sovay: (Lord Peter Wimsey)
sovay ([personal profile] sovay) wrote2012-07-07 11:09 pm

In matters of business one is forced to ignore human factors

TCM must be rewarding me for my years of loyalty, because they have made Leslie Howard their Star of the Month for July. We've had one week already and I'm taping films like nobody's business. First off the DVR was Stand-In (1937), which I did not watch the night before the Fourth of July because I was too busy making barbecue sauce, deviled eggs, and the custard for the strawberry ice cream, but [ profile] handful_ofdust promised me that I'd love it and she was right. It's a screwball of Hollywood in-jokes co-starring Joan Blondell, Humphrey Bogart, and an assortment of small-time character actors, and it's absolutely delightful.

It is not rare to find Leslie Howard in an intellectual role; sometimes I think he was the only star of his time (or thereafter) to make a career out of them.1 It is much rarer to find him playing comedy, which is why I'm happy whenever he did: he was very good at it. Here we get both, with Howard as Atterbury Dodd, chief back-room boy for the Wall Street firm of Pettypacker & Sons and the kind of man traditionally described as "colorless," with horn-rims that pinch his expression into premature severity and his clipped English delivery well-suited to a calculator whose dialogue sounds like ticker-tape rattling off the latest stock exchange. Like his definitive Henry Higgins a year later, it's a role that takes advantage of the fact that, matinée idol status and my personal feelings notwithstanding, it takes very little for Howard to look, instead of slender and elegant, basically rather geeky; his lovely thin cat-face is not the fashion of the time and especially alongside the sharp-tied or shirtsleeved executives and extras, his narrow-shouldered frame in a three-piece suit doesn't look like it gets out very much. He's mathematically precise in the office, automatically aligning his diploma with the rest of the horizontals and correcting a sheet of figures after a single brief glance; on the quick-change streets of Hollywood, he's a naïf at sea, with slightly wild eyes behind his glasses and a mechanical little tic of a smile for everything he doesn't understand, like someone who's heard of flirting and sarcasm but isn't quite sure how to recognize them in the wild. When Joan Blondell (as Lester Plum, a former child star now working for the studio as a stand-in and presently Dodd's secretary) is teaching him to dance, he spiders around on the floor making chalk marks to map out her steps. You can't learn dance by mathematics, she protests, you need rhythm. "Rhythm is based on mathematics, Miss Plum!" he shouts up triumphantly. "Hold it!"

A movie that didn't like its protagonist as much would have made that the whole of the joke, but one of the nice things about the film is that it's not anti-intellectual, for all that Dodd's awkwardness and exactitude make him a figure of fun as well as fondness: the silly, finicky system actually works. He's counting under his breath all that evening (doing his efforts to figure out small talk no favors: "Do you ever dream, Mr. Dodd?"—"Not habitually . . . two, three . . . Occasionally when I have something to eat that disagrees with me . . . four"), but he's not stumbling into anyone or stepping on their toes. Even when disaster strikes, the solution isn't for Dodd to become a slicker, shallower type, it's for him to expand his skill set [as expressed somewhat more coherently to [ profile] asakiyume below]. Confronted by the hyperdramatic director of the jungle-epic turkey that's about to sink Colossal Pictures, he takes a shiner-making sock in the eye for which he has no answer except to gather his coat and hat and make as dignified an exit as he can; and then, because he forgot his wallet, endure the spine-crumbling embarrassment of reentering a room full of people who started laughing at him the minute he went out of it. Very straight-backed, saying nothing to anyone: it's his schooldays all over again and you know it without a word. The picture's sympathies are firmly on his side, not the tittering crowd or the braying jackass of a publicist who burlesques Dodd's unexpectedly rhapsodic defense of mathematics ("Without it there could be no music, no art, no poetry—the flight of the bird, the leap of the salmon, the rhythm of the dance—"),2 and so it is with great satisfaction that it has Plum teach him jiu-jitsu, even if as a prelude to romance it rather fails: for the first time he's flushed and boyish, learning flips and holds and grapples with the breathless, disheveled enthusiasm of someone who never knew that physical exertion could be so much fun, but when it comes to the clinch he quite correctly sends her flying into the wall and thinks he must really have hurt her when she begins, briefly and annoyedly, to cry.

(She wasn't trying to seduce him: the heated looks and languishing gestures are reserved for Thelma Cheri, the former silent-goddess star of Colossal who's conniving with the publicist, the director, and a rival studio head to run the studio into the ground, Producers-style, with the aforementioned turkey, the indescribably dire Sex and Satan. Plum's interest is direct and friendly and I'm rather impressed it got past the censors, even if Dodd doesn't figure out what to do about it until the final reel. The last entry in his datebook is "Propose to Miss Plum," which he does with no finesse and a great deal of heartfelt. They don't even end the film on a kiss or an embrace, just a shy grinning at one another, hands fumbling closer: "Oh, Miss Plum . . . I'm sure we're going to be very happy." You suspect he's right, too.)

Joan Blondell, by the way. The internet tells me I had previously seen her in Night Nurse (1931)3 and Gold Diggers of 1933, but since I didn't recognize her from either movie, I'm taking this one as an introduction. She's as unusual-looking as her co-star, plump-cheeked, long-mouthed, longer-nosed than the kittenish star she's standing in for; she has a sunny, engaging smile, but she's not a head-turner until she starts talking. Their chemistry is one of the screwball factors, the click of minds rather than hormonal whiteout. She calls him "Sonny-Boy," isn't even slightly impressed by his brains because she's got a first-class set herself, but she likes them along with the gawky, proper rest of him. (Her near-eidetic memory is revealed in a nice blindside as Dodd thinks she's primping femininely at the expense of his dictation and she reels the whole paragraph back to him without breaking a stocking-rolling stride, then asks if he wants it in shorthand.) When she commandeers his taxicab on his first, dazzled afternoon in Hollywood, the audience is prepared for a daffy free spirit like Carole Lombard in My Man Godfrey (1936) or Bringing Up Baby-era Katherine Hepburn, but it's just that her feet really hurt and she knows all the cabbies by name. She's not a manic pixie dreamgirl who'll shake him to life; she's not his dreamer's tether to reality. She was the Shirley Temple of her day ("'America's Sugar Plum' Idolized By Millions!—Tiny Tot In Gripping Movie Drama") until she aged out and became a healthy young woman instead of dimplishly adorable; she's been in the studio system all her life and she knows all the ins and outs and dirty tricks and there is no glamour in the silver screen for her, it's a day's work, but she's not looking to disillusion Atterbury, either. What she wants him to see are the people—the gaffers, the carpenters, the wardrobe mistresses and the staff at the canteen and the nameless odd-jobbers who keep the whole bag of dreams running under the notice of the stars. He calls them "units" when he first comes to Colossal, thinking in terms of production, as in a factory. She makes him see her. She makes him see himself: he's no less an unwieldy, arbitrarily unemployable human being for all he has an office with nicely carved lattices and three phones. (Again, a distinction: Dodd is never condescending, he just characterizes himself entirely by his job and transfers the assumption out to everyone he meets.) And she does it all without ever resorting to sermonizing or relinquishing her frankly stated interest in this "New York wizard" who knows so little about the magic of the movies that the names "Shirley Temple" and "Clark Gable" mean less to him than Eratosthenes. He may never have seen a movie before in his life. He's never had reason to. Knowing her makes him want to be more in the world, and that includes sometimes escaping it.

(The internet also tells me she made seven films with James Cagney and I want to see those.)

And lastly, there's the pleasure of Humphrey Bogart in a pre-Casablanca, non-criminal role as the beleaguered director of Sex and Satan, Thelma Cheri's ex-lover who discovered her when she was a no-name cigarette girl and found his star falling as hers rose, partly because he really does pick his moments to fall off the wagon and they are without exception the worst possible, mostly because he may be cynical, but he's just not that much of a bastard and it counts against him in Tinseltown. He knows he's being run rings round on this picture, but he can't get any leverage with all the ironclads in Cheri's contract—the ones he put there himself in the days when he thought she really loved him back. Thank God, we're not in A Star Is Born; Bogart's Quintain spends a scene self-consciously drunk, but more of his time in the cutting room, cleverly salvaging a watchable movie out of the dreck he's been dredging for months. [ profile] handful_ofdust was right about the weird sort of OT3—it's not that he starts out disliking Dodd, but he doesn't think the pro-tem studio head will be more than pleasantly ineffectual and quickly gone. By the end of the film, he's calling him "sweetheart" and hanging up the phone with a roundly appreciative "Honey, if you could cook, I'd marry ya!", which provokes the same nervously flattered little smile out of Howard as Plum's acceptance of his proposal. It's rather adorable.

1. I can think of only one real exception, in fact: the stage-door send-up It's Love I'm After (1937) with Leslie Howard and Bette Davis as a pair of first-rank Shakespeareans who spend as much time quarreling offstage as they do making love on, although they're as deeply and genuinely in love with one another as their competing egos will allow. Refreshingly, the perpetual postponement of their marriage is less about Basil's habit of banging other men's wives every time they go on tour (for which he is reproachfully docked points each time by his dresser, Eric Blore's perfectly resigned anti-Leporello) than their mutual prima-donnitude—he can't stand to have her caressing his face during Juliet's death scene, for example, because then the audience will be looking at her hand instead of his profile, while she's angling for exactly that effect. I saw the movie last summer; I had never before seen Howard play someone with more beauty than brains or backbone. It was like discovering Laurence Olivier in The Divorce of Lady X (1938). Basil Underwood is titanically conceited, but not very bright, and the combination of the two offers him ample opportunity to demonstrate a lovely rattled falsetto and failure to dematerialize through doors when backed into them by a variety of angry or amorous pursuers. The plot is not important except insofar as it moves as dizzily and wittily as its genre demands and features Olivia de Havilland as a starstruck, sticky-sweet groupie, also some increasingly loopy bird impressions performed by Blore, but TCM seems to be screening it this upcoming Tuesday as part of the next installment and if I'm not anywhere else, I'll happily watch it again. This has been your bonus review of the day.

2. The finale is Capra-esque, but I think it makes a deliberate contrast with the scene at the party: after he's won over an angry crowd of just-fired studio employees with a combination of desperate sincerity, Depression-era unionism, and persistence in the face of being trampled nearly as flat as a cartoon character and having his already blackened eye used as ground zero for a well-aimed tomato, there's one of those comradely, slightly dangerous marches back through the lot to the office Atterbury himself has just been kicked out of, and various people are steering him in the right direction because his glasses were smashed in the initial dust-up and without them everything he looks at comes in threes; he still manages to trip into a manhole and it takes him some anxious Braille-searching to find the doorknob and there's laughter, but it's affectionate rather than derisive—not even well, he's a clown, but he's our clown, he's shown he's not the remote stuffed shirt he looked (and was) when he first walked onto the lot. The tomato-thrower sidles up apologetically to offer him some ammunition of his own.

3. I was probably distracted by Barbara Stanwyck, an early, nasty character turn from Clark Gable, and the pleasant change of the romantic lead being a Jewish bootlegger. William Wellman, pre-Code. You couldn't have gotten away with the happy ending three years later. Hell, you couldn't have gotten away with the plot.

So I feel that I am always saying that I don't understand why various movies I've discovered aren't out on DVD, but I really don't understand it in this case: it's not like the material is dated or any of the leads obscure. I didn't know the director from Archimedes, but he seems to have been a gag writer for Mack Sennett and later directed The Postman Always Rings Twice (1946) and that should be enough to earn anyone immortality. There's a rather nice article about it in the November 1937 issue of Life magazine. (It is preceded by a full-page spread about the ways in which three hundred cats refused to take direction from Samuel Goldwyn, which anyone who has been in a room with a cat for more than five minutes could have told him.) Maybe Turner Classic Movies will just put out a box set of Leslie Howard someday.

[identity profile] 2012-07-08 03:57 am (UTC)(link)
Well, **you** have made a DVD of it, and for that we-your-friends at least can be grateful! Maybe the powers that be will wise up and do similar. It sound excellent.

...and a mechanical little tic of a smile for everything he doesn't understand, like someone who's heard of flirting and sarcasm but isn't quite sure how to recognize them in the wild

Nice :-)

Writing a note to remind yourself to propose sounds like something off one of those Lichtenstein-esque greeting cards, where the woman realizes she forgot to have a baby, or whatever.

[identity profile] 2012-07-09 04:00 am (UTC)(link)
He doesn't transform.

That is so very important. It's so fatuous, the assumption that only a certain sort of person is worthwhile. It sounds like one strength of this movie was to show the value of him as he was--growing and deepening (as you say: becoming more three-dimensional) but not changing in an essential way. I like that a lot.

Also, what you say about saving the studio for the unseen people--it's a proletarian movie then, a movie that champions the worker, not the consumer. *yes*!