December 15, 2009
Twitter has its uses, including its function as cinephilic program guide. I follow an eccentric crew of film writers and scholars on the service, and often something like the following will pop up: “DVR alert: TCM, 10:15 am Eastern, Men Are Such Fools” rare Busby Berkeley, 1938, non-musical, w/Bogart; never seen it.” This was posted by The New Yorker’s film editor, Richard Brody, under his handle @tnyfrontrow (I go by @r_emmet). Noting that the film was starting in minutes, I dialed up my unnaturally understanding wife, who heroically hit the record button on this esoteric nugget with seconds to spare. If you read the right people, you’ll get a handful of idiosyncratic tips like this each day, a kind of TV Guide poetry to go along with links to their writing and other pieces they admire. There’s also plenty of pointless chatter (dinner plans, puns, and hyperbolic opinionating), but those are easy enough to filter out with an impassive unfollow click. Some essential feeds to read: MoviesOnTCM, The Auteurs Daily, David Lynch, and Indiewire. They’re a good place to start anyhow, and then you can radiate out out from there, depending on your tastes.
Men Are Such Fools is more of a curiosity than anything else – as Brody noted, it has a small Bogart appearance in one of Berkeley’s rare non-musical films. The central drama is dry and unconvincing. Warner Brothers was trying to push Priscilla Lane and Wayne Morris as romantic leads, having paired them earlier in the year in Love, Honor and Behave, in which Morris played a milquetoast husband tested by Lane’s more assertive wife. The Warner publicity team cooked up a romance between the two, filming them at nightspots to build any kind of buzz (this according to Daniel Bubbeo’s The Women of Warner Brothers). The two dated briefly, but the flirtation didn’t last long.
Wanting to push them quickly, they paired them with Berkeley in this adaptation of a Faith Baldwin story, who was eager to show off his skill set outside of the musical: “I wanted to prove,” he later said, “that I could handle a straight dramatic assignment…, and that is why I did films like Comet Over Broadway, They Made Me a Criminal , Fast and Furious , and Men are Such Fools. I had done dramatic work during my period of working on the stage back east and knew that I could do a good job with dramatic or comedy films.” (Bob Pike and Dave Martin, The Genius of Busby Berkeley, quoted in Jeremy Arnold’s article for TCM) Motivated or not, Men Are Such Fools looks like a job for hire. It’s a blandly put together bit of drama that sings for seconds at a time due to a fine roster of supporting players.
Lane is an appealing performer, with flickers of aggression animating her bright eyes and sweet demeanor. She’s an ambitious secretary at an advertising agency, bucking for a promotion on the lucrative fruit extract deal while her suitor, Morris, is an overbearing goon with a monstrous inferiority complex. A fraternity dolt with too much time on his hands, Morris browbeats Lane into marriage with a charming combination of physical intimidation and boyish whining. There was not much appealing to the the character as written, but Morris’ plasticine features and gangly athlete’s body emphasize its most retrograde aspects, as he looms over her with goofy intimidation tactics that come damn near spousal abuse. But Lane convincingly grins her way through it – as if she was enduring it for a secret plan of her own. Not that she is innocent – for Lane clearly is a careerist, flirting her way to snag the extract account and into the upper echelon of the company. But how this aggressive, selfish, and likeable loner could fall for a mouth-breather like Morris’ character strains credulity.
But while this romance generally rankles, there are some side players that lifted it out of the normal run of B-movie fodder. First and foremost is Mona Barrie, who slinks her way into the role of Bea Harris, an acid-tongued copywriter who aids Lane on her way to the top. She looks at the world with her eyebrow askance and poison pen at the ready like a dimestore Dorothy Parker. She leans into her bon mots with delectation, savoring each insult like she was sucking on a Jacques Torres caramel. Before she tells Lane that “all men are polygamists”, she speaks of her past as a battered wife and then lonely divorcee with an offhand cynicism that is breathtaking. She built herself up from nothing into a management position and she dashes it off like another puff of her cigarette. It’s a lovely, layered performance that adds a whip-smart intelligence to the film, for the few minutes she’s in it.
The second sterling turn here is contributed by Bogart, who has the unforgiving role as the other man to the Morris-Lane couple. Tagged as a womanizing entertainment tycoon type, he swoops in with a disarming honesty, “I’m probably a cad. Are you by any chance a weak woman?”, and ends up winning the audience over, if not Lane, by tipping into love with his enigmatic employee. He’s intended to be a bit of a bastard, but he’s clearly a more interesting, and oddly warmhearted cad than Morris’ overgrown man-child. Bogart knew he deserved larger roles, and Berkeley concurred:
“Bogie was never any trouble to me at all,” recalled Berkeley. “He felt, and I agreed with him, that he should be working in better films, but whatever discontent he felt, he took out on the bosses, not on the people he was working with. As far as I know, he never refused to play a part. His credo was to keep working, and I agreed with him on that point, too.” (Tony Thomas, The Busby Berkeley Book, quoted by Arnold)
Without an impulsive tweet, I wouldn’t have been able to add these distinctive performances to my own character actor pantheon. Now I’ll be able to track Mona Barrie wherever she pops up on the TCM schedule. Let me know if any of you have further recommendations for films with Ms. Barrie, as I’m developing a furtive crush.