27 April 2005 | theowinthrop
Nice Film If You Can Catch It
In a famous essay he wrote about Charles Dickens, George Orwell points out that many readers always regretted that Dickens never continued writing like he did in PICKWICK PAPERS: that is, he did not stick to writing funny episodic novels for the rest of his career. This would not have been too difficult for Dickens. His contemporary Robert Surtees did precisely that, only concentrating on the misadventures of the fox hunting set (MR. FANCY ROMFORD'S HOUNDS is a title of one of his novels). Among hunters and horse lovers Surtees still has a following but most people find his novels unreadable. Dickens was determined to show he was more than a funny man (and don't forget, his first book, SKETCHES BY BOZ, was also a funny book). So Dickens third book is OLIVER TWIST (which got pretty grim at points). Orwell says that for any author to grow they have to change the style of their books. Dickens would definitely (and successfully) have agreed to that.
But Orwell overlooked the genre writer who transcends his fellows. Surtees, as I said, is a genre writer concentrating on hunting - but not everyone is interested in hunting. But P.G.Wodehouse saw himself as an entertainer, poking fun at the upper reaches of the British social system. His Earl of Emsworth is prouder of raising the finest pig in England than being...well Earl of Emsworth! His Psmith is always prepared to counterattack when he is supposed to be submissive to an unfair superior. His Stanley Uckridge will always have a "perfect" scheme that should net a huge profit (but always manages to come apart at the end). And best of all, his Jeeves will always put his brilliant brain to work rescuing the inept Bertie Wooster, his boss. Since Wodehouse had a limited view of his mission as a writer - he was there to do cartoon figures of fun for the entertainment of the world - his books never lost their glow. They served (and still serve) their purposes. In fact, compare Wodehouse with his far more serious contemporary Evelyn Waugh (who also wrote funny books but of a more intellectual type). The best of Waugh remains among the high points of 20th Century British literature: BRIDESHEAD REVISITED, DECLINE AND FALL, and the rest. But in his determination to make his points, if his points failed to interest the reader the book frequently collapsed. For every VILE BODIES there was some failure late in his career like THE ORDEAL OF GILBERT PINFOLD. While Wodehouse could do lesser hack work too, his falling did not go as far as Waugh's did.
Wodehouse also was a gifted lyricist (when you hear "Bill" in the score of SHOWBOAT, it is not Kern and Hammerstein's tune, but Kern and Wodehouse's tune transposed from "Oh Lady, Lady" a dozen years earlier). He was a handy dramatist too. So it is pleasing to see that he took his novel A DAMSEL IN DISTRESS and turned it into the screenplay here.
It has the normal Wodehouse touches. That perfect butler Keggs (Reginald Gardiner in a wonderful performance) is a scoundrel in rigging a "friendly" gambling game of chance among the staff of the stately home he heads. He is also unable to refrain, occasionally, from singing Italian opera - despite Constance Collier's attempts to control his impulse. This is typical Wodehouse characterization. So is the way the love affair between Lady Alyce and Jerry keeps going well and going down due to the antics of Keggs and young Albert, both of whom want to win that game of chance pot of cash. Wodehouse always does that type of plot switch, with antagonists switching their point of view depending on their present state of interest.
Wodehouse was also lucky here to have Burns and Allan to work with. It is generally considered that of all the films they made as supporting actors together (such as SIX OF A KIND and WE'RE NOT DRESSING) George and Gracie did their best support with Fred Astaire. The Fun House sequence, which includes the song "Stiff Upper Lip", is wonderful, as is an earlier sequence where the three do a "whisk broom" dance (that Astaire learned from Burns). But Gracie's marvelous illogical logic is used by Wodehouse in scenes with Gardiner (see how she manages to confuse him into giving her more money than her change deserves to be - only Albert happens to notice Keggs/Gardiner's mistake, and looks at Gardiner as though he's either stupid or mad). Her dialog with Lady Caroline (Collier)'s son Reggie (Ray Noble, the British band leader)leading him to imagine that he will marry her, but saying goodbye to Gracie as she drives off with George to get married is wonderful too.
The film supposedly failed at the box office because of the lack of Ginger Rogers in it, and the weakness of Joan Fontaine. Fontaine is not doing a remarkable job in the role, but the flaw is really Wodehouse's - he didn't make the character very interesting. But the film can stand without that, given the other performers and their characters, Gershwin's music, and Wodehouse's marvelous sense of fun.