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Sometimes even successful actors and directors don't know what's best for them. Case in point: My Life with Caroline (1941), a would-be frothy little comedy directed by Lewis Milestone and starring Ronald Colman that failed miserably, both critically and at the box office the summer it was released.
Colman plays a rich publisher named Anthony Mason who marries Caroline (Anna Lee), a flighty socialite who, for ill-defined reasons, has no compunction at all about continuing to chase men after she's tied the knot. We even see Caroline attempt to accept a marriage proposal from another man (Gilbert Roland), but, old-fashioned girl that she is, she won't do it without Anthony's approval! This situation triggers a lengthy flashback to a similar escapade involving Caroline from a few years earlier.
Hilarity theoretically ensues, but the majority of the interest lies in seeing Colman in such a daffy, ill-fitting undertaking -- he even turns to the camera and addresses the audience during the movie, which is a surprising departure from his usual, buttoned-down screen persona.
Colman and Milestone were as responsible as anyone for My Life with Caroline's poor showing-- they were very much leading the charge with this picture. In 1940, the two men, along with William Hawks (the brother of the legendary director Howard Hawks), and director Anatole Litvak formed United Producers Corporation, which was obviously intended as a sort of second-tier United Artists, the groundbreaking production company run by Charlie Chaplin, Douglas Fairbanks, Mary Pickford, and D.W. Griffith. UPC was contracted to make 10 films for RKO Pictures, but Colman and his cohorts never came close to that number.
It seems odd that Colman and Milestone would have felt My Life with Caroline was a good fit for their particular skill sets. Milestone was most famous for his influential anti-war epic, All Quiet on the Western Front (1930), and had made a few other sturdy war-based pictures. He was more of a technical innovator than anything else, and never showed much flair for comedy. His movies were hardly light on their feet.
Colman, on the other hand, was Hollywood's go-to Englishman for many years, and too suave and self-possessed to be believable as a guy who would hopelessly fall for a fickle, much younger woman like Lee's Caroline. It's understandable that audiences at the time couldn't really warm to the picture.
Milestone, however, felt that Lee's performance - a stage actress, this was her big screen debut - was underappreciated, saying "you couldn't help but be amused by her; she was an original." (Colman, always the gentleman, never discussed Lee's work, feeling it was improper to critique a fellow performer, even if he was the producer.)
Milestone, at the very least, enjoyed the brief time that he toiled closely with Colman. "There was never any tension between us," he said. "If I wanted to talk to him, I always could. He wasn't a recluse who hopped into his dressing room and locked the door, but, like all actors, when he had a difficult scene, he liked to be alone beforehand. Whatever the scene, he would throw himself into it wholeheartedly and do it as well as he could."
Obviously, Colman wanted his movies to be successes, but his friend, Douglas Fairbanks, Jr., felt Colman didn't think it was all that big a deal if one of them tanked. "Colman had a tremendous inner sense of security," Fairbanks once said. "He didn't worry much about films that failed or gloat over ones that were hits. He just went quietly on to the next, whatever it was."
Colman was no dummy and could read the writing on the wall -- he simply wasn't much of a movie producer. He abandoned United Producers Corporation after two straight bombs - the first one, also directed by Milestone, was called Lucky Partners (1940) - and worked on radio for a while until a better script came along. He would finally win a Best Actor Oscar® in 1948 for A Double Life (1947), by which time he and most likely everyone else on the planet had long forgotten about My Life with Caroline.
Producer: Lewis Milestone
Director: Lewis Milestone
Screenplay: John Van Druten, Arnold Belgard (screenplay); Louis Verneuil, Georges Berr (play)
Cinematography: Victor Milner
Music: Werner Heymann
Film Editing: Henry Berman
Cast: Ronald Colman (Anthony Mason), Anna Lee (Caroline Mason), Charles Winninger (Mr. Bliss), Reginald Gardiner (Paul Martindale), Gilbert Roland (Paco Del Valle), Katherine Leslie (Helen), Hugh O'Connell (Muirhead), Murray Alper (Jenkins), Matt Moore (Walters, Mason's Butler).
by Paul Tatara