Friday, December 14, 2012

Breakfast for Two (RKO, 1937)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2012 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

I ran the tape back to the beginning and showed another film from TCM’s most recent birthday tribute to Barbara Stanwyck: Breakfast for Two, a 1937 screwball comedy from RKO that, while not as much fun as it could have been, was still nice and joyful. It opens as a virtual premonition of the Dudley Moore vehicle Arthur from 43 years later: Butch (Eric Blore), super-butler to dissolute shipping heir Jonathan Blair (Herbert Marshall), goes through his usual morning ritual and is about to hand a towel to his master, who’s just wrapping up a shower in the bathroom, when he realizes the person in his shower is not only not Jonathan Blair but is female. She is Valentine Ransome (Barbara Stanwyck), whom Jonathan met during a raid on a casino the night before and who took him home to his place and spent the night there herself (platonically, this being a post-Code film) as they both slept off their drunks, him considerably the worse for wear than her. It turns out (surprise!) that Blair is broke — the steamship line of which he was nominally president has lost scads of money while he’s been too busy nightclubbing and going on binges to notice — and (double surprise!) that Valentine has money: she’s an heiress from Texas who decides to stay in New York and secretly buy up the Blair steamship line in hopes that her new boyfriend, confronted with a threat to the three generations of family management, will rouse himself, tear himself away from his dissolute ways and take over, whereupon they can marry without her worrying that her money will emasculate him. (Apparently the character had seen Kept Husbands and taken it as a warning.)

With a more stylish director than Alfred Santell (like Preston Sturges, maybe?) and a more focused script (the writing credits went to the usual committee — Charles Kaufman, Paul Yawitz and Viola Brothers Shore got credit, and the American Film Institute Catalog also lists Horace Jackson, Lawrence Pohle, Harry Segall and Jack Mintz), this could have been a comedy gem on the level (dare I say it) of the film Sturges and Stanwyck actually did make together, The Lady Eve; instead it’s the sort of script where the writers were so determined to surprise the audience that any hint of character consistency flew out the window. There are some hilarious bits in this movie, though — notably one scene in which Stanwyck knocks out Marshall in his apartment’s built-in gym (she’s hidden a doorknob inside her boxing glove — this is one movie in which someone literally lets the doorknob hit him!) and another in which Stanwyck disguises herself (with a thick “Russian” beard) as a window-washer as Marshall is attempting to marry Glenda Farrell, here on loan from Warners and cast as a gold-digging actress who helped him run through his money by getting him to invest $20,000 in her latest (flop) play. Farrell is a welcome sight but her character is too much a standard-issue dumb blonde (when Blore compares her to Sarah Bernhardt, she replies, “No, I want to be a famous actress”), a far cry from the street-smart powerhouses she played at her home studio. According to the AFI Catalog, RKO considered calling this film A Love Like That (the title of its story source, a novel by David Garth) and Here Comes the Groom (a title they used for another messy screwball comedy later on); this was Stanwyck’s first film after Stella Dallas, which won her the only Academy Award nomination of her entire career; and the window-washing gag was based on one director Santell had personally pulled on a friend in vaudeville.  Breakfast for Two is hardly a great movie, and as a vehicle for Stanwyck and Marshall it’s serviceable but their talents were showcased far better in other films, but it’s certainly funny and it was a breath of fresh air (in more ways than one!) after The Man Who Turned to Stone. — 8/2/07


The film was Breakfast for Two, a 1937 RKO screwball comedy with Stanwyck, Herbert Marshall and Glenda Farrell (on parole from the Warners chain gang!), directed by Alfred Santell from a script by Charles Kaufman, Paul Yawitz and Viola Brothers Shore based on a novel published earlier in 1937, A Love Like That, by David Garth. It’s the sort of movie that frustrates because it’s good as it stands but could have been even better. It starts in one of Hollywood’s typically over-the-top bathrooms, as butler “Butch” (Eric Blore) hears the shower going and naturally assumes the person doing the showering is his employer, Jonathan Blair (Herbert Marshall). Instead it’s Valentine Ransome (Barbara Stanwyck), a woman Blair met the night before during a pub crawl and took home with him — though, this being the era of strict enforcement of the Production Code, she slept in his bed, he slept on the couch and nothing even remotely sexual happened between them. Blair is the third-generation owner of the Blair Steamship Line, a freight company specializing in shipping bananas from the Caribbean, but instead of actually running it he’s lived the life of a dissolute playboy and squandered the regular dividend checks on a party-hearty lifestyle. At least some of the money has gone to building up the career of meagerly talented actress Carol Wallace (Glenda Farrell) — gee, an RKO movie about a tycoon squandering bundles of money on an untalented blonde bimbo’s stage career four years before Citizen Kane! — who, in the film’s funniest exchange, Jonathan addresses as “my little Sarah Bernhardt,” to which she replies, “But I want to be a famous actress!” Valentine has fallen in love with Jonathan at first sight and is determined to reform him, get him to take charge of his company and marry her — and the irony, in a pretty typical but still genuinely surprising plot twist for a 1930’s movie, is she has way more money than he does, courtesy of her uncle Sam (Frank M. Thomas) and the fortune the Ransome family has accumulated in Texas. (At least in the movies, there were only two ways you made big money in Texas — cattle and oil — and the writing committee never quite gets around to telling us which one the Ransomes were involved in.) Val (as she’s called throughout most of the film) secretly buys up as much stock as she can of the Blair Steamship Lines — which is easy because the company is already in such parlous shape the board has decided not to pay any of the officers until the stock turns around, if ever — and names herself president. She appoints Jonathan as vice-president, and his response is to propose marriage to Carol Wallace for 5 that afternoon.

The marriage is scheduled to take place at the lavish apartment Jonathan has equipped Carol with — only it’s delayed by the long birds-and-bees (literally!) speech the officiant, justice of the peace Donald Meek, feels compelled to make before he gets to the nitty-gritty of the service, then  disrupted completely by a noisy window washer working outside the apartment. Given “his” preposterously long beard and high-pitched voice, we’re immediately convinced it’s Val in drag — only four other equally preposterously bearded window-washers show up — and Val responds to Jonathan’s continued irresponsibility by throwing the company into receivership and nominating Jonathan as the man to take it over and bring it back to health. At a creditors’ meeting, Jonathan offers some good ideas about how to revive the line, but he’s still determined to marry Carol and reschedules the wedding for the next day. This time the wedding is disrupted by Butch, who produces a forged marriage certificate for Jonathan and Val, saying (falsely) that they were married during their drunken pub-crawl together in the backstory, and there’s a slapsticky food fight between Jonathan and Val before they finally admit they love each other and the befuddled justice of the peace, who insists he has a pay-or-play deal by which he gets his fee whether he marries anyone or not, finally marries Jonathan and Val for real. It’s a clever movie and an intermittently entertaining one — though some of its best gags involve the large, overprotective dog Jonathan owns, without whose approval no one can leave his apartment — and Stanwyck turns in her usual impassioned performance for a role for which she was overqualified (even though she later proved in such classics as Ball of Fire and The Lady Eve that she could do comedy — indeed, one reason I rate Stanwyck the best movie actress of all time is her amazing versatility: she could do comedy, melodrama, soap opera, historical spectacle and film noir), while Marshall is his usual dry-wit self (I suspect he was doubled in some of the slapstick scenes because they look a good deal more physical than I’d expect from an actor with just one leg — Marshall had lost a leg in combat in World War I) and Farrell probably relished the chance to do her raucous gold-digger act under more sophisticated auspices than she usually got at Warners. — 12/14/12