Writer: Charles Binyon, from the play, Mon Crime, by Louis Verneuil and Georges Berr
Stars: Carole Lombard, Fred MacMurray and John Barrymore
|This review is part of the Second Annual Barrymore Trilogy Blogathon hosted by In the Good Old Days of Classic Hollywood. This is my John Barrymore review after Ethel yesterday; watch out for Lionel tomorrow.|
I mention all this for two reasons. One is that life imitated art, given that the fictional star created a new fictional star and the film in which it happened did likewise. The other is that during the brief span between the two titles, only three years, the world had turned upside down. This time out, Lombard was the star and Barrymore the wild character actor in support; as her career grew, his shrank to the point where life imitated art once more by placing him so frequently into a bar to get sloshed. In only five years, he’d be dead of cirrhosis of the liver; a lifetime of heavy drinking had already rendered him old before his time, but it wouldn’t be long before it would do him in. Of course, Lombard would beat him to the grave by four months, but not through her own doing, her untimely end the result of a plane crash as she returned from a war bond drive. While Barrymore had descended to B-movies and guest slots, Lombard had been choosing her own leading roles, including My Man Godfrey and Nothing Sacred.
Carole Lombard is magnificently alive here. She’s very dynamic but, for the most part, entirely natural. She makes great faces and she has a whole repertoire of little motions that add nuance to her many flights of fancy. Her best friend, Daisy McClure, is played by Una Merkel, and the two bounce off each other with panache. Sadly, the script by Claude Binyon, based in turn on the play by Louis Verneuil and Georges Berr, doesn’t understand what to do with her, so Merkel’s vast comedic talents are restricted to being an odd combination of long suffering sidekick and human prop, mostly for Barrymore to use in a highly successful demonstration of the art of scene-stealing. At least she gets some time to strut her stuff before he shows up fashionably late and steals the picture out from under her and everyone else. It’s almost the forty minute mark when we first see him and this is a short feature that runs just under eighty-five minutes. To be brutally honest, though, once he’s here, we quickly forget that he took so long to arrive.
My better half found Helen’s continual flights of fancy annoying but I adored them, perhaps because I’m a writer too, if not one of fiction. I found Kenneth annoying instead, as he clearly hasn’t figured out his wife, even though he’s bombarded with incentives to do so. There’s none so blind as won’t see, I guess, but I felt that his character was horribly wrong, beyond understanding why he’s so honest; it’s both neatly ironic for his profession and crucial to keep his wife at least partially grounded. Now, if I was married to Helen and had to deal with all this, I might find her infuriating like, say, Darsey the cop, soon does, but, from the other side of the screen, I found it all both endearing and hilarious. She’s a pixie and a fantasist and a contrary soul and I only wish I could do it all as well as she does. I’m jealous! Kenneth, on the other hand, offers little positive to the story, instead serving mostly as an anchor to prevent Helen’s ripping yarns from soaring too far away from reality when I wanted her to fly like a dragon and him to help.
At least, Kenneth finally gets some opportunity to shine because, naturally, he defends his wife, believing her to have killed in self-defence, but he’s immediately hamstrung by a pair of hilarious performances by others. One is by Porter Hall as Mr. Hartman, the emphatic prosecutor who wants to put Helen in the chair; he knew all his co-stars, having starred in The Princess Comes Across with Lombard and MacMurray and Bulldog Drummond Escapes with Barrymore and he plays to their strengths. The other is Barrymore, a player in the game at last who steals scenes immediately and with abandon and relish. He squeezes in next to Daisy in court and distracts everyone with balloons. While Helen is disconnected from reality, as ably highlighted by her line when Hartman begins to attack her in court (‘Why don’t you pop him?’ she asks her husband), Barrymore, as Charley Jasper, the self-proclaimed ‘utmost in criminologists’, is orbiting a completely different planet, rather like Claude Rains playing Hamlet playing Charlie Chaplin.
Eventually it trips itself up and drowns in Lake Martha, with an oddly misogynistic ending that doesn’t feel right at all. If I adored the first half, I found that I despised the sweep of the second, even if I got a real kick out of some of its performances. Perhaps the original play, Mon Crime, flowed better; it was French, after all, so could get away with much that American equivalents couldn’t. I wonder if the inevitable remake does a more consistent job; it was retitled Cross My Heart and was released by Paramount in 1946 with Betty Hutton in the lead as Peggy Harper. I’d have to watch this movie afresh to see if I had problems with the editing of Paul Weatherwax, but I think he did fine and the problems all stem from either Claude Binyon’s script or his source material. Certainly Ted Tetzlaff, Lombard’s regular cinematographer, does as capable a job as always and it’s all professional enough otherwise. I put the fault mostly with the script with a little reserved for Fred MacMurray’s approach to Kenneth Bartlett.