Ronald Colman, Smut Peddlar

vlcsnap-2014-01-21-20h54m31s67

Ginger Roger and Ronald Colman enjoy a bit of chaste phone sex.

LUCKY PARTNERS, one of Lewis Milestone’s comedies, strikes me as seriously underrated. The IMDb reviews seem sniffy, so even the classic movie crowd seemingly haven’t warmed to this one. And Milestone isn’t particularly thought of as a director with a light touch, probably because his best known films are very heavy indeed — ALL QUIET, RAIN, MARTHA IVERS, MICE & MEN — they’re not exactly laugh-a-minute material.

But in fact there’s a strong thread of comedy running throughout the man’s career, which ended (ignoring a few TV shows) with OCEAN’S 11, which is basically a romp, and includes comic work in the 20s, 30s, 40s, 50s. These movies are less familiar and acclaimed, and maybe they’re more minor — or maybe just more modest. NO MINOR VICES doesn’t come on like it wants to change the world, THE FRONT PAGE is overshadowed by Hawks’ superior remake, and it’s hard to assess his uncredited contribution to Harold Lloyd’s THE KID BROTHER, the one renowned classic comedy on his CV, because it seems to have been directed by anybody who chanced by — but I might guess at the spectacular crane shot where Harold climbs a tree to indefinitely prolong his farewell to the girl (his increased elevation makes the horizon recede so she stays in view longer) or the dark, horror-noir chase on the boat could betray his elegant and dynamic touch.

vlcsnap-2014-01-21-20h55m40s5

In LUCKY PARTNERS, Ginger Rogers (perhaps America’s best ever actress) works in a bookshop in Greenwich Village with her ditzy aunt Spring Byington (yay!) and is planning to marry prize schnook Jack Carson when the impossibly romantic Ronald Colman walks into her life. With screwball comedy plotting so archetypal as to be almost unacceptable, he wishes her good luck at random and she immediately gets good luck. So she has the idea that they should buy a sweepstake ticket together, since he’s lucky for her. Colman, an eccentric artist, agrees on condition that if they should win, he ought to take her on a cross-country trip, which he calls a honeymoon, before her marriage to Carson. Ginger is outraged at this lewd suggestion and immediately enlists Carson to beat up the bad man.

What follows is a brilliant scene of nonsense comic suspense. played to the hilt by Milestone, his actors, and his editor ~

Of course, a scene like that can only end in comic anti-climax, and as you can see, it does.

Milestone repeats himself, first as tragedy, then as farce. For you see, this is a reworking of the shooting-the-dog scene in his big classic OF MICE AND MEN, made just a couple years earlier. Nobody who has seen that movie can have forgotten, surely, the way Milestone draws out the drama as the boys in the bunkhouse for the sound of Ralph Morgan’s Roman Bohnen’s old, sick dog being shot. The exact same technique is employed here for an almost opposite emotion.

I got very interested to know who Milestone’s editor was here. I thought I detected a faint RKO house style, uniting the Robert Wise of HUNCHBACK OF NOTRE DAME, CITIZEN KANE and CAT PEOPLE with the exquisite cutting on George Stevens’ films at the same time and studio. In fact, Henry Berman was the brother of studio boss Pandro S. Berman and he *did* cut several of those Stevens pictures, with their very musical rhythms (and not just the musicals). He also did a lot of TV and — get this! — he cut John Boorman’s POINT BLANK. That knowledge makes me giddy!

Anyhow, Ginger and Ronald do go on their trip, and it becomes clear that we’re in the quasi-fantasy world of John Van Druten, who wrote BELL, BOOK AND CANDLE (Milestone, Van Druten and Colman also got together on MY LIFE WITH CAROLINE, which I found a lot less appealing, perhaps because Anna Lee is no Ginger Rogers — but it does have a great comedy butler, played by Hugh O’Connell). There are no witches in this one, but there’s a kind of enchanted bridge, coming from left field and leading to Wonderland.

vlcsnap-2014-01-21-20h54m41s171

And there’s also an eleventh-hour plot twist relating to Colman’s mysterious backstory, and here I’m afraid my title is something of a spoiler. Colman is a disenchanted artist with a criminal record, but we don’t find out the facts until a comic trial at the end (Harry Davenport as one of those flustered justices screwballs abound in). It’s quite an eye-opener. Colman painted a series of illustrations of a mythological or folkloric nature for a book on myth, and they were deemed indecent and he was briefly jailed. This all comes out in a testimony by Ginger, who tells us that the book is now studied in universities and considered perfectly respectable. It’s quite exciting to see her impassioned defense of Ronald’s dirty doodles. For although the words of the dialogue are stressing the essential wholesome, healthy nature of Colman’s smutty daubings, we all know that even in the ‘forties an artist couldn’t be jailed merely for doing nudes. We have to imagine Aubrey Beardsley style fauns running about with massive hard-ons. And so the meaning of the scene is that Ginger Rogers is all in favour of massive hard-ons. Which we’ve always suspected anyway — one only has to look at her — and it’s one of the reasons we love her so (along with her being America’s greatest actress). A girl with a healthy appetite for the good things in life.

Lewis Milestone Week *ought* to end today — but I have more! Gimme a few more days.

Advertisements

23 Responses to “Ronald Colman, Smut Peddlar”

  1. Though I am a HUGE Ronald Colman fan, I always found “Lucky Partners” rather disappointing. The problem is that it’s based upon a brilliant Sacha Guitry picture “Bonne Chance” (1936) which was so imaginatively shot and acted that the American remake pales badly in comparison. (If the remake had been a pre-code, it could have been snappier and funnier.) The second Colman-Milestone venture “My Life with Caroline” is pretty disastrous. Anna Lee is badly miscast and the script (also based upon a French play) is not convincing. Both films didn’t do very well and Colman decided he would not produce any more pictures.

  2. Van Druten may have struck out and/or been ill-served by these projects but he remains a fascinating writer. Very much a “boulevard playwright” (with a lightness of touch comparable to Guitry) he did more to popularize Isherwood than anyone prior to Liza Minnelli (whose Cabaret was derived from Van Druten’s I Am A Camera) The Voice of the Turtle (also known in its movie version as One For The Books) is a good example of the (wait for it) gay sensibility functioning pre-Stonewall. But it’s mild compared to Van D’s ultra-gay Belle Book and Candle, out of which Quine made a truly sublime movie.

    I’ve become far more interested in writers than directors of late.

  3. Robert Keser Says:

    Hmmm, “America’s greatest actress”, eh? Ginger Rogers was undeniably expert, but perhaps you haven’t seen THE BARKLEYS OF BROADWAY, wherein she has a stage appearance as Sarah Bernhardt (!), presenting a dramatic reading of the Marseillaise in strangulated French with extravagant arm-gestures, a scene that is memorably, toe-curlingly, indelibly awful. Okay, now back to Milestone . . .

  4. Well, they used to say “Ginger can play anything she can understand,” which sets definite limits on her performances. But you can’t judge an actor solely on how bad they are when they’re bad. Indeed, often the best actors are the ones that go furthest off the rails when things aren’t working (Laughton might be a case in point).

    I had the advantage of not having seen the Guitry film, but I must see it now and see how it compares. I’ve only seen La Poison which was funny, a little disturbing, and very clever. I can see how looser censorship might help.

    My Life with Caroline never catches fire, except for the butler who is very funny and quite eccentrically cast (the role is clearly written as English, but it’s played proletarian USA).

  5. “America’s Greatest Actress”? Hmmmm. Quite an interesting idea. I can think of several people in the running for that title — and none of them are Katharine Hepburn.

    The thing about Ginger was the way nothing stood in the way of her expressiveness. That was why she was such a great partner to Astaire. Look at her here where she’s emoting joy while dancing up a storm. None of Fred’s other partners — great as they were — could do this.

  6. Absolutely. Because she keeps the emotion going through the musical numbers, those lighter-than-air musicals have an unexpected solidity.

    Stage Door allows a direct comparison of Kate and Ginger — both are very good, and so different that comparison is largely meaningless.

  7. Charles W. Callahan Says:

    I hate to be picky because I love this blog. It’s one of the finest film blogs I know of. But Ralph Morgan wasn’t in Of Mice & Men. The “Candy” role was played by Roman Bohnen, a member of the Group Theatre in NYC in the 30’s. He also played Dana Andrews’ father in The Best Years of Our Lives. In both films he made me cry my eyes out. Once again, this is a great blog. Thanks.

  8. Thank you! I’d hate to perpetuate such a mistake — Bohnen is superb in the role and deserves the credit I inadvertently deprived him of.

    Milestone, who never met an actor he didn’t like it seems, also used Bohnen in Edge of Darkness, The Strange Love of Martha Ivers and Arch of Triumph. We talk about Ford’s stock company, but Milestone’s repeat casting is a staple right across his career, with hardly anybody only appearing once, and all of his films featuring at least one familiar player. Even Halls of Montezuma keeps up the consistency by casting Reginald Gardiner as a US marine, which is utterly bizarre but WORKS.

  9. David Boxwell Says:

    Perhaps America’s Greatest Actress is certainly not so great in Hawks’ MONKEY BUSINESS (52), or Phil Karlson’s TIGHT SPOT (55), just to name two. But she is pretty darn great in any of the supporting roles she played at Warners in the 30s, especially GOLD DIGGERS OF 1933. And she was the first Blanche du Bois in movies, but a sassy strong one, so that counts for something (Heisler’s STORM WARNING-50).

  10. I like her fine in Monkey Business! It’s a slightly awkward film in a number of ways, but I never had a problem with GR in it.

  11. Cahiers du Cinema was crazy about Monkey Business — especially Rivette as it inspired the candies in Celine and Julie Go Boating

  12. The Monroe-Coburn team are even more archetypal here than in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes. “Anyone can type!”

  13. I love Ginger Rogers too, but then again she eventually settled in Oregon, where I grew up. My parents once saw her in a nightclub in Portland looking fabulous in her later years. I suppose my dad loved the fact that she was a conservative.

  14. In The RKO Story, Ginger basically comes out and says that the hardest part of doing Stage Door was trying to empathise with characters who aren’t successful and have the nerve to grumble about their lot in life.

    She clearly had a very strong work ethic and became a star very young, and I guess naturally assumed that anybody who didn’t achieve instant success was lazy. But not everyone is as beautiful and talented as Ginger, or in an environment where that will be recognized…

  15. “The others cried. Ginger didn’t cry.”

  16. Ginger’s antipathy to “grumbling” is as one with her anti-communist hysteria (fed by her famous “Rose”-on-steroids mother) She claimed a line about “share and share alike” in Tender Comrade was pure commie propaganda.

    She won her Oscar for Kitty Foyle — a “woman’s picture” in which she’s quite good. But not as good as she was in Swing Time or Stage Door

  17. Ginger wasn’t exactly successful when she started at Paramount, Carole Lombard blew right past Ginger in the new ingenue crop they were both part of. I doubt she grumbled about it but her rise took around 3 years. If she became unsympathetic to those who didn’t have instant success, what must she have thought of Betty Grable? Or Humphrey Bogart?

  18. By the time they were on her radar, they were successful, so it wouldn’t have bothered her. She just didn’t like “whingers”. No whingers for Ginger.

  19. I was going to say that she never appeared in a film with Bogart or Grable, but then I remembered that weird “knock knees” dance in THE GAY DIVORCEE. IMDB says Grable was also in FOLLOW THE FLEET. Don’t remember if she and Rogers were ever on screen at the same time.

  20. Even her ex Lew Ayres, had a fallow period. She probably divorced him because he was a “loser” :)

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: