This revised version of It's A Wonderful World (1939) comes from The James Stewart Blogathon! Hosted by The Classic Film & TV Café from April 14th to April 17, 2014!
Welcome to Edwina Corday's Poetry Corner!
Here's her poetry-chart-topping rhyme, "It's A Wonderful World":
The night will be here when we are gone,
Though we are gone, the stars will be here,
And other throats will sing in the dawn,
It’s a wonderful world, my dear
Don’t rack your brain trying to remember Edwina’s lovely poem from your poetry
class; you’ll find her body of work in the Hollywood School of Poetry. Our gal
Edwina is a ditzy but soulful poetess; yes, that’s what they call her in the
It’s A Wonderful World
(1939), a poetess, not a poet. And no, it’s
Frank Capra's classic Christmas film It’s A Wonderful Life,
though we wouldn’t
blame you for the confusion;
more about that momentarily. I guess poets
were like that in 1939. But I digress!
|Things aren't going well for Guy!|
Where are Nick & Nora, and Asta when you need them?
Edwina is played by that luminous Oscar-winner Claudette Colbert of
It Happened One Night
and The Palm Beach Story
among so many other
hits. With that title alone, you’d have every right to expect it
to be a
wonderful screwball comedy-mystery, at the very least. It’s got heck of a
pedigree, starting with Oscar-winning director W.S. “Woody” Van Dyke, who
brought us San Francisco
(1936) as well as Team Bartilucci favorite The Thin Man
(1934) and several of its
sequels. The script was a collaboration between talented, versatile
screenwriters Ben Hecht and Herman J. Mankiewicz (the latter being part of the
Mankiewicz filmmaking family, including his grandson Ben Mankiewicz of
fame), whose combined resumes included such
classics as Nothing Sacred; Twentieth Century;
Dinner At Eight; Citizen Kane; The Front Page
and its distaff
His Girl Friday;
Alfred Hitchcock’s best films. Now team up Claudette Colbert with a pre-Oscar
James Stewart (note that Colbert’s name appears onscreen in a larger font than
Stewart’s, since she was the bigger star at the time). It didn’t hurt that the
film’s title brought to mind the stars’ beloved previous films
It Happened One Night
It’s a Wonderful Life
(even if …Life
took audiences quite a while to get into film fans’
hearts. I won’t lie to you, folks: we of Team Bartilucci have always found
It’s a Wonderful Life
infuriating for myriad reasons! But I digress again; sorry about that!). The
action is set in both New York City and upstate New York, which is a plus for a
native New Yorker like me. Furthermore, keep in mind that 1939 was a banner
year for great movies all around! With all that going for
It’s A Wonderful World,
the resulting collaboration should be a real crowd-pleaser, right?
|Dig that crazy Coke bottle Boy Scout disguise! |
Good thing Edwina has good "Guy" sight!
It’s A Wonderful World
was watchable enough, but for much of its 86-minute running time, I found it
more amiable than actually wonderful, or laugh-out-loud funny, or nail-bitingly
suspenseful. Sure, the film has its moments, but as a whole, it didn’t truly
grab my undivided attention until
about the last 40 minutes ,
when the joint was jumpin' with shooting, tension, and clever scheming to unmask the villains. But I’m
getting ahead of myself!
Stewart plays a NYC private eye with the manly-man name of Guy Johnson. Showing
his range just as he did in After the Thin Man
(1936), Stewart’s Guy is no folksy charmer here, but a cynical tough guy who
thinks dames are dopes, and isn’t afraid to cuff ’em one if they start
squawking. If Guy tried that today, he’d be in for a lawsuit! Come to think of
it, the role of Guy was probably good practice for the darker, more
emotionally-complicated roles Stewart played under the direction of Alfred
Hitchcock and Anthony Mann in the 1950s!
|Guy Kibbee as “Cap” Streeter is sapped by Edwina, |
who thinks she’s helping and thinks she killed Cap! Oy!
Guy works with his older, more seasoned partner Fred “Cap” Streeter (Guy Kibbee
from Mr. Smith Goes to Washington; 42nd Street; Babbitt)
private investigation firm called, appropriately enough, Private Inquiries.
Their biggest client is the much-married souse and tobacco heir Willie Heyward,
“Willie the Pooh” (played by Ernest Truex, great as put-upon
milquetoast types in His Girl Friday; Whistling
in the Dark;
and TV’s Alfred Hitchcock Presents).
previously worked demonstrating electric belts in drugstore windows for all to
see before he became a private eye, cynical Guy is determined to hang onto his
meal ticket: “Willie the Pooh’s my dream man, and I’m gonna keep fishing him out
of manholes just as long as he keeps paying off.”
Too bad Willie gets himself
framed for the murder of Dolores Gonzales (Cecilia Callejo from Blood and
Sand; The Falcon in Mexico),
a “Broadway nymph” and bubble dancer in
the Sally Rand mold, who’d been all set to sue Willie for allegedly jilting
her—until Guy and New York’s Finest find Dolores murdered on the floor with the
ever-drunken Willie not knowing which end is up.
|“Willie the Pooh,” found at one of the |
places he's been seen going around.
But he brings his troubles on
himself, considering he keeps demanding to kill “wops” when he’s “snoozled,”
especially when he’s in public. Where are Nick and Nora Charles in
The Thin Man
and/or its other sequels when
you need them? The only clue to Dolores’ killer is a dime mysteriously cut in
half. Our perplexed P.I. finds him
self framed by Vivian Tarbel, a.k.a.
the newly-minted Mrs. Heyward (Frances Drake of Mad Love
and the 1935
version of Les Miserables)
and her honey, Al Mallon (Sidney Blackmer, the
great character actor who’s graced everything from Charlie Chan in Monte
to Rosemary’s Baby).
Before you can say “Philo Vance,” Guy is
charged with conspiracy and sentenced to a year in Sing Sing.
On the train to prison, Guy is handcuffed to Sergeant Koretz (Nat Pendleton,
alumnus and one of Team Bartilucci’s
favorite wrestlers-turned-actors), accompanied by Lieutenant Miller (Edgar
Kennedy, Mr. Slow Burn himself) as they pass the time playing poker. Guy notices
a personal ad in a nearby newspaper: “Why don’t you come to Saugerties Theater
Wednesday evening, and see your long-lost husband? HALF-A-DIME.” (For you
readers unfamiliar with upstate New York, yes, Saugerties is
town.) Guy tricks Koretz into leaving their compartment for a smoke, and
Guy manages a watery escape under cover of night (shouldn’t Edwina
be in bed at that hour? Surely she’d lose too much of her beauty sleep).
our perky poetess happens to see the whole thing. Before you can say “I swear by
my eyes,” which Edwina says all through the picture,
Guy takes Edwina
hostage, and wacky hijinks ensue. Elsewhere, in one of my favorite bits, Sgt.
Koretz tries to convince the local police that he was jumped by a mob instead of
Guy tricking him and knocking him out singlehandedly. If you ask me, Guy could
be so obnoxious sometimes, I wouldn’t have minded if someone had punched his
lights out! For that matter, I’d love to see where Edwina got the notion that
criminals are gallant. Maybe she’s been reading and writing too much
poetry? Then again, Guy isn’t always as smart as he thinks he is, either! For
instance, Edwina actually gets Guy out of a jam when they’re lost in the woods.
Boy Scout Stanley Cavendish pretends to go for help, but Edwina realizes just in
time that the scout is about to sic John Law on him! The kid isn’t even honest
about his name; it’s really Herman Plotka! If you ask me, Guy needs to brush up
his P.I. skills. Where’s Sam Spade when you need him? Stewart’s Coke-bottle
glasses disguise cracked me up!
Herman’s name comes from Mildred Plotka, a.k.a.
Lily Garland in the 1934
comedy Twentieth Century.)
|How do you like them apples? |
Isn't this how Stockholm Syndrome starts?
Bit by bit, the comedy starts to percolate as Guy and Edwina find themselves
obliged to join forces out in the wilds of upstate New York, with Edwina
alternately helping and unwittingly hindering Guy as he tries to prove his
innocence and save Willie from the electric chair. As I said, the first
two-thirds of It’s A Wonderful World
is watchable, if not exactly
As our dear friend and fellow blogger R.A. Kerr might say, a miracle happens, as
described by my husband Vinnie: “Suddenly Claudette Colbert shifted the plot
into reverse psychology!”
|A guy, a poetess...romance?|
By some miracle, comedy and suspense suddenly blend together beautifully at the
Saugerties County Theatre’s production of the Maxwell Anderson/Laurence
Stallings play What Price Glory?
Slowly but surely, Guy warms up to
Edwina , who’s already falling in love with Guy despite the bickering that
always seems to be expected in such situations; just ask Robert Donat and
Madeleine Carroll in The 39 Steps.
Our heroes infiltrate the theater when scene-stealing grand-dame theater
director Madame J. L. Chambers (Cecil Cunningham from the 1931 Monkey
Business; The Awful Truth)
hires Guy as the play’s new Southern-accented
actor, “Cyril Hemingway.”
|"Do you-all have shootin' in this play?"|
"Nothing but. It's the noisiest backstage since Ben Hur".
Cap comes to help Guy, only to become a human Whack-A-Mole as Edwina’s
well-meant attempts to help both men keep backfiring. I was worried that poor
Cap would be brain-damaged before this dizzy tale was over! What’s more,
Vivian’s Aussie ex turns up, unaware he’s got a target on his back, poor fella!
The stage cast within the movie’s cast (is there a scorecard in the house?)
includes Team Bartilucci favorite Hans Conried (The
5,000 Fingers of Dr. T.;
TV’s Make Room For Daddy; Fractured
as well as George Chandler (Bogart fans will remember Chandler as
nervous bartender Louis Ord in Dead Reckoning);
as well as Anchors Aweigh;
Grady Sutton, who I always remember from TV’s Odd
episode “The Flying Felix” as Tony Randall tries lip-reading:
All kidding aside, there’s genuine suspense in the urgently-whispered
conversation between Cap and Guy as we’re reminded that Willie’s life is at
stake. There’s even a nifty little catfight between Edwina and Vivian at the
Leading man Stewart was under contract to MGM at the time, but the studio never
seemed to know how to exploit his talents until other studios led the way for
them. A 1937 loan-out to Columbia for Frank Capra's You Can't Take It With
had proven his skill at folksy comedy, which explains Stewart’s casting
in this screwball farce. But his fans at the time were horrified to see him
playing a cynical, chauvinistic private eye who at one point even slugs his
As Frank Miller explains in his article on the TCM Web site,
“Claudette Colbert had looked forward to getting MGM’s legendary glamour
treatment. However, her hopes
“were dashed when director W.S. Van Dyke was
assigned to the picture. Although he had helped create the screwball genre as
director of The Thin Man in 1934, he was popular with studio head Louis
B. Mayer mainly because he worked quickly, earning the nickname ‘One-Take
Woody.’ His female star was appalled at how quickly he threw the film together,
being used to the more leisurely pace at her home studio, Paramount, where great
care was always taken to showcase her beauty.”
Anyway, Colbert got more
opportunities for glamour roles at MGM in films like The Secret Heart (1946).
Although It's a Wonderful World
good reviews, particularly from Hecht fan Otis Ferguson in The New Republic
it was mostly dismissed by critics for having too many cheap laughs. Writing for
the New York Times
, Frank Nugent complained, “Ben Hecht must have sent
out native beaters with tom-toms and slapsticks to drive stray gags from miles
around into the Metro corral for It's a Wonderful World....The comedy is almost
too strenuous for relaxation." After only three years as an MGM producer, Frank
Davis would return to writing after this picture, scoring some of his biggest
successes with his scripts for A Tree Grows in Brooklyn
(1945) and The
(1964). Before that, however, he would issue his own rather prophetic
assessment of the production: “The studio should have known that Jimmy Stewart
would never do any of those unconvincing things. However, I predict that his
next film, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington
, will more than make up.”