52 Before 62 #13 – Consolation Marriage (1931)

ConsolationMarriagePoster.jpgDirected by Paul Sloane

Screenplay by Humphrey Pearson, story by Bill Cunningham

Starring Irene Dunne, Pat O’Brien, John Halliday, Matt Moore, Myrna Loy and Lester Vail

One advantage of this project, over and above The Best Picture Project, and The Also-Rans Project, is the flexibility it gives me to choose the movies to write about.  After all, I can write about any movie I want, as long as:

  1. I’d never seen the film around, and
  2. It had to come out before 1962.

One obvious advantage of these broad limits is being freed from the small pool of award-worthy, and award-adjacent movies.  Which really translates to being freed from having to watch nothing by bloated, over-important films, with running times to match.  Instead, I have the freedom to take in lesser-known films outside the ‘canon’, and to enjoy a wider array of genre fare.  More to the point, I can see more westerns and crime films.  The obvious upside here is seeing a more well-rounded view of people like Jimmy Stewart, who actually had a career beyond his collaborations with Hitchcock and Capra.  It also gives me the opportunity to get to know other, overlooked-by-the-Hollywood-award-bodies actors like Randolph Scott – there’s plenty more to come on him.

But a lesser, just as important take away from the lack of hard rules to this series is that, by putting more genre fare on my radar, my watch-list has tended toward shorter films.  In my prior series’, which circled around the Oscars, everything was big and had an air of importance and had running times to match.  If I saw a film in either of those that was under two hours, it was a miracle.  But so far in this series, a two-hour runtime is unheard of, and I would bet the average film has been right around 90 minutes, or less.  This is great because I’m a busy guy and only have so many hours in the day to work with.  More, shorter films illustrate important points you don’t often see in the bigger, award-bait films.  Particularly that comedy works best at right around 90 minutes, and that even at 80 minutes long, some movies just feel endless.  In other words, dipping outside the accepted ‘classics’ make plain that while the length of a movie is important, a good movie is good in spite of its run time, not because of it, because even the best movies, and the best concepts, will run out of steam if driven too long.[1]  And sometimes, 90 minutes is too long.

What’s It About?

Steve (Pat O’Brien) is off to marry his childhood sweetheart, Elaine (Myrna Loy), who he would have married a long time ago, if only he hadn’t been waiting until he thought he was good enough for her.  Only, by the time he gets up the initiative, she’s already married somebody else.  Elsewhere, Mary (Irene Dunne) tells the man she loves, Aubrey (Lester Vail), to go marry this other, wealthy woman, because it will be good for his career as a pianist.  And, rather than tell her love is more important than a career, Aubrey does as he’s told.  Somehow, Steve and Mary meet and, rather than wallow in heartbreak, they decide to marry each other, the ultimate consolation marriage.  “Why not for a couple of booby prizes like us?” they reason.  The one rule: they are free to take off with the old lovers should the opportunity arise.  Like strays finding their way back home.  In other words, they treat the marriage as one of convenience, completely with all the benefits of marriage, including the birth of a daughter, but free of actual commitment.  And while they both agree to no hard feelings if either pulls the ripcord, by the time the lovers reenter their lives to test the one rule they have, Steve and Mary realize their marriage isn’t one of convenience any longer, but is the real thing.

Image result for consolation marriage

Irene Dunne and Pat O’Brien

Any Good?

I opened this entry talking about running times of films and being glad this series allowed me to watch some that were shorter.  At the same time, I acknowledged that even short movies can feel long if they lack the proper pacing, or incident.  That whole line of thinking was inspired by this weeks entry, Consolation Marriage.  You see, Consolation Marriage is just 81 minutes long, and should go down easy, because it’s barely longer than some episodes of TV these days, but rather, it drags terribly.  Even at 81 minutes long it feels like the film has too many scenes, too much repetition, is too slow in the transition, is badly paced, and inexplicably has Irene Dunne sing a song, even though this is not a musical and that’s not part of her character.  In a film that could easily play well at 75 minutes, at 81 minutes it’s a slog.

Aside from being too long, the film is a melodrama in a very low-key way.  No, I don’t need it to be a soap opera of the highest order, with all the deaths and resurrections and wig-snatching we’ve all gotten used to these days.  But it would be nice if this had a little more going on, or were told with a little more verve, or pulse, than we have.

Aside from the pacing, and storytelling style, the performances here are a mixed-bag, and not enough on their own to recommend it.

Pat O’Brien is the ostensible star of the movie, which means since this is a romantic melodrama, he should probably come across as someone romantic.  Perhaps a dashing figure, undeniably handsome, and ready with a turn of phrase.  But in O’Brien’s hands, his Steve mainly comes across as a creep.  Not a creep in the way of creeping along after people, where you’d use the word ‘creep’ but really mean ‘probable rapist’.  No, I mean creep in the way that even though he’s smiling, he’s not smiling because he’s happy to see you, he’s smiling because he’s happy about how highly he thinks of himself.  When he’s supposed to be charming, he just seems shady, and I’ll be honest, maybe this sort of thing worked for women back in the 1930s, but if it did, I’ll be damned if I understand why.  And as an actor, O’Brien’s range is best described as ‘limited’.  At most he’s capable of lurching from declaring his one broad emotion, to declaring the same broad emotion again, and nothing more.

On the other hand, Irene Dunne is utterly charming as Mary.  She’s beautiful, she’s alluring in a sweet way and, even if Steve takes his sweet time realizing he loves her, there’s no doubt he’ll wind up getting there when we see Irene Dunne as Mary.  She’s just completely loveable.  But while I understand why he’d love her, I can’t figure why she loves him.  After all, Steve comes off fairly badly/blandly at most times and it seems the only reason Mary is into him is because the script said she had to be.  But maybe that’s the shortcoming in Dunne’s performance.  That’s while she’s good at being winsome and wistful and heartbroken, she can’t effectively make us believe she’d love a drip like O’Brien.  Perhaps that’s the difference between good acting and great acting.  A great actress can make us believe everything, no matter what they’ve got to work with, while a good actress requires conditions to be right.[2]  Either way, I can understand why he’d love her, just not the other way around.

Image result for consolation marriageI wish I could say that, despite it’s shortcomings, at least Consolation Marriage gives us the chance to have a look at a young Myrna Low as Elaine, the girl of Steve’s dreams.  The one he’s been looking forward to – or fetishizing – marrying since childhood.  But while Loy is quite lovely and charming in many other films – I especially like her in Cheaper by the Dozen, and Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House – here her performance can best be described as ‘sleepy’ and ‘lazy’.  Moreover, it’s a bit of a shock to see her with almost-platinum blonde hair, instead of the slightly red hair I always imagined her to have.  Seeing her here and looking like some sort of proto-Jean Harlowe, is disorienting.

Image result for gertrude howard consolation marriageThis Thing Then

Gertrude Howard has a small role in Consolation Marriage as Mary’s maid/nanny, Kate.  As in most films of the era, this role was filled by a black woman of a certain size, because apparently black women in the 1930s could only be one thing in this worlds, which was a maid without a life, or agency, of her own.  But while this is yet another example of that disgusting sort of a stereotype Hollywood dabbled in during that era, at least here it’s a mild entry, made that way mostly because Howard invests the role with as much dignity and humanity as she can, and avoids the broad stereotype this might have become in lesser hands.


You can follow 52 Before 62 here.

You can see the The Best Picture Project here.  Or, you could buy the revised, updated version of that project in book form:  E-Book or Paperback.  It will not include this entry, for obvious reason.

Also see the Also Rans Project here.  Or, you could buy the revised, updated version of that project here: click on the link here.

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[1] Obviously, this includes this very project, which is the perfect length at 52 movies, but would be a tiresome slog at 53.  You just gotta know when to hit it, and when to quit it.

[2] In a way, it feels like my line of thinking there is akin to blaming the victim for their victimization, and I regret it.

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