Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Mill Creek Comedy Classics #77: "Made for Each Other" (1939)

Jimmy Stewart's mother faints when she meets her new daughter-in-law, Carole Lombard.

The flick: Made for Each Other (Selznick International Pictures/United Artists, 1939) [buy the set]

Current IMDb rating: 6.5

Director: John Cromwell (Dead Reckoning, Of Human Bondage, Since You Went Away; acted for Robert Altman in A Wedding and 3 Women)

Lucile Watson
Actors of note: James Stewart (popularly known as Jimmy, he appeared in Hitchcock's Vertigo, Rear Window, Rope, and The Man Who Knew Too Much; Capra's It's a Wonderful Life and Mr. Smith Goes to Washington; much, much more; the AFI ranked him the #3 male star of all time, behind only Humphrey Bogart and Cary Grant), Carole Lombard (Nothing Sacred; Swing High, Swing Low), Charles Coburn (Colonel Effingham's Raid), Lucile Watson (appeared in Hitchcock's Mr. and Mrs. Smith along with Carole Lombard; also acted in Song of the South, The Women, The Razor's Edge, etc.), Eddie Qullian (The Grapes of Wrath, Mutiny on the Bounty; episodes of TV's Batman, The A-Team, Moonlighting, Columbo), Alma Kruger (Hitchcock's Saboteur; Hawks' His Girl Friday), Raymond Bailey (best known as Milburn Drysdale on TV's The Beverly Hillbillies, but also appeared in Vertigo, The Incredible Shrinking Man, Tarantula, Picnic, The Absent-Minded Professor, etc.), Ward Bond (Three Broadway Girls), Milburn Stone (Heading for Heaven), Louise Beavers (Peck's Bad Boy with the Circus, Palooka, Three Broadway GirlsNever Wave at a WAC), Donald Briggs (After the Thin Man, Captains Courageous)

Other notables: The film was produced by legendary movie mogul David O. Selznick, the man largely responsible for the Oscar-winning film adaptation of Margaret Mitchell's Gone With the Wind. That movie, Selznick's signature production, was released the very same year as Made for Each Other. According to multiple sources, the medical drama which constitutes the third act of this film is derived from a real-life incident involving David's brother, Myron.

Weaselly Donald Briggs
The gist of it: Young New York attorney John Mason (Stewart) returns to the Big Apple from a brief business trip to Boston, bringing with him a surprise new bride, Jane (Lombard), a woman he wed impulsively after their first meeting. John's boss, crotchety, hard-of hearing Judge Doolittle (Coburn), is a little peeved at the news. After all, everyone expected John to marry Doolittle's daughter, Eunice. (John claims never to have had any interest in Eunice.) John's rather snooty, old-fashioned mother, Harriet (Watson), faints when she hears the news. John and Jane, however, insist that Mrs. Mason will continue to live with them.

The two lovebirds soon accumulate problems. First, their honeymoon is canceled due to John's work obligations. Then, John is passed over for partnership at his law firm in favor of scheming, brown-nosing Carter (Briggs). Several housekeepers either quit or are fired. John and Jane then have a baby, which only makes their financial problems worse. Bills go unpaid, and John worries that he's never going to make it as a lawyer, despite his talent for the profession. Jane and Harriet's relationship is also quite strained, with the young wife enduring a constant barrage of criticisms from her interfering mother-in-law.

Just as the Masons' marriage seems to be falling apart, a tragedy occurs. Their infant son contracts pneumonia, and his only hope is a serum which has to be flown in from Salt Lake City in a very dangerous snowstorm. Only Conway (Quillian) is brave and/or insane enough to attempt the mission of mercy. Meanwhile, the baby's life or death struggle brings John, Jane, Harriet, and even Doolittle closer together.

Just shy of a classic.
My take: The makings are here for a classic. After all, Made for Each Other boasts two iconic leading actors, an obviously talented director, above-average production values, and an excellent supporting cast. The performances here, especially by put-upon everyman Stewart, are engaging and believable, and the film is quite impressive from a technical standpoint, too, with inventive camera angles and dramatic lighting effects.

But I'll wager you've never seen or heard of Made for Each Other, and I only discovered it as an obscure public domain offering in a Mill Creek boxed set. Why is that? Well, I'd say a rather hokey and melodramatic script is what keeps this movie from being truly essential. Part of the blame for that rests on the shoulders of producer David O. Selznick, who insisted on shoehorning his brother Myron's medical crisis (which he deemed "too good to waste") into a plot where it didn't belong.

That gets to the heart of this movie's real problem: tone. As in, this movie never settles on one for very long. This is a story about two decent, reasonable people who get married on a whim and then find themselves entirely unprepared for the consequences of their actions. There is a lot of comedy to be mined from that situation, and the script occasionally acknowledges that, but every time the movie threatens to become fun, it takes a nosedive into soap opera misery. Jimmy Stewart and Carole Lombard are never able to enjoy themselves -- or each other -- for more than a minute or so at a time, since the plot requires them to take their problems seriously... and those problems occur at regular intervals for the entire running time.

Judging from his filmography, director John Cromwell's forte was clearly drama, not comedy. He revels in the dark and depressing aspects of this story, even when he doesn't have to. Take the sequence in which John and Jane's baby is born. Jimmy Stewart wakes up in some sort of guest room at a maternity hospital, then runs to his wife's room, which is unoccupied. He dashes to the delivery room, only to be told by a nurse that everything is fine. Which it is. But the sequence has a spooky, film-noir quality to it that makes it feel like a Twilight Zone episode.

That same eerie, uneasy feeling seeps into the very downbeat New Years Eve sequence, during which the miserable Masons are surrounded by drunken revelers and garish party decorations on the worst night of their lives. And the last half hour or so, with pilot Eddie Quillan trying desperately to deliver the life-saving medicine to the hospital, seems like it was imported from another movie entirely. It's a well-paced, exciting sequence, but it's obviously at odds with anything even approaching comedy. Again, this is a script problem, not an acting or directing problem. (One minor quibble about the storytelling: There are four, perhaps five montages in this movie. Maybe two or three would have been enough.)

James Stewart and Donna Reed
But there are good aspects to the script, too, and they arrive in the form of intimate little moments which reveal the nature of the characters. I was especially taken, for instance, by a sequence in which a dejected John returns home from his college reunion, feeling like a failure compared to his classmates, then is cheered up by Jane, who has never stopped believing in him.

I think it's noteworthy that the script for Made for Each Other was written by Jo Swerling, who also contributed to the screenplay for It's a Wonderful Life (1946), arguably James Stewart's signature role. In many ways, Made for Each Other plays like a decent first draft of the enduring Capra classic. In both movies, Jimmy Stewart is an honest, hardworking guy who can't seem to catch a break and nearly loses his faith in himself and humanity until a last-minute miracle changes his mind.

Since I've seen Wonderful Life several dozen times, I could not help but find cognates, counterparts, and parallels in Made for Each Other, right down to the prominent use of "Auld Lang Syne" and the presence of a generous and wise African-American servant character. There are no supernatural elements in the 1939 film, but the two characters played by Jimmy Stewart face many of the same obstacles and anxieties. John Mason, for instance, is just about to take a honeymoon cruise to Europe with his new bride when he is summoned back to work. That's exactly the kind of thing that keeps happening to George Bailey. There are even matching scenes in which these fellows find out -- in equally cute ways -- that their wives are pregnant. And Carole Lombard's character, too, has a great deal in common with Donna Reed's Mary Bailey. Both are playful, intelligent, loyal, and justifiably worried about their husbands. At the beginning of Wonderful Life, of course, Donna Reed's character is heard praying for the deliverance of her husband. In a similar scene in Made for Each Other, Carole Lombard visits a hospital chapel to plead with God to spare her baby.

Is it funny: Well, that's a little tricky since Made for Each Other isn't strictly a comedy. It's more like a domestic drama with occasional comic relief. What comedy is there works pretty well, I'd say, though I got a little tired of Charles Coburn's unreliable hearing aid after a while. Probably the funniest sequence in the film is one in which John and Jane struggle to get through a truly awful dinner party with doddering Judge Doolittle, slimy Mr. Carter, and Doolittle's obviously-spiteful daughter.

But there are funny little moments scattered throughout the proceedings, as when James Stewart seriously considers punching a wind-up toy drummer or when Harriet faints upon hearing of her son's nuptials. Though not named in the credits, Frank Ryan (The Cowboy and the Lady, A Night to Remember) is said to have contributed "humorous situations" to the film. Mr. Ryan, your efforts were appreciated. I just wish you'd found more opportunities to add some levity to a disconcertingly down-in-the-mouth movie.

My grade: B

P.S. - The modern-day viewer may cringe a little at Lily, the character portrayed by Louise Beavers, again playing a black domestic. It's true that Lily's philosophy is, "Never let the seeds stop you from enjoying the watermelon." And it's also true that, during the New Years Eve sequence, Lily stops by the Masons' apartment to deliver a chicken. So chicken and watermelon are both associated with the character. But Lily is also one of the film's most positive and honest characters, much superior to the other domestics in the film (the rest of whom are white). And she is Carole Lombard's only female friend in the entire movie... really, the only person with whom she interacts other than her husband and mother-in-law.