Tag Archives: Frank Capra

‘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.

‘Johnny Apollo’: ‘Now, Let’s Forget All about Legal Ethics’

Poster from original release.

Poster from second release.

You won’t find “Johnny Apollo” (Twentieth Century-Fox, 1940) on any list of the Fifty Best Crime Dramas of All Time, and who can wonder? It’s the sort of assembly line studio programmer to which “best” can hardly be applied with any seriousness — though it must surely have been the best picture to open on March 15, 1940 in Ossining, New York. (The tie-in was that exterior shooting was done at Sing Sing.) It is immensely engaging, lively, preposterous and a lot more fun than most of the pictures you’ll find at the top of the Fifty Best Crime Dramas list.

The Smash Up

Tyrone Power plays Robert “Bob” Cain, Jr, a college athlete whose life is turned upside down when his father, a Wall Street tycoon (Edward Arnold), is sent to prison for embezzlement. With his father in jail, Bob must find a job to support himself. But when his father’s old friends and colleagues turn their backs on him, he changes his name and turns to crime; as Johnny Apollo, racketeer, he plans to earn enough money to spring the old man.

Much of the action takes place in night clubs, betting parlors, dingy offices, stairwells — anyplace where the windows look out on blinking lights. Looming over everything are the courthouse and the big house. The situations are steamed up; the coincidences are many; the patter is snappy and far above average for this kind of picture (the screenplay is by Philip Dunne); good is rewarded; evil is punished and amor vincit omnia.

Tyrone Power as Johnny Apollo, nee Bob Cain

Tyrone Power as Johnny Apollo, nee Bob Cain, Jr.

With a few exceptions, it’s extremely well acted. Tyrone Power isn’t up to much, but he’s better than usual. The role suits him well, and he was relieved to be doing, at long last, a picture in modern clothes. Lloyd Nolan overplays Mickey Dwyer, a mob boss who becomes Johnny Apollo’s father figure while the old man is up the river making boilers. He lays on da Bronx accent a few inches too thick; he’s unconvincing as a brutal kingpin — he’s a whippet making like an attack dog.

The rest of the cast is terrific. Edward Arnold’s performance is the best I’ve ever seen him give. He was an old hand at playing loudmouth robber barons, but this role has more depth and complexity than most of his other parts: from the first frame, he’s a villain whose greed and dishonesty have destroyed his son’s bright future. By the end of the picture, he’s an heroic figure — his rehabilitation and enlightenment are gradual; it’s a signal pleasure to watch Arnold’s masterful handling of Robert Cain’s transformation; he plays each individual scene beautifully; taken together, the whole is even greater than the sum of its parts. He deserved an Academy Award nomination for this one.

I’d also have nominated Charley Grapewin (best known as Uncle Henry in “The Wizard of Oz”), who gives a fine, old-style ham performance as “Judge” Emmett T. Brennan: a notoriously unprincipled shyster and world class soak. The part is a compendium of sentimental clichés, both about the practice of law and alcoholism, but Grapewin makes all of it seem vital, fresh and interesting.

Best of all, however, is Dorothy Lamour (on loan from Paramount), who plays singer/actress/gun-moll Lucky DuBarry, girlfriend of Mickey Dwyer. Once she claps eyes on Johnny Apollo, she finds it hard to look at anyone else. Her performance deserves special attention, which will make this essay far too long. You can find my appreciation of Lamour’s performance by clicking here.

The Dust Up

After the scandal hits the afternoon newspapers, Robert Cain waits anxiously for Bob to come home from the campus. Like everybody else, Bob learnt about his old man’s indictment in the papers. Arnold plays the man’s apprehension beautifully. On his way to Bob’s room, he seems grave but in command. Outside Bob’s door, he hesitates. Suddenly he looks worn out, older, grimmer. His current troubles are entirely of his own making, but he’s a pitiable figure. This overfed, corrupt plutocrat is vulnerable. Both by training and temperament, Arnold was a roaring, old-style baloney-bender who went in for big effects. But as you will see, he could play complicated emotional scenes with great finesse and fine detail.

“The prison term doesn’t mean anything to me: I could do that standing on my head!” I can’t think of a single thing that Edward Arnold could do standing on his head; I seriously doubt he could stand on his head. His parting shot is typical of his hothead blowhard personality: “And now that we’ve found out how we feel about each other, I’ll know that I’ll never have to give you another thought as long as I live!” Oh, guess again, Tubby.

Tyrone Power never learnt the trick of sounding spontaneous, but he’s better than usual in this one. He never imitates life accurately enough to make you forget that he’s acting. He works the lines too hard, overthinks everything, and stresses too many words. For instance, the line, “I guess I should just sit in class and be Exhibit A, instead of that skeleton they have hanging on the wall — all my friends being extra nice to me just to show how broadminded they are.” Power stresses eight words on a line that makes better sense when only one word — “skeleton” — is given a little additional emphasis. The best actors let the words do the acting for them, whenever possible. The most common error young actors make is to try to act out every word. Experience usually corrects this. Power, alas, went the opposite direction. When he’s listening instead of speaking, he’s a very good actor. The portrait behind him is his mother. The resemblance is remarkable.

Frank Capra on Edward Arnold

By the time this picture was made, Edward Arnold had all but cornered the crooked tycoon market. He’s easy to dislike: abrasive, quick-tempered, peremptory and captious; his girth suggests gluttony; zeal for strong drink burns in the beacon of his nose; his glittering eyes peer out hard and shrewd beneath the perpetual frown of cold command. His deep baritone voice is beautifully resonant, but his accent — a peculiar combination of the Lower East Side (where he was born and raised) and New England (listen to the way he pronounces “heart”) — is harsh, staccato and often unpleasant. Frank Capra, who admired Arnold’s skill almost as much as he disliked his personality, couldn’t bear the sound of his joyless, insincere laughter. In his autobiography, “The Name above the Title,” Capra provides this brisk overview:

He could be unctuous as a funeral director or cold and ruthless as a Cosa Nostra chief . . . . [H]e had a laugh as unique and as phony as a three-dollar bill. It would wind up in pitch like the flywheel starter of a fighter plane, then explode in choked-up pops like its motor . . . Edward Arnold was anathema to directors. In take after take he would blow his lines and shrug it off with that phony laugh. Other actors could wring his neck. They would have to give their all in take after take, just in case Arnold didn’t blow his lines. The result: Arnold got all the attention. Distraught directors would okay any take that he finished, regardless of how the other tired-out actors fared. But if you could put up with that — and I gladly did — Arnold was a powerhouse on the screen. His performance as the jungle king of Wall Street, who walked away from his throne for the love of his son was the philosophical clout an otherwise farcical comedy needed to make “You Can’t Take It with You” the acclaimed Best Picture of the year.

Yes, he’s right about that: Edward Arnold was a powerhouse. Capra could have been describing his performance in “Johnny Apollo.” Arnold was easily the best thing about “You Can’t Take It with You” (the stage play is infinitely superior to the saccharine screen version), but he was never at his best when Capra directed him.

Sent Up

Here’s the scene in which the Honorable Mr Justice Penrose pronounces sentence on Cain. I find Charles Trowbridge’s performance as the peevish judge hugely entertaining. It’s a very specific style of ham that he serves up, a dish that went off the menu decades ago. Because he doesn’t raise his voice or flail his arms about or pull coarse faces, and because the two speeches he delivers are humorless, terse and implacably stern, you may think Trowbridge is not a ham. But he is. Have a look:

His delivery is a classic example of High Dudgeon on a High Horse Ham: his diction is elaborate, artificial, theatrical and eccentric; every slightest inflection, intonation and cæsura has been carefully chosen and rehearsed. And he pulls the oldest ham trick in the book: he whips off his spectacles as a visual exclamation mark. Nobody in real life ever does that, unless they learnt it from watching baloney-benders like Judge Penrose. Charles Silas Richard Trowbridge was born to American parents in Vera Cruz, Mexico, but grew up in Napa and Hawaii. His accent is unlike any I’ve ever heard; I assume it’s entirely his own invention, but wherever it came from, it’s as impressive as it is weird. He made a career of playing censorious authoritarians; I’ve seen him give nearly identical performances in at least two dozen pictures, but I’m always glad to see him — particularly when a tongue-lashing is on the bill. Whenever Charles Silas Richard Trowbridge makes with the obloquy, I begin to chuckle. His turn in “Johnny Apollo” is especially delightful: the old ham pulls those cheaters off his nose not once, but twice in the same short scene. Now, that’s what I call guts.

Stood Up, Dressed Down, Cast Out, Honked Off

From a staircase at Grand Central Terminal, Bob watches a squad of prison guards herd a group of prisonbound convicts, including his father, onto the train for Ossining. He sees his father bid farewell to his attorney (Lionel Atwill). Bob intercepts Atwill as he leaves. “Did my father mention me?” “No,” Atwill replies absently, then murmurs a few sympathetic words, assures Bob there’s nothing more he can do for the old man. Justice must take its course; Robert Cain must serve his time. He wishes Bob good luck and departs. Bob must find a job. Here is what happens. The storytelling in this sequence is remarkably efficient.

George Irving plays Mr Ives, the drunkard’s son, who chastises Bob then fires him. I love the way Irving speaks the line, “My father diiiied in jail, an habitual drunkard!” (Both he and Trowbridge put just enough emphatic nasality on “an habitual” that I smirk every time I hear them say it.) It’s a pretty rum go that this Mr Ives fellow begins by accusing Bob of moral cowardice, then proceeds to crow about being the proud son of a drunken jailbird, and then summarily fires the young man without allowing him to say a word in his defense. Oh yes, young Mr Cain is a competent, diligent fellow with a first class education and an earnest desire to get ahead in the world — but the rascal has not enough family feeling in him to be a-counting Mr Ives’ beans. So Mr Ives rebukes and fires him — and then promises to write him a recommendation! The drunkard’s son will not permit the scoundrel to work for him, but he’ll recommend him to others. Get a load of Mr Probity!

I cannot quite get myself to believe that Power succeeds in making his Grand Remonstrance sound extempore, but I sure want to believe he does. I like his energy and heat, even if his delivery does make me see the words and punctuation marks as they must have appeared in his prompt script. I like the subversive argument he makes; I like how he exposes Atwill’s temporizing as false and illogical; I like the efficiency with which he rattles the attorney’s murmuring complacency and then says, “Now, let’s forget all about legal ethics.” Checkmate, you dirty son of a bitch!

More about “Johnny Apollo” here.