Tag Archives: Margaret Dumont

‘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.

Happy Birthday, George S. Kaufman!

George S. Kaufman, circa 1915

George S. Kaufman, circa 1915.

George S. Kaufman was born on this day, November 16, one hundred and twenty-five years ago. Kaufman has been a hero of mine since my Sophomore year in high school. During a run-through of a school production of “Born Yesterday,” I changed the wording of one line I’d been struggling with. The director/drama teacher, Mr H[orton]. B[urbank]. Rideout, objected: “Speak the author’s words, not your own.” “But I can’t make it sound natural the way it’s written. Why can’t I say it my way?” Mr Rideout replied, “For several excellent reasons, which you’ll find in Moss Hart’s ‘Act One.’ That’s your homework assignment: read ‘Act One’ by next Friday. Then we’ll talk.” I was indignant: he was totally unreasonable; I was damned if I’d read it. We had a copy of the book at home, but what of that? The following Friday, he asked if I had finished reading it. I gave him a choice piece of air: “Haven’t even started.” The way I remember it, steam shot from his ears. “Do you think I’m playing games with you? I demand that you read that book! If you don’t, as God is my witness, I’ll flunk you! That’s not a threat: that’s a promise.” When I got home that afternoon, I snatched my mother’s paperback copy from the bookshelf and, feeling every inch the martyr, began to read. After three pages, I was engrossed; halfway through, when George S. Kaufman made his first appearance, I became completely besotted. By the last page, Kaufman had become my idol. In my Senior year, Mr Rideout told me he had predicted my reaction: “I didn’t know how you’d feel about Hart, but I knew in my bones that Kaufman was the fellow for you.” After “Act One,” I read everything I could find about George S. Kaufman — to the exclusion of everything else, I’m afraid — until about five years later, when I decided to check out William Shakespeare, to see if he was up to anything.

Though George S. Kaufman is not a household name, his plays are still regularly performed all over the world (his Pulitzer Prize winning collaboration with Moss Hart, “You Can’t Take It with You,” is currently on Broadway), and his influence on the Broadway theatre and American comedy cannot be overstated. His first hit, “Dulcy,” opened in 1921; his last hit, “Silk Stockings” (music and lyrics by Cole Porter), closed in 1956. In the intervening thirty-five years, Kaufman wrote seventeen hit shows, won two Pulitzer Prizes, and directed many more, including the original “Of Mice and Men” and “Guys and Dolls” (for which he won the Tony Award). Yet the sad fact is that little of his work has aged well. Today, his craftsmanship and wit continue to be held in the highest regard, but many of his best jokes require a fairly intimate knowledge of the personalities and events of a long ago era. Unless you’re a student of the social, political and entertainment history of New York City from the years 1921 to 1955, you’re liable to miss at least half of the first-rate gags in Kaufman’s plays. Urbane, sophisticated comedy is nearly always loaded with topical humor; as a rule, it ages about as well as fish.

June Moon

Kaufman couldn’t bear to be praised, and I’ve no wish to offend his dust. I only want to remember him on his birthday. Perhaps another time, I’ll post a collection of his witty remarks (e.g., he hated to fly: “I like terra firma: the more firma, the less terra.”). For now, here are three clips from a 1974 television production of “June Moon,” which Kaufman wrote with Ring Lardner. The play opened on October 9, 1929, and was a solid enough hit to survive the stock market crash. It’s a satire about Tin Pan Alley (the term itself now belongs to antiquity). Both Kaufman and Lardner had a weakness for writing humorous verse; “June Moon” gave them plenty of opportunity to scratch that itch. Though not Kaufman’s best work, it’s a fine example of the sort of hit comedies he wrote. What it lacks in greatness, it makes up for in amiability.

These clips also let you see how Stephen Sondheim fares as an actor. Sondheim, apparently, was somewhat embarrassed by the whole thing (he owed a favor to the producer, Burt Shevelove). Possibly a first-rate comic actor would do better, but Sondheim’s pretty damn good, certainly no worse than the other actors, including Jack Cassidy, Estelle Parsons, Austin Pendleton, Kevin McCarthy and Susan Sarandon. In the forties, Sondheim’s part would have been played by Oscar Levant; he’s much better than Levant; his deadpan delivery is often exactly right. The hero of the piece is a rube from Schenectady named Fred (Tom Fitzsimmons), who comes to New York City to pursue his dream of writing lyrics for hit songs. Fitzsimmons has a nice innocent face and a sweet manner, but he overplays the na├»ve saphead shtick; his over-emphatic delivery reminds me of Patty McCormack in “The Bad Seed,” and his gait, of a Hanna-Barbera cartoon. Had Kaufman been alive to direct this production, Fitzsimmons would have never been allowed to get up to such nonsense. When an actor goes this far overboard, I blame the director. Here Fred meets Maxie (Sondheim), a professional pianist, at the home of Fred’s collaborator, Paul (Jack Cassidy). When Fred begins to sing, see if you agree that Maxie’s accompaniment sounds like about ninety percent of the tunes John Kander wrote for “Chicago.”

Every one of Maxie’s lines has Kaufman’s voice in it. Kaufman’s critics and admirers often refer to his humor as being cynical; to my ear, it’s a bit sterner, truer and less sunny than cynicism. Cynicism has an element of hope cringing within it, it’s a way of lowering one’s expectations, while secretly hoping for the best. Cynics are usually optimists who try to forestall misfortune by predicting it, like the sort of people who superstitiously carry an umbrella so that it won’t rain. Kaufman’s wit isn’t cynical; it’s pessimistic: the weariness he expresses is not cynicism but gloom, based on hard experience; unlike a cynic, he’s sure to be right. When Fred says “I haven’t got the second verse yet,” Maxie’s gloomy prediction, “You won’t need one,” is funny not because it’s cynical, but because it’s true.

This next clip is from the beginning of Act II. Fred and Paul have completed “June Moon.” Fred is at the music publisher’s office with Maxie, waiting to audition the song for the head of the company, Mr Hart.

The short exchange about “Swanee River” is characteristically Kaufman — Sophie Tucker in “Strange Interlude” is unmistakably Kaufmanesque humor — and would have gotten a huge laugh back in 1929. (If the line hadn’t gotten a laugh, Kaufman would have replaced it with one that did.) But there are a few things you need to know for the joke to land. First, you have to know who Sophie Tucker was. (I heard a wag sum up Tucker’s career this way: “First she could no longer hit the high notes. Then she could no longer hit the low notes. Then she told dirty jokes. Then she waved the flag.”) You have to know that “the woman [girl, in the script] . . . that sits on the piano” refers to Helen Morgan, and you have to know who Helen Morgan was. You have to know that Helen Morgan played Julie in “Show Boat,” and sang “Bill” while sitting on a piano. You have to recognize that “Swanee River” is not from “Show Boat,” and consider it to be a preposterously stupid error to make. You have to know that “Strange Interlude” is an extremely long, serious, experimental psychological drama by Eugene O’Neill (the characters speak their subconscious thoughts aloud in long, disjointed monologues), and is therefore the last show that Sophie Tucker would ever appear in. The joke’s even better if you know that “Strange Interlude” was still running on Broadway when “June Moon” opened, and that it starred Lynn Fontanne, whose first big hit was in Kaufman’s first big hit, “Dulcy.” (The line is Kaufman’s way of kidding his old friend Fontanne; years later, “The Man Who Came to Dinner” made an entire evening out of such inside gags.) It also helps to know that “Strange Interlude” was treated with enormous respect in 1928-1929 (even though it must have bored the brains out of nearly everyone); everyone, between yawns, hailed it as a milestone in American Drama. It’s entirely possible that “June Moon” was the first time anyone poked fun at “Strange Interlude,” which would have given a lot of bite to the gag. One year later, when Scribners published “June Moon,” the line had already been changed — it was too topical. Nobody in the hinterlands knew anything about “Strange Interlude” and audiences in New York had long since forgotten about it. In the Scribners’ edition, the line reads “You’re thinking of Ruby Keeler in ‘The Wild Duck.’ ” Keeler and the Ibsen play are perhaps slightly more familiar to modern audiences, but the original gag is echt Kaufman and ten times funnier. The revision is probably Kaufman’s, but I’d say his heart wasn’t in it.

Now we hear the result of the first collaboration between Paul the tunesmith and Fred the saphead lyricist. Lardner wrote the music; Kaufman collaborated on the lyrics. I think you’ll agree that Fitzsimmons is better when he’s singing, because he stops overdoing the yokel bit.

The tune is decidedly second-rate, and the lyrics are idiotic, almost brutally awkward, but their ineptitude is matched by their earnestness, which is a nice touch, and surely not accidental. It allows us to have little respect for the songwriters’ abilities, but to be beguiled by their ambition and sincerity. Unlike the appalling stuff that the rival composer (played by Austin Pendleton) writes, “June Moon” is not beneath contempt. And when it becomes a huge hit, it’s easy to think of hit songs that have been much worse.

In this next clip, the music publisher, Mr Hart (Kevin McCarthy), is about to hear “June Moon” for the first time, but there’s one interruption after another. This clip begins after the second or third interruption.

A Night at the Opera

Kaufman is not well represented in Hollywood. He directed one picture, “The Senator Was Indiscreet,” but it’s not good: Kaufman didn’t know enough about pictures to do a first class job. The screen adaptations of his stage plays are almost without exception terrible. “A Night at the Opera” must certainly be Kaufman’s best Hollywood effort, but it’s not adapted from a stage show. I selected the three short clips below for two basic reasons: (1) they strike me as being the most representative of Kaufman’s sense of humor; and (2) they contain some of my favorite lines in the picture. You won’t find the famous stateroom scene below. Kaufman didn’t write it, but he whole-heartedly approved. Al Boasberg wrote it, without credit.

Otis B. Driftwood Doesn’t Quite Dine with Mrs Claypool


Mrs Claypool is Margaret Dumont, of course. My favorite line in the scene is Groucho’s: “Waiter, have you got any milk-fed chicken? Well, squeeze the milk out of one and bring me a glass.”

Otis B. Driftwood Asks il Signor Lassparri a Friendly Question


Walter Woolf King plays the swinish tenor, Rodolfo Lassparri (which name was lifted, many years later, for comic purposes in the Matthew Broderick/Marlon Brando vehicle “The Freshman”). Favorite line: “Can you sleep on your stomach with such big buttons on your pajamas?”

Otis B. Driftwood Speaks with Mr Henderson


Henderson is played by Robert Emmett O’Connor. Favorite line (in answer to “I’m Henderson, plainclothesman”): “You look more like an old clothesman to me.”

All three of these lines are exemplars of Kaufman’s style of humor. The adjective most frequently used to describe Kaufman’s wit is acerbic. He certainly said many acerbic things, but I don’t think it’s the most distinguishing characteristic of his style. It’s his ability to inject absurdity in places where you least expect it. He had a long, rancorous feud with producer/director Jed Harris, of whom he once said “When I die, I want to be cremated and have my ashes thrown in Jed Harris’ face.” That’s an acerbic remark, but the more interesting aspect is the weirdness of the image. It’s an acerbic remark to tell Henderson he dresses badly, but to call him an “old clothesman” puts language to an eccentric use — that’s what makes it sound like Kaufman. Of course, Morrie Ryskind may have written any one or all three of them: the point is they all sound like Kaufman; they don’t sound like anybody else (except Groucho, who idolized him); they match his personality and temperament. Kaufman never claimed authorship of any individual line or gag when he worked with collaborators. Partly, it was modesty; partly, it was because he was a true collaborator, which means that every line was likely to bear traces of Kaufman and his collaborator — except for love scenes, which Kaufman revised, but didn’t write. He was never at home with romantic scenes: he understood their importance, but hated to write them. It was one reason he nearly always worked with a collaborator.