“Otto had the sense of humour of a guillotine.” ~ Vincent Price.
In this age of high oddness — more things are available to see on home video than ever before, but not necessarily the RIGHT THINGS — it is particularly odd that Otto Preminger’s second Hollywood feature, DANGER, LOVE AT WORK, should be available from the BFI on DVD. Why not his first feature? Why not his only pre-Hollywood film? They might be completely negligible (Otto thought so), but then, so is this.
My dog-eared copy of Halliwell’s Film Guide calls the film “not inconsiderable”, which might be true, but I would go so far as to actually call it “considerable” either. Halliwell then compares the film to YOU CAN’T TAKE IT WITH YOU, which is bang on the money (something that can rarely be said for the once ubiquitous Leslie H, a steaming middlebrow who didn’t love anything made after 1968) — both films try to create comedy out of an excess of eccentricity. Both have dated badly and can irritate more than they amuse.
Preminger claimed that studio head Darryl Zanuck, having handed him the project, tried to foist Simone Simon upon the director as leading lady. OP protested that with SS’s scanty command of English she would be unable to cope with the current fashion for fast-talking screwball dialogue, and he claims that after a couple of days filming he was proved right. Simone was sent packing, only making her real mark in American movies a few years later at RKO.
I find it hard to believe that Zanuck would cast Simon as the daughter of a family of wealthy American eccentrics. How would he get around her obvious ooh-la-la? Some studio bosses may have been stupid, but Zanuck wasn’t one of them. Preminger tells this story in Gerald Pratley’s critical study of the director (mostly a bunch of Otto anecdotes), again in his ottobiography, and it’s repeated in Willi Frischauer’s unauthorised bio (mostly a bunch of suspiciously similar Otto anecdotes), but I’d love to hear the Zanuck version, or better yet, an account by a neutral third party.
Anyhow, Ann Sothern landed the part, and she’s the most appealing feature of the film, sexy and zesty and doing a bit of a Katherine Hepburn impersonation but not so’s it gets annoying.
Preminger further claims that Zanuck LOVED what he did with the film, and this is harder still to accept, since it’s conspicuously UNamusing for a comedy of this period (it’s pretty hard to find dull studio comedies of this era, though they do exist). The film also lacks much of Preminger’s flowing visual style, tending to cut into closer views whenever it threatens to get any visual momentum going. The exception is a nice shot that follows Jack Haley and Ann Sothern out of a bedroom, along a looong landing and down a staircase, which also serves as build-up to Edward Everett Horton’s entrance.
Horton (see B. Kite’s splendid profile in The Believer: “Edward Everett, are you gay?”) is another of the film’s delights, cast flamboyantly against type as a notoriously “masterful” he-man. As interpreted by EEH, this character is a mass of neurotic tics, obviously living a lie: HE knows he’s not masterful, and he expects at any instant to be rumbled by all and sundry, and so he strides around in a perpetual tizzy at the thought of his imminent shaming. A joy.
Jack Haley is a weak spot as leading hombre. With the appearance of a cherub gone to seed, he apparently thinks he’s CUTE. Fiona didn’t recognise the Tin Man without his lead-based face paint. He proves to be one of those select unfortunate actors who only really works when he’s wearing a funnel on his head. Richard Gere is another.
Fiona: “I don’t recall Richard Gere ever wearing a funnel on his head.”
Me: “He never had. But BOY does he need one.”
Also troublesome: John Carradine as Hollywood’s idea of a modern artist. One enjoys the Carradine presence, of course — a cadaver jerked about by invisible wires — but the loony modern artist is a tiresome comic trope. Then there’s the irritating kid — the problem here is that most Hollywood kids are already irksome without seeming to try (well, they DO try, awfully hard, but to be sweet and moppet-like rather than irksome), so an annoying little professional who’s actually an ass-pain ON PURPOSE is more than can be stood without anaesthetic.
What I’m really complaining about is an accumulation of bits of zaniness, that tiresome substitute for the genuinely surprising. In a zany context, almost nothing is surprising except shock brutality (Jack Haley savagely kicking the little boy into a mud puddle isn’t funny exactly, but it’s a welcome change of tone). And surprise is lifesblood to comedy.
But but but — Preminger was not totally without comedy props. His two Lubitsch-related films are hard to see, but I did manage to get my mitts on a VHS off-air recording of A ROYAL SCANDAL, made under the Great Ernst’s supervision (the other “collaboration”, THAT LADY IN ERMINE, was developed by Lubitsch then taken over by Otto after the maestro was struck down by post-coital heart attack). The film has just gotten a BFI DVD release.
And it’s pretty good! While most attention has focused on the film being unusually weak for a Lubitsch comedy, one could as well say that it’s unusually funny for a Preminger comedy. And it has Charles “Piggy-Wiggy”Coburn, who can’t NOT be funny unless seriously handicapped. The script seems to get wittier when he’s around, possibly because he’s playing a Macchiavellian rogue politician and that’s something both Lubitsch and Preminger can get a kick out of. Vincent Price is enjoyable as ever and in the lead, Tallulah Bankhead is a great Catherine the Great.
William Eythe is the weak spot here — his timing is impeccable (EVERYBODY’S timing is impeccable when Lubitsch is lurking by, he mines comedy from the unlikeliest people) but he lacks charisma, and even in a tight white uniform he doesn’t really have what it takes to explain Tallulah’s lust for him. But he does get the best gag in the film…
Tallulah has laid her cards on the table — she hasn’t laid William but she’s declared she wants to. He steps away from the divan where she reclines and retreats to the wall. Pensive, abstracted in deep thought, he paces the room. For a long time he paces. Preminger’s camera follows him in one of those long, elegant tracks. Then — double take! he paces right into Tallulah, who has left her divan, unseen by us and him, to stand patiently in his path and wait for him to pace into her velvety clutches.
It doesn’t sound much, but it’s an elegant joke on the camera’s ability to be fooled, during a long take, if things don’t stay still. It marks the point in the film where Lubitsch’s wit and Preminger’s rather different pure style come together for one glorious moment.