Saturday, October 20, 2012

Wise Girl (RKO, 1937)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2012 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

The film was Wise Girl, a 1937 weirdie from RKO that took a pretty typical trope — the fish-out-of-water meeting between two people representing polar opposites on the socioeconomic scale — and ran with it in some pretty crazy and surprisingly entertaining directions. It was shown recently as part of a TCM tribute to Miriam Hopkins, who stars as Susan Fletcher, spoiled-brat daughter of a tycoon (Henry Stephenson) who’s so powerful the town they live in is called “Fletcherville.” Fletcher père is upset that his two grand-nieces, Joan (Betty Philson) and Katie (Marianna Strelby), have been raised since the death of their parents by their uncle John O’Halloran (Ray Milland), a Bohemian artist who was living in France with the girls and their parents, and when the parents died he brought them to the U.S. and they’ve settled in a Greenwich Village boarding house which opens up onto a surprisingly lavish-looking patio (a set later reused as the New Mexico town square in the Val Lewton production The Leopard Man). O’Halloran makes a living, more or less, as a sign painter for Walker’s department store and as a “second” for another member of his artists’ colony, Mike (Guinn Williams, in a far more normal comic-relief role for him than his part as the villain in Lucky Star), who’s both a prizefighter and a sculptor. Another member of the colony is Karl Stevens (Walter Abel), a painter John knew in Europe who’s descended into alcoholism following the death of his wife. (That’s a surprise — a Ray Milland movie in which someone else is the alcoholic!)

Susan Fletcher decides to move to New York, pose as a poor starving actress, get a room at the boarding house and document that John is an unfit guardian for her nieces — only in the meantime she falls in love with John, who naturally turns against her when he finds out who she is and why she came there. It’s a pretty familiar story but the script is full of weird twists and turns that make this into a genre-bender one could readily have imagined Preston Sturges coming up with five years or so later — the credited writers are Allan Scott (who did script-polishing on most of the Astaire-Rogers musicals and brought the same charm and wit here) and Charles Norman, though according to the American Film Institute Catalog Viola Brothers Shore and Harold Kussell were assigned to “polish” the screenplay but it’s not clear whether any of their work ended up in the final film. It was also originally slated to be produced by P. J. Wolfson (Edward Kaufman ended up with the final producing credit) and to star Cary Grant — which would probably have made the film better known, at least, though Milland is perfectly credible in the role of the Bohemian artist continually undone by his pride. At one point he and Susan are hired to pose as Bohemians for a dinner party for $3 plus a free dinner — and he has her dress in a ridiculously patterned gown that is also way too big for her (and Mike, adding dressmaking to his weird mix of talents, puts pins in it to try to get it into some correspondence with her actual size) — and at another point he takes her to Mike’s prizefight, she gets offended at the beating Mike is taking from the other fighter, she grabs the other fighter’s leg, Mike punches out the referee, Susan pulls down the champion and the referee acclaims her as the winner of the bout.

It gets even weirder than that: John gets Susan a job doing a sort of live commercial for Walker’s Department Store’s products in the window of their store — and the audience that gathers snickers at the blatancy of the plugs as well as Susan’s bad delivery of her lines — and it ends, of course, in a comic catastrophe that gets them both fired. Eventually the kids are taken away from John in a family-court proceeding with Margaret Dumont — who did make some great movies that didn’t also feature the Marx Brothers or W. C. Fields — as the pompous do-gooder “Mrs. Bell-Rivington” who is masterminding the proceedings and has placed the girls in a juvenile care home pending their placement with the Fletchers in their manse, and Susan engineers John’s arrest and incarceration in the Fletcherville jail for six months (it’s the same jail set that Katharine Hepburn and Cary Grant did time in in Bringing Up Baby, made six months later) with the proviso that he won’t get anything to eat or drink until he completes a painting for a New York art contest with a $2,000 grand prize. Instead of painting, the bitter John uses the canvas sent into him under the cell door to do a caricature of Susan and her father, which earns him $1,000 and a job as a caricaturist for a New York publisher. The final scene shows Susan and John in a clinch on top of the stairs in the Fletcherville mansion — the living room is so huge that any moment one expects Fred Astaire, Ginger Rogers and a bevy of chorines to swoop in for a production number — with the kids able to have the father-figure they love and the untold riches of the Fletchers.

As I noted above, it’s a familiar plot that was probably considered trite even then, but it’s also done with a rare sense of style (the director was RKO hack Leigh Jason but this is definitely more a Schreiber movie than an auteur movie) and Miriam Hopkins’ real-life bitchiness and determination to upstage everyone she acted with (both Edward G. Robinson and Bette Davis said she was the most unpleasant co-star they ever had) actually works for this particular role. I was wondering if this was a remake of The Smartest Girl in Town (which RKO made a year earlier with Gene Raymond and Ann Sothern), which had a similar plot, but in that one it was the girl who was genuinely poor and the guy who was rich but pretending to be poor to get close to her. It was certainly a fun film, well worth seeing and a cut above what one would expect from Hopkins (who was on her way down from the “A” list) and Milland (who was on his way up to the “A” list), a hack director and a 69-minute running time. One nice little in-joke: at the dinner party she’s been hired to attend for “atmosphere,” Susan’s moods change so rapidly one of the other guests compares her to Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde — Miriam Hopkins had been in the Paramount Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde film from 1932, playing the music-hall girl “Champagne Ivy” that gets a crush on Jekyll and is raped and ultimately murdered by Hyde (Fredric March).