Well, as you can see from my running list of recent movies seen, the new DVR is being put to good use. I can finally delve into the Turner Classic Movie station the way I’ve always been meaning to. From this past month:
It’s A Wonderful World — USA, W.S. Van Dyke (1939)
There were many great films produced in 1939, but this wasn’t one of them. With such an impressive pedigree–actors Claudette Colbert and Jimmy Stewart, director W.S. Van Dyke (The Thin Man), and a screenplay by Ben Hecht (The Front Page)–this screwball comedy should have snapped, crackled and popped. Instead, it pooped out and I could only view it as a curiosity. At the very least, it demonstrates how easy great screwball comedies (The Awful Truth, You Can’t Take It With You) make it look, and how despite having all the right ingredients, it doesn’t always click.
Stewart play Guy Johnson, a private detective whose attempt to rescue his millionaire client from a compromising situation lands him in jail as an accessory. Guy figures out that his boss is being set up his gold-digging new bride and races against the death row clock to expose the set-up and clear his own name. Following his escape from the cops, he takes well-known poetess Edwina Corday (Colbert) hostage when he steals her car. She discovers his identity, his mission, offers to help (against his wishes most of the time) and, of course, quickly falls in love with him.
Unfortunately, I didn’t really like either main character on their own, and together, they didn’t have much chemistry between them. Stewart doesn’t display any of his trademark sweet humbleness that’s so appealing in his romantic lead characters. Here he’s brusque and sullen and occasionally manic. Colbert is given the hysterical screwball dame roll to play and it just doesn’t work. She’s too cool and sophisticated for this sort of thing, and it was almost painful to see her scream hysterically, run around like a dizzy dame, and get picked up and hauled around repeatedly like a sack of potatoes. And to see her make a running tackle not once, but twice in one movie, seemed a desperate way to earn laughs. [**]
Tovarich — USA, Anatole Litvak (1937)
Claudette Colbert fares much better in this film, where she’s perfectly matched with Charles Boyer in a witty comedy about husband and wife Russian nobles, exiled in Paris by the 1917 Revolution. Poverty forces the Grand Duchess Tatiana and Prince Mikail to take jobs as maid and butler to a wealthy family (a bunch of eccentrics of course) all the while keeping their identities secret. (Shades of the fantastic My Man Godfrey.) All is threatened to be revealed when dinner guests recognize the royal duo, including an inquisitor from their past (Basil Rathbone.) Colbert and Boyer are great in their third film together, sharing a real chemistry and a flare for comedy. The story is good, providing them with many clever moments once they’ve assumed their new identities as servants. [**1/2]
The Secret Heart — USA, Robert Z. Leonard (1946)
When I saw that Claudette Colbert was in a movie with June Allyson, one of my least favorite actresses…of…all…time (that annoying voice!!) and that she played Colbert’s mentally ill step-daughter, my finger couldn’t find the record button on the DVR remote fast enough. Unfortunately, Suddenly Last Summer, this was not. A fairly run-of-the-mill woman’s picture about a girl who never quite got over the death of her brilliant, drunken father, and now spends hours playing piano for him in her lonely room. Colbert is the step-mother with a heart of gold who follows doctor’s orders and takes the girl back to the farm of her youth, where the family hasn’t visited since Dad plunged to his death nearby ten years earlier. Walter Pidgeon plays Colbert’s old flame and Allyson’s new crush, a train wreck love triangle that the audience can see coming from an hour away, heading to an all too predictable ending. [**]