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The 1937 comedy You Can't Beat Love did exactly what it was supposed to do. It gave RKO Studios a pleasant film for filling out the lower half of a double bill while giving exposure to an actress they hoped to groom for better things. That the actress was future Oscar®-winner Joan Fontaine, one half of one of Hollywood's most famous off-screen feuds, grants the picture a special distinction over other RKO B-pictures.
Like many young actresses in the Hollywood of the '30s, Fontaine started out with small roles in major films (she had just played an unbilled supporting role in Katharine Hepburn's 1937 Quality Street) and leading roles in B-pictures like this one. She would churn out six films during her first year at RKO as the studio tried to find her niche as an actress while keeping her in front of filmgoers in hopes that she would develop a fan following. Unlike many actors at the time, she actually welcomed the intense work schedule, which took her mind off her own insecurities and personal problems.
The young Fontaine was haunted by feelings of inferiority in light of sister Olivia de Havilland's burgeoning career at Warner Bros. Although the two were roommates at the time, with Fontaine usually dropping her sister off at the Burbank studios each morning, their growing rivalry would spark a rift after they both achieved stardom, particularly when Fontaine beat her sister out for an Oscar® in 1941. During filming of You Can't Beat Love, Fontaine was placed under an additional strain when their estranged father, Walter de Havilland, visited Hollywood unexpectedly from his native Japan in search of a family reunion. Neither sister wanted to see her father, but Joan's situation was the more desperate. During her teen years, she had lived with him briefly, returning to the U.S. when he revealed incestuous feelings toward her. When his daughters refused to meet him, de Havilland contacted Fontaine's bosses at RKO, threatening to go to the press. He then offered to keep his peace if they would option a story he had written. The studio managed to reject his work, a risqu tale about an older man's flirtatious relationship with his estranged daughter, and keep the entire situation under wraps.
For all her problems, however, Fontaine was blossoming under the studio's grooming. You Can't Beat Love, her third film there, was adapted from one of the many magazine stories RKO (and other studios) bought for their stars. The script cast her as a politician's temperamental daughter who falls in love with a wealthy playboy who is running against her father for mayor. Helping Fontaine score in the film was cinematographer Russell Metty, who would eventually rise to shoot such glossy soap operas as Imitation of Life (1959) before winning an Oscar® for Spartacus (1960).
In contrast to the studio's use of B-movies like You Can't Beat Love to build Fontaine's career was their use of the picture to burn off leading man Preston Foster's contract. Although there was nothing wrong with him as an actor, the stage veteran had simply failed to catch on as a leading man despite strong opportunities in films like The Last Days of Pompeii (1935) and Annie Oakley (1935), the latter co-starring Barbara Stanwyck. By 1937, the studio was using him mostly in their lower-budget films.
Foster's secondary status at the studio was borne out when You Can't Beat Love opened, and Fontaine got more notice from reviewers, who praised her good looks and winning personality. At the same time, they lamented that the film hardly offered her any acting challenge. Ironically, Fontaine's insecurities about her relationship with her sister would be mirrored by the picture's premiere, when it opened as the lower half of a double bill at New York's RKO Palace. The other film was Warner Bros.' Call It a Day (1937), starring de Havilland.
Producer: Robert Sisk
Director: Christy Cabanne
Screenplay: David Silverstein, Maxwell Shane
Based on the story "Quintuplets to You" by Olga Moore
Cinematography: Russell Metty
Art Direction: Van Nest Polglase
Music: Max Steiner, Roy Webb
Cast: Preston Foster (Jimmy Hughes), Joan Fontaine (Trudy Olson), Herbert Mundin (Jasper), William Brisbane (Clem Bruner), Paul Guilfoyle (Louie the Weasel), Barbara Pepper (May Smith), Milburn Stone (Reporter).
by Frank Miller