Tuesday, July 13, 2010

True Confession (1937)

For a lot of Hollywood actresses the policy of strictly enforcing the Production Code from mid-1934 onwards was a disaster, but not for everyone. For Carole Lombard it was an opportunity.

Lombard really found her niche in the screwball comedy. And the screwball comedy was a reaction to the Production Code. It was a way of making intelligent grown-up comedies whilst remaining within the Code guidelines, with zaniness replacing sexiness. And Lombard was ideally suited to this new genre.

Lombard is Helen Bartlett. Her husband Kenneth (Fred MacMurray) is struggling to make his mark as an attorney. Helen takes a job secretly but it turns out that when a job sounds too good to be true, it is too good to be true. Her boss, Otto Krayler, isn’t bothered by Helen’s lack of any typing or shorthand skills. He’s more interested in hanky-panky. Helen is shocked and after a scuffle she flees. But she has left her coat and her purse behind. She persuades her long-suffering best friend Daisy (Una Merkel who always seemed to play the heroine’s best friend) to company her on an expedition to retrieve these items.

While Helen looks for purse the police arrive and find something much more interesting. The find Otto Krayler’s corpse. And they find two promising suspects - Helen and Daisy. Daisy is soon ruled out, but Helen has a weakness that now gets her into big trouble. She is a congenital liar. Not in a malicious way but she is a would-be writer and her imagination gets away from her. The stories she tells the police are outlandish enough to get her charged with Otto’s murder.

It’s lucky her husband is an attorney. He defends her in court but the court case has unexpected outcomes. And there’s a wild card in this pack - a drunken criminologist named Charley Jasper (John Barrymore).

Lombard and MacMurray generate the same kind of romantic and comic chemistry that they generated in Hands Across the Table a couple of years earlier. MacMurray and Lombard had the perfect personas for screwball comedy and both had nice comic timing. John Barrymore demonstrates his comic skills, while Una Merkel turns in yet another funny, likeable, sexy performance. How was she never a bigger star?

Some American comedy of the 30s could get annoying but that’s never a problem here. Even with the minor characters.

There’s very little to dislike, and a great deal to love, in True Confession

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