Archive for Monroe Owsley

Acting the Fool

Posted in FILM, literature with tags , , , , , , , , , , on January 11, 2018 by dcairns

The key missing Leo McCarey film, which some lucky New Yorkers got to see a year or so ago, is PART TIME WIFE, a proto-screwball comedy from 1930. Parts of it were recycled in THE AWFUL TRUTH — the dog, and the lawyer bickering with his wife. Without being able to see that one, I’m left with McCarey’s early broad comedies, mostly starring clowns like Eddie Cantor, the Marx Bros, Mae West. DUCK SOUP is a masterpiece, the rest vary, but they rarely suggest the miraculous looseness of his mature work, the stuff which reaches a pinnacle with RUGGLES OF RED GAP, MAKE WAY FOR TOMORROW, THE AWFUL TRUTH.

INDISCREET (1931) is more interesting to me than slapdash slapstick like LET’S GO NATIVE. It stars Gloria Swanson and Ben Lyon and has a kind of melodrama plot in which Gloria has to save her little sister from marrying a louse. She knows he’s a louse because he used to be her lover. A delicate problem.

Within that framework, McCarey pulls off some engaging farce — Gloria tries to put off the wedding by planting a rumour that there’s madness in her family, and then acting the part at a swank dinner. It’s not as funny as Irene Dunne pretending to be Cary Grant’s floozy sister Lola in THE AWFUL TRUTH, but it’s pretty good. Especially because it’s Gloria.

The climax also has Gloria trying to smuggle her way onto an ocean liner past a suspicious guard, a lovely piece of low comedy — the ghost of screwball yet to come — a great, glamorous, serious star being silly.

Cutie Barbara Kent is cute, creep Monroe Owsley is creepy, and there’s a glorious, cartoony, entirely wrong performance by Arthur Lake who would later find his spot by playing a cartoon character, Dagwood Bumstead in the BLONDIE series.

The movie was planned as a musical, but because a bunch of the 1929 crop of musicals had flopped, the studio ordered McCarey to remove all the Buddy DeSylva songs (he retained one), a shame, since Gloria had a fine operatic voice. Rewriting the script was done in a hurry, and Leo was dissatisfied with the results. These early films are often most interesting for the ways they echo the early Laurel & Hardy and Charley Chase films, and anticipate the later masterpieces. But this one also shows an early near-success in McCarey’s struggle to transition from shorts to features. How to sustain the momentum in a comedy over ninety minutes? McCarey’s solution, in the end, would be to make dramas, with comic developments and tone and climaxes. THE AWFUL TRUTH is a divorce drama. MY FAVORITE WIFE is a problem play.

Reading: I got ahold of Leland Poague’s The Hollywood Professionals volume on McCarey, but didn’t care for it too much. There’s nothing about the filmmaking in it. But then I found Edinburgh University Library had a PDF of The McCarey Touch: The Life and Films of Leo McCarey by Jerome M. McKeever. It’s a marvelous overview. McKeever seems to have dug up every bit of research material possible, and his observations are astute and illuminating. This was his PhD thesis — it should be published!

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