Tuesday, December 09, 2008
Screwball Constance: Topper and Merrily We Live
"I'll plug anything into the DVR that has Constance in the cast," said Karen last week, and the Siren agrees with her. So far, there hasn't been a single movie where Constance wasn't worthwhile, although at least one movie, Sin Takes a Holiday, was a definite chore. The Siren has now seen six Constance Bennett movies in the past two months and feels ready to offer some thoughts on her abilities. We'll start with the two Hal Roach comedies she did, Topper and Merrily We Live.
Overall, Constance's technique seems to fall somewhere in the middle of the early-30s crowd, not so natural and unforced as Ruth Chatterton, Dorothy Mackaill or Barbara Stanwyck, but not nearly as mannered as Norma Shearer, Jeanette Macdonald or Helen Hayes. Every once in a while, in a scene that requires Big Emoting, Constance will suddenly come out with a totally presentational gesture, such as raising her fists up to cheekbone level when her house is surrounded by the ravening press toward the end of What Price Hollywood?. And you wince a bit, because up to then everything had been so organic. But such moments are few.
Constance has some things in common with Kay Francis--a knack for comedy, a slightly opaque quality in big emotional scenes. But Francis always seemed vulnerable, even yearning, and Bennett always has some control, even when life gives her the back of its hand. Constance moves beautifully--she had long, graceful limbs and just watching her sink into a chair is a little bit of pleasure. Occasionally she relies on movement too much, darting and gesticulating more than she should in Merrily We Live, for example. But mostly she glides around with supreme elegance, and the Siren loves to watch how the dresses she wears sweep along one tiny beat behind her.
Like most people, the Siren first saw Constance in Topper, the movie which remains her most popular. It's a bit startling to see her billed above Cary Grant, despite Constance's having accepted a pay cut to play Marion Kerby, dropping her price to $40,000. (Grant got $50,000.) In the early 1930s Constance would have accepted a pay cut right around the same time she hopped a freight train with Woody Guthrie, but her days at the summit were already past and she knew she needed a good script. Her performance is wonderful, fluid and easy, complementing Grant in a very Nick-and-Nora sort of way. In fact, Topper shows at least as much Thin Man influence as screwball, with the Kerbys as the coolest couple in town, making marriage look fun.
The movie is so utterly of its time and place, and yet so complete a denial of what was going on, as you watch Marion and George drinking and dancing and lingerie-shopping all over the edge of the 1937 volcano. That must surely add to the affection people still have for Topper, which is often way out of proportion to its merits as a film. There you are at the local movie palace, it's still the Depression, and on the newsreel, the Japanese just started a full-scale invasion of China--and here are the Kerbys explaining to Roland Young that his real problem is all those inhibitions.
And hell, as she was watching it last week and half-following the economic news, the Siren still found Topper a lovely escape. The slapstick later on is fun, and Constance even makes you believe she would flirt with Roland Young. Not because Cary isn't divine, of course, but because it's a chance of pace, you see. It is no mean feat to portray a woman who is that capricious, and yet keep her appealing. But, for the Siren, it's Topper's early scenes before the car crash that have the real glow. Now that's escapism as it used to be, and never will be again--Constance letting her beaded gown trail on a bar's wooden floor, as she leans against Cary Grant and croons along with Hoagy Carmichael while the sun comes up in Manhattan.
She followed up Topper with Merrily We Live, a My Man Godfrey rip-off that even duplicates the shower love-scene, climactic line and all, just substituting a wishing well that happens to be lying around the mansion grounds. There's plenty of good old-movie stuff, including fabulous cars and dressing for dinner, plus X. Trapnel will be delighted with the cast walking arm-in-arm toward the camera during the credits, with the studio chorus singing in the background. It's winsome and diverting, there are some very funny moments, but unfortunately, Merrily We Live often reminds you of what was so great about the Gregory La Cava original.
The family members in My Man Godfrey have roles that they play in relation to one another, there are feuds and backstories that you learn about for each person in the household, from the dizzy matriarch and her monkey-imitating gigolo down to the maid in the kitchen mooning over Godfrey. The Kilbournes of Merrily We Live are cute, but they are just a collection of eccentricities. No one has a real character. They're all supposed to be funny from the get-go and that is motivation numero uno throughout. Constance's character, Geraldine, is the sensible one, viewing the antics with insouciant detachment, but that's it--you don't have a real conflict between her and anyone else, and so your stake in the outcome of her romance with phony-chaffeur Brian Aherne is low.
And, as the Siren mentioned before, some of Constance's movements are a bit more exaggerated than necessary, starting with the first scene when Geraldine flies down the stairs of the family mansion, carrying a lit cigarette. This bit astonished the Siren, who had always heard that a lady never walks so much as a step with a lit cigarette, but perhaps this is supposed to demonstrate a certain bohemian quality for Geraldine. Plus she is in a hurry to see whether the last chaffeur really did make off with the silver service. He did, and Constance demonstrates her facility for physical humor when she manages to be both funny and graceful in eating a canteloupe slice with a kitchen ladle.
She also manages to give some heat to scenes with Brian Aherne, the handsome but not exactly sultry Brit playing the William Powell role. Constance has great eye contact with men onscreen--nothing so obvious as lowered lids or fluttered lashes, just a sudden intensity to the focus, a certain firming of the features. It's a challenging sort of look, as if to say are you up to this? (Perhaps that searching gaze owed something to the Bennett eyesight, or lack thereof. All of them had bad eyes. Richard occasionally mistook Louise Brooks for Joan, and Joan in particular could barely see one foot in front of her without glasses.)
Ann Dvorak shows up in a very small supporting role, and if you love Ann this movie will depress you. Not only is her part, a lovestruck Senator's daughter, ridiculously unworthy of her, but she also has to wear what the Siren swears is the single ugliest evening dress ever to show up in a 1930s film. (Check it out. The Siren would not lie to you.) Billie Burke earns most of the praise for Merrily We Live, and indeed she is very funny, but the Siren still preferred Constance. She's the only family member who doesn't have to tote a bunch of funny business around, and so she can be a real woman, or at least the movie's only hint of one.
Merrily We Live was a critical and commercial success, but as Brian Kellow points out, neither that movie nor even Topper could rejuvenate Constance's career. They were, in the end, just stays of execution for her waning stardom. Her high-hat reputation was by now firmly established in Hollywood, and the fashion for screwball had just about run its course.
David Shipman called Topper and Merrily We Live "the two films for which she is best remembered," but the Siren isn't sure that is true for the second film. What Price Hollywood? has a definite cult, and would probably find even greater fame if somebody would only release it. Next, the Siren veers back to that movie, and the two others Constance made with Cukor, to see if other parts of her filmography should get more attention.
Correction to earlier post: A nice reader, who didn't want to embarrass the Siren, dropped her an email reminder that Philip Plant was not Constance's first husband. Her first marriage, at age 16, was to a pre-law student named Chester Hirst Moorehead. Her mother found out and took Constance home before the honeymoon could even start, and the marriage was later annulled. Perhaps the Siren forgot about poor Chester because Constance did, too--despite the press's romantic fascination with her teenage elopement, she never did speak much about him.
Note: This week's banner shows Richard visiting the set of Constance's first big hit, Sally, Irene and Mary. The Siren likes this picture for Constance's expression, which seems to be saying, "Um, help?" Also for the way it shows how much she looked like her father. To the right is director Edmund Goulding.