Our subject this week is heroic naval aviator, ex-cheerleader and frequent B-Western hero Wayne Morris, and two non-Western, non-military mostly-comedy films from when he was young and boyish and tall.
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Men Are Such Fools [Busby Berkeley, 1938] presents us with characters who simultaneously subscribe to one Hollywood-created ethos and another, wholly incompatible ethos which is at least Hollywood-promulgated if not fully -created.
First we must understand the milieu. The world of advertising was long a good setting for drama, combining the high stakes of big business with potentially sensational elements of the creative subculture [writers, artists]. Just as Sterling Cooper allows its artistic types to do suspicious things like date black women and read Frank O’Hara poems, the otherwise stuffy agency in Men Are Such Fools depends on the copy-writing talents of Bea Harris, a sardonic Dorothy Parker type played by Mona Barrie in a style that combines Maude Lebowski and the Marquise de Merteuil.
Our heroine, Linda [Priscilla Lane], knows nothing about Bea’s private life but professionally idolizes her and asks for advice on her own copy.
- Please. I’m dying to read it. I hope it’s terrible.
- Oh, you don’t, really.
- Don’t I? Linda, you’re having a unique experience. You’re probably facing, for the first time, a perfectly honest woman. When I die I’m to be stuffed and set up in the Smithsonian Institute. [scans the pages Linda gave her] … Nothing wrong with this copy. It’s perfect, I’m sorry to say. How old are you?
- Twenty-two, eh? When I was 22, I’d been married, deserted, divorced, beaten up, back again earning my own living. And do you know what all that taught me, my dear?
- No, what?
- Nothing. Absolutely nothing. Have you got a boy friend?
- Oh, goody goody, she’s got a boy friend. What’s his name? Well, it doesn’t matter, it’s quite unimportant. Now let me see. Copy okay, she’s got a boy friend, she says … okay too … just what exactly did you come in here for?
Linda and the boy friend [Jimmy Hall [Wayne Morris]] get invited to Bea’s lake house for a weekend of frivolity. Linda becomes the subject of romantic rivalry between Jimmy and Bea’s old friend and colleague Harry Galleon (Humphrey Bogart). Harry is a tragic figure here, even more than the screenwriter intended. What’s in his sordid past? We never get any details, but apparently it disqualifies him from ending up with a nice girl in a respectable, feather-light picture like this one.
Wanda is a woman of his past, who seems to be a full-time part of the nebulous demi-monde, going about with heavy-lidded contempt that invites playful jibes. At one point Bea calls her a “beautiful piece of chilled steel”, which seems a bit much.
- Wanda: Playing around again, I see.
- Harry: My taste’s improved, though, don’t you think?
- Wanda: No, some of your preferences are the same. Her name’s Linda, mine’s Wanda.
- Harry: Hers has an I in it. Yours never had.
What’s that supposed to mean?
Men Are Such Fools may be best known for this exchange, Harry trying to seduce Linda, using an unusual line of conversation paired with an avuncular smile.
- Oh, I’m definitely not an angel.
- What are you then?
- Probably a cad.
- I don’t think so.
- Well, give me an opportunity and I’ll prove it. Are you by any chance a weak woman?
- [shakes head]
- Oh, that’s too bad. Then I’ll have to be a very *strong* cad. Mind if I begin?
- Couldn’t we postpone it?
This is less Harry warning Linda that he’s trouble, and more Harry trying to convince the audience that he’s trouble. But he exudes no menace, puts forth little glamour, and shows no sign of being duplicitous. Two adjectives that come to mind are “friendly” and “rueful”. When he says “Oh, I know you think you love him, but what’s that half-baked fullback got to offer?” it seems like homely wisdom. This man can assess his fellow men based on hard-won experience.
The Harry Galleon character is presented too beautifully for us not to wish him well. He’s basically the best possible man who still qualifies as too dangerous for the female lead to marry. Meanwhile, Jimmy Hall is one of the least appealing men to technically qualify as the dream man. Here’s a few of his objectionable behavioral episodes.
- Scornful attitude toward “that mob of wild tom-cats at that Bea Harris dame’s house”.
- While driving Linda to the lake house, extorting a marital commitment by parking his car on railroad tracks with a train approaching.
- Extorting the marital commitment again by holding Linda underwater in Bea’s swimming pool, distracting from what had been a fun beach ball game.
- Hearing Bea say “Oh, Jimmy’s mad. Oh, Jimmy, do knock someone’s block off. Just anyone’s will do. Mine, if you like,” and not realizing she’s joking.
- Punching anyone in his way and throwing people out of an elevator so he can race through an office building.
- The following quote, spoken to Linda: “Don’t you know that weekends were invented to get drunk, have fights, and make love to your girl?”
A fraternity dolt with too much time on his hands, Morris browbeats Lane into marriage with a charming combination of physical intimidation and boyish whining. There was not much appealing to the character as written, but Morris’ plasticine features and gangly athlete’s body emphasize its most retrograde aspects, as he looms over her with goofy intimidation tactics that come damn near spousal abuse. But Lane convincingly grins her way through it – as if she was enduring it for a secret plan of her own.
And her plan is to move up in the advertising company, *without* using feminine wiles on her boss. There’s one scene where he invites her to dinner and they have a nicely professional conversation – Linda seems to have been correct that “Batesy is a lamb doll”, and not the wolf her roommate says he is. She creates great juice campaign after great juice campaign, but there’s another problem with Jimmy: he can’t even conceive of a situation in which his wife would have a job. This issue leads them to separate, and Harry to start taking her to the Seahorse Club.
To be clear, they are fully separated, if perhaps not divorced. They don’t see each other in the average week, and the agency is badgering her to come back. Nobody in her life is baffled or even surprised at the separation. And yet, it can’t last. Something needs to restore the sanctity of matrimony. And it’s Bea Harris, that defiant cynic, who engineers their reunion through a false assignation that lures Harry onto a Paris-bound liner while Linda and Jimmy watch from the docks. Their final exchange:
- L: I was never taking it. Do you mind?
- J: Mind? Oh, darling, I’m so happy I could break your silly head in.
- L: Oh, that’s what I hoped. That’s why I had to be sure you still loved me.
Frankly, I suspect Bea of jealously sabotaging Linda’s career and happiness so she can remain the top spinster copywriter around. Any other explanation requires her to follow two incompatible moral philosophies while always being the most cool and rational one in the room.
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What does Wayne Morris have to offer when he isn’t failing to bring charm to a thankless Neanderthal role in a trifle designed to synergize with his studio-engineered IRL romance with a former child star?
He seems more at ease in The Smiling Ghost [Lewis Seiler, 1941] as Lucky Downing, a cheerful but unlucky hayseed who gets caught up in a ludicrous high-society ghost / murder story. In fact he throws himself into the role too much, such that the audience will never believe either heiress Alexis Smith or cynical newshound Brenda Marshall could fall in love with him at first sight. Even cynical newshound Winona Ryder in Mr. Deeds needed to spend a few weeks soaking up old-fashioned Mandrake Falls values before she realized how wonderful Adam Sandler’s Deeds was.
The Smiling Ghost‘s half-baked “mystery” would fit better in a Brady Bunch Halloween special, but the scary parts (the relentless ghostly attacker, the scenes in the graveyard and crypt) are well-paced and suspenseful. From the 21st-century vantage point, a mediocre 1941 movie’s scary moments are improved if they are being squeezed in between mad-scientist slapstick and romantic drivel — they can’t drag on and on and on and on like a mediocre movie with nothing BUT scary parts. The Old Dark House [James Whale, 1932] is more effectively scary than The Ghoul [T. Hayes Hunter, 1933] even though it’s a semi-comedy. The suspense in The Ghoul is drawn out so much that it’s flat. The Old Dark House jumps along with craziness after craziness.
The mad scientist [Charles Halton] is stereotypical to a degree I didn’t know was possible 70 years ago. All the attributes are there, the beakers, the curio cabinet, the sparks, the wild hair and glasses, the obsessive mannerisms, and they’re presented as the obligatory things that have to be alluded to because the audience has seen a million mad scientists before and needs to recognize this guy as being just like Dr. Frankenstein, Dr. Caligari, Dr. Mirakle, Dr. Kravaal, Dr. Savaard, Dr. Meirschultz, Dr. Laurence, Dr. Carruthers, Dr. Thorkel, Dr. Adrian, Dr. Xavier, Zolok, and Dr. Moreau. The loony-lab subplot [Crazy Uncle Ames is on the hunt for an ethnic menagerie of skull-models for his shrunken-head gallery] is pretty tedious, and Willie Best seems embarrassed by his role in it.
However, Best’s rapport with Wayne Morris is strong. Neither of their characters is quick-witted, but neither is a moron, and they need each other and joke with each other. The script requires Best to do a lot of his goggle-eyed mugging and fearful glances, but I don’t think any character treats him any differently than they would a white chauffeur / valet / office secretary. [Except Professor Uncle Ames, of course, from the phrenology angle] The rich old biddy looks askance at Lucky when he says he’ll employ his office-boy Clarence as a manservant instead of getting a professional valet, but nobody treats Clarence badly. He might have the most dialogue of any actor here, since he’s in just about every scene.
Finally, Alexis Smith must be a foot taller than Priscilla Lane. Together with a regal hairdo, monogrammed gowns and other heiress accessories, she reduces Morris from the scowling he-man of Men Are Such Fools to a simpering man-child.