Watching With Warner: NO TIME FOR COMEDY (1940)

Rosalind Russell and James Stewart might not be the first names that come to mind when you think couple in romantic comedy, but surprisingly in NO TIME FOR COMEDY from Warner Archive, they create a dynamic couple with wit and earnest emotion.

In the great theater scene of New York City a new playwright is creating quite a stir.  Hailing from Redfield, Minnesota (which boasts a population of 786, including the livestock), Gaylord Easterbrook (James Stewart) has written a new play full of high society comedy.  Unfortunately for him no one believes that he is the man who came up with drawing room escapades about chocolate mousse, especially since he has never been to New York City before.  His play is being staged but there are issues and re-writes are needed which brings Gaylord to the bright lights of the New York City theater section by way of the Grand Canyon.  Once there he makes the acquaintance of the leading lady in the play, Linda Paige (Rosalind Russell).  Initially mistaking him for an usher, Linda soon takes pity on the less than street savvy Esterbrook and shows him around the city.

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Later that evening Linda, Esterbrook, director Morgan Carrel (Allyn Joslyn), and producer Richard Benson gather for dinner at Benson’s apartment.  While the group eats and discusses the play, Benson’s butler is spending his time reading the script in the kitchen.  Carrel is in a sour mood and takes this opportunity to make fun of Esterbrook, his upbringing, and his play.  Esterbrook doesn’t take this lying down and once Carrel apologizes, sort of, he heads out to the terrace to get some air. Linda follows him as the butler enters the room.  While Linda and Esterbrook are getting to know each other, Benson’s butler gives his boss the sad news that he just doesn’t think that the play will be a hit.  With this new information, Benson decides to stop producing the play all together.  Linda is shocked at this turn of events and devises a way to keep the play going, despite the lack of pay and a producer, and give Esterbrook the opening he has worked so hard for.

The play is a great success and Linda and Esterbrook stay up all night in Central Park waiting for the morning papers.  The reviews are glowing and soon Linda and Esterbrook are sharing some loving words themselves.  Four years pass and Linda and Esterbrook are married.  Esterbrook has written four hit plays in the past four years, each one starring Linda.  Things seem to be going well for the couple until the evening after the opening of his most recent play.  At a party celebrating his latest success, Esterbrook meets Mr. Philo Swift (Charles Ruggles), a successful financier, and his wife Amanda (Genevieve Tobin).  Esterbrook is not in the best of moods, being smack in the middle of a case of writer’s block, and is initially uninterested in the Swifts but Amanda doesn’t take that lying down.

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Amanda is a bit of a pill it seems, something her husband is all too aware of.  Her favorite hobby is creating geniuses and she has decided that Esterbrook is the one most deserving of her time and attention.  While Linda remains loyal and loving towards her husband, Amanda is more fawning when it comes to her attentions.  She tells Esterbrook that he has been wasting his time when it comes to comedy and that he is destined to make his mark in drama.  This is welcome news as the playwright has been feeling a desire to make an impact on the theater going public.  He begins spending more and more time with his muse, and less and less time with the actual Mrs. Esterbrook.  Weeks go by and cracks begin to appear in their relationship.

NO TIME FOR COMEDY began life in 1939 as a play written by S.N. Behrman.  Starring Lawrence Olivier as Gaylord Esterbrook and Katharine Cornell as Linda Paige, the play ran for 179 performances during which time Lawrence Olivier’s wife, Vivien Leigh, was filming GONE WITH THE WIND.  While this film is mainly a romantic comedy, I did enjoy the final message of needing to support the people out there who have the courage, and sometimes stupidity, to stick their necks out and put it all out there.  To get behind the people who risk their hearts and emotions all in the name of an idea is a positive message that isn’t often mentioned in films, let alone romantic comedies from the 1940s.

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This film was full of pleasant surprises for me.  The supporting cast is terrific.  For a start, Charles Ruggles.  I mean.  Seriously.  Also, the character of Clementine played by Louise Beavers is an interesting dichotomy.  The character starts life as an actress in the first play before taking a job as the Esterbrook’s housekeeper/maid.  And while her dialogue does have a few of the stereotypical racial accents that are an unfortunate by-product of older films there are also plenty of intelligent, witty, and non-stereotyped lines of dialogue that she delivers.  She also has a delightful way of never taking Esterbrook, his moods, or his comments seriously at all.  It is an interesting thing to see because the character of Clementine is employed as a housekeeper but is not treated as subservient.

I really enjoyed the character of Morgan Carrell and some of the best lines were his.  In fact this was another pleasant surprise of NO TIME FOR COMEDY.  It is really funny and quite witty!  For example;

“Philo Swift: ‘Gaylord Esterbrook’… seems to me I’ve heard or read that name someplace. What do you do?
Gaylord ‘Gay’ Esterbrook: I write plays.
Philo Swift: Er, yes, I have a hobby, too. What I meant was, what do you do for a living?
Gaylord ‘Gay’ Esterbrook: Write plays. Anything wrong?
Philo Swift: No, no; nothing, nothing. You’ll pardon me, but it does seem a little trivial for a grown man.
Gaylord ‘Gay’ Esterbrook: Well, perhaps I’ll grow out of it. What do *you* do?
Philo Swift: I’m on Wall Street.
Gaylord ‘Gay’ Esterbrook: Where’s that?
Philo Swift: I don’t know, but my chauffeur finds it every morning.
Gaylord ‘Gay’ Esterbrook: After you get there, what do you do?
Philo Swift: Buy and sell stocks and bonds.
Gaylord ‘Gay’ Esterbrook: Surely not for a living?
Philo Swift: And not a bad one. When stocks go up, I make a little money. When they go down, I make even more.
Gaylord ‘Gay’ Esterbrook: That all you do?
Philo Swift: Well, yes!
Gaylord ‘Gay’ Esterbrook: Well, who knows; maybe you’ll grow out of it, too.
[raises glass]
Gaylord ‘Gay’ Esterbrook: Here’s hoping!”

“Clementine, Actress in Show: I saw your last picture, Mr. Carrell.
Morgan Carrell, the Director: Yes?
Clementine, Actress in Show: Oh, yeah.
Morgan Carrell, the Director: What’d ya think?
Clementine, Actress in Show: [sighs] yeah.”

“Gaylord ‘Gay’ Esterbrook: [after spending the night after the play on a park bench] Hey, you don’t look bad for a girl who’s just getting up in the morning!
Linda Paige Esterbrook: For a man who’s been up all night you look great!
Gaylord ‘Gay’ Esterbrook: Don’t get the idea that I’m an authority on girls getting up in the morning.
Linda Paige Esterbrook: Well, I’m not the last word on men staying up all night either.”

This was a film that not only entertained me from beginning to end, but also gave me quite a few laugh out loud moments.

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Man, I love Rosalind Russell.  I first saw her in THE TROUBLE WITH ANGLES and ever since then I have just thought she is terrific.  As I have said before, she has a quality of being up for anything that seems authentic to her which she imbues into her characters.  It is a quality that is unique to her and something that makes her so terrific to watch.  While I agree that she and Jimmy Stewart don’t have the sizzling chemistry of Bogie and Bacall or Powell and Loy, they do have qualities that make them likable and charming.  Russell plays the part of Linda Paige with self assured calm and wit.  She loves her husband but never has a moment where she feels the need to yell or scream at him even when she knows he is spending too much time with another woman.  Rather she maintains an air of love and support, hoping that her continued presence will bring him back.  She is smart and independent without going into headstrong territory.  It is the internal spark that is Rosalind Russell that gives Linda Paige that certain special something that it just a little unique and different than most other romantic comedy actresses.  For his part, Jimmy Stewart seems to be doing Mr. Smith (from MR. SMITH GOES TO WASHINGTON) with shades of Mike Connor (from THE PHILADELPHIA STORY).  This is not to say that he is not good in this film however.  He brings his small town charm to the opening scenes as Esterbrook adjusts to big city life.  In the later parts of the film he has the indignation of the everyman intellectual railing against the plight of the world.

NO TIME FOR COMEDY was a pleasant surprise for me.  This was a film I went into blind, having no expectations, and found myself spending a very enjoyable ninety minutes with Rosalind Russell and James Stewart, thanks to the Warner Archive.  If you want to see a romantic comedy with something a little different then you might just want to give this one a watch.

 

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