Tuesday, July 18, 2017

Joan Meets Greer Again

When Jimmy Lee's (Robert Taylor) proposal of marriage to Mary Howard (Joan Crawford) is rejected, Jimmy begins to suspect he has been replaced in Mary's affections. He is distressed to discover that his rival is the very married publisher Rogers Woodruf (Herbert Marshall). Based on Mary's theory (as purported in her new novel) that the rejected wife and new lover can have an intelligent conversation about the affair, Jimmy maneuvers Clare Woodruf (Greer Garson) into a meeting with Mary, without either knowing about their mutual lover.

We discussed When Ladies Meet (1941) several years ago, but with the opportunity to discuss it in the context of the Harding/Loy version, we decided to view it again. As with the prior film, the plot hinges on the relationship between Clare and Mary. One real problem with this verson is that Joan Crawford's Mary becomes quite annoying.  The film requires that you be able to like both women, but it is hard to like Mary. She's snobbish and affected (taking on the personality of Rogers). As a result, you begin to wonder why anyone would like her.  Plus, where Ms. Loy appeared innocent and somewhat naive, Ms. Crawford SEEMS more knowing, and that sophistication works against her characterization. With Mary and Clare more obviously played as contemporaries (where there seemed almost a big sister-little sister affection between Ms. Harding and Ms. Loy), Mary should know better than to be taken in by a cad like Rogers.
That the first film was pre-code, and this one is firmly within the Code era makes very little difference. The stories are exactly the same, and we still have little bits of double-entendre (primarily from Spring Byington as Bridget Drake). The character of Walter del Canto (Rafael Storm) is played as though the actor intends him to be gay (which was not the case in the original). The racy plot is still not all that racy.

Spring Byington  is a marked improvement over Alice Brady. She plays Bridgie as a tad risque, but essentially sweet. She has a much lighter touch than Ms. Brady, and is able to make the character very appealing.  Interestingly, Ms. Byington had originated the part on Broadway (AFI catalog); why she was passed over in the first iteration of the film is puzzling - she had appeared the same year that version was released as Marmee in Little Women (1933). Ms. Byington had a long and varied career.  From 1924 to 1935, she appeared steadily on Broadway, appearing in 20 plays (including The Merchant of Venice, in which she played Nerissa). Her film career really started in 1933 (she had appeared in one short film in 1930); after she left Broadway for good, she worked steadily in films, television, and radio (her show, December Bride was first a radio, then a television show).  She married once, (she was engaged for a long time, but her fiance died before they wed) and she had two daughters. She was close to actress Marjorie Main, but their relationship is unclear. She loved science fiction and at one point took flying lessons (the studio made her stop). She died of cancer in 1971 at the age of 84.
Even with a second viewing, we were unimpressed with either of the men in this version. In the earlier film, Robert Montgomery's youth played in his favor. His attempts to convince Mary of Rogers duplicity seemed innocent, if somewhat artless. Robert Taylor, however, is much older and more mature in appearance. His wooing becomes almost stalker-ish, making him unappealing. If there is any chemistry at all, it is between Mr. Taylor and Ms. Garson. Their scenes on the boat are humorous and convivial. He never seems to have even a moment of camaraderie with Ms. Crawford. By the end though, we felt the women would be better off alone than with either Mr. Taylor or the self-absorbed Rogers.
The performance that really stands out in this film is that of Greer Garson, who, according to this TCM article was being groomed for stardom by MGM (following an Oscar nominated performance in Goodbye, Mr. Chips). Ms. Garson started her career on stage and television in the UK, and that was where Louis B. Mayer discovered her. Following her small, but important part in Goodbye, Mr. Chips (1939), she appeared in Pride and Prejudice (1940) with Laurence Olivier, and in Blossoms in the Dust (1941), the first of FIVE consecutive Oscar nominations as Best Actress. She would ultimately be nominated seven times, winning for Mrs. Miniver (1942).  [She currently holds the record for the longest Oscar speech - 5 minutes and 30 seconds].  Her 1943 marriage to Richard Ney, who had played her son in Mrs. Miniver and was 27 years younger than Ms. Garson created a bit of a scandal; the marriage lasted until 1947.  Some say the problems in the tumultuous marriage resulted from the age difference. However, the couple were separated almost immediately after their marriage when Ney was called up to serve in the military. When he returned, he found work hard to come by, while his wife was still quite popular, resulting in dissension (Michael Troyan, A Rose for Mrs. Miniver: The Life of Greer Garson, 1999). Following that divorce, Ms. Garson married Buddy Fogelson. She worked sporadically after that, eventually retiring with her husband to his Texas ranch. They were together until his death in 1987. Ms. Garson died in 1996 at the age of 91.

The New York Times wondered in their review why this "Hoover-vintage comedy" was "resurrected". We wondered the same thing. It's not really a showpiece for any of its actors - quite frankly, it does most of them a disservice. It's worth a look to see Greer Garson and Spring Byington, though. We'll leave you with this trailer, which introducess several of our key characters: