Ball of Fire (1941):  The Last Great Screwball Comedy

Gary Cooper and Barbara Stanwyck in 1941's Ball of Fire

After the success of Meet John Doe, Gary Cooper and Barbara Stanwyck teamed up later that same year to make Ball of Fire.

Ball of Fire had some superficial similarities to Doe—in both, Cooper plays a good-hearted naïve man taken for a ride by the more cynical and street smart Stanwyck.

In Doe, Stanwyck goes looking for a man to embody the words she wrote in an anonymous newspaper column.

In Ball of Fire, Cooper goes looking for a woman of the world to explain slang to him.

But if they are mirror images in terms of subject matter, they’re miles apart in tone.

Doe explored some of director Frank Capra’s favorite themes—political corruption, patriotism, and a sentimental side that advocates loving thy neighbor.

Doe gave you a few smiles, but Capra wanted the audience to think.

Ball of Fire was written solely for laughs by screenwriting duo Charles Brackett and Billy Wilder and directed with exuberant irreverence by Howard Hawks.

The story is a playful retelling of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, refashioning the dwarfs as a group of old bachelor professors who’ve been living together for years to write an encyclopedia.  The only one not ready for the retirement home is young and handsome linguistics Professor Bertram Potts, but he’s as cut off from the world as the rest.

And Snow White?

She’s the gangster’s moll Sugarpuss O’Shea, who agrees to help with the project so that she can hide out from the cops who want her to testify against her mobster boyfriend.

Gary Cooper was the titular John Doe, but Stanwyck was the Ball of Fire.

Barbara Stanwyck in 1941's Ball of Fire

As her biographer Axel Madsen wrote:

“The way slangy Stanwyck manhandles the English language fascinates linguistics professor Cooper.  He got the kudos in Meet John Doe, she ran away with Ball of Fire reviews.  Cooper’s absent-minded professor was a nice piece of light acting, but Barbara as Sugarpuss O’Shea was sensational.”

Sugarpuss O’Shea is one of Stanwyck’s signature parts—and she nearly didn’t get it.

As she told Paul Rosenfield, “They didn’t want me for the picture. They cast it with Ginger Rogers. The gossip then was that she wouldn’t do it because the part was, well, a hooker really. And Ginger’s morals and beliefs wouldn’t let her play it. Me, I didn’t give a damn.”

No one could’ve done more with the part than Stanwyck—not Ginger Rogers, or Carole Lombard, who also turned down what would have been one of her final roles.

The screen crackles when Stanwyck’s O’Shea is charming Potts and the other professors, all of whom are thrilled to have a woman (not counting their housekeeper Miss Bragg, which they don’t) in their midst.

O’Shea convinces them to let her stay in the house with them as she teaches Potts everything he needs to know for his encyclopedia article on slang.  Along the way she teaches the professors to dance and steals all their hearts.

When her gangster boyfriend (an early role for Dana Andrews) decides to marry O’Shea so she can’t testify against him, she has second thoughts.

She’s fallen in love with the professors’ naïve goodness, and doesn’t want to take them for a ride.  And when Potts proposes to her (with a much smaller ring), she realizes he’s the man she wants.

Gary Cooper and Barbara Stanwyck in 1941's Ball of Fire

Stanwyck was nominated for an Oscar for her role—though in hindsight it’s baffling that she wasn’t nominated instead for her work in The Lady Eve.

And now we’ve come directly to the problem with Ball of Fire.  It’s true ancestor is not Meet John Doe, but The Lady Eve, made earlier the same year with Stanwyck and Henry Fonda.

The Lady Eve is a perfect film with a script that sings, two equally charming leads, and not a moment of wasted time.

Ball of Fire uses much of the same conceit—Stanwyck plays a con artist who falls in love with her mark, another egghead who’s book smart but clueless about women.

Ball of Fire replicates the great erotic scene in The Lady Eve when the hero ends up holding the heroine’s bare foot.  And Stanwyck even calls Professor Potts “Pottsie,” in the same way she called Fonda’s character “Hopsie.”

Gary Cooper and Barbara Stanwyck in 1941's Ball of Fire

Unlike The Lady Eve, Ball of Fire goes on a bit too long in parts.  The antics of the professors grate a bit, and the film is like an airless balloon whenever Stanwyck is not onscreen.

Perhaps I’m being unfair to Ball of Fire to compare it so much to The Lady Eve—but it’s never a good idea to remind those watching of another film—especially a superior one.

Audiences of 1941 didn’t mind, though.  Five days after Ball of Fire was released, the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor.  The film was a huge box office success, as it’s silliness and sexiness was exactly what Americans were looking for to distract themselves from the unthinkable nightly reports on the wireless.

It’s the last great American screwball comedy (except, perhaps for 1942’s Palm Beach Story), as the genre vanished overnight when the Americans entered World War II and films veered away from zany screwballs toward patriotic propaganda.

Ball of Fire (1941) Verdict:  Give It A Shot

Sources

  • Madsen, Axel.  Stanwyck.  1994.
  • Paul Rosenfield, “Saluting Stanwyck: A Life on Film”, “Los Angeles Times” (1987).

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

Gary Cooper and Barbara Stanwyck in 1941's Ball of Fire

The Big Sleep (1946):  Who killed the chauffeur?

Opening credits of The Big Sleep (1946) showing showed profiles of Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall
Opening credits from The Big Sleep (1946)
The Big Sleep (1946) opening banner

In every romance novel, there’s a moment when all hope seems lost. 

For Bogie and Bacall, that time was the shooting of The Big Sleep.

Bogart’s wife Mayo sensed the threat Bacall posed and promised to stop drinking.  Bogart felt he owed his marriage one more try and broke things off with Bacall.  He moved in and out of his house with Mayo, leaving Bacall sick with despair as he yo-yoed between the two women.

The months he spent trying to give up Bacall were among the most wretched of his life.

Wracked with guilt and believing that leaving Mayo was a dereliction of duty (his first two divorces were mutual), Bogart went on a drinking binge that left him unable to film for days. 

Meanwhile, Howard Hawks and the screenwriters were having a hell of a time adapting Raymond Chandler’s complicated detective novel.  The restraints of the production code were impossible to meet with a story about a pornography ring and a nymphomaniac.  They wrote as they filmed, tearing out scenes and trying to condense Chandler’s plot into a two hour film.  Actors waited while Hawks rewrote scenes in the morning that were rehearsed and filmed the same afternoon.

And nobody—not even Raymond Chandler—knew who the hell killed the chauffeur.

When script girl Meta Carpenter noted this was, “a dangerous way to make a motion picture,” it was a hell of an understatement.

Weeks late and over budget, Hawks somehow brought The Big Sleep in for a landing in January 1945, but Warner Brothers prioritized releasing all their war films before World War II ended and the audience lost interest. 

While the original cut of The Big Sleep gathered dust, Bogart made his decision.  He could not walk away from the promise of a happy life with Betty Bacall.  He divorced Mayo, leaving her a generous settlement and in the care of her mother.  Mayo would die only six years later at 47 from the ill effects of a lifetime of excessive drinking.

Lauren Bacall and Humphrey Bogart on the set of The Big Sleep (1946)
On the set of The Big Sleep

Knowing it was time to fold, Howard Hawks sold Bacall’s contract to Warner Brothers.

Yet a year later when Warner Brothers decided to release the film, all involved knew that it needed more of the Bogart-Bacall sizzle.  Penny pinching Jack Warner uncharacteristically (and shrewdly, it turned out) authorized additional work on the film.

So the band got back together and shot fifteen minutes of classic Bogart and Bacall footage, including a scene loaded with sexual dialogue in which they compare one another to race horses.

You’ve got a touch of class,” Bogart (as Marlowe) tells her.  “But I don’t know how far you can go.”

A lot depends on who’s in the saddle,” she retorts with a grin.

To make room for the additional scenes, they cut thirteen minutes of exposition, and any chance that anyone could ever follow the plot of the film.

With such a chaotic backstory, The Big Sleep has no business being a classic.

But it is, proving the Bogie-Bacall chemistry from To Have and Have Not was no fluke.

Though he’s been played by many men (including Liam Neeson in the upcoming 2023 release Marlowe), ear tugging Humphrey Bogart will always be the quintessential Philip Marlowe.

The Big Sleep opens with General Sternwood hiring the private investigator to stop a bookseller named Arthur Geiger from blackmailing his younger daughter Carmen over unpaid gambling debts. 

Overnight, the case escalates—Marlowe breaks into Geiger’s house and finds Carmen out of her mind on drugs with an empty camera and Geiger’s body at her feet.  Marlowe takes Carmen home, makes time for some quick, sexy repartee with her sister Vivian (Bacall), then returns to the scene of the crime and finds Geiger’s body missing.

Bogart and Bacall, The Big Sleep (1946)

Oh, and Sternwood’s chauffeur was found dead when his limo crashed into the river.

Marlowe discovers what was in the camera when Vivian brings a new blackmail note demanding $5,000 for the negatives of compromising photographs of Carmen taken the night before.

It’s a thorny case, but Marlowe is up to the job.  Soon he’s tangling with Geiger’s gangster landlord Eddie Mars, Sternwood’s previous blackmailer Joe Brody, and Lash Canino who…well, I can’t exactly remember his role.

The Big Sleep’s thrills come from Marlowe figuring out the crime, even if we can’t. 

It’s a delicious film noir that has more sex and humor than hard boiled cynicism.  Every woman in the picture wants Marlowe, from Carmen who tried to, as Marlowe puts it, “sit on my lap while I was standing up” to the mousy bookseller played by a young Dorothy Malone.  She sheds her glasses, lets down her hair, and helps Marlowe wait out a rainy afternoon stakeout.

Dorothy Malone and Humphrey Bogart in The Big Sleep
Dorothy Malone, Humphrey Bogart

Even a female cab driver tells him he can call if he needs to use her again.

“Day and night?” Marlowe asks.

“Night’s better,” she says.  “I work during the day.”

Humphrey Bogart and Joy Barlow in the The Big Sleep (1946)
Bogart, Joy Barlow

Sure, the plot is impossible to follow.  But so what?

Bogart is double-crossed, beaten, and tied-up.  He throws punches, tosses around double entendres with beautiful women, smokes cigarettes, solves the case, and gets Bacall in the end.

Nobody cares who killed the chauffeur.

Lauren Bacall as Vivian and Humphrey Bogart as Marlowe in The Big Sleep (1946)
The Big Sleep (1946) Verdict - Timeless - Watch It Tonight

Sources

  • Sperber, A.M. and Eric Lax.  Bogart.  1997.
  • Bacall, Lauren.  By Myself.  1978.
  • McCarthy, Todd.  Howard Hawks:  The Grey Fox of Hollywood.  1997.
Opening credits of The Big Sleep (1946) showing showed profiles of Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall

To Have and Have Not (1944):  Tabula Rasa

Lauren Bacall and Humphrey Bogart in To Have and Have Not (1944)
To Have and Have Not (1944) Opening Banner

Director Howard Hawks wanted to design his ideal woman for the screen.  He found his tabula rasa on the cover of the March 1943 edition of Harper’s Bazaar.  He flew the 18-year-old unknown model from New York to Hollywood and offered her an unusual deal—she wouldn’t work directly for a studio, but instead sign a personal contract with him.

Howard Hawks and Lauren Bacall, 1943

Before the ink was dry, he patterned her dress and manner after his wife Slim, a chic style icon who was named to the International Best Dressed Hall of Fame in 1944.  He arranged for singing lessons.  He taught her to control her naturally deep voice to ensure it never went shrill.

Slim Keith
Slim Keith, the template for Lauren Bacall.

Hawks personally supervised her screen test, patiently coaxing a performance out of the nervous newcomer that won her a role opposite Humphrey Bogart in To Have and Have Not.

As script development progressed and filming began, Hawks continued to cultivate his protégé with an unusual amount of attention.  Onscreen, she would portray an insolent woman who was supremely self-assured.

Offscreen, he imagined her kneeling at his feet, looking up at him with grateful and adoring eyes. 

Maybe he’d sleep with her, maybe he wouldn’t.  He could decide that later. 

As a final touch, he discarded her given name “Betty” and added an “L” to her surname.

And that’s how Howard Hawks invented Lauren Bacall.

Lauren Bacall as Slim in To Have and Have Not (1944)

For the first three weeks of shooting, everything went according to plan.  Then one night after filming, Humphrey Bogart went into her trailer, put his hand under Bacall’s chin and kissed her.  He handed her a matchbook and asked her to write her phone number on it.

She did.

And just like that, the Svengali lost control of his Trilby.

At eighteen, she was ambitious but overwhelmed.  She loved the hype, but she never fully bought into it.  Unlike Howard Hawks, she never forgot that Lauren Bacall didn’t exist.  Perhaps that’s why until the day she died her friends still called her Betty.

The Lauren Bacall of Hawks’ imagination was in love with Howard Hawks.

But Betty wanted Bogie.

PART TWO:  Bogie & Bacall

In his hotel room on the island of Martinique during World War II, boatman Harry “Steve” Morgan (Bogart) looks up to find a woman leaning in his doorway.  Slim (Hawks named Bacall’s character after his wife) is wearing a checkered jacket with a long matching skirt and cinched handbag.

Looking right at him, she asks, “Anybody got a match?”

That’s how Steve met Slim, and how the world met Lauren Bacall.

Some have called To Have and Have Not a low-rent Casablanca, a critique with stinging accuracy.  Many of the same elements are there—Bogart playing an outwardly cynical loner who ultimately decides to “stick his neck out” for someone who needs help.  There’s a charming piano player (this time played by real life songwriter Hoagy Carmichael), a mysterious woman who catches Bogie’s eye (Bacall) and a tense atmosphere as the supporters of the Free France movement chafe under Vichy rule.

Audiences went nuts over the film.  It opened at the Hollywood Theater in Manhattan and ran for sixteen weeks, becoming one of the most successful openings in the theater’s history.  All around the country people were clamoring to watch Bogie fall in love with Bacall.

Bacall and Bogart
Bacall and Bogie, no cameras rolling…

There’s a magnetic pull between them; you can see it on the screen, and everyone could feel it on the set.  Today’s films are unrestrained by the production code or the sensibilities of modern audiences.  They’re racy and revealing. 

But they’re not sexier than Bacall slapping Bogie and telling him to shave in To Have and Have Not.  Or telling him, “You know how to whistle, don’t you Steve?  You just put your lips together and blow.”

In the film Slim loves Steve, but she doesn’t wilt like a flower in his presence.  She gives as she good as she gets and both Steve and the audience love her all the more for it.  And unlike Casablanca, the lovers stay together in the end. 

Melanie Novak sitting at her writing desk
If you doubt my love for this film, take note of the poster above my writing desk…

Bogart and Bacall had a ball making the film.  Bogart sent her flowers constantly, they held hands, and disappeared into trailers during breaks and came back with mussed clothes and hair.  They joked, they laughed, they teased one another. 

He called her his Baby, and when he phoned her in the middle of the night, she always picked up.

Howard Hawks fumed.  Bacall turned out not to be as malleable as he’d hoped.  He insisted she break it off with Bogart—he threatened to sell her contract to Poverty Row, where she’d be stuck making ‘B’ films that would ruin her career.  He told her that Bogart would forget about her when filming was over.

Hawks wasn’t the only one who felt Bacall was getting ahead of herself about a future with Bogart.  Though it was obvious Bogart was smitten with Bacall, her own mother was skeptical that a forty-five year old man would leave his six year marriage after a dalliance with his teenage leading lady.

If Bacall was wrong, she’d be heartbroken, humiliated, her promising career destroyed.

But I already told you this was a love story.

So you already know Betty wasn’t wrong about Bogie.

To Have and Have Not (1944) Verdict:  Timeless - Watch It Tonight

Sources

  • Sperber, A.M. and Eric Lax.  Bogart.  1997.
  • De La Hoz, Cindy.  Bogie & Bacall:  Love Lessons from a Legendary Romance.  2015.
  • Bacall, Lauren.  By Myself.  1978.
  • McCarthy, Todd.  Howard Hawks:  The Grey Fox of Hollywood.  1997. 

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

Lauren Bacall and Humphrey Bogart in To Have and Have Not (19440

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.

Carole Lombard: One In A Million

#21 Golden Age of Hollywood Series

Carole Lombard
20th Century (1934) banner

Though she ultimately reached meteoric heights, Carole Lombard was not an overnight success.  

She started on the fast track, appearing in her first film at thirteen and signing a contract with Fox, who recognized the potential in a blonde beauty.  She was playing small parts and learning the ropes of the moving-making industry.  But at sixteen, she was in a devastating car crash.  While otherwise unharmed, the windshield shattered and cut her beautiful face to pieces.  She endured a risky surgery and painful recovery, but there was still a scar on her left cheek and around her left eye.  In later years, camera men and makeup artists were good at camouflage, but you can still see the minor scars in some of her films if you know where to look.

A pretty young blond with a scarred face was no use to Fox.

They fired her without a second thought.  Hollywood giveth, Hollywood taketh away.

For just about any one of the other millions of pretty young blondes who flock to Hollywood to find fame and fortune, that would’ve been the end of their acting career.

But Carole Lombard was not just one of the millions.

She was off the fast track.  No matter— she would start at the bottom.

A year after the accident, she signed on to make short films with Mack Sennett at Pathé on Poverty Row.  Sennett didn’t care about her scar because he wanted her to dance in his chorus, and take pies to the face.  He didn’t take many close-ups anyway.

Poverty Row wasn’t the breeding ground for major stars.  The goal was quantity, not quality, and the short silent films were a dying art as the talkies came to town.

But Carole Lombard threw herself into the roles, and she learned slapstick comedy.  

Scar or no scar, she was too pretty and too talented to go unnoticed for long.  She worked her way up into feature roles at Pathé and eventually signed a contract with Paramount.

As a legitimitate Hollywood leading lady, she was no longer one of the millions.  But she was still just one of hundreds of actresses playing glamorous ingenues.  

But Carole Lombard was not just one of the hundreds.

In Twentieth Century, she finally got the chance to prove it.

She got the part of Lily Garland opposite John Barrymore.

In 1934 when Twentieth Century came out, John Barrymore was the most respected actor in Hollywood.  He was a king among royalty.  He’d started his career on the stage, and brought that air of east coast respectability that insecure Los Angelans craved.  He also drank too much, could be difficult to work with, and at times put his hands on his leading ladies in places where they shouldn’t be.

He played Oscar Jaffe, a theater director who plucks a plain, boring young woman off the street and makes her a theater star.  For a time, they are partners on and off the stage.  But he is so overbearing that she leaves him for fame and fortune in Hollywood.  A few years later, they find themselves traveling together on the famous Twentieth Century train and Jaffe tries to lure her back to his theater and his bed.

The film is a farce.  Jaffe and Garland are ridiculous egomaniacs, obsessed with their careers and the minutiae of the theater world.  They’re always acting, alway overly dramatic.

The film is quite unapologetically mocking the narcissism and shallowness of actors.

Twentieth Century was a film tailor-made for John Barrymore.  It was a chance for him to chew up some scenery, act the ham, and play an exaggerated version of his reputation on the screen.

Carole Lombard was just supposed to be the blonde at his side.

But she stole the movie from him.

Carole Lombard and John Barrymore in 20th Century (1934)

She met him step for step.  When he yelled, she yelled louder.  When he flailed about, she reached back to her Mack Sennet days and pulled out all the outrageous slapstick and comedic timing she’d honed in Hollywood’s gutter.

She went for it.  It’s meant to be ridiculous, and it is.

Though the movie wasn’t a huge success with the public—a lot of its humor were Hollywood inside jokes about the industry and the people in it—audiences took note of Carole Lombard’s performance.

She wasn’t just a pretty face.  She was funny.   

Audiences called her an overnight success.  It only took her thirteen years and thirty-eight prior films (not including the Sennett shorts) to get there.

She’d found her superpower and begun her climb to the top.  

Twentieth Century invented the screwball comedy, and Carole Lombard became the genre’s undisputed queen.  She would make dozens, My Man Godfrey the greatest among them.  The term “screwball” came from a Godfrey review in Variety magazine article that said, “Lombard has played screwball dames before, but none so screwy as this one.”

(For the record, Lily Garland is every bit as screwy as Irene Bullock.)

By the time she reached her zenith, Carole Lombard was American’s finest comedienne, half of Hollywood’s biggest power couple, and the highest paid and most beloved woman in Hollywood.  

She was Melissa McCarthy, Beyonce, and Sandra Bullock all in one package.

Not one of the hundreds.

One in a million.

20th Century (1934) Verdict:  Had Its Day, But that Day is Done

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

Carole Lombard

Silver Linings

#18 Golden Age of Hollywood Series

Cary Grant and Katharine Hepburn in Bringing Up Baby (1938)
Cary Grant and Katharine Hepburn in Bringing Up Baby

Part III: Screwin’ Around

Bringing Up Baby (1938) and My Man Godfrey (1936) opening banner

Thus far, I’ve painted the Hollywood censors as the villains of our piece.  I’m justified, I think, in mocking their obsession with showing women’s hemlines, violence, and sex.

When the censors finally got their way in 1934, we didn’t just lose Jane’s loincloth, or steamy kisses, or gangsters riddling each other’s cars with bullets.

We lost—at least for a time—a depth in storytelling.  In making all movies suitable for everyone, producers had to put more mature themes on the shelf.  Gone were the movies questioning the nobility of war (Hell’s Angels), the double standard between men and women (The Divorcée, Anna Christie), or the limited ways in which a poor uneducated woman has to make her way in the world (Baby Face).

Movies got sillier, filled with treacle and drained of substance.

In the end, the great tragedy of the production code is that it forced movies to show the world the way it ought to be, rather than the way it is.

And yet.

The challenge of telling good stories within the constraints of the code unleashed a whirlwind of creative energy in the writers, directors, and producers of Hollywood.

The best, most enduring product of that creativity is the screwball comedy.

The screwball comedies of the 1930s and 1940s continue to be some of the most beloved, and most rewatched classic movies.  Most people who find their way into classic movies are hooked by a screwball.  Almost every legendary actor, actress, and director has made a screwball.

And they would’ve never happened without censorship.

The screwball comedy is the biggest, brightest silver lining of the production code.  

See, a screwball comedy is a romantic comedy that tells a love story without breaking the rules of the code—no steamy kisses, no couples shown in the same bed, no frank foreplay.

The screwballs are sex comedies without the sex.

In lieu of sex, they manipulate each other, pull each other into harebrained schemes, and almost always someone falls down or gets wet.

But most of all, they bicker.

And drive one another insane.

And thus, prove their love.

It’s the perfect mix of physical comedy and romance.

They range from wry to out-and-out and slapstick.

And today, we’re going to cover two of the most outrageous examples, with heroines who are practically deranged and the men who have the misfortune to fall in love with them.

Bringing Up Baby is the story of David Huxley (Cary Grant), a scientist trying to secure a million dollar grant for his museum, and the chance encounter with Susan Vance (Katharine Hepburn) that will change his life.  The flighty Susan soon charms and exasperates David into a series of misadventures revolving around her quest to deliver a pet leopard to her aunt.

David is to be married to someone else the day that Susan whisks him away, and fortunately he discovers he loves Susan before it’s too late.

Screwballs are best when the leads are playing off one another, a rat-a-tat-tat rhythm of words ping-ponging between the two.

Bringing Up Baby is a beloved screwball comedy today, but it was a flop back in it’s day.  It was one of the movies that would label Katharine Hepburn as “box office poison” and send her temporarily back east before her triumphant comeback.

Katharine Hepburn had such a persona of a strong woman both on and offscreen that audiences just couldn’t quite buy her as a ditz.  And while her Susan successfully irritated David, she also irritated the audience.

Bringing Up Baby was the first classic film I ever watched, and I remember loving it.  I was probably nine or ten at the time, and I’d never seen anything like it.  I was mesmerized by the black and white film, by Hepburn’s crazy accent, by Cary Grant’s charm.  I fell in love with old movies right then.

But I have to admit that rewatching it, I can understand why audiences turned away from it.  Katharine Hepburn will never be flighty, and she is irritatingThe shenanigans go on for a bit too long and at times the film is just too crazy.  There are so many truly outstanding screwballs that I regret to say that I can’t really recommend you start with this one.

My Man Godfrey is a much better deranged dame screwball (the dames aren’t always deranged, as we’ll see in future posts).  Carole Lombard plays Irene Bullock, a spoiled rich girl who employs William Powell’s Godfrey when she discovers he is a down-on-his-luck man living in the town dump during the Depression.

Godfrey watches the hysterics of the Bullock family with a detached amusement.  He wants to keep his job and his face straight.

Lombard and Powell are marvelous in the film.  Lombard was born to play screwball dames, the crazier, the better, and Irene Bullock was the craziest she ever played.  Powell is a screwball comedy fixture as the straight man, and he is wonderful as Godfrey.

Audiences and critics alike loved the film.  It was nominated for six Oscars, including director and screenplay.  It was the first movie to ever receive nominations in all four acting categories.  Sadly, neither Powell nor Lombard would ever win an Oscar.

We’re going to spend the next few posts exploring more films from this fascinating subgenre.

There can hardly be a better way to spend our time than screwing around with Hollywood’s greatest stars.

Verdicts:  Bringing Up Baby - Film Buffs Only, My Man Godfrey - Give It A Shot

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

Cary Grant and Katharine Hepburn in Bringing Up Baby (1938)

Shock Value

#12 Golden Age of Hollywood Series

Paul Muni enters an office in Scarface (1932)
Scarface (1932) opening banner

The quote above is from a review published in Vanity Fair magazine.  It is just another example of how the censors in the 1930s were wringing their hands over the movies instead of worrying about more important things.

It looks so silly to us now, in the modern era, when we’ve moved past the belief that a movie could inspire violence.  

Those people in the 1930s and their quaint movie violence and their old-fashioned, paternalistic worries about the impact of art on society.

It’s a nice thing to tell ourselves.  There’s only one problem.

This review wasn’t written in 1932 about Scarface.

Joker (2019) movie banner

It was written last year about Joker, a film starring Joaquin Phoenix is his Oscar winning role as psychopathic Arthur Fleck who rises to glory among disaffected American men when he murders someone on live television.

The more things change, the more they stay the same.

After the trouble with the censors on Hell’s Angels, Howard Hughes doubled-down.

It was almost as if he went looking for the most objectionable film he could possibly make as a follow up.

It was almost as if he took the ban on gangster films as a dare.

He made Scarface, at least in part, for the shock value.  Just like Joker.

In the film Scarface, screenwriter Ben Hecht wrote a script based loosely on Al Capone, who had a scar on his face like the one Tony Camonte sports in the film.  He also drew inspiration from the Borgias, a treacherous Spanish family that ascended to power and the papacy in the fifteenth century and was accused of murder, adultery, and incest.

The Hays Office warned Hughes not to make the film, and vowed that people would not see it if he did.

Hughes sent his director Howard Hawks a memo:  “Screw the Hays Office.  Start the picture and make it as realistic, as exciting, as grisly as possible.”

Hawks did.  The film follows a similar line as the Warners Brothers gangster films, but with more graphic violence.  Tony Camonte bullies his way up the ladder of organized crime, using a machine gun to mow down anyone who gets in his way.  He builds a fortress with steel doors and windows to protect himself from his enemies, and explodes in jealous rages when his sister so much as looks at another man.

Scarface gloried in its excesses—Tony murders, steals, and lies with reckless abandon.

The Hays Office had never outright rejected a film, but it came close with Scarface.

It demanded changes—primarily around removing the insinuations of incest between Tony and his sister.  (In the original version, Tony tears her dress and slaps her after seeing her dancing with a man.  When he discovers she’s eloped, he murders her new husband in cold blood, even though he’s a trusted friend and business partner.)

Tony attacks his sister in Scarface (1932)
Brotherly love…

They also wanted changes in the ending—in a lost version, after the cops surround him, Tony runs into the street firing his machine gun.  They don’t take him down until he’s emptied of bullets, and the movie ends with the clicking sound of him firing empty rounds as he dies.

But for once the Hays Office had success in suppressing a movie, and very few people saw the uncut version.  The film was banned outright in multiple states and after its initial run, it was unseen until 1980, when Universal bought the rights and released it on video.

Howard Hughes was incensed that the censors had ruined his film, and believed their effort was politically motivated.  He left Hollywood after Scarface, and did not make another film for ten years.

Since he died in 1976, it is impossible to know what Hughes would have thought of the gory remake of his film in 1983.  Likely he would have been envious, for Al Pacino’s Scarface gloried in violence, foul language, drugs, and sex.  

Fifty years after the fact, director Brian De Palma got to make the unrepentantly shocking film Hughes wanted.

As to whether or not Hughes would’ve liked Joker, I couldn’t hazard a guess.

Scarface (1932) verdict:  Film Buffs Only

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

Paul Muni enters an office in Scarface (1932)