Thursday, 1 December 2016

The Cary Grant Blogathon: "The Awful Truth" (1937)

Theatrical release poster
Directed by Leo McCarey, The Awful Truth (1937) opens with Jerry Warriner (Cary Grant) at his New York City's men club getting a sun lamp tan. He is supposed to have taken a solo vacation to Florida, but he really stayed in the city to play cards with his friends. When he arrives home, Jerry finds Lucy coming in with her handome French voice teacher Armand Duvalle (Alexander D'Arcy), with whom she was forced to spend the night in the country after his car so they claim unexpectedly broke down. Lucy then notices that the Florida oranges Jerry has gifted her are actually stamped California, leading her to believe that her husband is lying. Mutual suspicions inevitably result in divorce.

During the divorce proceedings, Lucy moves in with her Aunt Patsy (Cecil Cunningham), who introduces her to their neighbor Dan Leeson (Ralph Bellamy), a presentable and eligible Oklahoma oil man. Lucy and Dan are immediately attracted to each other and soon announce their engagement, which Jerry resolves to break up. However, when Dan's mother (Esther Dale), who is adamantly opposed to the engagement, starts spreading gossip about Lucy, Jerry comes to her defense. Through a series of events, Lucy and Dan do separate, but by that time Jerry has gotten involved with heiress Barbara Vance (Molly Lamont). To break up this relationship, on the night before the final divorce decree, Lucy crashes a party at the Vance mansion, posing as Jerry's sister. She pretends to get drunk, parodies the risqué musical number of one of Jerry's former girlfriends and insinuates that "their" father had been a gardener at Princeton University, not a student athlete as Jerry had claimed. Realizing that his chances with Barbara have been effectively sabotaged, Jerry drives Lucy away in her car. Determined not to lose Jerry, Lucy tricks him up to Aunt Patsy's cabin, where they are happily reconciled just before the clock strikes midnight.

Lucy Warriner: You've come home and caught me in the truth, and it seems there's nothing less logical than the truth.

The son of a promoter of prize fights in California, Leo McCarey tried everything from boxing to mining to the law before entering the film industry as a writer in 1918. Five years later, he was hired to work at the Hal Roach Studios, where he supervised, wrote and directed several silent shorts starring comedic duo Stan Laurel and Olivier Hardy. With the coming of the sound era, he signed with Paramount Pictures and focused on feature-film directing, achieving great success with Duck Soup (1933) and Ruggles of Red Gap (1935). Following a failed attempt at ressurecting Harold Lloyd's career with The Milky Way (1936), McCarey helmed the unsettling Depression-era family tragedy Make Way for Tomorrow (1937), the personal favorite of all his movies. Despite opening to positive reviews from critics, the film performed poorly at the box-office, prompting Paramount head Adolph Zukor to drop McCarey's contract. At the same time, Columbia chief Harry Cohn was looking for a replacement for Frank Capra, who had left the studio after being denied a salary raise. An admirer of McCarey's comic talents, Cohn immediately signed the director and assigned to a follow-up to Theodora Goes Wild (1936), a movie that revealed the until-then undiscovered comic talents of Irene Dunne and earned her a second Oscar nomination.

One day, McCarey ran into Cary Grant on the corner of Vine and Melrose in Hollywood and discovered the actor, too, had just been dropped by Paramount. But neither knew the other was had joined Columbia until the studio decided to pair Grant with Dunne under McCarey's direction. They handed McCarey a script based on a 1922 Broadway play by Arthur Richman entitled The Awful Truth. The story had been filmed twice before: first in 1925 as a silent feature starring Agnes Ayres and Warner Baxter and then in 1929 as a sound picture directed by Marshall Neilan for Pathé, starring stage veteran Ina Claire. The man who purchased the rights to the latter version, D. A. Doran, had become an executive at Columbia, which had bought Pathé's scripts after that company folded. Cohn believed in recycling "sure things," as he liked to call remakes, because he thought it gave his pictures "better odds." As such, when he found The Awful Truth among the Pathé scripts, he immediately commissioned an updated version of the 1929 version that he could make on the cheap.

Irene Dunne and Cary Grant
After reading the original Pathé script for The Awful Truth, McCarey promptly threw it in the trash and, with the help of his friend and occasional collaborator Viña Delmar - who had written Make Way for Tomorrow - rewrote it from beginning to end. He retained the basics of the original play, which centered around an estranged husband's doubts over his wife's relationship with another man, but dropped almost all of the plot incidents, which dealt with mining interests, a fire in an apartment building and a midnight assignation at a luxurious mountain camp. 

During the making of The Awful Truth, Cohn had not bothered to assign an office to McCarey - he did not believe directors needed such "extravagances" - so the director was forced to do the majority of his daily rewrites by hand in the front seat of his car, with Delmar sitting next to him on the passenger side, scribbling down pages of dialogue in pencil. Then after trying out that day's pages, they kept what worked with the actors and rewrote what did not for the next day's shoot. This was a directing style that Grant particularly loathed, as he preferred to work from a completed script and rehearse his fixed lines with the other cast members several times until "he had nailed every detail of his verbal and physical performance in advance."

Because Grant's pre-set approach as so radically different from McCarey's essentially improvisational style, it did not take long for the two to clash. On the first day of actual filming, someone handed him a series of notes handwritten on scraps of brown paper bag. Grant, as he read what McCarey wanted to get from him that day, thought the director was joking. And when none of the routines seemed to work, the director simply told his actors to "make something up that sounded funny." Grant was appalled, but said nothing. When the same thing happened the following day, however, Grant abandoned the set and went directly to Cohn's office to express his dissatisfaction. Cohn brushed him off, but the next day Grant returned to ask if he could switch roles with Ralph Bellamy, who had been cast in the supporting role of a weathly oil heir. He claimed that he was much better suited for that role, but Cohn once again sent Grant on his way.

Cary Grant, Ralph Bellamy and Irene Dunne
The day after that, Grant went back again to Cohn, offering him $5,000 in cash as a bribe to be taken off The Awful Truth, on top of which he promised to star in another picture for Columbia - any other picture - for free. Cohn refused the money and once again told him to go back to work. Apparently, McCarey became so angry at Grant's attitude that he went to Cohn and said he would double the Grant's offer to $10,000 if Cohn would fire the actor. Despite the friction between the two, Grant and McCarey eventually found a way to work together, with the director helping the actor find a way to "use physical humor to portray the essential humanity of Jerry Warriner."

The Awful Truth premiered on October 21, 1937 at the famed Radio City Music Hall in New York. (This was the first of 28 Cary Grant movies that would open there, a record never broken.) Critical reviews were uniformly positive. Otis Ferguson the The New Republic described it as "a foolishness that doesn't go wrong or strained"; the New York Sun called it "a rollicking comedy that should delight anyone"; TIME magazine deemed it "delightfully effective entertainment"; and The New York Times considered it "an unapologetic return to the fundamentals of comedy [that] seems original and daring!" While still in its first-run release, the film surpassed the half-million-dollar profit mark, making it one of Columbia's all-time box-office hits. At the 10th Academy Awards, The Awful Truth received nominations for Best Picture, Best Actress (Dunne), Best Supporting Actor (Bellamy), Best Screenplay, Best Editing, and Best Director. When McCarey received the directing award (a big surprise, he said), he was rumored to have remarked, "You gave it to me for the wrong picture," referring to Make Way for Tomorrow, which he considered his proudest achievement. With the success of The Awful Truth, Cary Grant went from a position of relative unimportance in Hollywood only two years earlier - when he has received less than 1 percent of the annual votes cast at the Motion Picture Herald Poll - to one of the top five amale box-office attractions of 1937.

This post is my contribution to The Cary Grant Blogathon hosted by Phyllis Loves Classic Movies. To view all entries, click the links below.

Sunday, 27 November 2016

Friday, 25 November 2016

Film Friday: "Broadway Melody of 1936" (1935)

In honor of Eleanor Powell's 104th birthday, which was on Monday, this week on "Film Friday" I bring you the first of her films that I ever saw.

Theatrical release poster
Directed by Roy Del Ruth, Broadway Melody of 1936 (1935) begins when newspaper and radio columnist Bert Keeler (Jack Benny) is told by his managing editor (Paul Harvey) that he has to stop writing about "Blessed Events" and start digging up dirt, he goes after young Broadway producer and songwriter Bob Gordon (Robert Taylor). Gordon's new musical, Broadway Rhythm , is getting its backing from heiress Lillian Brent (June Knight), who also wants to star in the show, and Keeler's column won't leave them alone. Gordon resorts to punching Keeler in the nose several times, but as the paper's circulation, and Keeler's salary, rise he keeps at it.

During rehearsals, Bob's childhood sweetheart, Irene Foster (Eleanor Powell), comes to his office, but he doesn't recognize her. She goes away, but when he finds the fraternity pin that he once had given her in his office, he tells his secretary, Kitty Corbett (Una Merkel), to find her. She auditions for his show, but, even though he is attracted to her again, he tells her that Broadway isn't for her. She dreams of being a hit in his show, but Bob won't give her a chance and instead buys her ticket to go back home. Meanwhile, Lillian has gotten Bob to agree that if he doesn't find a prominent star for the show within two weeks, she can play the lead. As a gag, Keeler has been planting phony stories about a French musical star named Mlle. La Belle Arlette, and when Kitty uncovers the ruse, she helps Irene assume that identity. As Arlette, Irene wins Bob's enthusiastic approval to star in his show, despite Lillian's anger. Just as Irene's dreams are about to come true, however, Keeler calls, knowing that she is an impostor, and reveals that there is a real Arlette who is planning to sue the paper if the publicity does not stop. Irene convinces him to help her, though, and they go to Bob's cast party. When Arlette never shows up, and Irene dances, Bob realizes they are one and the same and that Broadway is where he and Irene belong.

Bob Gordon: I'm going to Hollywood. I'm going to find a star for this show if I have to steal Garbo!

Born in Springfield, Massachusetts in 1912, Eleanor Powell began taking dance lessons at the age of eleven, learning ballet and acrobatics. Two years later, she was discovered by vaudevillian and entrepreneur Gus Edwards, who gave her a summer job in one his revues at the Ritz Grill of the Ambassador Hotel in Atlantic City. In the fall of 1927, while still a teenager, Powell headed to New York to try her luck on Broadway and soon landed a small part in Melville Gideon's The Optimists (1928), a musical revue that ran for only 24 performances. She continued to audition for shows, but discovered that she needed to become a tap dancer in order to find work. As formal training, she signed up for a package of ten lessons at dance studio of Jack Donahue, who tied two sandbags around her waist to force her to resist her natural impulse toward high-stepping. (As incredible as it may seem, these were the only formal tap lessons she had during her entire career.) On her own, Powell shaped her precise and innovative footwork by dancing to boogie-woogie records. After the completion of her lessons, Laurence Schwab and Frank Mandel offered her a specialty number in their new show, Follow Through (1929), which was a huge success and led Powell to being named "The World's Greatest Feminine Tap Dancer" by the Dance Masters of America.

In mid-1933, while touring in the roadshow of George White's Scandals, Powell was approached by the producer with the idea of appearing in motion pictures. Noted for his countless editions of the Scandals on Broadway, White was planning his second film version of the same and felt that Powell would be perfect for a specialty number in the picture. Her apperance in George White's 1935 Scandals (1935) was undistinguished at best, but her extraordinary dancing skills caught the attention of MGM studio chief Louis B. Mayer, who offered her the female lead in Broadway Melody of 1936. Taking its name from Metro's Best Picture winner The Broadway Melody (1929), the new backstage musical was Mayer's response to the successful Warner Bros. Gold Diggers series

Eleanor Powell, Robert Taylor and June Knight
Broadway Melody of 1936 was designed to show off Powell's unique talents. For instance, "You Are My Lucky Star," conceived as a dream sequence, gave Powell a rare film opportunty to show off her early training in ballet. The number begins with Powell (dubbed by Marjorie Lane) singing the song in an empty theater and imagining herself the star of a production that also features the Albertina Rasch Ballet. The ballerinas reportedly were forced to remain on point for such long periods during filming that blood was seeping through their slippers. Between takes they took off their shoes and put on ice on their feet although Powell refused to do this because she feared she would not be able to force her swollen feet back into their slippers. Apparently, Powell lost four toenails on her right foot during the filming.

Broadway Melody of 1936 premiered in New York City on August 25, 1935 and in Los Angeles on September 18. Critical reviews were largely positive. Andre Sennwald of The New York Times, for instance, described the film as a "reliably entertaining song and dance show," praising Powell as "a rangy and likable girl with the most eloquent feet in show business." The film was also hugely successful at the box-office, earning $1,655,000 in the US and Canada and $1,216,000 elsewhere. At the 8th Academy Awards held at the Biltmore Hotel in Los Angeles in March 1936, Broadway Melody of 1936 won the Oscar for Best Dance Direction and received additional nominations for Best Picture and Best Story. It lost Best Picture to Mutiny on the Bounty (1935) and Best Story to The Scoundrel (1935). The popularity of the film gave way to two sequels, Broadway Melody of 1938 (1937) and Broadway Melody of 1940 (1940), both of which starred Powell.

A to Z of American Women in the Performing Arts by Liz Sonneborn () | American Classic Screen Profiles edited by  John C. Tibbetts and James M. Welsh () | Grand Design: Hollywood as a Modern Business Enterprise, 1930-1939 by Tino Balio () | Hollywood Musicals Year by Year by Stanley Green (1999) |

Monday, 21 November 2016

Happy Birthday, Eleanor Powell!

(November 21, 1912 February 11, 1982)
Whenever you hear the beat of my feet, it is really the beat of my heart saying, "Thank You and God Bless You!"

More Eleanor Powell-related articles HERE.