Sunday, January 17, 2010

Joy of Living (1938), Tay Garnett, with Irene Dunne and Douglas Fairbanks, Jr.

There's a moment about halfway through Tay Garnett's 1938 screwball comedy, Joy of Living, when Irene Dunne, as the harried workaholic stage star Maggie Garret is handed a message that causes her to speed up her singing during a radio performance, driving the conductor (the eternally prissy screen pansy, Franklin Pangborn) into a flying armed tizzy. It's as if Dunne is commanding the movie to finally get going. This acceleration, perhaps unintentionally, marks the approximate moment where Joy of Living morphs from a mechanical and lumpy minor screwball comedy into a first-rate one for the next half hour. Preceding this is the first really good laugh in the movie, when Garret and her free-spirited stalker, Dan Brewster (Douglas Fairbanks, Jr.), become caught in a revolving door, with the result that only short bursts of their argumentative chatter are heard as the door spins. Up till then, the movie is reminiscent of, but inferior to others of its vintage ilk; the presence of Alice Brady, again the annoying matriarch, continually brings to mind My Man Godfrey. The patriarch is Guy Kibbee, whose main sin seems to be sneaking whiskey into his tea with the help of his conspiratorial butler, played as in countless 30's comedies by another queenly stalwart, Eric Blore. The family is a bit of a drudge, mooching off the fame and fortune of Maggie, not unlike the brood in 1933's Bombshell, that marvelous vehicle for Jean Harlow and Lee Tracy. As is de rigueur for populist screwball an uptight character obsessed by work, money and status will eventually be freed of those concerns by a carefree one, and gain romance in the bargain. Joy of Living was a flop in 1938, but it can now be seen as a worthy if imperfect example of its type. The most delightful moments take place in a lower class eatery run by a blusterer of indeterminate Slavic accent played by the omnipresent Billy Gilbert. Dan marks the number of tall beers consumed by Maggie by throwing pretzels onto an overhead candlelight. By the time the stack is as tall as the candle, the snockered Maggie is no longer too worried about the beer stein lid continually clamping down on her hat veil and she starts drinking straight through the veil. Dunne is luminous in this film; her performance is every bit as fine as in the previous year's comedy masterpiece, The Awful Truth. Fairbanks is game as well; one wonders why he wasn't cast in more screwball films. After some slapstick hijinks in a roller rink, where Maggie's "yuk yuks" seem to channel Curly from the Three Stooges, the film winds down to more conventional genre concerns before a wonderful finale of barefoot sloshing in the rain. If you can get through the uneven first half, Joy of Living lives up to its title. Grade B-

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