Saturday, September 21, 2013

There Goes My Heart (Hal Roach/United Artists, 1938)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2013 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

The film was There Goes My Heart, a 1938 production from Hal Roach Studios at a time when Roach was using the profits from the Laurel and Hardy movies to build his little comedy outfit into, if not a full-fledged major, at least a top-flight independent to match Goldwyn and Selznick, capable of making sophisticated screwball comedies with “A”-list stars (here the male lead, Fredric March, was definitely “A”-list but his co-star, Virginia Bruce, was a “B”-lister whose talent certainly should have put her on the “A”-list; maybe if her greatest film, the 1934 Jane Eyre, had been made for a major instead of for Monogram … ) and a high level of production “finish.” There Goes My Heart was based on an original story by Ed Sullivan — yes, that Ed Sullivan; at that time he was a gossip columnist in New York and he was envying the success of Walter Winchell, who’d sold a story to Hollywood that became the hit film Broadway Through a Keyhole — worked up into a script by Eddie Moran and Jack Jevne, and directed by Norman Z. McLeod (whose reputation, if he has one at all these days, comes from his two films with the Marx Brothers, Monkey Business and Horse Feathers, which at least showed he had a flair for zany comedy), but it’s really just another chip off the It Happened One Night log. Indeed, it’s so close that during the opening scene, which establishes that heiress Joan Butterfield (Virginia Bruce) is being held prisoner on her yacht by her grandfather Cyrus (Claude Gillingwater) and is told when he has to fly off the boat on business to London that she can go anywhere she likes on the yacht but she’s not allowed to leave it, I joked that he’d say, “If I let you off the boat, something horrible might happen — like you might meet Clark Gable on a bus!”

Instead she takes advantage of granddad’s absence to have the yacht sail to New York (it doesn’t look like it could survive an Atlantic crossing, and since her grandfather had said she could leave the boat “if there’s an emergency,” I wondered if the writers were going to have her tell her crew to follow the same course as the Titanic in hopes of running into an iceberg from which she’d have to be rescued), and when she gets there she sneaks off by disguising herself as her maid (though she’s wearing an expensive fur coat which one would think would have “outed” her immediately), and when she gets there she goes incognito as “Joan Baker” and takes a job at the New York outlet of Butterfield’s department store — working as a shopgirl in the store her family owns, and rooming with Peggy O’Brien (Patsy Kelly, who seems to have slimmed down from her Roach two-reelers and also have got rather nervous — though the script calls for her to be her usual voice-of-reason character, she pitches her voice higher than normal and seems annoyingly shrill, as if she’s on speed — which maybe she was to keep her weight down!). Reporter Bill Spencer (Fredric March, pretty much recycling his reporter characterization from Nothing Sacred) and his typical comic-relief photographer sidekick Flash Fisher (Arthur “Dagwood” Lake) discover Joan when they get thrown off her yacht, literally into the water, and Bill hits on an angle for the story his irascible editor Stevens (Eugene Pallette) wants him to write about Joan Butterfield (who frankly comes off as the Paris Hilton or Kardashians of the 1930’s!): he’ll meet a woman who works at Butterfield’s department store and do a profile of her as a contrast between the hard-working shopgirl and the irresponsible heiress living off the profits the work of the shopgirls generate. Of course, the hard-working shopgirl he decides to profile is Peggy O’Brien, whom he meets as she’s showing “Joan Baker” the ropes, and he realizes “Baker” is Joan Butterfield when he hears her use the phrase “if there’s an emergency.”

I don’t think you need two guesses to determine what happens next: Bill and Joan fall genuinely in love with each other, he decides to tear up the story he’s written about her that makes her look ridiculous, but Stevens has his staff reassemble it from the torn pieces and he publishes it. This causes the inevitable one-reel glitch in their relationship, but Stevens, “Flash,” Peggy, her boyfriend — aspiring chiropractor Pennypacker Z. Pennypacker (Alan Mowbray), who in one of the film’s most charming running gags is always practicing on Peggy and leaving her looking decidedly “twisted” — and even grandpa Stevens, who like his predecessor in It Happened One Night (played by Walter Connolly, who also played the irascible editor to March’s reporter in Nothing Sacred), turns into a good sport at the end and realizes his granddaughter has found a man worthy of her, all stage a ruse that involves sending telegrams to Bill and Joan to meet at Bill’s ramshackle beach house on a deserted and definitely déclassé stretch called “Sand Island” (all this is supposed to be happening in New York but the actor playing the boatman who drives Bill there uses a New England accent). They meet, a convenient thunderclap brings them together (it’s been established that Joan is deathly afraid of lightning), and a minister (Harry Langdon, uncredited but easily recognizable) engaged by Peggy and Pennypacker turns up to marry them. The door of the beach house closes and “The End” is spelled out in seashells on the sand. The writers deserve credit for a few intriguing variations on their plot template, but it still remains the sort of movie that falls back on so many clichés you think you’ve seen it before even if you haven’t — and one sequence at a skating rink, in which Bill and Joan take a series of pratfalls and the movie suddenly falls into the sort of slapstick comedy the Roach studios still did best, is considerably funnier and more delightful than the rest, which is a nicely sophisticated piece but one that’s just too familiar to be memorable.