Wednesday, February 3, 2010

I live My Life (1935)

Joan Crawford sports a to die for sailor pants suit and Brian Aherne manages to make boots and shorts work for him. (Just think of William Powell in a similar get-up in I Love You Again, played for laughs.)

In I Live My Life, Joan Crawford plays a spoiled heiress who gets entangled with an archeologist on a cruise to Greece. To her surprise he follows her to New York where he proceeds to interfere with her plan to marry a society stooge. (Fred Keating)

The spoiled-heiress-gets-schooled-by-love plot requires a delicate touch for it not to become a series of increasingly violent hissy fits. Joan Crawford is a force of nature, taking over the movie, and not always to betterment of the picture as a whole. In the scenes where she's supposed to be cracking wise, she bursts into laughter that seems like it might be as likely leveled at the script as it is at her counterpart in the scene. This is the first time I've seen her play comedy, and I wasn't really impressed. Brian Aherne tries admirably to be as rude, petty and obnoxious as his British genes will allow him, managing an insane screaming rant at one point, but even that is not enough to quite balance things when Hurricane Joan takes center stage.

Crawford and Aherne put across the idea that they are attracted to one another, and yet there's no real warmth or feeling of sympathy between them. Mick LaSalle had a good post on his blog a while back about what he called the Romantic Fallacy. The idea that just because a Person A is the wrong mate, doesn't necessarily mean that Person B is the right match. In a good romantic comedy you never question the Romantic Fallacy. In a bad one, it becomes achingly clear. I would say that I Live my Life is a mediocre romantic comedy about two fiercely independent people who have nothing in common and no willingness for compromise. If these two really did get married they'd be miserable, and the audience knows it. The plot doesn't even bother to resolve these differences and in the end Joan just gives in, I guess because she's the woman and this is a post-production code world.

Though I love these two actors, I can't help but think they are probably just miscast. If it were Clark Gable and Carole Lombard we would accept the whole conceit because that was Gable and Lombard after all in real life. In a way, Gable and Lombard loom like a shadow over I Live My Life. Nobody played the spoiled heiress better than Lombard and the following year her performance in My Man Godfrey would make all other spoiled heiresses to come afterward seem like cheap imitations. She had a way of bringing sympathy to the character that Crawford can't manage. In one scene Joan keeps trying to get up from her chair and Aherne keeps pushing her back down in her seat a la Gable in A Free Soul. Apparently some of Aherne's antics were so over the top, they had to be toned down for British audiences to the point that an alternate ending was made for the film for the foreign market. Yet, later that year British Audiences would make rude, unchivalrous Robert Donat in The Thirty-Nine Steps a box office sensation.

Thank goodness for MGM's stable of character actors: Frank Morgan, Arthur Treacher, Eric Blore and Aline McMahon who provide most of the laughs. Crawford's scenes with Morgan are particularly delightful. A good supporting cast is not only essential for a good romantic comedy, but in this case, they manage to keep things reasonably afloat while the leads flounder a bit. I Live My Life is definitely worth watching as an early, though not totally successful, example of screwball comedy.

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