When Julia Scott negotiates a marriage proposal, she expected sex to be part of the deal. Instead of connubial bliss, the heroine discovers a groom who expects a double shift from his new bride. Since she had sorted his office, he now intends she should do the same for his home. Immune to her feminine makeover in ruffles and floral prints, he insists she go back to her business ensembles and join him in the office each day.
In her new role, Julia encounters two obstacles to running a smooth household. Barclay’s daughter and sister compete over who can be the biggest drama queen. Edith Fellows plays Annabel, a pint-sized hellion who holds her family hostage with a series of tantrums. She’s perfectly ghastly in her first scene, where she chases the dog and threatens to cut off its head. Edith Fellows recalled that she loved being able to act like a brat for the camera because her life at home was too strict. When she threw something at Claudette Colbert on the set, she had really been throwing it at her evil grandmother. Annabel’s nurse, played by silent film star Clara Kimball Young, calls the girl ‘Lamby-pie’, an endearment full of wishful thinking. Little Annabel stages a hunger strike on Julia’s first day at breakfast, but meets her match when her new stepmother confiscates a cache of fruit stashed away in a night table drawer.
Katharine Alexander plays Barclay’s sister Gertrude, a society matron whose sole purpose in life is to protect the carpets from fading in the morning sunlight. Alexander builds her performance on a deep well of resentment that women develop when their station in life asks so little of them. No one seems to like or listen to Aunt Gertrude. By way of revenge, Gertrude pays a household staff who serve leathery cuts of meat and spoiled lobster. Hiding behind proper manners, she makes the family eat breakfast with the drapes closed. The carpets are more important than the family’s vitamin-D allowance. If her attack on their digestion or good vision fails, Gertrude resorts to fainting spells to get her way.
Julia finds respite with Jean Dixon, who plays Martha Pryor, a fellow executive secretary who had arranged a job for Julia in Paris, which she nixed because she was hung up on her boss. Instead of leaving well enough alone, and letting a pal continue to moon over the department store owner, Jean Dixon meets with Barclay and uses the job in Paris to speed up his proposal to Julia.
Jean Dixon was born to meddle. She drops by the Barclay pile one afternoon with Lennie Rogers (Michael Bartlett), one of Julia’s former suitors in tow. When Martha meets Annabel, the girl decides she doesn’t like her. Martha fires back that she’s sure she could learn to like her—if she were roasted. Rogers swans in with flowers, undeterred by the gold band on Julia’s finger. Annabel had initially assumed Rogers was her plaything, like everything else in the house. Once he croons a tune at the piano, the girl instantly knows that the song he sings in two languages is nothing more than a cheap seduction gambit aimed at her new stepmother. Next to him on the piano bench, Annabel steals a glance at the singer and Julia, which tells the viewer that she may be tiny, but nothing is over her head.
Annabel blossoms, thanks to the capable Julia Scott. Where other adults saw plain impudence and threw up their hands, the new Mrs Barclay sees an overactive imagination left to spoil. Julia Scott channels Annabel’s creative impulses in song. The minute an adult starts to take her seriously and communicate in a meaningful way, a change occurs in Annabel as quickly as when Julia opens the drapes in the breakfast room. Suddenly, Annabel is bright and animated, itching to share verses that tell a story about Gwendolyn the rabbit.
Reforming a child only takes up so much of her time, leaving Julia’s sexual frustration to grow. Julia’s neglected libido prompts a meltdown in a Philadelphia shop window (the new department store her husband acquired). In a display case for living room furniture, wooden dummies become a stand-in for stolid bourgeois families like the Barclays. The mannequins are bloodless as her marriage. Julia and Rogers sit at the piano that’s part of the living room set, swig from a bottle of gin, singing ‘The Old Grey Mare’ on a loop. The nursery rhyme takes on a larger significance. Taken in context of Julia’s empty bed, the ‘ain’t what she used to be’ is a double entendre for a hot babe left to wither on the vine.
Richard’s prudish reaction to the tabloid photo of his wife deep in her cups is finally Julia Scott’s deal-breaker. Tired of waiting for her husband to come to his senses and get busy in her boudoir, she calls it quits. She’ll join Rogers for a voyage to Cuba. Julia gives Barclay an inspired speech about how much she hates business and stores and everything that turns people into machines. Annabel catches the tail end of Julia’s exit. She laughs at her father, saying that he doesn’t know anything about women. She skips away with a sing-song tribute: ‘Daddy’s a dumbbell. Daddy’s a dumbbell’. Flabbergasted, Barclay reacts by getting plastered.
Richard Barclay calls the butler in for a little feedback. When Franklyn (Raymond Walburn) suggests mildly that the man of the house might benefit by loosening up, the boss orders him to retrieve a hidden bottle of hooch. Alone in the room, hands in pockets, Barclay observes, sotto voce: ‘I was loose before you got one leg over the crib’. He delivers the line with an added ‘humpf’ at the end for emphasis. Mel Douglas minted his romantic leading man status by tossing away this doozy. The idea that a man more tightly wound than piano wire has an inner scapegrace poised to unfurl at a moment’s notice adds a whole new dimension to his character.
In an expedited quest to prove he’s more than a stuffed shirt, and win back his bride, Mel Douglas joins the ranks of 1930s-era swoon merchants. The scene where he drives steaming drunk, may not have aged well, but the prospect of a man who will do anything to show himself worthy of a woman retains its appeal. The picture’s success prompted Harry Cohn to exercise his contract option with Mel Douglas. For years, Douglas shuttled between MGM and Columbia, billed next to a roster of leading ladies including Joan Crawford, Greta Garbo, Irene Dunne, Myrna Loy, Jean Arthur, Joan Blondell, and Merle Oberon.
More people have talked about Claudette Colbert’s insistence that she should only be photographed on the left side than have noted she snagged an Oscar for playing in a comedy. The famous ‘dark side of the moon’ reference to Colbert’s under-seen right profile nearly always appears in a discussion of her screen credits. Sets were specifically designed to accommodate her preference. Some critics dismiss the camera angle as mere caprice from a film star. But I say it goes with the territory of being billed above the title. From her viewpoint, she had been in the Claudette Colbert business longer than anyone else, so she knew what’s best. If she failed to protect her career and image, who else would? Mitchell Leisen, who had directed Colbert in four pictures (Midnight, Arise My Love, No Time for Love, Practically Yours) debunked the claim that there was anything wrong with the right side of her face. Leisen observed a slight dent in Colbert’s nose which was partially visible from the right side (an injury sustained from a car crash years earlier). Even if the camera didn’t pick it up, the bigger issue is that Claudette Colbert knew it was there and preferred not to worry about her appearance. During the studio system, everyone on the set worked hard so that the star could relax and do her job without being self-conscious. A request to favour the left side seems a small price to pay to reassure a top box office performer that she looks her best. Colbert’s preference for the left side was hardly an air-tight edict. Throughout multiple films, the camera shoots Colbert from the front and even the right side.
For decades, from Frank Capra’s The Love of Mike (1927) to Texas Lady (1955), Claudette Colbert played women who were made up of sass, grit, and had a healthy libido. Only a few leading ladies from the transition of sound were still playing romantic leads in the mid-1950s, but Claudette Colbert handily joined them. When she was 52 years old, she played a newspaper boss who makes Barry Sullivan lose the run of himself. Sullivan was nearly ten years her junior, which in Hollywood years probably doubles the length of their age difference. Colbert’s cheekbones are still as sharp and smooth as a diamond necklace.
Claudette Colbert’s box office gave her the ability to work with the best leading men in Hollywood, including Clark Gable, Charles Boyer, Joel McCrea, Ray Milland, and Fred MacMurray. She worked with the great directors: Frank Capra, Ernst Lubitsch, Dorothy Arzner, Gregory La Cava, Cecil B DeMille, Henry King, Mitchell Leisen, George Cukor, Preston Sturges, and Douglas Sirk among others. If her second film with Capra opened her range with the screwball adventure, her second film with director Gregory La Cava proved Colbert had a feather-light touch in romantic comedy.
Tay Garnett includes a story in his memoir about signing a contract with Columbia at the same time as Gregory La Cava. Garnett was assigned to direct She’s Can’t Take It (1935), a screwball romance about a spoiled society dame (Joan Bennett), who falls for an ex-bootlegger (George Raft). La Cava was hired after the success of Private Worlds (1935), a sensitive picture about humane therapy in a psychiatric hospital, produced by Walter Wanger for Paramount, starring Claudette Colbert.
Garnett and La Cava waited for nearly an hour before their new boss would see them. Ushered into the studio head’s office, the directors had to compete with the radio for Cohn’s attention. The latest race from the track Santa Anita filled the room. Harry Cohn chewed on a stogie while he laid down the law of the land. In his usual blustery style, Cohn told the new hires that he ran the studio as he saw fit—that he was the sole authority in a town where he bent a knee to no one. Garnet recalls that La Cava mildly offered to return the following day when Cohn had more time. Their meeting was interrupted by a call from Louis B Mayer. Cohn took his feet off the desk, stood up, straightened his tie, and changed his tone to greet the mogul of MGM.
La Cava’s reasonable suggestion was characteristic of his method for dealing with front office hot heads over the years. If a producer or studio boss turned up the volume, La Cava took it down a notch. Once the bully tactics appeared, over the absence of a completed script, or falling off schedule, La Cava dug in his heels and remained calm. Instead of rising to meet the testosterone in the room, La Cava took an even pitch. He would let the suits blow their cool and then quietly carry on with doing things according to his own plan. He had his way and the men in the front office had theirs.
La Cava’s first picture for Columbia, She Married Her Boss (1935), defined a string of hits that continued for years. When we talk about standouts among directorial runs, it would be tough to match La Cava’s consecutive gold standards: She Married Her Boss (1935), My Man Godfrey (1936), Stage Door (1937), Fifth Avenue Girl (1939), Primrose Path (1939), and Unfinished Business (1941). La Cava’s lucky streak relied on a method that included off-the-cuff scripts and an improvisational ‘let’s see how it works’ approach that required patience and trust.
Harry Cohn’s bombastic reputation would appear to make him the least likely of the moguls to gel with a director who worked with an unfinished script. Biographer Bob Thomas explains that Cohn expected people to have confidence in a project. They should be able to stand up to him and articulate a picture’s merits. Writers and producers had to believe in what they were doing, not fold under his brow-beating. Screenwriter Sidney Buchman never flinched when Cohn pulled a cigar out of his maw and shouted abuse. The best way to get respect from Cohn was to shout louder or keep an even temperament. If you cowered, your days were numbered in Columbia. Cohn’s association with Buchman was one of the longest professional relationships he had known. Buchman’s rapport with Cohn was so unique that he scored a major victory for writers who were nearing a script deadline. Buchman argued they should be able to finish writing at home, rather than punch a clock, just because the boss liked to see scribes busy at their desk on the lot. Butts in chairs had been a clause enshrined in the studio contract, until Sidney Buchman advised Cohn that if he wanted the ideas he had shaving in the morning, in addition to those on the clock, concessions would need to be made for the creative process.