It's the 1930s--the Depression is raging, people are starving, and criminals are running wild. The world is just darn near falling apart. Comedy, anyone?
True Confessions (1937) stars Carole Lombard as Helen Bartlett, a Depression-era housewife/would-be author whose solution to any problem is to tell a tremendous lie, something which is an endless exasperation to her husband Ken (Fred Ken); he's a lawyer who is such a straight arrow that he only takes clients who tell the truth—no matter how desperately the couple needs money. Trouble begins when Helen tries to get a job as a secretary but discovers that her prospective boss isn't interested in her typing skills (or in her case, lack thereof). She punches him and runs out of the building. When she and her best friend Daisy (Una Merkel) return later to get the hat she left behind, they find a murder investigation in progress and her appearance makes her a prime suspect. Helen decides that her best option is to confess to the crime, saying she killed the man in self-defense (of her "honor," that is). Ken defends her in a highly-publicized trial, and after she is acquitted, they become rich and famous—Helen for writing her story and Ken for his defense of her. Suddenly a mysterious man named Charley (John Barrymore) shows up with proof that Helen did not commit the murder—if they don't pay her off, she'll be charged with perjury and both their careers will be over. They get the evidence away from him but Ken is so disillusioned with her constant lying that he decides it's time to leave. She gets him to return by pretending to be pregnant. When she admits that isn't true, Ken still decides to stay and they go off to attempt to turn that last lie into a truth.
This is a cute movie, though not Lombard's greatest (I'll always vote for My Man Godfrey; others may say Nothing Sacred). The story is shaky at best, but Lombard was so outrageously glamorous yet slightly offbeat that she makes it work as well as possible. The scene in the courtroom where she and MacMurray act out what supposedly happened the day of the crime is very funny. There still is some of the exaggerated, over the top mugging you'll find in '30s comedies, but what is really marvelous are things like Lombard and Merkel's Lucy-and-Ethel prototype friendship and the sight of Lombard in 1930s haute glamour satin pajamas walking along a lake shore, kicking at the water in a klutzy way that contrasts with her elegant looks. I wasn't impressed by Barrymore; he looks as sick as he probably was at that point in his life, and the funny drunk stock character of that time period hasn't worn well. This also is one of those movies where the score announces everything about the characters (yes, Barrymore gets the same few measures of loopy drunk music every time he appears. Every. Single. Time.). Flaws aside, it's still a cute movie.
In Hands Across the Table (1935), Lombard plays Regi Allen a manicurist at a swank hotel who has resolved to marry for money, not love. Wealthy hotel resident Allen Macklin (Ralph Bellamy), once a famous aviator, but now confined to a wheelchair after a crash, becomes her steady client, scheduling daily appointments more for her company than because he cares that much about his nails. He falls in love with her, though she doesn't notice, regarding him just as her "best friend." She especially becomes distracted once Ted Drew III (Fred MacMurray), the eccentric playboy son of a rich family shows up at the hotel salon and asks her out. They go out on a lengthy date that ends with him passed out dead drunk in a cab. Regi brings him home and the next morning finds out that his family is no longer rich ("Remember the Depression? That was us.") and he's due to be married to an heiress (she's the daughter of the "pineapple king"). His future father-in-law had set up a pre-marriage Bermuda vacation for him, but now Ted has missed his boat. He decides that he'll hide out in Regi's apartment for the next week, pretending he's in Bermuda. He and Regi agree that they won't fall for each other, as both want to marry money. Of course they do—he ends his engagement with the pineapple princess (who, no dope, has found out that he's not in Bermuda and is actually shacking up with a manicurist) and vows to get a job. He breaks this news just as Allen is about to propose to Regi. Glamour couple Lombard and MacMurray end up together, poor but happy, and Bellamy gets nothing.
There's an awful lot to like about this movie. First, Lombard and MacMurray make a great couple (as studios duly noted, pairing them together three more times). They have the one essential thing a comedy team needs—they look like they genuinely like each other and are having fun. They indulge in the requisite madcap escapades that a 1930s comedy can't do without but make them seem like they're making everything up on the spot. I liked a lot about this movie and wanted to like it more. What I couldn't deal with was the storyline that involved Bellamy. The most obvious problem is the way Lombard's character never considers him at all as a romantic prospect in the first part of the movie—she sees him every day, tells him her life story, cries to him and spills her heart out to him, and is obviously comfortable with him, but that doesn't seem to mean anything to her (and hey, he fits her number one requirement—he's rich!). I know he's Ralph Bellamy and that always means second banana, but still… I don't know. They even drop the Bellamy character for large chunks of the movie; it's almost like they didn't know what to do with him once MacMurray shows up. And the end gets dealt with rather uneasily. Lombard never even finds out that he was about to propose to her and he's just kind of left unhappily as the merry pair go off. It didn't feel good to me. But the rest of it is still good enough that it's worth seeing. Hey, it's a 30s movie, it's only about 80 minutes so there can only be so much harm in that time spent. Oh, and there's a good performance by a cat, a tough job in a decade renowned for its many stellar dog star turns.
Easy Living (1937) stars Jean Arthur as Mary Smith, a simple working girl whose life is changed when a mink coat falls out of the sky and into her lap as she rides the bus to the office one morning. The coat belongs to the wife of wealthy banker John Ball (Edward Arnold), who has thrown it off the roof of their penthouse when he discovered this latest example of his wife's extravagance. Mary gets off the bus to find the owner of the coat and runs into Ball. Rather than take back the coat, he tells her to keep it and also takes her to a hat shop to replace the hat that was squashed when the coat hit her. The hat shop owner eyes the scene and begins to spread the word around that Ball has taken on a young mistress. Meanwhile, Mary is fired from her job when she shows up in a mink, as her boss insists that a girl like her couldn't get that kind of coat in any decent, moral way. Down to her last nickel, her fortune takes a turn when she's spotted by a hotel owner who is trying to curry favor with Ball's bank. He believes she's Ball's mistress so he gives her a grand suite free of charge. When word spreads that she's staying at the hotel, it becomes the fashionable place to be and the once empty Art Deco palace suddenly turns into a big hit. Meanwhile, Mary has become involved with a young man named John (Ray Milland) who is actually John Ball, Jr., the banker's son, but has walked out on his family fortune, determined to make it on his own. When a stockbroker shows up at the hotel to speak with Mary to see if she has been given any hot tips from her banker boyfriend, John Jr. jokingly gives him a bad piece of information that sends the stock market into a tizzy and puts Ball's bank in dire straits. Fortunately they put together another scheme to manipulate the market and restore order. Ball's wife, who was on the verge of leaving him, realizes the story about the mistress isn't true and they reunite. John Jr. also returns to the family fold, taking a job as a broker after having proved his financial finesse. And of course, he and Mary plan to marry.
This movie is about the purest piece of Depression-era wish fulfillment that you can imagine—minks falling from the sky, free hotel suites, a plummeting stock market that can be fixed before everyone is wiped out. There's even a lengthy slapstick sequence in an Automat where all the little glass windows in front of the food fly open and a scrum breaks out as people rush at the free food (don't know what an Automat is? You haven't been spending enough time watching '30s movies! Look here). The screenplay was written by Preston Sturges but he didn't direct; Mitch Leisen handles the task instead. It's very much a Sturges movie, though, where the world seems to be based on one giant game of Telephone, where a story or piece of information is just misreported enough to turn everything topsy-turvy. One zany event blissfully leads to another and there's a lot of physical comedy (Arthur's character's fulfillment of her wish to own two very large dogs adds to the chaos at the end of the movie). I loved Arnold's turn as the irascible banker, and was surprised by the very young looking Milland, who handles himself well enough. Sometimes I feel Arthur can verge on a little too cute in her movies, but I thought she was great in this one. I really recommend it, especially for people interested in the 1930s. A movie like this says more about a time period than a documentary would.
I always wonder why we can't today seem to make these kind of great comedies anymore. I'm almost never one of those "everything was better in the old days" types (not to mention the fact that I didn't live through these old days), but in this case, it does seem like today's romantic comedies can't even compare. Was it because the Depression made everyone hit such a low that all bets were off and Hollywood had a spirit of let's try anything, no story seems too giddy? I just don't know. And I'm certainly not the one who's going to solve the puzzle. My romances have always veered more towards tragedy, though when I'm in one of my more grimly optimistic moods, I can try to see the comic side. Tragicomedy, I guess.