Tuesday, February 17, 2009

No Time for Love (1943): Comic Juggling at its Best

No Time for Love (1943) was directed by the underrated Mitchell Leisen. While this movie, along with such other wonderful Leisen movies as Kitty, Hold Back the Dawn, No Man of Her Own and Midnight, used to pop up all the time on tv schedules, it's been years since I've seen this delightful romp. What a treat!

Fred MacMurray plays a beefy Irish sandhog (tunnel worker) who encounters photographer Claudette Colbert when she visits his work place under a river leading to Manhattan. Fred's character, Jim Ryan, and his fellow "hogs" (who include Rhys Williams, Robert Herrick, Tom Neal and a briefly glimpsed Woody Strode) toil away amid the mud, noise and heat while Colbert's Katherine Grant gets in the way. Looking for an aesthetically pleasing grunt to capture on film, she asks the burly laborer in a lofty fashion if he might like to pose for her. No dice, he replies curtly, while spitting out a swallow of water. "That's out. My mama done told me."

Grant's hauteur among the underground toilers gives her "a fish out of water" appeal amid the muck, wolf whistles and not so veiled contempt of Ryan's blue collar Adonis. Her idea of an assignment for the fictional glossy publication Mirror magazine might lean toward photographing more abstract images than sweaty homo sapiens at work. She describes as "exciting subjects" her penchant for artistic, abstract photos of eggs, or capturing the interplay of light and shadow on the ropes and the stairs backstage at the ballet and a burlesque house. Her magazine's editor (Richard Goodwin), being in business at least as much for money as for art, would prefer "to slip a little legitimate leg art" into its pages as well. Eager to "exercise the right of a free camera," Katherine resigns regularly in opposition to such crass commercialization, relying on the leniency of her would-be fiancee, the publisher (Paul McGrath), who invariably orders her re-hired asap.

When Colbert spots Fred at work in a tunnel, looking pretty dang buff without his shirt, she focuses on him as her model. Eventually, circumstances allow her to save Fred's life and, when a published photo of a fight with his co-workers lands Fred on suspension, he becomes the fish out of water, knocking around Colbert's amusingly over-decorated studio being oohed and aahed over by her effete pals, (who include the always welcome Ilka Chase & Richard Haydn).

(Above) Marjorie Gateson, Ilka Chase, Colbert, and Paul McGrath gazing with wonder on Fred's form in her dark room.
The milieu in which Colbert lives and works is tacitly homosexual, with no real competition for her love from publisher/fiance Paul McGrath or composer/friend Richard Haydn, who is not even put out when June Havoc (as a showgirl) calls him "a pantywaist". The scene that follows immediately after this, when Fred, bursting with curiosity and an unacknowledged interest in Colbert, bursts into her world, one of her startled (and clearly gay) friends asks another "My dear, do you think we could harm this Viking?" Fred, acting like the bull in the china shop, decides to try out the chair that Colbert says has more "character, grace, and dignity" than he does. The effect of this is quite amusing.

Sure, you've seen this screwball formula before, but, as played by this pair, who co-starred seven times together, with a very playful script by one of Paramount's more inventively frothy writers, Claude Binyon (story by Robert Lees, Fernando Rinaldo and adaptation by Warren Duff), this movie manages to juggle all of its comedic and romantic screwballs in the air throughout the brisk proceedings without dropping a one. This movie reminded me that MacMurray showed considerable skill for physical comedy, which was especially funny when trying to flummox a he-man being photographed by Colbert.

Some favorite moments:

1.) Claudette tries to teach the sandhogs, who include Rhys Williams, Murray Alper, and Robert Herrick,to play musical chairs, (seen above at the beginning of the sequence), with Richard Haydn as a droll pantywaist around for contrasting purposes. The chaos that ensues and Colbert's frantic attempt to "civilize" this rambunctious crew by playing the game "correctly" signals that the photographer's neatly arranged life, along with her emotions, is going to be harder to rein in from this point on. The scene might also be a hilarious schematic for the eternal struggle between the masculine and the feminine in this life.

2.) Claudette dreams of Fred as Superman, (he was the real life inspiration for Captain Marvel), with MacMurray dazzling in white leotard, with glistening teeth and even broader (padded) shoulders than usual. The "real" Captain Marvel first appeared in Fawcett Comics and later in DC Comics in 1939. Created by artist C. C. Beck and writer Bill Parker, the character first appeared in a Whiz Comic published in February of 1940. See images below for the startling comparison of friendly Fred with the aggressively healthy superhero he became in comic books and the smiling fellow of Claudette's unbidden fantasies.

3.) Fred carrying Claudette over his shoulder after they both finally acknowledge their love for one another, leaves the studio. As they are about to exit the door, Richard Haydn, a mooch throughout the film promises to drop by "tomorrow night for supper." Colbert, not missing a beat, and ignoring any chilly glances from the Production Code boys, says, "Oh no, not tomorrow night." It doesn't read as funny as it played when Colbert
said it in the movie.

4.) I also like the way that Fred asks Claudette point blank in a blunt but still charming way, a couple of times, "Do you want me?" The conventions of the period, the Code, and the style of comedy prevent her from answering directly for much of the movie, but we know exactly how much she does. If only she did!

5.) When Fred arrives at Colbert's photographer's studio, he encounters a male model (Jerome DeNuccio) in a Tarzan outfit and, as seen in the picture below, the pair of men are immediately irked by the presence of the other. Colbert finds herself overwhelmed by the fur flying between the two. This might have been a contrived, formulaic scene in most Hollywood comedies, but the competitiveness between the two males is treated in such a deft, lighthearted fashion, it seems fresher than expected. It also makes an apt subversive point about the territorial instincts of men that seem impossible to predict or completely quell.

6.) In a climactic sequence, Fred is supposedly showing the press a machine that he has developed to prevent mud from filling a tunnel. The scene, among the more contrived in the picture, was helped by the impressive special effects in the film. Shot on Paramount's Stage 18, the sequence, according to the director, required all the actors to work in the extremely uncomfortable environment up to their necks in mud. In one instance, Leisen later recalled after successfully filming a wall of mud inundating the actors, he yelled "cut". As all the participants ran for the showers, a very faint voice was heard crying out: "Let me out, I'm the star." It was Fred, buried under several feet of mud. Funny, on screen, he was a very believable sandhog!

Fred MacMurray, (left) being extricated from the mud (actually a mix of sawdust, water and real mud).
As a photographer who seems to be a cross between Margaret Bourke-White and Berenice Abbott, the movie gives a big wink toward the world of fashion photography, magazines and theatre in the movie version of the NYC playground of that time. Trying to sort out her conflicted feelings about MacMurray, Colbert is given to talking to herself quite a bit. While this puzzles and bemuses her practical minded sister (Ilka Chase), the film never brusquely negates Claudette's intelligence or independence, but follows her developing affection and self-knowledge along throughout the movie. Having seen one too many movies in which the leading lady is humanized by being humiliated, the spunk, ingenuity and game attitude that Claudette displays throughout the movie is very refreshing. She also may never have looked more lovely on screen, thanks in part, I suspect, to Leisen's care, Charles Lang's cinematography and Edith Head's comfortable looking costumes.

Fred, playing a bemused, if largely passive male, is exceptionally good, even though I suspect that the character he played seemed a bit overly familiar to him. While MacMurray reportedly felt that he (and his co-star) were getting a bit long in the tooth for these kind of romps, it seems to me that the actor was becoming more adept at a highly skilled, if unacknowledged gift for comedy at this period of his acting career. If his impeccably crisp playing here had a flaw, it might be that he made it look too easy. Perhaps that's one reason he, and just about everyone else seemed to overlook his contributions to movies from this period.
Above: A Magazine ad for No Time For Love (1944)
Interestingly, the only reference I caught to the ongoing war when this movie was made was a brief, derogatory word from Colbert about the name "Darlene" sounding like another name for a butter substitute. Btw, the showgirl "Darlene" she was referring to was played by a funny June Havoc. The chorine, flinging an insult at the imperious Colbert, promises that "If I get mad, I'm liable to throw ya a dirty look. And where I look dirty, no grass grows. Ever." Later, snuggling up with a self-satisfied MacMurray, Havoc murmurs in her most kittenish voice: "Aw, gee, you're wonderful!" to which, Fred, who has a gift for looking both guilty, greedy, comfy and happy simultaneously, sighs as he says, "Just keep that in mind."

I like to think that this movie really gave movie goers in 1943 a break from the very dark world they lived in. In one review of this movie when it was first released, the critic mused that "one might argue that this picture is too frivolous for this day and time. But we'd call it a first-class example of the inconsequential put to highly diverting use." Ditto!!

It certainly gave me a lift. Now, if only TCM would unearth my other enjoyable pairing of these two actors in The Egg and I (1947)again!
No Time for Love, which is now available commercially on DVD, as part of The Claudette Colbert Collection, which you can read about here.

Some other sparks in the movie vault darkness:
The early Mitchell Leisen musical Murder at the Vanities (1934) on dvd, as part of the Pre-Code Hollywood Collection (The Cheat / Merrily We Go to Hell / Hot Saturday / Torch Singer / Murder at the Vanities / Search for Beauty), available on April 7, 2009.

The Claudette Colbert and Fred MacMurray - The Romantic Comedy Collection (The Gilded Lily / The Bride Comes Home / Family Honeymoon) DVD collection is now available from the TCM Vault Collection, which you can read about here.

Chierichetti, David, Mitchell Leisen: Hollywood Director, Photoventures Press, 1995.
Quirk, Lawrence J., Claudette Colbert: An Illustrated Biography, Crown, 1985.
Tranberg, Charles, Fred MacMurray: A Biography, BearManor Media, 2007.

Last Updated: December 8, 2010


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