Cast includes: Jean Arthur, James Stewart, Lionel Barrymore, Edward Arnold
This is not a review about pharaohs, emperors and others who stockpile an entourage of spouse(s), pets, servants, possessions, sometimes armed guards etc in an effort to metaphysically at least… Take it all with them.
No! Those people are sickening (but necessary to know about). Ok it’s not far off, there are filfthy rich people in this film, however they learn an unlikely but very valuable lesson about humility over insatiable appetites for power and how to actually feel positive and less constrained without all the stress and paranoia greed and success cause pushing one to worry about maintaining it and threats to the status quo.
The film starts off showing VIP, Anthony Kirby, being escorted past reporters into his marble filled building upto a floor with so many pillars in it you wonder where the line is between being structural support and excess weight.
His young son Tony has just been made vice president though he’s not very business minded and his father settles into conference with his similar age associates, a conversation that garners some interesting phrases including ‘powers that be’, ‘moving into munitions’, ‘the war wouldn’t be possible without us’ and ‘there wouldn’t be a bullet or cannon in this country without us’.
It turns out a venture is being stalled by one person in a twelve-block area that won’t sell their property and this leads to a boy meets girl from the other side of the tracks story and a clash of the families with the boy’s being disapproving.
This is a light hearted film which supposedly deals with serious themes like wealth distribution, class and trying to be in love with someone of said different class but really it’s a semi-‘screwball comedy’. I say ‘semi’ because screwball black and white comedies from 1935-1945 just missed out on being those crazy, hammy escapades in silent movies not quite the thriller capers that came later on. Also, the contrasting family are not poor, they’re semi-honest content and comfortable middle class, large family in a beautiful, big house with black servants (stereotypical ‘yes’m’ pair, a young mammy cook/nurse and young man who makes quips) and a fireworks factory in the basement… They’re an eccentric lot; the grandpa who is on crutches after sliding down a banister, his business staff (three men and a bird – a literal bird), his daughter the budding novelist and artist, her daughters Ethel and Alice, Ethel’s husband and her staunch but flattering ‘old country’ (Russia in this case) ballet teacher, and a kitten. Ethel spends most of her day dancing around the house, her husband the musical accompaniment whilst Alice leaves the house to work as a stenographer and it’s outside that she meets her love interest, none other than Tony Kirby.
This quirky, free spirited family’s influences spread not only to the wealthy but the repressed in general, they seem irresponsible and are in comparison to bureaucratic standards that most people begrudgingly follow and many would be upset at them not playing by the rules or not at all (the grandfather not paying income tax for 22 years because he disagrees with or doesn’t understand the way it’s spent) but still there’s something about that which speaks to the heart and makes even detractors question their normal ways if not feel a tad rebellious. It’s a bit ironic given that by the time/if one becomes one of the world’s elite only then do they see it wasn’t worth it and are inspired by the ‘lowly’ yet enviable family. All the money, status, exclusive ‘perks’ etc don’t make up for the true feeling of a light spirit and fun you get with being around people who genuinely care about each other and you, and in this case they’re not lacking in security; it’s true they’re in a precarious situation but they’re not on or under the breadline and without resources, social mobility, hope and strained relationships as a result. I’ll also reiterate that they do have domestic staff who are more likely to be domestic staff because they are black and are more limited in their gender roles than their Caucasian ‘peers’, it’s not one of those films (and there are some) where black actors manage to excel and exhibit a lot of skill even in stereotypical roles, here they seem more token. But this is a product of its time, and in contrast to women in general, male black actors started to get more of the limelight and the show stopper Sammy Davis Jr made waves post 1945 (though questionably his conversion to Judaism may have helped propel his talent and popularity in Holy-wood and then later becoming a Republican cemented his legacy after his Democrat past – one of his fellow Rat Packers being brother-in-law to ex-pres Kennedy.)
Jean Arthur (who plays Alice) is my favourite actress from the period between 1935-45, she started earlier in the days of silent film but made many ‘talkies’ though she’s relatively unknown these days overshadowed by the smoldering sirens. She’s quite the high strung comedienne and does so without being cringeworthy whilst adding coyness and charm into the mix; it’s a great role that you often see in films from this period alongside sharper, straightforward females and the brash, rude ones. It works so well because those are roles the men play too and so they work together to their strengths and banter well in many of the comedy films. During and more obviously after WWII women’s roles lost that progressive and even natural factor, the power that independent responsibility and moving into the workplace had given women in US and UK society was reflected in the films (even though they were kept very much in iron clad and handled bird in gilded cage contracts by the studios, let alone the ones picked up and groomed from childhood often married to much older men who financed/made the films by the time they were ‘eligible’, used to sleeping with them younger than that, both girls and boys were given to influential people just boys didn’t have showgirl like roles ’til more recent years.) When the soldiers came back from the field work they weren’t happy about it feeling threatened and usurped (which is why it took so long for women’s war effort to be recognized and memorialized (though I still think people were misguided in general in going to war) similar disapproval/dissent about women in society was around after WWI), women didn’t see such outgoing and less ‘the cookie cutter kitchen/bedroom wife’ or ‘evil mistress’ roles until the 60’s let alone ’empowered female roles’ we talk about today (which we still commend for not being the norm, though some are sick of them already and want to see more ‘normal and geeky females who won’t try as hard as their tough and sometimes selfless counterparts winning in the end’).
This film is as much about the patriarchs as it is the young couple. The conversations the older men are forced to have are portrayed as the sharing of wisdom from the older grandpater of the kooky family to the younger daddy warbucks. The former shows the latter that he should appreciate clean fun and cheer, community spirit, letting their children be happy despite the social gap and that the walls they build to keep them apart are not real they just feel that way when enforced, unlike the jail cell they both find themselves in which for the sake of the film makes them equal and the one used to influence and preferential treatment doesn’t get it (In real life he’d probably be friends with the judge or above and his banking position his meal ticket to get out of jail free card or at the most a cushy sentence/location.) In this film though, he gets to learn or re-learn the feeling of being part of a group who could like him for himself and not his money, plus a chance to feel young again playing the harmonica! This is a long film and near the end it gets sombre but unfortunately it takes life changing events and a re-evaluation of their relationships for both Senior and Junior Kirby to get through to them.
I’m not a modern rom-com fan but I do like these ‘screwball comedy’ romances, they’re so silly and sweet; Jean and James [‘Jimmy’] Stewart (who plays Tony) have such a darling chemistry. Jean plays her usual role of being caught in a difficult situation but generally has the final decision, and can be difficult but always cute :-). She has a taut somewhat nasal voice which I’ve gotten used to and like because it’s distinctive but some people think it squeaky – either way I think it suits this type of role where she has to hold her head high a little. Regarding Jimmy I’d been used to his older films so was surprised to see him so young! He’s got his usual laid back but determined though not entirely sure how to go about things persona (and yet not a wallflower) but I recently saw him in a similar film (a musical) called ‘Pot O’Gold’ (1941) where he’s pushed into being more assertive and petty. I think the softer side suits his tall frame and ability to be shockingly loud out of the blue o_o better than more aggressive but of course it depends on the person you’re paired with and the circumstance and in Pot O’Gold he wasn’t with a character like Alice where they could play the tall/small (the smaller one the assertive and the taller the receptive) cuddly ratio.
Aesthetically the colour and sound is typical for its age, it’s not the clearest Black and White film and sometimes seems that you can see the curve of the lens at the edges but that isn’t detrimental – it suits the fairytale-eque nature of the story as does the soft lighting at parts. Usually I’m not fussed about seeing such films in ‘remastered’ colour but this is one that I think would look very decadent in colour given all the antique, ornate furnishings, textures and clothing. The sound is clear and almost even throughout, I didn’t notice a score actually – the focus is on the character vocals which are distinct to each and well enunciated. The jail/courtroom has the best moral-of-the-story quotes which I’d love to share with you but would be a spoiler though in another scene I did like a line implying Alice didn’t need a family tree because her [surname] is a tree (sycamore – they make a point of showing it’s different to the grandfather’s name).
Obviously living like either family in this film isn’t very practical (or safe) but it does have flashes of hope such as Tony being more interested in solar and renewable energy and of course being in love with Alice rather than his title and his family apparently being in banking for 9000 years o_o and Alice is from a family that seems a little too unaware of their weirdness. Unlike them she’s not unabashed and more sensitive, she feels she has to prove she’s not inferior but at the same time is able see that despite such a heritage Tony is different from his family too though he does compare her family to a zoo. It’s her family that is the nicer ones here, exuding laughter and warmth and making Tony’s see ‘the light and error of its ways’. Like with ‘A Christmas Carol’ by Charles Dickens, personally I wouldn’t forgive people who create/fund/perpetuate war nor mortgage providers(!) but can say that whilst this isn’t specifically ‘an end of year’ themed film it does work well for the festivity of the season.
Tony: It takes courage. You know everybody’s afraid to live.
Alice: You ought to hear grandpa on that subject. You know he says most people nowadays are run by fear. Fear of what they eat, fear of what they drink, fear of their jobs, their future, fear of their health. They’re scared to save money, and they’re scared to spend it. You know what his pet aversion is? The people who commercialize on fear, you know they scare you to death so they can sell you something you don’t need.
‘Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.’ – Jean-Baptiste Alphonse Karr (Les Guêpes, January 1849)