November 19, 2012

11 Wedding Present (1936)

***
Country: US
Director: Richard Wallace

Whatever screwball comedy is—and there is nearly as much uncertainty about its definition as there is about film noir—it was the dominant strain of American film comedy from about the mid-1930s until the start of the Second World War. During those few years literally hundreds of such films were made. "But for every screwball comedy that we remember fondly today; there are at least ten that would make us grind our teeth over the witless shenanigans of unfunny farceurs," writes Andrew Sarris in "You Ain't Heard Nothin' Yet." Those of us who dote on screwball comedy, while almost certainly more forgiving than Sarris of the imperfections of the ones that miss greatness, still recognize what he means. Being the most commercial of the arts, the movies have always been the most imitative. Once a novel type of film like screwball comedy catches on, it quickly tends to become formulaic, then imitated until the genre becomes degraded and interest in it wanes. So it's always a pleasure to discover a screwball comedy that, while no Bringing Up Baby or It Happened One Night, nevertheless delivers enough pleasure to make it worth seeking out, especially when the film features one of the acting icons of the genre. Such a film is the 1936 screwball comedy Wedding Present starring the man who graced so many of the best films of this type, Cary Grant.

Grant plays Charlie Mason, a big-city newspaper reporter who is engaged to another reporter on the same paper, Rusty Fleming (Joan Bennett). Charlie and Rusty are two of those cynical, wisecracking, conniving reporters who populated the frenetic newspaper movies that flourished in the 1930s, a type of film whose comedic period is bracketed by The Front Page (1931) and its screwball remake His Girl Friday (1940). The first part of the film shows us just how much professional rapport Charlie and Rusty have, as they shrewdly inveigle a reclusive European prince into giving them an exclusive interview, then fly off to locate a sinking ship lost off the coast in the fog. They seem like a perfect working team after one thing—a scoop at any cost. But their personal relationship is a great deal more complicated, for as in so many relationships in screwball comedy, romance and antagonism are seldom far apart.

Two things get in the way of their romance. First Rusty, fed up with Charlie's chronic irresponsibility, which has led to their marriage being postponed repeatedly, calls off the engagement. Then when Charlie is unexpectedly appointed city editor, he undergoes a total personality transformation, becoming a cold professional with no appeal for Rusty. In the meantime Rusty has gotten engaged to the kind of obviously unsuitable mate always found in comedies of this kind, a staid author of best-selling self-help books (apparently such things existed even in 1936), a stuffed shirt whom Charlie immediately pegs as "a phony." With everything in place, the machinery of classic screwball comedy shifts into high gear: Charlie has a sudden change of heart and resigns, saying "I've got to be a human being again," then, with the help of choleric mobster Smiles Benson (William Demarest) and his dim-witted henchman Squinty (Edward Brophy), sets out to win Rusty back.

Cary Grant appeared in thirty movies before making The Awful Truth (1937), the film that movie historians generally identify as the debut of the self-created screen personality we know as Cary Grant. Even though it would be another year before that personality emerged fully, Wedding Present contains enough of that familiar persona that it can rightly be said to anticipate The Awful Truth and all the other comedy films Grant made for the next twenty-five years. The urbanity we associate with the Cary Grant screen image is missing from his Charlie Mason in Wedding Present; the character is, after all, a working journalist, not a suave man of the world. But the manic exuberance of later pictures—seen in its most extreme form in movies like Topper, Arsenic and Old Lace, and Howard Hawks's Monkey Business—is present here in full force. So is the streak of nonconformity found in so many of the roles he later played. The outlandish stunt Charlie devises to win Rusty back, like a good deal of the convention-flaunting behavior in screwball comedy, would today probably get him arrested, committed for seventy-two hours' observation, and given a prescription for lithium.

As a young man Grant honed his physical performance skills as a member of an acrobatic troupe, and in this picture his controlled use of his body to create characterization is an essential part of his performance. (About the only familiar Cary Grant physical mannerism not found in Wedding Present is his well-known double take, an indication that at this point the Cary Grant screen persona was still under construction.) Of Grant's use of body language in his acting Andrew Sarris writes, "It was not just a matter of the pratfalls and somersaults Grant performed throughout his career, but innumerable bits of business that tilted this part of his body and that in some speedy flash of behavioral vaudeville." Sarris goes on to describe a shot in The Awful Truth which he calls "a shot more than any other that provides the visual cue for the screwball era," in which Grant sprawls on a sofa in "a posture of infantile irresponsibility." A comparison of Sarris's detailed description of Grant in that scene to the scene in Wedding Present in which Charlie lounges on a chair in his publisher's office just before being unexpectedly promoted to city editor reveals that Grant's posture in the two scenes, and what it conveys about his character's impudent attitude toward the others in the room, are nearly identical. And Wedding Present predates The Awful Truth by a year.

Another scene that shows Grant's skill at nimble physical comedy and that anticipates later performances is his drunk scene—always an opportunity for actors to show off their chops—in a bar with William Demarest near the end of the film. This is the scene where Charlie, egged on by Demarest, concocts his intricate scheme to disrupt Rusty's wedding to the self-help writer and get her back. (What would a screwball comedy be without the prospect of a last-minute rescue of the hero or heroine from an ill-advised marriage?) It's impossible not to compare the way Grant plays this scene with the way he plays the scene near the beginning of North by Northwest where he is forcibly given liquor then sent on a hair-raising ride down a twisting mountain road in a sports car. In both scenes he shows the same sense of giddy exhilaration and the same detached reaction to what he's doing, a combination of amusement and wonder, as if he half believes it's all happening to someone else.

The presence of Cary Grant might be inducement enough to watch Wedding Present, but the film has other points of interest as well. As Rusty, Joan Bennett has a relaxed rapport with Grant and shows a delightful flair for light comedy, her manner often reminiscent of Myrna Loy. Neither platinum blonde as earlier in her career nor dark brunette as she became a year or two later and remained for the rest of her career, Bennett wears her hair in her own natural honey blonde color, and the effect is most becoming. William Demarest brings his expertise in expressing comic frustration to his part as a perpetually disgruntled gangster. The direction by Richard Wallace, an alumnus of Hal Roach and Mack Sennett, is professional without being showy (he directed the excellent 1938 comedy The Young in Heart, which I wrote about a couple of years ago) but does have a memorable early use of split screen that looks ahead to a similar scene in Pillow Talk (1959). This comes when Charlie and Rusty have a telephone conversation from their separate beds, with Grant on one side of the screen and Bennett on the other. There's no line dividing the two images, just a slight blur in the middle where they barely overlap. Filmed from exactly the same distance and camera position, Grant and Bennett look for all the world as if they're sitting side by side in bed together.

Several things do separate Wedding Present from the very best examples of screwball comedy, though. At times the film strains too hard to maintain its high-spirited tone. Then there is some awkwardness in its narrative construction. The first half resembles the newspaper comedies of the day with the emphasis on the funnier aspects of this cut-throat business, while the second half shifts the focus to the relationship problems of Charlie and Rusty. (Compare this to the way Howard Hawks thoroughly integrates these two strains in His Girl Friday.) Charlie's two complete reversals of personality during this second part seem a psychologically dubious contrivance, and the pacing here is a bit too rushed. Still, if you have any empathy at all with screwball comedy, you shouldn't find it difficult to see past the film's shortcomings and enjoy it as a fast and funny example of screwball, boosted by the radiance of Cary Grant giving a preview of the greatness to come.

11 comments:

  1. I haven't seen this film, but I enjoyed your excellent analysis of Grant's film persona and how aspects of it appear throughout his career. I also didn't know that Grant made films with both Bennett sisters! (wonder if they compared notes?)

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    1. GOM, this is one I wasn't aware of until quite recently, but when I heard about it I knew I had to give it a look. An obscure screwball comedy and Cary Grant to boot are sure to pique my curiosity. He actually made another picture with Joan B. right before this one, "Big Brown Eyes," which is described as a mystery-comedy. Kevin at Kevin's Movie Corner reviewed this a year or so ago. They're both part of the "Cary Grant: Screen Legend Collection" five-film set.

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  2. R.D. - Grant has always been one of my most admired actors and still continues to amaze me each time I watch one of his films. Let's face it, what guy would not want to have the looks, the charm, the grace, as well as the comic timing, of Cary Grant? This is one film I am completely unaware of but I will have to manage to get hold of copy. Fantastic post and an especially great intro.

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    1. John, thanks! Other actors/actresses have their loyal fans, but even the most popular don't seem to be universally liked the way Cary Grant is. Maybe that's because their strongly identifiable mannerisms can be endearing to fans but annoying to non-fans. I have yet to encounter anyone, though, who doesn't like Grant and recognize his dedication and creativity in re-creating himself for the screen. The person I can think of who comes closest is James Stewart.

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  3. thanks for sharing.

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  4. R.D., thank you for highlighting this film - the box set isn't out in the UK, but I've just been able to see this one, as someone has posted it in sections at Youtube. I agree with you that it isn't a top-notch screwball comedy and is rather patchy. The bit with the supposedly comic antics in the newsroom perfectly fits Sarris' description of 'witless shenanigans'! But it's still very enjoyable overall and especially fascinating as a look at Cary Grant building his screen personality just before his rise to stardom.

    As you say, his "two complete reversals of personality" don't ring true and happen too quickly, but they do offer him a chance to show his range as an actor. On the one hand there is the comic flair and physical ease which you discuss (when he climbs up a drainpipe so easily you are reminded that he was a circus performer, and the drunken scene is a lot of fun.) On the other, when he is suddenly turned into a workaholic you see a glimpse of the smouldering intensity that he would show in a film like 'Only Angels Have Wings'.

    I also like Joan Bennet's performance though I find her character a bit unconvincing overall - she is supposed to be such a great newspaper reporter, but never shows much interest in news stories until the great, nutty sequence at the end, which, as you say, would definitely lead to our hero being jailed nowadays. I think the whole newspaper atmosphere isn't nearly as convincing in this film as it is in some other 1930s comedies, though - nobody uncovers any good stories, plus two reporters go out together on a routine job, which seems highly unlikely, and they don't seem to have to worry about meeting a deadline!

    Anyway, really enjoyed your piece and I must watch more early Cary Grant films - I recently saw 'Wings in the Dark' (1935), a pretty good romantic melodrama where he plays a blinded pilot, and also 'Suzy' (1936), with Jean Harlow, which in some ways is another role looking forward to his later screen personality, as a charming, suave aviator. However, I was surprised to see that in 'Suzy' Grant knows exactly how handsome he is and uses his looks to his own advantage - I don't think this is ever the case in his later films.

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    1. Judy, thanks for your comments, especially as you've just seen the film. This one is certainly likely to be of greatest interest to collectors of Cary Grant and/or screwball comedy. It doesn't have the sharp focus of the best screwballs but there's still plenty to enjoy.

      I found your comparison of Charlie's serious phase in this film to Grant's character in "Only Angels" most interesting. I've often thought he recycled bits and pieces of his performances (without, however, actually repeating a character), as you could tell from the way I related his performance in this film to later ones. This film made me think that the well-known Grant persona didn't just spring from nowhere but was likely assembled from things in his own earlier performances as well as those of others.

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  5. R.D.
    I really enjoyed this review. The film is so often overlooked. You bring up Grant and Bennett's on screen chemistry. I certainly agree! I'm probably the minority here but I did not care for Grant and Dunne's collaborations and I've often thought Bennett would have been better suited in a few of Dunne's roles opposite Cary. Not to take anything away from Irene but I just didn't think screwball comedy was her genre.

    Getting back to the film though. You did such a wonderful job in touching upon why this film was great then pointing out the very minute flaws in it. I just never see it air on TCM but they sure do like airing Grant and Dunne's more popular vehicles. ha ha (I need to get over that!)

    Another stellar review, R.D. of such a funny film.
    I hope you had a wonderful holiday.
    Page

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    1. Thank you so much, Page. I do like Irene Dunne very much, but I too was pleased at how good Grant and Bennett were together. I know her mostly from her later film noir period in the 40s and was surprised at how well-suited she seemed to be to this kind of light comedy. I check out the TCM schedule pretty carefully and don't recall this being shown there, at least not recently. As you can tell from the posed shot I used as a lead-in to the post, these two were pretty well matched in the looks department!

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  6. R.D.
    I also really appreciated this review, and have the 5 film Cary Grant: Screen Legend collection, so I've seen it and agree it's not bad.
    I'm a big Grant fan and love to map the evolution of the Cary Grant persona. And like you agree he does seem to have taken bits and pieces along the way that he knew worked and reused them.

    I agree there are parts in Wedding Present that seem like preludes to the masterworks of a few years later. Especially I suppose His Girl Friday because of the newspaper game parallels, but he really seemed to be finding his stride here I felt in the piano serenade and drunk scenes near the end. But I hadn't spotted the lounging in the office bit you mentioned, so I'll check that out.

    Like Judy I also think he was getting the bits of the jigsaw together in 'Suzy', but another one worth checking out from this perspective is 'When you're in love' (also known as For you alone). There's one bit where uses the exact same line about "influence" he does later in Bringing up Baby in the jail scene.

    I suppose some would say it lacked originality, but I actually love the fact that he seems to have been so meticulous to study each performance in such a dispassionate way as judge what worked in his own performances and to latch onto the things to store in the memory banks for future use. I'm not sure how many other actors actually had/have the guts to watch themselves that closely and to learn.

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    1. Thanks for your insightful comments. You crystallized the idea that Grant was such a successful actor because he knew there was more to being a movie star--one with a long career at any rate--than being good-looking and giving good performances. He saw that you had to create a screen personality that was identifiable yet versatile enough that it could be adapted to the requirements of different characters. Andrew Sarris called James Stewart the greatest American actor-personality, but I would pick Cary Grant myself. His screen personality strikes me as more calculated than Stewart's, but it's still my favorite (with Stewart right behind). And I'll have to try to check out "When You're in Love." I wasn't aware of it, but what I just read about it sounds interesting, especially as it was the only film directed by Capra collaborator Robert Riskin.

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