Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Merrily We Live (Hal Roach/MGM, 1938)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2011 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Afterwards Charles and I headed home and ultimately ran a movie that did a lot to get the bad taste of Jack Goes Boating out of our heads: a 1938 Hal Roach production called Merrily We Live that reflected Roach’s attempts to transform his studio from a company that did slapstick two-reelers to one that did more sophisticated comedy (and occasionally drama as well) and hired “name” stars who’d worked at major studios. The story was spliced together from a 1924 novel by E. A. Rath called The Dark Chapter and a 1926 play by Courtenay Savage called They All Want Something: A Comedy in a Prologue and Three Acts. The screenwriters who did the splicing were Eddie Moran and Jack Jevne, and the director was Norman Z. McLeod, whose two films with the Marx Brothers (Monkey Business, 1931; and Horse Feathers, 1932) had established him as a specialist in zany comedy.

The plot deals with the fabulously wealthy Kilbourne family (whose lavishly appointed mansion is practically a character in the film!) — father Henry (Clarence Kolb), mother Emily (Bille Burke at her airiest), children Geraldine, “Jerry” for short (Constance Bennett), Kane (Tom Brown) and Marion (Bonita Granville), exasperated butler Grosvenor (Alan Mowbray), down-to-earth cook Etta (Patsy Kelly) and a series of tramps whom Emily, out of a demented sense of do-gooderism, insists on hiring as the family’s chauffeurs even though they have a way of disappearing, and at the start the most recent one, Ambrose, has not only disappeared but has taken all the family silver with him — even the flatware used in the kitchen, which means that when the Kilbournes sit down to their morning meal, melon slices, Grosvenor has to give them huge, ungainly and outrageously inappropriate cooking utensils with which to eat. The other Kilbournes get Emily to swear off giving house room and employment to any more tramps, but just then a seedy-looking man named Wade Rawlins (Brian Aherne) in a rattle-trap old car pulls to a stop on a nearby country road when the car overheats. He fetches water for it (out of a leaky bucket he has to stop with his finger) and just as he’s walking back to the car, its handbrake snaps off and it rolls down the hill and is destroyed. Wade shrugs his shoulders, starts walking and ultimately comes on the Kilbourne mansion, which is deserted except for Emily (Jerry is off in the car driving her dad to the train so he can go to work), and of course she takes him in and hires him as the new chauffeur.

The film is full of comic situations and sparkling dialogue — the best exchange is when Marion is complaining about her mother’s actions, her mom says, “My mother told me children should be seen and not heard” — and Marion fires right back, “Your mother was a lot smarter than my mother” — and it slows down a bit in the second half after a riotous first half (a lot of comedies do) but it remains joyously entertaining and leads up to an outrageous slapstick sequence that seems as if the Roach staff, after aiming for sophisticated humor throughout the rest of the film, decided to kick out the jams in the final reel and do at least one sequence of the kind of comedy on which they’d made their reputation. Needless to say, it turns out that Wade Rawlins isn’t a tramp after all; he’s a successful novelist with a penchant for donning tramp’s guise so he can mingle among the people and thereby get ideas for his books — and when the car he borrowed from a local garage (where Willie Best plays an attendant) is found crashed, he’s presumed dead and Jerry, who in the meantime has fallen in love with him and got into a jealous hissy-fit when the daughter (Ann Dvorak) of a senator whom the Kilbournes were entertaining was also cruising him (Rawlins was posing as a guest instead of a servant that night so there wouldn’t be an unlucky 13 guests at Emily’s dinner table), faints dead away when she hears the news and faints again when Wade turns up at the Kilbournes’ and reports of his death, as a famous real-life writer once said, are greatly exaggerated. Merrily We Live is a marvelous little comedy — its debts to My Man Godfrey and You Can’t Take It With You are pretty obvious but it’s still funny and a delightful variation on the same theme — and it deserves to be better known.