Friday, 15 May 2015

Film Friday: "The Moon's Our Home" (1936)

To celebrate Henry Fonda and Margaret Sullavan's birthday, which is tomorrow, this week on "Film Friday" I want to tell you a little bit about the only film they ever did together.

Theatrical release poster
Directed by William A. Seiter, The Moon's Our Home (1936) begins when a nutty Hollywood star named Cherry Chester (Margaret Sullavan) is called home to New York by her stern grandmother, Lucy Van Steedan (Henrietta Crosman), who wants her to marry her dull cousin Horace (Charles Butterworth). Taking the same train is Anthony Amberton (Henry Fonda), a famous adventure novelist who is traveling to New York for a signing of his new book. Although they have never met, Cherry and Anthony are scornful of each other. When he hears that Cherry Chester is on the train, he wonders aloud whether a Cherry Chester is a new kind of soft drink. She, on her part, is reading his latest travel guide: "'Mr. Amberton and his camel,'" she reads. "Oh, I see. He's the one with the hat on." 

During the book signing, Anthony gets nauseous with the smell of Cherry's signature perfume and runs out the department store. He is chased by a mob of adoring fans, but is able to escape by leaping into a horse-drawn carriage, one which Cherry happens to be riding in. Neither recognizes the other and they begin talking flirtatiously without introducing themselves. Anthony then leaves in a hurry, but not before depositing a card in her hand as an invitation to his favorite winter retreat in Moonsocket, New Hampshire. Unbale to resist the temptation to disappear, Cherry runs away from her grandmother and Horace and travels to Moonsocket to meet Anthony. At the hotel, they introduce themselves by their real names, John Smith and Sarah Brown, and in between violent discussions, ski crashes and other such disasters, they fall in love and get married, still unaware of each other's identity. On their wedding night, Cherry uses some of her perfume, making Anthony unbearably ill, and the truth gradually, and inevitably, begins to leak out.

Anthony/John: There's a destiny in this and I've come to save you. You have got to come with me. No, don't speak. I'm going away, far away from cities and people and you got to come with me. You don't have to know my name, I don't have to know your name. All that matters is us, two free people with the world behind them.

In April 1929, Bernie Hanighen invited his childhood friend Henry Fonda to appear in a comic part in a musical show he was organizing at a theatrical club in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Fonda's one scene in the play, entitled Close Up, required him to try to pick a young woman and get slapped for his freshness. The slapper was played by a 20-year-old actress from Norfolk, Virginia named Margaret Sullavan. "We rehearsed that bit for a week or ten days, and every time she slapped me, she rocked me," Fonda later recalled. "Every time she hit, I saw a flash. It seemed to say, 'You better, by God, notice me.' And I did. I fell in love with her too." After Close Up, Sullavan was asked to join the University Players, an intercollegiate summer stock company formed in 1928 by Joshua Logan, to which Fonda also belonged. At this point, the Players had built their own theatre in Falmouth and Fonda and Sullavan starred in the premiere play, Devil and the Cheese. By the time the production finished its run, they were already involved.

In late 1929, Fonda and Sullavan moved to New York to try their luck at Broadway. He was soon given a tiny part in The Game of Love and Death, a play directed by Rouben Mamoulian, featuring Claude Rains and Alice Brady. Sullavan, however, was unable to find work and returned home to Norfolk to make her debut into society. In mid-1930, they were reunited in the Players' production of A Kiss for Cinderella, which Fonda also directed. Early the next year, Sullavan embarked on a tour as an understudy in a play called Strictly Dishonorable. Fonda missed her terribly and was happy to have her back in New York when she was hired for the the lead in the Broadway play A Modern Virgin. Their romance intensified through the early days of winter, until Fonda finally proposed. Sullavan accepted and, on Christmas Day 1931, they were married in the dining room of the Kernal Hotel in Baltimore, Maryland. Sadly, the union was short-lived and marred by endless arguments. They separated in either February or March 1932, with the divorce being finalized sometime in 1933.

Margaret Sullavan and Henry Fonda
By 1936, both Fonda and Sullavan were burgeoning film stars. Making his screen debut reprising his stage role in The Farmer Takes a Wife (1935), Fonda had appeared in such films as I Dream Too Much (1935), which have him a chance to work with a future co-star, Lucille Ball, and The Trail of the Lonesome Pine (1936), the first American picture to be shot in the three-strip Technicolor process in an outdoor setting. As for Sullavan, she made her film debut in Only Yesterday (1933) and then appeared in such features as The Good Fairy (1935), whose director, William Wyler, she later married, and Next Time We Love (1936), co-starring their close friend and fellow Player, James Stewart.

The Moon's Our Home was adapted for the screen by Isabel Dawn and Boyce DeGaw from the novel by Faith Baldwin, originally serialized in Cosmopolitan magazine between September 1935 and January 1936. The married writing team of Dorothy Parker and Alan Campbell, whose joint film credits include Suzy (1936) and A Star is Born (1937), were hired to polish the script, contributing several bits of witty dialogue. The story of The Moon's Our Home strangely mirrors Fonda and Sullavan's own tempestuous romance and many lines seem to suggest awareness of their off-screen history.  

 Anthony/John: Haven't I seen somewhere before?
Cherry/Sarah: Possibly — I'm the girl you married once.
Anthony/John: I knew it! I never forget a face.

Seiter, Fonda and Sullavan on the set
The director of The Moon's Our Home was William A. Seiter, a native New Yorker who began his film career in 1915 as a bit player at Mack Sennett's Keystone Studios. He transitioned to director in 1918 and went on to helm such pictures as Roberta (1935), starring Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers; Stowaway (1936), with Shirley Temple; This Is My Affair (1937), with Robert Taylor and Barbara Stanwyck; The Lady Takes a Chance (1943), starring Jean Arthur and John Wayne; and One Touch of Venus (1948), featuring Robert Walker and Ava Gardner.

Working together, Fonda and Sullavan discovered that they still had strong feelings for each other. According the June 1936 issue of Photoplay magazine, Sullavan left Wyler two days after The Moon's Our Home finished filming. When she was taken to the hospital with a broken arm and a nervous collapse, Fonda was the only one allowed to see her. At one point, they even discussed remarriage and went house-hunting in Los Angeles, but never did get together in the end. "She was smart enough to realize we couldn't make it happen again," Fonda later recalled. "But breaking up with her was not the tragedy it had been originally." Later that year, Fonda married socialite Frances Ford Seymour and Sullavan married her agent, Leland Hayward.

While we were on location, the romance sort of bloomed again. When we got back, we talked about marrying again, even looked at property to build a home on. And then, suddenly, it was off. I wouldn't be able to explain what it was about the combination of the two of us that didn't work. I guess it was our temperaments. We must have been ill-fated lovers.
(Henry Fonda)

Margaret Sullavan and Henry Fonda

Produced by Walter Wanger, who had Fonda under contract, and distributed by Paramount Pictures, The Moon's Our Home opened on April 10, 1936. Frank S. Nugent of The New York Times wrote that the film "is considerably more sprightly than the novel itself. It is well, for the tale was not numbered among her best, while the picture, certainly, is about the most likable of the many screen entertainments inspired by Faith, produced in hope and not always received with charity." Nugent praised the principal cast and highlighted several scenes with Fonda and Sullavan, including the marriage ceremony before a dead justice of the peace and the moment of the wedding night when Anthony gets sick with the smell of Cherry's perfume. "In the contemplation of such enjoyable bits," Nugent said, "one can forgive many things — even the boy meets girls, loses girl formula."

Although largely forgotten today, The Moon's Our Home was a commercial success at time of its release, perhaps due to the public's fascination with seeing Henry Fonda and Margaret Sullavan together again. The film may not as good as other screwball comedies of the 1930s, but it is still a thoroughly enjoyable romp. Despite the fact that their relationship did not end in the best of terms, Fonda and Sullavan have amazing chemistry. Their antics in the snow will make you laugh out loud.

Haywire by Brooke Hayward (2011) | Henry Fonda: A Bio-Bibliography by Kevin Sweeney (1992) | The Art of the Screwball Comedy: Madcap Entertainment from the 1930s to Today by Doris Milberg (2013) | The Man Who Saw a Ghost: The Life and Work of Henry Fonda by Devin McKinney (2012) | Photoplay magazine, issues from May and June 1936 | TCMDb (Notes) | The New York Times review

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