Latter-day screwball comedy Eternally Yours was made in what is often described as Hollywood’s greatest year, 1939, and has a superb cast. There are three actors who later won Oscars, not only leads Loretta Young and David Niven, but also Broderick Crawford as the hapless “other man”. Also featured are great silent film actress Zasu Pitts, doing a comic turn, and C. Aubrey Smith, Eve Arden, Hugh Herbert and Billie Burke in small roles. And there’s a good director, Tay Garnett, who went on to make The Postman Always Rings Twice a few years later. Don’t expect too much, though – this is not a masterpiece by any means and I’d have to say it sags in the middle, after a great start.
Any fan of classic romantic comedy will find plenty to enjoy, all the same, just as long as you steer clear of the dire public domain DVDs on the market from companies you’ve never heard of. I rashly bought one of these and found the film almost impossible to watch, with dreadful picture and sound quality, and a lot of bewildering jumps in the story. It later transpired that this was an incomplete version with many scenes missing (including some of the best ones!) so that the plot made little sense. Fortunately there was a more complete version on Youtube (around 90 minutes), with much better sound and picture. This may not be perfect, and still has one or two jumps, but, when I watched this, suddenly the film was immeasurably improved from the butchered version I’d originally seen. I note that the US TCM website also has a DVR version available which may be better yet.
I watched Eternally Yours mainly for Loretta Young, who is one of my favourite actresses on the strength of her pre-Code work. (This is her centenary year and many of her films are being shown on TCM in the US, though not in the UK, where I live.) Young gives a warm, witty performance and does as well as she can here with a rather inconsistently written character. But I’d have to say that David Niven, in one of his first roles as a leading man, steals the show as a charming, wildly irresponsible stage magician. Other attractions include some great special effects and a scene where Niven’s character, Tony, carries out a Houdini-style parachute jump in handcuffs over the Lagoon of Nations at the 1939 World Fair in New York. Stunt pilot Paul Mantz worked on these scenes.
The heroine, Anita (Young), cosseted granddaughter of a bishop, is engaged to the stolid Don (Crawford) at the start, and holding a rather staid “bridal shower”, where her wisecracking friend Gloria (Eve Arden) puts a damper on proceedings by constantly warning of how boring the rest of her life will be. (Some of Gloria’s sarcastic lines come to mind when Anita is hankering after a ‘normal’ home life later in the film.) The women impulsively decide to go along to a magic show being staged by ‘The Great Arturo’, otherwise known as Tony (Niven). Tony immediately casts his spell over Anita, and, after a brief scene where they gaze into each other’s eyes, Don is out of the picture.
The story jumps 18 months and resumes with the couple married and caught up in a never-ending world tour – TCM’s article on the film says that independent producer Walter Wanger wanted to use some left-over globe-trotting footage from a previous film he had made with Young, Shanghai. I think this section is the best part of the film, as Niven and Young are seen working together as magician and assistant and joking together off stage. There is loads of chemistry between them and they have some lighthearted, sexy scenes like one where they eat bloaters for breakfast and Tony keeps trying to share Anita’s food instead of eating his own (this was one of the scenes missing from the first print I saw). Even the way they nickname each other ‘Mums’ and ‘Pops’ is quite sweet – similar nicknames made me cringe in one of The Thin Man sequels (maybe because in that one the couple really are parents), but with this pair somehow the banter has a mischievous flavour which works. (The script is by Gene Towne and C. Graham Baker, who also worked together on a much better-known film, History is Made at Night.)
Although they are obviously in love, it’s clear that Tony never listens to a word Anita says and blithely assumes she likes touring as much as he does. It’s also clear that he spends a lot of time flirting with other women – since this was made under the Production Code, there is no suggestion that his philandering goes any further than that, but it is easy to see why Anita grows increasingly infuriated as he constantly makes dates with other women over the phone in her hearing. She is also driven to the edge when Tony drunkenly promises to carry out a death-defying escapology stunt, carrying out the first of the film’s two parachute jumps in handcuffs. He survives that somehow, but the break-up comes when he signs up for yet another tour without consulting Anita first – not realising that she is homesick and has bought a house back in her home state, without consulting him either. She runs off without telling him, heading to Reno for a quickie divorce, and he proceeds to crack up spectacularly on stage, so that the tour has to be cancelled anyway.
Unfortunately, from this point on, the film deteriorates as the plot becomes increasingly far-fetched. For no obvious reason, except to create plot complications, Anita takes up with her jilted former fiance, Don, once again and marries him on board a ship – you just know it will somehow turn out that this marriage isn’t legal after all and there are a lot of silly plot twists to avoid it being consummated. Then Tony turns up on the scene and starts trying to get Anita back, in an imitation of Cary Grant films like The Awful Truth. You can’t help but feel sorry for the boring Don in this section, as he is shamelessly used and mocked by the glamorous couple, and I do feel the film would have been better without this whole bigamous marriage element. There’s quite enough conflict between Tony and Anita over the issue of whether to settle down in one place, and over his tendency to sign up for death-defying feats that he hasn’t quite mastered yet, without stirring in all these reheated leftovers from better films. I won’t say any more about how the plot works out, except that, even if the film seems to extol the virtues of home life, it makes touring the world look incredibly attractive, so viewers might take quite the opposite message.
Anyway, I did enjoy the film and it’s nice to see David Niven in such a sexy role, where he can give full rein to his qualities of charm and mischief – quite a contrast with his role as Edgar Linton in Wyler’s great version of Wuthering Heights, made the same year. In Bachelor Mother, yet another film from 1939, and one I love, Niven plays the male romantic lead, but it is really Ginger Rogers’ film and he also has his thunder stolen somewhat by Charles Coburn as his irascible father. In this film he is free to take the limelight and does a fine job – and he also makes a great combination with Loretta Young. I now want to see the other films the two of them made together.