Friday, July 31, 2009

Let’s Fall in Love (Columbia, 1934)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2009 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

The film was Let’s Fall in Love, a charming semi-musical (Harold Arlen and Ted Koehler wrote four songs for it — “Let’s Fall in Love,” which became a standard even though the film itself was quickly forgotten — and “Love is Love Anywhere,” which were used; and “Breakfast Ball” and “This Is Only the Beginning,” which weren’t in the final cut) from Columbia in 1933 (the film was produced between October 23 and November 18 and released December 26, though that was so late in the year that Clive Hirschhorn in The Hollywood Musical listed it as 1934) directed by David Burton from a script by Herbert Fields. Hirschhorn described it as “a satisfying blend of music, romance and comedy,” and that about sums it up.

It’s a behind-the-scenes film about Hollywood, and in particular the Premier Pictures studio, headed by boorish, thickly accented Max Hopper (Gregory Ratoff). He’s currently making a movie called Let’s Fall in Love that’s a personal project of the studio’s star director, Kenneth Lane (Edmund Lowe, top-billed), and the star is Swedish import Hedwig Forsell (Tala Birell), whom Lane discovered working at a drugstore counter just two years earlier and built up into the world’s most famous actress. When the movie opens Lane is teaching the title song to the chorus that’s supposed to accompany Forsell in the film’s big number — only she’s having a diva hissy-fit, yelling successively at her maid, her director, her producer and two women sitting on the set who are wives of major exhibitors who can make or break the film’s chances for success when — if — it ever gets finished and released. When Lane shoots a love scene, Forsell snaps instantly from diva mode to committed actress, only to break off in mid-lovemaking and angrily insist that the script is stupid and she can’t play it. (Judging from the dialogue we’ve already heard for the film-within-the-film, she has a point.) The character is obviously a parody of Greta Garbo — or at least the common image of her — and Fields even cribs such famous lines from the real Garbo as “I vant to be alone” and “I t’ank I go home now.” Birell rises to the challenge and plays her to the nines.

Lane fires her from the project and Max tries to get him to hire an established American actress to replace her, but Lane insists that since the film is set in Sweden he needs a genuinely Swedish woman to play the lead — only after hundreds of Swedish women of all ages and appearances have passed through the doors of Premier’s casting department and none of them have been what Lane was looking for, he’s ready to give up in desperation when suddenly, on a date to a traveling carnival with his assistant (and girlfriend) Gerry Marsh (Miriam Jordan), he sees a girl with an outrageously phony “French” accent running a concession on the midway and instantly decides she’s right for the part. There are only two complications — when the girl, Jean Kendall (Ann Sothern), hears Lane approach her and say he’s in the film business and can put her in the movies, she naturally assumes it’s a cheap pick-up line and turns him down; and, when she relents and agrees to test for his film, she’s not Swedish.

He doesn’t consider that a problem because he’s hatched a plan: he’ll have her move in with a middle-aged Swedish couple, Svente and Lisa Bjorkman (John Qualen and Greta Meyer) — who, though we’re supposed to believe they’re real Swedes, talk with the phony “Swedish” accents of El Brendel-style dialect comedians — and live there for several weeks, during which they’ll give her a crash course in Swedish language and culture so when Lane finally introduces her at the studio, he can pass her off as genuine Swedish actress “Sigrid Lund.” Jean agrees to go through the whole charade because, needless to say, she’s got a crush on Ken — though she’s disappointed when she learns, on the eve of her big film debut, he’s already got a girlfriend — and when Ken hosts a party and invites celebrities and the media to meet his new star, in a fit of jealousy Gerry outs her as an American and not a Swede at all.

Max, thinking of how long Ken put the film on hold to look for a real Swede and how much money that costs him, has an argument with Ken which results in Ken resigning from the studio — but in the meantime the media coverage makes Jean a heroine (“The Girl Who Fooled Hollywood!” the headlines cry, making the rather obvious point that she must be a great actress if she could convince so many people for so long that she was a nationality other than her own) and people flood movie theatres all over the country demanding to see the as-yet unfinished film. There’s just one catch: Jean has disappeared from Hollywood, and Ken has to find her — which he does by tracing her carnival to Kansas City, ultimately winning her back both professionally and personally.

Though this isn’t exactly the freshest story in the world — it wasn’t then, either — Let’s Fall in Love is told with a marvelous wit and insouciant charm that makes up for its triteness and the failure to showcase its title song adequately. We hear it three times — first sung by an adenoidal Irish tenor in the opening sequence (one wonders what possessed the great director Kenneth Lane to put an Irish tenor into a movie about Sweden) and then twice sung by Ann Sothern, who was a personable and likable actress but hardly one of the golden throats of cinematic history. (I couldn’t help but imagine what a breathtaking film this could have been with Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers in the leads!)

One wonders how a film got greenlighted at Columbia that portrayed a studio boss as obnoxious, pushy and unscrupulous — the usual view of Columbia’s real-life head, Harry Cohn — and also how life imitated art four years later when Sam Goldwyn suffered a major embarrassment after Sigrid Gurie, the actress he had supposedly (and with great fanfare and ballyhoo) imported from Norway, turned out to have been born in Flatbush, Brooklyn (though she was at least Norwegian by ancestry; her parents had emigrated from there), thereby ruining the box-office chances of the film he’d starred her in, The Adventures of Marco Polo with Gary Cooper. Interestingly, Let’s Fall in Love was remade at Columbia 14 years later under the title Slightly French — reflecting a change in the country the heroine (Dorothy Lamour) had to pretend to be from from Sweden to France — directed by Douglas Sirk, who rather airily dismissed the movie when he told Jon Halliday, “I have no feeling for this picture at all.”