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Thursday, February 25, 2016

The Unexpected Beauty in SHANE (1953)

To celebrate the Oscar season, I'm pleased to be adding this post on George Stevens' Shane for the 31 Days Of Oscar Blogathon -- The Motion Pictures, hosted by Paula's Cinema ClubOutspoken and Freckled, and Once Upon a ScreenThe film, based on the book by Jack Schaefer (1949), won the Oscar for Loyal Griggs' cinematography, and garnered another five nominations: Best Picture, Best Supporting Actor (Palance), Best Supporting Actor (deWilde), Best Director (Stevens), and Best Screenplay (Guthrie).

Not unlike the way the mysterious title character rode unexpectedly into the lives of the Starrett family in late 18th century Wyoming, Shane, the film, sneaked up on me. As a relatively new enthusiast of classic film, I had focused most of my attention on the black and white era--the silents, the pre-codes, some screwball comedies, etc.  Yet, here was this 1950s technicolor Western, previously unknown to me, that after I first watched on a whim due to a recommendation from Netflix (!), I found myself watching multiple times.  Why?  After reflecting on this I came to the conclusion, as I'll share here, that it possesses varied elements of unexpected beauty that make viewing it a great pleasure, and no doubt contribute to its being an enduring classic.

Visual Elements

The film's lone Oscar win was for Loyal Griggs' cinematography.  Certainly the location setting in Jackson Hole, Wyoming, with the rugged Grand Tetons in the background, made for many beautiful vistas in the film.  In several of the outdoor shots, Griggs used a long focal-length lens that brought the mountains forward into crisp focus while keeping attention on the foreground action.
Joe and Joey Starrett in foreground, Marian Starrett doing laundry in rear,
and a wagon approaching, all set against the gorgeous Grand Teton range
near Jackson Hole, Wyoming.
Beyond this, though, director Stevens' choice of focus on the earth with the muddy trenches, plentiful wildlife, and rushing streams, shown at eye or ground level, created the breathtaking beauty for me -- it was as if I were in the picture, and the picture was not a fairy tale  place but a real locale, with flesh, blood, joy, death, and new life, all commingled.  What was going to happen in the film, then, was real, and then really mattered.
Great shot using natural (stormy) lighting, and highlighting the muddy
trench at the showdown between Palance's and Elisha Cook Jr's characters
Wildlife, streams, plains and mountains from eye level
In the DVD audio commentary, George Stevens Jr. quotes comments made by his father that unlike most westerns of the time, the costumes (Edith Head) were not out of some "Western Costume Corporation" all crisp and robust, but were worn and weathered to enhance the realism.  George Stevens had worked extensively with technical adviser Joe DeYong, a deaf-mute authority on Western history, to get this as well as other details of the period exactly right--how ropes were hung, knots were tied, saddles were designed, etc (1).  From the way the film was shot, you, as viewer, felt you were there, and thus naturally had a greater emotional investment in the story.

Long-time Paramount contract musician Victor Young must have reached his apex in his creating and sustaining the varied moods of the film with his music, a blend of new composition and folk tunes.  The primary theme of Shane, "Call of the Faraway Hills", is introduced during the title sequence with a short four-note trumpet fanfare, placed over the Paramount logo, that suggests a bombastic story, yet then unexpectedly relaxes into a quiet chord, followed by woodwind arpeggios, and then the strings that lead into the gorgeous plaintive melody.  The melody becomes the theme of the movie, and for the title character.  We know right away that the character seen riding his horse down into the valley is going to have an element of sadness to his story--he's not going to be the bombastic hero some may expect.  The title scenes and the accompanying music can be seen here:

Similarly, the character of Marian Starrett has her own theme, a soft melodic (3/4 or waltz time) line from the folk tune "Put Your Little Foot", indicating her essential goodness and gentility, and symbol of home and hearth.  This melody is played early in the film, when Marian is making dinner for Shane and her family, and in those interactions between her and Shane that indicate an unspoken mutual attraction.  Marian's theme (2):
This attraction is underscored in a key scene in which Shane and Marian dance together briefly at a 4th of July picnic to a melancholy western folk waltz called "Goodbye Old Paint--I'm Leaving Cheyenne."  The few times I've seen the film I found this tune stuck in my head at the end, even though it lasted less than one minute in the score.  I discovered that it's a fairly well-known cowboy tune--for a sense of this beautiful melody check this out, as performed by Roy Rogers & Dale Evans:

The Actors
Montgomery Clift, star of PLACE IN THE SUN, was an early choice of George Stevens for the role of Shane; while he would arguably have been an excellent choice, it's now hard to imagine anyone other than Alan Ladd embodying this character. Ladd was a major star at Paramount at the time, and was chosen without much hesitation by Stevens when Clift was not available. Along with his resonant baritone, Ladd had a talent for conveying his characters through evocative facial expressions--and projecting both a sinewy toughness and a melancholy tenderness, critical for many of his noir roles.  Those talents are used to great advantage for the character of Shane. There is a scene early in the film, at the dinner table, when suddenly startled by a loud noise -- Ladd goes from a sudden fear to embarrassment from what he knows is an overreaction, in about 2 seconds -- masterfully portrayed in his face and body.

Ladd was also gorgeous, and Stevens was not afraid to highlight this in the film--the camera illustrated something about this character that was perhaps a little other worldly.
The Lone Gunman after the final battle --
wistful that he won't be able to escape his past.
Stevens had the ability to create the right conditions to allow Ladd to fulfill his potential as an actor, and as a result the actor and director developed a strong mutual respect and friendship. Ladd was at a turning point in his career when he made Shane (3).  After filming wrapped, he signed up to make a few movies in Europe, and Shane was not released until two years later, Stevens working over that time to edit the film and Paramount not sure what they had.  (Widescreen was also just coming into vogue and this caused a controversy at the time of the film's release, and beyond--read about that here.)  By the time the film was released to great acclaim, Ladd had committed to leave Paramount for Warner Bros., where he hoped to exert more control over his film choices as well as to command a greater salary.  It is largely accepted that such were the politics that resulted in Paramount not promoting Ladd for a best actor Oscar nomination for Shane.  For these reasons Ladd's career really didn't benefit from his exceptional turn in Shane, but there were positives.  He gained a long-term friend in Van Heflin; and, with his entire family on location, 16-year old son and future award-winning producer Alan Ladd Jr. relished the opportunity to see a first class production up close, and was an avid student (3).

At the beginning of the film
Jean Arthur was perhaps an odd choice to play the role of Marian Starrett -- she was nearly 50 at filming, eight years older than Van Heflin and 13 years older than Ladd.  Once again, Stevens recognized her potential to demonstrate the right blend of pioneer-woman ruggedness and loveliness.  With the right make-up, and soft focus close-ups, and despite a poor wig choice, Arthur was radiant as Marian.  Over the course of the movie, she is shown in progressively more feminine clothes, perhaps highlighting the feelings that Shane stirred in her.  This was the last film Arthur made, retiring to periodic stage and television appearances.
Wearing her wedding dress later in the film (with Heflin)
Academy award nominee Jack Palance was terrific as the personification of evil, and perhaps the only two-dimensional character.  Dressed in mostly black, was he meant to be the devil?  Nine-year-old Oscar nominee Brandon deWilde, as the Starrett's young son, Joey, from whose eyes much of the story is presented, is also wonderful.  In common criticisms of the film many find his portrayal too cloying (his adoration of Shane) or two annoying (he often runs around yelling "bang! bang!" over the adult dialogue).  Well, that IS annoying, but what nine year old kid isn't going to annoy, or hero-worship? A breakthrough performance for someone who went on to have a solid career, though one cut short by a death in car accident at age 30.

Speaking without Words 
For me particularly, one of the most satisfying pleasures in this movie is the conveyance of character and relationships with elegant understatement:  The nature of Shane's past is conveyed only obliquely--for example, the reaching for his gun defensively when startled by a loud sound; his references to young Joey that 'you can't live with a killing'.  In fact, only intuition drives Joe and Marian Starrett to trust and accept Shane into their home without knowing anything about him, other than his apparent strength, need for companionship, willingness to help them in domestic tasks and to stand up to the antagonists.  Roger Ebert, in his Great Movies essay on the movie, shared his fascination with the psychological complexity of Shane, and observed, "Looked at a certain way, the entire story of "Shane" is simply a backdrop against which the hero can play out his own personal repression and remorse" and "Shane is so quiet, so inward, so narcissistic in his silent withdrawing from ordinary exchanges, that he always seems to be playing a role.  A role in which he withholds his violent abilities as long as he can, and then places himself in a situation where he is condemned to use them, after which he will ride on, lonely, to the next town."

There is beauty in portrayal of the chaste relationship between Shane and Marian.  Not a single word or touch passes between them beyond what is necessary, but rather, only looks, and later, motivations for action, can convey the depth of their feelings.  Because of the need to establish their feelings without words, Stevens set up some gorgeous shots of the two of them.  This is one, in two mirror image shots the two contemplate each other:
Marian  (Arthur) and Joey (deWilde) look at Shane from the inside (we see this from Shane's POV)

The mirror image shows Shane's upper body almost ghost-like outside, from Joey's POV
The two men working to remove the troublesome stump
Much is made, and rightly so, of the relationship between Shane and young Joey, but I'd like to highlight the kinship that forms between Shane and Joe Starrett, played warmly and affably by Van Heflin, which comes to life mostly with looks and actions. The two men are bonded in work, in family, and in mission against the antagonistic ranchers. Early on, Shane takes it upon himself to start chopping away at a tree stump that has been in a troublesome location on the homestead. Starrett joins him and the two men succeed, together, in accomplishing this goal, with almost no dialogue.  Later the two men join forces with their fists against the enemy mob -- there is a great shot where the two glance at each other with broad smiles as the tide of the brawl begins to turn their way, but only as a result of their teamwork.  When Shane rides away at the end of the film, we are sad that his relationships with all three Starretts, young Joey, Marian, and Joe, will now be relegated to the past.
A brief moment to relish their teamwork during the big brawl
The familial relationships among the Starretts, and the strength of the relationships among the settlers in the valley, are similarly established with expert understatement, but are felt strongly by the audience, especially in contrast to the unease and wariness between the families and the ranching cohort.

The Message

On the surface the plot of Shane pits the 'good guys' vs. 'bad guys' and conflict is resolved by intimidation, fists, and then guns, in conventional Western fashion.  But rather than glorifying the use of weapons or violence, the film surprises in that it is arguably an elegy for the inability of humans to find other solutions.  Director Stevens experienced guns in war during his time in WWII, and came back disturbed that afterward German children idolized American soldiers and cowboys with their rampant gunplay.  He said about this film "I wanted to show that a .45, if you pull directly in a man's direction, you destroy an upright figure....we wanted to indicate the violence of the West for what it was.... (the film) was a Western, but it was really my war picture.  When you ask a man to fight and to take a life, you not only ask him to risk his own life but you ask him to make a great sacrifice of his moral ideals." (1)
A bit of dialogue illustrates this:
Marian Starrett: Guns aren't going to be my boy's life!
Shane: A gun is a tool, Marian; no better or no worse than any other tool: an axe, a shovel or anything. A gun is as good or as bad as the man using it. Remember that.
Marian Starrett: We'd all be much better off if there wasn't a single gun left in this valley - including yours.
near the end of the film...
Shane (to Joey):  Tell your mother...that there aren't any more guns in the valley.

I attribute my enjoyment of Shane to the beauty inherent in so many elements of its film-making.  Others have called it poetic --perhaps a different way of naming the concept--, notably Woody Allen, for whom it is a favorite film.  He said about the film: ''If you were asking me, I would say that 'Shane' achieves a certain poetry ...for whatever reason, probably because Stevens himself had some of the poet in him.'' (4)  Still others find many other reasons to connect with the film, and perhaps it leaves others flat.  I just know that I'm thrilled to have discovered it, and mark it among my growing list of favorites on this classic film journey of discovery.
Director George Stevens (center) with his actors Ladd and Heflin
Ladd, Arthur and Heflin on set
Shane will air on TCM on Sat., April 2nd at 8:00 PM Eastern.

Numbered References:
(1) Mary Ann Moss, Giant:  George Stevens, a Life on Film;  (2) Timothy E. Scheurer, Music and Mythmaking in film: Genre and the Role of the Composer; (3) Marilyn McHenry & Ron DeSourdis, The Films of Alan Ladd; (4) Woody Allen on Shane: NY Times Article by Rick Hyman, Aug 3, 2001.

Tuesday, February 23, 2016

Classic Film Screenings in Greater Boston -- March 2016

In what I hope will be a regular feature of this blog, I'm highlighting the wealth of classic film big screen viewing opportunities in and around Boston, MA for the month of March.  If you are in the area, please support these live screenings.

Brattle Theatre
To celebrate the 75th anniversary of Film Noir, The Brattle has been presenting a comprehensive series over multiple months exploring this fascinating genre.  In March, they present "Prime Noir of the 1940s", some in double feature format.  There are a total of 14 films in this installment of the series, too many to list individually here, but check out their calendar.  Some old favorites like LAURA and THIS GUN FOR HIRE are being screened, along with lesser known noir such as CRACK-UP and ACT OF VIOLENCE. As they say, grab your trenchcoat and fedora and join in this celebration of mid-century celluloid gloom!
Coolidge Corner Theater
Fans of the great silent comedians, rejoice! The Coolidge (Brookline) will present, on March 21st, the next installment of their splendid "Sounds of Silents" series, shorts by Chaplin (THE PAWNSHOP & EASY STREET), and Arbuckle + Keaton (CONEY ISLAND) with live accompaniment by Donald Sosin & Joanna Seaton.

Read more about this event and order tickets here.  As usual, members receive discounts.
Personal note: I LOVE this series and try not to miss a screening!

On March 28th the Coolidge will screen Hitchcock's fabulous STRANGERS ON A TRAIN as part of their "Big Screen Classics" series.  Check it out here.

Harvard Film Archive
The HFA has such diverse offerings, past and present, that I often wish I could just hang out there, all day and well into the night.

In their "Innocence Abroad" series, on March 6th they are screening THREE COINS IN THE FOUNTAIN (1954) set in Rome.

The HFA is also presenting a retrospective of early French/Polish director Jean Epstein, and is screening several silents with live accompaniment, and early talkies from now through early March.  Check out the entire series here.  Of note:

Somerville Theatre
The Somerville in Davis Square has an annual series of silent film called "Silents, Please."  There are no entries in March, but the theater has engaged the Alloy Orchestra to present, in cooperation with, the Russian silent documentary called MAN WITH A MOVIE CAMERA on March 26th.

Visit here to learn more about this event.

Friday, February 12, 2016

Classic Film Actor Discoveries: Clive Brook, dapper British star of silents and early talking films

Film actors who made the transition from silents to talking pictures are often remarked upon today as something of an oddity, at least contrasted with the more well-known silent stars who didn't make the transition successfully.  The British actor Clive Brook was one of those whose career spanned that transition, and for me, marks the first actor in that category that I came to appreciate first as a silent star.  I recently watched a few of his best known talking pictures from the 1930s and 40s, and found that I liked him much better as a silent film actor.  I began to wonder why.
Brook was born in London in 1887, to an opera singer mother and writer father.  He rose to stardom on the British stage, and after a deployment during WWI, he began his film career in England. He then moved to the U.S. for several successful years in silents working for Paramount, most notably a starring role in Josef von Sternberg's UNDERWORLD, and then moved to talking films.  He starred in the 1933 Academy Award Best Picture winner, CAVALCADE.  In the mid-30s, disenchanted with Hollywood, he returned to England for the rest of his career, dividing his time between the stage and British film -- the high point of this phase of his career arguably the film version of the Frederick Lonsdale stage farce, ON APPROVAL, which Brook not only starred but wrote and directed for film in 1944.   Brook and his wife had two children who also became actors, and Brook lived to be 87.

In many ways, Brook's early career trajectory was not unlike other prominent British actors of his generation, including Herbert Marshall, Ronald Colman, Basil Rathbone.  Brook was handsome and aristocratic-looking.  When the talkies emerged, his fine delightfully-accented voice was put to use, and the complete package of Brook as the quintessential old-fashioned British gent was born in film.  But, as I first discovered him, he wasn't this way at all. I discovered him in UNDERWORLD, where he is a  vagrant alcoholic, working as a janitor in a Chicago night-club, and gains favor with the local crime boss, played by George Bancroft, becomes a partner, and ends up taking his girl (Evelyn Brent).  Here, through skillful body and face acting, Brook is able to effectively portray this transition between a bum and a sort-of gentleman, and while named "Rolls Royce" by Bancroft's character -- at no point do we suspect him of being any kind of English aristocrat, although his knack for portraying an air of nobility is put to good use as we follow his character's trajectory.  In addition, he exudes a raw animal magnetism that von Sternberg captures in the scenes with Evelyn Brent, who understandably, cannot resist.  Bancroft and Brent are both terrific in this film, but it is Brook who shines the brightest.
Brook as a lonely saloon janitor
Brook in a drunken stupor lying on the bed, being looked after by George Bancroft
In a publicity shot, recovered Brook romances "Feathers", portrayed by early screen beauty Evelyn Brent
Credit for the success of the film, and Brook's portrayal, could be attributed to the skill of von Sternberg, who in this stage of his career, was on the rise and near the peak of his lauded visual and story-telling style.  A year or so after this, Brook made FORGOTTEN FACES (dir. Victor Schertzinger), playing another shady character, "Heliotrope Harry", who is a con artist and ultimately goes to prison for the murder of his wife's lover, only to have a chance at redemption years later.  I had the incredible good fortune to attend a screening of a restored version of this film at the Capitolfest Film Festival in Rome, NY in 2014.  Not having been seen in public for so many years, it wowed the audience there (I'm hoping this will be released on DVD very soon).  For a description of this screening and the film itself, check out R. Emmet Sweeney's article in Film Comment here.

The film also stars Olga Baclanova and William Powell, another actor who made a hugely successful transition from silents, as faithful sidekick "Froggy".  Similar to UNDERWORLD, in FORGOTTEN FACES, Brook dominates the screen with his charisma, whether leading a crime caper or emoting over the fate of his estranged daughter.  The film itself is a gem of the late silent period.  A 1928 issue of Photoplay Magazine tells a story of Brook complaining about the prison uniform he had to wear in this picture, only to find out he was robbed of some cash and a watch from his street clothes.  The tidbit ends with the comment, regarding the prison uniform:  "both he (Brook) and Paramount have not yet found the man that should wear it." (!)   Images below from 
Intense drama of FORGOTTEN FACES
Brook is visited by estranged wife Baclanova while he does time.
This shot shows a young William Powell (kneeling)
As talking pictures emerged, von Sternberg had discovered Marlene Dietrich and was using her in most of his subsequent films, with results that have no shortage of comment.  As I prepared to watch the famous early von Sternberg-Dietrich pairing SHANGHAI EXPRESS, I was pleased to see that Brook was starring as well.  Unfortunately, I came away less than enchanted with Brook's performance here.  Part of me felt a bit like blaming von Sternberg, who I had previously observed in BLONDE VENUS to give little screen attention, or even adequate direction, to his male star (Herbert Marshall) in favor of Dietrich.  Yet, here was Brook, portraying a traditional English captain, with a delicious voice but little on-screen charisma beyond the straightness of his posture.  He rarely smiled, or showed emotion, and it was difficult to believe Marlene's character nurtured a passion for him, either past or present.  Dare I say his performance was "wooden".  I am not alone in that assessment as many reviews of the film mention him as the weak link as well.  
Brook and Dietrich wonder how they will survive their trip on the SHANGHAI EXPRESS
Then came CAVALCADE, the Noel Coward epic from 1933, starring Brook as an upper class Londoner, who, along with his family, endured personal and public tragedies ranging from the Boer War, the death of Queen Victoria, the sinking of the Titanic, and WWI.  Unlike many modern viewers I actually liked the film, but did not love it.  Brook was certainly beyond adequate in his role as the rather staid, upper-crust English gentleman, who aged over 30 years during the course of the film and along with Diana Wynyard, his leading lady, was the emotional anchor of the film.  He certainly was believable, but there was something missing from his performance -- a spark, a charisma, that had been present in his silents.  Early on in the film when he tells his wife on New Year's Eve that he loves her, he says it as though he's making a diplomatic pronouncement.  Well, perhaps the idea was to paint the Victorian gentleman with the figurative 'stiff upper lip', and, if so, Brook was the perfect casting choice.
With leading lady Diana Wynyard.  Gotta admit -- the mustache is a good idea.
Brook and Wynyard share screen time with the wonderful Herbert Mundin and Una O'Connor as the husband and wife service team.
A mere two years later Brook left Hollywood to return to England where his career continued.  He was quoted around this time as likening acting in Hollywood to a 'chain gang', so maybe he wasn't happy with his roles.  Perhaps it was a combination of things -- in his late 40s he was becoming too old to play credible leading men, and his natural skills and accent would forever typecast him, yet not stretch him.  In his final most notable film, a farce of unabashed fun called ON APPROVAL, Brook took over the reins and directed himself along with noted Canadian comedienne Beatrice Lillie, and Googie Withers and Roland Culver.  Again, Brook plays an upper class British gent (George, 10th Duke of Bristol) who, while penniless, still retains an attitude of haughtiness which has put off all females who might show any interest.  What's different here is this is farce, so his unique upper class persona is played for all it's worth, exaggerated to generate the humor, and when pulling out all the stops, Brook is brilliant.  It's as if he's parodying all those characters from his earlier film days.  The film is full of witticisms and not-so-subtle innuendo.  "You needn't lock the door, Maria.  Only the rain will want to come in."  "Rain is leaking in 13 places; however we only have 12 receptacles."  Highly recommended!
Brook and Lillie say "ho!" to the audience as part of the film's dream sequence
The foursome as they contemplate their getaway trip to test the potential of marriage
There are many other early talkie Paramount films that Brook made that I haven't seen, so I would certainly love to hear opinions from other classic film fans about Brook and his body of work.  I expect to come back to some of these, if for no better reason than to check out more early work of William Powell (a co-star and off-screen friend of Brook), Evelyn Brent, Doris Kenyon, and the like. Regardless, I'm pleased to have discovered another lesser-known classic actor who deserves to have his work more broadly exposed.

Tuesday, February 2, 2016

Dramatic actors go all screwball in IT'S LOVE I'M AFTER

This is a first in a series of posts honoring Ms. Olivia de Havilland, one of the great ladies of classic cinema, who is celebrating her 100th birthday this year.

So, you have Leslie Howard, Bette Davis, and Olivia de Havilland in a film, and you end up with ... a screwball comedy?  Well, if the movie gets made in 1937 and all three stars are coming off dramatic roles, perhaps it's understandable. The movie is IT'S LOVE I'M AFTER.
In looking for an early and lesser known film of Ms. De Havilland's to watch for the first time, I came across this one and was delighted.  All three stars are up to the comic demands of their roles, and despite a bit of over-the-top silliness (not altogether unexpected), I highly recommend the film.  It's on DVD from the Warner Archive label.

Leslie Howard, who I've only recently seen outside GONE WITH THE WIND where I find him sadly miscast, is a revelation here.  He is in full ham mode as celebrated Shakespearean stage actor who is a stereotypical egotist and in love, although constantly engaged in a snipe-fest with, his leading lady Bette Davis.  He prances and poses throughout the film but retains our sympathy while we laugh at him.  As for Ms. Davis, her role could be considered a warm up for, or younger version of, her Margo Channing in 1950's ALL ABOUT EVE. Ms. de Havilland is perfect as the young innocent who develops a consuming crush on Howard just by watching him act.  She is beyond lovely; her luminous beauty and infatuation are both depicted in the shot in which we see her for the first time watching Romeo's death scene:
"Oh Romeo, drop that poison right now and run away with ME!"
Her frustrated fiance, played straight by a handsome but somewhat wooden Patric Knowles, looks on, not anticipating the lengths he's about to go on trying to win back her affections.

Directed by Archie Mayo, the screenplay makes the most of propelling the plot forward by overtly incorporating plots and dialogue from contemporary and Shakespearean plays.  Shakespearean dialogue is also injected with insults when the dead Romeo whispers to his hovering Juliet that she has been eating too many onions again.  A play called "A Lover's Triangle" forms the framework of the plot as Howard agrees to Knowles' plan to drive de Havilland back into her fiance's arms by playing the cad and wreaking havoc after moving into her home as a barely-invited guest.  Eric Blore as the butler (!) has an unusually large role and makes the best of it, always in an advanced state of frustration trying to keep Howard from indulging the lesser angels of his nature.  His comic energy most often comes from bouncing off of Howard, and is at its apex in a scene where he acts and sounds out different types of birds to keep Howard in line (interestingly TimeOut London calls his performance 'execrable'):
Davis is trying to figure out why Eric Blore is doing jumping jacks while making bird calls at a refined garden party.
Apparently this project was initiated by Howard, who wanted to have some fun after several dramatic roles including in THE PETRIFIED FOREST, also with Bette Davis.  Warner Bros. had to put pressure on Davis to work with Howard again, as their relationship was rocky, and who had also wanted some vacation time after an exhausting year of dramatic roles.  Ms. de Havilland was on her way up, and, unfortunately, had to fend off the advances of Howard quite vociferously during filming.  With two beautiful leading ladies, clearly Howard was enjoying every second of the attention he was getting.

Notable tidbits to recommend the film:
--Likability of the three main characters
--Terrific comic ensemble scenes.  There is a scene early on where Howard noisily pushes his way into de Havilland's mansion in the middle of the night and is going on loudly about how raised is his 'ire', when all the servants think they hear "FIRE" and come to the rescue with filled water buckets.  [Ok, I guess you just have to trust me on that one.]
--Apparently men in tights were a thing to contemporary women of the time:  a joke is made near the end of the movie about how women love to see male actors wearing this kind of costume.  Uh huh, yeah.
--A film inside joke (and GWTW connection) when de Havilland claims how she had a crush on Clark Gable (!) before the one on Howard's character. "I was in love with Clark Gable last year and if I can get over him I can get over you!" "Who's Clark Gable?"

What I disliked:
--Bonita Granville overplayed her signature spoiled brat part and should have been dialed down several notches, even if this was a screwball.
--Not enough George Barbier, who played de Havilland's exasperated father with perfection, or Spring Byington, as her mother.
--As mentioned earlier, Patric Knowles comes across too wooden here for my taste.
--Eric Blore's extreme characterization - at times - would have bothered me more if not for how well he worked with Howard.

Here are a few key moments from the film:
Romeo (Howard) and Juliet (Davis) battling over who gets the first curtain call
Howard strikes a dramatic pose as he contemplates the next move in his complicated love life
Blore as Howard's faithful, if continually frustrated, conscience
Knowles is dismayed when de Havilland seems unfazed by Howard's caddish ways
George Barbier is at his wits end thanks to his daughter's fascination for uninvited houseguest Howard
Howard tells de Havilland she has too many moles(!)
"Remember, my darling, 'all the world's a stage'"