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Robert Z. Leonard
The Turner Classic Movie Channel has spent the month of January doing the films of one of my favorite actors, Robert Montgomery. His films are mostly rarely watched these days, except for those that were atypical for most of his career - meaning that the roles that frequently reappear on television are THEY WERE EXPENDABLE, THE LADY IN THE LAKE, JUNE BRIDE, NIGHT MUST FALL, THE SAXON CHARM, RIDE THE PINK HORSE, RAGE IN HEAVEN, THE EARL OF CHICAGO (in short the films he fought to get the roles in because they were not the usual comic fluff he usually appeared in). It's ironic that nowadays when one thinks of Montgomery's career it is the films that were mostly made after 1937 that are pushed - the ones that broke the original image that MGM and Louis B. Mayer pushed. The pity of this is that Montgomery was a gifted comedian, and saved many films from being routine.
PETTICOAT FEVER is one such film. Made in 1936 with PICADILLY JIM and TROUBLE FOR TWO it was a banner year of good performances by Montgomery, and helped lead to his being able to convince the powers that be at MGM to allow him to play "Danny" in NIGHT MUST FALL the next year.
PETTICOAT FEVER is set in Labrador, and Montgomery is a weather station operator there named Dascom Dinsmore. He has been living there for five years, and has not been in the company of a woman (except for Inuit women) for most of that time. He has a girlfriend of sorts named Clara (Winifred Shotter) who he sort of proposed to, but it's been two years since he has heard from her, so that he believes she has given up on him.
Dinsmore's world is rocked when Sir James Felton and Irene Campton (Reginald Owen and Myrna Loy) show up. They were flying to Toronto for a business meeting that Felton was to address. Felton is engaged to Campton, but Dinsmore finds her enchanting...and gradually she finds him equally attractive. Certainly the pompous, self-important, and hopelessly inept Felton is no competition (it is a measure of Owen's acting that he keeps the character entertaining even if one finds it hard to believe such a boob is a Canadian captain of industry).
There is something surreal about this film - probably due to the original play. While the "Labrador" scenery is quite phony looking it does serve it's purpose for the comedy (witness th polar bear sequence). But the height of the surrealism is the dinner Dinsmore serves his guests, a dinner of "pemmican steaks", which Owen eats with real gusto. Owen (a minor noble as a baronet) is dressed in normal clothing - a winter suit for the climate). But Montgomery is dressed in his suit of evening dress (as though attending a ball at the embassy). Loy, seeing him dress up, likewise puts on a gown. They are being served by Dinsmore's servant - assistant, the Inuit Kimo (Otto Yamaoka), who is wearing a suit of evening dress too - it turns out that it is Owen's! Owen, who earlier insisted that Dinsmore change into clothing more suitable to his station, is the only person who is improperly dressed for this dinner!! Montgomery was MGM's most elegant actor in a tuxedo or evening dress (Franchot Tone was the his closest rival). It is a toss-up in movie if Montgomery or Fred Astaire was the more elegant figure in such suits. Hard to decide.
The course of love does not move smoothly in comedy or drama. Clara shows up (we are tipped off too early about this at the start of the film when we see her on an icebound ship). Will Dinsmore break with Clara? Will Irene break with Felton? The film is funny, and Loy and Montgomery make a nice couple. They had appeared together in one other film, and both were in separate scenes in a second, before this movie. But this would be their last film together.
One last interesting point - at the start of the film when the credits are shown, you see illustrations of men and women in comic situations. They are based on the art work of John Held Jr., the great cartoonist/illustrator of the 1920s and 1930s - who was the recorder of the flapper and "Jazz Age". It's an unusual choice - as it has absolutely nothing to do with the film's plot or Labrador.
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