By Ed Garea
My Kingdom for a Cook (Columbia, 1943) – Director: Richard Wallace. Writers: Andrew Solt (s/p, story), Lillian Hatvany (story), Harold Goldman, Jack Henley, Joseph Hoffman (writers). Cast: Charles Coburn, Marguerite Chapman, Bill Carter, Isobel Elsom, Edward Gargan, Norma Varden, Almira Sessions, & Mary Wickes. (Working title: Without Notice) B&W, 81 minutes.
Let me begin by saying that Charles Coburn is one of my favorite actors. Lauded by critics and historians like as one of the great supporting actors, he’s livened every film he’s made, whether as Barbara Stanwyck’s father (The Lady Eve), Bette Davis’ lecherous old uncle (In This Our Life), a befuddled hypochondriac store owner (The Devil and Miss Jones), or the matchmaking Benjamin Dingle (The More the Merrier). His presence is always a welcome one of me in a movie, and there are films I wouldn’t otherwise watch save for his presence.
That being said, not even Coburn can help this mess of a movie. I would suppose that, being as he’s given so many good performances in support, that Columbia should have given him top billing in an entertaining B-movie. The only problem is that this film is not entertaining.
Coburn plays English author Rudyard Morley, a curmudgeonly type (what else?) replete with monocle and obviously false beard; a sort of cross between George Bernard Shaw and Sheridan Whiteside from The Man Who Came to Dinner. He’s off to the States for a goodwill lecture tour, but is distraught when he learns that his personal cook, Margaret (Varden), is unable to accompany him, leaving him to travel only with daughter-secretary Pamela (Chapman). When they arrive in New York, they meet Morley’s publisher, who extols Morley and his books while Pamela reads a list of those who sent congratulatory telegrams. When she reads the name of Charles Coburn, Morley says, “Who? Never heard of him.” That is the funniest line in the movie, which should tell us something.
Morley and Pamela are soon on a train to a small New England town named Colcord, where the rest of the film will take place. Aboard the train, Pamela is taken with young Army lieutenant Mike Scott (Carter), but Morley’s cantankerous attitude insults the young man. By now we all realize that the goodwill tour is going to be a total disaster, only we don’t quite know just how total it will be. We get our first inkling when we learn that the grand dame of Colcord’s cultural activities is none other than Lucille Scott (Elsom), who coincidentally happens to be Mike’s mother. From here on in it’s pure boilerplate.
Morley insults the entire town, and embarrasses Pamela, when he subs the town’s welcoming party. But when he learns that Mrs. Scott’s cook, Hattie (Sessions), is also a master chef, he finagles a dinner invitation to the Scotts’. After dinner he steals Hattie away by telling her, among other things, that she’s wasting her time and talents catering to people who can’t fully appreciate her artistry. This starts a battle between Mrs. Scott and Morley that soon reaches the press, but Mike steps in and convinces Hattie to return to the Scott kitchen. Ah, but Morley has an ally in Mrs. Scotts’ long-suffering secretary, Agnes (Wickes), who tells him that he can get Hattie back by giving her no-good husband, Duke (Gargan), a job.
Now really ticked off, Morley intends to retaliate by delivering an insulting speech at the occasion of the 250th anniversary of Colcord’s founding. Meanwhile, Pamela, who has fallen in love with Mike, decides to thwart her father by staging an elopement with Mike to Canada, knowing he will lose no time chasing after them. But when Mike and Pamela arrive in Canada, they hear that Morley’s been arrested and is cooling his heels in the local jail. It seems that he went to a farm where Duke was helping with the harvest and became embroiled in a fight, causing his arrest for disturbing the peace.
Mike and Pamela come back to bail him out just before the official proceedings are to start. Pamela also informs her father that she intends to marry Mike in earnest, so he’d better get himself used to the idea. As the proceedings begin, Morley ascends the stage to deliver his speech to a cacophony of boos from the audience, but he surprises everyone by changing gears and apologizing for being an old fool, declaring he has come to celebrate the American people. Naturally, he’s now the town’s sweetheart and even gets an invitation from the president to visit him in Washington, which provides us with the necessary finale. As he leaves from the station with a royal send-off from the town, he departs in the company of his new secretary, none other than Agnes, who he has lured away with the same line that he used to steal Hattie.
Though the film tries to be another The Man Who Came to Dinner, it has none of the sharp humor of the former. Try as he might, Coburn just can’t be as nasty as Monty Woolley. Neither does it helps matters that Coburn’s supporting cast is bland – not a zany in sight unlike The Man Who Came to Dinner. Then again, My Kingdom for a Cook lacks the talented hand of a George Kaufman and Moss Hart; if the film had such funny supporting characters, it would not have known how to employ them. Co-star Chapman, a fine actress in her own right, is also let down by the script, saddled in a romance with someone with whom she has exactly zero chemistry. In the end, My Kingdom for a Cook is nothing but another B-boilerplate programmer, made to precede the feature attraction and pleasant enough to the point where the audience won’t leave before that main attraction is shown.