Regarding THE HAPPY TIME [Richard Fleisher, 1952], a Stanley Kramer production, five aspects stand out.
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1) It’s the sort of movie that repeatedly thwarts your expectations by not being a musical. The characters are happy-go-lucky stereotypes who bustle around the sets picking up children, grabbing things from each other’s hands, slamming doors and switching their conversations from placid to exasperated at the drop of a music cue. In fact, the main character, Jacques Bonnard [Charles Boyer] is a professional violinist at the local theater, accompanying films as well as whatever’s on the vaudeville stage.
Having just bailed out of Let’s Be Happy [Henry Levin, 1957], I was wary of another saccharine local-color musical, this time with themes of 1920s nostalgia and French [-Canadian] stereotypes instead of pastoral nostalgia and Scottish stereotypes. Even having never heard of the original Broadway play or the 1968 musical based on it, I was sure this was going to be a musical. There’s a song over the opening credits, sung by Boyer himself, interrupted by Boyer’s own introductory narration. But as it turns out, that’s the only song in the movie. And you’ll be tired of it by the end.
Even in the vaudeville theatre what we see is not a song but some gymnastics and a magic act, giving rise to the main plot [magician’s assistant Mignonette flees her cruel master, becomes maid in the Bonnard household, excites jealousy / rivalry / wistfulness among three Bonnard brothers, grandfather, and 14-year-old Bibi]. Also the realism of the locations and the actors is several million percent above that of Let’s Be Happy, which has so many painted backdrops that even though it’s in color you start thinking that tables and chairs, staircases, butlers, etc. are part of the backdrop.
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2) The French stereotypes are not unbearable. The conflict between this French family and the Anglophone city is a bit interesting, especially in Bibi’s struggles with his school administration. They call him “BON-erd” instead of “bo-NAR”. Louis Jourdan’s Pepe Le Pew character Uncle Desmond comes close to unbearable, but he’s so charming, and gets the benefit of having been built up sight-unseen over the first half hour [he’s a salesman with a girl in every port from Kamloops to Moncton to Rouyn-Noranda]. The only real sadness in the movie comes from his fraudulent promises to Mignonette of a new life in “the house at the Gatineau”.
I enjoyed how stilted the dialogue is [tightly adapted from the play], continually reminding us that these are Frenchmen who are speaking English but are really speaking French. Anything to get away from standard Hollywood phrasings. And very rarely are random French words thrown into English sentences.
- Well, Bibi, it is that Peggy wishes to be your girl.
- My girl? Look! [indicates bruises] Black and blue!
- It is how American women show affection. I have been in Detroit.
A big thank you to memorist Robert Fontaine, stage adaptor Samuel A. Taylor, and screenplay adaptor Earl Felton for writing “Look!” and “American women” in these exchanges instead of “Regarde!” and “les dames Americaines”.
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3) One of the French stereotypes is something that is actually found in movies about every ethnic group, exemplified by Uncle Desmond’s edict that “A Bonnard never disappoints a pretty girl”. Quelle chivalrie! What about non-pretty girls? Go hide your head in a bag somewhere. To be fair, Bibi’s love interest [Marlene Cameron] is quite the average looker, even when she gets dolled up at the end of the movie, and he is admonished for not noticing and reciprocating her love.
This Bonnard family motto is distressingly common in entertainment [e.g. Water For Elephants‘s classic syllogism “You’re a beautiful woman. You deserve a beautiful life.” — the only line of dialogue included in some of that film’s trailers].
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4) Former Treasure Island star Bobby Driscoll was 15 when he played Bibi. Marlene Cameron was 17 when she played Peggy. Gene Collins was 20 when he played the school bully, and he had aged about twelve years since playing the sick kid in The Babe Ruth Story four years earlier. He could plausibly be a small man of just about any age. He’s frightening.
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5) The character of Uncle Louis [Kurt Kasznar] merits analysis. He drinks wine all day, is inclined to flights of romantic and artistic fancy, and drives his wife to tears of frustration with his laziness and his insistence that others must share his placid joviality. Nowadays this is a personality type we would not associate with alcoholism — rather, with being a “stoner”. Yet even though the stereotype of the lazy friendly marijuana user is well over 40 years old, it’s associated with youth. Today, an overweight stoner whose wife needs to work all day and all night on the sewing machine to support his teenage daughter would be a much more pathetic figure than Uncle Louis, the equivalent wine stoner of yesteryear.
What happened to the stereotype of the drunkard as as well-meaning, lazy bohemian type? If I see a new movie with a character who drinks booze by the gallon, I expect his wife to be driven to tears of frustration by his mood swings or his violent temper or his physical decline, not by his head-in-the-clouds attitude and lack of ambition.
- You’re the cork in my cognac. I must go now.
- You must listen to me now. Do you hear? Arrange your ears and listen! You have a daughter. Recall to yourself, you have a daughter. An angel from heaven, a pearl among women. And yet this sweet child, this tender blossom, cannot get a husband. Pourquoi?
- Pourquoi! Her father drinks wine from a water cooler!
- [to Felice] Calm your bile. [to Yvonne] Do not fret, my golden pigeon, you will yet strike a man blind with your beauty.
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