Thursday, June 28, 2012

Jimmy Stewart Scores Big Time!

Come Live With Me(1941)
Director: Clarence Brown
Cast: James Stewart, Hedy Lamarr, Ian Hunter

While my favorite genre is classic horror and many films from the genre of the fantastic are reviewed here, i'm also quite fond of cinema as a whole, especially classic film. One genre that i'm a sucker for are screwball and romantic comedies of the 30s and 40s. These are the films that made me a fan of several great actors such as Clark Gable, William Powell, Cary Grant, Spencer Tracy and...James Stewart. It was a pleasant surprise to discover Come Live With Me, the other day on Turner Classic Movies, as it was a film that I had never seen and it happened to star Stewart, a favorite actor of mine for a long time.
The film is a romantic comedy and I confessed shock when I saw who was the leading lady: Hedy Lamarr.
Hedy was one of the great beauties of Hollywood history and likely to be remembered as one of the sexiest babes of all time, though she was a woman of many parts, including playing a pivotal role in developing wireless technology for the United States. She was a cultured, intelligent and insanely beautiful European woman and quite a few of her films are a treat to watch today.
The pairing appeared strange, but the plot sounded fun and the actors are so good, I figured I'd give it a glance, which I did, hence this review.

In the film, Hedy portrays an illegal immigrant, Johnny(?) Jonesin New York, who has fled Nazi-occupied Austria, after her father was murdered for speaking out against the government. She is now a popular night club entertainer(yeah, I bet) and living the high life, while being romanced by a rich publisher(Ian Hunter), who is a married man. Barton Maclane arrives at her apartment one evening to inform her that she is to be deported, but has sympathy for her plight(the U.S. already aware of the evils of Nazi tyranny) and decides to help her out, suggesting to find somebody to marry her in a week, which naturally, Maclane figures shouldn't be hard since she's Hedy Lamarr. It's actually nice to see Maclane in a somewhat nice guy role, since he was always cast as hoods, gangsters and all around nasty people. This is one of the only normal roles I remember him in.
Johnny takes a walk that night and stumbles across James Stewart's character, Bill Smith, a down on his luck writer(Boy, does that hit home) who she discovers is broke. Smith is an overly proud sort, refusing to bum for money, as suggested by professional bum, Donald Meek, in a funny cameo.
Johnny gives Smith a proposition to marry him, and of course, he is dazzled and attempts to make out, before realizing it's just a scam that he is to follow. Needing the money, he decides to accept the help and work on a new book, which happens to be based on his current predicament. He also, naturally, has genuine attraction to Johnny and wishes the marriage was for real.

Barton Kendrick, the publisher who has been seeing Johnny, proposes to her and suggests that he will divorce his wife. Johnny goes to Bill and asks for a divorce, which shatters him, since he has developed feelings for her(the ruse has lasted a few months now) and wishes there was a way to win her over. Meanwhile, he has sent out his work and Kendrick's wife(Verree Teasdale) enjoys it immensely and asks that her husband buy it. Smith is admitted to Kendrick's office and they talk about the unfinished book, Smith completely unaware that he is talking to his rival. Acquiring a hefty advance, Smith buys a new car and picks up Johnny, whom he explains has to spend some time with him before the divorce, since "You don't have to know somebody to marry them, but you have to know somebody to divorce them."
She reluctantly goes along for a ride in the country to Smith's old country home. Johnny becomes enchanted with the beautiful country and quickly grows to love Bill's family, including his Grandma(Adeline De Walt Reynolds, who is excellent) who has proverbs posted all about the old farmhouse.
That night, Smith tries to woo Johnny and is typically awkward, though his poetry and good-nature wins her over, especially that cute poem about fireflies. Smith explains that fireflies light up so many times to indicate that they are in love. Johnny uses a flashlight to indicate that she loves Bill.
However, Kendrick arrives and wants Johnny back and an argument ensues, before Kendrick realizes that his wife had set him up and that he really does love her(by the way, in this film, both his wife and him have an open marriage, a very daring move for the 40s, which i'm surprised is here) and he races back home. Bill believes he lost Johnny, but she has stayed and clicks her flashlight at him and they kiss for a particularly cute and satisfying conclusion to a pretty cute and satisfying movie.

Come Live With Me is a pleasant and underrated screwball comedy that is seldom discussed among the great works of the period, admittedly because it appears flawed. There's nothing wrong with the casting or even the plot, but the film does move alarmingly fast at times. Months go by in the picture with little to know transition and this disrupts the pace somewhat, especially when realize that Stewart and Lamarr are to have been married for some time. It's a minor flaw, but perhaps one that has caused some critics to overlook this one.
The casting of Stewart and Lamarr, may appear bizarre at first, considering the totally different styles of each performer, but the contrast works in it's favor and actually makes the film more charming. Stewart is a handsome enough and likable screen performer and creates a wonderful role as that of Bill Smith, one that is far more relevant than many of the male leads in today's romantic comedies. He's flawed and even a bit childish, but overall, a decent, good-hearted man and it's not surprising that Hedy would fall for him. Stewart was always a gifted comedian, even in his heaviest films, including his Anthony Mann westerns. He just has great timing and his reactions to situations and awkwardness, including his nighttime attempted wooing, are highlights of the picture.
Hedy Lamarr is breathtakingly gorgeous in this film, and i'd bet most guys draws dropped when they got a load of her in this film, among many others she appeared in. Despite, the ploy that she plays with Stewart, she never comes across as bitchy or mean, and is actually always depicted as a sweet and gentle character, one that certainly has enough inner beauty to match her godly exterior.
Her highly expressive eyes can be at once, romantic and sensual, but also adept at comedy, especially reaction shots, which are quite humorous.
Lamarr is photographed beautifully in this picture and is aided by an impressive wardrobe that is both classy and appealing, creating a nice comparison between Stewart's simple country boy and her refined, European background.
Ian Hunter has one of his best roles as the publisher/suitor and has pretty good comic timing, including a running gag involving aspirin and wine! It's amazing that no one in this picture really comes across as being vindictive or bad in any way, for there's no villain to be found here. Hunter has genuine sympathy and despite his ways, we actually understand his plight. Verree Teasdale, likewise, brings alot to the role of his wife and they make a nice couple, though it may have been problematic to show their homelife in the beginning, as we know right from the beginning that they were meant for each other, or was that the point?
The rest of the cast are able, the standout being Reynolds as Stewart's Grandma, a wonderfully, warm and comic character, who arrives far too late in the film. She's a delight, preaching to Jimmy about city life and proverbs, making it easy to see why Stewart and Lamarr love her so.
I was surprised to also see King Baggott among the credits, listed as "Doorman." Baggott was a silent screen star in the teens, and had appeared in Universal's Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde(1913), in the lead role, that studio's first foray into horror. Interestingly, Ian Hunter appeared in Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, that previous year, the version with Spencer Tracy, starring as Dr. Lanyon.

It interested me to see what else director Clarence Brown had made, so I looked up his credits. Brown was responsible for several of Greta Garbo's best films, notably Anna Karenina(1935), one of the great dramas of all-time, as well as one of my picks for best-directed films ever, with the brilliant, Flesh and the Devil(1927), one of the most impressive of all silent films.
His use of shadow and light to create various moods are showcased here as well and he makes the most of it, creating a romantic atmosphere at the end that really works and ranks among the most romantic of movie moments. He also understood how to capture beauty and gives Lamarr, the same love and respect that he gave Garbo in her pictures.

Despite minor flaws, notably with it's pace, Come Live With Me overcomes minor quibbles and arises as one of the better comedies of the earlier 1940s. While, it was overshadowed by the works of Preston Sturges and the sophisticated comedies, such as The Philadelphia Story(1940), this is a wonderful movie and a great showcase for two of Hollywood's greatest stars.

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