Laughter (Harry d’Abbadie d’Arrast, 1930)

I’ve finally managed to see pre-Code romantic comedy Laughter, starring Nancy Carroll, Fredric March and Frank Morgan. It was in a very poor print online (at good old YT), but I’m just happy to have seen it at last. It has never been released on DVD – probably because neither of the two main stars is a top name now, and nor is director Harry d’Abbadie d’Arrast, who only made a handful of movies before leaving Hollywood. There is no chance of it turning up on TV in the UK, where I live, though there is a chance it may appear on TCM in the US, which serves up such an amazing array of early 1930s films. Although this film isn’t very well-known I’ve found a few nice pictures of it, so you might be interested if you scroll down to the end!

The title Laughter might sound as if this film is an uproarious farce , but far from it. In fact it is a blend of sophisticated comedy and melodrama, with some sharp, witty dialogue from screenwriter Donald Ogden Stewart.  This is a film which has attracted a lot of interest and discussion over the years as a precursor to the screwball comedies of a few years later, and there is a long piece on it in the wonderful book I’m slowly reading my way through at the moment, Romantic Comedy in Hollywood from Lubitsch to Sturges by James Harvey.

Nancy Carroll and Fredric March

Nancy Carroll, who played a singer  in Wellman’s Dangerous Paradise, made earlier the same year, is here cast as former Follies dancer Peggy, though she is never actually seen dancing or singing. She has given up the stage to marry a millionaire financier, C Morton Gibson (Frank Morgan), but is finding that wealth has its price. Peggy half-heartedly tries to be a model wife, but is tempted back to her old, easier way of life when an old flame, penniless musician Paul (Fredric March) arrives back from a trip to Europe. Soon the two of them are giggling together non-stop as they reminisce over old times, and indulging in kooky practical jokes, which seem to amuse them a lot more than they do anybody else.

Stranded in the rain when a car breaks down, the couple break into a stranger’s house, where they make themselves hot drinks, play the piano and dress up in bearskin rugs, in a self-consciously silly sequence which has a screwball feel about it. However, the laughter has to stop when the police turn up to arrest them and they nearly land up in court – though they get away with it when the officers realise that the woman involved is the wife of such a rich and important man.

In the car on the way back, Paul gives an extraordinary speech to Peggy where he tells her that her life is ghastly because she doesn’t have laughter. “You’re rich. You’re dirty rich, and only laughter can make you clean.”  To put it another way, money isn’t enough without love. Eventually Peggy tells her husband that she is leaving him – something which in turn makes him laugh, a little. He can’t quite believe she would throw all their wealth away.   Morgan is good at giving his characters a kind of poignant pomposity, and he certainly does that with Morton. He dresses up as Napoleon for an over-the-top costume party, and buys his wife elaborate jewellery – but he seems to be really in love with the stock market. Carroll and March are both very good in their roles, but I’d have to say that for me Morgan steals every scene he appears in.

Morton’s fabulous wealth underlines the fact that this is very much a Great Depression film, where everyone makes decisions because of money, or the lack of it. Starving artist Ralph (Glenn Anders),  pining away with unrequited love for Peggy, is tempted to woo her stepdaughter Marjorie (Diane Ellis) instead simply for her money – echoing the bargain that Peggy herself made. In the  opening sequence of the film, Ralph phones Peggy up to tell her he plans to shoot himself, but she won’t take his call – so he laughs as he leaves a message with the maid. His suicide is postponed until towards the end of the film, but the desperate note of his laugh remains as a backdrop to everything that follows.

This film wasn’t very successful at the box office, with moviegoers hit by the Depression probably finding it hard to sympathise with a poor little rich wife. However, it is very entertaining to watch even in a washed out print where you can’t see the faces half the time – so I’m very glad I got the chance to see it, and would like to thank mdean for recommending it.

Nancy Carroll and Frank Morgan in his Napoleon costume

Nancy Carroll and despairing artist Glenn Anders

Nancy Carroll comforts stepdaughter Diane Ellis

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24 thoughts on “Laughter (Harry d’Abbadie d’Arrast, 1930)

  1. “The title Laughter might sound as if this film is an uproarious farce , but far from it. In fact it is a blend of sophisticated comedy and melodrama, with some sharp, witty dialogue from screenwriter Donald Ogden Stewart. This is a film which has attracted a lot of interest and discussion over the years as a precursor to the screwball comedies of a few years later…”

    Most interesting Judy! Needless to say I have not seen this, but you anticipated that US voters would find this impossible at present. But I am a big fan of March and Morgan, and as of late of pre-coders so this is definitely one to track down or at least keep an eye out for. You frame it’s potential appeal and delineate it’s story most superbly here, and ironically offer up some pristine caps, even with the print in a more compromised condition.

    Nice unearthing here Judy!

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    • Maybe this will turn up at the Film Forum for you one of these days, Sam, especially if they do another pre-Code festival! Ironically, it often seems to be the case that you can find great photos from a film even if you can’t get a decent print of the film itself – or if it is lost completely. Thanks very much for the kind comment and all your support and friendship.

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  3. I love that line about laughter making you clean. Hopefully I can still catch this on YT. I really liked Carroll in “Hot Saturday”, but I heard this was one of her best.

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    • Thanks, KC! If you do watch it online, don’t be discouraged by the truly terrible picture and sound right at the start, as it does get a bit better (though still not great.) I’ve only seen three Carroll movies so far, this one, ‘Dangerous Paradise’ and ‘Broken Lullaby’, and she is very good in all of them, so I’d like to see more of her roles. I haven’t seen any of her musicals as yet though she does do a bit of singing in ‘Dangerous Paradise’. I’ll watch out for ‘Hot Saturday’! Have added you to my blogroll.:)

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  4. I always enjoy seeing Frank Morgan and Fredric March so I would really like to check this one out with both of them together. I hope whomever owns the rights to this film will do a remastered release, even if it is one of those WB MOD releases – or I noticed sometimes Netflix will offer movies for streaming that haven’t been released on DVD.

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    • Thanks for commenting, Robby! Yes, Fredric March and Frank Morgan together are great, and it would be wonderful to have a remastered release.Must admit I’m not a big fan of the WB MOD releases, though, as Warner hasn’t so far made them available in the UK so we can’t rent them here and only have the option of buying them on import at an inflated price – they also do not stream the titles here at the moment, but I’m hoping eventually they will do so. I do miss their good old box sets, which were much cheaper, and tended to be released on both sides of the Atlantic!

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  5. Nancy Carroll was so much better in the dramas she did as opposed to the musicals she was assigned at the advent of sound. I mean she’s likable in films like Follow Thru and Sweetie, but she doesn’t have the Broadway chops such roles required (shades of Ruby Keeler). I believe those dramas saved her career, for a time.

    Another precode Paramount to find is Stolen Heaven, where she was teamed with Phillips Holmes as she was later in Broken Lullaby. Interesting little melodrama.

    P.S. Don’t think us Americans have it good re:precode Paramount releases. We get whatever Universal thinks it can flog and nothing more, the other films don’t even get a showing on TCM. Old Universals are treated even worse – some very good Universal precodes haven’t been seen for well over a decade or two.

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    • Thank you – interesting to hear that you feel Carroll is better in the dramas. I will look out for ‘Stolen Heaven’ as I’d like to see her with Phillips Holmes again, and ‘interesting little melodrama’ is exactly what I go for.

      I’m sorry to hear that pre-Code Paramounts and Universals are so difficult to see in the US too – sometimes when I see bloggers writing about all the goodies coming up on your TCM channel I turn green with envy, but I know there are many great titles which don’t get shown there either!

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  6. Totally unfamiliar with this film Judy. I am constantly amazed how you dig up these little treasures. It sounds like an interesting early comedy. Sadly, there are still so many films that just do not get to see the light of day and just stay hidden in studio vaults. Such a shame. Enjoyed very much!

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    • Thanks very much, John – I agree with you it is a pity that many early films don’t seem to get much of a show. Despite my moans about Warner Archive, at least they are making decent prints of many such films available, at a price!

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  7. I don’t believe “Laughter” has been shown on TCM here in the U.S., though apparently the channel is getting closer to obtaining rights to much of Paramount’s product from 1929 to 1948 (most of those films now belong to Universal), so it may pop up sometime in the near future.

    Diane Ellis was a close friend of Carole Lombard; they were studiomates at Pathe in 1929, and both were dismissed from the studio late that year for reasons that were not made public (apparently they too closely resembled newly-signed Constance Bennett for Connie’s liking). Both wound up at Paramount in 1930, and both made films at its Astoria studio that summer (“Laughter” for Ellis, “Fast And Loose” for Lombard). Diane married that fall, and while going on a round-the-world honeymoon, contracted a disease in India and died that December.

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    • Thanks, Vincent – I was wondering about Diane Ellis as she is good in this and there is very little info about her at the imdb. Sad that she died so young. It’s good news that TCM may soon get the rights to some of those elusive early Paramount/Universal movies!

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  8. One more thing — while Nancy Carroll was an attractive young woman, she apparently rubbed some folks the wrong way. One of them was Paramount fashion designer Travis Banton, whose feelings about her were made known in a Photoplay article in May 1936 (http://carole-and-co.livejournal.com/452373.html).

    Also, someone mentioned “Hot Saturday.” Carole Lombard was to have starred in that film, but she got out of it for another film (one called “No Man Of Her Own,” with MGM loanout Clark Gable), and Carroll was given the part (http://carole-and-co.livejournal.com/97758.html).

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    • These links are fascinating – as well as the account of Nancy Carroll’s alleged diva antics in that first article, I also enjoyed the piece about Clara Bow as she is an actress I admire. The second article is also very interesting – amazing how often the casts of these films seemed to change very late on. I see that ‘Hot Saturday’ is available on YT, so hope to get to it soon. Thanks again, Vincent!

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  12. I haven’t visited your blog (or many others for that matter) lately so I was a little surprised to see you you had recently reviewed this one. Coincidentally, I happened to see this about a week ago. Now I don’t think I liked it quite as much as you, but I’m still glad to have seen it. I think the only real reason to see it is for Frank Morgan’s performance. He’s much better known for his comedic roles but parts like this one and his great role in The Mortal Storm show that he was a versatile and talented actor.

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    • Thanks very much for commenting, Jason – I find this comedy interesting as a precursor of the screwballs, but definitely agree that Morgan gives the strongest performance. He was such a great character actor – I’d really like to see him in a lead role, but am not sure whether he ever got that opportunity, although his part in ‘The Mortal Storm’ is certainly major. I do agree that he is great in comic roles but also a far more versatile actor – come to think of it, he blends comedy with tragedy in ‘The Shop Around the Corner’, a film which I know you admire.

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    • I don’t know why I didn’t think of The Shop Around the Corner. That’s one of, if not the, strongest of his performances.

      And I find it interesting that this was a precursor to the screwball comedy. I can see why looking back, but there was no point in the movie that even made me think about laughing. It was all pretty grim to me. I’d be curious to see what that book on romantic comedies you’re reading has to say about it.

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  13. I love that Frederich march was co star with clara bow ‘s first talkie “the saturday night kid” (that movie btw is like pre code paradise) and one year later he was paired with nancy carroll who looks a lot like bow .he was the least typecast dude ever btw,I’ve seen him play pretty much everything !he even played the death for heaven’s sake,in that marbellous lubitsch movie (or was it leisen?) With eveline venable

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