Friday, May 22, 2015

Barbara Has Breakfast

Our film this week in a romance from 1937.  Breakfast for Two features Herbert Marshall as Jonathan Blair, a ne'er-do-well playboy who has spent his adult life drinking, carousing, and ignoring the family business, the Blair Steamship Company of New York (except of course, for the income that it brings him).  On one of his drunken jaunts, he meets Valentine Ransome (Barbara Stanwyck).  Valentine is from a wealthy family, and is on a visit to NYC from Texas.  It doesn't take her long to decide that Jonathan is the man for her.  But Valentine is not willing to take him on as is, so she decides to rehabilitate him: force him to take responsibility for the steamship line (and its many employees) and, in the bargain, break up his affair with Carol Wallace (Glenda Farrell), a gold-digging actress who only serves to aid and abet his bad behavior.  With the cooperation of Jonathan's valet, Butch (Eric Blore), Valentine begins her campaign to turn a boy into a man.

Stanwyck is delightful as Valentine.  She's tough and smart; much smarter, in fact, than Jonathan deserves.  We spent a good portion of the movie wondering just WHAT Valentine sees in Jonathan.  Part of the problem for that reaction rests on Herbert Marshall.  Put in contrast to the dynamic Stanwyck, Marshall is comes off as rather passive.  Forces revolve around him and he weakly responds.  He and Stanwyck really have no chemistry together; he is already a rather bland actor (which works beautifully in films such as The Little Foxes and The Enchanted Cottage), but here, he just is a nonentity.  

Though this was a film role Ms. Stanwyck was enthusiastic about getting (she found the light comedy a relief after the intensity of Stella Dallas), after this, she began turning down parts from RKO.  During her suspensions, she got work on the radio, including several roles on the Lux Radio Theatre (These Three, Dark Victory, and Morning Glory are a few examples).

Herbert Marshall had an interesting and lengthy career.  He began in film during the silent era (his first film was in 1927 - Mumsie) , but already had an extensive stage resume, appearing in his first play in 1911 (Lady Ursula).  He served in the army during World War I (in a regiment that also included Basil Rathbone, Ronald Colman, Cedric Hardwick, and Claude Rains).  Shot by a sniper in the knee, his leg was eventually amputated just below the hip.  He determined to return to acting -  his limp was barely noticeable, in spite of being in some pain, both from phantom limb syndrome and from the pressure of the prosthetic itself.  Interestingly, his second silent film (now in Hollywood) was in The Letter, as the murdered lover Geoffrey Hammond.  He segued to the role of the husband, Robert, in the Bette Davis remake.  Mr. Marshall continued acting in films and on television until the year before his death.  He died, age 75, in 1966 of heart failure.

We were also amused by Donald Meek as the Justice of the peace who cannot pronounce the name Jonathan (it comes out as Joe-Nathan).  Each time Jonathan corrects him, he waggles his finger and proceeds to mis-pronounce the name yet again.  But the funniest one in the movie is, without doubt, Eric Blore.  His Butch is loyal to his boss, but sick and tired of Jonathan's laissez-faire attitude towards life.  Blore plays Butch as almost fatherly towards this man he sees as "his charge".  And while Jonathan's infantile behavior might once have been amusing, Butch now sees it is time for him to grow up and assume some responsibility.

Totally wasted is Glenda Farrell.  She's merely a blonde bimbo who has little to do but shriek and look vexed.  She has little dialogue, and isn't given even the merest chance to show what she can do.  Too bad.  She could have been a better foil for Stanwyck.
The film's sets are gorgeous and ornate, reflective of the Jonathan's opulent lifestyle.  Originally titled A Love Like That, it was filmed in sequence.  See this TCM article for more background information.

The window washer scene, which is a particularly funny routine, was based on a vaudeville routine that the director (Alfred Santell) saw years earlier in the The Gus Edwards Kids Act,  Edwards was a vaudeville staple, but was also a composer, and was inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame

We leave you with a delightful scene between Marshall and Farrell. We'll be back soon with more Stanwyck.

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