Saturday, November 5, 2011

Maybe It’s Love (Warner Bros./First National, 1934)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2011 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

When Charles and I got home — again in a driving rainstorm! — we ended up watching another movie. Last night TCM was broadcasting a rather interesting film called Maybe It’s Love, based on a 1927 play by Maxwell Anderson (!) called Saturday’s Children — this was when the work week was 5 ½ days instead of 5, with people making their dates on Saturday afternoons and evenings. TCM’s guest host Donald Bogle (the African-American film historian who’s filling in for Robert Osborne after having joined him as guest host when the network did an “African-Americans in film” series) explained that this was the first film Gloria Stuart did after she left Universal and signed with Warner Bros. (in line with the confusion between the “Warner Bros.” and “First National” corporate identities, the opening credits announce this film as a Warner Bros. production while the closing credits claim it for First National!). Bette Davis eventually prospered after making the same switch in studio affiliations, but it didn’t help Stuart; from quality roles in Universal films like The Kiss Before the Mirror, The Old Dark House and The Invisible Man (for director James Whale) and Air Mail (for John Ford, who would ultimately direct Stuart in what’s probably her best film, The Prisoner of Shark Island, at 20th Century-Fox) she went to lead roles in this nice but uninspired comedy and then as Dick Powell’s rich girlfriend in Gold Diggers of 1935 (a great movie, but nobody watches it for Gloria Stuart; people watch it for the two big Busby Berkeley numbers at the end, especially the proto-noir “Lullaby of Broadway”). First National had already filmed Saturday’s Children under Anderson’s title in 1929 with Gregory La Cava directing and Corinne Griffith and Grant Withers as the leads; later Warners would make it a third time, reverting to the Saturday’s Children title, in 1940 with Vincent Sherman directing and Anne Shirley and John Garfield in the leads.

This version was the directorial debut of William McGann, a competent but hacky director who remained pretty much in the “B” salt mines his entire career, from a script by Jerry Wald (future producer) and Harry Sauber, and though it’s not a world-beater it’s a charming romantic comedy with a quite nice plot line about love among the young and poor. Stuart plays Bobby Halevy, who works as a secretary for an import-export company owned by Adolph Mengle (Joseph Cawthorn), a malapropistic, thickly accented character so reminiscent of producer Sam Goldwyn I couldn’t help but wonder if Cawthorn was deliberately made up to look like him and given some of the caricatured “Goldwynisms,” since he’s malapropistic throughout the film. Bobby is dating Rims O’Neil (Ross Alexander), a tall, gangly clerk in the Mengle operation, but he’s anxious because he doesn’t have enough money to support her and won’t unless he can get Mengle to appoint him to run the company’s Havana office, which will mean a raise and will force him to go alone for a bit, but when he gets there he can raise the money from his increased salary and send for Bobby.

Meanwhile, the boss’s son, Adolph Jr. (Philip Reed), ends up at the office because his dad wants to break him of his wastrel ways and teach him how to work for a living, and instead of sending Bobby to Havana Sr. assigns him to be Jr.’s keeper, making sure he doesn’t cruise the help or use the office telephone to make dates with girls. Of course Jr. falls in love at first sight with Bobby, who works as Sr.’s secretary, and in order to eliminate the competition Jr. talks his dad into offering Bobby the Havana assignment after all. Rims is ready to take it and even arrives at the ship, ready to sail, only Bobby comes to see him off and, following some ill-advised advice from her sister Florrie Sands (Ruth Donnelly) — it’s been established that Bobby lives with her entire family, including her dad (Henry Travers, a year after he played her father in The Invisible Man as well), her mom (Helen Lowell), her brother-in-law (Frank McHugh at his most annoying Frank McHughishness) and an aunt (Dorothy Dare) — Bobby gets Rims to come back to her even though it means abandoning the boat and the Havana job and getting married that very night.

The next day at the office Mengle, Sr. not only says Rims isn’t getting the Havana job after all but he’s being fired, and Rims gets another job but at less pay (which plays hell with Bobby’s attempts to budget for them) until their financial problems and the continued inundation of their apartment by Bobby’s relatives get to him. Rims buys a used car and his brother-in-law takes over the driving, throws him out and crashes it. That breaks up the relationship, and Bobby returns to her old job as Mengle, Sr.’s secretary, while Rims returns to Mengle’s and begs for another shot at the Havana job — more to get away from Bobby, whom he’s ready to divorce so Jr. can have her, than anything else — only Jr., who seems to have seen The Front Page, loans Rims his car so he can make his ship on time, then reports it stolen, so Rims is arrested, he misses the ship, but he and Bobby reconcile after she says the key to their happiness is to behave as lovers rather than as married people. This isn’t exactly the world’s freshest plot line, then or now, but it’s charming and it succeeds precisely where a lot of modern movies fail: it makes us like the characters and want to see them prevail.

Though Rims’ rambunctious nature — he looks like a go-getter who’s trying just a little too hard — and gangly, almost uncoordinated body make it seem like he’d be a trial to live with (at times I wished Warners would have given this role to their ace tap dancer, Hal LeRoy), we like him, we like Bobby, and we want them to be together — and we want Bobby to spurn the advances of the spoiled rich kid even though he’s drawn as a more complex character than the second leads in most rom-coms of the period, basically decent despite his wastrel ways, unwilling to go after Bobby by overwhelming her with gifts Rims can’t match, and a good loser in the romance game at the end even though sometimes the body language between Philip Reed and the real-life Bisexual Ross Alexander makes one wonder why the poor guy doesn’t marry the rich guy instead! Maybe It’s Love is one of those little movies the studio system was so good at turning out that wasn’t going to be a world-beater but was reliable entertainment, and it had some charming (that word again!) supporting performances by J. Farrell McDonald as a philosophical patrolman and the marvelous Maude Eburne as the landlady of a boarding house Bobby moves into during her temporary breakup from Rims towards the end.