Monday, January 28, 2013

Classic Films in Focus: IT'S LOVE I'M AFTER (1937)

We don't generally associate any of its leading actors with the genre of romantic comedy, but that's one reason why Archie Mayo's 1937 film, It's Love I'm After, comes as such a pleasant surprise. The flirtatiously light story could have underpinned an Astaire and Rogers musical, but instead we have Leslie Howard, Bette Davis, and Olivia de Havilland making a troublesome romantic triangle and providing plenty of laughs along the way. Throw in a supporting cast that includes Patric Knowles, Eric Blore, and Spring Byington, and you've got a perfect recipe for the kind of cinematic confection that dominated the smart, sprightly comedies of the era.

Leslie Howard plays stage star Basil Underwood, who engages in a love/hate courtship with his leading lady, Joyce Arden (Bette Davis). Basil is briefly distracted, however, by the adoration of Marcia West (Olivia de Havilland), much to the dismay of her fiance, Henry (Patric Knowles). Henry convinces Basil to turn up at Marcia's house and behave as badly as possible in order to disillusion her, but the plan backfires, and jealous Joyce further complicates the situation by pursuing Basil to the Wests' estate.

There are several delights on offer here. One is seeing Howard and Davis play Romeo and Juliet on stage, whispering poison into each other's ears even as they proclaim the doomed lovers' lines. If you like the sparring thespian couple in To Be or Not to Be (1942), you'll love these two, and Howard brings an especially amusing version of his usual diffidence into the egotistical actor's character. Another highlight is Olivia de Havilland's screwball performance as the starstruck fan; she really invests her scenes with a wacky intensity that makes one wonder why she didn't get to do more of these kinds of films. If you've only seen her as the demure Melanie in Gone with the Wind (1939), you're in for a shock here. Speaking of Gone with the Wind, there's a hilarious Clark Gable gag near the end of the picture, made funnier by the fact that Howard, de Havilland, and Gable would all be starring in that film just two years later.

Patric Knowles is handsome and earnest as Henry; if he pales in comparison to Howard's Basil, he's at least very good to look at, and his dullness serves the purpose of the character. Spring Byington plays the kind of nutty society matron she often brought to life on screen, and she's as funny here as you would expect her to be, although the crowded house party limits her scenes. Nancy Drew fans will also recognize teenaged Bonita Granville as the keyhole spy, Gracie, although a little of her character goes a long way. Eric Blore, however, takes the prize among the supporting cast for the funniest lines and the best reaction shots; watch the way he employs his toupee as a comic prop throughout the film. His presence helps to increase the feeling of watching a Fred and Ginger picture with the musical numbers removed, since he also appeared with them in Top Hat (1935), Swing Time (1936), and Shall We Dance (1937). He's funny enough all by himself to make the whole movie worth watching, no matter how you feel about the more celebrated stars.

See more of Howard and Davis together in Of Human Bondage (1934) and The Petrified Forest (1936). Ironically, Howard's last film before It's Love I'm After was Romeo and Juliet (1936), in which Norma Shearer played his leading lady. For more comedy with Bette Davis, try The Bride Came C.O.D. (1941). You'll find Olivia de Havilland and Patric Knowles in The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938), while de Havilland and Davis make a memorable pair in Hush... Hush, Sweet Charlotte (1964). Director Archie Mayo also made the hilarious Jack Benny comedy, Charley's Aunt (1941), as well as the Marx Brothers picture, A Night in Casablanca (1946).

 It's Love I'm After is not especially well-known today, but it's now available on DVD from Warner Archive, and hopefully that will help more people find and enjoy it. It's definitely worth the effort if you can track it down.