I first saw Executive Suite in an unlikely setting: a broadcast management class at Indiana University in 1978. I don’t remember how the film pertained to the class (or if the professor just wanted to take a break from lecturing). But the film, an engrossing look at corporate politics, stuck with me over the years. I didn’t see it again until I discovered a copy at a local video store in the 1990s. This second viewing surprised me—Executive Suite was far better than I remembered.
The opening scene, shot in first-person, has business executive Avery Bullard entering a skyscraper, taking an elevator, and sending a telegram to his board of directors about a meeting at 6:00. Bullard then leaves the building, hails a taxi, and keels over dead. It’s a terrific sequence, all the more effective for its lack of music (which is replaced by bells and street sounds).
We quickly learn that the 56-year-old Bullard was president of Tredway, the nation’s third-largest furniture manufacturer, located in Millburgh, Pennsylvania. After the death of his second-in-command, Bullard delayed in naming a successor. As a result, Bullard’s untimely death places the company in the hands of five vice-presidents with equal authority. Since Wall Street viewed Tredway as a one-man company, the VPs realize the criticality of naming a replacement to Bullard over the weekend.
Loren Shaw (Fredric March), Tredway’s ambitious VP of finance, quickly starts lining up the required votes to become the company’s new president. But his “profit first” approach clashes with the philosophy of board members Fred Alderson (Walter Pidgeon) and Don Walling (William Holden). They believe that investing in research and producing quality furniture will attract loyal customers and, eventually, generate long-term company growth. Alderson and Walling launch a frantic drive to find their own candidate capable of defeating Shaw. Blackmail, illegal stock trading, and a spurned lover all come into play before the board of directors finally selects Avery Bullard’s successor.
I admit a penchant for movies set over a short period (24 hours in Executive Suite) as well as a plot that builds to a scheduled event (e.g., the assassination in Day of the Jackal). Director Robert Wise, one of Hollywood’s most versatile directors, expertly shapes Executive Suite into a “time ticking” film. As the clock counts down to the climatic vote, it’s fascinating to watch alliances shift and deals fall through.
It’s equally compelling to ponder the philosophical underpinnings of the business decisions that will shape Tredway’s future. Walling’s passion for quality over profit is convincing at first. It helps, of course, that Walling is good-looking, a family man, and plays well with others. We’re supposed to pull for him. In contrast, Shaw comes across as greedy, cunning, and unattractive (I love how March wrings his hands, as if nervous over whether his plan to come to fruition). But if one ignores the messengers, isn’t there a lot to be said for Shaw’s approach? More than one company has gone bankrupt because its business model emphasized quality for the sake of profit. In another favorite business film, Other People’s Money (1991), Danny DeVito’s character makes a persuasive case that businesses owe it to their investors to make money!
If the profit vs. quality theme creates the foundation for Executive Suite, then it’s the performers that make each of the arguments compelling. The standouts in the superstar cast are Fredric March and Paul Douglas. After two decades as a leading man, March gave some of his best performances in smaller roles in the 1950s and 1960s (e.g., Inherit the Wind and Seven Days in May). He captures the ruthlessness and the impatient frustration that makes Shaw such a vivid character. Paul Douglas is equally good in a supporting role as a confident executive who gets backed into a corner. It’s a nice change-of-pace for Douglas, who specialized in playing nice guys in comedies like The Solid Gold Cadillac and It Happens Every Spring.
Executive Suite is often compared with 1956’s Patterns, another boardroom drama that was adapted from a Rod Serling TV play. Most critics prefer Patterns, which stars Everett Sloane as the world’s worst boss. I find the two films hard to compare; they’re two very different, each a fine work in its own right. Patterns may be the more realistic of the two, but Executive Suite offers an optimistic viewpoint that works better as sheer entertainment.
One of the great treats for us, as fans of movies from any era, is when a great ensemble cast is brought together. We would pay good money for a great movie with two or three big names in it, but when the number of stars cruises past the half-dozen mark, it’s like were getting our entertainment wholesale.
“Some things a man doesn’t like to tell about himself unless he gets beyond the grave as they say. But now I can tell the truth, the whole truth. Well, that is, within limits. You see truth is a very valuable thing, and I believe we should be a little economical with it.” –Fredric March as Mark Twain in The Adventures of Mark Twain (1944)
The Adventures of Mark Twain takes the story of Twain’s actual life, more or less wraps it all up into a ball and then explodes these facts across the screen so as to make them fit the movie in the most entertaining way believed possible.
It’s all there, just rearranged. Some portions are downplayed, others embellished. Some are turned into a fascinating combination of Twain fact colored by Twain’s fiction. You’ll remember just enough of it to have a decent idea about the life of Mark Twain, just don’t get any ideas about quoting it verbatim as the truth. It’s only the truth within limits. March’s Twain is winking at us before it all begins.
Despite these allowances The Adventures of Mark Twain remains far from perfect. It has plenty of highlights and lowlights. But the crowning achievement of the film is our star of March-in-March, and star of the movie, Fredric March as Mark Twain.
After Halley’s Comet inevitably zips across the sky The Adventures of Mark Twain begins with a pair of child actors in the role of young Sam Clemens in and around Hannibal, Missouri and the Mississippi River. Up first is Jackie Brown, soon followed by Dickie Jones.
Brown stars in the first gelling of fact and fiction as Twain’s youth is retold in the style of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer with Twain’s own boyhood friends recast as Tom, Huck and Jim. Up next, Dickie Jones plays adolescent Sam getting his first taste of wordplay while working at his brother Orion’s newspaper. This unhappy alliance propels Sam back to the Mississippi and an apprenticeship to a riverboat captain (Robert Barrat). After a ship hand calls out “Mark Twain–safe water!” from down below the captain explains to young Sam that “The welcomest sound in all the world to a river man is those two words. Mark Twain.”
The child actors soon give way to March himself. Student then turns teacher on board the Queen of Dixie as Sam Clemens pilots through treacherous terrain in an important but overblown scene. That’s not to say it’s not well done. Director Irving Rapper weaves in as many tense moments as possible, but with land visible on either side of the boat they just never completely grabbed me. I’m sure the shallow and ever shifting Mississippi must have been a lot more dangerous to navigate than it appeared to a landlubber like me on screen, though if that is the case than March’s Clemens basically put the safety of his passengers at stake so he could show off. I’m not really aware of how good an actual steamship pilot young Clemens was, but in The Adventures of Mark Twain there can be no doubt that he was the greatest of all-time. The way it played just rubbed me wrong.
In this first view of March as riverboat pilot Clemens the actor is shown in what Warner publicity claimed was one of fourteen (though producer Jesse Lasky said twelve) different make-up changes for him throughout The Adventures of Mark Twain. Perc Westmore’s detailed work on March slowly aged him towards an exact replica of the elder Twain whom we all picture so easily today.
Jesse Lasky told a radio interviewer that March had carefully studied a 1905 Edison film of Twain and copied everything from his walk to the way he smoked his cigar from that footage. We’ve seen enough Twain stills to know Westmore got the make-up right–Fredric March looks exactly like Mark Twain in any photo from any era I’ve ever seen–and from the brief film clips I’ve seen of the real Twain I would agree that March managed to nail the Twain manner as well. The director of the film, Irving Rapper, thought March was “magnificent” as Twain but “that his accent was a little too strong in it” (Davis 35).
“From six to six as the clock flies the daylight circuit, he [March] was not only required to look like Mark Twain but to talk and think like him,” reported the Evening Independent in an unsigned article published just prior to the 1944 release of The Adventures of Mark Twain. March spent two or three hours being made up each morning before living the role each day during twelve weeks of production in 1942. March himself appeared in 419 of 439 scenes in the movie and thus wasn’t afforded even one day off while it was being made (Rosen 157). Publicity items in the papers throughout 1943 and ’44 stressed that March had lived as the character prior to and during production. He only allowed himself to become Fredric March again each night when he closed his eyes and went to sleep.
The Adventures of Mark Twain came at a powerful and productive time in Fredric March’s career. Production on Twain began sometime after completion of March’s work in I Married a Witch, which finished in late May 1942, and just prior to the freelance actor’s return to Broadway in the very successful production of Thornton Wilder’s The Skin of Our Teeth. Wilder’s play opened at the Plymouth Theatre on November 18, 1942 and proceeded to run for over 350 performances on its way to winning its author the Pulitizer Prize for Drama. March had long concluded working on The Skin of Our Teeth before The Adventures of Mark Twain would see even limited release as a road show in May 1944.
While there were a few hiccups with Mark Twain’s surviving daughter, Clara, the cause for the delay in releasing The Adventures of Mark Twain was simply Warner’s desire to get out their backlog of more relevant war pictures as soon as they could. In fact, after having released up to five historical films per year from 1939-41, Warner Brothers only produced five in total between 1942-1945 and none of them were released until 1944. This includes The Adventures of Mark Twain, which was the second of those five historicals to reach the general public (Smyth).
The film itself is episodic and uneven. It’s enjoyment comes almost entirely from the talents of Fredric March in the role of Twain. For the first half of the movie Alan Hale is on board as sidekick Steve Gillis and the movie is very playful in tone. Hale disappears never to be seen again once March’s Twain meets his eventual wife, Olivia Langdon (Alexis Smith), and heads East to Elmira to begin his courtship of her. The second half of the movie concentrates upon Twain’s home life and creative activity and suffers by playing neither light nor dark enough.
It’s one thing to gloss over the tremendous pain the real Mark Twain felt in response to the deaths of beloved family members. That’s depressing territory and not at all in fitting with the upbeat mood of the first half of the movie. It’s another thing to include those painful moments but to, pardon me, whitewash them.
When their firstborn dies in the crib these Twains quickly turn the page with wife Livy inspiring her husband towards greatness. “He’ll never see the river now,” a depressed Twain laments, but Livy fixes everything by declaring, “No, Mark. Our little son will never see it. But Mark, you must save those things you loved. You must save them for whole generations of little boys. Of all ages. Forever. You mustn’t let those precious things be lost. You’re the only man who ever lived who can do it, Mark.” She continues on until Max Steiner’s Oscar nominated score begins to swell and she departs to leave Twain as he immediately begins writing The Adventures of Tom Sawyer.
I suppose revenge comes later when Twain manages an even easier time getting over Livy’s own passing and going on to glory in Oxford recognition courtesy of C. Aubrey Smith’s brief spin as Chancellor there.
Besides being emotionally uneven the second half of The Adventures of Mark Twain suffers by trying to show too much, but not concentrating on any of these potentially interesting elements enough to really bring them to life.
One exception is Twain’s speaking at the literary tribute to John Greenleaf Whittier. March especially excels in this scene as he begins his speech with typical confidence bordering on cockiness before stepping in it by insulting literary legends Emerson, Longfellow and Holmes, each of whom is present and frowning. As the eyes of his audience narrow and drop Twain begins to grasp that he’s gone too far. His speech slows, his eyes move from his now disapproving audience to the podium before he eventually apologies and excuses himself.
Otherwise the pace in the second half suffers as director Irving Rapper does his best to make exciting what is quite honestly one of the most difficult professions to bring to life, that of writer. Twain is aged at his desk every few minutes as his completed books pile up. The potential tedium is broken by episodes showing Twain’s misfortune in investing and publishing.
First there is his fascination with a monstrous typesetting device that he believes will revolutionize publishing and then later the publication of ailing General Grant’s memoirs by Twain’s own publishing house with royalties greatly benefiting the writer and his estate. I wanted more of both of these important elements to Twain’s biography, but what was there was enjoyable while it lasted.
The final portion of The Adventures of Mark Twain sees Twain put his old friend and lecture manager, J.B. Pond (Donald Crisp), back to work. With the goal of paying back every penny he’s gone into debt Twain embarks upon his famed worldwide tour with Pond accompanying him across the globe.
I found Crisp miscast as Pond, a somewhat bumbling role whose earliest appearances had me wishing for Edward Everett Horton instead.
As Twain’s wife Livy the most effective thing Alexis Smith gets to do in The Adventures of Mark Twain is age courtesy of Perc Westmore. It’s more the fault of the part, more Twain cheerleader than wife, than Smith, whose best scenes are her earliest before the Twain baggage weighs her down.
March completely dominates the second half of the movie with key assistance from Westmore. Between them they manage to so completely bring our perceived perception of Mark Twain to life that the character stands high above most of the jumbled story.
The first half is the far greater treat thanks large in part to Sam Clemens’ friendship with Alan Hale’s Steve Gillis. Hale does what he always does which almost always works for me. West of the Mississippi the story is framed nicely by Sam and Steve’s poor prospecting experience which is eventually wrapped up perfectly when the whole town strikes it rich at a very familiar location. In between the prospecting and Clemens’ first adult editorial job comes the incident of “The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County,” which is the finest moment of the movie.
The story of the jumping frog unfolds in the same manner as Sam’s youth had with Twain and his real-life contemporaries weaved into his own legendary fiction. Alan Hale might be the only grown man I’d actually believe could get so excited over the opportunity presented by a frog-jumping contest, which better explains why I always get such a kick out of him. While March’s Sam doesn’t share Steve’s excitement he’s at least a willing participant going so far as to get soaked through in a pond while hunting for a bullfrog big enough to compete with Bret Harte’s (John Carradine) acclaimed Dan’l Webster.
Former Keystone comic favorite Chester Conklin, still sporting his famed bushy mustache, presides over the contest enforcing all of the rules and regulations while Sam’s co-worker Billings (Percy Kilbride) announces the affair for the rowdy crowd of onlookers, most of whom have a wager down on the event. The frog-jumping contest is the one scene in The Adventures of Mark Twain that sees Fredric March relegated to the background and leaves all of the fun to the other actors. Most notably Carradine enjoys a brief but memorable moment on all fours calling out encouragement for Dan’l Webster with desperate cries of, “Flies, flies!”
At the conclusion of the contest Sam is back at the office writing a fictional account of it. As he finishes up and signs the piece a moment of fear grips him and he strikes a line through the name Samuel L. Clemens. He turns to Billings and asks if he could use his name. Billings says no as “I aim to do a little writing myself one of these days,” in a nod to Twain contemporary Josh Billings, nineteenth century humorist who ranked right with Twain himself at their peaks. Finally Sam harkens back to his own past and the page is signed Mark Twain.
It’s here that The Adventures of Mark Twain peaks. Unfortunately too early. The fun, mischief and creativity of the Jumping Frog scene is never approached again.
As time passes the movie relies more and more on Fredric March being an effective Twain. The Adventures of Mark Twain is dead without that. March manages to keep it alive.
I believed Fredric March as Mark Twain every step of the way, so much so that he sold me on the warped truth Warner Brothers presents to us. The Adventures of Mark Twain may not be historically accurate but what it absolutely accomplishes is capturing the spirit of Twain through the performance of Fredric March.
Davis, Ronald L. Just Making Movies: Company Directors on the Studio System. University Press of Mississippi, 2005
“Mark Twain Role Lived by March.” The Evening Independent. 4 May 1944: 22.
Raevouri, Saskia, ed. Behind the Screenplay: The Adventures of Mark Twain. Square Circles Publishing, 2010.
Rosen, Phillip. Change Mummified. University of Minnesota Press, 2001.
Smyth, J.E. Reconstructing American Historical Cinema. Lexington: The University Press of Kentucky, 2006.
“Stardust.” Spokane Daily Chronicle 22 Jun 1942: 8.
Todd, John. “Fredric March Has Made Success of Free-Lancing.” St. Petersburg Times 23 Jul 1944: 31.
Cliff Aliperti writes about Classic Movies and Movie Stars at Immortal Ephemera, which is also home base to his vintage movie collectibles business. The Immortal Ephemera website celebrates its 10th Anniversary in 2012 while long-time collectibles dealer Aliperti has been selling online longer than that. Immortal Ephemera offers a combination of information about the collectibles themselves as well as the old time stars which they picture.
Over the course of his rather prolific career, Fredric March racked up five Academy Award nominations for Best Actor, ultimately winning the prize twice. The majority of these nominated roles came from his work in dramas (save his first nomination for 1930’s The Royal Family of Broadway). Indeed, March excels as a dramatic performer, brilliantly bringing to life such iconic characters as Dr. Henry Jekyll (and his murderous counterpart, Mr. Hyde), Jean Valjean, Norman Maine (the 1937 version of A Star is Born), hapless salesman Willy Loman, and even the personification of Death himself (1934’s Death Takes a Holiday).
Though drama may seem to have been March’s preferred milieu, he nonetheless displays an especially charming comedic touch in the relatively few comedies sprinkled throughout his filmography. In movies such as Design for Living (1933), Nothing Sacred (1937), and Bedtime Story (1941), March is an appealing contributor to the zany happenings of the plot, more than holding his own against leading ladies Miriam Hopkins, Carole Lombard, and Loretta Young.
But March may have bitten off more than he could chew (so to speak) when, in 1942, he took over for Joel McCrea as the star of the supernatural comedy I Married a Witch.
McCrea had just completed work on Sullivan’s Travels under writer/director Preston Sturges (who, incidentally, was one of the producers of Witch … at least initially). McCrea’s co-star on that film, Veronica Lake, had reportedly created problems on the set, and McCrea was not eager to work with the tempestuous and troubled starlet again. When Sturges championed Lake for the part of the titular witch, McCrea turned down the male lead, supposedly declaring, “Life’s too short for two films with Veronica Lake.” Whether March was aware of McCrea’s qualms about Lake or not, he nonetheless took on the part, and thus kicked off what was perhaps the most combative working relationship of his entire career.
In the film, March plays Wallace Wooley, whose Puritan ancestor Jonathan (also played by March) was responsible for the ritual burning of two witches, Jennifer (Lake) and her father, Daniel (Cecil Kellaway), at the stake. Jennifer curses the Wooley family, declaring that none of Jonathan’s descendants will ever find true love, and the two witches are buried beneath an oak tree, which binds their spirits. By the time 1942 rolls around, the curse has been at work for over two hundred years, and it is set to repeat itself once more with the marriage of Wallace to the unpleasant Estelle Masterson (Susan Hayward). A storm destroys the oak tree in which they are imprisoned, and Jennifer and Daniel’s spirits escape, determined to wreak even more havoc on the Wooley family. Daniel creates an alluring new body for Jennifer by burning down the local hotel, and Jennifer entices Wallace into “rescuing” her from the flames, intent on seducing him and ruining the wedding and the upcoming election. But her plans go awry when she accidentally ingests a love potion intended for Wallace, and the witch finds herself hopelessly in love with the object of her loathing …
The movie offers some interesting commentary on “modern” politics, which according to this film has not changed overmuch in the past seventy years. It’s easy to see the influence of Sturges in parts of the movie—there is a satirical bite to the way Witch addresses the electorate, demonstrated most effectively in the “brainwashing” scene, in which Jennifer sends clouds of magical smoke floating throughout the state in order to impact the results of the election. It’s a sly statement on the “herd” mentality of voters, indicating how easy it can be to influence the masses (even, the film suggests, without the benefits of magic). And Wallace’s interactions with Estelle’s father, power broker J.B. Masterson (Robert Warwick), are reminiscent of McGinty’s association with The Boss in Sturges’ masterful political comedy The Great McGinty, which was released two years prior to this film.
Still, despite such darker underlying themes—themes that are, admittedly, only hinted at and never fully developed in the film—I Married a Witch is ultimately a rather light-hearted romantic romp. Shooting the movie, however, was tense from the start and far from fun for many of the players involved.
The film is based, in part, on the 1941 novel The Passionate Witch by Thorne Smith (author of the Topper novels). Smith died in 1934 before finishing the book, and it was finally completed by author Norman Matson and published in 1941. Sturges agreed to produce a film version for director Rene Clair and brought in noted screenwriter Dalton Trumbo to work on the script. Trumbo and Sturges clashed, however, and Trumbo left the production. Sturges, whose vision of the film was much different from that of Clair, soon followed, and neither Trumbo nor Sturges received screen credit for their contributions (still, the latter’s presence is still very much felt, as several members of Sturges’ unofficial “stock troupe” of actors appear in the film, among them Esther Howard, Emory Parnell, and Chester Conklin).
As if these issues weren’t troublesome enough, bigger problems were in store as an overtly antagonistic relationship quickly developed between the movie’s two leads. Before filming even began, March apparently declared that his new co-star was “a brainless little blonde sexpot, void of any acting ability.” Upon hearing this, Lake was (understandably) infuriated, and she made it her mission to ensure that March’s work on the film would be anything but stress-free. For the scene in which Wallace rescues Jennifer from the burning hotel, Lake conspired with one of the costume designers to sew a forty-pound weight into her dress. March subsequently strained himself carrying Lake in the scene, commenting later than the barely five-foot, one-hundred-pound actress was much heavier than she looked. In another instance, Lake gleefully tried to ruin a take by pushing her foot into March’s groin repeatedly during a close-up shot of the actor; afterward, March tore into her in front of the entire crew, while Lake merely smiled complacently. His utter frustration led March to reportedly start referring to the film as I Married a Bitch when Lake wasn’t around.
Lake’s behavior on the set went beyond her belligerent relationship with March. She annoyed the cast and crew with her perpetual lateness, and her inability to perform at the same level on multiple takes made shooting a frustrating enterprise for Clair, who took to shooting the actress when she thought they were still rehearsing so as to get a “fresh” performance out of her.
In the end, one has to admire the efforts of both the filmmakers and the actors, because despite the behind-the-scenes drama, there is no hint of discord in the final product. I Married a Witch is a delightful, if somewhat slight, comedy from start to finish, and a great addition to the string of “supernatural romances” that emerged in the 1940s (I Married an Angel, The Bishop’s Wife, The Ghost and Mrs. Muir). As far as March’s career goes, it may have been an unpleasant shooting experience, but he makes for one appealingly befuddled mortal man … and so it’s somewhat fitting that Sol Saks, creator of the 1960s/70s television show Bewitched, would use I Married a Witch as inspiration for the show, making Fredric March a slightly more dignified precursor to the never-endingly befuddled Darrin Stephens.
[I Married a Witch is not available on DVD as of yet (at least in Region 1, as far as I can tell), but you can see it in its entirety (for free!) on Hulu.]
“A Star Is Born is a Hollywood story of, by, and for its people. It has the usual preface, attesting to the fictional quality of the characters and incidents depicted, but it is nonetheless the most accurate mirror ever held before the glittering, tinseled, trivial, generous, cruel, and ecstatic world that isHollywood. That, in itself, guarantees its dramatic interest, for there is no place on this twentieth-century earth more fascinating—not even that enchanting make-believe republic which James Hilton called Shangri-La.”
Thus read The New York Times April, 1937 review of William Wellman’s drama A STAR IS BORN, and Frank Nugent’s words could scarcely be more on target.
A STAR IS BORN (1937) may be 75 years old, but in many ways, it still retains a formidable place amongst the definitive “Hollywoodon Hollywood” films. From Wilder’s noirish satire SUNSET BLVD (1950) to the grim surrealism of the Cohen brothers’ BARTON FINK (1991), William Wellman’s original version of A STAR IS BORN is every bit as unflinchingly lacerating of what had already become the blackened, rotting soul of the Hollywood dream factory. Unlike Hollywooditself, this film, as with its successors, is every inch aware of what it is and more importantly, why it is.
The mere fact that the film opens, and closes, with a page from its own script is a red warning light to the viewer NOT to expect any smoke and mirror majesty here.
George Cukor directed the first incarnation of the now oft-told tale, WHAT PRICE HOLLYWOOD (1932), had a hand in this 1937 script, and directed its Academy Award winning 1954 remake with Judy Garland and James Mason. The latter is perhaps the best known version, and I daresay the best loved, and with good reason. (Garland’s show-stopping “The Man Who Got Away” alone is worthy of repeated viewing.)
And while I admire Cukor’s artistic flourish and am a sucker for that MGM high gloss, I much prefer the stripped down, no-nonsense, necessary roughness of Wellman’s version. Although filmed in Technicolor (one of the earliest “modern” feature dramas using the process) the subject matter is in no way manipulated to capitalize off of the new medium. The look is quiet, muted, and real (you’ll find no electric green Sherwood Forest here) and it possesses an unquestionable masculinity and straightforward direction (which made Wellman’s pre-codes such salacious fun) that make this less a Hollywood entertainment and more a human interest piece. But the ace up the sleeve, without question, is the fact that the real star of the 1937 A STAR IS BORN is, with appropriate irony, the fallen (matinee) idol Norman Maine, portrayed by a raw and intensely human Fredric March.
Cukor’s 1954 picture goes out of its way to ensure that the star is, unquestionably, in every way, Judy Garland. (As it very well ought!) It is every bit the farm-girl-made-good Esther Blodgett’s story. James Mason, compelling as the self-desctructive Norman Maine, is still overshadowed by Garland’s tour-de-force. Not to chip away at the merits of Janet Gaynor (the formidable actress who won the first ever Academy Award in 1929 for her solid performance in F.W. Murnau’s SUNRISE), and Gaynor is a determined little dervish in this film about the Hollywood make-believe machine, but this is Fredric March’s picutre, hands down.
March is refreshingly real. A charming and handsome rogue, to be sure, who lights up (I daresay, electrifies) every scene he’s in, while still managing to be enough of a regular Joe to make him instantly accessible. Because in order to make this story work, he must be. We must believe every word he says, every move he makes—every laugh, every tear. It is not so much we must believe he’s any great actor—Norman Main really isn’t—but we must believe that he is flesh and blood. A Hollywood film intending to take on its own must be nothing less than honest.
After hijacking an ambulance and driving it down Wilshire Blvd in a drunken stupor (Today’s TMZ would KILL for that kind of shit), March turns up at a party, relatively sober. “I’ll be ready for the curtains when the time comes,” he tells his long-suffering producer, agent and friend. (A solid Adolphe Menjou.) “And when I do—here is my epitaph.” March hands Menjou a token reading “GOOD FOR AMUSEMENT ONLY”
Slam-dunk. In a five minute period, March has shown us that 1.) He doesn’t take himself seriously, 2.) He’s gotHollywood’s number, and 3.) He’s a devil-may-care bad ass.
Minutes later, March is escaping his shrill, shrewish girlfriend and finds a rescue in cute little Janet Gaynor, a struggling extra who is waitressing the studio party to make a buck. He’s a delicious flirt and makes an immediate conquest of Gaynor. Not only is it great fun to watch March work his playful, mischievous charm on Gaynor (he forces her off the company clock by smashing all of the dishes in the kitchen) we believe that Maine still has an element of control in his life and career. His alcoholism has not yet rendered him a total write off and it is this strong, confident sense of self that we identify with and joins us to his ensuing internal struggles.
We all know the story—even in 1937 is was Drama 101, Plot A. The besotted Norman Maine sees a star in Esther Blodgett, born again as Vicki Lester, and kick starts her acting career, the trajectory of which skyrockets to superstardom just as Maine’s own career begins to crumble.
In a key scene, the two lovers stand close to each other on a moonlit balcony at the Sunset Strip’s Café Trocadero, watching the intoxicating bright city lights blink and beckon at them from below. Hollywood belongs to Esther now. He’s losing his grip. And he knows it.
Although it is a moment of melancholy, March never plays such moments (and there are quite a few) with even a trace of self-pity. When he tells Gaynor there on that balcony “you can’t throw away a life the way I’ve thrown away mine,” he is not looking for comfort. Rather he is manning up to his mistakes. He wants no excuses made for him. He wants only to believe that loving Gaynor can atone for his wrongs.
And for a while it looks as though it might. As Norman and Esther “wa-hoo” their way through a colorful countryside honeymoon, there is a moment of foreshadowing that, let’s be honest, we’ve been expecting for quite some time.
When their camping trailer breaks down and Maine must seek local assistance, “I’m Norman Maine,” March tells a local bumpkin. “Who?” Gaynor chides him for it, and it’s all very funny. But a fleeting shadow of sincere worry flashes across Maine’s tense dark eyes.
And that darkness never quite goes away as it ushers in the film’s second act. This is, after, Hollywood. What business has happiness there?
Released from his contract not long after returning from their honeymoon,Maine finds himself a casualty of his own excesses. A high-risk liability whom the studios won’t touch. And while the grand melodrama is meant to be Gaynor’s emotional struggle to keep her marriage together (which Garland nails in Cukor’s ’54 version) it is Fredric March who dominates every frame of the second half.
Although Norman Maine’s actual battle with alcoholism is definitely more visible and much more developed psychologically in the 1954 version, Wellman’s version benefits and strains slightly from the economy of its compact runtime. We do not get to see the problem develop as profoundly as we do with Mason’s character, we are simply more or less expected to accept the fact of it.
This is another testament to March’s performance, as nothing about this admittedly oversimplified approach to a deeply complex issue feels in the least bit forced or false or rushed.
Reduced to taking press messages for his superstar wife as an unemployed househusband, branded a has-been by everyone in town, Maine’s growing internal torment is casually signaled when he tells his wife that he’s not hungry for dinner and that he’ll just go and “fix himself a drink.”
Fade in to the Academy Awards banquet where Vicki Lester, riding a high wave of popularity, wins the Oscar for Best Actress. Her acceptance speech is interrupted by the abrupt, drunken appearance of her husband who, when is attempted to be quieted by Lester, inadvertently strikes her across the face. The audience gasps. So do we. And March’s realization of what he’s done is quietly devastating.
The spiral is fast. In spite of a stint in rehab, Hollywood’s ugly two-faced nature seems hellbent on keeping Maine miserable. The seemingly reformed Maine orders a ginger ale at the Santa Anita racetrack. But after being ignored by former industry “friends” and given a callous, berating verbal beating by his former studio press agent (“fix-it” man) Libby, Maine is again humiliated in public by losing his temper and punching Libby in the face.Maine needs a drink. And from then on Maine simply doesn’t stop. How can he?
It is impossible to tear your eyes away from March and, even though the end result is as plain as the tasche on Menjou’s face, we are so deeply invested in March’s performance that those final tragic moments are, every time, gripping.
When he makes up his mind to sacrifice his life so that his wife doesn’t have to sacrifice hers, March tells his wife goodbye, I love you, by dropping a line he used on their first date. There, with a deep, dusky orange sunset glowing in their beachfront window, he asks Gaynor “mind if I take one more look?” And we crumble.
Perhaps the mere fact that, for the final 10 minutes of the film March is no longer on screen that Gaynor truly gains momentum. The disgusting display at Maine’s funeral (Gaynor’s veil being ripped off by fans has been widely attributed to an incident involving Norma Shearer at her husband Irving Thalberg’s funeral) shows how very little indeedHollywoodhas changed in these seven decades. Gaynor carries on with her career, as her husband wished and in truth, died for, and attends her first premiere postMaine’s death at Grauman’s Chinese Theatre.
Upon seeing her late husbands footsteps, immortalized there in courtyard cement, she nearly collapses. But soldiers on, and when asked to say a few words to her fans listening over the radio, speaks those five, gloriously unforgettable words: “This is Mrs. Norman Maine.”
It is one of the most famous endings in Hollywood history.
And when the camera fades, it does so, once again, to a page of its own script:
ESTHER AT MICROPHONE
Hello, everybody … This is Mrs. Norman Maine.
The ovation is tremendous. CAMERA MOVES TO A BIG CLOSEUP OF ESTHER. Tears are starting down her cheeks. She looks out past all this crowd, this confusion, this uproar, to some distant point of her own. The music swells up.
The epilogue smacks of Shakespearean tragedy— the screenwriter’s typewriter taking on the voice of a veritable Prince of Verona. Only this time the “tale of woe” is not of “Juliet and her Romeo,” but rather of Hollywood– that thinly veiled misanthrope.
A little over twenty years ago, I was speaking with an acquaintance about acting. Both of us were involved in theatre and the conversation turned to those actors we most admired. I mentioned several but only one elicited a response that took me aback: Fredric March. The mention of his name evoked the response, “Who’s Fredric March?” This was a fellow actor and I couldn’t believe he didn’t know March but he didn’t and twenty years later probably do fewer still. Somehow, I don’t think that would have bothered March.
What mattered to Fredric March, and what matters most to fans of great acting everywhere, is the performance. Fredric March didn’t give bad performances because Fredric March didn’t give false performances. He didn’t engage in elaborate constructs like fellow actor Paul Muni to convince us of the sincerity of the performance. He simply gave a performance, sincerely. There’s a difference.
Paul Muni, make no mistake, was a great actor. He employed accents and make-up and mannerisms and all form of other tools he felt necessary to make the character work for him and thus, work for us, the audience. That’s something to admire and as an actor, I’ve long admired Muni for just that. But March didn’t go that route. Of course, he employed an accent on occasion and certainly used make-up for some of his most famous roles (Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, Inherit the Wind) but for the overwhelming majority of them, he used the most necessary and simple tool he possessed, his sincerity. Fredric March didn’t become the character; the character became him. This has always been, in my experience, the best way to wring a testament of truth from a character: Make it personal.
What do I mean?
Let’s say Fredric March had been given the role made famous by Muni in Scarface, the lead role of Tony. While we can all agree March’s look and stature would have worked against such strange casting I use it simply as an example of an actor making the character himself and not the other way around. March would not have wondered how Tony talked or walked or acted out his desires. March would not have cared how a small-time hood would deal with sudden power and wealth. March would have, instead, asked himself, “What if things had worked out differently for me and I had been a small time hood? How would I deal with this? How would I act and talk and walk and carry myself?” Once an actor makes the character himself, rather than the other way around, the actor instantly knows the character to his very soul. It is bound up to the life of the actor, inextricably.
Throughout his career, March played characters that could have been him under different circumstances: Al Stephenson, the returning veteran from World War II in The Best Years of Our Lives who sinks into alcoholism feels like Fredric March showing us an honest portrayal of how he would be under the same circumstances. His characters in so many movies, from I Married a Witch to Executive Suite, whether the character was good or bad, felt like March and that honesty sometimes made us confuse the character for the man himself. In The Desperate Hours, held hostage with his family in his own home, he does what he can to survive and save them. He isn’t heroic and he isn’t a coward, just an average man trying to deal with an uncommonly anxiety-ridden situation. Separating March from the character is almost impossible.
March did step outside these boundaries on occasion. His method wasn’t an all-or-nothing equation. Playing a character like Mr. Hyde requires something more, it’s true, but still the actor can imagine himself turning into a monster rather than imagining what a monster would be. Here, too, March feels true to the character. It feels like a man who has let all inhibition, all common decency, all consideration of the social contract purge from his
system as he devolves into the worst of his primal instincts. It’s hard to imagine Fredric March, the man, acting so monstrously but there he is, just as he is with all the other characters.
Later in his career, Fredric March walked into one his greatest and yet least celebrated roles, that of President Jordan Lyman in the expertly done thriller, Seven Days in May. That Lyman’s decency, sense of fairness, intelligence and compassion feel completely at home in the body of Fredric March is a testament to how finely March had honed his craft. When Lyman scolds would-be usurper General Scott (Burt Lancaster) it may just as well be March himself giving someone a lesson in decency. It seemed the culmination of the decency he brought to bear upon his minister William Spence in 1941′s One Foot in Heaven, and one could easily imagine Spence and Lyman as the same character, separated only by time and career.
Fredric March achieved more than most actors in the history of film and he achieved this by not achieving eternal superstar status. Not being a superstar allowed March the luxury of playing roles honestly and sincerely and true to his soul, even if that meant exploring the dark side of that ethereal region. He didn’t have to worry about audience expectations, aside from expecting a great performance. But playing roles in such a direct and honest way while affecting no method or manner to entice the masses also meant that being a superstar never stood much of a chance anyway.
So when I think back to that day my partner in conversation expressed ignorance of March’s career I can’t be disheartened. You see, when I named Inherit the Wind, The Best Years of Our Lives and Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, my acquaintance did know March, he just didn’t know the name behind all those brilliant portrayals. I think Fredric March would have laughed at the knowledge that his name didn’t evoke any recognition but that his performances did, and when viewed by anyone, fan or first-time viewer, still hold up as some of the most beautifully expressed realizations of characters the silver screen has to offer. March probably would have smiled gently and thought to himself, “I did my job.”
Fredric March was an Oscar winner and a newly minted Hollywoodstar when he co-starred with Miriam Hopkins and Gary Cooper in Ernst Lubitsch’s 1933 adaptation of the Noel Coward play Design for Living. In 1929, when all the major studios were scouring the Broadway stage for photogenic leading men with trained and mellifluous voices, March had been recruited and signed by Paramount Pictures.
He received his first Best Actor Oscar nomination for his 1930 portrayal of ‘Tony Cavendish’ in The Royal Family of Broadway, but it was his split-personality tour-de-force as Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde in 1931 that brought Fredric March his first Academy Award and movie stardom.
Playwright/actor Noel Coward wrote Design for Living, a comedy in three acts,in 1932; it debuted on Broadway in 1933 at the Ethyl Barrymore Theatre starring legends of the stage Alfred Lunt, Lynn Fontanne and Coward himself. Because of its censoriously risqué plot, the play was not produced in London, Coward’s home ground, until 1939. His story of Gilda, Otto and Leo, a sophisticated trio involved in a romantic triangle(not to say threesome), was inspired by the personal lives and relationships of Lunt and Fontanne who were his close friends; Noel Coward would remark that Design for Living was about three people who love each other very much and that, though the play was a solid hit when it opened, no one loved it more than its three leading actors.
When Ernst Lubitsch set out to film Coward’s play, he had a particular cast and screenwriter in mind. Miriam Hopkins, who had starred for him in The Smiling Lieutenant (1931) and Trouble in Paradise (1932), was his first choice for the female lead. He was interested in Ronald Colman and Leslie Howard for the two male leads, but couldn’t afford Colman or persuade Howard. He next turned to Paramount leading man Fredric March for the role that was Coward’s Leo but became Lubitsch’s Tom, and approached Douglas Fairbanks, Jr., to portray the character that had been called Otto but would soon be George. But Fairbanks came down with pneumonia and the director eventually settled on popular Paramount matinee idol Gary Cooper. Of the three leads, Hopkins had the least experience on-screen, but the most experience with Lubitsch. She had also co-starred with March in Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde and her film associations with both men helped advance her career.
Lubitsch, a writer himself, had hoped to collaborate once again with screenwriter Samson Raphaelson (The Smiling Lieutenant, Trouble in Paradise, The Merry Widow, The Shop Around the Corner) on Design for Living. But Raphaelson was not interested in working on “another damned sophisticated triangle” (referring to The Smiling Lieutenant and Trouble in Paradise) or in rewriting Noel Coward, and declined. Ben Hecht, an esteemed screenwriter and script doctor (Nothing Sacred, Wuthering Heights, Notorious) with a cynical view of the status quo, was Lubitsch’s next choice. But it was not an easy partnership. Lubitsch, who commented that the two “weren’t used to each other,” was most at home working closely with his writers and Hecht was comfortable writing on his own. But they managed.
In the end, the plot was re-engineered while the triangular situation at the heart of Coward’s play was retained.
As Leo became Tom and Otto became George, all three characters became struggling American creative types rather than the play’s free-spirited British socialites. And the situation between the three was toned down; at the beginning of the play Gilda was living with Otto and had just resumed an affair with ex-beau Leo. Lubitsch’s film would follow the amorous adventures of three young, attractive Americans inParis,LondonandNew York: playwright Tom Chambers (March), painter George Curtis (Cooper) and commercial artist Gilda Farrell (Hopkins). Tom and George are buddy/roommates who meet and fall in love with Gilda.
Miriam Hopkins is in her element as passionate, independent Gilda (pronounced ‘Jilda’). She commands the screen – and her co-stars – with easy charm and confidence. Hopkinswas at the height of her delectable pre-Code heyday in 1933; the steamy and controversial The Story of Temple Drake was released just months before Design for Living.
In his early films, Gary Cooper is always handsome and appealing, but he does not always convince as an actor. Cast against type in Design for Living he seems awkward spouting Hecht’s snappy dialogue at times and it isn’t hard to understand why Lubitsch had first turned to Douglas Fairbanks, Jr. But the director was satisfied with Cooper’s performance and believed movie-goers and would “…be happy to see that he is an accomplished light comedian.”
Fredric March, experienced in talky roles like this one, is a better fit. In a departure from the more somber roles he was better known for, he shines as dapper, jovial Tom, a character partially informed by Ben Hecht’s own background as a playwright.
Had it been released just six months later, in 1934 when the Production Code was in force, Design for Living would not have gotten past the censors. Not only do Tom and George love Gilda – but Gilda loves Tom and George. She cannot and will not choose between them, and so the three decide to live together platonically – for a while…
Gilda is able to take what was then considered the entirely male prerogative without having to pay the on-screen price – usually death – that would soon be ordained by the Code:
Gilda: “A thing happened to me that usually happens to men…a man can meet two, three or even four women and fall in love with all of them and then, by a process of interesting elimination, he is able to decide which one he prefers. But a woman must decide purely on instinct, guesswork, if she wants to be considered nice. Oh, it’s alright for her to try on a hundred hats before she picks one out, but…”
Tom: “That’s very fine, but which chapeau do you want, madam?”
The Lady Eve is the editor of the fabulous classic film blogThe Lady Eve’s Reel Life. She recently hosted the outstanding blog event A Month of Vertigo and is currently featuring essays on the popular television show Mad Men.
“Some of you seem to think this is a course in anatomy.” ~Fredric March in The Wild Party as the anthropology professor in a women’s university.
In that 1929 talkie directed by Dorothy Arzner, he also teaches feminism to his flirtiest student, Stella, played by Clara Bow. The professor literally saves that babe in the woods from possible rape after she hit a roadhouse for some hot cha cha. He educates her on the college’s founder: “She braved the ridicule of her friends and the abuse of her contemporaries to bring a true freedom to women.” Prof. Gilmore falls for Stella but she must embrace “work, scholarship and achievement” and stop being a party girl. This movie made Fredric March a star. We can see why. The camera loved his face. Early March had matinee idol looks and serious actor skills. His tone here — in vocal quality and performance — still feel modern. Certainly more modern than Bow’s. Her Betty Boop faces were more suited for a silent film. She does too much. March seems to have hit Hollywood cameras with a natural sense that less would be more in the new sound era. He stars in another film directed by Dorothy Arzner, Sarah and Son. With this 1930 film, Arzner became the first woman to direct another woman to a Best Actress Academy Award nomination. Oscar nominee Ruth Chatterton (much better and memorable as the restless wife of Dodsworth) played the German Sarah. Bow’s physical excess is matched by Chatterton’s vocal excess. Her accent sounds a little to the left of Lili Von Shtupp in Blazing Saddles (“I vant you should get up und get out und get some money. Or you don’t see me again…mebbe.”) She’s the hoofer/singer who married a lazy American. He gives their baby away and then dies. March stars as the respectful lawyer who helps the hard-working single mother reclaim her son. Again, he’s natural. Every time Chatterton opens her mouth, lederhosen pops out.
The Eagle and the Hawk. I wish this World War I film was as popular as 1930′s All Quiet On The Western Front. The star quality felt about March in his first Arzner film has been confirmed by the time he stars in this 1933 drama. And he’d been recognized by Hollywood with the first of his two Best Actor Oscars, winning for 1931-32′s Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. His second Oscar® came for William Wyler’s 1946 classic about World War II veterans, The Best Years of Our Lives. Only about 70 minutes long, The Eagle and the Hawk packs quite a punch and contains one of my favorite March performances. The movie is visually handsome, with the 1930s pearly Paramount sheen plus a gorgeous use of darkness and shadow in its black and white cinematography. The aerial sequences are exciting. March and jovial Jack Oakie were both in The Wild Party but didn’t have scenes together. They do in this WWI picture. They’re best friends. Cary Grant plays the bad-ass. ”This is a war. I’m hired to kill the enemy,” Grant’s airman says. We see each pilot’s character in the opening credits. Jerry (March) is the upper class good sportsman. Mike (Oakie) is the happy-go-lucky slug. Crocker (Grant) is the unsympathetic roughneck. Here, March is in peak form. His internal work is masterful. He mentally breaks down from a likable guy who sees war as sport to a haunted shell of a war-hating hero by the end. He drinks, as several March characters do. We feel the rage building in Jerry’s soul. He’s at war with himself every time he gets more medals for shooting down the enemy. ”I got these for killing kids!” It’s all there in March’s eyes. And in his stillness. He was one of those actors who realized early on that to be still, to let the audience come to and into your character was very powerful.
A commanding officer asks Jerry to give the new fresh-faced recruits a pep talk with tales of his latest victory. We see the self-loathing and irony in his eyes as he tells them ”…you’re fighting for humanity and for the preservation of civilization.” In March’s most stirring scene, Jerry has a nightmare about combat. He’s dreaming but his eyes are open. For that’s what war has made his life — a nightmare with his eyes open. A much-needed breather from the horrors of war is supplied by Carole Lombard as The Beautiful Lady at a London party. Her serious role as an elegant woman who comforts Jerry for a night on leave is practically a cameo. Four years later, March and Lombard co-star for lively loopiness in the screwball comedy, Nothing Sacred.
My first professional broadcast job was doing news on 93 QFM, a radio station in Milwaukee. During that gig, I got to meet and spend time with Rosemary Clooney, Margaret Whiting and Martha Raye when they toured in a 1970s stage revue that played Milwaukee for a week. One night after the show, we went out to a barbecue rib joint for dinner and they started telling show biz stories. Martha, who was under contract to Paramount in the 1930s, piped up with what a flirt Fredric March was. Not only that, but he was endowed with more than just a great acting talent. Rosemary and Margaret practically did the Danny Thomas Spit Take with their beverages. I said “Fredric March?” She said, “Why do you think he wore that cape in Death Takes A Holiday? He needed something long enough to cover it up.” What a marvelous night that was with Martha Raye, who later added “Lombard knew how to handle him.” Rosemary Clooney and Margaret Whiting were tired and wanted to go back to the hotel after we finished dinner. Martha turned to me and said, “Let’s get a nightcap.” Over vodka tonics in downtown Milwaukee, I asked her if the celebrated actor was really that much of a Casanova. Martha Raye’s answer: ”Honey, if he saw a crack in the wall, he’d make a pass at it.” I miss Old Hollywood. Fredric March. He was gifted.
Bobby Rivers is a veteran network TV host & entertainment reporter. He had his own VH1 celebrity talk show, reviewed movies for ABC News/Lifetime TV & Premiere Radio and hosted “Metro Movies with Bobby Rivers,” a weekly local show highlighting the NYC film scene. He’s acted in TV commercials and played clueless “Prof. Haige” in satirical news features for The Onion.
You know what is one of the best film discoveries? When you realize two of your favorite actors starred in a film together that you have never seen.
In the case of The Eagle & the Hawk it would be Fredric March & Cary Grant. Of course with big names like this you expect the film to not be very good because why else did you not hear about it before? I’ve only been a fan of Fredric March for two years or so but I’ve been a fan of Grant for years so I thought I at least knew most of what he was in. Thus when I first watched The Eagle and the Hawk a little over a year ago, I wasn’t expecting much. However, I ended up being pleasantly surprised; it turned out to be a pretty decent war drama. That’s one of the best things about being a film fan realizing there are always new films to discover and it doesn’t have to be a well known film either. Sometimes a great film is one that you have not even heard of before.
The Eagle & the Hawk is about Royal Air Force WWI pilots that discover the harsh realities of war. Early US war films are always rather interesting for me to watch because they contrast so much with later war films once we hit WWII. In 1933 when this movie was made, the US was still decidedly anti-war and it shows in every way in this film. In fact if there is another movie with a similar theme I can compare this one to it would be All Quiet on the Western Front, with both movies truly showing the futility of war.
As for our two protagonists, I listed March’s name first on purpose and not just because this blog event is dedicated to him. March is decidedly the star of the film. Cary Grant was known (in large part because of his distinctive voice) but he had not made it big quite yet and is the supporting player here. March on the other hand had already won an Oscar. March shows that Oscar was deserved and gives a richly layered performance in this film as the lead character Jerry Young. Young is an American pilot who fights for the RAF. He is excited for the chance to go to France to fight heroically for his country. However, this excitement quickly turns to disillusionment as Young realizes the only thing he is fighting for is to see the next young pilot killed. Young flies the RAF planes into enemy territory while an observer takes note of the enemies’ base and guns down any enemy planes. Unfortunately these partnerships are quickly dissolved as one after one the gunners are shot down. C’est la guerre to the other seasoned soldiers on the base. In one early scene in the film a man’s bed sheets are rolled up shortly after he dies, his name erased off the board, like he was never there. March however takes the deaths much harder. Fighting for a cause you believe in is one thing but watching men die is something else.
I’m a chauffeur for a graveyard, driving men to their deaths day after day.
Young is named a hero in the film because of his constant successes. He gets medals for his bravery and is told to make speeches to inspire the young recruits. He is the character the younger soldiers (many of them just boys) look up to. This slowly kills Young inside as he realizes as a “hero” he is only inspiring these soldiers to their deaths.
The way March’s character changes and unravels in the film is a testament to his astounding acting skill. The script tells us that Young is cracking but it is the subtle changes in March’s voice and facial expressions that really show us. There are only two scenes where I feel the subtlety breaks down: a nightmare scene & March’s final speech in the film where we can see what the war has truly done to his character.
Another interesting thing about this movie is Grant’s role is not a rival lover. While there is a brief romance in the film (with a young Carole Lombard) the film instead focuses more on the war itself and the relationship of the pilots. I found the fact that romance was such a small after thought in The Eagle and the Hawk to be a nice treat, especially for films of the time.
The relationship between Grant & March’s characters is actually the heart of the film. Grant plays Henry Crocker, the tough one in the group, who isn’t disillusioned about the war at all. He is not above shooting down the enemy even when his is escaping on a parachute. For Crocker there are no rules in war, just survival. Crocker is a character you would never get to see Grant play later on in his career.
Of course Crocker and Young’s ideals are very different and they clash throughout the film. Although Crocker and Young are not on the best of terms, the two are forced to work together because they are both the best at what they do and in such a dangerous job being the best is crucial. However as the film goes on you can see that Crocker’s character is the only person in the film that truly understands what Young is going through. He sees things the others cannot because he doesn’t see Young as a hero but as a man. This leads to a fantastic ending scene between the two characters that I will not spoil here.
Another thing that makes the relationship between Young & Crocker work so well for me is the chemistry between March & Grant was spot on. I would have loved to see them team up again later in their career when Grant was a more established actor but sadly it wasn’t meant to be. I guess I should be happy that two of my favorite actors got to star together at least once & the film itself focused on the relationship between their two characters.
Eagle and the Hawk was directed by Stuart Walker & also stars Jack Oakie who provides the few lighter moments of the movie. Besides the occasional airing on TCM it is also available in the Cary Grant: The Early Years DVD box set.
Merrily We Go to Hell opens with a deceptively jovial score – if your eyes were closed, you’d bet money that you were about to take in a zany Marx Brothers feature or, at the very least, a film containing an overabundance of carnival scenes. But although this film contains the word “merrily” in the title, and while has its share of lightweight, comedic touches, there’s really nothing merry about it.
A first-rate pre-Code offering released by Paramount in 1932, Merrily We Go to Hell was loosely based on a novel by Cleo Lucas, I, Jerry, Take Thee, Joan – the financially struggling studio changed the name in the hopes of attracting more moviegoers (although at least one newspaper refused to print the film’s title in its ads).
In a nutshell, Merrily stars Fredric March as Chicago newspaper columnist and aspiring playwright Jerry Corbett, and Sylvia Sidney as canned goods heiress Joan Prentice. After an imaginative “meet-cute,” Jerry woos Joan, who agrees to marry the fun-loving writer despite his obvious penchant for drink, and although he herself warns, “Any girl would be a fool to marry a man like me.” (It’s Jerry’s favorite drinking toast, incidentally, that provides the film’s title.) Jerry even tells Joan, early on, that he prefers the company of men to that of women: “I figured out a long time ago that a punch in the nose heals much quicker than a broken heart.”
Once married, Jerry manages to stay sober while struggling to fulfill his dream to become a playwright, but he dives headfirst back into the bottle again when his play is finally produced, and when his old flame, Claire (Adrianne Allen), is cast in the starring role, the film leaves all semblance of comedy behind. The remainder of this 83-minute feature packs in adultery, open marriage, and family tragedy before winding up in a somber but satisfying clinch at the end.
Fredric March’s Jerry is the heart and soul of the movie – his face is the first we see when the film opens, on the patio at a cocktail party, crouched behind a table filled with liquor bottles, flicking bottle tops in the direction of the partygoers inside. “Silly people,” he slurs, chuckling to himself. “I don’t like that fellow with the little mustache.” Political correctness aside, Jerry actually makes a rather charming drunk (at first), unsteadily maneuvering his way around the patio, warbling a little ditty about gingerbread and crème de menthe, and vowing to stop drinking “next Tuesday afternoon at three o’clock sharp.” It’s no wonder Joan falls for him, hard. His antics are less amusing, though, when they include showing up at his engagement party clad in tuxedo and top hat – and passed out in the back seat of his best buddy’s car, and placing a corkscrew bottle opener on Joan’s hand at their wedding because he has misplaced the ring.
March offers a fascinating portrait of a man battling to overcome his demons – not only against alcohol, but against the lingering lure of his first love. His inner weakness is nearly his undoing, which is demonstrated most compellingly when, on the opening night of his play, he announces his intentions to go to Claire unless his wife prevents him. “If you love me, you’ll lock that door so I can’t get out,” he says, pitifully unable to stop himself. March infuses this scene with pathos and heartbreaking frailty, invoking our sympathy even as he leaps headlong into an affair. We are captivated even more by March’s superb performance toward the film’s end, as he fights to regain Joan’s love, never giving up, even in the face of obstinate opposition from Joan’s well-meaning father (George Irving).
The film features in a small role, a young Cary Grant, as an actor with whom Joan unhappily engages in a dalliance of her own, and Esther Howard, looking blonde and sophisticated (and nothing at all like the dame with a “face like a bucket of mud” that she portrayed in the 1944 film noir Murder, My Sweet). Merrily also co-stars Skeets Gallagher, in one of his patented best pal roles, offering such bon mots as “What this world needs is more blondes like that and more men like me,” and “What this country needs is less ventilation and more smoke.”
Merrily was directed by Dorothy Arzner, the first woman to join the Directors Guild of America, who is credited with fostering March’s rise to fame, having also helmed him in three previous films, The Wild Party (1929), Sarah and Son (1930), and Honor Among Lovers (1931). Upon the film’s release, March was praised in The New York Times for his “excellent” acting and in Variety for his “light and graceful” performance.
(One more interesting note – March’s co-star Sylvia Sidney, who also appeared with the actor in 1934’s Good Dame, once remarked that March had “the reputation of being a ladies’ man. But he never laid a hand on me, never made a pass at me! Freddie was happily married. He’d tease me by saying, ‘Look at those boobs!’ or ‘Look at that toosh!’ But it was all in fun.”)
Merrily We Go to Hell is one of six pictures included in Universal’s Pre-Code Hollywood Collection. The set also includes such gems as The Cheat (1931) and Hot Saturday (1932), but for my money, the set is worth looking into for March’s performance in Merrily alone. Check it out.
Karen Burroughs Hannsberry is the author of the blog Shadows and Satin, which is lovingly devoted to her two cinematic passions, the pre-Code and film noir eras. Karen is also the author of Femme Noir: Bad Girls of Film and Bad Boys: The Actors of Film Noir, and editor of the bi-monthly, hard copy film noir newsletter (now also available in electronic form!), The Dark Pages.