Monday, December 14, 2009

Film Review: True Confession

"True Confession" *** 1\2 (out of ****)
One of the things I love most is discovering forgotten gems. Movies which sadly weren't given the proper respect they deserved upon their initial released. "True Confession" (1937) is one of those movies. I hadn't even heard of this wildly wonderful silly comedy until a few days ago. It was part of the Carole Lombard Glamour Collection (which I strongly suggest film buffs check out).

Carole Lombard is one of my favorite actresses. She had an amazing ability for comedy. Her timing is impeccable. Her speech pattern is remarkable. She has a way of saying ordinary lines and making them funny due to the tone of her voice and her use of pauses. She gained her greatest fame playing eccentric wealthy ditsy ladies. Her most popular role might be in "My Man Godfrey" (1936). Though she is equally good in any number of films including Ernst Lubitsch's "To Be Or Not To Be" (1942), Alfred Hitchcock's "Mr. & Mrs. Smith" (1941), Hitchcock's only pure comedy, and "Nothing Sacred" (1937). I'm not quite sure I would put her in that iconic status among such ladies as Marlene Dietrich and Greta Garbo but her work deserves to be seen and appreciated by movie lovers.

In "True Confession" Lombard plays the kind of character we like best; the ditsy, in over her head lady. Here she is a novelist; Helen Bartlett who is married to a struggling lawyer Kenneth Bartlett (Fred MacMurray). They are having finical problems and can't pay their rent or the money they owe to the butcher. A break comes Kenneth's way when a friend of the butcher's family's son gets in trouble for stealing a shipment of ham. If Kenneth would be willing to defend he young man the butcher might forget their debt. But, Kenneth is one of those pesky "honest lawyers", if such a thing exist. He refuses to defend guilty people and when he learns the young man did steal the ham he must refuse the case despite offending the butcher. This causes Helen to consider getting a job. But Kenneth doesn't approve of that either. If his wife gets a job Kenneth views that as a sign that he is a failure and unable to support his wife. Some female audiences might be offended by that notion, but, sadly you are thinking with a "modern" mind. You have to remember this was a different time. Helen however proceeds to search for a job behind Kenneth's back. A friend of her father's has agreed to give her a job as a secretary despite the fact she can't take short-hand or type. The man turns out to be a playboy and didn't really want Helen for a job at all. Helen, being the decent woman she is, runs out of the office leaving behind her belongings. When she returns for them the man's body is found dead. And guess who the main suspect is?

Helen has a reputation of being a liar. She tells various stories to help get her out of trouble usually at the expense of her husband, whom she tells people is either insane, just released from prison or in one case, even dead (!). Kenneth doesn't approve of her lies or lying in general. But the only way to get Helen out of trouble is to lie. What will Helen and Kenneth do?

It would seem the Helen character was some sort of inspiration for Lucille Ball when she created for character on the radio program "My Favorite Husband" and later the television show "I Love Story". In both cases we have a well meaning wife, here Helen only wants to help advance her husband's career, but through their lying just manage to get into more and more trouble. Helen may face life in prison. And finally both need the help of their husband to get them out of trouble.
Watching this court trial with get excitement is a criminologist Charles Jasper (John Barrymore). He feels convince Helen will get the electric chair. It is so strange to see Barrymore in this role. Not because it is a comedic role. Barrymore was actually good at comedy. He, along with Lombard appeared in another comedy together, the Howard Hawks film "Twentieth Century" (1934) which I would also recommend seeing. But you can tell the years of partying and drinking (he and W.C. Fields were old drinking buddies) were catching up to him. He looks in very bad shape. Gone are the days when he was known for his distinguished profile. Amazing for me is only before seeing this that I was watching him in the entertaining silent adventure film "The Beloved Rogue" (1927), where we see him fit doing Douglas Fairbanks like stunts.

In some ways Barrymore gives the least convincing performance yet it is one of the most fun and goofy. There is nothing remotely real about the performance. It is a complete cliche caricature. You sort of feel Barrymore is being silly just for the sake of being silly, because he thinks it will get a laugh. First rule of comedy is always play it straight. Doing silly things for no purpose at all is not funny. But Barrymore's performance doesn't hurt the movie because it is more of a co-starring role (he actually gets third billing) and because nothing else really makes sense in the movie, why should any of the performances?

MacMurray plays one of his typical good natured honest respectable guys. Most younger viewers might know MacMurray for his Disney, family oriented roles. But MacMurray was more than that. He was actually a very good actor. He and Lombard appeared in a few movies together. The best of them may very well be "Hands Across The Table" (1935) a sparkling romantic comedy. MacMurray was also very good in the Marlene Dietrich comedy "The Lady Is Willing" (1942) which I have reviewed. In all these movies he plays the same kind of character with the same moral code. He creates a nice balance to Lombard's more exaggerated performance by being more subtle. But many times his calmness is actually funny. One of he biggest laughs I had watching the movie came from him.

The movie also has a terrific supporting cast starting with Una Merkle as Helen's best friend Daisy, think Ethel Merz. Daisy knows Helen is crazy and is fully aware one of these days Helen's lies are going to get her in serious trouble, but, Daisy is a true friend and goes along with Helen's lies. Movie lovers will recall Merkle from a variety of comedies including W.C. Fields' most popular film "The Bank Dick" (1940) which I have also reviewed. As well as the Harold Lloyd comedy "The Cat's Paw" (1934), the very funny Jean Harlow comedy "Bombshell" (1933), I'd strongly recommend seeing that and the great musical "42nd Street" (1933) which was included in my "Masterpiece Film Series". She even won an Oscar for "Best Supporting Actress" for her performance in "Summer and Smoke" (1961). The rest of the supporting cast includes Edgar Kennedy, Porter Hall (a familiar face in numerous Preston Sturges comedies), Fritz Feld (who later in his career appeared in some Mel Brooks comedies) and Hattie McDaniel has a very small role at the end of the picture. Amazing two years later she'd win an Academy Award for her performance in "Gone With The Wind" (1939).

The film was directed by Wesley Ruggles. His best film in my opinion is the Mae West comedy "I'm No Angel" (1933) my favorite Mae West film in fact. He also directed the only film with Lombard and Clark Gable appeared in "No Man Of Her Own" (1932), not a great movie but worth seeing. In case you didn't know Ms. Lombard and Gable were married which is what makes "No Man" so special. The only other Ruggles comedy I have seen is "Too Many Husbands" (1940) with Jean Arthur, another great actresses who sometimes played ditsy ladies.
It is hard to say why "True Confession" didn't appeal to audiences back in the 1930s. God knows there were a lot of other great comedies made during that time competing for audiences' attention, like "The Awful Truth" (1937), but there should have been some room for "True Confession". Was the story really too"wild" for audiences? Did it make too make of a sham out of our law system? It couldn't have been because of Lombard. Even though this may not be one of her better known movies I'd have to say this one ranks up with her best.

The movie has some loose ends to be sure. We never quite figure out how exactly did the man Helen is accused of killing did die. One explanation is giving but it is hard to believe if it is really the truth. Still "True Confession" put me such a good mood I simply could care less. This is really a great example of how a star (Lombard) could elevate material to the next level. If the actors weren't as good as they are here I might not be recommending the film. "True Confession" is a real treat film buffs should check out. And if you are unfamiliar with the great Ms. Lombard it might serve as an example of what made her so likable and special.