Thursday, July 21, 2011

Casanova Brown (1944)

Demonstrating how not to make a good impression on your in-laws.
(That's their house in the background.)
Casanova Brown is one of those films that tries to be too many things at once--screwball comedy, modern day retelling of the Casanova legend, social commentary--and succeeds at all of them, at least up to a point. While perhaps a bit more focus in the story's conception could have made a tighter, more elegant film, as it stands it is laugh out loud funny from start to finish, and that is more than enough to make it a winner in my book.

Gary Cooper heads a stellar cast in a comedy of remarriage so true to formula it seems the role surely must have been written for Cary Grant. Mild mannered English professor Casanova "Cass" Brown (Cooper) learns, on the eve of his marriage, that his first wife has just had a baby (his, naturally). That first marriage lasted less than twenty-four hours, from their chance meeting in the library to his burning down her parents' house the next morning, and the two of them have not spoken since their annulment. He only learns about the baby at all because his ex-wife Isabel (Teresa Wright) is putting the baby up for adoption, and the hospital needs his medical records. Cass falls for the baby just as quickly as he fell for her mother, and when he realizes that he has no legal rights to the child, he kidnaps her. Isabel and her father and his new fiance and her father all spend the next few weeks trying to track him down and keep him from doing anything rash, like eloping with the chambermaid. So much for the Casanova angle to the story.

Much of the humor in Casanova is of the "painfully embarrassing" variety, but stops just shy of the line where it starts to feel more like a horror movie than a comedy. It comes awfully close to the edge--throws spitballs over it in fact--but never quite crosses. The worst of it comes relatively early, when Cass goes to visit his new in-laws and finds they don't keep an ash tray in the library. This prompts a desperate search for a place to put out his cigarette, until he finally puts it out in his handkerchief and stuffs it in his pocket. For his next act he tries to convince them he doesn't smoke, even as his smoldering jacket says otherwise. Of course, lies like this spread like wildfire, and so does fire--particularly when you treat it like a stray cat, and throw books and newspapers at it to make it go away.

If the whole movie were like this, funny though it is, I'd be crying myself to sleep tonight. Thankfully, most of the rest of the film is less painful to watch, centering in the first half around Cass's relationship with his future father-in-law (Frank Morgan) and in the second around his bungling attempts at caring for an infant. Cooper and Morgan make a wonderful comic duo, Cooper's quiet sincerity making him the perfect straight man for Morgan's bumbling effervescence. In fact, the biggest criticism I have of Casanova is that these two don't get more screen time together. Both actors bring such warmth and good humor to most every part they play, and their relationship, with all its quarreling and insults, is both recognizable and endearing.

Frank Morgan very nearly steals the movie.
The second half of the film takes a more serious tone, although thankfully never at the expense of the comedy. Even more bewildering to Cass than the sudden knowledge that he is a father is the realization that he has no legal rights to his own daughter. That's not fair, he argues, and of course he is right. One could read much of this film as an argument in favor of paternal rights. In defiance to the notion that a woman is somehow better equipped to raise a child than a man (outside of the obvious biological advantage), Cass does an excellent job at caring for his hostage in spite of his inexperience. While the film makes light of his terrified precautions against germs and his obsession with charting her weight at hourly increments, he also makes no serious blunders and pretty much does everything as he should. When the baby is reunited with her mother, Cass must teach her how to hold the baby and how to burp her. As a new mother, she has no more natural instinct for these things than Cass did.

Although the film is ostensibly a romantic comedy and progresses through three different love interests for Cass, the heart of the story is his relationship with his daughter rather than any of the adult women. That relationship is powerfully and sympathetically portrayed, and the film never relies on mere cuteness for its impact as so many films about children and babies often do.

Careful. There be germs a-foot.
Teresa Wright gives a solid performance as well, and is as beautiful and likable as always, although even so Casanova, her fifth film, is by far the weakest item in her early resume. Her first three films (The Little Foxes, Mrs. Minivr, Pride of the Yankees) each earned her an Oscar nomination, and her fourth (Shadow of a Doubt) arguably should have. She just doesn't have the screen time to really develop a memorable character here, although even as it is she is instantly charismatic enough that it's no surprise when Cass picks her in the end (if you don't see that ending coming, you probably need to get out more).

Casanova doesn't really offer anything you can't find in a dozen other films, but it is a solidly built story and a welcome addition to an imminently likable sub-genre. It will never be a replacement for The Awful Truth or His Girl Friday, but if you've already seen those and liked them, it's a good bet you'll enjoy Casanova as much as I did.

Thursday, July 14, 2011

The Virginian (1929)

Laconic screen legend Gary Cooper is in fine form in this stand-out early work.
It occurs to me, watching this film, that the appeal of westerns is much like that of police dramas. Both take as their central themes the conflict between law and order and the forces that threaten it, primal human instincts of greed and self interest. But whereas police dramas have the framework of civilization to sanitize the violence of retribution that drives the actions of the detectives, westerns rely on a more ephemeral idea of right and wrong, as interpreted by a handful of individuals. Their judgments and actions may be arbitrary, but they are no less rigid. Ultimately, there is a line you just don't cross.

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Once Upon a Time (1944)

Yes Sir, he dances!
Once Upon a Time calls itself a fairy tale, but personally I don't see it. Imagine Miracle on 34th Street meets Our Gang, where the role of Santa Claus is played by a dancing caterpillar and Cary Grant plays the lead. The story reads like the screenwriters surely must have lost a bet with someone, but snappy dialog and a solid performance by Grant make for a surprisingly entertaining bit of more or less family friendly fluff.