A Dunne Deal

In his magnificent memoir, Light Your Torches and Pull Up Your Tights, the ebullient Tay Garnett’s chief complaint about his Hollywood career seems to be the number of times he had his titles swapped on him by producers. In the case of JOY OF LIVING, which started out as JOY OF LOVING, the author of the switcheroo was the Breen Office, who objected to the perceived Lubitschian lubriciousness of the original name.

It’s an odd film — torn between the travails of Irene Dunne as a Broadway star who’s working herself into the ground to support her layabout family (who include favourites Guy Kibbee and Lucille Ball), and the romance with Douglas Fairbanks Jnr, who inveigles his way into her life, and the movie, coming across rather like a crazed stalker (as many romantic comedy lading men did in those days). Fairbanks also disturbs by doing Donald Duck impersonations (producers RKO also distributed Disney, so Fairbanks’ vocalisations are authentic), which makes him seem disturbingly like Lucio Fulci’s THE NEW YORK RIPPER.

For the first half, we weren’t sure this film was working at all. The Jerome Kern songs aren’t remarkable. The oppressive opening, in which Dunne is persecuted by admirers as soon as she gets off-stage, has a genuinely exhausting relentlessness (and a shot of Dunne’s face-cream, ruined by discarded cigarettes during an opening night party that’s invaded her dressing room, provoked an exclamation of sympathetic pain from Fiona), but is never actually funny, even with Eric Blore as a butler. In fact, the film throws all the character comics it can at the screen, not always effectively, BUT –

Franklin Pangborn as an orchestra conductor is great value. Garnett had used FP since silent days, and in HER MAN (1931) the comic even drops his traditional “flustered homo” persona to punch someone out. Everybody has to brawl in a Garnett movie. “Who’s Tay Garnett again?” asked Fiona. “He did HER MAN and SEVEN SINNERS, with the great brawls,” I said. “I want to see Irene Dunne brawling!” exclaimed Fiona, suddenly enthused. She got her wish!

(There’s nothing inherently funny, to our modern minds, about someone slapping a woman. Oh, I know, everyone used to think it was just great. What amuses me here is pure timing, most of it la Dunne’s. That, and Irene’s unusual reaction to each slap — there’s the beautifully judged pause, then the wise and insolent look which makes the whole affair kind of surreal, and diffuses most of the potential offense.)

When Fairbanks takes Dunne out to show her a good time on two bucks, we get drunkenness, a slapping dance, and Billy Gilbert bulging his eyes fit to pop. In Common Physical Complaints of Hollywood Character Comedians, a popular medical text of the ’40s, you can read how Gilbert once went too far in a double take on COUNTY HOSPITAL and popped his eyes right out of his head. They had to be pounded back into their sockets with small mallets, a process which took several hours. “It was like a game of Whac-a-Mole played with my face,” remarked the comic, looking like a panda afterwards.*

Garnett, a former Sennett gag-man, also finds work for his stunt-man buddies by staging an elaborate roller-skate rink sequence, featuring copious contusing pratfalls from the cast and their doubles. Gratuitous stuff like this actually gets the movie up on its feet so that by the end it feels pretty nearly successful. Not a classic, just a good fun film — a drunken Dunne makes anything worth seeing, so it wouldn’t really matter if everything outside of the beer hall was images of metal corrosion shot on dental film.

*Skeptics may point out that Whac-a-mole was introduced to games arcades in 1985, and Mr Gilbert died in 1971. “How, then, could he make that analogy?” ask the skeptics. To which I say, look at the man’s body of work. He was clearly ahead of his time.

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13 Responses to “A Dunne Deal”

  1. david wingrove Says:

    Not that I know his work at all well, but Tay Garnett seemed to make a lot of movies that have nothing whatsoever going for them beyond pure old-fashioned entertainment value…

    Marlene Dietrich in naval drag in SEVEN SINNERS, Lana Turner sizzling in a white bikini in THE POSTMAN ALWAYS RINGS TWICE, a veritable boatload of MGM stars – Gable, Harlow, Beery, Russell – in CHINA SEAS. None of these movies would ever class as art, but you’ll never be bored for an instant!

  2. Dunne in the early ’30s can be trying to me. The “poise” and those utterly perfect teeth (which should have a little Tex Avery sign saying “not seen in nature” flash on the screen) in all those dramatic roles make her one of my less desired viewing options. But she really did get comedy, especially screwball and it helped everything but her career in musicals. From about Show Boat on into the ’40s, I’ll gladly watch anything she was in. Exception: Love Affair, as I was so violently ill when I saw it, the mere watching of the film brings back that illness to my mind full force.

  3. I liked Back Street, so I clearly have no problem with glum Dunne, but when she does comedy a whole new woman is unleashed and that’s the real attraction. She can overplay it at times, but she has a unique thing going on.

    Garnett’s book suggests an ebullient and romantic nature which fits perfectly with his work. And he was a writer as well as director, so there’s a recognizable sensibility all through his films — a sensibility that just loved fun Hollywood entertainment.

  4. And while we’re on the subject of books. . . .SCOTTY SPEAKS!

  5. Returing to Kern. I really like this number. It’s especially god when it’s sung to an adult.

  6. There’s one scene where she sings a sing to a judge from the witness box, practically crawling up onto his desk, which is quite strange.

  7. Well Irene was quite strange.

  8. Back Street is one of those in my pile that I have looked on with trepidation. Everything about it looks like I want to see it, except there’s Dunne above the title. I will grant that glum Dunne might be easier for me to take than patrician Dunne. As for the Garnett, being an memoir I guess it’s another I’ll have to peruse if I can get a library copy.

  9. I don’t know anything about her personally… could Scotty help?

  10. Loretta Young could but she’s not taking any calls.

  11. A close-lipped woman, even in life.

  12. david wingrove Says:

    My God, I am so longing to read the Scotty Bowers book! Even if half of it’s not true…well, it should be.

  13. I have an instinctive quasi-belief in the Spencer Tracy stuff, it seems to fit his pattern of relationships, Catholicism and alcoholism. But at this stage a lot of it would have to be taken on faith, though I gather there’s documented evidence of the Cukor connection.

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