Thursday, April 3, 2014

Once More, My Darling - 1949

Once More, My Darling (1949) is one of the funniest comedies of the era, and one of the most charming ever made.  I’m not sure why it’s not more well known because it deserves to be lumped with the greats, especially in the madcap heiress genre.  Perhaps because it is so deliciously offbeat, it requires, just as Robert Montgomery discovers, you have to accept certain things at face value.  Its humor is more gentle and subtle than broad, a kind of hybrid between the screwball comedies of the 1930s and a more wry, introspective humor.
The title comes from the speech star (and director) Robert Montgomery delivers on set as a struggling movie actor. 
It’s a funny scene, where he has trouble proclaiming his love to thin air, so the director gets him a body to talk to—a bored and uncomfortable movie grip played by Jack Overman.  Mr. Montgomery looks equally uncomfortable with this situation, but he plods ahead proclaiming his love to Mr. Overman, who is deeply affected.

Montgomery is actually a lawyer, from a noted family of lawyers, but is bored with the work and, now that the war is over (where he served in the Army in Europe as an investigations officer in the military police), he wants to pursue a fanciful dream of acting.  He is smart, savvy, a bit of a ladies’ man who doesn’t want to be tied down to anything—not a wife, not his family’s law practice, and not the Army.  Unfortunately for him, he’s still considered Reserve status, and is called back to uniform to help in the investigation of a jewel theft that happened late in the war.
When he is called into the colonel’s office, he firmly responds, “I will not go in without my mother.”
He immediately attracts the attention of everyone in the office.  His mother, standing with dignity beside him, is played by theatre great Jane Cowl.  She is an even better lawyer than Montgomery is, and he wants her there as his attorney to get him out of the army.  She doesn’t do it though, because she really wants him to give up this silly acting hobby, get married, and join the law firm.
The case to which Mr. Montgomery is assigned involves Ann Blyth, who plays the daughter of a wealthy American industrialist who spends his time between the US and South America.  The jewel thief, like a lot of shady characters in the post-war years, left Europe for South America, met Ann and attempted to woo her with the stolen jewels.  She is innocent about the heist, but she has publically worn the jewels, notably in a magazine advertisement for perfume she did as a lark.  The government wants Robert Montgomery to woo Miss Blyth himself to flush the jealous bad guy out of hiding so they can nab him.
It’s a simple plot that is carried along with effervescent silliness and beguiling charm.  Robert Montgomery smoothly straddles the savvy and in-control aspects of his character—and helplessly rides the crest of the completely goofy and out-of-control situations in which he finds himself.  He is not entirely a calculating straight man, like, say, Gregory Peck in RomanHoliday (1953), but not entirely a vulnerable and befuddled guy like Cary Grant in Bringing Up Baby (1938) who sometimes seems like a sap Katharine Hepburn culled from the herd for amusement.  Montgomery is more mature and adapts to the moment like the kind of good improvisational actor his character yearns to be.
Here Mr. Montgomery plays out the split personality of his character—a capable man able to think on his feet, but also a “romantic dreamer” as Ann Blyth calls him, who prefers dressing in costumes and acting, to a dull law practice.
Ann Blyth, in the role of the heiress he pursues, also has a duality about her character.  She is sure of herself, bursting with a courageous curiosity about the world, and yet utterly naïve.  I love how she plays this socially dysfunctional character, how she speaks and how she moves.  She leans into people, someone who has no concept of “personal space,” and has a slightly nearsighted squint as she navigates conversations, studying the faces of people to whom she speaks like someone who cannot read expressions 
Unlike Hepburn’s rapid-fire take-charge prattle in Bringing Up Baby, Ann enunciates her words carefully in a manner which illustrates perfectly the kind of young woman this is: someone who, having spent many years bouncing between North and South America probably learned English and Spanish together so that neither is her first language or her second language.  Her speech is formal, sounding as if she’s gleaned much of it from 19th century novels, sprinkled with bits of odd-sounding modern slang she’s probably picked up in off moments from the radio.  She’s likely spent the bulk of her lonely life in the charge of tutors.
She is socially awkward, but lacking shyness, charges into social situations like an excited child discovering new friends at kindergarten, and is completely oblivious to what an oddball she seems to others.  This is consistently hysterical, but also I think rather poignant.  She has no siblings, no friends, and has been sheltered in the care of a dismissive father.
He is played by Taylor Holmes, a veteran movie character actor since the silents of the ‘teens, when he wasn’t on Broadway.  Somewhat of an eccentric himself, her father has lately taken to dressing like his hero, Winston Churchill, and has taken up painting to emulate him.  When Robert Montgomery approaches Mr. Holmes for permission to get to know Ann, and accidently knocks over his easel, Holmes launches into a furious tirade in Spanish.  Ann and her father speak Spanish back and forth, she trying to appease him, flinching at his rage.  When Mr. Montgomery requests a translation, Ann replies, “My father wants to beat you up.”
Catch the reference to the pollsters’ recent infamous mistake on the Truman-Dewey election.
Their chauffer, played by my favorite gravely-voiced guy, Charles McGraw, is an ex-boxer, also very protective of Ann, whom he calls by her nickname: “Killer.”  She is an excellent tennis player, and proudly wears a short-sleeved sweatshirt with the name Killer on the front some vanquished opponents gave her because she has a killer forehand.
In her tennis duds is where she first meets Robert Montgomery, and with her hair tucked under her cap, sunglasses, and Killer across her chest, and he at first doesn’t realize this is his quarry.   She doesn’t look at all like the glamorous debutante photo in the perfume advertisement he was given back in the Colonel’s office, in which she wore an evening gown, with a jeweled pendant—one of the stolen jewels—glinting on her cleavage, and on which Montgomery blissfully concentrates when he is shown the ad. 
She was given gallons of the perfume for doing the ad, which she uses liberally ("I practically swim in the stuff") and there is a running gag about the strong scent.
So Montgomery does not recognize her when he first meets her in this tennis getup, but she is drawn to him immediately.  When she remarks, “I’m sorry there isn’t a puddle so I could take something off and spread it for you to walk on,” we might first think she is being sarcastic, as he does.  Very soon, however, it becomes apparent that this is the love-talk of somebody who doesn’t know how strange she sounds.
Some favorite moments in the film:  When Robert Montgomery, unwillingly, brings Ann home to meet his mother on the night his mother is hosting a party at home for some influential friends. 
Ann is clearly the oddball in this scene, and sweetly, and painfully, doesn’t know it.  She eagerly pounces on Jane Cowl, expressing her love for Mother Cowl’s boy Robert.  She announces that she intends to do "the right thing" by Robert and marry him, pleading that Jane be a mother to her, too, since she never had a mother.  Jane Cowl looks at her like she's got two heads.

I love when Ann, kneeling on the ottoman before Jane Cowl, sits back on her heels a moment and considers the company in the room, momentarily breathless, with a slight, self-satisfied wiggle, like kids do when they’re pleased.
The well-heeled society ladies and gents are astounded and don’t know what to make of her, but are clearly entertained, and all react comically to her strong perfume.  I love when the wallflower daughter of one them, a brainiac, played by Dee J. Thompson, Mother Cowl has been trying to set Robert up with, stands upon being introduced to Ann, and she towers over her, booming a basso profundo “How do you?”
Ann, the daughter of a wealthy and influential industrialist, is socially equal to everybody in the room, and probably wealthier than all of them put together, but her ignorance on how to fit in puts her at a disadvantage.
The only one she connects with is Mamie, the maid, wonderfully played by Lillian Randolph.  Miss Randolph has a stronger role in this film than most domestics, and not stereotyped.  She has a personality of her own, and is clearly amused and delighted with Ann.  She seems to be the only one who is not repelled by her perfume. 
It’s another telling aspect of Ann’s character that, rather than dismiss a servant without a second look as would most young ladies of her class, she befriends Mamie instantly upon meeting her, telling her a long, involved story about how she came to wear pajamas this evening in order to sneak out of the house.  Ann is a girl whose closest friend is her father’s chauffeur and doesn’t know the difference between the status of the maid and the lady of the house.
I love Montgomery’s discomfort through the party scene and his rising sense of panic: “I may start laughing and crying at the same time.”  As much as I admire Robert Montgomery’s dramatic roles, especially in Night Must Fall (1937) which we discussed here, he really was terrific at comedy, especially in a situation like this where he is a kind of victim.
Another marvelous aspect to the party scene is Ann Blyth’s skillful command of it, how she is the engine that drives the scene, and how strong she is against the veteran actors. 
Another favorite moment is her proposal of marriage to Montgomery in the restaurant.  At this point, we see clearly that she is wooing him, not subtly with coy, inviting feminine wiles, but boldly, probably much in the same manner she has read of the speech and actions of ardent lovers in books, of heroes wooing maidens, of the way the few men who have had access to her, like the jewel thief, have attempted to woo her, grandly and with flourish.  Her lovemaking is necessarily bluntly masculine because she hasn’t the sophistication to lure him any other way.
In this manner does she woo Robert Montgomery, regretting that she cannot give him a scene of orange blossoms like he deserves.  It’s spectacularly silly, and yet somehow touching that she apologizes that the force of her passion and her impatience to marry immediately that denies him, “a big church wedding with your mother and all your friends there.”
He stumbles for an appropriate response, stalling, “Well, yes, it is the most important day in a man’s life.  He gets to wear a cutaway and striped trousers, and then there are the presents…”
Montgomery’s reaction is in keeping with both his mission—to carry on a public romance with her and flush out the jewel thief—and his nature, to be a good actor.  So he goes with the flow on what seems to be an incredible inprov scene dropped in his lap and plays “blushing bride” to her ardent groom behavior.  "You've won me, Killer."
This culminates on a long drive to a wedding chapel in Vegas.  He drives slowly, trying to drag out the miles, hoping everybody from the jewel thief, to the Army, to his mother, to her father will catch up with them before he has to really marry this fruitcake.  She senses his growing anxiety.  Like any thoughtful and concerned groom, she gently asks him if he is nervous about the wedding night.
He responds, “Well, a little maybe.  No more than the average man, I guess.”
She delicately tries to reassure him, as if he were a virgin in a 19th century English novel about to faint in the clutches of a highwayman, “There’s nothing to be afraid of, dear.  I’ll be awfully gentle and tender.”
He shoots her an incredulous look, this devil-may-care bachelor having lost all control of the situation.
We are brought to a kind of Marx Brothers ending in a cheap motel bungalow, and then the final scene moves us to a posh hotel and gambling casino where, curtain call style, we encounter all of the characters one more time as Robert Montgomery searches out Ann Blyth to apologize. 
She is angry and hurt that their “romance” was nothing more than a military mission, but he succeeds in truly winning her at last with his old standby, his “Once more, my darling” movie speech.  Just like the grip at the beginning of the film, she is deeply moved, and he is rewarded by resounding applause by the cast.  It’s an off-beat ending, a romantic comedy that is more comedy than romance, but we have the feeling that these two, so deep in their own fantasies, are probably made for each other.
Another aspect to this film I love is the score by Elizabeth Firestone, a breezy, melodic refrain that I’m surprised was never developed into a popular song.  According to the IMDb site, this film is the first to be scored entirely by a woman.  Daughter of the Firestone tire magnate, Elizabeth Firestone, I believe, worked on the scores of only a couple other movies.
Jane Cowl spent the bulk of her impressive career in heavily dramatic roles on stage.  She died only the year after this movie was made, and came to Hollywood with trepidation.  It was her first movie role in 32 years since she took a brief stab at the silents.  In a New York Times article of May 1949, Miss Cowl confessed that working on this movie was “a terrifying experience.”  Arriving at 5:00 a.m. for makeup to arrive on set at 7:15, “she was as panicky and bewildered as a neophyte."
“'In those opening shots…I found myself almost helplessly clinging to Mr. Montgomery; to such an extent, in fact, that I actually upstaged him.  Luckily he was most kind and understanding.  Those being his scenes, he would gently take me by the wrist and put me where I belonged.  Finally, I told him, ‘If you catch me doing that again, just slap me down.’
“On the second day, still unable to adjust herself to such unfamiliar instructions as: Toe that mark; don’t look too much to the left; don’t look too much to the right—but be perfectly natural, Miss Cowl gave what she described as a ‘wild bleat’ and desperately announced she was taking the first train to New York.  But the next morning, however, she had recovered her accustomed poise…”
After One More, My Darling, Ann would move on to another comedy, Free for All, which we’ll discuss down the road.  That is a weaker film, and surprisingly, has a much weaker role for Ann as a straight-man to Bob Cummings, considering what a fine flare for comedy she exhibits in Once More, My Darling.  There seemed to be an inconsistency in the quality of scripts she was getting from Universal.  She was twenty years old when did this film, already her film career had covered a wide range of roles and genres, even if it was hit-or-miss, and she would continue to play roles roughly around her actual age, and, as far as the script allowed, she was able to display her splendid versatility.  Regina in Another Part of the Forest (1948), which we covered here, is about the same age as Killer Connell, but they could not be more different than night and day. 
I do not believe Once More, My Darling is currently available in DVD, but I hope someone will correct me.  You can find it on YouTube, at least for now.  Two years later, in January 1951, she reprised the role on radio in the Lux Radio Theater, playing opposite Van Heflin. I like him in the role, and he probably would have been great in the movie, but the radio version is not as silly a romp as the movie, partly because it is necessarily abbreviated, and partly because so much of the movie relies on physical comedy.  You can have a listen here at the Internet Archive website.  Just scroll down to the episode.
Come back next Thursday when we jump to 1963, when Ann appeared as a guest in the new TV drama series about New York City reporters, Saints and Sinners, in an episode with the teasingly tongue-in-cheek title, “The Year Joan Crawford Won the Oscar.” 

The New York Times, article by J. D. Spiro, May 15, 1949, p. X5.

UPDATE:  This series on Ann Blyth is now a book - ANN BLYTH: ACTRESS. SINGER. STAR. -

The audio book for Ann Blyth: Actress. Singer. Star. is now for sale on, and on Amazon and iTunes.

Also in paperback and eBook from Amazon, CreateSpace, and my Etsy shop: LynchTwinsPublishing.

 "Lynch’s book is organized and well-written – and has plenty of amusing observations – but when it comes to describing Blyth’s movies, Lynch’s writing sparkles." - Ruth Kerr, Silver Screenings

"Jacqueline T. Lynch creates a poignant and thoroughly-researched mosaic of memories of a fine, upstanding human being who also happens to be a legendary entertainer." - Deborah Thomas, Java's Journey

"One of the great strengths of Ann Blyth: Actress. Singer. Star. is that Lynch not only gives an excellent overview of Blyth's career -- she offers detailed analyses of each of Blyth's roles -- but she puts them in the context of the larger issues of the day."- Amanda Garrett, Old Hollywood Films

"Jacqueline's book will hopefully cause many more people to take a look at this multitalented woman whose career encompassed just about every possible aspect of 20th Century entertainment." - Laura Grieve, Laura's Miscellaneous Musings''

"Jacqueline T. Lynch’s Ann Blyth: Actress. Singer. Star. is an extremely well researched undertaking that is a must for all Blyth fans." - Annette Bochenek, Hometowns to Hollywood

Ann Blyth: Actress. Singer. Star. 
by Jacqueline T. Lynch

The first book on the career of actress Ann Blyth. Multitalented and remarkably versatile, Blyth began on radio as a child, appeared on Broadway at the age of twelve in Lillian Hellman's Watch on the Rhine, and enjoyed a long and diverse career in films, theatre, television, and concerts. A sensitive dramatic actress, the youngest at the time to be nominated for her role in Mildred Pierce (1945), she also displayed a gift for comedy, and was especially endeared to fans for her expressive and exquisite lyric soprano, which was showcased in many film and stage musicals. Still a popular guest at film festivals, lovely Ms. Blyth remains a treasure of the Hollywood's golden age.

The eBook and paperback are available from Amazon and CreateSpace, which is the printer.  You can also order it from my Etsy shop. 

If you wish a signed copy, then email me at and I'll get back to you with the details.


Page said...

You didn't miss one thing that made this film so much fun. Especially the car scene which had me in hysterics so thanks for capturing that look on RMs face. Priceless!
Also glad Lillian got her due. I agree that she was allowed to shine, not being just another background character dressed as a maid.

You wrote: "Cary Grant in Bringing Up Baby (1938) who sometimes seems like a sap Katharine Hepburn culled from the herd for amusement." HEY, NOW! lol As much as I love Cary and it is my favorite comedy I got a good laugh.

Your reviews are quite entertaining, Jacqueline and so beautifully written. If anyone hasn't seen Once More, My Darling I know this write up will have them looking for this little gem. It holds up well and is one of the best of the genre during the 40s.

Almost forgot, you bring up the back and forth with Ann's character and her languages, trying to tackle languages. Just more examples of why she easily held her own with the best actors of comedy.
See you for the next Ann vehicle.

Jacqueline T. Lynch said...

Thanks so much, Page. I'm so glad to hear from somebody who's seen this movie and loves it as much as I do. I hope if enough of us yell loud enough, we'll get a new DVD release.

I like how you mention Ann's facility with language. That's a facet of her talent that amazes me and I think is too little discussed.

I like "Bringing Up Baby" too.

Caftan Woman said...

This sounds like a real charmer. I love your analysis of Ann's performance. Thanks for reminding me that I haven't spent any time with Bob Montgomery in a while. Silly me.

Jacqueline T. Lynch said...

I think you'll get a kick out of Bob Montgomery in this one, and I'd love to hear your take on it. It is indeed a charmer. There are so many more little moments I left out, but you'll enjoy discovering them.

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