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Tuesday, 16 August 2016

True Confession (1937)

Director: Wesley Ruggles
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.
In 1934, Howard Hawks directed John Barrymore in a pioneering screwball comedy called Twentieth Century. The star played Oscar Jaffe, a notorious Broadway producer who had created a legendary star, Lily Garland, out of an underwear model, Mildred Plotka, only to lose her to Hollywood; the picture recounts his shenanigans to win her back while they both travel on the train of the title. Barrymore was a massive name at the time, a stage legend who had become a screen legend. His leading lady (and Hawks’s second cousin) was less known, hoping that the ‘61st time’s the charm’ after a long and relatively undistinguished career thus far; she had progressed to leads but hadn’t found that perfect role in which to shine. She was Carole Lombard, who had appeared in an earlier film with Barrymore, Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ, but both as extras: Barrymore was a chariot race spectator (with his elder brother and many other recognisable stars); Lombard was a slave girl (alongside Myrna Loy, Janet Gaynor and maybe Fay Wray).

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.
And she chose this one too, which suits her to a tee. If Barrymore was playing true to life as a drunk, Lombard was playing close to it too, as a wild and wacky creature called Helen Bartlett. She had built something of a reputation for practical jokes and it’s easy to see that side of her in Helen, but Helen inhabits her own reality as a compulsive liar, albeit in entertaining fashion, somewhat like a suburban housewife version of Baron Munchausen. She’s an aspiring writer, appropriately channelling her wild imagination into fiction, but her books aren’t published and her typewriter nearly gets repossessed. Fortunately her husband, Kenneth, is a lawyer, but unfortunately he’s an honest one, which means that he keeps refusing clients that they need to survive. Of course, a screwball comedy like this plays into that wonderfully; Helen sends her husband a new client, Tony Krauch, accused of stealing a carload of hams. Kenneth accepts his innocence until Krauch explains that he can’t pay him until he sells the hams.

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.
I found the first half of the picture, which constitutes the set-up, particularly fascinating. Lombard plays natural and Merkel does likewise but the leading man, who is Fred MacMurray not John Barrymore, is an odd character indeed: an underplayed caricature. I didn’t grow up watching MacMurray on My Three Sons, but I have seen and appreciated him in a variety of film roles, from Double Indemnity and The Caine Mutiny to The Apartment and The Shaggy Dog, not to mention his previous screen partnerships with Carole Lombard: this was the fourth and last of their films together, after Hands Across the Table, The Princess Comes Across and Swing High, Swing Low. I don’t remember disliking him in anything, but I didn’t like him here. He’s tall and thin and young and he has the sort of moustache that doesn’t suit him at all. He’s also overtly acting, which renders some scenes uncomfortable. ‘I can’t stand a liar,’ he tells Helen, after she spins a web of lies around the attempted typewriter repossession, but she’s real and he’s playing a part.

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.
Case in point: he’s a male chauvinist who equates her earning a salary with him being unable to provide for his wife, so he forbids her from taking a ‘theoretical’ job as a private secretary to a broker. Of course, she goes to see Otto Krayler, who may really be an old friend of the family, to interview, even though she knows full well that she can’t do anything remotely secretarial. Needless to say, Krayler doesn’t care, because he just wants a sweet young thing to bounce on his knee, and after a quick chase round his large rooms, she escapes. She goes back with Daisy to retrieve her hat, coat and purse, only to be caught up in the police investigation as Krayler was murdered right after she left and the cops are sniffing around. It’s old time comedian Edgar Kennedy who does what I wanted Kenneth to do: as Darsey, he tries to trap her into confessions, only to find her conjuring up scenarios alongside him, just as mental exercise, oblivious of the fact that she’ll be arrested for whichever one rings truest, charged with premeditated murder.

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.
At this point, I was still jarred by the fact that we had one overtly natural lead and one overtly stylised one, with a natural actor in support utterly overwhelmed by a grotesque but frankly hilarious caricature. What tone was this film going for? Twentieth Century did some of this, but it was consistent in tone and everyone played into the wild situation comedy of the piece. Here, it’s like these actors were appearing in different pictures that belong to different genres. Lombard plays yet another of her screwball heroines, MacMurray feels like he’s appearing in a drama in college, Kennedy is back at Keystone working slapstick, Barrymore channels his stage background to chew up the scenery like an army of termites and Merkel struggles to find something to do after he shows up. And the plot still has to work its way through the court case, then its unexpected aftermath and eventually to the weird romance between a talented teller of tall tales and an honest lawyer who hates liars, all surrounded by blackmail, perjury and layers of lies.

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.
Ironically, it would be MacMurray who went on to success while Barrymore faded quickly away and Lombard was ripped from us in one destructive night. She only had seven films left in her, but they included excellent titles like In Name Only, Vigil in the Night and Mr. and Mrs. Smith, with the fantastic To Be or Not to Be wrapping up her career posthumously in 1942. Conversely, Barrymore’s best films were in his past, often a distant one. He had already appeared in two Bulldog Drummond movies and he had a third to go, but the most notable films left in his career were sad ones like The Great Man Votes and The Great Profile, which served primarily as reminders of what he once was, both those films (and their titles) riffing on his former stature and nicknames. I mostly know him as a silent or early sound star and I shocked myself by realising that this is the latest I’ve seen him. I should continue on to see how his career ended, but I’m firmly aware that Twentieth Century may well have been his last great picture and this his last hurrah.

2 comments:

crystalkalyana said...

I'm glad that this movie was written about for the blogathon. I've always loved this film. Carole Lombard actually campaigned for John Barrymore to be cast in the role, because at the time he was unemployable due to his alcoholism etc. but Lombard saw potential in him, and got him the part. Once again, many thanks for joining in on the blogathon with three impressive articles.

Also, I'm not sure if you received my last comment, but I'm wanting to let you know that I've announced another blogathon, and would love to invite you to participate. The link is below with more details.

https://crystalkalyana.wordpress.com/2016/09/05/announcing-the-agnes-moorehead-blogathon/

Hal C F Astell said...

Hola Crystal,

Life has been a little busy with my upcoming film festival and the arrival of a new grandbaby, but I posted my pick for Agnes Moorehead tonight. Should be fun!

Take care,

Hal