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Fools for Scandal

Fools for Scandal(1938)

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teaser Fools for Scandal (1938)

Having worked at every other major Hollywood studio, Carole Lombard gave Warner Bros. a try for the 1938 screwball comedy, Fools for Scandal. Unfortunately, her dreams of becoming the studio's comic answer to dramatic diva Bette Davis and eventually teaming with James Cagney were dashed when Fools for Scandal proved to be a rare box-office dud for her.

At the time, critics suggested that she had gone to the screwball well once too often. Nor was their mood helped by the film's obvious similarities to her hit from two years earlier, My Man Godfrey (1936). Where in the previous film she had played an heiress whose life is changed when she hires a hobo (William Powell) to be her butler, in the current picture she plays a movie star whose life is changed when she hires a penniless French nobleman (Ferdinand Gravet) to be her cook. Viewed years later in an environment not saturated with screwball comedies, however, the film has its own charms to recommend it, including a sprightly performance by Gravet, reliable turns in familiar roles by Lombard and Ralph Bellamy (as her conventional fianc) and some surprising uses of songs by Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart. The scenes in which society gossips headed by British noblewoman Isabel Jeans turn the Lombard-Gravet relationship into an international scandal also provide an effective echo of the classic play The School for Scandal, which inspired the film's title.

The problem lay in the script. Instead of pairing Lombard from the start with a star of Cagney's stature, Warner's put her into an unproduced play they had picked up called Return Engagement. While they kept her diverted with star treatment and fittings for her dazzling Milo Anderson gowns, the writing process was proceeding by fits and starts. Julius J. Epstein was the first writer assigned, but he complained that he couldn't make much out of studio head Jack Warner's request that he prepare a film with opportunities for glamorous clothes and low comedy antics. When Warner and the film's producer-director, Mervyn LeRoy, didn't like his first draft, Epstein asked to be assigned a more congenial project. The script then went through several hands, including Epstein's brother, Philip, and future director Robert Rossen. The final credit went to another pair of brothers, Herbert and Joseph Fields. The former at least had written for Lombard in the past, providing scripts for Hands Across the Table (1935) and Love Before Breakfast (1936), but neither had worked in the screwball genre.

Leading man Gravet had been brought to Warner's after his success in French films, where he had become a star as Ferdinand Gravey, a name with unfortunate culinary associations for American audiences. LeRoy had championed him and had used him as leading man a year earlier in The King and the Chorus Girl (1937). Convinced he could score with American audiences, LeRoy cast him again for Lombard's first Warner's film. Years later, he would blame the actor's wife for the man's failure to catch on with audiences. Sixteen-years older than her husband, Mrs. Gravet was rather possessive and, according to LeRoy, "wanted to keep him for herself" (from Mervyn LeRoy: Take One).

To play the other man in the triangle, Warner's cast Ralph Bellamy, who had played similar roles in the comedy classic The Awful Truth (1937) and Lombard's Hands Across the Table. Bellamy was under contract to Columbia Pictures and was one of the few actors there to have a good relationship with the studio's tyrannical head, Harry Cohn. During production, however, the two had a run in when Bellamy told LeRoy the studio head had a sentimental streak under his rough exterior. Cohn called Bellamy on the set and demanded he never say anything like that again. "You'll ruin my image around town" (from When the Smoke Hits the Fan by Ralph Bellamy).

One distinctive element of Fools for Scandal was the use of songs by Broadway tunesmiths Rodgers and Hart. Although the film produced no hits for them, the picture's title song was showcased in a dialogue scene, with Lombard and Gravet reciting and singing the lyrics as part of their repartee. The technique recalled Rouben Mamoulian's witty use of the team's songs in his pioneering musical Love Me Tonight (1932).

That innovative approach was small compensation for critics and audiences tiring of the screwball genre. Warner's had invested a large-for-the-time budget of $1.3 million in the film and lost their money to indifferent box office. The film pretty much dashed Gravet's hopes of becoming a U.S. star. After another failure that year, MGM's lavish musical biopic The Great Waltz, he returned to the comforts of stardom in France. LeRoy left Warner's, too, accepting a lucrative offer to produce and direct at MGM, where he would remain through the '40s.

Even Lombard was scarred by the film's failure. She would later joke that "I knew it wasn't a sensation when my friends confined their comments to how beautifully I had been photographed" (from The Paramount Pretties by James Robert Parrish). It would mark the last time she was photographed in that particular manner, as her decision to leave Paramount Pictures to freelance meant she would never again work with her favorite cameraman, Ted Tetzlaff, who had been borrowed from the studio for Fools for Scandal. The film was such a disappointment that Lombard swore never to make another comedy, a resolve she stuck to for three years. And she would never work at Warner's again.

Producer-Director: Mervyn LeRoy
Screenplay: Herbert Fields, Joseph Fields, Irving Brecher
Based on the play Return Engagement by Nancy Hamilton, James Shute, Rosemary Casey
Cinematography: Ted Tetzlaff
Art Direction: Anton Grot
Music: Leo F. Forbestein
Principal Cast: Carole Lombard (Kay Winters), Fernand Gravet (Rene), Ralph Bellamy (Phillip Chester), Allen Jenkins (Dewey Gibson), Isabel Jeans (Lady Paula Malverton), Marie Wilson (Myrtle), Ottola Nesmith (Agnes), Tempe Pigott (Bessie), Norma Varden (Cicely), Elspeth Dudgeon (Cynthia), Michael Romanoff (Party Guest), Jane Wyman (Bit Part).
BW-80m. Closed captioning.

by Frank Miller

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