Monday, June 2, 2008

Casanova Brown (1944)

“Casanova Brown” (1944) gives us a re-teaming up of Gary Cooper and Teresa Wright after their successful “Pride of the Yankees” (1942), in which both had been nominated for the Academy Award as Best Actor and Best Actress. It’s a classic case of looking for another hit by going back to the well, except that “Casanova Brown” and their characters are worlds apart from “Pride of the Yankees.”

It’s an uneven comedy, but with moments of sublime laugh-out-loud ridiculousness that make up for the potholes in the plot. Gary Cooper is a university professor who travels to New York in hopes of publishing his manuscript on his rogue ancestor, the original Casanova. No luck on getting published, but he does meet college girl Teresa Wright and marries her. This is told in a flashback as he is about to prepare for his second marriage.

The first marriage to Miss Wright did not work out from the moment he inadvertently burns down her parent’s mansion. It is a great scene where the gag begins slowly and then builds to an incredulous degree. Miss Wright’s parents, played by the terrific Patricia Collinge (see this previous blog entry on Collinge) and Edmund Breon, are eccentric types. He is stuffy and proper, and she is obsessed by astrology. When Cooper is told mother does not like smokers, he puts his cigarette out in his hand, stuffs it in his handkerchief, and forgets about it. So do we, until a one object after another in their beautiful home catches fire.

It looks like it might have been a dangerous scene to film, with angry flames lapping at the walls and the furniture, and the principle actors running around it all. Finally we are shown the charred remnants of the mansion smoking in the distance, while they, and the servants, are sitting in the street. Mr. Breon explodes, saying he wants to kill Cooper, and if he had a gun he’d shoot him. The chauffer instantly pulls a gun from his pocket. This, and a few other scenes in the film have a kind of “Monty Python” flare to them.

The wedding is annulled, partly because of her parents’ disgust with a son-in-law who burns them out of their home, and partly because we are told Miss Wright is not of age.

Later, when Mr. Cooper is about to embark on a second marriage, he receives word that a child was born of his first marriage, and is about to be put up for adoption. He rushes to kidnap the baby. Cooper, as good as anyone in Hollywood at comedy, has a wonderful dramatic way of doing it. He is not a clown. He is an actor, and he draws sympathy from us by the transparency of his feelings. One scene which illustrates this way he has of being both poignant and funny at the same time is when, hiding in a hotel room with his baby daughter, he sees that she is gaining weight on the formula he is feeding her. Most parents would regard this as a good sign, but being a neophyte, he is afraid she might have a glandular condition.

Desperately he tells the sleeping child, “Daddy is always going to be with you, and Daddy’s always going to love you. No matter how big you get.” He is near tears, and we laugh at the “awwww” moment.

Likewise, we laugh his seriousness in describing to the hotel chambermaid, his new accomplice, played by Mary Treen, how the baby took her bottle and then “threw up.”

Sneaking the baby and the baby paraphernalia past the hotel manager is not easy, and when the manager misunderstands, thinking Cooper wants to bring a goat into the hotel as a pet, he anxiously exclaims, “Get yourself a goldfish. No trouble at all, and they die overnight.”

Such great lines are tossed lightly through a plot that is half screwball comedy and half social commentary. Cooper gets to make some interesting remarks on a father’s rights and ability to raise a child himself, which predates “Kramer vs. Kramer” (1979) by decades. Cooper had creative control of this film, and particularly wanted Teresa Wright for his co-star, though the film gives her little to do. She brings her trademark warmth and ingénue innocence to the role, but she is there mainly to react to the oddball actions of others.

Anita Louise, who plays the prospective second bride starts out strongly in the film, and then is dropped altogether. The film really belongs to Frank Morgan, who plays her curmudgeonly father. He gets the most audacious and wickedly funny lines, and delivers them like d’Artagnan wielding a rapier. He is Cooper’s pal, and refers to his own daughter as a “revolting female.” When Cooper asks for his daughter’s hand in marriage, Mr. Morgan replies, “Are you out of your mind?”

The most sensible person in the film is Jill Esmond as the obstetrician who delivers his daughter, and who was supposed to oversee the adoption until we have our happy ending and the natural parents decide the keep the baby and each other. It is heartening to see a female physician played with intelligence and warmth, with no hint of her being a less feminine because she is a scientist or less a doctor because she is female.

It is a film where the laughs come at moments that are delightfully unexpected, where innuendo is witty, and Morgan’s rudeness is sometimes more entertaining than a tangled plot.

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