Whistle, Blore

James Harvey, in The Romantic Comedy, tries to make sense of the various studios’ outputs during the screwball comedy years (1934-maybe 1941?).

Warners, who had been kings of the hardboiled comedy, were not particularly distinguished in the field of screwball comedy, perhaps because their tight factory approach to production didn’t translate readily into daffiness.

MGM were even more regimented, but Harvey argues that their commitment to gloss and sheen and class gave them a valuable angle on screwball’s tendency to locate dizziness in high places, plus they had Powell & Loy, and he gives credit to Woody Van Dyke also.

Columbia shouldn’t have had a hope, but they had Capra, who helped inaugurate the whole movement before backing away from it as rapidly as he could.

Paramount felt the allure of high-gloss spectacle, and was a flakey kind of studio with Lubitsch and Leisen to hand.

RKO had Fred & Ginger, their only real entree into the world of light comedy.

Fox was hampered by the kind of stars they had under contract — we just watched CAFE METROPOLE, which has a pretty clever script, but lovely as Tyrone Power and Loretta Young are to look at, they don’t deliver the kind of attack and sharpness the comedy needs, and even as able a farceur as Adolph Menjou is left high & dry by the flabby pace. Harvey suggests that director Gregory Ratoff never really got off the ground because he was stuck at Fox.

Well, we liked IT’S LOVE I’M AFTER much more than we expected — it’s Warners and it’s screwball, with what you would think would be unsuitable stars — Bette Davis, Leslie Howard, Olivia DeHavilland and some pasteboard point-of-sale device as the fourth corner of the romantic rhombus — Patrick Knowles. Perfectly adequate, you know, and more handsome than most UK imports, but unmemorable even when he’s in front of you. The miracle is that the unsuitable stars prove to be just right, and director Archie Mayo keeps some of the pace that distinguished Warners’ pre-codes.

Bette and Leslie play feuding actors/lovers, finishing a run of Romeo and Juliet and constantly either breaking up or making up. He’s an incurable Romeo/Lothario and is worried that his moral bank balance is overdrawn. He feels the need for a good deed. Olivia is a starstruck teen smitten with him, and Knowles is her jealous beau, who approaches Howard and asks him to end Olivia’s mooning by turning up at her country seat and behaving like a boor.

The complications ensue when everything Howard does to make himself unappealing only deepens the girl’s affection. Knowles is beside himself, and then Bette turns up…

Of course, Bette as a fiery, tempestuous ham is perfect casting, and she did have comic flair as ALL ABOUT EVE shows. Howard proves to be a very nimble light comedian in the Rex Harrison mold. Olivia’s role is theoretically a lot less interesting, but she plays it like a maniac, making her character’s romanticism seem on the verge of lunacy. When Leslie tries being crude and rough, impersonating the villain from a play he’d triumphed in, she responds eagerly. “You don’t suppose I’ve aroused her ‘slap-me-again-I-love-it’ complex?” he worries.

Pleasingly, this screwball, though ritzy and upper-class in setting, nicely Wodehousian in some respects, does retain some of the best pre-code Warner style, notably a “whatever-works” approach to morality. It’s not specifically scandalous in any particular way, but it does require you to root for scoundrels and have genial contempt for “normal” people.

Oh, but best of all, as the film’s definitive portal into the heights of screwball, Eric Blore plays Howard’s dresser/valet, an ex-vaudevillian bird imitator, who still trills, hoots and squawks in moments of high emotion. Our guests for the evening were much taken with this thespian, and demanded second helpings, so we ran TOP HAT, which is Blore in full flow, and pretty definitive screwball even if it’s early and is also a musical.

19 Responses to “Whistle, Blore”

  1. Pauline Kael was a big fan of this film.

  2. I won’t hold it against the movie — she often liked good films, I guess.

  3. revelator60 Says:

    She enjoyed it but wasn’t a big fan:
    “A light farce in which Leslie Howard and Bette Davis play a shallow, vanity-ridden matinée idol and his hot-tempered leading lady, and relish every hammy, slapstick minute of it. They are surrounded by the millionaires (George Barbier), valets and butlers (Eric Blore, E.E. Clive), and silly heiresses (Olivia De Havilland) who were at one time as much of a convention in American comedy as the fops of Restoration theatre. Casey Robinson’s script (from a story written for the screen by Maurice Hanline) is musty and Archie Mayo’s direction is sluggish, but the movie is pleasantly bad. It begins with a burlesque of the tomb scene from Romeo and Juliet and proceeds like a somewhat deranged Taming of the Shrew.”

  4. That’s mostly fair except the sluggish part — it has the remains of the old Warner pep.

  5. Daniel Says:

    I thoroughly enjoyed this film, Knowles included. He has just enough appeal to make one see why de Havilland should have become involved with him in the first place, but not so much that Howard can’t outshine him when the story calls for it.

  6. Yes, that’s fair enough. Plus I guess he’s more handsome and appealing than the general sun of Brit leading men at this time, who tended towards the Hugh Williams school of smarm.

  7. What you got against Kael, Cairns??

  8. I find her omniscient tone bullying, I mostly disagree with her opinions, she doesn’t illuminate what she writes about for me, and my main feeling about her work is that she signally failed to appreciate the great works of the cinema that emerged during her career. I do find her slightly more appealing when she writes about older works. And she writes fluently. But then there’s Raising Kane…

  9. jwarthen Says:

    I devoured Kael growing up, so can hardly pretend to objectivity. But one can cherish her writing even while wincing at her oversights, just as anyone loving Agee’s columns must do regarding his complete non-response to Orson Welles– one prodigy shrugging at the phenomenon of a slightly younger prodigy. Kael’s early writing about Bresson, Kurosawa, and Satyajit Ray may not have been profound, but she damned well knew great movie-making when it manifested.
    Years ago a book critic for Boston GLOBE argued that only three journalists had lastingly influenced the inherited American prose style: Mencken, Agee, Kael.

  10. The thing that almost everyone , particularly her critics, overlooks about Kael is her influence. She loosened up Film Crit — the establishment variety — in ways that shaped virtually everyone in the field,. Personally, I feel like a de-programmed cult member, having grown up on Kael and rejecting her politics later on. But no one was more alive as a writer. The bullying is definitely there — part of that is a function of her Jewishness. As a New York Wop, I barely notice it. :) — and, to the extent that I do, love her for it. White ethnicity is another element in her work few discuss.

  11. Well, Farber may not have had Kael’s influence, but his style is orders of magnitude looser than hers.

    Maybe I need to read more of the early stuff — my feeling about her New Yorker writing is that, while we could certainly have had worse, her sensibility really wasn’t open to the best new cinema (esp from Europe, although she’s monumentally hit-and-miss on New Hollywood too0. And when she’s not in blinders she can be bizarre — The Three Musketeers is misogynist but Last Tango is just super…

  12. You know my primary whine about Kael… “Cold-War Liberal”…

  13. I was raised by a Paulette. He and Kael were huge influences on me. I’ll never fully recover. Ha.

  14. It’s like a Jesuitical education!

  15. Ha! In more ways than you know!! Pauline Kael was ideologically opposed to Auteur Theory, of course. Noodge, noodge.

  16. […] never really empathise with either of them. I was a little mean about Knowles’ boringness in IT’S LOVE I’M AFTER but he does have good comic timing here, and throws himself into playing the buttoned-down, […]

  17. So glad you liked this one. It’s by far my favorite Howard movie, by a squeak my favorite War-of-the-Hams, and de Havilland makes an outstanding PSA against random flirtation with young folks.

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