Vivacious Lady (1938) George Stevens

One can easily understand why James Stewart’s introverted professor falls so quickly and hard for Ginger Rogers nightclub entertainer, she is sexy, charming and adorable. “Vivacious Lady,” directed by George Stevens, is a smart and funny romantic comedy, in other words, the kind Hollywood does not or cannot make anymore. The film won’t make anyone’s top list of great comedies, it’s certainly not in the same class as THE LADY EVE, THE AWFUL TRUTH or BRINGING UP BABY but it does have its charm. Written by P.J. Wolfson and Ernest Pagano from a story by I.A.R. Wylie it is a remarkably simple story with a running time of 90 minutes and few of those minutes are wasted.

It’s love at first sight when Peter Morgan Jr. (James Stewart) falls for nightclub singer Francey Brent (Ginger Rogers) when he travels to New York to bring back home his wayward playboy cousin Keith (James Ellison). Within days the couple quickly marry and head back to Peter’s small hometown where he is a professor of Botany and his stanch, rigid, unyielding father, beautifully played by Charles Coburn, is the President of the University. Peter has always bowed to dad’s wishes, as does his mother (Beulah Bondi) who fakes heart problems just to gain sympathy and keep family peace when the senior Morgan gets on his high horse. You see, Morgan Sr. is a man who is just use to getting his way. Knowing his father, spineless Peter wants to hold off on announcing the marriage. Two attempts to tell Dad end abruptly with his father constantly interrupting him. As the conversations heat up, Peter’s mother would fake one of her ‘heart condition’ flare-ups. Also waiting back home is Peter’s fiancée, a stuffy, annoying woman named Helen (Frances Mercer) who is not letting Peter go too easily. Finally, the newlyweds are continuously attempting to consummate their marriage throughout the film. Continue reading

Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (1953) Howard Hawks

This is the first of seven entries I am writing for the Musical Countdown being hosted by WONDERS IN THE DARK. There are actually two reviews of the film posted, the other by Jim Clark. Below are links to both.

Found this photo below, most likely a publicity stunt, where some swimsuit attired ladies were protesting the film in front of Graumans Chinese Theater in Hollywood. The women rightly claiming “they have everything blondes have.”

The Devil and Miss Jones (1941) Sam Wood

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  So who is the queen of screwball comedy, Carole Lombard or Jean Arthur? Arguably, it could be either one. No one could argue with Lombard’s credentials in such films as “My Man Godfrey”, “Twentieth Century”, “Hand Across the Table” and “Nothing Sacred.” Jean Authur’s batting average is a winner too with “You Can’t Take it with You”, “The More the Merrier”, “Easy Living” and “The Devil and Miss Jones.”  Tough choice. After recently viewing “Easy Living” and now ‘The Devil and Miss Jones”, I am not making any definitive statement. Truthfully, I am just happy that we have both works by these talented ladies to enjoy.                     Norman Krasna whose work spans from the 1930’s to the 1960’s wrote “The Devil and Miss Jones.” Krasna additionally wrote the screenplays for films like “Bombshell”, “Hands Across the Table” Wife vs. Secretary”, “Mr. and Mrs. Smith”, “White Christmas” and “Sunday in New York.” The film was produced by Ms. Arthur’s then husband Frank Ross, and released by RKO Pictures. devil-and-miss-jones-vhs1

    Multimillionaire and camera shy John Merrick (Charles Coburn) is so rich he cannot even keep track of his holdings and only discovers that he owns Neely’s Department Store when he sees a photo of a stuffed dummy look alike hanging in effigy on the front page of the morning newspaper.  Merrick played to perfection by Coburn decides to go undercover, in his own department store to weed out the union agitators. He takes a job in the shoe department on the fifth floor, the heart of the unrest, however to his shock; Merrick is seen as an incompetent by the section manager, Mr. Hooper (Edmund Gwenn) and is given a low-level job selling slippers instead of shoes. Here he meets salesperson Mary Jones (Jean Arthur) who is in love with union leader Joe O’Brien (Robert Cummings), recently fired due to his unionizing activity. Also on board is Spring Byington, as Elizabeth, an age appropriate love interest for the undercover millionaire.  All believe Merrick is broke; Elizabeth even shares her Tuna popover lunch with him when he informs her that he does not eat lunch, which she believes is just a cover up for him not having any money. Soon Merrick is being included in clandestine union meetings where all assume he is on their side. Through his first hand experience at the store working with and being acquainted with his employees, especially Mary, the grumpy Merrick becomes more compassionate and understanding toward them and their cause.

    The film’s themes center on class distinction, specifically between the rich and the working class and also looks at the division and treatment between the store’s management and employees. The film’s pro-unionist outlook presents management as stiff, uncaring and autocratic. By the end of the film, Merrick is a changed man; he even falls in love with Elizabeth, while his management team comes off as a group of idiotic yes men. 

 devilmissjones1   True, the ending is unrealistic forcing its way to a typical happy Hollywood resolution however “The Devil and Miss Jones” is so charming that it can be easily forgiven for such a menial sin. The movie shines with mostly fine performances, Jean Arthur and Charles Coburn, both received Academy Award nominations for their work. And you have to give Jean Arthur credit for not bolstering her role, letting Coburn shine even though her husband was the producer. Bob Cummings, who was just starting to move up in the cinematic world (the following year he would star in Hitchcock’s “Saboteur”), is somewhat engaging as Arthur’s rabble-rousing boyfriend; I could only take him in small doses. Spring Byington, is sweet and delightful as Coburn’s love interest. Edmund Gwenn, still a few years away from his classic role as Macy’s Santa in “Miracle on 34th Street”, captures the low-level manager type who handed a morsel of authority, judges himself superior to all, treating his employees as disposable trash. The cast also includes S.Z. “Cuddles”Sakall as Merrick’s inept butler and William Demerest as a store detective.

    The chemistry between Jean Arthur and Charles Coburn is unmistakable and worked so well they made two more films together, “The More the Merrier” and “The Impatient Years.” The more I see Arthur the more enticing I find her, and that offbeat sexy voice!

    Oddly enough, staunch conservative Sam Wood directed the pro-union film. Wood’s career started in the silents, where he worked as an assistant to C. B. DeMille and eventually graduated to directing greats like Gloria Swanson in “Under the Lash”, “Her Husbands Trademark”, “Beyond the Rocks” (with Rudolph Valentino)  and  “Don’t Tell Everything (with Wallace Reid) among others. When sound came, Wood’s career continued in high gear with films like “Raffles”, “For Whom the Bell Tolls”, “Pride of the Yankees”, “Goodbye Mr. Chips” and the Marx Brothers MGM classics “A Day at the Races” and “A Night at the Opera.” 

    Despite a grand opening at New York’s Radio City Music Hall, “The Devil and Miss Jones” did not do well financially. Whether the socially conscientious pro union theme discouraged some patrons or the growing tension about the U.S. entering World War II (seven months later Pearl Harbor was bombed by the Japanese) that kept patrons away, I’m not sure. It’s possible that during those troubled times a comedy with a serious theme was not what the public was looking for.      



The Lady Eve (1941) Preston Sturges

    “The Lady Eve” is one of the most intelligent, romantic, funny screwball comedies to grace the screen. Preston Sturges opened the door for other screenwriters, like Billy Wilder, who frustrated with directors messing with their work, wanted to direct their own scripts. Sturges had a great run making eight classic films,  including  “The Great McGinty”, “Christmas in July”, “Sullivan’s Travels”, “The Miracle of Morgan Creek”, “Hail, The Conquering Hero”, The Palm Beach Story”, “Unfaithfully Yours” and of course “The Lady Eve.”  Sturges films were unique in blending sophisticated humor right along side laugh out loud slapstick. According to Peter Bogdonovich in an interview on the DVD of “The Lady Eve”, he states that the term screwball came from a comment made about Carole Lombard’s performance in “My Man Godfrey”, “That’s real screwball she played” and the term stuck for romantic comedies with farcical overtones. Well, “The Lady Eve” is a prime example of screwball. Barbara Stanwyck is Jean who along with her father (Charles Coburn) are card sharks looking for prey on the cruise ship heading back to the states. Henry Fonda is a rich naïve man named Charles Pike who is returning home after a year of studying snakes abroad and falls prey to Jean and her father’s card schemes. Only problem is Jean, did not plan to fall in love

    Stanwyck and Fonda make a great team. They made three films together all comedies, which is pretty amazing since Fonda did not make that many comedies. “The Lady Eve” was the second film they made together; “The Mad Miss Manton” came first. These two are the cream of the threesome though “You Belong to Me”, their final film together is pleasant and worth seeing if for no other reason that to watch these two stars together.   

    Fonda manages to fall, trip, slide, and slip so many times that he seems to spend much of the film on the ground. My favorite scene is the seduction scene where Jean practically seduces Charles by continually twirling his hair while he is reclining on the floor getting more and more flustered. This is one of the most seductive and sexy scenes ever filmed. Both stars are just perfect. I was breaking out in a cold sweat just watching!  What makes Fonda so effective is that he does not play it for laughs. He plays it straight and that makes it even funnier. Stanwyck is such a talented actress who can play both drama and comedy to perfection. She has a great scene where she is sitting in the dining room, of the ship, with her makeup mirror commenting on all the women who try to catch the shy rich Fonda’s eye who is sitting at another table reading a book. Only one year earlier Stanwyck worked on the Sturges scripted “Remember the Night” and he told Stanwyck at that time that some day he would write a screwball comedy for her. He kept his word.

    As usual with Sturges there is a great supporting cast including Charles Coburn, Eugene Pallette and William Demarest all who are wonderful. “The Lady Eve” is a film that is not be missed, well written and very funny.