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For moviegoers who enjoy spotting a filmmaker's personal trademarks, the 1936 comedy-drama Come and Get It is a special treat and a special challenge. It carries the signatures of two great auteurs from the studio era-Howard Hawks and William Wyler--and historians still haven't definitively figured out which director directed what.
The story would have been more appealing to Hawks than to Wyler, with its blend of rugged adventure and romance, and Hawks was certainly the first director to sign on. The tale begins in 19th-century Wisconsin, where Bernard "Barney" Glasgow, smoothly played by Edward Arnold, is a lumberman with corporate ambitions that involve marrying the boss's daughter. He falls in love with Lotta (Frances Farmer), a saloon singer with a lovely smile and a throaty voice, but leaves her when his marriage of convenience can't be postponed any longer. Lotta marries his best friend, a boisterous Swede named Swan (Walter Brennan), then dies a quiet off-screen death. Many years later, Barney meets their daughter, also named Lotta (and also played by Farmer), and falls in love all over again. Barney's son (Joel McCrea) also tumbles for Lotta Jr., setting up a struggle with Barney, who's still married to the boss's daughter, not to mention being a little old for this sort of thing.
The credits say Come and Get It is "based upon the famous novel by Edna Ferber," although Hawks claimed it was based on the story of his own grandfather. He may have meant he used his ancestor's experiences when he fleshed out the screenplay by Jane Murfin and Jules Furthman, trying to make the second half more physically exciting and psychologically compelling. Be this as it may, Hawks did a lot of rewriting while producer Samuel Goldwyn was away having abdominal surgery.
Then trouble started, due less to Hawks's tinkering than to uncertainty over what exactly he wanted. His assistant later reported that "strain, indecision, and malevolence" stalked the production as Hawks fretted about the storyline and shot scenes before the actors felt prepared. Then the producer returned home to recuperate. Hawks biographer Todd McCarthy says Hawks was prepared for fireworks when Goldwyn, who idolized important writers, discovered he'd tampered with Ferber's plot. Hawks was right: Goldwyn hit the ceiling, and things got worse when he learned that new material he liked had been penned by Hawks himself. "Writers should write and directors should direct!" the producer allegedly yowled.
Hawks resigned in a huff, if you believe his account, or got fired by Goldwyn, if you believe his account. What's certain is that Hawks left the premises on the 42nd day of production, and that after an eight-day shutdown Goldwyn replaced him with William Wyler, who'd just finished Dodsworth (1936) and was still under contract. Wyler's grumpiness about the job alienated Farmer, who said acting with him was "the nearest thing to slavery," but after 28 more days the picture was finished. It's ironic that Wyler used material written by Hawks for the ending, preferring this to the screenplay's own conclusion.
Hawks told film critic Robin Wood that he shot all but 800 feet, or about ten minutes, of the completed film. McCarthy says Wyler contributed more than this, but less than Goldwyn implied when he told Ferber he "threw away most of what Hawks photographed." For viewers today, the fun begins when we try to determine which scenes came from which director. Wood says the beginning of the movie, with its exciting lumberjack footage, "clearly" has Hawks's touch-but to add one more complication, the credits say these scenes were directed by Richard Rosson, who'd co-directed Scarface (1932) and Today We Live (1933) with Hawks in the early 1930s.
Aside from the logging material, there's no certain way of telling which scenes were directed by whom. Still, it's pretty obvious that some material in the film's first half contains patented Hawks touches-people bonding over cigarettes, finding togetherness in a sing-along, and working at a tough men-only job away from ordinary society. And it's equally obvious that Wyler influenced the off-kilter camera angles and striking use of a stairway setting in the last half hour-perhaps working with cinematographer Gregg Toland, whose deep-focus framings would later be crucial not only in Orson Welles's legendary Citizen Kane (1941) but also in Wyler's masterpieces The Little Foxes (1941) and The Best Years of Our Lives (1946). Wouldn't you know, Toland was only one of the Come and Get It cinematographers; the other was Rudolph Mat, fresh from Dodsworth.
Come and Get It has at least three elements that hold up very well: the rough-and-tumble logging scenes; the complex characterization of Barney, who never becomes a clean-cut hero or a clear-cut villain; and Farmer's fascinating performance as both Lotta characters, who look alike but speak and sing in different tones and registers. Today's viewers will probably have less tolerance for Brennan's stereotyped Scandinavian-so overdone that his character actually writes letters with a Swedish accent!
The picture received strong reviews in 1936, largely because of the lumberjack material, and because critics felt a good balance had been struck by the two directors. (Little did they know how much unhappiness was generated behind the scenes!) Admitting that it wasn't "a thoroughly Ferber work," the New York Times critic called it "genuinely satisfying" and "a vividly toned portrait of a man."
Ferber agreed it wasn't thoroughly Ferber, turning down publicity requests because the movie underplayed the novel's environmental concerns. Yet she praised Goldwyn for "throwing out the finished Hawks picture" and starting again from scratch, which of course he hadn't done. In any case, the box-office returns were underwhelming despite a solid marketing push. Variety blamed Arnold, who didn't have "quite enough on the ball to pull 'em in alone," and the lack of female stars--true enough at the time, although today Come and Get It shines as arguably the finest achievement in Farmer's troubled career.
Producer: Samuel Goldwyn
Directors: Howard Hawks, William Wyler
Screenplay: Jane Murfin, Jules Furthman, based on Edna Ferber's novel
Cinematography: Gregg Toland, Rudolph Mate
Film Editing: Edward Curtiss
Art Direction: Richard Day
Music: Alfred Newman
Cast: Edward Arnold (Bernard "Barney" Glasgow), Joel McCrea (Richard Glasgow), Frances Farmer (Lotta Morgan, Lotta Bostrom), Walter Brennan (Swan Bostrom), Mady Christians (Karie), Mary Nash (Emma Louise Glasgow), Andrea Leeds (Evvie Glasgow), Frank Shields (Tony Schwerke); Edwin Maxwell (Sid LeMaire), Cecil Cunningham (Josie), Charles Halton (Mr. Hewitt).
by Mikita Brottman and David Sterritt