Saturday, December 20, 2008

The Smartest Girl in Town (RKO, 1936)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2008 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Last night we opened our movie evening with a 64-minute RKO “B” I’d had on the same tape as Finishing School (and The Tenderfoot, the quirky Joe E. Brown comedy, also with Ginger Rogers, noteworthy for including a clip from the ballet mècanique from the 1930 film Lilies of the Field, otherwise lost): The Smartest Girl in Town, one of the Gene Raymond-Ann Sothern series of “B” comedies and musicals that were sort of the second-string for Astaire and Rogers, though this one kept busy three of the droll comedians most familiar today for their character parts in the Astaire-Rogers films: Helen Broderick, Eric Blore and Erik Rhodes.

Raymond is top-billed but this time Sothern dominates in terms of screen time and plot importance; she plays advertising model Frances “Cookie” Cooke, who works for an agency that also employs her sister Gwen (Broderick) as a typist and receptionist. One day, having sneaked aboard a yacht to do a photo shoot, she mistakes the yacht’s owner, Richard Stuyvesant Smith (Raymond), as the male model she’s supposed to work with. Immediately smitten, Richard has his valet, Philbean (Blore), set up a mock agency and hire Cookie to work there at the outrageous sum of $25 per day, and the rest of the plot deals with his attempts to woo her and hers to resist because, even though she’s attracted to him, she’s determined to marry a man with money even though the only candidate she has is Baron Enrico Torene (Rhodes, playing the same foofy “Italian” character he used in the Astaire-Rogers Gay Divorcée and Top Hat).

The outcome is a foregone conclusion but the script (by Viola Brothers Shore from a story by Muriel Scheck and H. S. Krafft) is genuinely witty and charming, and in 64 minutes’ worth of running time the movie’s one joke at least doesn’t have time to overstay its welcome. (Today the gimmick is probably most familiar from the 1953 film of Gentlemen Prefer Blondes — and since Anita Loos’s novel was actually written and filmed in the 1920’s it’s entirely possible Scheck, Krafft and Shore were deliberately ripping it off.) There’s even a pretty good song, “Will You?,” with which Richard serenades Cookie while accompanying himself on the ukulele (and, of course, the RKO orchestra uncredited off-screen), much in the vein of the early Arthur Freed-Nacio Herb Brown songs like “Should I?” and “Would You?” but noteworthy in that it was written by Gene Raymond himself — he’d graduated from playing a songwriter in Flying Down to Rio to being one in this film! — 1/27/05


Since I got so rushed yesterday I didn’t have time to comment on the movie Charles and I watched on Thursday night as a sort of cinematic palate-cleanser after Hancock: The Smartest Girl in Town, a little 1936 romp from RKO starring Gene Raymond and Ann Sothern, whom the studio was then trying to build up into a sort of second-string Astaire and Rogers. They first put them together in the 1935 musical Hooray for Love (a film I’ve always had an affection for even though the final musical sequence, the Harlem number “Living in a Great Big Way,” brings in Bill “Bojangles” Robinson, Thomas “Fats” Waller and the attractive, personable Black actress Jeni LeGon, all of whom totally steal the movie out from under the white people) and made a few “B”’s with them thereafter, most of them musicals, though this one contains only one song — “Will You?,” which Raymond not only performs in the film but actually wrote himself — and is basically an offtake of the Cinderella myth. Frances “Cookie” Cooke (Ann Sothern) is a penniless woman who works as a model, wears incredibly expensive clothes for her photo shoots, and dreams of marrying a rich man so she can own such fabulous garments.

She works for a cheap ad agency and is managed by her sister, Gwen Mayen (Helen Broderick), who made the mistake of marrying the agency’s wastrel photographer, Terry (Harry Jans), and divorced him but still couldn’t get rid of him. Cookie arrives one afternoon for a photo shoot on a yacht — the agency has given Lucius Philbean (Eric Blore), the servant whose master owns the yacht, a $50 bribe to let them shoot there as long as they finish before the master returns — and when the master, Richard Stuyvesant Smith (Gene Raymond), does return unexpectedly, Cookie and Terry mistake him for the male model who’s supposed to appear in the photos and do the shoot with him. Warned by Philbean not to get involved with another woman who’s going to extract a major breach-of-promise settlement out of him — Philbean has even framed the cancelled checks and hung them on Smith’s wall — Smith decides to woo Cookie while posing as a man who’s as poor as she is.

He buys Terry’s camera and uses it to set up an “agency” of his own, with Philbean playing its CEO (and, in some of scenarist Viola Brothers Shore’s most delightful scenes, having trouble maintaining the imposture because he instinctively slips back into servant mode when he’s around Smith), and after 57 minutes’ worth of the best complications Shore and the writers whose “original” story she was adapting, Muriel Scheck and H. S. Kraft, he finally wins her by faking his suicide and borrowing a minister from another wedding to marry them before he (presumably) croaks. This is pretty much a one-joke movie, but at least the one joke is funny and the writers and director, Joseph Santley (who co-directed the Marx Brothers’ first film, The Cocoanuts), make the most of it — and it’s helped that no fewer than four veterans of the Astaire-Rogers series appear: Raymond, Broderick, Blore and Erik Rhodes, who repeats his Gay Divorce/Top Hat characterization as a malapropistic Italian baron with designs on Our Heroine and an avocation — collecting rare fossilized eggs — which turns her completely off. It’s also helped by the fact that it comes in under an hour and therefore doesn’t stretch this rather flimsy situation any more than it can handle. — 12/20/08