyck would’ve done with the role in her prime.  But perhaps she would’ve been miscast for the role by the time she’d found her stride, for her specialty was a gritty woman shot through with cynicism and defiance.  One who knew the way life worked and was determined to take what she could get.

Selina Peake De Jong, by contrast, was as gritty as they come, but never lost her idealism throughout her long, hard life.  After toiling in the soil for decades, she still thought cabbages were beautiful.  She wanted her son to quit his high paying job and pursue his dreams.

Stanwyck would’ve told him not to be a sap.

And Bette Davis’ role is so underdeveloped that she leaves no mark on the film.

I’ve discussed 113 films for this blog.  So Big is the one I’d most like to see remade in 2022.  Hollywood’s taken three swings at it and never hit the ball out of the infield.

I think there’s a great film in the pages of Ferber’s masterpiece.

But no one’s made it yet.

Sources

  1. Annotated Podcast. Episode 18:  Edna Ferber.  Dec 6, 2018.
  2. Ferber, Edna.  A Peculiar Treasure.  1939.

Want more?  Click here for an index of all posts in the series, as well as source notes and suggested readings.

Stage Door (1937):  #MeToo In the 1930’s

Lucille Ball, Ginger Rogers, Ann Miller in Stage Door (1937)
Foreground: Lucille Ball, Ginger Rogers, Ann Miller

One of the pleasures of watching films is picking out the spots where you’d do things differently.  He should’ve done this, she should’ve said that….  It’s easy to fix everything from your couch, with no budget, deadlines, or staff with minds of their own to contend with.

Every once in a while, you get the even greater pleasure of watching a film and thinking, they got it exactly right.

Such a film is Stage Door.

Edna Ferber often lamented that she did not have the talent or looks to act on the stage, a medium she held in far higher regard than the movies.  Stage Door is her love letter to those who worked and lived the life she coveted.

In her memoir A Peculiar Treasure (1939), she writes:

“With George Kaufman I wrote a play called Stage Door, a rather gay and touching play about the hopes, ambitions and struggles of the young boys and girls who loved the theater and wanted to work in it.  The theater, struggling for its life against the motion picture, the radio, the motorcar, draws in its belt another notch and goes on.  I had seen and George Kaufmann for years had seen the young people who loved the stage meeting rebuff, disappointment, uncertainty and downright poverty with such gaiety and indomitable courage as would make the beholder marvel at the tenacity and fortitude of the human race.  Stage-struck, all of them, and proud of it.”

The play portrays the highs and lows of a group of struggling actresses who live together in a New York theater boardinghouse.  Margaret Sullavan starred in the lead role for 169 performances before quitting to have a baby and closing down the show.

The film version opens on the Footlights Club, an all-female boarding house for aspiring actresses in New York city.  There’s a cacophony of singing, talking, and shouting.  Annie (Ann Miller) is sweeping up broken glass, Eve (Eve Arden) is wisecracking with her cat draped around her neck, Judy (Lucille Ball) is tying up the communal phone line lining up a double date, and rivals Jean (Ginger Rogers) and Linda (Gail Patrick) are fighting over a pair of stockings.

The girls are hard-bitten and hungry—for both fame and food.  Jean reluctantly agrees to be Judy’s double for her date to avoid yet another lamb stew dinner.

Ferber makes no mention of the film in her memoir, likely because it deviated so much from her original play that George Kaufman called it The Screen Door.

But director Gregory La Cava, who’d struck gold with the Carole Lombard-William Powell screwball comedy My Man Godfrey the year before, knew the talent he had on his hands, and let the comediennes ad lib at will on the set. 

Ginger Rogers and Gail Patrick in Stage Door (1937)
Ginger Rogers, Gail Patrick

The film is better for it.  It zooms along with a wisecrack a minute.  Trying to write down notable lines in my notebook had me constantly pausing the film until I gave up, sat back and enjoyed a script that is as much of a walk-and-talk as anything Aaron Sorkin ever wrote.

Into this maelstrom walks Terry Randall (Katharine Hepburn), a young woman who wants to succeed on her own merits and not her family’s wealth.  Brimming with confidence and naïveté, Terry books a room at the Footlights.

Terry finds the whole lot crass and undisciplined.  She bumps heads with new roommate Jean, who meets Terry’s olive branch with, “We started off on the wrong foot. Let’s stay that way.”

Terry figures that making a living acting will be easy if this is her competition.

Throughout the film she learns how wrong she is—that their hard exteriors hide the terror that they aren’t pretty enough, talented enough, or lucky enough to make it.  They hustle, they starve, they take up with old men who bankroll and paw them—anything to keep from going back home to Nowhere, USA a failure.

At first blush, watching Stage Door reminds us of three things:  (1)  Katharine Hepburn is first and foremost Katharine Hepburn, regardless of any role she might be playing, (2) Ginger Rogers can act as well as—perhaps better than—she can dance, and (3) RKO never did understand the comedic talent they had in Lucille Ball, who has a miniscule role in the ensemble cast.

Katharine Hepburn and Ginger Rogers in Stage Door (1937)
Katharine Hepburn, Ginger Rogers

Modern films can learn a lot from Stage Door, a film that beautifully mixes comedy and tragedy, cynicism and sentiment.  The woman face poverty, hunger, and what we today refer to as #metoo moments.  A modern retelling would be a gritty and unrelenting catalog of misery.  But this film manages to handle it with a light touch that doesn’t minimize their challenges, and the women face it all with such gallows humor that we end up admiring rather than pitying them.

The world is cruel, the film tells us, and show business crueler.  But if you can’t laugh about it, you’ll never make it through.

The film garnered 4 Academy Award nominations, including Outstanding Production, Best Director, Best Supporting Actress, and Best Writing (Screenplay.)

A delightful hidden gem, Stage Door is an absolute must-see for fans for the golden age of Hollywood.

Stage Door (1937) Verdict:  Timeless-Watch It Tonight

Sources

  • Ferber, Edna.  A Peculiar Treasure.  1939.

Want more?  Click here for an index of all posts in the series, as well as source notes and suggested readings.

Cimarron (1931):  Taming No-Man’s Land

Irene Dunne as Sabra Cravat and Richard Dix as Yancey Cravat walking down the street of Osage.  Sabra carries an umbrella.  Yancey's hit has a bullet hole.
Cimarron (1931) opening title card

Edna Ferber decided to write about Oklahoma after her friend (and editor of the Kansas-based Emporia Gazette) William Allen White regaled her with tales of the 1889 land rush and its rocky road to statehood. 

“I knew literally nothing of Oklahoma until that evening,” Ferber writes in her first memoir, A Peculiar Treasure.  “It was a state in the Union.  That was all.”

After years of research and writing, she produced a novel she called Cimarron, named after the no-man’s strip of land fought over by white settlers and Cherokee that became the Oklahoma panhandle.  Cimarron was the best-selling book of 1930, one of the top grossing films of 1931, and the Academy Award winner for Outstanding Production (now Best Picture) in 1932.

Edna Ferber created blockbusters before the word existed.

Edna Ferber quote on the film Cimarron:  "Cimarron was made into a superb motion picture, the finest motion picture that has ever been made of any book of mine."

Richard Dix stars as Yancey Cravat, an adventurous young man bored with his life running a newspaper in Wichita, Kansas.  He convinces his wife Sabra (Irene Dunne, in her first of an eventual five Academy Award nominations for Best Actress) to head out to the uncivilized wilds of the Cimarron Territory to gain excitement and a free piece of land.

Things do not go as well for Yancey and Sabra as they do for Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman at the end of 1992’s Far and Away, another film that depicts the Oklahoma land rush.  Unlike Cruise, Yancey comes away with nothing after a prostitute outsmarts him and stakes her claim on the land Yancey wanted.

Undeterred, Yancey opens a newspaper in Osage, a rough western town that rose up overnight to accommodate the influx of white settlers looking for land in the unconquered west.

Oklahoma land rush as depicted in the film Cimarron
Oklahoma land rush, as depicted in Cimarron (1931)

Filthy, violent, and overrun with criminals, prostitutes, and gambling halls, Osage is no place for a lady, much less Yancey and Sabra’s young son.  Yet Sabra finds enough grit in her soul to toughen up and adjust to life in a town where men are regularly gunned down in the street.

Four years later, Yancey tries again in the 1893 rush for land in the Cherokee strip.  He leaves Sabra and their now two children temporarily behind.  Once he secures a bit of land, he’ll come back for them.

Sabra doesn’t see him again for five years, and when she does he’s still landless.

Wanderlust kept him away. 

He leaves again, and this time Sabra doesn’t see him for decades.

Abandoned Sabra doesn’t return to Wichita.  She takes over the newspaper, raises her children in a wild land, and watches as Oklahoma grows from a savage wilderness to a state in 1907.  She eventually becomes the young state’s first female congresswoman.

Through it all, she remains loyal to Yancey, never taking his name off the newspaper’s masthead, and never speaking a word against him.  She loves him through it all, and the film ends with her holding him as he dies after not seeing him for decades.

“All the critics and the hundreds of thousands of readers took Cimarron as a colorful romantic Western American novel,” Ferber wrote.  In both the book and film, Sabra was seen as the ideal wife, Penelope waiting for her Odysseus to return.

Yet this was not Ferber’s intended message.

Cimarron had been written with a hard and ruthless purpose,” she admits.  “It was, and is, a malevolent picture of what is known as American womanhood and American sentimentality.  It contains paragraphs and even chapters of satire and, I am afraid, bitterness….Perhaps it will be read and understood in another day, not my day.”

Though she’s not around to witness it, those of us still watching and reading the story of Cimarron can see clearly what Ferber was trying to say.  The American woman of 2022 would not leave her husband’s name at the top of a newspaper she’d been running for decades.  The American woman of 2022 would not admire another woman for doing so.

Ferber was a feminist, a word I don’t think she used to describe herself, and Cimarron is one of the starkest examples of one of the major themes of her work—that the American woman is stronger than the American man.

Ferber women are forever picking up the pieces of the weaker, unfocused, and dull men in their lives.

Sabra’s only fault in the film is that she detests the Native Americans of Osage.  She considers them no better than filthy savages, and forbids her children to play with them.  Yancey is the one advocating for their rights in his newspaper, when he’s around to run it.

But in a storyline Ferber would repeat years later in Giant, Sabra is forced to confront her racism when her son marries a Native American girl.  Like Bick Benedict in the diner, Sabra shows she has grown past her narrow views when she praises her Native American daughter-in-law at a public ceremony.

Yet like Dinner at Eight, this film is bit too old for the modern viewer.  It’s impressive for a film made in 1931, when directors were still figuring out how to make talkies.  For film buffs, it’s worth taking a look just to watch the scene of the land rush, and get a glimpse of a very young Irene Dunne in only her second role.  She’s miles away from the confident, wily woman who verbally two-stepped with Cary Grant, but the raw talent is on display.

There’s a 1960 remake with Glenn Ford, but your best bet is to skip both film versions and instead find a copy of Ferber’s novel, pour a whiskey, settle into your favorite easy chair and enjoy a good yarn of the wild west.

Sources/Notes

  • All direct quotes from Edna Ferber’s memoir A Peculiar Treasure, 1939.
  • Ferber notes that Cimarron is her favorite film, but this was written in 1939, before she wrote Giant, another adaptation of her work that she greatly enjoyed.

Want more?  Click here for an index of all posts in the series, as well as source notes and suggested readings.

A Damsel in Distress (1937): Little Sister’s Early Missteps

Joan Fontaine and Fred Astaire in A Damsel in Distress (1937)
A Damsel in Distress (1937) opening banner

Throughout her life, Joan Fontaine was fond of telling reporters that it irked her older sister Olivia de Havilland that Joan “did everything first.”  By this she meant that she’d gotten married first and won the Academy Award first.

But she certainly didn’t succeed in the movie business first.

After her success in A Midsummer Night’s Dream and the blockbuster Captain Blood, Olivia de Havilland was Hollywood’s most promising rookie of 1935.

Meanwhile, Joan was hanging on for dear life at RKO.

After six small utterly forgettable roles in utterly forgettable films, Fontaine needed to prove she could act, or her career would be over before it began.

But the blame for her failure in 1937’s A Damsel in Distress can’t be laid solely at her feet.

After seven wildly successful films together, Ginger Rogers and Fred Astaire decided to go their separate ways.  Rogers saw herself as an actress first and wanted to explore more dramatic roles.

And Astaire?  Well, he didn’t want to be forever linked with a single partner.  He was the lead dancer and the choreographer, after all.  He’d taught Ginger most of what she knew about dancing.  How hard could it be to teach someone else?

Poor Joan Fontaine drew the short straw.

She had to dance with Fred Astaire and make the audience forget about Ginger Rogers.

A mission more impossible than anything the IMF ever assigned Ethan Hunt.

She should’ve chosen not to accept it.

It became apparent to everyone involved that novice Fontaine would not be able to carry half the dancing in the film.  Her role was restricted to that of Astaire’s love interest, with a single dance near the end of the film.

The dance is painful, as Fontaine is wooden and obviously ill at ease when her character should be giddy over falling in love.  It’s like watching the celebrities on Dancing with the Stars, who are so glaringly outmatched by their professional partners.

Married comedians George Burns and Gracie Allen got top billing with Astaire, and the script and choreography was rearranged so that Astaire did most of the dance numbers with them.

They also provided the laughs, as Fontaine was not a skilled comedienne.  In later films she would reveal her talents, but comedy was never among them.

Burns and Allen provided the comedy and dancing.  Fontaine provided the romantic love interest.

All in all, it took three actors to replace Ginger Rogers in an Astaire film.

Perhaps Ginger had something Fred hadn’t taught her after all.

The film is a pleasant enough musical, but not worth watching but for the most ardent Astaire fans.  Lady Caroline wants her niece Lady Alyce to marry her stepson, but Alyce is in love with a mysterious American.  The servants in the house have taken bets on who Alyce will choose, and are prepared to meddle in the proceedings to ensure their win.

After Alyce has a chance encounter with dancer Jerry Halliday, the staff mistakes him for the mysterious American.  Soon Jerry is lured to Tottney Castle to “save” Lady Alyce, whom he believes is being held against her will in the family castle.  He takes along his press agent (Burns) and airhead secretary (Allen.)

Fontaine is completely absent from the film’s most memorable sequence, in which Astaire, Burns, and Allen dance their way through a fun house park, dancing through tunnels and in fun house mirrors.

George Burns, Fred Astaire, and Gracie Allen in A Damsel in Distress (1937)

By the end, Lady Alyce has forgotten all about the mysterious American and weds Jerry.

The film was not a success.  The public wasn’t interested in seeing Fred without Ginger, and Astaire went running back to Rogers and they made two more films together.  Astaire would go on to have other successful dancing partnerships—most notably with Rita Hayworth, but he was never able to mold a novice into a dancer the way he had with Rogers.

As for Fontaine, her string of unimpressive performances continued, and RKO eventually dropped her from their roster.

It’s here that I can’t help wondering—if it hadn’t been for the competitive spirit between Fontaine and de Havilland, would Fontaine have gone back to Saratoga, married, and left Hollywood behind?

But she didn’t give up, and by 1940 she’d found a role that suited her, and improbably became the second Mrs. de Winter in David O. Selznick and Alfred Hitchcock’s Rebecca.  (A role Vivien Leigh wanted desperately.)

It was a career defining role, and one of my favorite performances from the golden age of Hollywood.  Vivian Leigh, wonderful actress she is, would’ve been all wrong for the second Mrs. de Winter, a character so timid and weak we never learn her first name.

Nervous and insecure Fontaine was perfection.

An Oscar nomination for best actress followed, as did another for Suspicion in 1941.

Which leads us back to where we began, on the night when Fontaine upset big sister Olivia in Hold Back the Dawn and won the Academy Award for Best Actress for Suspicion.

Olivia had been first out of the gate, but Joan had just closed the gap.

Game on, girls.

A Damsel in Distress (1937) verdict:  Had Its Day, Its Day Is Done

Sources

  • Higham, Charles.  Sisters: The Story of Olivia De Havilland and Joan Fontaine.
  • Behlmer, Martin, ed.  Memo from David O. Selznick

Want more?  Click here for an index of all posts in the series, as well as source notes and suggested readings.

Joan Fontaine and Fred Astaire in A Damsel in Distress (1937)

Captain Blood (1935): Olivia Meets Errol

Olivia de Havilland and Errol Flynn in Captain Blood (1935)
Captain Blood (1935)

Jack Warner was a gambler.  You have to be to get into the movie business.  He was once nearly killed in a car accident after winning $4,000 playing baccarat.

But he’d never taken as big a risk as casting two unknowns in his 1935 adventure blockbuster Captain Blood.

The result was worth far more than a good night at the baccarat table:  an Academy Award nomination for best picture, the top grossing Warner Brother’s film of that year, and the launch of one of Hollywood’s great onscreen couples.

Before Bogart and Bacall, before Hepburn and Tracy, there was Olivia and Errol.

Warner gave the role of the gallant doctor-turned-slave-turned pirate to Errol Flynn, an unproven but handsome actor from Tasmania.

And fresh off her success in A Midsummer Night’s Dream but still unknown to those outside Hollywood, de Havilland snagged the prime role of Arabella Bishop, Blood’s love interest.

A more lighthearted adventure than MGM’s Mutiny on the Bounty, released the same year (and the ultimate Best Picture winner) Captain Blood is a tale of romance and adventure painted on a huge canvas.

Throw in some steamy sex scenes and you’d have the film equivalent of the bodice ripper romance novels published in the 1980s that I gobbled up as a teenager.

I’m here for it.

Peter Blood is a peaceful doctor who is imprisoned and sentenced to death for providing medical attention to a rebel fighting against James II in seventeenth century England.  Reprieved of death when the King decides to sell the prisoners for slaves instead and pocket the proceeds, Peter Blood is shipped off to Jamaica. 

On the auction block, the plantation owners examine the men like cattle, pulling back their lips to inspect their teeth and testing their muscles.  Watching the proceedings is Arabella Bishop, the beautiful young niece of Colonel Bishop, an influential plantation owner.  Seeing that Peter Blood is no lowlife, she buys him to protect him from the excesses of the cruel plantation owner known for working his slaves to death.

Olivia de Havilland in Captain Blood (1935)

Blood shows defiance instead of gratitude, refusing to relent even when Arabella arranges for him to act as the personal physician to the governor, giving him an elevated status over the other slaves.

Yet for all his wounded pride, Blood is grateful for Arabella’s interference and very much aware of her beauty.

A born leader, the other slaves soon look to Peter Blood as their leader, and he is increasingly radicalized against King James II and the island’s governor as he witnesses the inhumane treatment and conditions of the slaves. 

Soon, Peter Blood and his band of rebels are planning their escape.

When Spanish pirates invade the village, Blood and the other slaves escape Jamaica by stealing their ship.

Like the mutineers on Mutiny on the Bounty, Peter and his followers have committed treason and can never go home again.

And thus, Captain Blood, the fiercest pirate to sail the seven seas, is born.

Yet our Captain is a gallant and fair pirate—the spoils are shared, women are not to be imprisoned or raped, and men who lose an arm or leg are compensated.  He leads the fights and takes the first blow.  He’s a swashbuckling hero for those opposed to King James II.

Errol Flynn in Captain Blood (1935)

And like all stubborn, gallant heroes, his Achille’s heel is the woman he can’t forget, Arabella Bishop.

When they meet again three years later, she is no less beautiful but in the clutches of the second most successful (and far less scrupulous) pirate, Levasseur (Basil Rathbone.)  Captain Blood now purchases her as his slave, and duels Levasseur to the death to prevent her from falling into his lecherous clutches.

She is as outwardly outraged (and inwardly thrilled) by his purchase as he once was of hers.

Olivia de Havilland and Errol Flynn in Captain Blood (1935)

Captain Blood, who has kept his crew alive by his wits, puts himself and his entire crew in danger when he insists on escorting Arabella safely to Jamaica himself, sailing right to the governor who has obsessively pursued Blood all these years.

But in a twist of fate, Captain Blood learns that William III has taken over the British throne and has not only revoked Blood’s status as a traitor but given him a commission in the Royal Navy.

Thus Captain Blood returns a hero and becomes the governor of Jamaica to boot.

And he gets the girl.

But I didn’t have to tell you that.

Captain Blood launched both Flynn and de Havilland into major stardom.  It was the first of the eight movies they would make together between 1935 and 1941.  The most well remembered is The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938), in which de Havilland played Maid Marian to Flynn’s Robin.

Sparks flew between de Havilland and Flynn onset and though he often played pranks on her in the manner of a love-struck schoolboy, de Havilland spoke warmly of him and even once said he was one of the loves of her life.

But whatever they may have wanted, Flynn was married and de Havilland was not the kind of woman to have an affair.  Later, when he was free, he once proposed marriage, but though charmed, de Havilland wore no rose-colored glasses when looking at Flynn.

Olivia de Havilland and Errol Flynn on the set of Captain Blood (1935)
Errol and Olivia on the set of Captain Blood

At ninety-two (long after Flynn’s death), she reflected, “The relationship was not consummated.  It was just as well that I said no [to marriage.]  He would have ruined my life.”1

She’s likely right, as Flynn was content to booze and womanize, and later devolved into an empty shell of a man who self-destructed on drugs, alcohol, and lust.

On the set of Captain Blood, Flynn told de Havilland that he wanted approval and money, which he counted as success.

Even then, with only two films under her belt, de Havilland had higher ambitions.

“I want respect,” she told Flynn.  “By that I meant serious work well done.”2

She would fight long and hard to earn it in Jack Warner’s kingdom.

Captain Blood (1935) Verdict:  Give It A Shot

Sources

1 Higham, Charles.  Sisters: The Story of Olivia De Havilland and Joan Fontaine.

2 Amburn, Ellis.  Olivia De Havilland and the Golden Age of Hollywood.

Warner, Jack.  My First Hundred Years in Hollywood.

Ultimate Movie Rankings Website

Want more?  Click here for an index of all posts in the series, as well as source notes and suggested readings.

Olivia de Havilland and Errol Flynn in Captain Blood (1935)