The Bride Wore Red (1937):  The Film That Made Joan Crawford Box Office Poison

Robert Young, Joan Crawford, and Franchot Tone in The Bride Wore Red (1937)

The Bride Wore Red (1937)

The Bride Wore Red was a low point in the careers of its director and star.

It was the only film Dorothy Arzner ever directed for MGM, and its failure kept her out of work for the next 3 years. 

As for its star, it was the second straight commercial flop for Joan Crawford after The Last of Mrs. Cheyney.  The next year the Independent Film Journal dubbed her “box office poison.”1

But The Bride Wore Red isn’t as bad as all that.

It begins when two wealthy gentleman, Count Armalia (George Zucco) and Rudi (Robert Young) argue about the role luck plays in a man’s fate.  The Count feel it’s just a turn of the cosmic roulette wheel that landed him as an aristocrat instead of a waiter.  Rudi vehemently disagrees, insisting that breeding and a je ne sai quoi separates the classes.

In a bid to cause mischief and knock his friend down a peg, the Count hires Anni, dive bar lounge singer, to impersonate an aristocrat and turn Rudi’s head.

Anni accepts with her own agenda—if she can get Rudi to throw over his fiancé and marry her instead, she’ll live in the lap of luxury instead of scrounging through her stew bowl searching for chunks of meat to keep her full.

Joan Crawford, and Robert Young in The Bride Wore Red (1937)

Rudi buys her story lock, stock, and barrel and it isn’t long before he’s poised to propose.  But by then the plot is complicated by Anni falling in love with Giulio (Franchot Tone), the local postmaster who is content with his lot in life as a peasant.

It’s clear to the audience that Anni would be happier with Giulio, but she’s stubborn enough to purse Rudi until she’s nearly ruined everything.  Yet we can sympathize with her ruthlessness—she’s a woman who’s always scraped by, and the prospect of a life without hunger is at first more appealing than one with love.

The film shines in the scenes between Anni and the hotel maid, who by coincidence is an old friend.  Behind closed doors, Anni lets down her guard and we can see the strain of her pretense.

We’re rooting for her to choose Giulio, who is clearly the superior man over the materialistic snob Rudi.

Joan Crawford and Franchot Tone in The Bride Wore Red (1937)

And in the end, of course, it all works out, even for Rudi, who is lucky enough that his jilted fiancé takes him back.

This was the seventh film that married couple Joan Crawford and Franchot Tone made together.  They had very different backgrounds—Crawford wasn’t that far removed from the shopgirls and prostitutes she played in the 1930s—she’d survived a childhood of grinding poverty to make herself a success despite a lack of sophistication and education.

Franchot Tone was born into a wealthy family.  He got his start in the theater, and at first enjoyed tutoring Crawford in great literature, theater, and opera.

Joan Crawford’s career withstood the smear of box office poison—MGM stood behind her, and she was back on top in 1939’s The Women.

Her commitment to success saved her career but doomed her marriage.

Though he was nominated for an Oscar for 1935’s Mutiny on the Bounty, Franchot Tone looked down on the movies, and wasn’t a great film actor.  Joan Crawford lobbied for him to receive many of the roles he did, especially in films with her at MGM.

Just like Russell Brand and Kay Perry, Franchot Tone resented and belittled his wife’s success and wanted them both to step out of the limelight.

But that was something Joan Crawford was never going to do—she lived her entire life for her fans and her career.

She could always get another husband.

The Bride Wore Red (1937) Verdict:  Give It a Shot

Notes

  1. Crawford was in good company on the box office poison list, which also included Katharine Hepburn and Greta Garbo.

Sources

  • Mayne, Judith.  Directed by Dorothy Arzner.  1994.
  • Spoto, Donald.  Possessed:  The Life of Joan Crawford.  2010.

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

Craig’s Wife (1936): Careful What You Wish For

Rosaline Russell in Craig's Wife (1936)

Craig's Wife (1936)

The enforcement of the Motion Picture Production Code in 1934 dealt a deadly blow to director Dorothy Arzner’s career.  The Code strictly enforced specifics around what could be shown in a film in terms of violence, drinking, and sex.

More damning for Arzner, the Code restricted the types of stories that could be told.

Arzner’s films didn’t glorify sex, drinking, or drug use, but they very much dealt with the plight and constraints of the modern woman.  No longer was she free to tell stories about unmarried women having affairs, or married women and men experimenting with open marriages.

Arzner made only four films after the code, and though they were not box office success at the time, today they are among her most celebrated films.  Even with the restrictions, she still found a way to make films with something to say, and she still worked with legendary actresses at the start of their careers.

Craig’s Wife was the first of her post-code efforts.  This was the second film adaptation of the Pulitzer-Prizing winning play, and the first talking version.  The third and (thus far) final version was made in 1950, with the leading role played by Joan Crawford.  (Which I reviewed here earlier this year.)

In this version, Harriet Craig is played by Rosalind Russell, three years before she caught fire as the gossipy Sylvia Fowler in George Cukor’s The Women.  Though much better known for playing boisterous characters such as Auntie Mame and Hildy in His Girl Friday, she is up to the task of playing an ice queen.

At 20 minutes shorter than the Joan Crawford version, Arzner’s film gets right to the point, snipping out several subplots to focus on the main event—Harriet Craig is a woman who married her husband to get a house.

As she explains to her wide-eyed niece, she never loved her husband, but saw marriage as a road to independence and wealth.  She rules her sparkling home with an iron fist—with exacting standards for the servants, and her husband too.

Poor Walter (John Boles) isn’t allowed to smoke or sit on the arms of chairs in his own home.

John Boles and Rosaline Russell Craig's Wife (1936)

As the film moves forward, Harriet pushes away everyone—servants, acquaintances, her niece, her husband.

She never had any friends to begin with.

At the film’s conclusion, she receives a telegram informing her that her sister has died, and Harriet realizes she finally has what she’s always wanted—she’s completely alone in the world, with her big fancy house all to herself.

The enormity of her grief and regret engulfs her and she dissolves into tears.

It’s a good film, and in many ways a clever one—Arzner and company found a way to tell a story about how confined women’s roles were in the 1930s without running afoul of the production code’s rules.

Though some of the details are changed, it’s got the same spine as the Crawford version, and is just as enjoyable.

Which one is better?  It’s a coin flip for me—watch them both and decide for yourself.


You can watch Craig’s Wife for free on You Tube here.

Craig's Wife (1936) Verdict:  Give It A Shot

Sources

  • Mayne, Judith.  Directed by Dorothy Arzner.  1994.
  • Russell, Rosalind.  Life Is a Banquet.  1977.

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

Christopher Strong (1933): The World Meets Katharine Hepburn

Colin Clive and Katharine Hepburn in a poster for "Christopher Strong (1933)

Christopher Strong (1933) opening

Quote:  "Dorothy was very well known and had directed a number of hit pictures.  She wore pants.  So did I.  We had a good time working together."  - Katharine Hepburn on Dorothy Arzner

Merrily We Go to Hell (1932) was the tenth and final film Dorothy Arzner made for Paramount.  As part of a corporate reorganization, Paramount instituted pay cuts for many of its employees.

Instead of taking the cut, Arzner left Paramount and went freelance.

She was barely out the door when the phone started ringing.  David O. Selznick, then at RKO and having just finished King Kong (1933) had an idea.

He wanted to pair Hollywood’s only female director with his latest discovery, a rebellious and headstrong theater actress he’d convinced to come to Hollywood.

Two talented and fierce women—three including screenwriter Zoë Akins, who would go on to win a Pulitzer Prize for Drama—working on a tale of illicit love.

Dorothy Arzner was in.

So was Katharine Hepburn.

Christopher Strong tells the story of Cynthia Darrington, a young woman who’s never had a love affair except her lifelong one with airplanes.  She’s a female flyer, modeled after American Amelia Earhart and Brit Amy Johnson.

What’s most striking—and entertaining—about watching the film in 2022 is that Katharine Hepburn is so fully…Katharine Hepburn.

This was only Hepburn’s second film and her first starring role, yet everything that eventually became part of the Katharine Hepburn lore was there from the start.

As an aviatrix, she wears pants throughout most of the film.  She’s got that transatlantic Bryn Mawr College accent that no one’s had before or since.  She brought that aristocratic arrogance that intimidated and enthralled the world.

She’s eccentric in the way that only the most wealthy can be.

It’s impossible to imagine anyone else in the role.

Cynthia (Hepburn) falls in love with her friend’s father, Congressman Christopher Strong (Colin Clive), a man admired for his longstanding fidelity to his wife Lady Strong (Billie Burke). 

They embark on a guilt-ridden affair, and the film is at its best when exploring the tension Cynthia feels between flying and love.  After promising that he will never ask her to give up flying, Christopher and Cynthia make love for the first time in a wonderful scene that shows only Hepburn’s arm as they make pillow talk.

Before she turns out the light, Christopher breaks his promise and asks her to stop flying—he worries so, you see—and she agrees.

Though she loves Chris, she’s bored by her life without flying.  She comes to understand the miseries of mistress-hood —she does all the waiting.  She’s the one left alone at a table for two when he can’t get away from his wife and family.

It’s a life of crumbs, and yet love forces her to take what she can get.

Everything changes when she becomes pregnant with his child.  Cynthia realizes this is both a wonderful and terrible thing—wonderful because he would leave his wife and marry her to raise the child.

Yet terrible because Lady Strong has been kind to Cynthia, despite her deep suspicions of her husband’s affair.

In fact, Lady Strong’s portrayal is quite positive—she is no shrewish wife.  Chris has no justification for cheating on her, and he—and Cynthia—know it.

Realizing that her baby will tear the Strong family apart, Cynthia goes up one last time in her plane.  Under the pretense of breaking the world’s altitude record she goes on a suicide mission with no intention of returning.

Katharine Hepburn in Christopher Strong

Christopher Strong could only have been made in 1933.

Any earlier and Katharine Hepburn wouldn’t have been in Hollywood.

Any later and the newly enforced production code would’ve rejected the plot.

And a contemporary remake about a pregnant woman who commits suicide rather than complicate the life of the married lover twice her age?

I don’t think so.

Christopher Strong (1933) Verdict - give it A Shot

Sources

  • Mayne, Judith.  Directed by Dorothy Arzner.  1994.
  • Hepburn, Katharine.  Me:  Stories of My Life.  1991.

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

Merrily We Go to Hell (1932): “Matrimony—single lives, twin beds, and triple bromides in the morning.”

Sylvia Sidney, Frederic March in Merrily We Go to Hell (1932)
Sylvia Sidney and Frederic March
Merrily We Go to Hell (1932)

There’s a surprising number of early talkies about “modern marriages” gone awry.  The husband cheats on his wife and the wife retaliates by sleeping with a man she doesn’t love to hurt her husband.  They’re reunited in the end, but not before temporarily making a mess of their lives.

The Divorcée is the best of them, winning Norma Shearer an Oscar and still delighting audiences ninety-two years later.

Director Dorothy Arzner’s contribution to this subgenre was Merrily We Go to Hell, a film with a title so scandalous in 1930 that many newspapers refused to print it.

This time she pairs Fredric March with Sylvia Sidney as a husband and wife whose marriage goes to hell because of his drinking and wandering eye.

Newspaper man Jerry Corbett (March) is drunk when he meets teetotaler Joan Prentice (Sidney) at a party—drunk and hung up on his ex.

After a charming encounter, Joan goes home half in love and Jerry goes home and talks to a portrait of his ex.  But Jerry ultimately decides that life married to a sweet girl with a rich father is an improvement over pining for the woman who left him flat.

Jerry is wonderful when he’s sober—the problem is he has trouble staying that way.  He repeatedly flakes out on Joan when he’s on a bender, even passing out and missing his own engagement party.

Joan—against the advice of her father, her friends, and good common sense—goes through with the marriage despite this humiliation.

But marriage gets him up on the wagon, and things go well until Jerry reaches a lifelong goal and sells one of the plays he’s written.  Joan is over the moon for him, but going to New York to see the play puts Jerry back into the partying and drinking crowd. 

And the lead actress in his play?

Jerry’s old flame Claire Hampstead, who wants to pick up right where things left off before she booted him out the last time.

Soon Jerry is partying, drinking, and going to Claire when she calls in the middle of the night.  When the party’s finally over, he stumbles home to good wife Joan.  In a scene that cuts like a knife, she undresses him, puts his drunken body to bed, and he calls her Claire instead of her own name.

Frederic March in Merrily We Go to Hell (1932)
Frederic March

Instead of leaving him, Joan decides that they will have an “open marriage”—he can sleep with Claire or anyone else he likes, and she will do the same.

Jerry’s game, and he seemingly gets the best of both worlds—wild mistress and pretending-to-be-happy wife. 

Both Jerry and Joan mask their misery with forced frivolity when they end up at the same party on the arms of others.

(Here we get a brief glimpse of Joan on the arm of twenty-eight year old Cary Grant during his first year in Hollywood.)

Cary Grant, Sylvia Sidney, Frederic March in Merrily We Go to Hell (1932)
Cary Grant, Sylvia Sidney, Frederic March

Merrily we go to hell,” Jerry toasts Claire.

Meanwhile, Joan (teetotaler no more) raises a glass at a table full of men and extolls the “holy state of matrimony—single lives, twin beds, and triple bromides in the morning.”

Sylvia Sidney in Merrily We Go to Hell (1932)

The situation can’t last, and when Joan finds herself pregnant with her husband’s child, she leaves him and heads home to her father.

It is only once he has lost her that Jerry realizes it was Joan he loved all along. 

The final arc of the film chronicles how he wins her back, but he treats her so horribly throughout the film, that I find myself wishing she had turned him away in the end.  Certainly, a 2022 remake would have her doing so—or would tone done Jerry’s transgressions.

Even so, Merrily We Go to Hell gives the viewer much to ponder—we’re not the first generation to decide that there might be a better alternative to monogamy, and yet it still seems to be the path to long-lasting romantic happiness, especially in the movies.

Merrily We Go to Hell was exactly the kind of film that enraged the religious and women’s groups that insisted Hollywood clean up its act.  More than violence, films depicting a woman of “loose morals” as anything other than a low down tramp who comes to a bad end were anathema to this group.

Two years later, the objectors won and the Production Code was enacted, banning films like Merrily We Go to Hell.

The mature, on-screen conversation about marriage was put on pause for several decades.

It’s a shame, but it’s also what makes these pre-code films so special, little time capsules from the past that remind us we’re not so different from those who came before us.

Merrily We Go to Hell (1932) Verdict:  Film Buffs Only

Sources

  • Mayne, Judith.  Directed by Dorothy Arzner.  1994.
  • Doherty, Thomas Patrick. Pre-Code Hollywood: Sex, Immorality, and Insurrection in American Cinema.  1999.

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

Honor Among Lovers (1931):  Directed by Dorothy Arzner

Frederic March and Claudette Colbert in Honor Among Lovers (1930)
Fredric March and Claudette Colbert
Frederic March and Claudette Colbert in Honor Among Lovers (1930)

Let’s go looking for hidden gems.

I like to wax poetic about the films we all recognize as masterpieces:  Casablanca, The Philadelphia Story, Notorious, and Double Indemnity.

But the real thrill in watching and writing about old films is finding delight in a film you’ve never (or only vaguely) heard of.  There can only be so many films in the classics cannon, and a lot of great stuff gets left on the cutting room floor, waiting to be rediscovered.  In the course of this project, I’ve discovered In Name Only (Cary Grant and Carole Lombard in a melodrama instead of a screwball comedy), The Affairs of Susan (Joan Fontaine as a woman who reinvents herself to match the personality of her lovers), East Side West Side (Barbara Stanwyck at her silent-suffering best), and Sunrise (perhaps some will take issue with my calling a 4-time Oscar winner a hidden gem, but surely a silent film qualifies in 2022).

But rather than casting about on YouTube (a treasure trove of forgotten early films) at random, we’re going to spend the next few weeks exploring the films of Dorothy Arzner, the only female director of the 1930’s.

Many women worked behind the camera on films in the silent era—as directors, editors, and scriptwriters.  Hollywood studios were eager to hire women to add respectability to their young and wild business populated with unsavory characters.

Alice Guy-Blaché
Alice Guy-Blaché

The formidable Alice Guy-Blaché was the first woman to direct.  She started her career in her birth country France before moving to the United States.  In 1910, she founded Solax Studios in New York with her husband, which became the largest film studio in America before Hollywood came along.  For many years, she was the only woman director, and it is believed that she directed and produced over 700 films in her 25 year career.

Lois Weber
Lois Weber

Lois Weber was probably the first—and certainly the most influential—female Hollywood director.  The Pittsburgh-born woman directed films for Carl Laemmle in the early days of Universal Studios where she was well-respected and known for making quality films within budget.  She influenced many future directors, and John Ford began his career as a prop boy for Weber.

A few other female directors followed, but like so many actors and actresses, none survived the transition to sound.

Except Dorothy Arzner.

Arzner’s career in Hollywood began in 1919 when she took a job as a typist at Famous Players-Lasky, which became Paramount Pictures in 1930.  She fell into the job after a foray into medical school that convinced her she didn’t want to be a doctor.

Dorothy Arzner
Dorothy Arzner

She worked her way up and eventually distinguished herself as a film cutter and editor, before getting her first chance to direct in 1927.

She directed 17 films from 1927-1943.  The titles are unfamiliar to those who aren’t film buffs, at least one is only available in archival prints, and the lot garnered a single Oscar nomination for Ruth Chatterton’s acting in Sarah and Son (1930).

But Arzner was the lone woman in a man’s world, starting her career in the pre-code era, before strict rules dictated the themes and stories that could be covered in Hollywood films.  She directed Frederic March, Claudette Colbert, Joan Crawford, Rosalind Russell, Lucille Ball and Katharine Hepburn at the beginnings of their auspicious careers.

A perfect place to go digging for buried treasure.

Let’s start with Honor Among Lovers (1931), the second onscreen pairing of Claudette Colbert and Fredric March.

Typical of the pre-code films, Honor Among Lovers begins with a scandalous proposition.  Business magnate Jerry Stafford (March) has a wonderful working relationship with his secretary Julia Traynor (Colbert).  She’s efficient, accurate, and anticipates his every need. 

Any fool can see they’re in love with one another.

Jerry asks her to accompany him on a month’s long cruise.

“As your secretary?” she asks.

Not as his secretary.

But also not as his wife, as Jerry insists he’s destined for bachelorhood.

Julia is so tempted to accept his offer that she rushes into the marriage she’s long been delaying with her boyfriend, the seemingly steady and dependable Phillip Craig (Monroe Owsley.)

With the ink still wet on her marriage certificate, Jerry reconsiders bachelorhood and proposes.  When he discovers she’s married another, he fires her in a fit of pique.

Frederic March and Claudette Colbert in Honor Among Lovers (1930)

There’s a lovely chemistry between March and Colbert.  Their affection is playful and the audience—and Julia—immediately see that she made a mistake in marrying Phillip.  Jerry and Julia are the kind of couple who wouldn’t just live on passion—they’d have a damn good time together.

But Jerry hesitated and now he’s lost her forever.

Except of course he hasn’t.

The twist of Honor Among Lovers is that Jerry and Phillip reverse their initial roles by the film’s finale.  Initially Jerry is the cad—he wants Julia as a lover, but refuses to put a ring on it, while Phillip has been pushing for marriage for months.

But when Phillip makes a major mistake at work (mistake is kind—he steals his client’s money to invest in a venture that goes belly up), he crumbles and lands his marriage in crisis. 

When the chips are down, Phillip turns on Julia and is only interested in saving himself.  In a fit of rage and desperation, he shoots Jerry (one of his clients) and pins the blame on Julia.

Jerry, the supposed cad, reacts honorably and helps Phillip because he loves Julia so much, expecting no reward but watching her happiness from afar.

The satisfying ending lands the murderous Phillip in prison and Jerry and Julia finally sailing off of their long-anticipated cruise…still unmarried, as far as we can tell.

Honor Among Lovers doesn’t quite reach the level of hidden gem, but it’s a must for film buffs who enjoy the pre-code era.  Come watch Fredric March before he won his first of two Oscars, Claudette before It Happened One Night, and a small role for Ginger Rogers before she started dancing with Fred.

Honor Among Lovers (1930) Verdict - Film Buffs Only

Sources

  • Slide, Anthony.  The Silent Feminists:  America’s First Women Directors. 1996.
  • Mayne, Judith.  Directed by Dorothy Arzner.  1994.
  • Dick, Bernard F. Claudette Colbert: She Walked In Beauty. 2008.

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

“The Awful Truth” (1937) of Cary Grant and Irene Dunne

Irene Dunne and Cary Grant in The Awful Truth (1937)
The Awful Truth (1937) opening poster

The Awful Truth made Cary Grant.

Though he’d been acting in films since 1932, he was little more than an attractive plug and play leading man, indistinguishable from most of his contemporaries.

He needed a director and leading lady who could bring out his unique charm.

He found them in Leo McCarey and Irene Dunne.

McCarey was an alcoholic Irishman who barely had a script together when filming began.  Though this made Grant, Dunne, and supporting actor Ralph Bellamy anxious, it gave them great freedom to improvise in rehearsals.  They played around and tried new things, allowing Grant to refashion his training as a child acrobat into superb screwball comedy.

McCarey and the writers would figure out scenes on the fly or the night before (though perhaps the true extent of this spontaneity was exaggerated after the film became a huge success) and it makes for a light and airy film that dances from scene to scene.

Cary Grant in The Awful Truth (1937)
Cary Grant screwing around

Today, Irene Dunne is often referred to as the “female Cary Grant,” but it would be more accurate to call Cary Grant the “male Irene Dunne” as she was the bigger star in 1937—already a two-time Oscar nominee and a triple threat singer, actress, and comedienne.

Either way, there’s no doubt they were comedic mirror images of one another.

Two beautiful people who didn’t quite know how beautiful they were, so they relied on wit and charm instead of coasting on looks.

Both Grant and Dunne were incapable of losing their dignity on screen, no matter how screwy their characters were acting.  Their characters have a way of seeming to raise an eyebrow to the audience, letting you know you’re all in on the joke together.

Onscreen, they were a perfect match. 

The Awful Truth is the first—and best—of their three films together. 

They play Lucy and Jerry Warriner, a married couple who decides to divorce when each suspects the other—with ample evidence—of infidelity.  In the famous opening scene, Jerry is at a tanning bed, getting some manufactured sun to convince his wife he’s been in Florida.

He returns home in the early morning and doesn’t find her waiting for him—instead, she breezes in, dressed to the nines with her handsome music teacher.

Jerry’s not buying her story about a broken down car that forced them to spend the night together, and she’s not buying that he spent the week in Florida—especially when the oranges he gives her are stamped with “California.”

Irene Dunne in The Awful Truth (1937)
Irene Dunne

So off to divorce court they go, where they fight over their dog Mr. Smith, played charmingly by Asta (who’d made doggy fame in The Thin Man and would go on to star again with Grant in Bringing Up Baby).  When the judge decides that Mr. Smith will choose who he wants to live with, Lucy cheats by tempting him with a dog toy.

Such is the state of the Warriner’s marriage—a sophisticated game of verbal tennis and constant one-upmanship.

Lucy is thrilled to be rid of Jerry.

Or is she?

In a race to prove who can get over the other first, both Lucy and Jerry find new lovers pronto.  Jerry moves from a silly dance hall girl to an heiress, but Lucy finds an Oklahoma oilman played to perfection by Ralph Bellamy.

Bellamy is a supporting actor who never got the girl or his name above the title, but greatly improved nearly every film he was in.  On paper, he’s the better man for Lucy—earnest and wealthy, she’d never have to wonder if he was really in Florida.

And the awful truth is that he bores her to tears.

Cary Grant, Irene Dunne and Ralph Bellamy in The Awful Truth (1937)
Grant, Dunne, and Ralph Bellamy

Soon enough, Lucy and Jerry are trying to win each other back without letting on that they care a bit.

And the awful truth is that neither one of them has changed a bit, and that the only thing worse than being together is being apart.

It’s impossible to name the greatest screwball comedy ever made—trying to rank films like The Lady Eve, My Man Godfrey, and His Girl Friday is a pointless task, but The Awful Truth is always in the conversation.

The Awful Truth is as funny and universal today as it was in 1937.  It’s got nothing in it that would offend modern audiences.  Jerry and Lucy are on even ground, formidable opponents that each give as good as they get.  It doesn’t dissolve into insanity like Godfrey or Bringing Up Baby.

Irene Dunne and Cary Grant in The Awful Truth (1937)
Irene Dunne, Asta, Cary Grant

It’s more like a comedy of manners—imagine Jane Austen writing a screwball comedy, and you’ve got The Awful Truth.

The Awful Truth was beloved by audiences and critics alike, the rare comedy that was showered with six well-deserved Oscar nominations, including Supporting Actor (Bellamy), Best Actress (Dunne), Best Picture, Best Writing, and Best Director (McCarey).

Leo McCarey was the lone winner for Best Director.

Despite their long careers, neither Dunne (5 nominations) nor Grant (2 nominations) ever won an individual Oscar.  (And criminally, Dunne was never awarded an honorary Oscar.)

Decades after they’d worked together, Cary Grant said of his co-star, “Irene Dunne’s timing was marvelous.  She was so good that she made comedy look easy.  If she’d made it look as difficult as it really is, she would have won her Oscar.” 1

The same could be said of him.

And that’s the awful truth.

The Awful Truth (1937) Verdict:  Timeless:  Watch It Tonight

Sources

  1. Eyman, Scott.  Cary Grant:  A Brilliant Disguise.  2020.

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

The Bachelorette Could Learn A Thing From “Ex-Lady” (1933)

Bette Davis and Gene Raymond in Ex-Lady 1933
Bette Davis and Gene Raymond in Ex-Lady 1933

The thrill of Ex-Lady (1933) is watching twenty-five year old platinum blonde Bette Davis in her first starring role honing what would become her trademarks—smoking her way through every scene, an insolent hip first walk, and a stare as fatal as any death ray.

Ex-Lady would’ve been impossible to make just two years later, when Hollywood began censoring the subject matter of its films.  There’s no on-screen sex or violence in Ex-Lady, of course, but it’s a subversive film nonetheless in its wry take on marriage.

Davis plays Helen Bauer, a commercial artist who has no problem letting her boyfriend Don (Gene Raymond) stay the night without putting a ring on it.

In fact, she insists that he doesn’t.

It’s not because she doesn’t love him.

It’s because she doesn’t want to be a wife.

Bette Davis and Gene Raymond in Ex-Lady 1933

In the beginning, Helen’s independence was a turn-on for Don.  If she’d hinted at marriage when they first got together, he’d have gone screaming in the other direction.

But hard to get has always been a winning strategy, and he’s ready to settle down.

Too bad it was never a strategy for Helen—and she’s not ready.

When he insists, Helen explains, “I don’t want babies.  When I’m forty, I’ll think of babies.  In the meantime there are twenty years in which I want to be the baby and play with my toys and have a good time playing with them.”

By toys, she means her career, and parties, and picking out her own furniture without having to please anyone else.

Marriage, to Helen, means compromise.  And she’s not ready to do that.

She sees marriage as dull, and believes that once she becomes a wife, the romance will die.

But Don wears her down.

She marries him—and that’s when the trouble starts.

Bette Davis and Gene Raymond in Ex-Lady 1933

When she has a career triumph while his is floundering, he resents her.  And it turns out marriage is rather dull for Helen—she still wants to go out, and Don wants to stay home and read the paper. 

Then Don gets a wandering eye, and Helen stays up all night waiting for him to come home.  When he does, she demands to know where he’s been.

Then the horror hits her—she’s become a nagging, jealous, scolding wife.  The one thing she never wanted to be.

Bette Davis smoking in bed in Ex-Lady 1933

To Helen’s mind, the only solution is for them to live separately.  Continue dating, but see other people as they wish.  Don agrees, but both are miserable with the situation—but too stubborn to admit it.  Through it all, their love for one another shines through—Davis and Raymond have a nice chemistry that never fades throughout their arguing and teasing.

Marriage—can’t live with it, can’t live without it.

The film showcases all the delights of the pre-code era—boundary-pushing, a sexy undertone, and a brisk pace.

As 67 minutes, Ex-Lady takes half the time of a bloated episode of The Bachelorette.

And it’s a hell of a lot more modern.

Ex-Lady 1933 Verdict:  Timeless:  Watch It Tonight

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Bette Davis and Gene Raymond in Ex-Lady 1933

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)