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Rosalind Russell and Walter Pidgeon flirt with divorce as Myrna Loy eggs them on in this 1938 romantic comedy from MGM. One of Hollywood's frequent attempts to capture the lives and loves of the New York smart set, Man-Proof derives most of its sophistication from its cast, particularly Loy, given a rare chance to play the other woman instead of her usual casting as the perfect wife. She also got to strike sparks with on-screen and professional rival Russell, and Franchot Tone rounds out the romantic quadrangle.
The film was based on the short story "The Four Marys," first published in the Ladies' Home Journal in 1936 and expanded to novel length in 1937. Author Fanny Heaslip Lea was a popular author of the time, best known for her romantic 1920 poem "Fate." The poem's closing lines -- "It's odd to think we might have been sun, moon and stars to each other -- Only I turned down one little street, and you turned up another" -- could easily apply to the film's leading characters, Loy and Pidgeon, whose romance ends when he decides to marry Russell for her money.
Producer Louis D. Lighton, who had scored at MGM with his production of Captain's Courageous (1937) shortly after moving there from Paramount, engaged two of his former studio's more sophisticated writers, Vincent Lawrence and Waldemar Young. He also threw in George Oppenheimer, who had proven his ability to write for Loy with the 1936 Libeled Lady.
Director Richard Thorpe had worked with Loy on her previous film, Double Wedding (1937), but it had been an unhappy experience for her, mainly because her good friend Jean Harlow died during filming, leaving Loy and co-star William Powell, Harlow's fianc, to deal with their grief while shooting one of their most slapstick pictures. By comparison Man-Proof was a much more pleasant experience, as it gave her the chance to work with Pidgeon, whom she admired and rarely got to work with even before the studio decided he was best off teamed with Irish import Greer Garson, and Rosalind Russell, with whom she became friends on the set.
That friendship was particularly notable in that the studio was using Russell as a threat to Loy. Older and less obviously beautiful than most of the studio's resident stars, Russell had been hired largely to keep Loy in line. Whenever the bigger star balked at a script or demanded more money, executives would simply threaten to give Russell the parts scheduled for Loy. Russell, who lived down hill from Loy, even joked to her about it: "Those scripts. You'd wait until dark, shove 'em out of your house, and they'd roll down the hill and hit my front door, and that's the way they were cast." Loy responded, "Well, you must have been out the night I rolled you Parnell [1937, one of Loy's biggest flops]." (Quoted in Russell, Rosalind, Life Is a Banquet).
When Russell wasn't starring in Loy's rejects, the studio kept her busy with roles as the other woman. She was always astonished to see herself cast as a romantic threat to the likes of Jean Harlow and Joan Crawford. In Man-Proof, she even got to play Loy's romantic rival. It would take a loan to Columbia Pictures for His Girl Friday (1940) to establish Russell with a star image of her own. Shortly thereafter, she left MGM to freelance.
Man-Proof marked Loy's only time at bat with Franchot Tone, who co-starred as a friend who tries to help her get over Pidgeon's marriage to Russell. The film was hardly a happy affair for Tone, however. His marriage to Joan Crawford was breaking up at the time, and he spent many a night sleeping in his dressing room. In addition, he had not scored the quality roles he had hoped for when he first came to Hollywood. Although he had won an Oscar® nomination for Mutiny on the Bounty (1935), by 1938 he was relegated to largely thankless roles that could have been played just as well by contract players Robert Montgomery or Robert Young. He would finish out his studio contract in 1939, then freelance while also focusing on stage work.
At least he stayed in the film. Rita Johnson and Ruth Hussey were completely cut from Man-Proof; for the former, it was one of many disappointments that led her to ask out of her MGM contract a year later, even though she had made her debut at the studio. Hussey was just starting out in films. She would score a hit as James Stewart's photographer-girlfriend in The Philadelphia Story (1940), which would lead to a series of sympathetic, sophisticated roles.
br>Then again, getting cut from Man-Proof might not have been a bad thing. The critics were less than impressed, lambasting the film with complaints that it was "trifling," "thin" and "clichd." With block booking, the film was hardly a total loss at the box office. And with the contract system behind her, Loy would recover with her next film, the popular adventure Test Pilot (1938), co-starring Clark Gable and Spencer Tracy.
Producer: Louis D. Lighton
Director: Richard Thorpe
Screenplay: George Oppenheimer, Vincent Lawrence and Waldemar Young
Based on the novel The Four Marys by Fanny Heaslip Lea
Cinematography: Karl Freund
Art Direction: Cedric Gibbons
Score: Franz WaxmanCast: Myrna Loy (Mimi Swift), Franchot Tone (Jimmy Kilmartin), Rosalind Russell (Elizabeth Kent), Walter Pidgeon (Alan Wythe), Nana Bryant (Meg Swift), John Miljan (Tommy Gaunt), Betty Blythe (Country Club Woman).
by Frank Miller