James Stewart and Hedy Lamarr make an unusual romantic combination – especially when she is dressed in stunning gowns by Adrian and he is down to his last dime. However, this surprising pairing works well in the MGM romantic comedy Come Live with Me. This isn’t one of the greatest films in that genre and does have some flaws, while a few scenes clearly derive from more famous movies, but I still enjoyed it, largely because of the chemistry between the couple – plus a wonderful scene where Stewart recites Christopher Marlowe’s poem The Passionate Shepherd to His Love, which gave the film its title. (I’ve included a link to this clip at the end.) I actually saw this one a little while ago and should really have written about it sooner, but better late than never… and the posting is an excuse to post some lovely stills.
The big drawback of this film is its awkward opening. It is rather slow to get going and I suspect many people might be put off by the first scenes, which feature not Stewart and Lamarr but a middle-aged couple whose life is anything but romantic. Ian Hunter stars as wealthy publisher Barton Kendrick, who is married to society hostess Diana (Verree Teasdale) – but, although the couple are charming to one another on the surface, it quickly becomes clear that they are leading an open marriage and both involved with other people. I’m quite surprised that director Clarence Brown managed to get away with all this sexual sophistication under the code – but then, nothing is spelt out in so many words. This plot set-up is reminiscent of a pre-Code and quite refreshingly realistic, but the problem really is that Barton and Diana make such an unprepossessing couple and it is hard to be interested in their lives.
Diana goes off in a taxi on a date with a friend of Barton’s, while her husband calls round to see beautiful Austrian refugee “Johnny” Jones (Lamarr), who is clearly his mistress and living in a flat where he pays the bills. He presents her with a musical box featuring a ballerina, and the two of them dance to the music, having a stilted conversation where they say seem to say each other’s first names as much as possible – “Oh, Johnny!” “Yes, Barton?” etc. He tells her that he intends to divorce his wife and marry her and that she won’t be upset by that as their relationship is all very civilised. However, these plans come unstuck almost immediately when an immigration official calls round to tell Johnny she has outstayed her visitor’s visa and will be sent back to Nazi Austria unless she marries a US citizen within a week. I was taken aback by this storyline, in a film which was made in the middle of the Second World War, and couldn’t believe that a refugee like Johnny would really have been sent back, even though America was not at war yet. I certainly hope this would not have happened. Anyway, including a plot twist like this in a romantic comedy would presumably have raised awareness of refugees’ plight, even if it seems rather too serious for its context.
Fortunately, at this point, James Stewart enters the film and it immediately improves beyond recognition. He is very funny, awkward and poignant all at once as hungry, penniless writer Bill Smith (Stewart), who takes shelter from the rain with Johnny as she walks through the park and strikes up a conversation. Later, in a cheap restaurant, she meets up with Bill again – as she orders coffee and he tries to find something on the menu which he can buy with his last dime. Unfortunately, the waiter scoops up the dime and claims it as a tip, leading to a row and the unlikely couple being thrown out of the restaurant. Johnny orders a taxi, goes back to Bill’s apartment and proposes that he should marry her in return for payment. Bill is an idealist and bargains her down rather than up, determined to take the minimum amount that he can possibly live on and pay it back – but he agrees to the deal, largely to help her and also so that he can write without starving. There is a lot of warmth between Stewart and Lamarr in these scenes and plenty of quirky little moments, as he grandly plays host despite the fact that he has nothing in the way of food or drink to offer her. I have to say his poverty is comic rather than convincing, and the apartment looks perfectly respectable, but they make a great combination as two people who come from completely different worlds but still make a connection. And, of course, they start to fall for each other.
Soon, complications are abounding as Bill decides to write a novel about his marriage of convenience, and offers it to Barton’s firm – much to the fury of Barton, who has a different type of love story in mind with himself as hero. I won’t go all through the rest of the plot, but every time Stewart and Lamarr are on screen together it is a joy, especially when he whirls her off (initially he abducts her, but she soon has the opportunity to escape and decides not to) to visit his grandmother and see where he comes from, in the countryside. At the end of the film the two of them sleep in a bedroom divided into two by a temporary barrier, with shades of the “walls of Jericho” in It Happened One Night – and this is the point where Bill recites Marlowe’s poem. Watching this scene, I feel as if I could spend hours listening to Stewart reciting poetry in that great voice, especially when he forgets a line and says “Something, something, something”! I must just add that Bill’s grandmother is played by the astonishing Adeline De Walt Reynolds, who started her acting career at the age of 78 – she carried on working until she was 98 and appeared in more than 35 films and TV productions.
The movie is available on DVD from Warner Archive in region 1 and will also be shown on the US TCM at 4.30pm (ET) on May 28, 2013. In the meantime, here is that scene with Stewart reciting poetry, plus a couple more stills: