Monday 1 January 2024

Service de Luxe (1938)

Director: Rowland V. Lee
Writers: Gertrude Purcell and Leonard Spigelgass, based on a story by Vera Caspery and Bruce Manning
Stars: Constance Bennett, Vincent Price, Charles Ruggles, Helen Broderick, Mischa Auer and Joy Hodges

Index: The First Thirty.

There’s a lot of irony in play with this film, none of which would have been obvious back in 1938. Most obviously, it’s a comedy, though many know Vincent Price primarily for horror movies. However, he’s also the leading man, albeit as a love interest for Constance Bennett rather than the other way around, though he would move after this to supporting roles. He finds himself dismissed by a cook suggesting “You’re not an epicure!” even though Price is now well known as a gourmet chef.

And he’s a rampant sexist here, even if we remember him as a quintessential gentleman, even when playing outright villains. But that’s because of how the film is set up, because the traditional roles of men and women are what the comedy is sourced from.

Bennett, fresh from success in the first two Topper movies and with memory of being the highest paid actress in Hollywood, plays Helen Murphy, though that’s not what most people know her as, because she’s much more widely known as Dorothy Madison 1. That’s because she’s a businesswoman, the founder of a wildly successful service called Dorothy Madison that effectively runs the lives of a lot of powerful men. Every one of her girls answers the phone as Dorothy Madison, including her.

It’s almost like a live action Google, which is clearly needed in 1938 because the men who run the world are idiots and they couldn’t do so without Dorothy Madison advising them on every little detail. In that way, this is notably ahead of its time, or maybe a throwback to the precodes from only a few years earlier when women were allowed to be capable.

However, Murph is fed up of men who need her and her service to run their lives. In fact, she aches for a man who knows what he wants and takes it, so she can passively let him. That is precisely where Robert Wade comes in, as a man who’s fed up of being coddled by his five aunts and has decided to stop being bossed by women. Naturally, they soon meet.

The setup is this. Robert Wade Sr. subscribes to the Dorothy Madison service and he wants them to persuade his nephew, who’s bound for New York with designs for a three way tractor, whatever that is, to go back home. He doesn’t want to see him. Because Wade’s a high profile subscriber, Murph takes the job herself and, through the magic of comedy, persuades the wrong man to go home. Then she falls for the tall dark stranger who accidentally knocks her hat into the river and, when she calls him on it, throws his own in to make it even. Guess who he might be.

I get the setup and I fully acknowledge that it might have been funny in 1938 but it’s dated now, enough so that that the fun nowadays is mostly watching Price play against the type he hadn’t established yet to be condescending to Bennett. He thinks she’s little and helpless. He can just tell she’s not bossy or a career girl. So he sends her off to bed: “Run along now!” And she adores him for it. “Was I slapped down and did I love it?” she tells her colleagues the next day. And then she learns who he is and we can write the rest of the script ourselves.

Everyone has done their job thus far. Price is consistently charming even when trying not to be. Anyone else would slap him but Murph, because of her secret career, just falls harder for him with every outrageous line. Bennett is good at being sappy but also good at being the professional woman, Fortunately she doesn’t turn into a ditzy blonde, just a secretive one.

I should also call out Charlie Ruggles, who plays a friend of Robert Wade Sr. called Scott Robinson. Wade persuades him to sign up for the Dorothy Malone service too and he quickly comes to rely on it. While he’s supposed to be a famous engineer and bridge builder, he only wants to learn how to cook, so asks the service to provide him with a chef. And they provide Mischa Auer, who promptly attempts to steal the show with abandon as flamboyant Russian cook Serge Bibenko.

I’ve always liked Auer, in whatever I see him in, but this has to be the most substantial part I’ve seen thus far, with the greatest number of opportunities to just take over the picture. He and Ruggles work well as a double act and that escalates when Robinson buys Wade’s tractor and he starts to build it in a workshop under Robinson’s busy kitchen. And it only escalates further when Audrey, Scott’s daughter, wild as the ocean and shallow as a pan, builds quite the obsession over the young engineer.

All this underlines just how deep the talent pool was at Universal in 1938. Bennett was the biggest star at the time and she does exactly what she needs to do here, but the newcomer, Vincent Price, is a strong foil. Auer steals more and more scenes as the movie runs on, though Ruggles steals one as well when delivering an engagement speech. Helen Broderick is utterly reliable as Pearl, or Dorothy Madison 2, as she tends to be known. Halliwell Hobbes is strong support as ever, as a butler. Even Chester Clute gets opportunity to shine as a bridegroom at the very beginning of the picture, even though it moves quickly away from him.

What shines brightest though is the script, which plays alternately as far ahead of its time and wildly dated. Interestingly, it was written by both a woman and a man, Gertrude Purcell, a playwright who would find a huge success a year later with Destry Rides Again, and Leonard Spigelgass, who would land an Oscar nod in 1951 for Mystery Street. And they based their script on a story also written by a man and a woman, both novelists, Bruce Manning and Vera Caspary. Notably, the latter wrote the novel Laura that would become one of Price’s breakthrough pictures only six years later.

I have a fondness for screwball comedy and, while this isn’t quite as screwball as the genre got, or indeed as successful, it’s still a wild ride and I laughed often, even at some of the more dated parts. Yes, the surprise ending wouldn’t surprise anyone, but it’s still fun to see these actors work their way to the inevitable finalĂ©.

And it’s great to see Vincent Price debuting on film. Sadly, this was it for leading roles for him for quite some time, even as he moved into larger scale productions. On the basis of this film, he deserved better.

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