Digges! Pack the bags!
We are starting my month-long Warner Archive watch-a-thon (OK, I made that word up) with a film that I had never heard of before, but one that once I knew the cast I had to see! What could be bad about a screwball comedy starring Leslie Howard, Bette Davis, and Olivia de Havilland? Answer; not a thing.
Basil Underwood (Leslie Howard) is a famed stage actor who is currently starring in ROMEO AND JUILET with his love, Joyce Arden (Bette Davis). Unfortunately, this Romeo and Juliet would rather whisper insults and threats to each other rather than sweet nothings. Up in the balcony, unaware of the sniping below, Marcia West(Olivia de Havilland) is swooning over Basil much to the dismay of her fiancé, Henry Grant (Patric Knowles). Once Romeo dies the show is over for Marcia, who quickly leaves the private box to wait outside. Joyce and Basil continue to spit fire at each other until the very end, and continue to argue during the curtain calls. Back in their respective dressing rooms, each complains to their assistants about the others. Basil’s long-suffering valet, Digges (Eric Blore), has heard it all before and is not surprised when the talk of hate soon turns again to love. In spite of everything, Joyce and Basil truly do love each other. Basil is interrupted by the arrival of a guest to his dressing room. Marcia has snuck back in order to tell him how ardently she admires him and that he is her ideal man. Having delivered her message, she promptly leaves again. Basil is flattered and is now in a better mood and he begins to consider himself as a person. What has he done of note, what has he given back? Digges reminds him that most of his so-called charitable works were more self-serving than he would care to admit. Basil dismisses this line of thought and returns to Joyce. Joyce, for her part, has decided that she is through with Basil but after he climbs through her window to ultimately wish her a Happy New Year the two reconcile. In fact they decide, for about the twelfth time, to be married that very evening. Their happy plans are again interrupted by the arrival of a visitor to Basil’s dressing room. This time it is Marcia’s fiance Henry, who has come to inform Basil that Marcia is in love with him and he should leave her be. Basil recalls a play that he once did in which he acted a cad to make a woman fall out of love with him and Henry strikes upon an idea. Perhaps Basil could re-enact that play with Marcia and cause her to fall in love with Henry again! Though reluctant at first, Basil sees a chance to do a selfless act and soon agrees. The only problem is that they would have to leave for Marcia’s house at once, and that will mean postponing the wedding to Joyce yet again.
Joyce is less than pleased with Basil’s sudden change of plans, and since he won’t reveal his true reasons for doing so, believes that he no longer wants to marry her. Well, two can play that game! She declares that she would never marry Basil now and storms off, leaving Basil and Digges to drive to Marcia’s estate for a house party. Upon their arrival, Digges and Basil set about making themselves at home as the two most disagreeable and annoying house guests ever. The other party members roused from their beds are bleary eyed and confused, but Marcia’s father is seeing red. He angrily orders that the two leave the house and demands to know who invited them there! Basil claims that Marcia did, assuming that she will deny the inference and send them on their way, but Marcia is only too happy to oblige in keeping up the ruse. She is beyond thrilled to have Basil in her home and Digges is instructed to unpack the bags, as this plan is going to take longer than anticipated. The next morning over breakfast, Basil is introduced to the other guests and sets about making a bore of himself. He demands kippers when there are none, insults the guests, recites Shakespeare, and finally storms out of the dining room. Marcia’s family are shocked and demand that this rude man is sent away, but Marcia steps up and reprimands them. What are manners, she asks, but little rules for little people! Of course Basil is rude, he is a great star and is too big for such constraints as manners!
Basil continues his reign of terror over the household, even going so far as to insult Marcia’s beauty marks or “moles” which he suggests she removes. There are two problems with Basil’s plan to make Marcia hate him however. First, Marcia does not hate him and seems to fall more and more in love with him the more awful he is to her. And second, Basil is starting to enjoy her attentions much to the concern of Digges who by this time has packed and unpacked the bags so many times he knows the contents by heart. He takes it upon himself to call the only person who can help Basil at a time like this, his true love Joyce. That afternoon Basil and Marcia are taking a stroll in the garden when things become much more cozy. Basil resists for a time but then finally gives in to his desires, and it is at this moment that Joyce appears. Both Basil and Marcia are shocked, though Basil is secretly thrilled that Joyce has come to help him, but they are further surprised when Joyce introduces herself as Basil’s wife!
This is such a fun screwball comedy, I am surprised it is not more well-known! Leslie Howard is terrific and it is fun seeing him play a more caddish role, I am so used to seeing him as a quiet gentleman. He and Bette Davis, reunited from THE PETRIFIED FOREST, are terrific together and their scenes as Romeo and Juliet are a highlight! Olivia de Havilland is still a year away from THE ADVENTURES OF ROBIN HOOD but you can already see what a terrific actress she is. She is also great at the comedy, playing the eager fangirl with a gleeful attitude. Two years in the future she and Leslie Howard would be reunited in GONE WITH THE WIND, and this would be the first of four films that she and Bette Davis would star in together. In watching this you can see the chemistry of all three leads working together to make this a really standout film. But for me, the one who really steals the show is Eric Blore. His character of Digges is the comedic glue holding the whole thing together. The scenes between him and Basil are some of the best in the entire film. In fact, I almost wish that there was an entire series of movies about the mis-adventures of Basil and Digges. There is something of Jeeves and Wooster in them and I loved every moment they were onscreen.
This is a great film from the Warner Archive and I highly recommend it! It has moments that are reminiscent of TWENTIETH CENTURY, and others that seem to have influenced TO BE OR NOT TO BE. While this is not a new story, especially for a screwball comedy, it is done with such wit and skill that it never feels stale or overdone. If you get a chance to see this film don’t miss it! Just remember to get Digges to unpack the bags first!