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I Live My Life (1935) is an odd title. Don't all of us live our lives? Is there anything else you can do with a life? But put an accent on the "my" and it makes sense. I live my life, and you live your life, and if our lives are very different from each other, maybe falling in love isn't a good idea!
That's the theme of the eponymous movie starring Joan Crawford as Kay, a sophisticated socialite who thinks her life is just about perfect, and Brian Aherne as Terry, a hard-working archeologist who feels the same way about his. They get acquainted when Kay travels to Greece on a yacht belonging to her family's prosperous company. Taking leave of her fianc to explore the picturesque island of Naxos, she stumbles on an archeological dig where Terry is dusting off an ancient statue he discovered recently. Their meeting follows the standard screwball-comedy pattern: first banter, then friction, then sparks beginning to fly.
Kay is so fascinated by Terry that she sweet-talks the yacht's captain into cancelling the next stop so she can visit Naxos a second time. She tracks Terry down in an island restaurant so unsophisticated that every dish is called roast beef, and before long they're smooching in the shadows. Kay detects that Terry is prejudiced against the upper class, though, so she impulsively decides to level the playing field by telling him she's a mere secretary on the company yacht. She also forgets to mention that she's engaged to a young man who travels in her own privileged set.
Following her to New York with marriage in mind, Terry soon learns the truth about Kay's extremely affluent family. But his love is strong enough to conquer the awful threat of becoming fabulously rich, so wedding plans are soon under way. Then complication strikes. Although the family firm is flourishing, Kay's dad has been speculating with his private money, and his latest venture has brought a loss of $400,000 - real money in 1935, when the Great Depression was ravaging Americans, including many people in this movie's first-run audience. As a result, Kay faces a dilemma. Should she follow her heart and marry the archeologist she adores? Or return to her high-society fianc and use his money to bail her father out? While she's mulling over her options, Terry lets himself be high-pressured into taking a vice-presidency at the family business, and the office routine is bringing back the claustrophobia that drove him into archeology to begin with. Tensions rise, indecision mounts, and it starts to look like Kay and Terry have lives too dissimilar to unite in matrimony.
MGM invested top-drawer talent in I Live My Life, starting with screenwriter Joseph L. Mankiewicz, who had joined the studio in 1933 and shown an instant flair for working with Crawford, scoring a hit with his script for Forsaking All Others in 1934. After their repeat performance with I Live My Life the following year, Louis B. Mayer promoted Mankiewicz to producer and assigned him to Crawford's subsequent pictures. According to Crawford biographer Bob Thomas, most of the studio's producers still thought of her as "that chorus girl," whereas Mankiewicz understood the nature of her appeal. "She is not demonstrably a proficient actress," Mankiewicz explained, "nor is she identifiably a sexpot. But she is on a level that lower-middle-class audiences can identify with." When critics complained that Crawford played shop girls wearing Adrian gowns, Mankiewicz told the actress not to worry. Real shop girls go to Joan Crawford movies to watch a "fantasized version" of their own lives, he said, adding that an ordinary woman "doesn't want to see you in a housedress with armpit stains. She wants to see you dressed by Adrian, as she would like to be."
I Live My Life generously delivers in that department, draping Crawford in Adrian gowns that make Cedric Gibbons's sets appear drab by comparison. Here she is with a snazzy bowtie under her chin, a little crooked to show she's a little kooky; there she is with the widest, whitest lapels in the entire Social Register; a Christmas party calls for the season's shiniest lam; in this headdress she looks like the Statue of Liberty; in that one she resembles a milkmaid; and so on, usually in bold black-and-white patterns that nicely offset the business suits and tuxedos sported by most of the males in the story. MGM didn't stint on Crawford's makeup, either. One has to agree with the Variety critic whose 1935 review warned that "if her eyelashes continue getting any longer her leading men will have to start wearing bumpers."
All this is fun, but the picture's best asset is its supporting cast, populated by some of MGM's best character players. Frank Morgan is lovably ditzy as Kay's devoted dad; Sterling Holloway lends his unique voice and face to Max, an archeological assistant; Eric Blore is deliciously snooty as Kay's butler, who has a golden heart; Arthur Treacher is even snootier as her grandmother's butler, who has no heart at all; and Jessie Ralph is perfect as the grandma, an iron-fisted dowager who realizes at one point that she's smiling and immediately corrects her error, putting on the scariest scowl this side of a 3-D horror movie. Hedda Hopper and Lionel Stander show up briefly as well.
With so much going for it, it's surprising that I Live My Life fails to sparkle most of the time. Part of the blame goes to the stars. Aherne is too glib and earnest to make Terry a convincing comic character, and Mankiewicz could have added a lack of comic pizzazz to his list of Crawford's deficiencies. Beyond this, there simply isn't much chemistry between them. When a sensational screwball couple like Katharine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy pummel each other with quarrelsome words, you still feel the irresistible attraction that ties them together no matter what; but try as they may, Crawford and Aherne generate only a fraction of the necessary heat. Mankiewicz's screenplay also miscalculates, laying out the advantages of both lifestyles in the story - the socialite's fizzy fun, the scientist's rewarding work - so persuasively that you find yourself rooting for the duo not to get married. Why should they let matrimony mess up the obvious contentment they've achieved on their own? The director, W.S. Van Dyke, does little to compensate for these problems, moving the plot along in a largely run-of-the-mill manner.
I Live My Life did well with reviewers anyway. New York Times critic Andre Sennwald described Crawford as "rather self-consciously adequate to the needs of her part" but found Aherne to be "excellent" and praised Van Dyke for his "lively production." Variety opined that "everything's nicely done, from dialog reading to diaphragm heaving." The critic also noted that Terry does a lot of preaching about the joys of poverty, but added that "the moralizing is nicely and not too seriously done, so that audiences will not be asked to believe it." My opinion is closer to that of Richard Watts, Jr., who wrote in the New York Herald Tribune that the picture "is a pretty routine bit of storytelling," but if you're "an enthusiast for the regulation type of Crawford vehicle, you may find the work soul-satisfying. The star plays handsomely and competently." Whether she plays excitingly is another question.
Director: W.S. Van Dyke
Producer: Bernard H. Hyman
Screenplay: Joseph L. Mankiewicz; from the story by Gottfried Reinhardt and Ethel Borden; based upon a short story by A. Carter Goodloe
Cinematographer: George Folsey
Film Editing: Tom Held
Art Direction: Cedric Gibbons
Music: Dimitri Tiomkin
With: Joan Crawford (Kay), Brian Aherne (Terry), Frank Morgan (Bentley), Aline MacMahon (Betty), Eric Blore (Grove), Fred Keating (Gene), Jessie Ralph (Mrs. Gage), Arthur Treacher (Gallup), Frank Conroy (Doctor), Etienne Girardot (Professor), Esther Dale (Brumbaugh), Hale Hamilton (Uncle Carl), Hilda Vaughn (Ann Morrison), Frank Shields (Secretary), Sterling Holloway (Max), Vince Barnett (Clerk), Hedda Hopper (Alvin's Mother), Lionel Stander (Yaffitz), Tom Dugan (Guard)
by David Sterritt