Monday, December 5, 2016

Men Are Such Fools

The B-Hive

By Ed Garea

Men Are Such Fools (WB, 1938) – Director: Busby Berkeley. Writers: Norman Reilly Raine, Horace Jackson (s/p). Faith Baldwin (story). Stanley Logan (uncredited). Stars: Priscilla Lane, Wayne Morris, Humphrey Bogart, Hugh Herbert, Mona Barrie, Johnnie Davis, Penny Singleton, Marcia Ralston, Gene Lockhart, Kathleen Lockhart, Donald Briggs, Nedda Harrigan, Eric Stanley, Claud Allister, & Renie Riano. B&W, 69 minutes.

After his somewhat unexpected breakout in The Petrified Forest, it seems that Jack Warner had absolutely no idea what to do with his new budding star, Humphrey Bogart. Looking over Bogart’s movies from 1936 to 1940, it was not an impressive resume. His best work was in two films made outside the Warner’s environment: Dead End, and Tay Garnett’s comedy Stand-In

Back at Warner Bros. he ran the gamut from A to B, usually playing a cardboard crook in such forgettable films as The Amazing Dr. ClitterhouseKid GalahadKing of the Underworld, and You Can’t Get Away With Murder. Even when he played a good guy, as in Marked Woman and Crime School, he failed to rise above the material, which was poor at best. (Who even remembers Bogart in Marked Woman?) Give him a role with a little room to maneuver, such as Angels With Dirty Faces and The Roaring Twenties, and he acquitted himself well. (It was said at the time that nobody dies like Bogie.) But these also were few and far between. 

Typical of the crap he was assigned during this period was Men Are Such Fools, a comedy so lightweight it practically floats away; one of those films you have a hard time describing the plot of even 90 minutes after you’ve seen it. According to Bogie’s biographers A.M. Spearer and Eric Lax, this was his first assignment after signing a new contract that would pay him $1,100 a week for 40 weeks with an option for two more years at $2,000 per week. At one point after watching the dailies, producer Hal Wallis contemplated scrapping the whole thing, but it was purchased specifically for Busby Berkeley, the studio’s genius in residence concerning musical comedies, and Berkeley wanted to stretch his wings, so to speak. He should have stuck to his choreography.

Bogart is billed third, after Priscilla Lane, the doyenne of the Cutesy-Poo School of Acting, and Wayne Morris, the latest block of clay the studio was prepping for stardom. The plot revolves around Lane. She plays Linda Lawrence, a secretary at an advertising agency with an eye on bigger and better things, and writes some copy for a drink called “Fruit Tea,” a cure for hangovers, which she hopes will win her a larger and more prominent role in the company. Already in with her boss, Harvey Bates (played by Hugh Herbert in his usual absent-minded style with much emphasis on the “hoo-hoo-hoo’s”), she finagles a dinner with him in which she hopes to bowl him over with her charm and intelligence, such as they are.

However, Linda has a stalker of sorts in the person of Jimmy Hall (Morris), who works for another agency. He’s head over heels about her, although she doesn’t share the same level of enthusiasm for him because she believes that he’ll never rise to be anything in the business world. His idea of courting is to barge unannounced into her office and annoy her while she’s trying to get work done. Somehow Jimmy learns of her dinner and invites himself to the restaurant. He manages to get her drunk and she mistakes her resulting hangover the next morning for love.

Through her connection with Bates, Linda has moved up to copywriter. Jimmy, now her beau, wants to get married immediately, but Linda is more interested in pursuing her career. Because she’s attractive, men in power positions tend to listen to her ideas. Eventually she meets the agency’s only other woman copywriter, Beatrice “Bea” Harris (Barrie), who at first distrusts her new co-worker, but they quickly form a friendship. 

Bea invites Linda to a weekend party at her country home. Linda drives there with Jimmy, who is still trying to get her to marry him. This clod’s idea of getting her to accept his marriage proposal is to stall the car on the railroad tracks in front of an oncoming train, then restart it after she agrees to marry him. Somehow, Linda is taken with this approach, which tells us more about her mental faculties than we need to know.

At the party, Linda meets Harry Galleon (Bogart), a big shot at the agency in charge of radio. Harry’s ex-fiancee, Marcia Ralston (Townsend), is there too. She still carriers a torch for Harry, but he has a roving eye for the ladies and is currently playing post office with Bea. Linda turns on the charm and flirts with Harry, hoping to get her ad played on the radio. Jimmy, watching Linda throwing herself at another man’s feet, goes into a sulk and attracts the attention of Marcia. When Linda sees this, she becomes upset, and by the end of the weekend she and Jimmy have decided to get married immediately.

At first, Linda keeps her job with the agency. But one night she’s working late with Harry, while Jimmy’s cooling his heels at home. She and Jimmy are supposed to go to dinner to meet his old frat brothers. As she’s about to leave for the evening, Harry stalls her, claiming he’s getting the necessary signatures from the bosses to get her Fruit Tea spots on the air. Jimmy calls. She promises to meet him and his buddies for dinner. Harry stalls some more, and when he finally returns he does so with a mission – to make a pass at Linda. She is angry. Although she’s been leading him on at every turn, she acts to his pass like an insulted virgin. Harry follows her out the door, where Jimmy is impatiently waiting. He flattens Harry and demands Linda quit her job and settle into the role of housewife.

Linda agrees and takes up her new role as “the woman behind the man.” At first she’s happy, but friends notice a restlessness. She makes friends with a neighbor, Mrs. Dalton (Kathleen Lockhart), whose husband Bill (Gene Lockhart), owns a financial marketing firm. The dinner goes well and Bill and Jimmy adjourn to another room to talk. When Linda asks afterward if Bill offered Jimmy a job, Jimmy says that he did but he turned it down. Linda is dismayed. Jimmy explains that the job seemed too speculative and he had a good, secure position now. Besides, he’s a married man with responsibilities. Linda’s comeback is to the effect of asking him if he would have taken the position if he were single. When he nods in agreement, it’s too much for Linda, who packs up and moves out. Jimmy is astounded and asks her if she doesn’t like it with him. She answers that at first she did, but has grown to hate it because Jimmy has become too smug, refusing to move up in the world.

Berkeley uses a newspaper column to note the passage of time. The gossip column notes that Jimmy and Linda have separated and the Jimmy is now a partner with Nelson Sales Promotions. Linda is back with the agency and dating Harry, who wants to marry her. However, Linda finds she’s still carrying the torch for Jimmy.

Out to dinner at a restaurant before their big broadcast, Harry proposes, but Linda is reluctant. Shortly after, Bea and Harvey Bates arrive and invite themselves over to sit with Linda and Harry. Bea wants to speak with Linda privately and asks her to come to the powder room. On the way there, who do they run into but Jimmy and Marcia, who are now a couple.

Later that evening, during the broadcast, Linda announces that she’s off to Paris to be married. Jimmy is listening over the radio and hurries down to the studio, where he punches Harry out again and hectors Linda to stay with him. Linda’s reaction is to immediately leave for her boat with Jimmy in hot pursuit. Harry is already there, waiting for Linda. When he asks a steward if the party he was expecting is in their stateroom, the steward tells him she is. Harry rushes off to the stateroom as the boat sails only to find that it’s Marcia who is waiting for him. Jimmy is downcast as he sees the boat sail away, but he hears a voice from the shadows. It’s none other than Linda, who tells him she wasn’t sailing after all, but wanted him to think so in order to see if he really loved her. They finally reconcile as the film fades to black.


The best thing that can be said about this film is that Bogart is in it. True, he has a small, supporting role, but at least here he looks somewhat comfortable, unlike other B’s he made at the time where he plays cardboard-cutout gangsters, or the following year, when he plays a most unorthodox vampire in The Return of Doctor X

Cast in the unenviable role of the cad, he nevertheless comes off as a more interesting character than the two leads. And at the party, check out his bathing robe. It looks like a trench coat. It was a scene he reportedly didn’t want to do, but he doesn’t look all that silly in his two-piece bathing suit.

The leads, Priscilla Lane and Wayne Morris, are less than enticing, though in their defense they don’t have much of a script to work with. The main problem here is motivation. What makes these two characters decide to do what they do? Why would a career woman such as Linda fall head over heels for a clodhopper like Jimmy? Not that Linda doesn’t come with her own baggage. She comes off most of the time like an immature, manipulative control freak. For instance, at the party it’s okay for her to flirt shamelessly with Bogart’s character, but when Jimmy is targeted by another woman her jealousy is piqued to the point where she wants to get married immediately. And what woman is thrilled by a proposal that takes place while stalling a car at a grade crossing in front of an oncoming locomotive? Isn’t she in the least concerned that she may be affiancing herself to a psychopath?

For his part, Jimmy comes of as one of the most unlikable leads in a romantic comedy. His idea of charm is to be annoying and invite himself right in to whatever function where he sees the object of his desire. His best move is to stand around and try to look impressive. Every time he opens his mouth he loses credibility. And what a couple they make. He has to overcome his general stupidity and need for thuggish browbeating while she has to overcome her incessant need for control, constant game-playing and emotional distance. Both have this need to always be right and both are utterly incapable of compromise.

The best character in the movie by far is that of Bea Harris, the acerbic copywriter who helps Linda in her climb up the corporate ladder. As played by Mona Barrie, Bea is a Dorothy Parker type who looks askance at the world with her poison pen ever at the ready. Before telling Linda that “all men are polygamists,” she tells of her past as an abused wife and lonely divorcee almost offhandedly, as if it is the rule and not the exception. Although her minutes are few in the film, she gives a brilliant, delicately layered performance that brilliantly contrasts her with Lane’s character. Were this a Pre-Code movie she would have had a lot more screen time and a lot more to say.

This was the second film Lane and Morris were paired with the first being Love, Honor and Behave (1938), in which Morris played a milquetoast husband to Lane’s assertive wife. They would be paired again in Brother Rat (1938) and its sequel, Brother Rat and a Baby (1940). As the studio was pushing them as the next big romantic leads, the publicity team went so far as to cook up a romance between the two. They were frequently photographed at nightclubs and parties. The two dated briefly, but nothing came of it.

Critics were unimpressed by Men Are Such Fools. The normally supportive Variety called it “routine,” and The New York Times got in a good dig by describing this 69-minute long picture as “about an hour too long” and “sad and aimless.” The film netted Warner Bros. a profit of $10,000.

It’s recommended only for Bogart fans and Busby Berkeley completists. By the way, look for Carole Landis in a bit part as “June.”

No comments:

Post a Comment