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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'"

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