Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Now and Forever (1934)

Gary Cooper, Shirley Temple, and Carole Lombard make an uncomfortable family, at best.
In spite of my better judgment, I find myself braving insulin shock by watching a Shirley Temple movie for the second time this year. As a great lover of musicals, I had to take a look at one of the most successful song and dance teams in movie history, Shirley and Bojangles, which accounts for my watching The Little Colonel a few months ago. I ended that experience by confirming that Shirley, much like high fructose corn syrup, is probably better left on the shelf. Yet here I am again, in spite of my resolve. The problem is, that unlike the Olsen twins a few years ago, Shirley's movies were never peopled with low-calibre character actors who had nothing better to do. Since Shirley was the hottest ticket around, her films are chock full of some of the biggest names of the day. Robert Young, Alice Faye, Lionel Barrymore, George Murphy, Frank Morgan, Spencer Tracy, Buddy Ebsen, and Joel McCrea all served time aboard the Good Ship Lollipop, as did Gary Cooper and Carole Lombard, both of whom co-starred with Shirley in Now and Forever.

It's an odd sort of film, darker and shadier than I would have expected from Shirley or Cooper either one. I never expected to watch a Shirley Temple movie that must be stretched out of shape to fit into the Hays Code box, and Cooper's portrayal of con man Jerry Day is a far cry from his usual wholesome image. There are a few predictable plot elements on both sides--as usual, Shirley has several family members and friends fighting for custody of her, and the film's ending has Cooper stoically battling a gunshot wound without bothering to seek medical attention. The film does present a fairly simple moral dilemma and then test the characters' reactions to the challenge, and Shirley overwhelms everyone in her path with near toxic levels of cuteness, as she giggles and dances her victims into submission. But Shirley is not in every scene, which helps to keep the radiation levels in check, and the story itself is both interesting and original.

Cooper plays American con man Jerry Day, who spends his life ducking in and out of some of the best hotels in the world with his partner Toni (Carole Lombard). Although a few specific references identify her as his wife, this seems to be a mere technicality, and surely only for the benefit of the Hays office. The two seem at times barely to know each other, and never have any clear vision of their future together, or even if they will stay together at all from one caper to the next.

Partners in crime.
One of the early scenes in the film has Jerry posing as a hotel auditor to collect past due rent from other guests in order to pay his own bill, and I can't help but think that any other Cooper character would punch Jerry in the face if he got wind of such a stunt. As if that weren't enough, soon after he excitedly explains to Toni that his next project involves a visit to his former in-laws to "sell" them custody of his daughter for $75,000. Maybe this was the dark past Cooper shuddered to remember in Man of the West. At any rate, these early shenanigans are more than enough to make Jerry Day about the most nefarious Cooper character I've seen yet, and that's before he turns jewelry thief later in the film and then (horror of horrors!) lies to his daughter Penny (Temple) about the stolen necklace even after swearing "honor bright" to tell the truth.

The real saving grace in this film is that the characterizations of all three leads and their relationships with each other are sympathetic and believable. Jerry falls for Penny in spite of his best intentions (it seems no one is immune), and turns down the $75,000 in favor of taking Penny to Paris with him to rejoin his "wife" Toni. He hasn't really changed--"I don't like life any better than I ever did," he tells Toni, "and nothing can make me settle down,"--but the more attached he becomes to Penny the more he realizes that there is more to life than just having fun, and even manages to develop a little responsibility. Or, at least he tries.

Okay, so they do look cute together...
Toni is torn between her love for Jerry and her mistrust of his intentions towards her and towards Penny, and the frostiness this creates in her makes even Penny wary of letting her too close, and it takes a while for them to warm up to each other at all. The three of them move through life without any clear idea what they're doing, and it quickly emerges that Penny, at the ripe old age of five, is the wisest and most mature of the group. There's a lot of love here, though, and it's not all saccharine.

Although Penny is the catalyst that makes Jerry want to change and be a better man, he doesn't really do it for her. It is Toni that he really loves, but bringing Penny into their lives lets him see Toni's pain and vulnerability for the first time. It is for her, and not for Penny, that he agrees to stop "chasing trains" and go get a job. These are two broken, desperate people, lonely even when they're together and unable to commit to each other in any traditional way yet each physically incapable of living without the other. A handful of catch phrases and inside jokes make the characterization of these two beautifully three dimensional, and create, almost in the background, a genuinely touching love story.

... but then, so do they.
I'm not about to rush out and complete my "Little Darling" collection, but it was a pleasant surprise to find I could watch one of Temple's movies all the way through without wanting to throw up in my mouth. Shirley is far more sickeningly sweet than I'd like, but she was also a very capable actress even as a very young girl, which is itself certainly worthy of respect. As a whole, the film was sincere and unpredictable, a worthwhile showcase for the exceptional talent of all three leads. Shirley comes on a little strong for many people, including myself, but if you're willing to look past this, Now and Forever is a rewarding film nonetheless.

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