One of 1938’s Wonders: Merrily We Live (1938)

We often speak of 1939 as being one of the most prolific years in film history with the release of films like Gone With the Wind, The Wizard of Oz, Mr. Smith Goes to Washingtonor Stagecoach. Consequently, it’s predecessor, the year 1938, often gets overlooked with no good reason. I remember a teacher saying that 1939 was such a great year for the simple fact that 1938 was a bad one. But I strongly disagree. Yes, not so many “epics” pictures were released, but we can find many films that would satisfy a large audience. I love 1938. As a matter of fact, two films released that year are in my top 10, more precisely Bringing Up Baby (Howard Hawks, 1938) and The Lady Vanishes (Alfred Hitchcock, 1938). This being said, I’m glad I’m not the only one demonstrating appreciation for the films of 1938 and it’s with great pleasure that I’m joining other bloggers to the Made in 1938 Blogathon, hosted by my great peers Crystal from In the Good Old Days of Classic Hollywood and Robin from Pop Culture Reverie. This blogathon is not only here for us to discuss our favourite films released that year, but if this is our desire, to also write about a celebrity born that year, such as Natalie Wood or even Christopher Lloyd.

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On my side, I’ve decided to go with the film option. Not a long time ago, I watched Merrily We Live for the first time and was absolutely enchanted by it. I’m now seeing this blogathon as a fine opportunity to write about it. Directed by Norman Z. McLeod, Merrily We Live is a screwball comedy starring Constance Bennett and Brian Aherne. It features Billie Burke, Clarence Kolb, Alan Mowbray, Tom Brown, Bonita Granville, Ann Dvorak, Patsy Kelly, and Phillip Reed.

The film was acknowledged by the Academy Awards with five Oscar nominations, but no win, unfortunately. These were for Best Supporting Actress (Billie Burke), Best Cinematography (Norbert Brodine), Best Art Direction (Charles D. Hall), Best Sound, Recording (Elmer Raguse), and Best Music, Original Song (Phil Charig/Arthur Quenzer).

Merrily We Live was based on the novel The Dark Chapter; A Comedy of Class Distinctions by E. J. Rath (1924) and on his Broadway play adaptation They All Want Something by Courteney Savage (1926). Of course, despite the two films being based on different written works, one can’t help noticing the similarities between Merrily We Live and My Man Godfrey, released two years prior. Well, My Man Godfrey was based on a 1935 short novel by Eric Hatch, entitled 1101 Park Avenue. A crazy producer could have decided to fusion both Hatch and Rath novels together like it was done with The Towering Inferno, but let’s not get too over the top really. In other words, despite their similarities, there are good elements to entertain us in both films. While My Man Godfrey is the most well-remembered one (probably because it stars “bigger” stars: Carole Lombard and William Powell), Merrily We Live has its own charm that makes it worth watching.

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“But what is it all about?” I hear you say with a voice full of curiosity. Well, the story takes place at the Kilbourne’s, a rich American family. The butler, Grosvernor (Alan Mowbray) has just made the awful discovery that the family chauffeur, a certain Ambrose, has not only disappear but has also left with the cutlery. Mrs. Kilbourne (Billie Burke) has the habit of hiring tramps and, pitying them, giving herself the mission to mold them into workers and respectable members of the society, at the great despair of her husband, Mr. Kilbourne (Clarence Kolb) and their three children Geraldine “Jerry” (Constance Bennett), Marion (Bonita Granville) and Kane (Tom Brown). After learning the news about Ambrose at breakfast, the poor Mrs. Kilbourne decides it’s enough with tramps. Only, this won’t last long…

We then meet the tramp of the story (obviously), a young man, Wade Rawlings (Brian Aherne) who is having serious troubles with his car. As a matter of fact, it falls off a cliff (don’t worry, he’s not in it. That’s a comedy). Now only with his feet to take him from place to place, he coincidentally arrives on the Kilbourne’s propriety. He is unwelcomely welcomed by Grosvernor but when Mrs. Kilbourne sees him, she forgets all about her vows not to let tramps into the house anymore. And you’ve guessed it, despite her two daughters and Grosvernor attempt not to let her do it, she doesn’t take long to hire him as the new chauffeur. After cleaning himself and putting a classy car driver uniform no one would suspect he is a former tramp. He doesn’t take long to catch the eye of Jerry who first plays the snub with him but stops this game quite rapidly has her interest for Wade inevitably grows. She however has to face certain obstacle such as her own boyfriend, Herbert Wheeler (Phillip Reed), who isn’t really fond of Wade, and Minerva Harlan (Ann Dvorak), the governor daughter who met Wade at a party (not knowing he was the chauffeur) and who also doesn’t make any efforts to hide her interests for him.

Meanwhile, Mr. Kilbourne isn’t too enthusiast about having a tramp as an employee once again and Grosvernor constantly menaces to quit the house, but he never does. Wade Rawlings, on his side, the most courteous tramp that could ever be, proves us that one should not judge someone on his appearance. Has the story evolves, we learn a bit more about him and his past.

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Films like Merrily We Live are one of the reasons why the 30s is now my favourite decade in films. Its comedic timing is inimitable. We watch these type of films and say to ourselves “Why didn’t I think of that?!”

First of all, the Kilbourne family is completely crazy, but that’s how we love them! I mean, they even have a talkative parrot. As a matter of fact, on its arrival, Wade sort of creates contrast as he probably is the most well-balanced character of the story.

This film was a good occasion for me to be introduced to more of Constance Bennette’s on-screen work. I haven’t seen many of her films (three in total) but I am definitely eager to see more. Norman Z. McLeod had directed her the previous year in one of her most well-known films, Topper. She proves in both films that she has an excellent repartee. I love the self-assurance she has. It makes her totally cool. If her sister Joan Bennett was a queen of film noir, I would say Constance was a queen of screwball comedy. They had respective talent which distinct them very much one from the other. Moreover, Constance Bennett is in perfect harmony with the rest of the actors. I don’t know much about her life and what it was like working with her, but I kind of have the feeling she was a nice person to work with. But I could totally be wrong. I also love the way she is dressed in this film, especially the one-piece she wears at the beginning. There’s something very modern about it and it could totally be worn nowadays. Her costumes were designed by Irene and pretty much at Constance’s image who had the reputation to be one of the most well-dressed women in Hollywood.

Brian Aherne is another actor whose work I’m curious to explore more than I have to. His British accent makes him the most charming tramp there could ever be. We totally understand why Jerry falls for him! As soon as his character is introduced to us, we know he’s gonna be widely appreciated. This is not only done through his effective acting but also by the way Wade Rawlings is developed by the writers. Wade is not only appreciated for his charm but also his excessive politeness. He never makes any unpleasant remarks towards Mrs. Kilbourne (who is a bit silly, to be honest). But he also likes to amuse oneself at the great despair of Grosvernor and Mr. Kilbourne. Brian Aherne was an actor born to play comedy in the classiest way.

But you’ve got to admit, he also looks very cute before the transformation!

This wasn’t the first time Constance Bennett, Billie Burke, and Alan Mowbray were reunited in a film together. Indeed, they appeared together in Topper in which Mowbray was also playing the butler. His character in Merrily We Live is definitely one we’ll remember the most from the film. He’s one of those character actors who definitely knew how to steal the show. His facial expressions are priceless and we love his interactions with the other actors, especially Bonita Granville whose character loves to play tricks on him. One of my personal favourite parts is the bell tricks. Basically, little Marion arranges the metallic pipes for them to fall down (and therefore create a hilarious chaos) when Grosvernor attempt to sound a gong. And it’s hilarious. Grosvernor also often menaces to leave the house when something that displeases him happens. But there’s always something that makes him change his mind. So, it sort of becomes a running gag all along the film.

I couldn’t have imagined anyone else than Billie Burke in the role of Emily Kilbourne. This character actress was known for her roles of well-mannered (and sometimes a stuck up) women. She does that to perfection in Merrily We Live. She’s both completely silly and adorable at the same time. This creates an interesting contrast with the rest of her family who is much more down to earth, especially her husband played by Clarence Kolb. This one plays the rather grumpy father but whom, despite his seriousness, is often a victim of circumstances and becomes part of some of the best gags of the film. This is what I like about it. It makes fun of all kind of people. Therefore, a good lesson is taught to see: don’t ever take yourself too seriously! I think the character who actually understands that the best way is Marion. I admire Bonita Granville’s inexhaustible energy (I’ve never seen someone that much awake in the morning). She surely was a promising teen actress, but she, unfortunately, tends to be a bit forgotten nowadays.

Merrily We Live was written by Eddie Moran and Jack Jevne. Interestingly, some added dialogues were written by Ed Sullivan. The way the story is developed is on the verge of perfection. It progresses with its high points which grabs our attention from beginning to end. Yes, there are a few flaws, one of them would be the very ending, very similar to My Man Godfrey, but not done in an as effective way. As a matter of fact, I think Constance Bennett’s acting is a bit rushed in it, in opposition to the rest of the film. Or maybe it just cuts a bit too fast to “the end” title. But overall, it’s pretty good. However, an element I liked is that we don’t focus too much on the characters played by Phillip Reed and Ann Dvorak. Their presence is long enough to create a problematic in the film and an obstacle for our protagonists, but in opposition to the residents of the Kilbourne’s propriety, I don’t think they are as interesting. So, too much of them would have made the film suffer a bit. But, luckily, that didn’t happen. Don’t mistake me, Ann Dvorak is a terrific actress and her character adds a lot to the story, but she has a fine supporting role and that’s for the best.

 

We are given some memorable lines in this film, completely faithful to the screwball comedy, a genre were dialogues were organized like a captivating baseball game:

1- Marion Kilbourne: [Introducing the two Great Danes] How do you do? I’d like you to meet my dogs. This dog’s name is “Get Off The Rug.” His name is “You, Too!”

2- Mr. Kilbourne: Isn’t there any respect at all in this family?

Jerry Kilbourne: Don’t get discouraged, pop. There must be.

3- Mrs. Kilbourne: Shakepeare was right when he said… oh, I don’t know what he said , but Shakespeare was right!

4- Marion Kilbourne: But your mother was smarter than my mother.

Mrs. Kilbourne: I know she was.

5- Jerry Kilbourne: There’s no film in the camera.

Grosvenor : But, how can you take pictures without film then?

Jerry Kilbourne: Oh, you can’t. I’m just trying it. If I like it, I’ll buy some film.

Grosvenor: Yes, ma’am.

Grosvenor: And what do you mean, sitting down in Mrs. Kilbourne’s presence?

Wade Rawlins: Well, I always sit down when I’m driving her.

Grosvenor: What’s that got to do with it?

Wade Rawlins: [Wade looks at the cook, Etta] I don’t know, what do you think?

Etta: I think you look grand.

6- Wade Rawlins: Mrs. Kilbourne.

Mrs. Kilbourne: Oh, how nice of you to come.

Wade Rawlins: I live here. I’m Rawlins.

Mrs. Kilbourne: Well of course you are. I know that. I never forget a face and a name. Don’t be silly. I’m very glad you came.

7- Grosvenor : This time I’m through, and nothing will make me change my mind. Nothing.

Jerry Kilbourne: [Enters the kitchen] Going somewhere, Grosvenor?

Grosvenor : Why no, Miss Geraldine. The very idea…

I think those sums up pretty well the atmosphere of the film as well as the personality of some of the characters!

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Merrily We Live is a film I was curious to see due to its leading actors, but I took too long to finally watch it. Please, don’t make the same mistake and try to see it as soon as possible! If you’re having the blue, it’s the perfect way to cheer you up!

But of course, it wasn’t only the memorable movie of 1938. So, to conclude this blogathon, I’ve decided to share with you a little top 10 of my most favourite 1938 films. Notice, my favourite Swedish film is among them!

1- Bringing Up Baby – Howard Hawk
2- The Lady Vanishes – Alfred Hitchcock
3- Merrily We Live – Norman Z. McLeod
4- Holiday – George Cukor
5- Le Quai des brumes (Port of Shadows) – Marcel Carné
6- En kvinnas ansikte (A Woman’s Face) – Gustaf Molander
7- Bank Holiday – Carol Reed
8- The Adventures of Robin Hood – Michael Curtiz
9- You Can’t Take It With You – Frank Capra
10- The Broadway Melody of 1938 – Roy Del Ruth

I once again want to thank Crystal and Robin for hosting this amazing blogathon and for allowing me to write about one of the best comedies of the year 1938!

To read the other entries, click here!

See you!

 

 

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23 thoughts on “One of 1938’s Wonders: Merrily We Live (1938)

  1. “Charm.” Yes, Merrily We Live exudes charm and I find it irresistible. Like you, I have to say that I spent most of my life without this movie and that is a regret because in the last couple of years I have grown very fond of the Kilbourne’s and the whole crazy mess. You wrote very well about a grand picture from 1938.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. When comparisons are made between this and My Man Godfrey, I’m one of the few that actually like Merrily We Live better. I believe both Constance Bennett and Brian Aherne are under rated. Though Bennett was often put in films which didn’t allow her talent to shine. At one point, she was the highest paid actress in the thirties. She was extremely business savvy. If you haven’t yet seen her in What Price Hollywood?, make sure to add that to your list. I really wish she had made more comedies, because she is so good in this and Topper.

    As a fan of comedies, I agree with you that 1938 was a good year. Actually, this is precisely why the thirties are also my favorite decade in film. Not only did we start out with the pre-codes, but this decade introduced the world to screwball comedy.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks for your informative comment and suggestion! I haven’t seen What Price Hollywood but heard about it! Yes the 30s were great for the two elements you mentioned! I would also add Busby Berkeley’s musicals!

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  3. This is on my watch list!! SO many great movies I hope to see this year!!! I kind of skimmed the article due to wanting things to be a surprise but I will have to come back to this article and re-read afterwards!!

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Brian Aherne was definitely cuter with the scruff. Bonita Granville was a great teen actress who never managed to graduate to adult roles. It’s a shame. I’d want to see this movie just for her performance. I may have to add it to my list.

    Thanks for participating.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. I must admit that I’ve only seen the start of this film. I couldn’t help but notice the similarities to “My Man Godfrey” and turned it off, LOL. I was sort of telling myself that I’m not going to like it, so that’s why I turned it off. I think I need to give it another go. Thanks for joining the blogathon Virginie with your excellent article.

    I also invite you to read my contribution to the blogathon.

    https://crystalkalyana.wordpress.com/2019/01/24/when-icons-collide-bette-and-errol-in-the-sisters-1938/

    Liked by 1 person

  6. OK a few weeks ago I finally saw this one!!! I do see lots of influence from Godfrey. Even Constance’s hair is similar to Carole’s and the ending scene reminded me of the shower scene in Godfrey! But I do think it stands out on its own!! I like that you defend the film for it has its own greatness! I thought Brian Aherne was charming too! I did not realize he was Joan Fontaine’s husband!!!

    Liked by 1 person

  7. […] Merrily We Live (Norman Z. McLeod, 1938) was definitely an eye-opener for that (no thanks to Billie Burke’s dresses!). Constance Bennett is initially presented to us with that lovely grey suit designed by Irene (well, I kind of assume it’s grey but being a black and white film it’s hard to say- but grey looks fine). Immediately when I saw it, I thought “Hey, this is a 1938s film and I could totally imagine someone wearing that today without looking odd.” I have, unfortunately, never found something that looked like that in any thrift shops but I’m not losing hope. […]

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