‘After Office Hours’: A Forgotten Comedy Classic

Poster from original release.

Poster from original release. In the title credits, Constance Bennett gets first billing. She was the highest paid woman in Hollywood at the time.

“After Office Hours” (Metro, 1935), an extremely appealing lightweight comedy, is little known today, but it’s hard to know why. It’s a cheerful mess, written by Herman J. Mankiewicz, and it has his fingerprints all over it: it’s funny, irreverent, illogical, smart, cynical, sloppy, slapdash and fast. The guys who drink too much are the guys we root for, and only saps make a habit of telling the truth. Mank (as he was known) was generally regarded as being much smarter, funnier and more talented than his younger brother Joe, who would later go on to win four back-to-back Oscars (two for “A Letter to Three Wives”; two for “All About Eve”), but Mank’s drinking made him totally unreliable. Legend has it that Orson Welles had to lock him up for two months in a safehouse in Victorville, California, in order to get him to finish the screenplay for “Citizen Kane.” (It’s hard to know how much to credit this or indeed any story about Welles, because Welles rarely opened his mouth except to tell another pack of lies.)

The stories of Mank’s boozing and gambling are countless, but I believe my favorite story about him is one told by his friend and fellow screenwriter, Irving Brecher, which, surprisingly, involves neither boozing nor gambling, but another vice altogether. According to Brecher, he and Mank were eating at the Metro commissary one day when Elizabeth Taylor’s mother stopped by their table to say that she had a meeting with Mr Mayer, and asked if they’d be willing to let Elizabeth sit with them while they ate their lunch. She’d only be gone for a few minutes. Of course, of course! Who wouldn’t want to spend time with a gorgeous little girl like the twelve year-old Elizabeth? In those days, she had a pet chipmunk that she took with her wherever she went. The little chipmunk would run up her arm, then disappear under her blouse and a moment later poke his head out from her sleeve, then run up her other arm, disappear down her blouse again and eventually reappear somewhere else; he frisked about like a furry electron orbiting an Elizabeth Taylor nucleus. The little girl chatted with the two writers while they ate, and all the while, the chipmunk was zipping round her torso like crazy; Brecher says she hardly seemed to notice. At length the mother returned, thanked the gentlemen and took Elizabeth away with her. As the two writers watched them walk out of the lunchroom, Mank leant over to Brecher, and, shaking his head appreciatively, murmured, “Gee, I wish I was a chipmunk!” Hmm . . . Herman Humbert.

Elizabeth Taylor and friend.

Elizabeth Taylor and friend.

I was gratified to read in Pauline Kael’s “For Keeps” that Mank had written “about forty of the films I remember best from the twenties and thirties. I hadn’t realized how extensive his career was . . . [I]t’s apparent that he was a key linking figure in just the kind of movies my friends and I loved best. These were the hardest-headed periods of American movies . . . [and] the writers . . . in little more than a decade, gave American talkies their character.” Nunnally Johnson said the two most brilliant men he ever knew were George S. Kaufman and Herman Mankiewicz, and that Mankiewicz was the more brilliant of the two, and (Kael again), “spearheaded the movement of that whole Broadway style of wisecracking, fast-talking, cynical-sentimental entertainment onto the national scene.” I would like to offer “After Office Hours” as a prime example of what Kael was talking about.

Boy Meets Girl, Boy Fires Girl

Clark Gable plays Jim Branch, the hard-bitten, cagey editor of a daily newspaper. He’s on the trail of a high society scandal that he knows is about to break. But his boss, the newspaper’s publisher, orders him to drop the story because it may possibly involve a personal friend whom he hopes will be elected as a state senator in the upcoming election. This first clip takes place right after Gable storms out of the publisher’s office. Notice how long the takes are. Robert Z. Leonard points the camera at his two stars and lets them get on with it. It helps that most of their patter is so good, and it helps that they both handle the material so energetically.

I love the way Constance Bennett delivers the line, “I haven’t so far.” For my money, she is the best of all the glamorous comediennes of the thirties. She’s as beautiful as any of them, including Harlow and Lombard, but I find her wittier and more pleasant to listen to. A big part of Harlow’s appeal was the appalling foghorn squawk that emanated from her throat, but I have to be in the mood to listen to her. Lombard’s voice tended to be shrill and unpleasant. Claudette Colbert was as chic and high-tone as Bennett, and had a beautiful voice, but I find her attractive without being sexy. But Constance Bennett is chic and sexy and obviously very shrewd. She was, in fact, known to be one of the best female card players in America. She was the only woman with a standing invitation to play high stakes poker with the studio heads, and she usually won. When she was married to Gilbert Roland, he once lost fifty grand in a poker game, and didn’t have the ducats to cover it — nowhere near. So it fell to Connie to pony up her hard-earned dough, which she did, saying: “Oh, the fucking I’m getting for the fucking I’m getting.” (The marriage didn’t last.)

I also like Clark Gable’s bawling-into-the-hidden-microphone style of acting. It’s artificial, but in a way that suits the material. The dialogue is presentational: these characters are cartoon cut-outs: if we took them seriously, their constant double-crosses would make them unbearable.

Boy Loses Girl

Look at the beautiful way she dismisses Gable just before she turns her back on him. It’s the most elegant brush off ever. There’s the tiniest flicker of her eyes at the end of it and bang go the shutters and down comes the gate. And it’s important to remember, when this picture was made, Gable was King of Hollywood.

Boy Meets Mother, Rehires Girl

In this scene, which takes place a few minutes after the previous clip, we meet Billie Burke in one of her most typical performances. I must say I find her brand of silliness endlessly amusing and occasionally dazzling. I don’t know how anyone could keep a straight face when she turned her dithering up to full intensity. She’s the Human Hummingbird.

Look at Connie slink! It takes a good deal of presence to keep the sublime Billie Burke from stealing the scene completely with her bottomless bag of tics. You will note that Miss Burke prolongs her exit by fingering the draperies as she passes through the archway. She wasn’t Mrs Florenz Ziegfeld for nothing: she knew how to pull focus when she wanted to.

I fear that Gable hadn’t yet shed the Blue Plate Special corniness he picked up from Frank Capra’s overemphatic seltzer-in-yer-pants kind of comic hijinx in the previous year’s “It Happened One Night.” Capra’s Common Man, when merry (his natural state), invariably becomes brainless at the top of his lungs. I hear more Capra than Mankiewicz in Gable’s reading of “Nooo, nooo! Only in months with AARRR in ’em!” He lands on the antic dopiness so hard that any stray champagne bubbles of wit are flattened beneath the weight: it’s Bambi Meets Godzilla. On the other hand, we’re to understand that everyone has been drinking all night, that Jim Branch is an excitable man and that he is working extra hard to amuse this elegant woman, of whom he hopes to take advantage in as many ways as he possibly can. The corniness of that one line reading actually serves a useful purpose: it gives the scene a jolt of energy at exactly the moment more energy is wanted. I don’t like it, but I admire how well it works. Moreover, Gable has the magnetism and virility to ride the phony zaniness the way a surfer rides the crest of a wave: the difference is Gable has to create the wave all by himself. When Connie Bennett begins to laugh, her amusement is genuine enough to justify the Capra-corn. It’s infinitely less irritating than the lunkheaded lecture Gable delivers on the fine art of dunking a sinker in “It Happened One Night.”

Capra Shakes Hands with Wit: an Allegory.

Capra Shakes Hands with Wit: an Allegory.

Boy Gets, Loses Girl

This is my favorite scene in the picture. I love the deco set design: that backdrop of the 59th Street Bridge is in just about every Metro picture that takes place in Manhattan. In Louis B. Mayer’s New York, everyone lives and plays in and around Sutton Place. I love the surprise appearance of Margaret Dumont as Mrs Murchison (this picture came out the same year as “A Night at the Opera”). In her brief moments onscreen, she looks more like a Helen Hokinson cartoon than ever. But most of all, I love the chemistry between Bennett and Gable and the snappy patter that Mank has written for them.

“You say awfully nice things Mr B!” She speaks that line so charmingly that I almost forget the sound of Shirley Booth as the irrepressible, horrible busybody maid, Hazel, in the early sixties TV sitcom of the same name. Unfortunate readers will remember that Hazel always addressed her employer as “Mr B,” and always sounded as if she were speaking with her mouth full of crumb cake and cottage cheese.

Separated at Birth? Helen Hokinson Clubwomen, Margaret Dumont

Separated at Birth? Helen Hokinson Clubwomen, Margaret Dumont.

He Who Gets Slapped

I’m fond of this scene for a lot of reasons, but chiefly because of the public service performed by Mary MacLaren at about 2:28. The fellow who claims to be the coroner’s assistant is actually Jim Branch’s lead photographer. The actor is Stuart Erwin.

I have occasionally watched that slap ten times in a row just because it makes me so happy. Every time William Demerest shows up in any one of the more than one hundred and sixty pictures he appeared in, I feel like slapping him.

Mank Speaks!

Herman J. Mankiewicz, apparently pretty sober.

Herman J. Mankiewicz, looking unusually sober.

I’ve always had a special fondness for funny drunks. I’ve known more than my fair share of turbulent tipplers, and I almost always come to regret, or at least rue, my association with them. By definition, they are unreliable, self-pitying, self-destructive, exasperating, boring, embarrassing and eventually pathetic. But I find the funny ones hard to resist. The really heavy drinkers don’t last long, so to befriend one of them is like finding yourself in charge of a short-lived breed of dog who bites people. You love him, but he’s a handful; when he dies you miss him, but can’t help feeling relief that he’s gone. Had I been around when Mank was still alive, I make no doubt I would have loved him: he strikes me as George S. Kaufman with a bun on. (They were friends: Kaufman gave him a job at the New York Times; Mank left Kaufman high and dry by going out to Hollywood.) Of course, there’s a good chance he’d have had no use for me whatsoever. Still, I’ve known a great many drunks because I usually get along well with them. Anyhow, I don’t know when I’ll be returning to the subject of Herman J. Mankiewicz, and feel I owe it to the old soak to finish this piece with a few examples of the sort of hilarious things he said before he died of uremic poisoning on April 5, 1953.

Mank sent the following telegram to Ben Hecht (the last sentence is particularly in character): Will you accept 300 per week to work for Paramount? All expenses paid. 300 is peanuts. Millions are to be grabbed out here and your only competition is idiots. Don’t let this get around.

This is Mank on his favorite actress, and his dream of domestic bliss (again, his last sentence is the most characteristic): Barbara Stanwyck is my favorite. My God, I could just sit and dream of being married to her, having a little cottage out in the hills, vines around the door. I’d come home from the office tired and weary, and I’d be met by Barbara, walking through the door holding an apple pie she had cooked herself. And wearing no drawers.

Barbara Stanwyck: Apple pie and no drawers

Barbara Stanwyck: One Eve with a lid on, hold the drawers!

Upon seeing Orson Welles: There, but for the grace of God, goes God.

On Production Code morality: In a novel the hero can lay ten girls and marry a virgin for the finish. In a movie this is not allowed. The villain can lay anybody he wants, have as much fun as he wants cheating and stealing, getting rich and whipping the servants. But you have to shoot him in the end. When he falls with a bullet in his forehead, it is advisable that he clutch at the Gobelin tapestry on the wall and bring it down over his head like a symbolic shroud. Also, covered by such a tapestry, the actor does not have to to hold his breath while being photographed as a dead man.

Finally, on Louis B. Mayer (the past tense is amusing, since Mayer outlived Mank by two years): He had the memory of an elephant and the hide of an elephant. The only difference is that elephants are vegetarians and Mayer’s diet was his fellow man.

One thought on “‘After Office Hours’: A Forgotten Comedy Classic

  1. Billo

    Zaaay . . why does she get zo many lines – I’m zuppozed to be the zdarrr on this picture – OK?

    Reply

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