Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Bananas for Herbie: The Good Fairy (1935)

I've always maintained that the difference between a merely good romantic comedy and a great one is that the latter needs to have a strong supporting cast and has to be funny enough to stand on its own if one excised the "romance" from the film. Preston Sturges and William Wyler in their adaptation ofthe stage play "The Good Fairy" put this theory to the extreme test. The male romantic lead, Herbert Marshall, doesn't appear until 45 minutes into the film and he doesn't meet up with the heroine, Margaret Sullavan, until the movie is more than half over.

Sullavan and Marshall really have very few scenes together but boy do they make them count. The turn the quirkiest dialog, mostly in praise of pencil sharpeners and fake fur, into something like the boiled down essence of romance, sex and longing. Marshall and Sullavan are howlingly funny in these vignettes because they are so utterly sincere. Take Cary Grant's devotion to his intercostal clavicle in Bringing Up Baby, multiply it by ten and you'll begin to understand what I'm talking about.

The contrast between sincerity and phoniness, between niavete and cynicism is a perpetual theme of Sturges' films and Margaret Sullavan is the perfect actress to express this contrast. Her Luisa Ginklebusher is an unholy combination of innoncence and sensuality that breezes into the film and completely takes over. It's no wonder that Frank Morgan's wolfish millionaire is entirely smitten and is reduced to repeating "oh you're WONDerful" in that characteristically sing-songy Frank Morgan way.

The supporting cast is not just strong, they are Olympic weighlifter strength. Beulah Bondi and Alan Hale have tiny but memorable parts and even a throwaway steroetypical wolf character is played by a willy Ceasar Romero. Frank Morgan is great and while I've found him occasionally one-note in movies before this, he actually brings a complete, complex character to life here. Eric Blore has a stand-out turn as the drunken Dr. Metz and Reginald Owen makes the movie for me as Getloff, the waiter turned impromptu gaurdian. I've seen some films where Owen has small parts before and frankly I'd never really noticed him. He's a very able comic actor and he Sullavan have great timing together. There is something so charming about a cockney waiter with airs and a good girl with ideas that their scenes could almost be a movie on its own. If I wasn't so bananas for Herbie I wouldn't have cared if they would have just let him wind up with the girl at the end.


Juliette. said...

Lately I've been trying to see as much Sturges-related stuff as possible, but seemed to have overlooked this one...probably because he's the writer, not director. Thanks for calling attention to The Good Fairy-- I'll keep my eye out in the future. :)

Kate Gabrielle said...

ooh! I forgot about this film, I have to watch it again!

Reginald Owen really is the star, I adore him in this!! And I loved Herbert Marshall in comedy, he's usually stuck in heavy melodrama but he fits in so well in films like this one and Trouble in Paradise!

Jennythenipper said...

Juliette: You can see The Good Fairy online if you are willing to watch it in chunks, on my Herbert Marshall playlist.

Kate: I prefer Marshall in comedy as well. I really felt that Riptide would have been a far better film as a comedy. The potential was there and all the players were more than capable. Lately I've been watching his campier melodramas and viewing them as comedies. It works, but it's not quite as good as the real thing!