Appellate Judge James A. Stewart notes that poor economies mean sleeping on the porch, at least for movie leading men.
Our review of My Sister Eileen, published March 21st, 2005, is also available.
"Is that the only bed?"
In If You Could Only Cook, Jean Arthur's Joan might be pretending she's married to Herbert Marshall's Jim, but she's not even going to share a bedroom with him, let alone a double bed. No, he's sleeping on the porch. Sleeping arrangements are a common thread in Icons of Screwball Comedy: Volume One. In Too Many Husbands, Jean Arthur finds herself an accidental bigamist—and sends both husbands to the guest room. She Wouldn't Say Yes finds Rosalind Russell and Lee Bowman assigned to the same sleeping berth on a train. Even the relatively tame My Sister Eileen finds a male houseguest staying in the kitchen and two sisters spending their first night in a basement apartment without curtains or blinds on the window.
While you might see an occasional screwball comedy made today, the byzantine rules of the Production Code which put an emphasis on sleeping arrangments in film made them a cinematic necessity. The comic deceptions and bizarre situations were a way of injecting romance and titillation into movies while playing by the rules.
The icons on Volume One are actresses Jean Arthur and Rosalind Russell. While the leading ladies are familiar, you're likely to be unfamiliar with the movies from the 1930s and 1940s featured.
Facts of the Case
Icons of Screwball Comedy: Volume One features four movies on two discs, plus a bonus short. Each disc focuses on a female movie star: Jean Arthur on Disc One, Rosalind Russell on Disc Two.
• If You Could Only Cook
• Too Many Husbands
• Ain't Love Cuckoo?
• My Sister Eileen
• She Wouldn't Say Yes
While it might not fit your definition of "screwball comedy" because it centers around the strong bond between the two sisters and puts the usual romantic complications and comic deceptions in a supporting role, My Sister Eileen is the high point of the collection. It shows off Rosalind Russell in full sarcastic glory as Ruth comments on her kid sister's various suitors, at the same time serving as Eileen's supporter and protector. Janet Blair is charming as Eileen, the innocent who unwittingly has every man in sight under her spell. The relationship between pessimistic Ruth and optimistic Eileen feels authentic. The goings-on are farcical—at least I'd hope there's never been a riot caused by too many suitors—but feel like exaggeration of reality, not imagination, as Ruth and Eileen complain about subsisting on spaghetti, Ruth's late-ngiht meeting with an editor in the street is cut short by neighbors throwing stuff to shut them up, or a dog chases a cat through the apartment.
Russell, with the help of an excellent sparring partner in Lee Bowman, makes She Wouldn't Say Yes into a great comedy as well. Here, she's a psychologist who casts a spell on the men around her, but doesn't want to take a chance on a relationship herself. Bowman plays a cartoonist whose character—"that little fiend who goes around whistling people to destruction," as Lane puts it—is an imp named Nixie who urges people into impulsive action, and he believes what he draws. Russell keeps Lane's growing feelings for Kent hidden until the last reel, making for a memorable meltdown.
In If You Could Only Cook, Jean Arthur plays a tough cookie with a soft center as Joan. As she talks about sleeping on a park bench, Arthur convinces viewers that she's been through a lot. It makes the initial deception of posing as Jim's wife to get a cook's job more than just a comic contrivance, instead making it a hopeful act in a desperate situation. Her jokes about marrying James Buchanan for his money when she reads about the society nuptials, unaware that the poor slob she's falling for is really Buchanan, seem more like a pep talk to her friend. Even when Joan's letting out a torrent of vitriol as she learns of Jim's deception, her true romantic feelings come across. Herbert Marshall sounds a little too well-bred for the hands-on engineer type of corporate head, but he turns it around as Buchanan quickly gets into the role of the perfect butler. Lionel Stander (Hart to Hart) appears as Flash, Rossini's henchman, who suspects that the new butler is a phony, and there's a good scene with Buchanan's own butler, who gives his boss tips on buttling while some real emotions brew under the surface.
The Great Depression is a running theme of the 1934 comedy, with Joan fearing a night on a park bench as her job search fizzles and sticking it out in a less-than-perfect situation because she knows what's out there. Even the boardroom talk centers on the Depression, as James Buchanan prepares daring plans for the recovery he's sure is on the way, while board members want to move cautiously for an economic siege. The glimpse of the world beyond the movie's farcical bubble adds some depth, and you might see a reflection of today's economic concerns.
I was disappointed with Too Many Husbands, probably because I prefer James Garner and Doris Day in the very similar Move Over, Darling. It could also be that Jean Arthur's Vicki rarely seems to connect with either of her two husbands. She seems more like a tormentor, urging them into slapstick rivalry, than a woman torn between these two men, and in the end, it's a judge—not Vicki, who decides who she should be with. Fred MacMurray is athletic as a slapstick comedian, leaping furniture as he paces a room. Melvyn Douglas' timid workaholic getting up the bravery to fight for his wife usually just comes across as petulant.
The picture and sound quality held up surprisingly well. I didn't notice any of the scratches and flecks you'd expect from movies of this vintage.
Only two trailers are included here, for She Wouldn't Say Yes and My Sister Eileen. I'd watch them after you see the films; the She Wouldn't Say Yes trailer gives away too much of the plot, while My Sister Eileen's trailer doesn't say much of anything.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Sony showcases the familiar face of Fred MacMurray, who appears in Too Many Husbands, on the cover of Icons of Screwball Comedy: Volume One even though the set focuses on Jean Arthur and Rosalind Russell. Wouldn't Russell, of His Girl Friday fame, have been a better choice?
I reviewed the first two volumes of this series together. There's no reason not to buy this set, but if you can only spring for one, I'd recommend Icons of Screwball Comedy: Volume Two, mainly for Irene Dunne's hilarious Theodora Goes Wild.
Icons of Screwball Comedy: Volume One has a good batting average for a big box—not literally, since the two discs fit into a slim case—of old movies. Three of the four movies were delights from start to finish and, although I didn't see much chemistry between the leads in Too Many Husbands, it does have some funny moments.
Not guilty, even of unintentional adultery.
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