7 November 2003 | F Gwynplaine MacIntyre
Too right: no funny business
Gertrude Lawrence was a vitally important stage actress of the 1930s, who is now largely forgotten because her film career was negligible. Like some other stage performers of the same era (such as Fanny Brice and George M. Cohan), 'Gertie' Lawrence is now primarily known because of a film *about* her, in which she is played by someone else: in Lawrence's case this was 'Star!', a big-budget musical featuring Julie Andrews in a bowdlerised version of Gertrude Lawrence's life and career. 'Star!' was a mess for many reasons, not least for its witless decision to omit any depiction of Julie Andrews in Gertrude Lawrence's greatest and most famous role, as Anna in 'The King and I'. In fact, 'Star!' utterly omits any mention of Gertrude Lawrence's film career ... except for a brief shot in a montage sequence when Andrews is seen wearing a replica of the costume Lawrence wore in 'Rembrandt'.
'No Funny Business', with its unfortunate title, is a very slight comedy of manners. Gertrude Lawrence and the very dull and stolid Edmund Breon play Yvonne and Edward Lane, a long-married couple who have become bored with each other. (Not very promising premise, this.) Each one wants a divorce, but they cannot obtain one unless they can prove infidelity. (I'm not certain if this plot point was legally correct in the 1930s, but let's assume that it was and we'll see where this mess takes us.) Without telling each other, Yvonne and Edward separately decide to engage the services of a professional co-respondent, who will contrive an incident suggesting marital infidelity. In our modern enlightened era of no-fault divorce, professional co-respondents are now a rarity. If you want to know more about professional co-respondents, or how they did business, or why, have a look at the character played by Erik Rhodes in the Fred Astaire-Ginger Rogers movie 'The Gay Divorcee' ... which is a much better movie than 'No Funny Business', and also more plausible.
Edward engages the services of Anne, a bright young thing who is hired to meet him in a public place and start an incident which will suggest infidelity. Yvonne does much the same with Clive, a male co-respondent who will ditto. Anne is played by Jill Esmond, an attractive and talented young actress who would do better work elsewhere. But here's the most interesting part: Clive is played by the young Laurence Olivier. At this early point in his career, Olivier had an offstage reputation for giggling nervously onstage ... but in this movie, he hadn't much to giggle about.
Still with me? Mr and Mrs Lane contrive to hire their co-respondents without meeting them in person first. So, Anne agrees to meet and flirt with Edward without having any prior idea of what he looks like. Ditto, Clive agrees to meet and flirt with Yvonne under the same circumstances. You can guess what happens: Clive and Anne rendezvous in the same place. Each one assumes that the other is his/her respective client, and complications ensue. Not half!
This 'farce' is not funny. Laurence and Lawrence had worked together before, as newlyweds in Noel Coward's 'Private Lives', but here they show little chemistry in their scenes together. Worse luck, Laurence Olivier and Jill Esmond were (in real life) husband and wife at the time they made this film, yet they show no chemistry together whatever. Muriel Aked, a tiny bird-like character actress with a great vast beak of a nose, is wasted here in a poorly-written role. The blame for the script should go largely to Frank Vosper, a character actor who (a few years after this film was made) mysteriously vanished from an ocean liner at sea. His body was never found, and nobody knows if Vosper's death was down to murder, suicide or accident. I wonder if this movie flashed before his eyes just before he went over the starboard gunwale.
This movie is aptly titled: no funny business, indeed. I'd like to rate this movie zero points, but Gertrude Lawrence (like George M. Cohan) was an extremely important stage performer whose film roles are so rare that (again, like Cohan's) any film footage in which she appears, no matter how awful, has historical significance. For that reason alone, I'll rate 'No Funny Business' 2 points out of 10.