Tuesday, January 3, 2017
Of Love and Broccoli, or, How I Spent My Tuesday
So not all that long ago, I was chatting cybernetically with the frenetically cultured, enormously soigné TJB (who really must be encouraged, sternly, to write more for public consumption), and he recommended a specific movie, available on YouTube, that I really must see. I filed it away.
Or thought I did.
For you see, when I sat down this morning, still home and enjoying poor health, I thought to myself, "Self, a Connie Bennett picture is just the thing when you're, as you are, in a dyspeptic mood on a gray January morning. Off we go!"
Frustration. You see, I had somehow gotten it my head that the picture I was looking for was a delightful Pre=Code romp, circa '33, starring Miss Bennett, featuring Edward Everett Horton, and called Careless People. Now there's only one problem with that: it's not available on YouTube, and would seem never to have been.
In fact, despite being an excellent title for a Pre-Code Constance Bennett film, it seems there is no such picture at all as Careless People, and however unlikely that seems, Miss Bennett and Mr. Everett Horton never even ever worked together on film. They would have been terrific, don't you think? I really could practically write Careless People myself, and I wouldn't be at all surprised if you could, too. I think it requires Fredi Washington as Miss Bennett's sassy secretary/maid, Edna May Oliver as a disapproving dowager, and someone pretty and insignificant like Franchot Tone to set off Miss Bennett's high-toned archness. Feel free to add your own fillips, but to me that will always be the lost joy that was Careless People.
Nevertheless, I was not to be denied, and so took advantage of what seemed like the next best thing, and in the end I wonder if it weren't the picture that TJB had been touting at any rate, for it was great fun. That's the Swedish edition up above, and it illustrates one of the film's little oddities: it's a standard Fox three-girls-grow-up story, with a fourth one thrown in. In this case, it was a fourth girl who would seem to have been bettesr known in Sweden than she was in Hollywood, for the prominently billed Mlle. Simone Simon plays a key but distinctly supporting role, and there's no question that for Misses Gaynor, Bennett, and Young, this poster presents an object lesson in including 100% type-size billing in one's contract.
The English title, Ladies in Love, more or less tells the story, with the exception that the leads are for the most part not technically ladies (although one is, for no particular reason other than the éclat, a baroness). They are, as the intermittently excellent script notes, the kind of women "Society men are found with when they're not with Society women." Because this is 1936 rather than '33, there is something of a Post-Code pall on the proceedings, given the opportunities presented by a model, a chorus girl, and a zany impoverished aristocrat sharing a flat, but what sometimes comes off as dull stuff at Fox is here more than offset by a plethora of authentically Mitteleuropische touches, for our story takes place in Budapest. LiL may not be quite as atmospheric as say, The Shop Around the Corner,* but it holds its own. The studio clearly spent money on the production, for it features a series of lavish interiors, an adequate if exceedingly brief production number (to "Cielito Lindo," of all things, done in a kind of Franco-Magyar sort of way), and fashions (from house staple Gwen Wakeling) that range from adequate to rather wonderful (Loretta Young spends a key moment awash in ruffles in a truly ravishing negligée, while Miss Bennett is characteristically brittle and chic in a succession of dark suits).
The performance are uniformly lively - I found myself really rather liking Loretta (and you know how rare a thing that is), and Janet Gaynor does everything she can with a part that calls for her to be very nearly idiotically perky (it was, it seems, her last straw at Fox; she left the lot immediately thereafter, and while the next year brought her A Star is Born, she was nearing the end of the cinematic road). As for Connie, it's a part she was born for, calling for her to be both heartbreakingly chic and chicly heartbreaking (and she ends up with the money, which must have suited her enormously well). As for the French import, well, she's pretty gruesome in a kittenish sort of way, but since that's what the part calls for, I guess that no matter how much I wanted to slap her, she's a success.
Oh - there are boys in the movie, too, and they're all fine. Ty Power had something of a breakthrough here, even though his role is small and he is called only to be decorative (but when you're as decorative as a young Tyrone Power, I suppose that's not really a complaint). Don Ameche ameches his way through playing a stolid young doctor with a mission (and rabbits), and Paul Lukas is appropriately world-weary as a Continental roué. Alan Mowbray cuts loose as a famous magician smitten with Janet Gaynor (now that's acting), and Wilfrid Lawson anchors the film as a sybaritic worthy whose faintly naughty parties (oh, what could have been done with those parties a few years earlier!) set a good part of the plot(s) in motion.
Oh, and if you don't blink, you'll catch Fox stalwart Lynn Bari in a one-line bit and perennial supporter Virginia Field as the Countess who catches Ty out of Loretta's arms (her consolation prize is, shades of Eliza Doolittle, a flower shop).
It's all highly palatable, really; not a lost masterpiece, but something of a cut above for stolid old Fox. It does, I have to admit, take a bit of suspension of disbelief to accept 30-year-old Gaynor as a gamine, something not helped by the truly Fashions of 1934 wig (in chestnut) with which she's saddled. All the leads, actually, appear to be not so much made up as enamelled, possible in the wrong light, but I guess when you're presented with having to be in the same shot as Ty Power, you want all the warpaint you kind find. He really is of unparalleled beauty; distractingly so, in fact.
So that's how I spent my rainy Tuesday sick-day. Well, with that bit of escapism and further adventures of a very dull kind with plumbers (it turns out the problem is our refrigerator, which I do wish one of the army of workmen who've been through in the last few weeks had noticed). And, on top of all that, I've made a nice Chicken Divan, which I now plan to go and devour. It's not very Hungarian, I suppose - but then, when you think about it, neither was Connie Bennett...
* It's also not quite as sassy as How to Marry a Millionaire, its spiritual descendant, but really - what is?