Friday, 4 September 2015

Film Friday: "Having Wonderful Time" (1938)

This week on "Film Friday" I bring you a cutesy little film that paired my favorite classic actress with one of the most dashing leading men of the Old Hollywood era.

Theatrical release poster
Directed by Alfred Santell, Having Wonderful Time (1938) tells the story of Teddy Shaw (Ginger Rogers), a hard-working office girl from the Bronx who constantly imagines herself as a sophisticated, well-read woman of the world. To escape the busy city life and the advances of her faithful but dull admirer, Emil Beatty (Jack Carson), whose interest in her is no longer returned, Teddy decides to take a vacation at a summer resort in the Catskill Mountains called Camp Kare-Free. Upon her arrival, she is offered a ride by Chick Kirkland (Douglas Fairbanks Jr.), a handsome law school graduate employed there as a waiter. Although he's polite, they get off to a bumpy start (and quite literally, too) after she scolds him for accidentally dropping her suitcase.

Once at camp, Teddy is greeted by the kooky social director Itchy Faulkner (Red Skelton), before her friend Fay Coleman (Peggy Conklin) introduces her to their bunkmates, Henrietta (Eve Arden), an uppity wallflower, and Miriam (Lucille Ball), a "screwball" who only has eyes for the womanizer Buzzy Armbruster (Lee Bowman). Chick soon breaks through Teddy's snobbish exterior and the two fall madly in love over the next days. During her last night at the camp, Chick talks of marriage, but doesn't feel his current prospects allow him to propose to her. After he makes an improper suggestion, Teddy runs from him and meets up with Buzzy, who invites her to his cabin. He tries to seduce her, but she quickly puts him off and the two end up spending the night playing backgammon. The next morning, Miriam sees Teddy sneaking out of Buzzy's cabin, before Emil arrives to drive her home. While Chick waits on them, they overhear Miriam yelling at Buzzy for having Teddy stay overnight. In the ensuing confusion, a jealous Chick punches both Buzzy and Emil and then follows Teddy out of the restaurant. Sure of Teddy's faithfulness, Chick finally proposes and the two began planning their married life.

Teddy Shaw: Chick, I'm a bluff. And what's more, I know it. I know myself very well. And you come right down to it, I'm exactly like those other hillbillies from the Bronx. Oh, I didn't say my mind was bad, I just thought I'd develop it. Gee, I wish I coulda gone to college.

Born in 1900 in the historical region of Galicia, now part of western Ukraine, American author/screenwriter Arthur Kober started his professional life as a theatrical press agent for several Broadway celebrities, before rising to fame with a series of humorous short stories he wrote for The New Yorker in 1926. Shortly afterwards, Kober travelled west to Hollywood and penned screenplays for about 30 films in the 1930s and 1940s, such as Raoul Walsh's Me and My Gal (1932) and William Wyler's The Little Foxes (1941), the latter based on the semi-autobiographical play by Lillian Hellman, his former wife. Through his characters and stories, Kober often tried to capture the charm and zaniness of his Jewish upbringing in New York, becoming almost "a folk artist of the Bronx and the Catskills."

In 1937, Kober wrote what is considered to be his best-remembered work, the Broadway play Having Wonderful Time, "a colorfully riské comedy" centered on Eastern Jewish characters vacationing in the Borscht Belt, a colloquial term used in reference to the (now mostly defunct) summer resorts of the Catskill Mountains in upstate New York. These resorts were a popular vacation spot for New York City Jews between the 1920s and the 1970s. Starring Katherine Locke, Sheldon Leonard and a young John Garfield (then still billed as Jules Garfield), Having Wonderful Time was an instant hit and later served as the basis for Kober's musical Wish You Were Here, which enjoyed a very successful run on Broadway during the 1952-1953 season.

Douglas Fairbanks Jr. and Ginger Rogers
When producer Pandro S. Berman purchased the film rights to Having Wonderful Time for RKO, the Hays Office felt that the material was too much identified with the Bronx and the Jewish community and ordered the studio to make some changes, both to widen the film's audience appeal and avoid misunderstandings and racial antagonism. As a result, after Kober was hired to write the screenplay, RKO "carefully explained" that Having Wonderful Time would simply be about young people of the lower middle-classes and asked him to change the setting as well as the ethnicity of his characters.

When I was called in to make the adaptation, the first thing I had to do was turn my Jewish characters into Gentiles. Teddy Stern, the little heroine, whom Ginger Rogers played, became Teddy Shaw; Chick Kessler, her sweetheart, played by Douglas Fairbanks Jr., was given the handle of Chick Kirkland; Fay Fromkin, Teddy's friend, became Fay Coleman; 'Pinkie' Aaronson and Sam Rappaport got completely new names they became 'Buzzy' Armbruster and Emil Beatty; and even poor 'Itchy' Flexner had to change his proud family name to Faulkner. Only the name of the camp [...] was allowed to remain. And, of course, by some curious contradiction of Hollywood's usual practice, the title of the play went underchanged.
(Arthur Kober)

Fairbanks Jr. and Rogers on location
For the 27-year-old Ginger Rogers, Having Wonderful Time provided an oportunity for her to break out of the musical roles she had become most associated with and prove that she was a versatile actress. The film also reunited her with several of her co-stars from Gregory La Cava's Stage Door (1937), notably Lucille Ball, Eve Arden, Jack Carson and Ann Miller, whose part ended up being cut from the film. According to Rogers, making Having Wonderful Time was a very happy experience, especially travelling out of town for location shooting at Big Bear Lake in the San Bernardino Mountains, where RKO set up a mock Camp Kare-Free.

Rogers also enjoyed working with her dashing leading man, the 29-year-old Douglas Fairbanks Jr., whom she described as "a very cooperative actor." The only child of legendary film star Douglas Fairbanks and his first wife, Anna Beth Sully, Fairbanks Jr. began his prolific career playing mainly supporting roles to several of the leading female players of the silent era, such as Pauline Starke in Women Love Diamonds (1927) and Greta Garbo in A Woman of Affairs (1928), before making a smooth transition to sound and achieving critical and commercial success in iconic films like Mervyn LeRoy's Little Caesar (1931) and George Stevens's Gunga Din (1939). "Ginger and I got along happily and well," he later said. "In fact, she got along well with everybody [...] However, I was always on my best behavior with her because she invariably remind me of an innocent high-spirited college kid, enthusiastic about ice cream sodas, with a vocabulary dependent on 'Gosh' and 'Gee-whiz.'"

Red Skelton and Ginger Rogers
Having Wonderful Time marked the feature film debut of Red Skelton, who lent his extraordinary comedy skills to the role of Itchy Faulkner, Camp Kare-Free's zany entertainment director. A stage performer since a very young age, Skelton was a sought-after master of ceremonies for dance marathons, a popular event during the Great Depression, before getting his big chance in 1937 as an headlining act at Loew's State Theater in New York. Skelton's experienced co-stars were very helpful in showing him the "movie ropes" and Rogers even gave the 25-year-old newcomer some tips on one of his many hobbies, photography.

According to Rogers, Skelton's supporting role was supposed to have been larger, but unfortunately "much of his antic inventiveness ended up on the cutting-room floor." Thankfully, RKO was sensible enough to preserve his signature doughnut-dunking sketch, which had gotten him his engagement at Loew's. Running right at three minutes, the sequence features Skelton demonstrating three types of dunkers: the cross-eyed variety, the society sort and the sneaky dunker. While Having Wonderful Time also showcased another memorable Skelton routine, on various ways people go up stairs, the comedian had numerous "how to" bits, one or more of which was presumably filmed but not used. Fairbanks Jr. later explained the reason why Skelton's role was significantly reduced: "the big bosses at the studio were unable to appreciate Skelton's broad, slapstick style and cut his part down to the barest minimum needed to hold the slender plot together." 

Having Wonderful Time was neither a commercial nor critical success upon its release in July 1938. The Variety reviewer, familiar with the Broadway version, wrote, "Much of the charm, romantic tenderness and social problem features of Arthur Kober's stage play [...] are missing in the screen version. In their place, the author, who also did the screenscript, has substituted some lively horseplay and occasional slapstick and has accentuated the comedy angles [...] Public will accept it as a good time, and laugh heartily at its obvious humor." Ginger Rogers blamed period censorship for the film's problems: "At the insistence of the Hays Office, the ethnic Jewish story was played by a decidedly gentile cast. As a result, the film was not nearly as funny as the play and, understandably, was nowhere near as successful." Red Skelton's performance, however, was universally praised, with The New York Times calling it "faultless," and turned his career-making doughnut routine into a little piece of comedy history.

Ginger Rogers and Douglas Fairbanks Jr. in a publicity still

Personally, I really enjoyed Having Wonderful Time. Ginger Rogers is stunning as always and Douglas Fairbanks Jr. is incredibly dashing. I think this was the first film I ever saw with him and I fell in love right away. They have amazing chemistry too. And then of course there is Red Skelton. Oh, what a little gem he was! By the way, totally unrelated topic — am I the only one who wishes there was a film (or two) starring both Red Skelton AND the completely underrated Virginia O'Brien? The screen time they shared in Norman Z. McLeod's Lady Be Good (1941) and Roy Del Ruth's DuBarry Was a Lady (1943) wasn't nearly enough to showcase the wonderful things they could do together. They were such a good team and it's an absolute shame that the Hollywood studio bosses did not realized that.


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SOURCES:
Eve Arden: A Chronicle of All Film, Television, Radio and Stage Performances by David C. Tucker (2012) | Red Skelton: The Mask Behind the Mask by Wes Gehring (2013) | Arthur Kober's biography in The New York Times | TCMDb (Articles) | TCMDb (Notes)

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