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.