One of the lesser-known entries in the screwball cycle of the 1930s is not only arguably one of the best, but until recently also one of the most elusive. Warner Archive has solved that problem by giving It's Love I'm After (1937) its first-ever home video release. This comedy of remarriage — one of screwball's most reoccurring themes, as in 1937's The Awful Truth and 1940's The Philadelphia Story — stars Leslie Howard and Bette Davis as a bickering theatrical couple whose petty, narcissistic arguments perpetually result in postponing their marriage. Their latest quarrel centers on a young, star-struck fan (Olivia de Havilland) who is hopelessly in love with Howard. Hoping to reunite her with her fiancé, Howard takes leave of Davis and joins de Havilland's family for the weekend, hamming it up as the world's biggest cad. To his dismay, this only endears him to de Havilland even more.
Taking near-center stage as Howard's dresser is Eric Blore, the iconic gentleman's gentleman of 1930s Hollywood. Along with Edward Everett Horton (his own rival, then and since) Blore made a career out of playing butlers (and valets and other similar roles), virtually defining the role as a snarky one-man Greek Chorus. Here, Blore gets far more screen time than usual - even more screen time, in fact, than top-billed Davis and de Havilland — and gets room to stretch his comedic talents. In a career filled with memorable parts (Joel McCrea's valet in Sullivan's Travels, a con artist in The Lady Eve), some of Blore's finest moments are to be found in It's Love I'm After — particularly his desperate parade of bird calls, accompanied by futile arm flapping, as he attempts to save Howard from his oh-so-irresistible-self.
Howard and Davis, as the embittered theatrical couple, remind of another pair of bitching hams: John Barrymore and Carole Lombard from Howard Hawks' genre-defining Twentieth Century (1934). As the pretentious director and the egocentric diva, Barrymore and Lombard epitomized the screwball charade of masks, ulterior motives, cynical quips and the I-hate-you-so-much-I-love-you contradiction at the core of so many movies from that genre. They were a hard act to follow, and Howard and Davis do an admirable, but not superior, job reprising their predecessors’ roles. They're at their best in the opening scene, performing the finale of Romeo and Juliet to a packed house while under their breaths fighting about the awful smells in each other's mouths. One can also see hints of things to come from Davis, particularly her role as Margo in All About Eve (1950), another of those bitchy divas she excelled at portraying. While we've yet to see whether video renters and retailers will be carrying these Warner Archive titles, It's Love I'm After is now taking its first step away from the limited realm of TCM-taped broadcasts and having the opportunity to engage with the widest audience since its release over seventy years ago.
Also on DVD this week:
British Cinema: Renown Pictures Crime & Noir (Region 1, VCI) — A two-disc set comes jam-packed with nearly eight hours of forgotten crime dramas from across the other side of the Atlantic. Even their names evoke this lost hardboiled past - curt, no nonsense, and alluringly bleak: Blackout (1950), Bond of Fear (1956), Home To Danger (1951), Meet Mr. Callaghan (1954), No Trace (1950), and Recoil (1953). Why don't we have titles like these anymore?
Golden Age Noir Vol. 1 (Raunchy Tonk, Region 1) - The Golden Age of Television wasn't always so bright and cheery as Nick at Nite would have us believe. This stellar collection of seven vintage television crime dramas from the early 1950s captures not only the birth of one industry, but also the demise of another: the Studio System era of Hollywood. Classic actors (Charles Boyer, Dick Powell, Merle Oberon, George Macready, Ida Lupino) and directors (Robert Florey) go face to face with a new generation of faces (Lee Marvin, Walter Matthau, Joanne Woodward).
Women in Prison Triple Feature (Shock-O-Rama, Region 1) - We should be more thankful this genre exists at all. If the movies deliver what the pictures on the box promise, then expect babes with guns, babes in the shower, babes behind bars, babes busting heads, and babes without shirts. Includes Escape from Hell (1980), Women in Cell Block 7 (1973) and The Hot Box (1972).