Saturday, September 12, 2009

Come and Get It!

"Come and Get It!" (Howard Hawks, William Wyler, Richard Rosson* 1936) Edna Ferber's novel was purchased by Samuel L. Goldwyn to turn into a Hollywood blockbuster and Howard Hawks hired to direct. But Hawks was a maverick, and when Goldwyn came back from a long illness to see how things had progressed, he was shocked, shocked I tell you, to see that Hawks had drifted afield of the Ferber source novel. For one reason or another, Hawks was fired (or quit, depending who was asked) and replaced by Goldwyn favorite William Wyler (who was just finishing up "Dodsworth" for Goldwyn).

The result is a revelation on very many levels: that
Hawks' signature style was so evident it couldn't be mistaken for any other director; that the difference between Wyler's and Hawks' scenes are night and day; that Edward Arnold, known to modern audiences as a supporting player in Capra films could carry a movie so handily; Walter Brennan could be a versatile and nimble actor; and that Frances Farmer was an incredibly gifted actor of enormous facility and subtlety.

The story of a logging "pirate," Bernard Glasgow (
Arnold) falls in love with a saloon girl (Farmer), but gives her up to marry the boss's daughter, win himself a partnership and become one of the richest men in Missouri. Hawks's part is a fast-moving, rollicking story of rapacious men grabbing as much as they could to line their pockets. Shot in mostly waist-level fast set-up's, with a rarely moving camera, the emphasis is what's in the frame and not how it's framed, so most of the scenes are crowded with people, the actors stepping over each other's lines and character bits of business that are not called attention to (including the requisite cigarette lighting without being asked). Highlights are a saloon fight with serving trays used as dangerous flying discs, a couple of fights in which Arnold solidly smacks his opponents, a game of chance turned on its ear, and an Oscar-winning turn (the first to be given to a supporting actor) by Walter Brennan, rangy, ebullient and sporting a high Swedish accent.

But Farmer steals this section (she dominates the whole movie, actually) with her performance as the ultimate "
Hawks dame:" her Lotta Morgan is gum-chewing, moose-jawed, with big movements and a dusky drawled voice, with more than a hint of Marlene Dietrich's insolence (courtesy of frequent Hawks collaborator Jules Furthman, who'd written a couple Dietrich films). That Farmer then plays her daughter (also named Lotta) later in the film in a high-toned, fluttery manner—she even sings differently— with a more subdued jaw-line and a smile not so crooked as her mother's is one of those nuanced things of such complexity that you remember how clever these "old" movies can be.

Farmer is able to keep up the performance when Wyler takes over, and it's pretty obvious when that is—when the Bostrom clan and Glasgow (now smitten with the daughter of the woman he left behind) take a fancy trip to Chicago. The pace slows. The actor's get out of the way of each other's lines.** The
Gregg Toland photography is a bit more finicky and lush, not having to rush to make Hawks's schedule but accomodating to Wyler's. Scenes are staged more angularly and more obviously, telegraphing future camera moves and upcoming "business." And attention is paid to more obvious scene-fussiness, even to including cut-away's—a boy-girl flirtation is built around a taffy pull, and a later scene between Glasgow and his daughter doesn't communicate their "reflection of each other" relationship as Hawks did, but is, instead, based around a child's balancing toy. Wyler has enormous taste and style, but as much as he tries to emulate Hawks' off-the-cuff style, the more it feels staged and unnecessary, even making more of a Joel McCrea ad-libbed-over gaffe in Hawks's section than is necessary.

Hawks is more adept at making his points, too. Where he has a quick discussion of the duplicity of home-steading to acquire more timber land from the government for nothing ("'s not illegal" says the company CEO), and shows Glasgow's utter disregard for re-planting ("Ah, nothin'll grow back there!"), whereas
Joel McCrea's son has the "planting for the future" line in Wyler's section—a conversation that puts the older Bostrow's to sleep.

It's an interesting study in contrasts in directing style—Hawks's attention to material and Wyler's attention to presentation—that may be lost on those caught up in Ferber's soapish story ("the famous novel by Edna Ferber" is how it's described in the credits. There's plenty of reason to go hunting for this film. And a hunt it will be; this film is notoriously snake-bit.*** Maybe because of the melodrama behind the scenes, or Goldwyn's lack of enthusiasm for the result—the film went way over budget, capping at more than a million 1935 dollars—and was not a box-office success. Then there's the troubled career of Frances Farmer, which no studio wanted to gamble on promoting. For whatever reason, "Come and Get It," holds up very well and seems downright prescient for its asides on ecological issues and corporate ethics. And it is the film that Farmer was proudest of, despite its many issues in front of and behind the camera. She would never be as satisfied with her work and the conditions to achieve it again in her life.

Come and Get it!" premiered in Seattle, Washington at The Liberty Theatre, where Frances Farmer had once been an usherette.

"Our Lady of Perpetual Rebellion:" Frances Farmer
Publicity Glamour photo by George Hurrell

* With all the attention made to Hawks' and Wyler's separate efforts there was a third director for "Come and Get It!"—Hawks's talented assistant director Richard Rosson who traveled to Idaho to photograph the incredible logging footage contained in the early part of the film.

** Is it preposterous for me to think that Wyler was taking a jab at Hawks' dialogue direction by having Brennan and Mady Christians—playing his niece—stop a conversation dead by saying the same thing over each other a couple times and then give up trying to inject into the conversation?

*** As an indication of this on a personal note, it took far more effort than normal to find a vintage poster of "Come and Get It!." Until the last minute, the best I could uncover was a newspaper ad.

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