Director: Richard Wallace
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.
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.