Tag Archives: It Happened One Night

‘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.

‘Homecoming’: The Four Flusher’s Progress

Original Poster.

Original Poster.

“Homecoming” (Metro, 1948) tells the story of the eminent Dr Clark Gable, sawbones to the Social Register set, who joins the Army Medical Corps at the outbreak of the Second World War. He leaves behind his successful practice and his stylish wife, Mrs Dr Anne Baxter Gable. (His first name is Ulysses: friends call him Lee; he calls her Penny: her name’s Penelope. Blind Homer’s ashy flakes are madly swirling in his urn.) We learn early on that the Homeric Dr Gable has gotten involved in the war effort for all the wrong reasons, but before the picture is over, he’ll do much good, make many sacrifices and redeem his soul. For its sins, “Homecoming” offers a perfect example of the sort of glum, semi-tedious product Metro turned out in the years immediately following the War, whenever the studio decided to make a high-minded, serious picture. Whatever else may be said for or against it, I find that it’s good for plenty of laughs — also for all the wrong reasons.

The story opens on a ship bringing men back home from across the Atlantic at the end of the War. A roving reporter goes round the ship in search of “a good yarn” (as his young associate puts it). The reporter is an old hand at getting veterans to talk: we can believe he’s good at his job because he smokes his pipe with such casual authority. Gives him the common touch. In the mist, he espies Colonel Dr Gable and asks him first for a light, then for his story — he musta seen plenty overseas, plenty. Here’s what follows:

As the title suggests, “Homecoming” is supposed to be about the difficulties veterans face when they return from war. Questions of class and social welfare are also raised. Mostly, however, it’s a Woman’s Picture about two women who fall in love with the same man. Paul Osborn’s script has a lot of pretty good stuff in it, but when he veers off course — as he often does — the writing is atrocious. “Homecoming” has some of the most hilariously over-written scenes in movie history. The over-writing is especially conspicuous because so much effort has been spent cluttering up the dialogue with colloquial words and expressions such as “sorta,” “kinda,” “y’know,” “dunno,” “somehow,” “whyncha give out?” and other “realistic” touches. Bronislau Kaper’s score slops heavy cream over the syrupy passages in a most amusing way. The plush banality of Kaper’s music falls somewhere between what you’d expect to hear at an airport cocktail lounge and a suburban undertaker’s parlor.

The Four Flusher

And it all starts when Dr John Hodiak calls Dr Clark Gable a four flusher. To my knowledge, this is the only picture in which a man’s crisis of conscience begins because someone calls him a four flusher. Perhaps it’s only because the term is seldom used anymore, but whatever the reason is, I laugh every time I hear Dr Hodiak haul off and say it. But the affront goes very hard with Dr Gable: until now, he always thought he was aces. A four flusher! Where does that second-rate corn doctor get the brass to give out with a crack like that? Heck, he’ll be accusing me of cheating at solitaire, next! Dr Gable tries, but finds himself incapable of shaking off the insult. In the vernacular and syntax of the picture, it kinda makes Clark feel sorta all hollowed out on his insides, somehow, and gee, it sorta sticks to him like Napalm.

Sorta Proud Somehow

So off goes Dr Gable, ego bruised and false teeth clenched, to patch up those boys over there, who are kinda trying to do something fine, somehow, like make the world safe from Teutonic paperhangers with funny moustaches and fat lunatics in funny hats who holler fascist folderol from Italian balconies. On the transport over to Europe, Dr Gable gets into an argument with a young nurse, known as “Snapshot” McCall (Lana Turner), who overhears his conversation and objects to everything he says. Then he learns, to his horror, that she has been assigned to be his head nurse. They continue to spar in field hospitals all across imprisoned Europe, but Dr Gable cannot help noticing that “Snapshot” Lana’s insolence is matched by the high quality of her nursing. His letters home are so full of his grievances against this pettish Clara Barton that his wife, goaded on by her busybody mother (Gladys Cooper — who else?), grows jealous. So now Dr Gable is fighting a war overseas and on the home front. What’s a four flusher to do?

Truce over a Cuppa Joe

In the face of the supreme competence of “Snapshot” Lana, Dr Gable kinda hasta make a pal of her, if he can. But she’s more obdurate than he figured on. A younger Gable would have asked her, “What’s eatin you, sister?” Instead, he just kinda gets his feelings hurt, which we can see by the way he purses his lips. What the good Doctor forgets is that in an earlier scene he sorta cracked wise about her husband who lies buried somewheres in China, having been killed in a battle six years before we got into the soup ourselves. It looks like she’ll never forgive him for his selfish callousness — and yet, well, she’s a good kid, kinda; she’s got a heart, y’know, and she begins to see that Dr Gable’s not such a bad Joe, kinda, y’know, after all — just needs to sand down some of those rough edges, get wise to the world, and learn that we’re all in it together, somehow. Every fella needs a buddy.

Chubby and Tubby Take a Bath

Two years before this picture was made, James Agee complained (in his review of “The Hucksters”) “[S]omething soft and unfortunate has happened to Gable’s mouth.” I’m afraid he’s right. Something soft and unfortunate has happened to his midriff, too. Fourteen years earlier, Clark Gable almost put the undershirt trade out of business by showing his naked torso in “It Happened One Night.” In this one, however, he looks like a Ball Park Frank (“They Plump When You Cook ‘Em”) in an army belt. In this scene with “Snapshot” Lana, it’s hard to know which of them is more in need of a good, tight girdle. Look at that still of him immediately below — he’s baking bread on both sides of that canvas cuff. And then there’s the coyness!

It’s a bad state of affairs when Clark Gable is shocked by the fleeting thought of sex: compare this scene to Gable’s performance in “Red Dust,” and the coyness is perfectly revolting.

Dr Gable Regrets

Back home, Dr Gable was always too busy to give Dr Hodiak a helping hand with his work in the slums of Chester Village (I don’t know why that name makes me laugh, but it does — probably because Gable pronounces it “Jester Village”). Now a boy from Chester Village (Cameron Mitchell) dies of wounds that wouldn’t have killed him, had he been given proper care back home. But Dr Gable was always too busy going to country club dances and hobnobbing with the swells to make time for those who couldn’t afford proper medical care. When the boy dies, Dr Gable blames himself.

Gable does that speech extremely well, I think. It is also the moment when his soul truly begins to awaken. He sees, as I hope we all do, that four flushing is not a victimless crime.

The Broken Torch

I won’t bother to set up this next scene. I offer it with no explanation, except to say that it contains my favorite bad writing in the picture.

“It’s a broken torch, but it still strikes fire . . .” Mmmmm, mmmmm. Sometimes there’s gawwd so quickly!