Tuesday, June 18, 2013

Mill Creek comedy classics #13: "The Animal Kingdom" (1932)

Considering he's married to someone else, Leslie Howard is awfully cozy with Ann Harding in The Animal Kingdom.

The flick: The Animal Kingdom (RKO Radio Pictures, 1932) [buy the set]

Current IMDb rating: 6.5

Director: Edward H. Griffith (The Sky's the Limit, No More Ladies) with an uncredited assist from George Cukor (My Fair Lady, The Philadelphia Story, and further uncredited work on The Wizard of Oz and Gone with the Wind)

Actors of note: Ann Harding (The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit), Leslie Howard (Gone with the Wind, Pygmalion, Of Human Bondage), Myrna Loy (The Best Years of Our Lives, the Thin Man series) , William Gargan (The Bells of St. Mary's, You Only Live Once), Neil Hamilton (Commissioner Gordon on the Batman TV series, Tarzan and His Mate), Ilka Chase (the original Ocean's Eleven, Now, Voyager, frequent answer in the crossword puzzles I do on the train every day)

The gist of it: Writer Tom Collier (Howard) leaves behind his soulmate -- and friend with benefits -- artist Daisy (Harding) in order to marry respectable society girl Cecelia (Loy), a match which pleases Tom's wealthy, traditional father but seems to make everyone else pretty miserable. Cecelia's old beau, lawyer Owen (Hamilton), for instance, is none too thrilled by this out-of-the-blue union. Tom tries to convince himself he's happy with Cecelia, but he just can't stay away from Daisy. What's a poor little rich boy to do?

Neil Hamilton, once a male ingenue, on Batman.
My take: I said in my last review that the hero of a romantic comedy will never marry the snooty girl he's engaged to at the beginning of the story. So how to account for the fact that Leslie Howard does marry Myrna Loy in The Animal Kingdom? Simple -- this film is a drama, not a comedy. Oh, there are a few witty lines here and there -- usually from bohemian Daisy ("A foolish virgin me. Oh, foolish anyway.") -- and a bit of comic relief provided by Tom's butler, ex-boxer "Red" Regan (Gargan) who's cheerfully hopeless as a majordomo. But Daisy has an aura of wistful tragedy around her after Tom throws her over for Cecelia, and even Regan's subplot takes some poignant, dramatic turns when it develops that he pines for his former life and doesn't get along with Cecelia at all.

The Animal Kingdom is surprisingly heavy stuff. It's based on a stage play and feels it. There are long, stationary dialogue scenes in living rooms and drawing rooms with the actors parked on couches and only a few brief moments when the characters are out of doors. It's the 1930s, of course, so everyone smokes and drinks up a storm in every scene. The protagonist's name, Tom Collier, even sounds like the name of a cocktail. It's clear from the first few minutes that Tom belongs with Daisy and Cecelia with Owen. I thought there'd be some wacky misunderstandings with playful music on the soundtrack, and everyone would wind up happy at the end. But this movie doesn't quite play out that way. The decidedly-not-playful score is by one of the all-time legends of the biz, Max Steiner, of Gone with the Wind, King Kong, Treasure of the Sierra Madre and so much more.

And the movie is more complex and shaded than I would have guessed. Myrna Loy's character, for instance, is not really such a bad woman, though the script treats her as one, especially towards the end when her materialism takes over her personality. In all honesty, Tom never should have married her in the first place, but the movie goes pretty easy on his character. As I see it, the young writer (who is perfectly willing to sell out and write trashy books for the money, by the way) selfishly strings along two perfectly viable life partners. He definitely needs to hear that Lovin' Spoonful song, "Did You Ever Have to Make Up Your Mind?"  Too bad it wouldn't be released until 20 years after Leslie Howard's death. (Shot down during WWII, sadly.)

She's unlucky in love in this movie, but Myrna Loy earned a nice, permanent place in pop culture history as Nora Charles in the Thin Man movies, where her sophistication and boozing were assets instead of character flaws. And her spurned suitor, Neil Hamilton, used his natural blandness and wooden acting style to great advantage as the hilariously useless Commissioner Gordon on Batman (1966-1967). Top-billed Ann Harding never really broke through, though she worked in film and TV for 30+ years. She definitely has a certain je ne sais quois. I can understand why Leslie Howard couldn't turn her loose.

Is it funny: Nah, not really. I laughed out loud at a couple of Daisy's bon mots, but that was about it. The central story in The Animal Kingdom is pretty sober, so much so that William Gargan's somewhat broadly-played boozing, incompetent butler character seems a little out of place. Again, I don't really consider this film much of a comedy, so this section is largely irrelevant to the film's overall quality.

My grade: (as drama) B+; (as comedy) Incomplete

P.S. - Nothing so distasteful as a racist stereotype in this classy picture. The lazy, inept butler in this story is (mercifully) Caucasian.