Merrily We Live has been on my Wish List for years. TCM has started showing it recently to my delight. It's difficult to describe the movie, without using the words "My Man Godfrey" and "derivative," and yet this is a wonderfully enjoyable film. I will go so far as to say I enjoyed it at least as much as the earlier far more famous flick. Billie Burke plays the ditsy mother whose habit of hiring tramps as chauffeurs has left the family destitute of silver. An early scene has the family eating breakfast using kitchen utensils. She received a Best Supporting Actress nomination for the role. Despite the "forgotten men" as servants/love interests plot device, this movie is derived from different source material, a 1926 play, "They All Want Something" and the first film incarnation of it, What a Man (1930).
Brian Aherne plays Wade Rawlins a novelist who has a car accident on a fishing trip and stops at the Kilbourne mansion to use the telephone. Assuming he's a tramp looking for work, he is whisked away, protesting loudly, to be be suited up as the family's new chauffeur. One look at him in his work duds and heiress Jerry (Constance Bennett) is a goner. This is one of those moments where 1930s sensibilities are lost on me. While I think Aherne looks pretty tasty in his scruffy fishing outfit, shown above, chauffeur's uniforms always remind me a little too much of Berlin in 1939. It hardly signifies what he wears because when a tramp who isn't really a tramp and an heiress are in the same movie together, it's a sure bet they're gonna wind up getting married.
All the supporting cast are excellent including Bonita Granville as aspiring thespian/rich brat (territory that Virginia Wiedler had pretty well sown up in my book), Ann Dvorak as the chief rival for Rawlins' attention, Patsy Kelly as the sassy kitchen main and Alan Mowbray, as the family butler who quits at least once a day. This family is so screwball, even the dogs are funny, with names like "Down Boy" and "Off the Carpet" though sadly there are no wire-haired terriers present.
To add to the Dreamboat in Disguise as Servant sub-genre, If You Only Could Cook (1935) features Jim Buchanon (Herbert Marshall) as an automotive mogul who, after a rough day at the office, meets Joan Hawthorn (Jean Arthur) on a park bench while she's looking through the want ads. Mistaking him for a fellow job-seeker, she invites him to pose as a married couple in order to get jobs as a cook and a butler. Marshall of course, has his own butler, who he hits up for tips, before heading off for a few weeks vacation as a servant. Only in the movies!
Lionel Sander, best known as Max from the TV series Hart to Hart has a supporting role as one of the gangsters in the employ of Mike Rossini (Leo Carillo). The mob boss hires the couple, and then falls for Joan, which presents complications for Jim who is also in love with her. Oh, and I forgot to mention, Jim is supposed to be getting married to a woman he doesn't love in a few days. As is the way in screwball comedy, it all works out right in the end after much confusion over sleeping arrangements in the couple's cramped servant's quarters. One of Sander's lines, "If you were married to her, would you sleep on the sofa!?" sums up the tensions that drove the entire screwball genre.
Marshall doesn't quite go through the mistaken for a "forgotten man," routine. It's enough for him merely to sit on a park bench and to be branded as unemployed. Arthur is plucky and funny as usual. She always plays well as the wiser and more worldly member of a couple, and it's a nice twist to see reserved Marshall cast as her love interest. Mr. Smith and Mr. Deeds were hicks, but they were also dreamers, as is our Mr. Buchanon. He's just a bit more sophisticated.
Familiar tropes are sometimes the best because their variations delight and amuse almost more than those films which are entirely novel. During the Depression there was no greater fantasy than being a rich person with servants, unless of course it was that you were rich, your servant happened to look like a movie star and be a millionaire in disguise.
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