Monthly Archives: November 2013

Classic Christmas Comedy: ‘The Man Who Came to Dinner’

Original poster.

Original poster.


“The Man Who Came to Dinner” is the best of all the comedies by George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart, but you’d never know it from the lunkheaded screen adaptation released by Warner Bros. in 1942. The rough outline of the plot is simple: during a cross-country lecture tour at Christmastime, Sheridan Whiteside, an acerbic radio celebrity, slips on a piece of ice and fractures his hip after attending a dinner at the home of Mr and Mrs Ernest Stanley of Mesalia, Ohio. While he’s laid up in their house, he and an endless array of celebrity friends who come to visit him turn the Stanleys’ lives upside down. I’ve always had immense fondness for the play, but after seeing a half dozen miserable productions of it, I came to the sad conclusion that the story has an insoluble problem at its center: that is, Sheridan Whiteside is such a tyrannical bully that it’s no fun to spend nearly three hours in his odious company. The screen adaptation, by Julius J. Epstein and Philip G. Epstein (they also co-wrote “Casablanca” with Howard W. Koch that same year), cuts about an hour off the running time, but this in no way ameliorates the problem of the ruffian cripple who is the title character. “The Man Who Came to Dinner” is a supreme example of the Well Made Play: there’s hardly a line that can be cut without the whole fabric of the piece shredding into tatters, yet unlike many a Well Made Play (the complete works of Henrik Ibsen, for example), the construction is almost invisible. The Epsteins, hoping to “open up” the play, have added an entire prologue, in which we see Whiteside arrive in Ohio, hissing unfunny, unprovoked insults all the way. For every new line the Epsteins add, more of the tightly constructed plot must be done away with. The Brothers Epstein shortened it the rest of the way by carving away every inch of glamour and sophistication. In their hands, the screenplay becomes little more than a clamorous (to borrow a line from the play) Cavalcade of Insult, spoken mostly by Monty Woolley, who never stops barking, snarling, hissing and baring his ghastly teeth. The few remaining scraps of Kaufman and Hart’s original script are further mutilated by the depredations of Production Code censorship. The result is appalling and entirely dispiriting. Pray you avoid it.

Alexander Woollcott, the real-life Sheridan Whiteside. Asked to describe him in one word, George S. Kaufman answered, 'Improbable.'

Alexander Woollcott, the real-life Sheridan Whiteside. Asked to describe him in one word, George S. Kaufman answered, ‘Improbable.’


Happily, the Roundabout Theatre produced an excellent Broadway revival of the play back in 2000, directed by Jerry Zaks and starring Nathan Lane, Jean Smart and Harriet Harris. Someone at PBS had the foresight to produce a live broadcast of its next-to-last performance on a Saturday night. A year later, the broadcast was released on DVD, not in high-definition, alas, but I’ll take what I can get. The live recording gives a fair idea of what it was like to see this inaugural production in the newly and beautifully restored Selwyn Theatre (renamed the American Airlines Theatre), which is currently the home of the Roundabout, on 42nd Street. (The DVD is out of print now, but you can still find used copies of it online, and the entire performance is available on YouTube.)

When I saw the revival in 2000, it seemed to me little short of miraculous. That production remains the single most satisfying comedy I’ve ever seen on stage. Zaks and Lane solved the play’s central problem by tackling it head on. Whiteside is still selfish and exasperating, but the way Lane plays him, most of his nastiest remarks are said in jest: he’s merely exercising his wit. And indeed, in the Roundabout production, with the notable exceptions of the aggrieved Mr Stanley and Whiteside’s long-suffering nurse, Miss Preen (the brilliantly comic Mary Catherine Wright), everyone finds him witty rather than withering. Zaks and Lane also decided early in the rehearsal process that the central relationship in the play is Whiteside’s with his secretary, Maggie Cutler (Harriet Harris). Zaks describes it as a “love story”: not romantic love, but platonic and deep: they have been together for a long time; they understand one another; they finish each other’s sentences. But when Maggie falls in love and decides to leave Whiteside’s employ, he’s desperate to prevent that from happening, even at the expense of her happiness, which he persuades himself he’s actually protecting. It’s a nice distinction, but an important one: by establishing their delight in each other’s company, they both have something to lose and the play comes vividly to life. Whiteside still says and does appalling things; he interferes in everyone’s business and never plays fair — but Lane makes him what he was always intended to be: a loveable rogue. I’m going to show you a few comparisons between it and the movie version, but I don’t intend to waste a lot of energy explaining how wide of the mark the picture is. You can take my word for it, or you can spend a very noisy, tiresome 112 minutes seeing for yourself.

George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart.

George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart.

Big Lord Fauntleroy

Here are two versions of the scene in which Maggie tells Whiteside that she’s leaving him. In the movie version, Bette Davis is straight-forward and earnest, but she’s not the least bit funny. It’s not her fault: without the reaction of a live audience, there’s not a lot an actress can do above saying the lines in a reasonably credible way. Besides, except for the one zinger at the end of the scene, Maggie doesn’t have any punchlines. Still, when I watch this scene, I can’t help feeling that instead of driving the scene forward, Bette Davis keeps letting the air out of its tires. This happens throughout the course of the entire picture. Davis isn’t bad, she’s boring; Woolley is bad and boring.

But now have a look at what the wonderful Harriet Harris does with the same material. What’s most striking about the Roundabout’s production is this: for the first time, Maggie Cutler has fully as much personality as all the zanies who are Sheridan Whiteside’s friends.

Maggie’s outburst occurs about two-thirds of the way through Act One. In the Roundabout production, it was the second time a character exited to a big round of applause. After Maggie’s exit, nearly every major exit by a principal character was accompanied by loud applause. I’ve never seen anything else to match it.

Enter Beverly Carlton

Here is Reginald Gardiner as Beverly Carlton, a thinly disguised Noël Coward, in the screen version. I’m always glad to see Reginald Gardiner, but he holds back in this picture — he’s far more vibrant and funny in “Christmas in Connecticut”; he’s also more amusing (though probably for the wrong reasons) as Ginger Rogers’ hag-ridden husband in “Black Widow.”

Here is Byron Jennings as Beverly. It’s not often that I like to hear American actors attempt English accents (for some reason, American actresses fare a little bit better), but I like Jennings’ accent a lot. This is almost certainly because Noël Coward himself essentially invented his own accent, which — though it was certainly that of an Englishman — was not like anyone else’s. Jennings’ accent as Beverly Carlton is a nice riff on Coward’s invention, and as such, I think it works splendidly.

A Respite from Hilarity

In this next clip, Beverly performs a song specially written for the show by Cole Porter, who created a dead-on parody of Coward’s musical and lyrical style. Porter was great pals with Monty Woolley, who had been one of his professors at Yale. He wrote the song as a favor to his friend and the two authors, who thanked him with a gold cigarette case. I hasten to add that this is most definitely not a great song: it’s a brilliant parody of the second rate. It’s show-offy in precisely the way that Noël Coward so often was. In Stephen Sondheim’s book about lyrics, “Finishing the Hat,” he mentions that he “cordially but intensely dislike[s]” Coward’s lyrics and condemns them for coming in only two flavors, brittle and sentimental; according to Sondheim, when Coward’s sentimentality is in full flower, his lyrics veer into nonsense. Guilty as charged, I’m afraid. Cole Porter’s parody catches precisely Coward’s brittle flippancy, the sentimentality and artificiality of his lyrics, with their crowds of internal rhymes (e.g., “Softly a fluid/Druid/Meets me” — that slays me!), predicates that nonsensically precede their subjects (e.g., “Up to the stars/I climb”), and most devastatingly of all, Coward’s humdrum melodic invention, gussied up with chromaticism to give the banal melody “class.” Sondheim writes that Coward’s harmonic language is something he avoids like “dengue fever.” Well, at least he didn’t say he hates it.

“What Am I to Do?” is not in the picture, which I consider to be a serious miscalculation. To explain why, I must digress for a moment. Nine years before “The Man Who Came to Dinner” was a hit on Broadway, Moss Hart collaborated with Kaufman for the first time, on a farce about Hollywood called “Once in a Lifetime.” In the earliest out-of-town tryouts for this play, the first act was a sure-fire crowd-pleaser, but the laughs suddenly died halfway through Act Two, and Act Three played to ponderous and sepulchral silence. Many drafts later, Kaufman and Hart managed to keep the laughs going through the whole of Act Two, but Act Three still played to the crickets. Eventually, Kaufman became so discouraged he withdrew from the show (temporarily), and it died (temporarily) out of town. It was Sam Harris, the show’s associate producer (later, the sole producer of “The Man Who Came to Dinner”), who gave Hart the solution to the mystery of the disappearing laughter. Here is Moss Hart’s account (from his tremendously entertaining memoir, “Act One”) of what Harris told him:

I wish, kid, that this weren’t such a noisy play. . . . It’s a noisy play, kid. One of the noisiest plays I’ve ever been around. . . . Just think about it. Except for those two minutes at the beginning of the first act, there isn’t another spot in this whole play where two people sit down and talk quietly to each other. Is that right, or isn’t it? . . . Maybe noisy is the wrong word. But I’ve watched this play through maybe a hundred times, and I think one of the main things wrong with it is that it tires an audience out. It’s a tiring play to sit through, kid. . . I can almost feel them begin to get tired around me. That stage is so damn full of actors and scenery and costumes and props all the time they never get a chance to catch their breath and listen to the play. Sure they laugh, but I think they’re longing to see that stage just once with maybe two or three people on it quietly talking the whole thing over. Give them a chance to sit back themselves and kind of add the whole thing up. Once this show gets under way nobody ever talks to each other. They just keep pounding away like hell and running in and out of that scenery. It’s a noisy play, kid, you take my word for it.

Hart came up with the idea of jettisoning the most expensive set in the show and inserting one short, crucial scene at the beginning of Act Three — more bittersweet and nostalgic than funny . . . and quiet. This one short scene gave the audience a respite from the sidesplitting hilarity, Kaufman came back on board, and “Once in a Lifetime” became a smash hit. A much-needed respite from hilarity is exactly the effect of Beverly Carlton’s musical number: it’s charming in its own right, but in context, it becomes something approximating the Sublime. No, it’s not a great song: it’s faux-Coward, so it can’t be great. The point is that it captures the essence of Coward; it’s not first rate: it’s charming, nonsensical, flippant, bittersweet, irresistible. I’ve never been able to tell for sure whether or not Byron Jennings is actually accompanying himself on the piano, but when I saw the show, the sound definitely came from the instrument, not from a loudspeaker, and he certainly looks as if he’s playing it. Whatever the truth is, the possibility that he’s his own accompanist adds an unexpected virtuosity to his performance that makes it unforgettable.

Oh, hell, I like Byron Jennings’ performance so much, here’s the rest of it.

“The first baby will be named Beverly” is in the original script. “Then I hope it’s a girl” is new. I don’t know who came up with the line, but it’s terrific. For a topical play from 1939, the script has been left remarkably intact. Even in Kaufman’s day, when he directed his own plays, he had to call rehearsals in the middle of a run to “take out the improvements” (his expression) that the actors had incorporated. On one occasion, Kaufman stopped in to catch a matinee performance of the first act of “Of Thee I Sing,” the first musical to win a Pulitzer Prize, after it had been running for a few months. At the intermission, he sent a telegram to William Gaxton, the leading man: “WATCHING YOUR PERFORMANCE FROM THE LAST ROW STOP WISH YOU WERE HERE” . . .

Here’s another important element that was left out of the picture. The story of Elias P. Crockfield does not advance the plot, but it is our first (and really only) glimpse of Whiteside’s sentimental radio persona. And, like Beverly Carlton’s song in the second act, it follows a lot of break-neck comedy and gives the audience a chance to catch their breath. Lane’s performance of the speech is not as marvellous as much of the rest of his performance, but at least he approximates the idea well enough to get the job done. It’s a shame Claude Rains never played this role. I can’t imagine anyone who could handle Whiteside’s overt sentimentality and venomousness more deftly.

Enter Lorraine Sheldon

“The Man Who Came to Dinner” is notable for the number of characters in it who are based on celebrities of the day (i.e., 1939), with no attempt to conceal the identities of their real-life counterparts. Sheridan Whiteside is clearly based on the owlish radio personality, Alexander Woollcott; Beverly Carlton is unquestionably based on Noël Coward; the character Banjo is obviously based on Harpo Marx. I have been startled to discover that it is widely believed that Lorraine Sheldon is based on Gertrude Lawrence. Many sources, including the Library of America’s edition of Kaufman’s plays, blandly offer this as a matter of fact. Au contraire: she’s much closer in personality and background to Tallulah Bankhead. Lorraine Sheldon is not exactly like Tallulah Bankhead, either, but she certainly has much more in common with Bankhead than she has with Gertrude Lawrence. At any rate, an actress is bound to get more laughs playing Lorraine as if she were Tallulah than as if she were Gertie. Jean Smart (a very shrewd and capable comedienne) plays the role exactly as if she were Jean Smart, and that seems the best plan of all: she’s hilarious. She has two long moments on the telephone in Act Two that are about as broad and funny as anything I’ve ever seen. Out of context, I’m afraid they won’t mean much, so I’ll show you her entrance instead, which is plenty great.

Lorraine Sheldon has almost nothing at all in common with Gertrude Lawrence. Lawrence had two of her greatest successes with Noël Coward (“Private Lives” and “Tonight at 8:30”), and while her friendship with him was not without its bumps — both were highly temperamental — she was never his sworn enemy, as she is in “The Man Who Came to Dinner.” (On Lawrence’s opening night for “The King and I,” Coward sent her a telegram that read: “A WARM HAND ON YOUR OPENING.”) Nor did Lawrence ever chase “panting, from castle to castle,” an English nobleman. This latter distinction belongs to Tallulah Bankhead, who had an on-again off-again affair with Napier Stuart, Lord Alington, for many years. Most tellingly, like the fictional Lord Bottomley, Bankhead describes Alington (in her autobiography) as having “an almost repulsive mouth.” (Bring on the Roquefort cheese.) Like Lorraine Sheldon, Bankhead was American-born and was for a time considered one of the great actresses of the American theatre; Lawrence was primarily a star in Britain. And while Bankhead, like Lorraine Sheldon, was famous for her sexual rapaciousness, Lawrence was not. (Chico Marx was introduced to Bankhead at a party, but only after he was warned to behave himself in the presence of Speaker of the House William B. Bankhead’s daughter. Chico: “Miss Bankhead.” Tallulah: “Mr Marx.” Chico: “You know, I really want to fuck you.” Tallulah: “And so you shall, you old-fashioned boy.”)

In case you’re wondering, Dorothy di Frasso was an American-born café society Fascist, who married an Italian count and was close friends with Il Duce, Benito Mussolini. “Kit” (Katharine) Cornell was widely considered, in the thirties and forties, to be the finest actress on Broadway. Cornell gave Christopher Plummer a break early in his career; he was extremely fond of her, but insists that she was not, and never could be, a great actress. Beatrice Lillie was a famous (and famously scrawny) comedienne. Jock Whitney was a philanthropist, investor, U.S. Ambassador to the United Kingdom (under Eisenhower) and publisher of the New York Herald Tribune. Sybil Cartwright is a fictional character. This Roundabout production was scrupulous about keeping in place nearly all of the original dropped names. Most of the versions I’ve seen (including the motion picture) alter the names to more current or better-known ones, which only makes the chatter less glamorous, without making it more meaningful to the general public, who are unlikely to recognize half of the names, anyway. One name that the Roundabout production changed bears mentioning: “Have you kidnapped someone, Sherry?” “Yes: that was the Lindbergh baby.” The line gets a laugh, which is what it’s supposed to do, and it’s just waspish enough for Woollcott to have said. I don’t believe, however, audiences in 1939 — seven years after the kidnapping — would have liked such a joke. Unfortunately, the victim mentioned in the original script is “Charley Ross,” a name that few people are likely to recognize. In its way, a Charley Ross joke is even more objectionable than one about the Lindbergh baby, but also (therefore) funnier. Charley Ross was the first nationally famous kidnapping victim. The four year-old Charley and his five year-old brother Walter were kidnapped from their front lawn in a wealthy section of Philadelphia in 1874. Walter was released, but Charley was held for ransom and never returned. The case was never solved. In the play, Dr Bradley appears to be about seventy years old, which makes him the same age Charley Ross, had he survived, would have been. It’s impossible to know what Kaufman would have thought about the alteration. On the one hand, I’m sure he’d hate to lose the laugh; on the other hand, I have a hunch he wouldn’t have considered the Lindbergh baby an acceptable substitute. I’m willing to accept it for the laughter it excites and for its astringency.

The Stage Design

One of the great pleasures of the Roundabout revival was the gorgeous set by Tony Walton. Here he is, describing how he came up with the look.

As it happens, I have a younger brother who designs sets for the student shows at the college where he teaches scenic and costume design. Some years ago, when I learnt that his school had presented “The Man Who Came to Dinner,” I asked him how he approached the set. He told me that he operated on the assumption that the Stanleys, in whose home the action takes place, were social-climbing vulgarians. “How did you demonstrate their vulgarity?” I asked. “Oh, I made the books match the drapes.” “My God,” I said, “that’s brilliant! Did the set get a laugh?” He took a pause worthy of Kaufman and Hart, then answered, “No, but all the faculty wives wanted me to decorate their homes.” I don’t mind playing straight man to a line as clever as that one.

Classic Christmas Kitsch: ‘The Bishop’s Wife’

Original Poster. When nobody went to see the wretched picture, Goldwyn re-released it as 'Cary and the Bishop's Wife.' It worked.

Original Poster. When nobody went to see the wretched picture, Goldwyn re-released it under the nonsensical title,’Cary and the Bishop’s Wife.’ It worked.

Let me say at once that “The Bishop’s Wife” (Samuel Goldwyn, 1947) is saccharine rubbish. If you look at it when you’re in a bad mood, you’ll probably find it intolerable. I’m not even sure I like it, but I’m pretty certain that I like some of it and am positive I love hating most of it. It’s a scornful pleasure that comes very close to being a guilty one, because a lot of it is very nearly beneath contempt. It’s muttonheaded Christmas kitsch; its several forays into religious instruction are so banal that they make Lloyd C. Douglas‘ poppycock seem like Thomas Aquinas by comparison. I also find it irresistibly entertaining and likeable.

Episcopalian Bishop Henry Brougham (David Niven) plans to erect a new cathedral, but is hampered by a cantankerous society doyenne, Mrs Hamilton (Gladys Cooper), who holds the purse-strings and rules the congregation with a rod of iron. She tells the Bishop plainly that “The church will be built according to my specifications or not at all.” Pushed to the verge of despair and fearing that his nerves are about to crack, the Bishop prays to God for guidance. His prayer is answered in the form of a dapper, smirking, incognito angel named Dudley (Cary Grant), who comes to work for him in the guise of an assistant. The action takes place during the Christmas season, in an unspecified city. The opening scene takes place on Madison Avenue, but it seems unlikely that we are to assume we’re in Manhattan.

The Simpering Angel

When Dudley reports to work on his first day, the Bishop’s flinty secretary (Sara Haden, in a quietly broad performance) and long-suffering housemaid (Elsa Lanchester, in a noisily broad performance) fall all over themselves in the slippery slickness of his charm.

Julia, the Bishop’s wife (Loretta Young), also falls for Dudley; so does Cindy, the Bishop’s daughter (Karolyn Grimes); so, indeed, does everybody else who crosses Dudley’s path. In this clip, the leader of the gang is Bobby Anderson, who played the young George Bailey in “It’s a Wonderful Life.”

Robert E. Sherwood co-wrote the script . . . “We’ve bwoken their mowale!” Jesus God Almighty. That line bears the unmistakable imprint of Sherwood’s heavy hand. Was he this corny when he shared a tiny office with Dorothy Parker back in the twenties?

Even crusty old Professor Wutheridge (Monty Woolley, who is much, much better than usual and never once bares his ghastly teeth) cannot resist the heavenly visitor. He is reticent at first, but then Dudley does the old bastard two big favors: he gives the Professor an angle that allows him at last to start work on his long-planned history of Rome, and he puts an enchantment on the Professor’s bottle of sherry so that no matter how much the old boy drinks, the bottle never runs dry: “It warms, it stimulates, it inspires, but it never inebriates!” says the grateful academic tippler. (But I wonder: when Dudley’s mission is through, does Professor Wutheridge lose his all-you-can-drink privileges?)

Monty Woolley: The broken-down scholar finds new purpose, a magic bottle of sherry and a warm place to sleep it off.

Monty Woolley as Professor Wutheridge: Thanks to Dudley, a broken-down old scholar finds new purpose, a magic bottle of sherry and a warm place to sleep it off. All he needs now is a catamite.

The only person who remains impervious to Dudley’s suave flippancy is the Bishop himself, whom the beautifully tailored angel has come to help. David Niven was originally cast as the angel, and Grant as Bishop Brougham. But when Grant read the script, he said he’d play Dudley or withdraw from the project. Niven was a good sport about it, but it must have irked him. As it is, Niven doesn’t do much with the part, other than look put out. Eleven years later, when he appeared in “Separate Tables” with Gladys Cooper (who once again was cast as his tormentor), he won an Oscar for his troubles. (He’s awfully good in that one; so is she.)

Twinkle, Twinkle, Cary Grant:
Can you con me? No you can’t.

It’s just possible that I’m the only person on earth who doesn’t find Cary Grant (nee Archibald Leach) irresistibly charming. I sure do like the idea of him; he’s very handsome and looks swell in a suit, but he twinkles too much; he never stops making faces and doing comic double- and even triple-takes. It seems he was too big a star for any director to tell him, “Aw, fer chrissake, Archie, will ya just say the fuckin’ lines?” He did his best work for Hitchcock, but he starred in a lot of second and third rate comedies and was never, ever better than the bum material he apparently preferred to act in. He was at his worst in the only picture he did for Frank Capra (“Arsenic and Old Lace”), but he’s scarcely better in this one. Still, it’s an amusing conceit to cast the flippant, debonair Cary Grant as a celestial being — and he’s far less excruciating as Dudley the Angel than is, say, Henry Travers as Clarence Oddbody, AS2. Here he is twinkling away like mad in the scene that follows the rigged snowball fight. The birdlike biddy who says “He’s holding her hand” is the estimable (always funny, nearly always underused) Almira Sessions. (There’s an abrupt cut in this clip, where I edited out about half a minute of syrup. You’re welcome.)

There’s the faux-folksy voice of Robert E. Sherwood again, loud and clear . . . “The world changes, but two things remain constant: Truth and Beauty: y’know, they’re really one and the same thing” . . . “The only people who grow old were born old to begin with.” Aw, go shit in yer hat!

Robert Nathan, cousin to Emma Lazarus and Benjamin Cardozo, and writer of sentimental kitsch novels with metaphysical/spiritual overtones (e.g., “Portrait of Jennie”), was the author of the novel on which this picture was based, but I don’t know whether it was he or Sherwood who conceived of the personification of Divine Intervention as a combination of busybody, cop on the beat, benevolent bureaucrat and drummer for the liquor lobby. In this story, Dudley’s allusions to Heaven give the distinct impression that the place is a vast, mid-twentieth century bureaucratic corporate beehive. (O, horrible! O, horrible! most horrible!) And was it Nathan or Sherwood who befuddled the biddies with stingers? At any rate, it’s awful.

The Maxwell House Connection

The only thing in the picture that’s busier and more bustling than Cary Grant’s performance is Hugo Friedhofer’s score. The whimsical angel theme never fails to remind me of the old Maxwell House “boo-boo-boo BOOP-boop” jingle. (If you’re unfamiliar with it, you can find it on YouTube.) “The Bishop’s Wife” preceded Maxwell House’s percolator theme by fourteen years; the two themes are not identical, but they both have that signature leap of a major ninth, which is a highly unusual interval in pop music. (I can think of only one pop tune that features it: “I’m Telling You Now” sung by Freddie and the Dreamers in 1965; Harold Rome also used the interval to good effect in a ballad from “I Can Get It for You Wholesale,” but how many people — with the possible exceptions of Elliott Gould and Barbra Streisand — remember that score? Marilyn Cooper, who sang the tune, is dead.) Friedhofer uses the motive so often throughout the picture that I think of the score (quite unfairly) as Rhapsody on a Jingle for Maxwell House. Paradoxically, this strikes me as a good thing: without the lousy music, the entire picture would be no better than grotesque kitsch; with the lousy music, it’s appealingly nutty . . . especially when the Maxwell House Variations are at odds with the spiritual uplift of the scenes they underscore. At least, I think so. But you and your ears may have to squint to see and hear it my way. I have to be in the right mood for it (i.e., dead tired, with my defenses down), because it’s awfully sticky and so sugary that it often hurts my teeth. Unlike Maxwell House, which is alleged to be Good to the Last Drop, “The Bishop’s Wife” is goop to the last drip.

As the Bishop’s wife, Loretta Young, with her heavy-lidded saucer eyes and eerily elongated Silly Putty face, looks more Disneyesque equine than ever. She was famously one of the best-dressed women in Hollywood, though most of her ensembles in this production are hideous. She gives literal meaning to the old cliché “clothes horse.” For the life of me, I can’t understand how she had a career. Marlene Dietrich once said of her, “Every time Loretta sins [i.e., has sex out of wedlock], she builds a church. That’s why there are so many Catholic churches in Hollywood.” She was a notorious Catholic scold, who used to institute a swear jar on the sets she worked on. Whenever she heard anyone use foul language, she’d demand that the offender pony up the fifty cent fine, which she’d send each week to the Bishop of Rome. Ethel Merman was told of this practice when she was visiting Celeste Holm on the set of “Come to the Stable.” Merman fished into her purse and pulled out a bill. “Here’s ten bucks, Loretta. Go fuck yourself!”

Dudley Conducts The Mitchell Boychoir

Somewhere in the middle of the picture, Dudley and Julia go to St. Timothy’s Church to hear a rehearsal of the boy’s choir. This is what happens.

The singers are all members of a group called The Robert Mitchell Boy Choir (in the credits, they’re listed as The Mitchell Boychoir). Most of these kids came from poor families; all of them attended a special school in Los Angeles that was established and run by choirmaster Robert Mitchell. They sang in several movies in the thirties and forties, including “Love Affair” and “Going My Way.” I like the way at least half of them look as if they have said “Please don’t send my brudduh tudduh chair” at some point in their lives. And I love the sound they make. I know the scene is corny, and I dislike Cary Grant’s hamming, but I find the underlying idea completely irresistible, especially when the descant kicks in.

The Hack Philosopher

James Gleason, ugh. He plays a cutesy-pie taxicab driver named Sylvester.

Cary Grant and Loretta Young listen to James Gleason gas on as Sylvester, the loquacious cabbie.

Cary Grant and Loretta Young listen to James Gleason gas on as Sylvester, the loquacious cabbie.

Gleason was a popular character actor in the thirties and forties; I can see why, but I don’t have to like it: you either enjoy his brand of corn or you don’t. He’s the urban male version of the Quaint Old Darling type that I find repellent. In “The Bishop’s Wife,” we meet him when Dudley and Julia climb into his taxi. After eavesdropping on their conversation, he unburdens himself of some half-baked Sherwood/Nathan palaver about “Ya know what duh trouble is widda woirld t’day?” — and nearly kills all three of them in a head-on collision with a truck while he’s gassing on and forgets to watch the road. (Dudley secretly intervenes and disaster is averted.) Then Sylvester goes ice-skating with them — a protracted comic/romantic interlude that brings the three of them closer together. It’s pretty dreadful stuff, but I enjoy the phoniness of it, especially the way that Dudley’s skating stunt double is so obviously not Cary Grant: he’s shorter and stockier, and his head (much larger than Grant’s) is kept in ludicrous shadow that follows him around like a negative spotlight. I wonder if audiences bought the effect back when the picture was released . . . Maybe it worked better when the picture was shown in movie theatres where the air was thick with cigarette smoke. The stunt doubles for Loretta Young and James Gleason are less obvious. She’s in an ostentatiously hideous hat, which partially disguises the deception. When the skating party is over and Sylvester delivers them at the Bishop’s residence, he refuses to accept money: “You two have restored my faith in yuman nature,” he says. Dudley watches him drive off and murmurs (with a twinkle in his voice), “Sylvester is a noble man. His children and his children’s children shall rise up and call him blessèd.” Something in me rises up, too, but it’s not a blessing.

Gladys Cooper Hears an Angel

Without the Bishop’s permission, Dudley decides to pay a call on the fierce Mrs Hamilton. Once there, he looks for clues about how to confront the aged tigress in her lair and stroke her till she purrs.

Presumably Allan Cartwright, the composer of “Lost April,” also did the ornate calligraphy on the sheet music.

'Lost April' score.

‘Lost April’ score.

We’re expected to believe Allan Cartwright was in love with Agnes Hamilton, but if he wasn’t gay, I’ll eat my head. And take a hinge at the insipid lyrics: “Lost April, where did you [go?]” . . . Well, if nothing else, they’re of a piece with the rest of the picture. As soon as Dudley begins to play the tune on the harp, Mrs Hamilton appears at the top of the stairs and, transfixed by the music, she descends. I pick up the scene in the middle of the gushing tune.

“I never loved George Hamilton,” she says. Well, who does? Gladys Cooper rose to stardom as Sir Gerald du Maurier’s leading lady. Du Maurier was famous for underplaying and Miss Cooper followed her leading man’s example. (When George S. Kaufman was in London directing a show in the early thirties, he remarked to a friend, “I have a slight cold, caught while watching Sir Gerald du Maurier make love.”) In this scene, she represents her inner life with an artfully raised eyebrow while keeping absolutely still. Her performance is artificial as hell and I adore it. I also love the way she pronounces the name “Cartwright” as “KHAR-tritt.” Cooper couldn’t bear to act with unattractive men; perhaps that’s why she’s so wonderful in this scene. I’ve never seen her play such vulnerability in any other picture. Anyhow, I’m always glad to see Gladys Cooper act — mostly because her presentational style of performance provides a superb example of what early twentieth century stage acting looked like. And, frankly, her old-fashioned technique is not nearly as artificial as the stuff Method Actors came up with in the second half of the century, nor nearly so self-regarding and self-indulgent. Her style is more glamorous and charming. And it’s faster.

Henry Koster directed. The stupendously ugly production design is by Perry Ferguson and George Jenkins, who were responsible for the ugliness of several other Goldwyn pictures of the mid- to late-forties. I find their work immediately recognizable: vulgar, gloomy Victoriana. I believe it’s supposed to look expensive and cozy, but merely looks claustrophobic and kitsch.