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Another great "gentleman's gentleman" role for Eric Blore, similar to his role in "It's Love I'm After," with Leslie Howard. He's hilarious!
In August, 1934, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer offered $5,000 for the screen
rights to the 1917 novel Piccadilly Jim, first filmed in 1919. The
remake was initially to be produced by then M-G-M producer David O.
Selznick in early 1935, with songs provided by Harold Adamson and
Burton Lane. Rowland Lee was assigned by Selznick to complete work on
the screenplay, which was initially written by Robert Benchley. J.
Walter Ruben was set to direct, and Chester Hale had prepared dances.
After two years of scripting by at least nine writers, the new version of PICCADILLY JIM became overlong, finally clocking at 100 minutes. One-time screenwriter Benchley joined the cast. Rather than a musical, PICCADILLY JIM turned into a vehicle for Robert Montgomery. As the title character, he was aptly cast, one of the few Hollywood comedians who could simultaneously play an Englishman who combined intelligent and "silly ass" traits. Equally appropriate were Eric Blore as his valet, Frank Morgan as his father (the elder Jim Crocker, an unemployed ham actor), and many of the supporting players. However, leading lady Madge Evans brought no sense of comedy to her role.
As adapted for film, the story concerned how father and son both fall in love, not with the same woman, but with related women, although neither knows this, and Jim initially does not yet even know Ann's last name. When Jim's father is rejected as a suitor by the arrogant in-laws, the son conceives of a comic strip, "From Rags to Riches," centered around the dictatorial mother, the henpecked husband, and their obnoxious son Ogden. (Unlike the novel, in the movie Jim's nickname derives from his skill as a caricaturist, more than his reputation for late London nights.) When the strip becomes a hit, it makes further romantic progress impossible, but contractually Jim must continue drawing it. The family can't remain in England because they are so widely recognized, so the Crockers pursue their beloved to America, father in disguise, and son by concealing his true identity. Jim gradually changes the characterizations in the comic strip to make the family proud of the association, until only Ann, the niece, resists him.
Little of this is from the book; the main thread in common is the Pett family, with its meek father and rambunctious child, the title character's newspaper experience, and a few brief chapters which become the middle third of the movie, in which Jim follows Ann on board a transatlantic ship, using the name of his butler and pretending he is his father. Many of the movie's elements which had appeared in the novel and were standard Wodehouse devices, such as the eccentric butler, the henpecked husband, and the use of disguise and masquerade, compounded by mistaken identity, were also typical conventions of 1930s romantic comedy. Genuinely amusing passages scattered throughout the film are finally overwhelmed by too many dull stretches. Although PICCADILLY JIM had potential, under the direction of Robert Z. Leonard (who had previously directed the estimable THE CARDBOARD LOVER) it fails to achieve the standard of many other more memorable comedies of the period. Nonetheless, this version of Piccadilly Jim, when compared with the 2004 remake, retains the spirit of Wodehouse, his tone and characterizations. The 1936 film is amusing and ideally cast, with a cast and crew who know how to make the brand of charming romantic comedy seemingly unique to that era. And despite its shortcomings, it succeeds in that regard, displaying the skills of the studio era that are so obviously absent in the confused 2004 version.
When one reads Wodehouse novels and short stories one is in a world of
gentlemen's clubs, social lion aunts and tyrannical mothers, henpecked
husbands, merchants who are overly proud of their products (in one
short story the rich uncle deals in jute and has a house decorated in
models of birds made out of his product), would-be dictators of England
who have family fortunes based on woman's lingerie, Earls who are more
concerned about prize winning pigs than propriety, bartenders who have
funds of stories to illustrate life with, butlers who are smarter than
the aristocrats around them, idiot scions of noble houses who convince
their potential in-laws of their good intentions by swallowing dog
biscuits (which the in-laws manufacture), brilliant social tacticians
whose schemes always come apart at the end, and golf lovers - always
golf lovers. You rarely find a comment on the real world - the nobleman
who made money from ladies underwear was an exception (a satire on Sir
Oswald Mosley). But his variations on the artificial world of the rich
and the powerful works a charm to this day. Unlike so many of his
contemporary fellow novelists his works are still largely in print
(mostly through the British publisher Penguin). And Wodehouse wrote
over 100 books!
It is a great formula, but it can be spoiled. Arthur Treacher played Jeeves, the great butler, in two forgettable comedies in the 1930s (one with David Niven as Bertie Wooster) did not make a great impression due to poor productions. But a film like A DAMSEL IN DISTRESS or this version of PICADILLY JIM shows how it's done properly. The characters are not arch or overdone - but they all take themselves seriously. Montgomery is a night person, enjoying the nightclubs and such. But he does remember to have a caricature ready for his newspaper, folded in the pocket of his coat. Eric Blore is the perfect butler, trying to awaken his employer using bird calls (a talent he would also display with amusing results in IT'S LOVE I'M AFTER). But he is intelligent and loyal. When Cora Witherspoon's Mrs. Pett makes a sneering comment on Jim's formidable abilities as a caricaturist (as opposed to a real artist like Leonardo or Raphael), Blore's butler Bayliss boils over and rattles off a list of great artists who were gifted caricaturists, such as Daumier and Thomas Nast, and ending with Goya. Frank Morgan has not performed on stage in 20 years, but he is proud of his greatest role - as Osric in Hamlet (Peter Cushing in the Olivier film, and Robin Williams in Keneth Branagh's version). He uses it (successfully) to fool the Petts into accepting him into their family, while he secretly romances Mrs. Pett's younger sister (Billie Burke - the only one who realizes the truth in the masquerade).
In Wodehouse the road to love is never easy. Robert Montgomery makes a successful comic strip out of the Pett family (Witherspoon, Grant Mitchell, and Tommy Bupp) in revenge for their snootiness (actually it is the snootiness of Witherspoon - she thinks Morgan is a fortune hunter, and Mitchell is her henpecked husband who goes along with her; the boy Ogden Pett is one of those obnoxious kids in Wodehouse who enliven his books - actually Ogden is thoughtless and rude, but he actually thinks it's cool that he's in a comic strip). Montgomery learns that Madge Blake, the woman he loves, is angry at the comic strip and it's artist. He has to try to undue the damage his successful strip has done to try to win Madge back.
The film is a sparkling little drink of champagne, which the best of Wodehouse usually is. It's nice to see that for a change, Hollywood got the literary property's spirit right.
Supporting players Cora Witherspoon and Eric Blore steal the show in
this funny 1936 film.
A guy, (Robert Montgomery)who is a cartoonist and his father, a Shakespearian actor, who hasn't played Shakespeare in 20 years, (a very funny Frank Morgan) vie for the attention of two women.
Morgan is after Billie Burke, from a wealthy family, who is a plain ordinary lady. The trouble is her sister, Nesta, played with an aristocratic humor by Witherspoon. She sees Morgan as a fortune hunter and tries to end the liaison. Montgomery starts a cartoon series based on the family which is soon a hit throughout England. Little does her know that the girl he is after is the niece of Witherspoon.
There's a ship-board romance to America. Morgan dresses up as a European aristocrat to impress Witherspoon and her family. Further complications leads him to have the butler, Blore, play his father.
The ending is predictable but it's funny to see how things entangle in this screwball comedy of 1936.
I am becoming a Robert Montgomery fan as I see more of his movies. As
an actor who made most of his films in the 30's he is largely forgotten
today compared with actors who kept making films into the fifties like
Cary Grant and Jimmy Stewart. However he is a fine natural actor, a
very good comedian and an altogether charming leading man. His
specialty is the warm-hearted, well-mannered and slightly tipsy
gentleman in evening clothes and he doesn't disappoint in this film. He
pursues the girl with an admirable single-mindedness and belief in the
inevitability of her eventual reciprocation.
The film has other pleasures, most notably the presence of Eric Blore as the gentleman's gentleman. This delightful actor is one of the great funny-men of this era. Also in fine form are Frank Morgan, as the ham actor who impersonates a Hungarian Count, Cora Witherspoon as an overbearing society woman, Billy Burke, Grant Mitchell and Robert Benchley as, what else, a lush. Truly a smorgasbord of character acting.
The plot is interesting enough to hold our attention and the little snippets of caricature and thirties-style newspaper comic strip are fun.
The only slight disappointment is Madge Evans as the ingénue, who plays it straight and is no match for the sublime Montgomery. All in all an enjoyable interlude.
When the leading lady (Madge Evans) must explain why she likes her suitor (Ralph Forbes)and must contrast that attitude with her feelings for Robert Montgomery, you know the film is in trouble. Montgomery can say there's "electricity" between himself and Evans, but that spark is not transmitted to celluloid. And that is too bad, because the film is wittier -- per Wodehouse -- and better-acted than many films of the era. But Evans' loves and likings must be verbalized. The energy is simply not on the screen, only in the script. She is beautiful, though. She needed a different character -- more remote, more mysterious, more fearful of love. And then, maybe... Blore is wonderful, and lights up every scene he is in, as the butler who knows his Shakespere better than the ham, Frank Morgan. But this is one of Morgan's best roles. His only triumph, apparently, was as Osric, in Cedar Rapids. Now Osric is the foppish courtier at the end of 'Hamlet' -- hardly the role of a lifetime. But Morgan disguises himself as "Count Osric of Denmark" in order to infiltrate the family of his beloved (Billy Burke) and turns his failure as actor into personal success. It is a neat touch. Burke's flighty flutiness is hardly used in the film, but she does have a funny line about remembering how painful youth was. The Morgan-Burke romance is intended as a foil for the Montgomery-Evans courtship and that would have worked well had the main plot had more chemistry.
Robert Montgomery is smooth and snappy as the artister, newspaper
cartoonistknown as "Piccadilly Jim." He introduces us to his father,
unemployed actor Frank Morgan: "He does Shakespeare or nothing. In
other words, nothing." Montgomery and Morgan lead a great cast in this
very funny comedy of misunderstood motives and assumed identities.
Madge Evans is witty and lovely as the girl Montgomery spots in a restaurant and then pursues from England to America. Their romance is, of course, full of bumps and misunderstandings; Evans and Montgomery make a great pair, both of them slightly less nutty than their families, and both completely beautiful and lovable.
Madge's two aunts are also splendid. Cora Witherspoon is loud, bossy and funny as the social climber trying to prevent her female relatives from falling in love with the wrong men; and Billie Burke, who carries on a rather secretive affair with old smooth talker Morgan, is just about perfectfunny, sweet, slightly ditzy yet quietly knowing in her own way. The scenes between Burke and Morgan are really delightfultwo great character actors at their absolute best.
Eric Blore is hilarious as Montgomery's faithful and eminently correct valet; he completely refuses to be discouraged when his repeated attempts to tell an anecdote about Robert the Bruce are rebuffed.
Besides the great cast, the direction is crisp and the script is excellenta plot that is silly but holds together, packed with characters who are full of foibles but never really wicked. Lots of fun.
P.G. Wodehouse is best remembered for his creation of the unflappable
butler Jeeves in those Bertie Wooster stories. In Piccadilly Jim,
Wodehouse creates another butler character Bayliss here played by the
slightly more flappable Eric Blore who does save the situation for his
employer Robert Montgomery the notorious London cartoonist Piccadilly
Jim. Of course not quite in the way he intended.
Piccadilly Jim is your very typical Wodehouse story, a comedy of manners and satire of the upper and middle classes. In this one however we Americans get a bit of a going over for our pretensions and crass commercialism in the persons of the Pett family.
With whom Montgomery and his father Frank Morgan get involved, Montgomery in an effort to help Morgan. It seems as though Frank would like to settle down and marry Billie Burke, but the grande dame of the family, aunt Cora Witherspoon won't hear of it. Montgomery dives into the situation and romances sister Madge Evans who is about to marry a title in the person of dull and dishwater Ralph Forbes. But his instincts as a cartoonist take over and he finds a lot of material for satire in the doings of the Pett family. So much so that they feel they have to leave London where they are vacationing and had back across the pond. Of course Montgomery, Morgan, and Blore follow along on the same ocean liner.
One thing about Piccadilly Jim is that it is so perfectly cast. Just the names of the cast and the roles described and you know exactly what you are in for. This film is a great example of the studio contract system at its best, the studio had all or most of these people under contract to MGM and they just got dropped into roles perfectly suited to the image that MGM had created for them.
Robert Montgomery though American with his stage training and diction fits right into a Wodehouse English role without missing a beat. And Wodehouse's wit and eye for characters and caricature is as sharp as ever. Piccadilly Jim holds up remarkably well after over 70 years and the film is a great introduction to P.G. Wodehouse.
How on earth could one not enjoy a screwball comedy like "Piccadilly Jim?" Directing a nimble cast that included Robert Montgomery, Eric Blore, Billie Burke, Cora Witherspoon, Robert Benchley and Frank Morgan, Robert Z. Leonard kept this '36 movie popping merrily along, stirring up mayhem of one kind or another and garnering plenty of laughter along the way. Yes, okay, it's dated, and one can see the denouement coming a long way off, but -- despite its predictable nature -- the film has a satisfyingly madcap flavor that can only from the comic timing and talent of the team of acting pros assembled here. Veteran Eric Blore (playing yet another of his seemingly unlimited roster of butlers) steals every scene he is in. P.G. Wodehouse wrote the story on which the movie is based and -- for once -- none of the multitude of writers and re-writers hired by the studio for screenplay adaptation purposes managed to deflate Wodehouse's airy insouciance. It's a small gem of a movie and one too infrequently seen. Nab it!
Not an easy thing to do but the great screenwriter Charles Brackett (and co) and the director Robert Z. Leonard get the speed, the slightly demented humor and, amazingly enough, the knowing social commentary lying underneath the jokes. There's a line up of superb character actors with Eric Blore giving what must be his greatest "gentleman's gentleman" performance. It's a comic performance that is both delightfully silly and surprisingly complex. When he mistakenly tells his master that he loves him, it's believable on a number of levels. And his terror in encountering America's lack of concern with the British class system is beautifully played. One can quibble with Madge Evans as the leading lady. She's game and likable enough but neither enough of an actress to create ample character shadings for interest nor enough of a movie star to command with a variety of facial expressions. But Robert Montgomery's leading man makes up for the unbalance.
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