chapter-bullet-o chapter-bullet-ob chapter-bullet chapter-bullet-b archive-arrow-down chapter-arrow content-link content-pic email facebook filter-arrow-down filter-arrow-up hamburger link listitem-arrow more-arrow-right print reveal-arrow-left reveal-arrow-right reveal-times search-arrow search times-filter twitter instagram view-grid view-list

“Waddaya think this is, a French farce?”

Up in Mabel's Room (Allan Dwan, 1944)


The line is from Allan Dwan’s Silver Lode, and it is spoken by Dolores Moran as Dolly, another of those “ladies of the night” who seem to have the director’s favor (see also Rhonda Fleming’s “Duchess” in Tennessee’s Partner from 1955), when MacCarty, hot on the trail of a fugitive Dan Ballard, starts looking under the bed and in the closet of the lady’s private quarters. French farces presumably weren’t that common in a town like Silver Lode, so Dolly must have seen one in the city, where classic French three-act farcical comedies like Meilhac and Malévy’s Le Réveillon (1872) and Sardou and de Najac’s Divorçons! (1880), dealing with absurd situations hinging on extra-marital relations, titillated American audiences still dedicated to Edwardian respectability. Divorçons! was first filmed as a short by Frenchman Emile Chautard at Eclair American in 1913, while a four-reel Biograph version followed in 1915. At Paramount, the release of DeMille’s divorce comedy Old Wives for New was preceded by a five-reel adaptation of Divorçons!, Let’s Get a Divorce, starring Billie Burke and scripted by Anita Loos and John Emerson. Those two writers soon specialized in the genre; many of their scripts for the Doug Fairbanks comedies, like The Matrimaniac or In Again, Out Again, were farces at heart. In 1919 they wrote Getting Mary Married for William Randolph Hearst’s Cosmopolitan company, a studio created to turn Hearst’s lover, Marion Davies, into a movie star.

At this point, after the success of DeMille’s divorce comedies, a title referencing marriage had become extremely generic, but these “marital comedies” were seldom straight farces. Most were “comedies of manners,” focusing on the upper middle-classes and set in fashionable residences, targeting the affected gentlemen and ladies of society for their satire. In Getting Mary Married Davies plays a young woman who suffers under the repressive morality of her old-Boston stepfather. Marriage is her only way out, but candidates are hard to find when you’re confined to a “Renaissance-style” apartment (“What’s an art-nouveau frame doing in a Renaissance interior?” the stepfather cries when he catches her gazing at a portrait of her dead mother). If comedy of manners is still essentially a “polite” form of comedy, the popularity of theatrical farce can be seen in the movie’s basic plot outline. When her stepfather falls down an elevator shaft (already a shift into farcical terrain), Mary stands to inherit his fortune. But there are conditions. Mary can only inherit if she stays for a year with her stepfather’s brother, another society stiff, and his family, without marrying. The inheritance-plot is as old as melodrama itself and a staple of classic farce in the mode of Beaumarchais, but was revitalized by the success of Brandon Thomas’s Charley’s Aunt and Feydeau’s La dame de Chez Maxim. As The Girl from Montmartre, the latter ran on Broadway from August 1912 to April 1913 and confirmed the new mass audience’s interest in risqué comedy (for the 1915 version of Zaza, starring Pauline Frederick, the prime aim of Famous Players was to exploit the “oh-là-là quality” of the play). The basic plot of this play, young money deceiving a moneyed relative by passing off as his wife a young (show) girl he has just met, was standard farce material and is also at the basis at the two other successful farces on the New York stage of the period, Charley’s Aunt and Avery Hopwood and Mary Rinehart’s Seven Days.

In his films Max Linder had come up with several ingenious variations on this standard plot long before the popularity of farcical comedy had reached its zenith in America: in Les Vacances de Max (1914), Max is married but his rich uncle doesn’t know it; in Marriage forcé (1914), Max dresses up his valet as a bride so as not to be disinherited by his rich uncle. Max wants a divorce (1917), Linder’s first American film, made at Essanay,treats of similar material: Max is a husband, who on his wedding day receives word that an uncle has left him $3.000.000 on condition that he remains a bachelor; so he plans with his wife to stage an adulterous scene that will lead to divorce, then remarry once the money is safe. The popularity of the plot is also shown by Engelein (which I wrote about in my previous report here), that had a scheming couple pass off their seventeen-year old daughter as a twelve-year old so they would be in compliance with a rich, widowed uncle’s will, which stipulates that all his money would go to the first child produced by his brother’s marriage; the problem is that, unbeknownst to the uncle, who lives in America, a child had already been born out of wedlock five years earlier. Some of the slapsticks of the period – like Oliver Hardy’s “Plump and Runt” comedy One Too Many (1916) – also repeat the plot. These slapstick films were of course deeply indebted to the Pathé and Gaumont comedies adapted from ‘vaudevilles’ and boulevard comedies burlesquing institutions like marriage, motherhood and the home, as the Cinema Ritrovato crowd could judge from the several Léonce films included in this year’s ‘Cento Anni Fa’ program.

Dwan was never the go-to director for farcical comedy, but when independent producer Edward Small came calling in 1944 and contracted the director for a series of films to be released through United Artists, amongst the four films he made under his new contract, three were adaptations of successful stage farces: Up in Mabel’s Room (1944), Getting Gertie’s Garter (1945) and Brewster’s Millions (1945). The latter, an adaptation of a play by Byron Ongley and Winchell Smith, is the umpteenth variation on the inheritance-plot: a soldier returning home from fighting in Europe, learns that his deceased uncle has left him $8 million; the catch this time is that he can inherit the money only of he spends a million of it before his 30th birthday, which is only two months away. Up in Mabel’s Room and Getting Gertie’s Garter were based on material created by the most popular American farceur, Avery Hopwood, who was known as the man who had introduced French farce on Broadway.

Hopwood burst onto the scene as co-author of Seven Days (1909), written together with Mary Roberts Rinehart, with whom he would write the popular mystery-comedy – itself a template for many a Hollywood movie to follow – The Bat (1920). Seven Days was filmed at Biograph in 1915, but Hopwood’s follow-up hit, Fair and Warmer (1915), was turned into a movie at Metro in 1919, one of the first written by June Mathis, as were Our Little Wife (1916), filmed at Goldwyn in 1918, and The Girl in the Limousine (1919). During the early twenties, Hopwood became arguably the most successful playwright in America, scoring hit after hit with farces like Ladies’ Night (1920), Getting Gertie’s Garter (1921, with Wilson Collison), The Demi-Virgin (1921), and Why Men Leave Home (1922). Most of these were produced by major Hollywood studios with major stars. Marie Prévost had starred in the 1927 version of Getting Gertie’s Garter, a so-called “talisman” farce, in which an elusive object, often an object of embarrassment, in this case a bejeweled garter with the lover’s photograph attached, is frantically sought by the protagonist, a young lawyer who wants to recover this gift to his one-time sweetheart before his fiancée finds out. Getting Gertie’s Garter had all the traditional elements of French bedroom farce, concerned as it is with sexual peccadillos and adulterously minded but thoroughly bourgeois husbands and wives. “Bedroom farce” not only refers to the general tone of sexual innuendo, but structurally to the way much of the action is centered around one or more bedrooms, and characters are recombined in sexual imbroglios as they move both through improbable plots and a set consisting of a multitude of doors, which at a certain point will be slammed.

But Getting Gertie’s Garter was less an adaptation of a French theatrical farce than of an earlier Broadway success, Up in Mabel’s Room by Wilson Collison and Otto Harbach, which was also turned into a movie starring Marie Prévost in 1926 (who also starred in the 1926-27 season in Other Women’s Husbands and For Wives Only; leading reviewers to diagnose a ‘farcical outbreak;’ the ubiquity of the “talisman” plot was lampooned in the Laurel & Hardy two-reeler Love ‘em and Weep from 1927). Both were remade by Dwan with Small’s main star, Dennis O’Keefe, as the man in trouble. I’ve never seen Dwan’s version of Getting Gertie’s Garter, but Up in Mabel’s Room, which screened here in a print from the Library of Congress, did not exactly get my pulse racing like that of its frantic protagonist trying to recover a slip bearing his initials from old flame Mabel (Gail Patrick) before his jealous wife (Marjorie Reynolds) finds out. It’s all capably done but O’Keefe, who would do much better in the Anthony Mann noirs, has no real talent for this type of material. And you know Dwan’s heart isn’t it when he lets that old ham Mischa Auer – as the Russian valet Boris who conspires with O’Keefe to get the slip back – walk away with the picture.

Dwan told Peter Bogdanovich that these comedies were his contribution to the war effort, pure escapism for a weary and anxious audience. But much better are Dwan’s actual war pictures, two comedies he made for another independent company, Herbert Yates’s Republic Pictures, shortly after the war. Both Rendezvous with Annie (1946) and The Inside Story (1948) retain the energy of the farces and stick to the genre’s traditional elements: the quiproquo of mistaken identity, the endless chain of coincidence and the frantic attempt to elude discovery. In Annie, an Air Force office clerk (Eddie Albert) based in London hitches a ride with two of his pilot buddies back to the States to hook up with his wife; when he returns home after the war and finds out that he got his wife pregnant the night he was AWOL, he has to prove – both to the gossipy community and to the lawyer who informs him his son will inherit half a million dollars from a dead uncle – what he was so careful to hide. In The Inside Story, an envelope containing $1000 – the talisman object – that was placed in the safe of a New England hotel for safekeeping during the Depression, circulates through the community, leading to many a misunderstanding between a desperate lawyer and his wife, an aspiring artist and his sweetheart, an ACME representative fond of knock-knock jokes and a pair of New York bootleggers. These are perfectly structured, finely tuned comedies of errors (written by Mary Loos – Anita’s cousin – and Richard Sale), built around a pressing deadline and piling coincidence upon coincidence. But added to these narrative pleasures is a feeling for small-town life and manners that seems to anticipate the close examination of the workings of democracy in the later Westerns. These movies are definitely kindred to Preston Sturges’s two wartime comedies, The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek (1944) and Hail the Conquering Hero (1945), and Rendezvous with Annie finds in Eddie Albert a perfect substitute for Eddie Bracken. The similarities to Sturges can also be found in Dwan’s subtle direction of his actors, bringing the best out of limited performers like Albert and Gail Patrick, and cherishing the opportunity to work with great old warhorses like C. Aubrey Smith (in Annie) and Gene Lockhart and Charles Winninger (in Inside Story). But, finally, The Inside Story is closer to a movie like Ford’s The Sun Shines Bright (also made at Republic and also starring Winninger) in its focus on community and on flawed individuals doing their best to hold it together (for a close look at Ford’s masterpiece, I suggest Jonathan Rosenbaum’s insightful and personal essay). After the screening we were debating whether the Ophülsian circular structure of The Inside Story, with $1000 circulating through the town, celebrates the power of money or the power of community. If a movie has you doubting whether you’ve just seen a celebration of capitalism, an incitement to keep cash circulating in periods of economic crisis, or a Marxist parable, pointing to the contingency of value and the final worthlessness of currency in itself – the same amount s spent time and again – you can be sure that you’ve been watching something more than just a farce.