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, 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.