Husbands and Wives

For some reason the movies I watched this weekend all had a marital theme.  It wasn’t a conscious decision, I just grabbed DVDs that looked like fun, but maybe  on some level I was preparing myself for another season of watching Don and Betty Draper’s early ‘60s battle of the sexes. 

Too Many Husbands (1940)

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Too Many Husbands came out the same year as another, more popular “extra spouse” movie, My Favorite Wife, and to be honest it’s not as funny or memorable as the Cary Grant/Irene Dunne film.  The three leads, Jean Arthur, Melvyn Douglas and Fred MacMurray, are all good though, and the movie has its humorous moments.

One thing that sets Too Many Husbands apart from My Favorite Wife is its more risqué premise. Jean Arthur’s character, Vicky Lowndes, isn’t a newlywed “kissless” bride, as Cary Grant’s new wife is. Her first husband Bill Cardew (MacMurray) has been “dead” (like Dunne’s character in My Favorite Wife he was lost at sea and presumed drowned) for a year.  Vicky has been married to husband number two, Henry (Douglas), Bill’s best friend and business partner, for six months.

Once Bill returns Vicky can’t decide which man she loves more and which one she wants to stay married to. She seems quite excited by the prospect of bigamy, in fact, if only because she enjoys having two men paying attention to her and vying for her affections. She gets a wicked gleam in her eyes the night of Bill’s return, contemplating the fact that two attractive men are downstairs fighting over who has the right to join her in bed.

Her two husbands argue and tussle and show off for her. (One of the funniest parts of the movie is seeing these two grown men running around the living room like fools, hurdling armchairs to prove their manly prowess.) She spends time with each of them alone, in an attempt to make her decision, and ends up more confused.

Eventually the law has to step in and make the choice for her, but in spite of her winding up married to only one of the men, it’s clear from the movie’s ending, with Vicky dancing with both at the same time, each clinging to one of her arms, that things aren’t really settled at all.  The whole movie has a slightly perverse vibe, like maybe Vicky would be just as happy with a threesome situation, which was an interesting take for 1940, that’s for sure.

All in all a funny little screwball comedy, though not one of the greats. For me it suffers in comparison to My Favorite Wife, both in terms of humor and heart, but it’s still worth checking out for the wonderful Jean Arthur. Also for the sight of Fred MacMurray in his first scene, bearded and as wild looking as Tom Hanks in Cast Away, but considerably more happy-go-lucky about the whole desert island rescue scenario.

Dream Wife (1953)

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 I’ve watched An Affair to Remember over and over recently,which inspired me watch the other Cary Grant/Deborah Kerr collaborations, inferior though they both are to Leo McCarey’s 1957 gem. (It may be sentimental and imperfect, but for me An Affair to Remember is the movie equivalent of comfort food. Not necessarily as nutritious as some other meals, but good for the soul nonetheless.)

Grant and Kerr first starred together in 1953’s Dream Wife, a movie I should probably hate, but don’t. For one thing it’s really not that good, objectively speaking. Sidney Sheldon wrote and directed it, and at times it feels like an episode of I Dream of Jeannie, only without the supernatural angle. It gets very slapstick silly at times.

For another, it’s so sexist.  Grant plays Clemson Reade, an American businessman engaged to a State Department employee, Priscilla “Effie” Effington (Kerr). She’s a workaholic and doesn’t spend enough time with him, so Clem gets fed up, breaks the engagement, and proposes to an Arab princess whose father is involved in a business deal with him. The princess has been raised to cater to her husband’s every whim and live only to make her man happy, something that appeals greatly to Clem after being repeatedly brushed aside by Effie.

Check out this conversation Clem has with some fellas at the office.  It’s awful!  It’s like a scene out of Mad Men!  And yet it makes me laugh anyway, because Cary Grant’s delivery is so good.  He can turn almost anything into comedy gold.

 

Ex-fiancee Effie has to be involved in Clem’s wedding preparations by virtue of her job at the State Department (there’s an impending oil crisis involving the princess’s country), and she throws a wrench in the engagement by teaching the princess all about Amelia Bloomer and Susan B. Anthony, helping her break free of all that subservient female stuff.

Dream Wife is a bit of a guilty pleasure for me, I guess.  I enjoy it in spite of its flaws.  Cary Grant plays his trademark crankiness to the hilt, and if his character is unpleasant at times, he at least makes it funny to watch. Deborah Kerr is lovely and beautifully dressed, and if her character really is focused on work to the neglect of her fiancé, she at least makes it funny to watch.

Dumb but cute is probably the best way to describe this movie. If it had starred anyone other than Grant and Kerr I probably wouldn’t have liked it much, but their charisma and chemistry go a long way.

In this movie, at least. Not so much in their final collaboration.

The Grass is Greener (1960)

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 Every few years I pop this movie in the DVD player, hoping that this will be the time I really like it, but every time I’m disappointed. You would think that with Cary Grant, Deborah Kerr, Jean Simmons and Robert Mitchum starring and Stanley Donen directing it would be fantastic, but it’s not.

Grant is an English aristocrat, Victor, Earl of Rhyall, who has opened up his stately home to tourists in order to pay for its upkeep. Kerr is his wife, Hilary, who keeps busy with their two children, gardening, and growing and selling mushrooms in the village. They’re a comfortable, loving couple, and in their first scenes together they’re quite adorable to watch.

Then Robert Mitchum’s Charles Delacro, an American tourist and (of course) oil tycoon appears, brazenly pushing his way into the family’s private quarters and making a play for Hilary. She falls for him almost immediately, and after just half an hour spent together is in love and ready to sneak off to London for a tryst with him.

Which she does, even though Victor knows what’s going on, and she knows Victor knows what’s going on. Jean Simmons is Hilary’s kooky friend Hattie, who has a designs on Victor and gets mixed up in the situation, too.  It all winds up in a silly duel between Victor and Charles and a lot of yakking about the meaning of marriage, fidelity, and love between Victor and Hilary.

It’s all supposed to be very sophisticated, but it just icks me out. There are ways to handle adultery intelligently and entertainingly in a movie, whether as a comedy (The Awful Truth) or a drama (Brief Encounter), but The Grass is Greener isn’t good at doing it either way. It’s unbelievable to me that anyone involved could’ve dealt with the situation in such a cool, collected manner as the characters in this movie. 

More shallowly, what I really find implausible about the movie is the notion that anyone would risk losing Cary Grant’s sweet if stodgy Victor because of an infatuation with Robert Mitchum’s not too attractive and dull as toast Charles.  I know that’s my biased inner fangirl talking,  but honestly.  It’s Cary Grant!  Even at age 56, wearing comfy cardigans and thick black-framed glasses, he’s more charming and attractive than anyone has ever been.  I mean, would you throw over a husband who looked at you like this while you were in the bath?  For Robert Mitchum?

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No, I didn’t think so.

Twentieth Century

Twentieth Century (1934)

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Howard Hawks directed Twentieth Century six years before he directed His Girl Friday, but the two movies have a lot in common. Both are based on plays by Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur, and both feature an egomaniacal man willing to resort to less than ethical behavior to get the woman he loves to come back to work for him. Both are also fast-talking (though Twentieth Century comes nowhere near His Girl Friday in speed and overlapping dialogue), full of screwball silliness, and peopled by lunatics and shady characters. In Twentieth Century, however, the setting is the crazy world of the theater, not the crazy world of newspapers.

John Barrymore plays Oscar Jaffe, a Broadway impresario whose manner is far more flamboyant and dramatic than any of the roles he directs onstage. He is forever threatening suicide, proclaiming his great love for the theater and all those who work in it and ripping into those who displease him. Jaffe discovers a lingerie model named Mildred Plotka (Carole Lombard), renames her Lily Garland, and through a combination of bullying and wooing turns her into a famous actress.

Not to mention his lover. The movie is not shy about letting us know that the pair are living in sin. It’s 1934 after all, just the beginnings of production code enforcement, and filmmakers are still slipping things in under the wire. The bed in Lily’s apartment (where she swans around half-naked in very skimpy lingerie) is a huge, art deco boat-shaped thing, and early in the movie she makes a comment to a visiting reporter about how Oscar was right beside her when she received a call. “Rowing?” the reporter replies. Ha!

Lily is almost as much of a drama queen as Oscar, and years of success make her temperamental and rather full of herself. She chafes at Oscar’s Svengali-like control of her career and her life and longs to escape and have a good time. She finally breaks free when he does one infuriating thing too many, heading to Hollywood to become a film star. Something theater snob Oscar finds completely distasteful, of course. Movies! What could be worse?

Those movies you were in! It’s sacrilege throwing you away on things like that. When I left that movie house, I felt some magnificent ruby had been thrown into a platter of lard.

Without Lily Oscar’s productions flop. He’s on the verge of bankruptcy and losing his theater when he boards a train (the Twentieth Century) from Chicago to New York. Who should happen to be on board, and in the cabin right next to his? Lily and her Hollywood boy toy.

From then on it’s one wacky thing after another as Oscar attempts to win her back and get her to sign a contract with him. He proposes projects for her (his pitch for a new play in which she would play Mary Magdalene is hysterical), threatens to kill himself, lies and bullies her and still somehow manages to be strangely charming. See what I mean about the His Girl Friday similarity? Oscar Jaffe is as egotistical and full of it as Walter Burns, he just expresses it differently, being a man of the theater instead of a hardboiled newspaperman.

Carole Lombard is wonderful as Lily. She’s as arrogant and full of overdramatic poses as Oscar, pouting, weeping, shouting, and all the while declaring how much she hates temperamental people. Even if she can’t always see how ridiculous she is, she can clearly see how full of malarkey Oscar is. She tells him he doesn’t know how to be a real person, and that if he slit his throat greasepaint would run out. Substitute “newspaper ink” for “greasepaint” and Hildy Johnson could have said the same thing to Walter Burns. Both couples were so obsessed by and in love with their work that they never figured out how to live like normal people.

That’s the trouble with you, Oscar. With both of us. We’re not people, we’re lithographs. We don’t know anything about love unless it’s written and rehearsed. We’re only real in between curtains.

Not to say that the two movies are carbon copies of each other; they’re definitely not. Twentieth Century has a lot to say about the ridiculousness of show business and the narcissistic people in it. But there are enough similarities that it’s interesting to compare the two – and to see that the already accomplished Hawks became even better at directing this kind of story in the years between Twentieth Century and His Girl Friday, the latter of which is even faster, wittier, and more sophisticated than the former. I don’t think anyone directed screwball comedies better than Howard Hawks.

John Barrymore was a notorious scenery-chewing ham, so this role was absolutely perfect for him. He got to play with and mock his reputation and it’s so much fun to watch. Carole Lombard became the zany screwball actress we all remember her as with this picture. It was her breakthrough role and she’s fantastic in it.

A very funny movie. I’m glad I finally saw it.

Miss Barbara Stanwyck

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I’m sorry to confess that until relatively recently I knew Barbara Stanwyck mostly from her brilliant Emmy-winning performance as Mary Carson in The Thorn Birds and from her role as Victoria Barkley in The Big Valley, which I used to watch with my mom as a child.  Oh, I’d seen Double Indemnity, but otherwise I was pretty ignorant of her movies from the 1930s, ‘40s and ‘50s.  Not sure why, I just never sought them out. 

Then last Christmas TCM aired Remember the Night, a 1940 film co-starring Fred MacMurray, and ever since then I’ve been madly in love with Miss Barbara Stanwyck (as she was grandly billed on The Big Valley).  She is amazing in everything I’ve seen so far, with such vulnerability beneath the tough exteriors of the women she portrays.  She’s drop dead gorgeous, has the greatest husky voice, is absolutely hilarious, and can break your heart into a million pieces, too.  Her acting has such subtlety and truthfulness, even in the silliest of movies, like The Lady Eve.

(Discovering her and Jean Arthur within the same year has been an amazing, joyous revelation.  I keep slapping myself on the forehead and asking myself how I could’ve been blind to these ladies for so many years, while blithely calling myself a classic movie fan.)

Just look at her!  Such movie star glamour.  She was absolutely beautiful.

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There are still many, many Stanwyck movies left for me to see, but here’s a bit about a few I’ve watched lately.

Remember the Night (1940)

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This movie is a treasure, and I have no idea why it isn’t a better known Christmas classic.  Remember the Night was written by Preston Sturges (someone I’m really starting to believe was the greatest screenwriter ever…well, aside from Ben Hecht) and directed by Mitchell Leisen, so it’s a classy, quality affair.  Stanwyck plays cynical, brassy shoplifter, Lee Leander.  MacMurray is John Sargent, the District Attorney prosecuting her.  The trial, which is taking place just before Christmas, is postponed until after the holiday, which means Lee will spend it in jail.  John begins to feel sorry for her and one thing leads to another until he’s finally bailing her out and taking her home to Indiana to spend the holiday with his family.

There are some funny, screwball moments, like when the two end up crashing their car, spending the night in a field, milking a cow, and being arrested for trespassing.  Also funny are the courtroom scenes that open the film.  (Lee’s attorney’s defense of her shoplifting, and John’s reaction to it, are a stitch.)

At heart, though, the movie is a sweet, sentimental one of love and redemption.  Lee’s own family is truly awful (the scene in which she visits them is heartbreaking, and John’s graceful extrication of her from the situation is one of the sweetest moments imaginable), so to see her with John’s kindhearted family, who takes her in like one of their own, is lovely.  The marvelous Beulah Bondi plays Mrs. Sargent, John’s mother, Elizabeth Patterson plays his darling Aunt Emma, and Sterling Holloway is their funny (and occasionally yodeling) farmhand.

This is one of the most truly romantic movies I’ve ever seen.  Stanwyck and MacMurray have wonderful chemistry.  I appreciate stories where the characters have time to get to know one another and you can believe that they really have fallen in love.  So many movies have people meet and fall immediately and based on pretty much nothing. 

In Remember the Night  John begins to see that beneath her hard shell, Lee is a kind, decent girl who has had a difficult life.  Lee sees where John came from, how he worked his way up from a poor but loving home to be a success, and how it’s possible to be part of a happy family.  That makes it sound so schmaltzy, but it’s really not.  It’s sentimental, but in a genuine, heartfelt way.  Anyway, if you can’t have some honest sentiment at Christmastime, when can you?

This movie isn’t out on DVD, which is a terrible shame, but it appears on TCM now and then.  It’s well worth checking out.

The Lady Eve (1941)

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Another one written by Preston Sturges, who also directed it.  This movie is hilarious!  Fall-on-the-floor, laugh-out-loud crazy.  Just look at the expression on Henry Fonda’s face!  Stanwyck is so funny and sexy in that scene.  She drives poor Henry Fonda right out of his mind with lust.  It’s fantastic, and rightfully one of the most famous scenes in screwball comedy history.

Fonda plays Charles Pike, a brewery heir, ophiologist, and bumbling geek in spite of all his wealth and good looks.  Stanwyck is Jean Harrington, a cardsharp and con artist who works with her father, my dear old Charles Coburn.  The relationship between Coburn and Stanwyck is one of the best things in the movie.  They’re both cynical and crooked, but there’s love there, too.  Charles Coburn was the best.

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They meet on board a ship heading from South America to New York.  Jean sets out to seduce Charles and trick him out of a fortune, but of course she winds up truly falling in love with him.  He finds out who she really is just before their ship docks, and in spite of her attempts to explain he is terribly hurt and dumps her.  That’s when the really crazy stuff begins.

The premise of this movie is so insane (Jean poses as an English aristocrat, “Lady Eve,” at a party at Charles Pike’s father’s mansion, and without changing her appearance at all manages to dupe Charles into thinking she’s really someone else), but somehow it works.  I don’t want to say too much in case you haven’t seen it, but the way it all works out is truly nuts.  Funny, but nuts.

The Mad Miss Manton (1938)

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This movie, also co-starring Stanwyck with Henry Fonda, is fairly entertaining, though a far cry from the perfection created with their pairing in The Lady Eve a few years later.  Stanwyck plays a dizzy socialite, Melsa Manton, who discovers a dead body which inconveniently disappears right after she calls the police.  Miss Manton has a reputation for pranks and getting into trouble, and the cops think this is just another of the silly stunts she and her rich, idle friends pull.

Also skeptical is Fonda as a newspaperman named Peter Ames.  He eventually comes to believe Melsa, however.  And of course he falls in love with her.  He and Melsa, along with her society friends, eventually solve the crime.

Not the greatest movie, but it’s a lighthearted, fun screwball/murder mystery.  This movie plays on TCM now and then, and was also recently released through the Warner Archives.

Golden Boy (1939)

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Based on a Clifford Odets play, this is the story of a gifted violinist, Joe Bonaparte, who comes from a loving, immigrant family.  To his father’s dismay and in spite of his own doubts about what the right thing is, Joe gives up the violin in order to gain wealth and fame as a prize fighter.

William Holden plays Joe Bonaparte, in his first movie role.  He had basically no credits at all when he was cast in this film, and he turns in a really moving, passionate performance.  He was only 21 years old!  Remarkable.  I love Bill Holden.

Stanwyck plays the girlfriend of Joe’s manager (Adolph Menjou), who at first uses her feminine wiles to get Joe to keep fighting when he wants to give it up and return to music, and who later truly falls in love with him and begins to hate what all the money and fighting are turning him into.  Once again she’s a tough on the outside, tender on the inside gal, and she’s wonderful.

Partway through production Columbia Pictures got cold feet about having a newcomer in such a big role, and Stanwyck stood up for Holden and fought for him to stay.  She believed in him and he was always grateful for that.  For the rest of his life, Bill Holden sent Barbara Stanwyck flowers on the anniversary of their first day of shooting Golden Boy.

Stanwyck seemed to inspire that kind of love and loyalty.  Just think of how discreet and gentlemanly Robert Wagner was about their love affair for decades, only revealing it in his memoir last year.  In the caption of a photograph of the two of them in the book he says simply My love, Barbara Stanwyck.  (Excuse me while I swoon a little.)

Miss Barbara Stanwyck.  A great lady and a great talent, as I am happily discovering these days.

Easy Living

Part of the fun of watching classic movies is getting a glimpse at a world that doesn’t exist anymore, one that contained things like supper clubs, party lines, and automats.

Automats especially have fascinated me since I was a child. It seemed so magical to put coins into a slot in the wall and have a window pop open on a plate of roast beef or a piece of pie. I’m sure the food at automats wasn’t any better than what I got on family trips to Luby’s Cafeteria, but it seemed like it would be better. At any rate, it was more excitingly procured.

Even as an adult I still get a kick out of movie scenes set in automats, like the one Audrey Meadows’ character works at in That Touch of Mink. All that hustle and bustle behind the wall of windows, and if you know someone on the inside you just might get your chicken pot pie for free! 

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This weekend I watched Easy Living, a 1937 comedy starring Jean Arthur, Edward Arnold and Ray Milland, which contains a really funny, slapstick-filled scene in an automat – just one of many hilarious moments in the movie.

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Arthur plays Mary Smith, a working girl whose life is turned upside down when Arnold’s character, J.B. Ball, a Wall Street fat cat, throws his wife’s $58,000 sable coat out the window in a fit of pique. The coat lands on Mary’s head, and when she tries to return it to Mr. Ball he insists that she keep it. He also insists that she let him buy her a new hat, since the coat smashed hers, and that she allow him to drive her to work.

He means to be kind, but his good deeds lead to one crazy thing after another, from her losing her job to being mistakenly thought to be his mistress. Wearing the coat and being seen at the hat shop with Mr. Ball gets gossipy tongues wagging, and suddenly everyone wants to give Mary fancy things and put her up in swanky digs, thinking she has the ear of this wealthy man.

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Meanwhile, she meets and falls for Mr. Ball’s son (Milland), who is rebelling against his father and trying to make his own way in the world by working (not very successfully) at the automat. She doesn’t know he’s Ball’s son, though, which leads to even more complications, including a crash in the steel market. 

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The script was written by Preston Sturges, so of course there are plenty of eccentric, characters, zany situations and misunderstandings. Jean Arthur is, as usual, fantastic – smart, sassy, and so, so funny. Take this scene, for example. No dialogue, just the unemployed Mary Smith searching for some money so she can eat. The blindfold on the piggy bank! Ha! She’s so stinking adorable.

 

I’ve never been particularly crazy about Ray Milland, whom I mostly remember as Grace Kelly’s murderous husband in Dial M for Murder and as Ryan O’Neal’s cold patrician father in Love Story, but he’s quite charming and handsome in Easy Living. At first I couldn’t help thinking how much better Cary Grant would have been in the role (apparently I want him and Jean Arthur to be in everything together right now), but he grew on me as the movie went along.

Such a fun, breezy, wacky screwball comedy – one of the best I’ve seen, and I’ve seen a lot of them, especially lately. And the scene in the automat? Well, that was just icing on an already yummy slice of cake. Cake I wish I could buy at an automat, of course.

I’ll be with you in a minute, Mr. Peabody!

If you ever get a chance to see Bringing Up Baby with the DVD commentary by Peter Bogdanovich, do!  I watched the movie today, and when it was over I started it again with the commentary, figuring I’d just listen to a few minutes of it.  I ended up watching the whole movie all over again!  The commentary reeled me in, which is pretty rare.  Lots of DVD commentaries are dull, dull, dull, but this one wasn’t.

Bogdanovich peppers the commentary with readings of excerpts from interviews he did with Bringing Up  Baby director Howard Hawks in the 1960s and ‘70s, and when he does that he plays both parts, impersonating Hawks.  Pretty funny, like he’s performing a little play.  He throws in a Cary Grant impersonation now and then, too.

BE040044 Hawks, Grant, and Hepburn on the set of Bringing Up Baby, 1938

The best part about the commentary is just how amused Bogdanovich is by the movie, even though he’s clearly seen it many, many, many times.  (He used the framework for the film when he made his own screwball comedy, What’s Up Doc?, with Barbra Streisand and Ryan O’Neal in the early ‘70s.  That’s another one on my t0-watch-soon list.)  Bogdanovich can’t help laughing out loud over and over, and it made me laugh out loud with him.

I bet I’ve seen Bringing Up Baby fifteen or more times, (something I should probably be embarrassed to admit, huh?) and I catch something new every time.  The movie is so zany, fast, and full of hilarious bits of dialogue and physical comedy that you can’t take it all in in just one viewing, or even three or four.

I don’t think Cary Grant was ever funnier than he was as Professor David Huxley, wearing his geeky Harold Lloyd glasses, “tsk, tsk”-ing and “oh dear”-ing all over the place, getting more and more frustrated by the frantic lunacy Katharine Hepburn’s nutty but endearing Susan Vance drags him into.  It’s worth it to spend at least one viewing of the movie keeping your eyes on Cary the whole time.  Every little look, noise, line reading, and bit of business he does is brilliant.  He plays it all straight, that’s what makes it so funny.  Susan’s just plain driving him insane!  And yet she’s making him much more human at the same time, breaking him out of his stuffy, academic rut and rescuing him from the boring, cold fish fiancee who doesn’t even want to go on a honeymoon with the dishy doctor.

 

The character actors in classic movies are some of the best things about them.  There are so many wonderful faces and kooky characters.  I appreciate seeing my favorites pop up over and over — it’s like running into an old, beloved friend.   There’s something comforting about seeing people like Edward Everett Horton, Beulah Bondi, Charles Coburn, Spring Byington or Edward Arnold appear on the screen.  You know them, you love them, and you’re sure you’re going to have a great time with them.

Charles Ruggles is so good in Bringing Up Baby, playing Major Applegate, a big-game hunter and friend of Susan’s Aunt Elizabeth (the also wonderful May Robson).  Everybody in this dinner scene is perfection, actually – even the famous dog, Asta, who plays George.  It’s just so wacky!  The Major doing leopard cries, David repeatedly getting up from the table to follow George outside, hoping to finding the intercostal clavicle, Aunt Elizabeth appalled by David’s behavior and Susan totally smitten by her dear “Mr. Bone”. 

 

“It was probably an echo.”  “Yes, well it was a long time coming back, wasn’t it?”  HA!

I don’t think I could ever tire of this movie.  I find it endlessly amusing and endlessly quotable.  It cracks me up every single time I see it.