Tuesday, January 5, 2010

Make Your Own Bed (Warners, 1944)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2010 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

After Brief Interviews with Hideous Men I suspected Charles was in the mood for a comedy, and certainly I was, so I picked out a 1944 Warner Bros. romp called Make Your Own Bed (the actual title on the opening credit read, “MAKE YOUR OWN BED … and if you don’t!”) that was recently aired on TCM as part of a tribute to Jane Wyman that focused on her “galley years” at Warners. This turned out to be quite an infectious movie, directed by Peter Godfrey (one of those filmmakers I usually can’t stand) with real wit and style. The story began life as a play in 1919, written by Harvey J. O’Higgins and Harriet Ford and called On the Hiring Line. This version was adapted by Richard Weil and written by Francis Swann and Edmund Joseph, and starred Jack Carson as Jerry Curtis, wanna-be private detective who in his capacity as operative for an agency owned by Lester Knight (a nerdy Robert Shayne) was regularly assigned to guard the gift tables at weddings, and on one such occasion placed the district attorney under citizen’s arrest. He’s in love with the Knight agency’s secretary, Susan Courtney (Jane Wyman), and of course Knight is in love with her too, and Jerry dreams of breaking a big case that will enable him to form his own agency and marry Susan.

Meanwhile, Walter Whirtle (Alan Hale) is having trouble keeping servants at his country home, so he drives into the city — it’s his first time behind the wheel of a car in five years and he ends up parking in front of a fire hydrant and getting himself arrested and meeting Jerry Curtis in the same cell — and after a funny scene in which Walter goes to the “Service Employment Agency” and finds himself being asked for his references and financials (the gag throughout this movie being that during World War II there was such a shortage of people ready and willing to work as household staff it was a seller’s market in servants), he hears Jerry say that he generally posed as a butler to give him an excuse to be at those weddings guarding the gifts. Whirtle hits on the idea of hiring Jerry as a butler and Susan as a maid — he thinks Jerry and Susan are already married, not merely engaged — and pretending to them that they’re there to foil a dastardly Nazi plot against him (his main business is cosmetics but he also owns a gunpowder factory) and merely posing as servants, only he really wants them as servants and he manufactures the plot himself. Also in the character mix is Whirtle’s wife Vivian (Irene Manning), a former stage actress until she married him five years earlier; the Whirtles’ next-door neighbor Boris Fenilise (George Tobias), who’s attempting to engineer carrots into the basis for a revivifying drink that will allow pilots to stay up longer and is also romancing Mrs. Whirtle; and a set of real Nazi spies headed by Herr von Ritter (Kurt Katch) and featuring Fritz Alden (Ricardo Cortez), Marie Gruber (Tala Birell), and Elsa Wehmer (Marjorie Hoshelle).

They pass off their German accents by claiming that they’re radio actors who are going to do a show Whirtle’s cosmetics company will sponsor, and at this point I figured the writers were doing the gimmick that the radio show would go on the air and in it there would be secret code alerting German agents and saboteurs to the next big targets. Instead the baddies plan to blow up Whirtle’s gunpowder factory that very night — and eventually, of course, their plan is foiled, though Jerry embarrasses himself by arresting Alden, who’s really Wilson, a federal agent sent to infiltrate the Nazi spy ring. There are a lot of laughs along the way — it may be heresy, but this movie made me laugh harder than Tillie’s Punctured Romance did — and though there’s a lot of choice slapstick in it (it’s a souvenir of the time Jack Warner thought he was going to build up Jack Carson to be his studio’s Bob Hope), the really choice scene of the film is the one in which, realizing that the ducks he and Susan bought for the Whirtles’ dinner can’t be cooked unless their feathers are removed, Jerry whips out a shaving cup and literally shaves the feathers off them with a straight razor — to the accompaniment of an altered version of “Largo al factotum” from Rossini’s The Barber of Seville. There’s also a delightful French-farce scene in which, thrown by the Whirtles’ insistence on giving them a room with only one bed — and Mrs. Whirtle’s seeming omnipresence in making sure the two people she thinks are married are literally sleeping together — Jerry spends the night in a bathhouse on the premises which he doesn’t realize is reserved for women. The next morning, the two lady spies use the bathhouse to dress — and he takes a shower in it and the three of them miss each other by seconds. It’s that kind of a movie!