I came, I saw, I got it

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COME AND GET IT, directed by Howard Hawks and William Wyler, begins with a dinner-bell ringing over the main title. I admired its obviousness. When, as the second line of the film, a kitchen boy cries, “Come and get it!”, my admiration increased. A couple of scenes later, espousing his philosophy of TAKE-TAKE-TAKE, aspiring oligarch Edward Arnold says, “Who’s going to pass up a million bucks just lying on the ground saying ‘Come and get it!'” I knew I was in the company of a film that would spare no effort to ram its points home. This extended to the way the world of the film sometimes seems to contain just the one song, “Alma Lee”, which is sung automatically whenever anybody suggests a bit of music, or whenever Frances Farmer shows up, or whenever Edward Arnold thinks about Frances Farmer.

For the third auteur of COME AND GET IT (maybe the second, since Wyler took the job under protest, and concentrated on following orders in a workmanlike manner) is Sam Goldwyn, and for some reason when a producer takes creative charge of a project, the obviousometer rises until the needle is in the red, swinging back and forth and bludgeoning the viewer with every plot point.

The story goes that Hawks departed from the script prepared, a faithful rendition of Edna Ferber’s tale of rampant capitalism, concealing this from producer Goldwyn, who was ill abed with an infected gall bladder. When the boss was well enough to view rushes, he flipped, firing Hawks, and calling in Wyler. Wyler refused the job and Golwyn flipped further, becoming so hysterical that his wife rushed into the room and set about his legs with a fly-swatter, hoping to calm him. (This gives us a charming insight into life with the Goldwyns, I feel.) Deciding that if he valued his career he’d better show willing for once, Wyler agreed to take the job. Nobody seems to know how much of the finished film is Hawks and how much Wyler.

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THE BRAIN THAT WOULDN’T DIE II.

Certainly the opening half-hour feels like Wyler, with Arnold as Barney Glasgow, a macho tough guy like Victor McLaglan in A GIRL IN EVERY PORT, only more driven and ambitious, like John Wayne in RED RIVER. To Hawks, this kind of ruthless go-getter is essentially positive, although he may need to have his egocentrism tempered by calmer friends. Arnold’s best pal, Walter Brennan, is the same Walter Brennan you always get in a Hawks film, only here he has a yumping Yimminy Swedish accent (he actually does say “Yumping Yimminy” at one point).

While we’re on the subject of stereotypes, the infamous Snowflake actually turns up as a train porter, and is referred to as “Snowflake” by Arnold. Well, if you can’t have any lines, at least getting referred to by name by the star is something, I guess. It’s weird because I was just discussing Snowflake with Diarmid Mogg of The Unsung Joe, and he’s kindly passed on some Snowflake research he’d done, which will form the basis of an upcoming post.

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Snowflake (far right) does his thing.

The early scenes of logging feel very Hawksian — manly men and tough women, engaging in dangerous work without complaint, drinking and fighting and singing and loving. In fact, the spectacular logging scenes are the work of the second unit, and constitute the best stuff in the picture. While the score is playing sweeping romance and adventure, we get image after image of death-defying lumberjacks dynamiting colossal frozen stacks of logs into the river — Wisconsin is being massively despoiled before our eyes, but Goldwyn’s composer doesn’t seem aware of it, even though one of the things Goldwyn was mad at Hawks for was his neglect of the novel’s environmental theme.

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Once Arnold is rich, and we jump forward twenty years so that the first Frances Farmer (saloon-singing floozy with a heart of gold) is dead, and her daughter (sweet but scheming) is grown up, the film enters a more civilized phase, and Hawksian echoes become harder to detect. This oddly-inflected shot of Frances Jnr ironing seems more like the work of Wyler, but a Wyler who is struggling to engage with the material. His habit of cutting straight down the line from master shot to medium shot is in evidence, so it does seem like the first 40 minutes are mainly Hawks and the last hour mainly Wyler/Goldwyn.

(Goldwyn’s “perfectionism” has strange, arbitrary limits — when Brennan’s niece, a waitress, serves Arnold in a hotel, we cut to a shot excluding her, and Arnold remarks, “She’s a nice girl.” Since as far as the audience knows, she’s still standing right in front of him, this seems weird behaviour. In fact, she’s left. I can’t imagine a blunder like this in either a Hawks or a Wyler movie.)

“Come and get it!” cries Arnold, inviting his friends to lunch in the dining car. He’s taking his old logging chum Brennan back to Chicago, mainly so he can keep the young Farmer around. Smitten with the first Farmer, whom he passed up in favour of a rich society wife, he’s equally smitten with the younger, and she’s prepared to exploit the married older man’s affection in order to get ahead. It’s not certain if Hawks could have found sympathy for Farmer’s character here, and he was notoriously loathe to deal with characters he didn’t like, so this may have been the part where he started messing with the plot.

In fact, the key to her character is that while she realises at once that Arnold finds her attractive, she does NOT realise that it’s because of his suppressed love for her late mother. Not knowing of the earlier affair, she has no way of suspecting this, so she doesn’t realise how emotionally vulnerable the old fellow is.

“You have a paper cup and my daughter wants to marry you.”

In Chicago, where Arnold has an opulent office that throbs with the ERASERHEAD-like thrum of industry, sounding like Arnold’s heart trying to explode, there is Arnold’s family, including his son, Joel McCrea. In another irony (this film is choked with them), the more environmentally-minded son’s big idea for the family business is, wait for it, paper cups. McCrea has a thankless role, though not as embarrassing as his part in BARBARY COAST, the other Wyler-Hawks-Goldwyn mash-up. (BARBARY COAST is a near-classic, though, thanks to Miriam Hopkins, Edward G Robinson and Walter Brennan — as a portrait of a wild and lawless land, it’s like the film GANGS OF NEW YORK could have been if it had a plot worth caring about. SATYRICON is the film GANGS could have been if Scorsese had been allowed to dispense with plot altogether.)

“You know, the more I think about that paper cup of yours, the better I like it!”

McCrea is soon smitten with Farmer, leading to the undignified sight of father and son sparring for the girl’s affections. It’s pretty obvious that Hollywood morality will prevail, with the soap opera resolved happily for the youngsters, perhaps less so for Arnold, and any pro-environment or anti-capitalist message swept discretely under the rug. THERE WILL BE BLOOD this ain’t.

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Arnold’s daughter (the lovely Andrea Leeds from STAGE DOOR), with whom he also has an oddly flirtatious relationship, come to think of it, gets a subplot of her own, adding to the film’s sense of fragmentation, although at least her story reflects on Arnold’s — like him, she has to choose between a socially advantageous marriage and true love. And impressively, she tells Arnold that if she’s forced to marry the rich schnook, she’ll cheat on him. (it’s 1936 and the Production Code rules supreme, so this is a surprising statement.)

What seems likely is that Hawks realised that the first part of the story made excellent material for him, but the later developments had no appeal, either for him or the audience — since Hawks had what moguls like Goldwyn always liked to imagine they had, a genuine visceral sense of what the public wanted. And since Hawks, like a few of those moguls, notably Zanuck, had a writer’s appreciation of story and character, that sense was actually grounded in craft.

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Wyler, who had just made a great film (DODSWORTH) about the emotional travails of a successful capitalist, was now forced to participate in a mostly mediocre one. I don’t blame him for any of the film’s weakness. All he can do, without having been involved in casting or choosing of costumes or setting up the script, and evidently feeling no affinity for the material, is work on the visual values, so the film becomes more pictorial, and Frances Farmer gets some beautiful closeups with her lace hat shading her face. Although moments later, there’s a nicely dramatic composition as Arnold catches his son with his prospective mistress.

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This is followed by another, and then another, as if Wyler was putting all he could into at least making the ending play like something you might want to see. It’s vintage W.W., big, emphatic and architectural shots that express oceans of dramatic tension and barely-suppressed violence. Then Arnold’s wife (the same one from EASY LIVING) talks sense into him, and we get A SHOT TOO FAR, this rather amusing fake deep-focus effect, where a gigantic triangle vibrates in the foreground as Arnold pretends to strike it from four feet away.

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“Come and get it!”

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16 Responses to “I came, I saw, I got it”

  1. All good points. The film is a total bore once Glasgow chooses not to marry the first Lotta, and Hawks and Wyler both seem to realize that the material is pretty much DOA. So I love a lot of the stuff in the film’s first half: Farmer’s brassy performance, Brennan’s bizarre Swedish caricature, the wonderfully evocative logging footage (actually directed by Hawks’ regular collaborator for such documentary sequences, Richard Rosson), the lively barroom brawl that culminates with steel trays being hurled in every direction. The second half pretty much falls apart, though, and neither director can save it, despite the striking Wyler compositions you point out.

    “It’s not certain if Hawks could have found sympathy for Farmer’s character here, and he was notoriously loathe to deal with characters he didn’t like, so this may have been the part where he started messing with the plot.”

    Actually, from what I understand, Hawks’ rewriting was largely focused on the film’s first half: he extended and elaborated upon the big bar fight, and completely changed the character of the first Lotta (she was a shy, innocent girl in the original novel). Hawks encouraged Farmer to model Lotta after prostitutes and tough bar waitresses instead, which Farmer took very seriously, studying potential models for Lotta in red light districts and such.

  2. Ahah. But then I wonder, how much more of the film did he complete? Did Wyler reshoot end scenes, or had they not been done yet? I’m glad anyhow that Hawks’ opening stuff made it into the final cut.

  3. can’t disagree with anything you say here–although I must add that I think it’s a really fun reversal when you find a producer trying to ram an economic/social critique down an artist (Hawks)’s throat!

    in general, I’m a huge fan of Goldwyn AND Wyler, but there’s no doubt that the Hawksian bits are the only parts of this film that generate any excitement at all…

  4. “Creatively, he was nothing,” was Wyler’s verdict on Goldwyn. He did respect Sam’s courage and willingness to lavish expense upon a film he believed in, but could have done without all the creative interference and headaches. And Wyler probably had the most productive relationship with Goldwyn of any director.

    I’m curious, what would you offer in Goldwyn’s defence?

  5. oh–I think you (and Wyler) have summed it all up!

    I’m sure any involvement he had at the micro level produced little more than annoyance–still, I like so many of the films (especially Cynara, Barbary Coast, Dodsworth, These Three, Dead End, Stella Dallas, Wuthering Heights, Ball of Fire, Little Foxes, Pride of the Yankees, Best Years of Our Lives, Edge of Doom and I Want You)–yes, these are mostly Wyler films, but not all of them, and a huge percentage of them (even stuff that isn’t that great, like Milestone’s North Star) are unambiguously politically progressive, which speaks well for Goldwyn, I think

    I also just have a (possibly overinflated) love for both Miriam Hopkins and Merle Oberon, and I love all of their 30s Goldwyn vehicles (yes–even–or perhaps especially!–Woman Chases Man, which had a zillion different directors, I believe)

  6. Miriam totally rocks. Merle usually doesn’t appear to be that great an actress, but I was very impressed with her in Lydia. Wyler gets good work from her too. And her beauty is so overwhelming as to become a defining element of any film she’s in.

  7. One moment you don’t mention, which strikes me as Hawksian — in sentiment, if not execution — is the singing of the song “The Bird On Nellie’s Hat.”

    The refrain of that song: “‘He don’t know Nellie like I do!’ / Said the saucy little bird on Nellie’s hat.” (The implication is that, for all her apparent sweetness, Nellie’s an acquisitive li’l vixen.)

    I remember Farmer being filmed, during this song, in a way which linked her to ambitions Hawks-iennes like Monroe and Russell in “Gentlemen Prefer Blondes.” In other words, galaxies away from dull simps like Andrea Leeds.

  8. That’s “ambitious” rather than “ambitions,” of course. And while I’m at it, let me recommend the superb recorded performance of that song by mezzo Joan Morris and pianist William Bolcom.

  9. Yes, the singalong’s nice, making a welcome relief from “Alma Lee”. I couldn’t actually swear that the scene is one filmed by Hawks — it might have been prepared as part of the Jules Furthman-Hawks writing period, but shot by Wyler. It kind of looks more like his work, somehow.

  10. Mark Harris Says:

    I wouldn’t be too confident in dismissing the film as mediocre. I introduced a screening at the Green Bay Film Society a couple of years ago (working the Wisconsin history angle), and I took note of the fact that it plays just beautifully with an audience. They were into it every step of the way, and burst into enthusiastic applause at the end. One thing that watching a film on our DVD players at home simply cannot tell us is its communicativeness to a theatrical audience. I came away from that screening with much greater respect for this film; it was a blast to see it with a genuinely appreciative audience, and to realize just how sturdy it is.

  11. “The Bird On Nellie’s Hat” is a very famous song from the period.

    Farmer is of course fascinating. What a vibrant women, so unjustly undone by Clifford Odets (Sweet Smell of Success indeed!)

    Edward Arnold is a truly great actor and fascinating as a leading man — which he didn’t get to do often enough. See Diamond Jim, where he’s equally teriffic.

    Meanwhile (somewhat off-topic but what the hell) SONDHEIM SPEAKS!

    And his love for Hangover Square gets prominent mention.

  12. The song’s real name is “Aura Lee” …. unless you’re Elvis, in which case it’s “Love Me Tender” — ugh.

    And I’ve always been captivated by the entire show. Hawks = singalongs. Wyler = staircases.

    Being a softie when it comes to Edna Ferber, COME AND GET IT is one multi-generational soap opera that works for me. People make life choices and then have to live with them.

    Not that your Hawks / Wyler / Goldwyn analysis isn’t brilliant.

    Until now, the only negative comment I’ve heard about the picture is one critic who compared the log-rolling opening montage as something suitable for a laxative commercial!

    What, me crude?

  13. Randall William Cook Says:

    While I’m not really fond of the film in its entirety, I think the barroom scene with Arnold Brennan and (especially) Farmer is riveting, and couldn’t be bettered: funny and poignant and suspenseful. Maybe one of my favorite movie scenes, ever.

    The scene’s its own self-contained playlet and I’ve watched it over and over. Aside from the sad fact that the rather mature Arnold was, shall we say, fighting outside his weight class, the scene had humanity and humor and romance.

    Brennan’s Swan Bostrom may have an accent which falls somewhere between El Brendel and John Qualen, but he’s a teriffic CHARACTER: a natural born sidekick who won’t admit that he’s practically invisible to the couple beside him, falling in love. It’s funny, but so touching that it’s impossible to laugh at him.

    And Farmer’s performance is electric. It doesn’t hurt that it’s a brilliantly constructed star turn, but she doesn’t falter for a second. On the contrary, I can’t imagine it being played better by any of my favorite actresses of the period. She’s theatrical and natural simultaneously, and
    the film’s worth sitting through if only for her, in this scene.

    The scene leaves me elated, every time, for the fine work from everyone concerned (with the possible exception of Arnold, who really can’t help the fact that he looks like a plaid beach ball).

  14. Wow. OK.

    Mark, I wouldn’t hesitate to dismiss a film as mediocre no matter how it played with an audience: some of my most horrible movie experiences (Four Weddings and a Funeral, Moulin Rouge!) have been in the company of ecstatic audiences, making the sensation of alienation all the more miserable for me.

    But as this is Hawks and Wyler (and Goldwyn and Rossen), naturally I don’t mean to go that far. But I do feel the film lags badly in Chicago, with a marked pick-up at the end.

    One effect of an opening as strong as CAGI’s (Randall, I agree) is that it can sometimes help an audience through genuinely weak patches. Manny Farber offered the example of Hawks’ The Big Sleep, which he claimed only had great scenes in the first half. The second part is perfectly good, but really you’re sustained by the enthusiasm generated earlier.

    So I was surprised to find here — http://sallitt.blogspot.com/2008/12/big-sleep.html — Dan Salitt arguing that TBS only picks up steam in its latter half. And he makes a very good case. I still go with Farber, but I can’t fault Dan’s reasoning.

    Glenn, thanks for the song correction, I had a nagging feeling I had something wrong there. You’d think after hearing it twenty times in one film, it would be lodged in my memory.

    I think we all like the logging, like Farmer, like Brennan (with reservations re accent) who does extend the sidekick role into different territory, and like Arnold, who kind of convinced me as a tough guy — some fat men are tough — although the attempts to juice up his fight scenes by speeding up his blows tended to make his less convincing.

  15. Great post! I have never read such a pure distillation of Wyler’s visuals. I read a lot of Frances Farmer’s bios and memoirs, and as I recall you are dead-on about the Hawks / Wyler schism: Lotta was Hawk’s work and the young girl was Wyler’s. Farmer got along famously with Hawks, since she was in many ways a Hawksian female. Wyler couldn’t stand her and went on record as saying, “The best thing I can say about Frances Farmer is that she is unbearable.” In her memoirs, Farmer wanted the slutty legacy of Lotta to come out more in the young girl, but the Code and Wyler were against it. But she prided herself that she was able to communicate some of that to the audience in the second half.

  16. Wyler was notoriously tough on actors, but he didn’t usually hate them the way he seems to have with Farmer. Of course, she would be likely to resent him, having been used to Hawks. It’s comparable to Preminger taking over direction of Laura from Mamoulian, a change unlikely to make anybody more comfortable.

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