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.

Dinner at Eight (1933):  Focus on Ferber

Dinner at Eight poster (1933)
Dinner at Eight (1933)

Though she’s not as well remembered today, Edna Ferber was a literary giant of the early and mid-twentieth century on par with contemporaries Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and William Faulkner.

Seven of her novels were among the top ten best sellers in the year of their publication, and two topped the list, both feats that neither Hemingway, Fitzgerald, nor Faulkner accomplished.

She was primarily a playwright and novelist, her works encompassing the trials and tribulations of the American people, whom she knew and loved.  Her well-researched works covered a wide range of American life, from the struggle of Oklahoma statehood, to life on the Mississippi, the machismo of early twentieth century Texas, and the actors on the New York stage scratching out a living.

Edna Ferber
Edna Ferber

Her commercial and critical success ensured that Hollywood would come calling, and when it did she took the money and ran, having little to do with the making of most of her films.

So though you may not know the name Edna Ferber, you undoubtedly know the films based on her work.  Over the next eight weeks, we’ll cover the onscreen adaptations of this forgotten chronicler of the American experience.

Let’s start with Dinner at Eight (1933.) 

Ferber collaborated on nearly all her plays with fellow Algonquin Round Table member George Kaufman, and Ferber had long had the idea to write a comedy of manners with interlocking stories surrounding a group of couples set to attend a dinner party.  The play was a success, and it was adapted for the screen the next year.

Dinner at Eight was producer David O. Selznick’s first film with MGM after his successful stint at RKO.  Selznick wanted to prove his worth to father-in-law and boss Louis B. Mayer, and compete with golden boy MGM producer Irving Thalberg.  So he brought director George Cukor over from RKO, and they set about casting the successful play for the screen.

The similarities to Grand Hotel were known from the start—Ferber and Kaufman knew before writing the play that it would be compared to William A. Drake’s play, also made into an MGM film with an all-star ensemble cast, though Ferber insisted that she’d had the initial idea years before Grand Hotel was produced, but had to talk Kaufmann into doing it.

Both Grand Hotel and Dinner at Eight have large star-filled casts with a history of stage acting.  Both have multiple storylines that intersect in funny, tragic, and surprising ways.  John Barrymore, Lionel Barrymore, and Wallace Beery star in both films.

Dinner at Eight begins simply enough—Millicent Jordan (Billie Burke, years before her unforgettable turn as Glinda the Good Witch) wants to throw a dinner party for her wealthy friends and acquaintances.  But there’s secrets among the group—affairs, looming financial disasters, and an impending suicide.  The film starts with the invitations, divulges the secrets, and gathers the group together at the Jordan’s home before ending just as the group goes into the dinner room for the titular dinner.

The cast of Dinner At Eight (1933)

It’s not as good a film as Grand Hotel.  There’s lots and lots of talking, and not quite enough action, even for a film made in 1933.  I gave the film two shots—viewing it several weeks apart, and I must admit that I fell asleep both times in the middle.

The film comes alive only when Jean Harlow arrives, and she doesn’t get nearly enough screen time.  She plays Kitty Packard, the low class wife of Dan Packard.  Millicent was forced to invite the Packards as her husband wants Dan to invest in his failing family business.

Jean Harlow, Dinner At Eight (1933)
Jean Harlow, Dinner at Eight

Kitty flounces around in her dressing gown, literally eating bon bons and having an affair with her doctor while her husband works to build his business empire.  She’s thrilled to attend the party, and arrives in an inappropriately tight dress.  She’s crass, laughs too loud, and doesn’t know how to hide her low-class breeding.

It’s a character Harlow perfected—the low class floozy—and the whole film wakes up when she slinks onto the screen.

Dinner at Eight has a distinguished pedigree—an all-star cast, great director, a producer who would go on to write his name in the Hollywood history books, and yet this film doesn’t have much to offer the modern audience outside of a view of Harlow, a star gone too soon when she died suddenly of kidney failure at twenty-six just four years after Dinner was filmed.

I tip my cap to all involved, but Dinner at Eight had it’s day, but it’s day is done.

Dinner At Eight (1933) Verdict:  Had Its Day, Its Day Is Done

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.

Dinner at Eight poster (1933)

We Interrupt 1939 To Bring You Rebecca (1940): The Unlikely Triumph of the Second Mrs. DeWinter

#31 Golden Age of Hollywood Series

Joan Fontaine in Rebecca (1940)
Rebecca (1940) opening banner

By 1939 Alfred Hitchcock was a famous British director, and he wanted to come to America.  Knowing his talent, producer David O. Selznick took time out of his day making Gone With the Wind to lure Hitch into signing a contract with Selznick International Pictures.

It’s hard to imagine two more different people working together than Selznic and Hitch.  Selznic was obsessed with every detail, and saw every film he made as an epic, a one-of-a-kind crown jewel.  He meddled in every piece—micromanaging the scriptwriting, the directing, the costuming.  He wrote epic memos berating his staff for creative decisions he disagreed with and thought nothing of throwing out a raft of complete work only to start again.  He did want to make movies on an assembly line like the other studios.  He wanted one-of-kind handcrafted films.  Though he felt he thrived in chaos, it is no exaggeration to say that he nearly killed himself making Gone With the Wind.  When caught in a creative fever, he would work day and night for months or years on end.  Though he made the greatest movie of all time, he burned himself out early and was more or less out of the picture making business by age fifty.

Hitch, by contrast, was a deliberate plodder.  He thought out every scene in advance, and thus his shoot on set was clean and efficient.  He hated chaos.  He demanded absolute authority in matters of directing, but stayed out of script and production decisions that were not in his job description.

It was a collaboration that couldn’t last.  But for the few years they held it together, Selznick and Hitch made some excellent films, the first and finest of which is Rebecca.

Rebecca is a masterpiece.  A timeless tale of mystery and romance, it is one of the worthiest Best Picture Winners in Oscar history.  And because watching the mystery unfold is the chief pleasure of this film, I won’t spoil a bit of the ending or key plot points.

The film opens in the French Riviera, where a young, orphaned woman played by Joan Fontaine is swept off her feet by widower Maxim DeWinter, an older but dashing man.  After a courtship of only a few days, Maxim proposes marriage.  Deeply naive and in love, the woman accepts.  After a happy, carefree honeymoon, Maxim takes his young bride home to Manderly, a famous and ancient old family mansion by the sea.

In Manderly, our heroine is isolated, left alone for long stretches in the big empty house, and Maxim falls into extended stony silences.  Though Maxim never mentions his first wife, everyone else is quick to tell our heroine how he adored his first wife, Rebecca.

That’s right.  Joan Fonatine is not Rebecca.  She is the unnamed heroine of the story, referred to only as the second—and apparently inferior—Mrs. DeWinter.  (That bit of brilliance is a credit to Daphne DuMaurier’s novel, where the second Mrs. DeWinter is the narrator of a tale that does not bear her name.)

Mrs. Danvers, the housekeeper, adored Rebecca.  According to her new sister-in-law, Rebecca threw the best parties, knew the best people, and wore the best clothes.  She knew how to dance, flirt, charm, host a party and run an estate like Manderly.

Our narrator doesn’t have a clue where to start.

Laurence Olivier and Joan Fontaine in 1940's Rebecca.

Thanks to Hitch’s deft camera work and a haunting score, the audience begins to suspect that everything with Rebecca’s memory is not as it seems.  We begin to somehow understand the dread and terror our heroine feels at the sight of Rebecca’s stationery in her writing desk.  When Mrs. Danvers lovingly paws Rebecca’s lingerie and monogrammed pillows, her coldness toward the second Mrs. DeWinter takes on a decidedly sinister air.

Rebecca's monogrammed pillow in 1940's Rebecca.

The audience asks the question the second Mrs. DeWinter is afraid to ask herself.

Is Maxim haunted by his wife’s accidental death…or something more ominous?

It’s triumph owes its greatness first to Daphne DuMaurier and her sublime gothic novel of the same name.  Then to David O. Selznic, who insisted Hitch hew as close to the source material as the production code would allow.  And to Alfred Hitchcock, who kept a story about a woman who lives in the shadow of her husband’s dead first wife from becoming melodramatic schlock and instead has the audience tensing as she turns every corner in the big empty house she can’t make a home.  And finally credit goes to Joan Fontaine, who was believable and sympathetic as a woman who feels so achingly inferior she is afraid to admit to her housekeeper when she breaks a decorative china cupid.

You pull out any four of these pieces and the whole puzzle falls apart.

Together, you have that Hollywood magic.

Rebecca was released in 1940, not 1939.  So why have I interrupted the Greatest Year in Movies to discuss Hitch’s first American hit?

Today Netflix is releasing their Rebecca remake starring Lily James in the Joan Fontaine role, Armie Hammer and Kristin Scott Thomas as Mrs. Danvers.  I’ve gushed all over Selznick and Hitch’s film, but with this casting, I’m excited to see the remake.  For all their brilliance, Hitch and Selznick had their hands tied by the production code—they had to water down the novel’s ending, and I think Maxim and the heroine did their best communicating in the bedroom.  With the freedom of modern filmmaking, I’m excited to see what they will do with DuMaurier’s unforgettable tale.

Armie Hammer and Lily James in the Netflix remake of Rebecca
Armie Hammer and Lily James in the Netflix remake. I was sold as soon as I saw the headband.

Can Netflix recreate the magic and bring something new to this classic romance?

Here’s hoping.

*You can watch Hitch’s original Rebecca for free on YouTube here.

Rebecca (1940) Verdict:  Timeless - Watch It Tonight

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

Joan Fontaine in Rebecca (1940)