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If You Could Only Cook

If You Could Only Cook(1935)

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teaser If You Could Only Cook (1935)

In the screwball comedy If You Could Only Cook (1935), unemployed Jean Arthur happens to meet Herbert Marshall on a park bench. Assuming that he needs work, too, she asks him to pose with her as husband-and-wife so they can get jobs as a married cook-and-butler team at the mansion of a mobster (Leo Carrillo). Marshall, who's actually the head of an auto firm, goes along with the gag, learning the finer points of butlering from his own butler, but Arthur simply can't cook. The comedy complications multiply from there.

Jean Arthur is always worth watching, and one critic has written of her in this picture as "outstanding as she effortlessly slips from charming comedienne to beautiful romantic." A shy, neurotic actress, Arthur was prone to legendary stage fright. But she was so sweet-natured and talented that her fellow actors and directors treated her with kid gloves. The likes of George Stevens and Frank Capra called her their favorite.

When If You Could Only Cook opened on Christmas, 1935, The New York Times reviewer wrote, "There is something of It Happened One Night [1934] to the new film at the Roxy, but certainly not as much as was intended...The texture of the production is too uneven. It has laughs but lacks pace."

The reference to Frank Capra's It Happened One Night is noteworthy, for the most interesting story associated with If You Could Only Cook involves Capra himself, even though he had nothing to do with the making of the film. The movie did, however, play a major role in Capra's career.

In 1937, Capra was in London and discovered that If You Could Only Cook had been released there falsely bearing his name: "A Frank Capra Production." Apparently, Columbia chief Harry Cohn had slapped Capra's name on the prints because British theaters paid a hefty premium for Capra productions. Capra was furious. "I couldn't believe my eyes," he wrote in his autobiography The Name Above the Title. "A picture I never heard of was being advertised and sold in England as a Capra film, and at the highest terms."

Tensions were already running high between Capra and Cohn. Capra, who owed Columbia three more pictures on his contract, was frustrated that Cohn wouldn't buy the rights to a play which Capra badly wanted to film: You Can't Take it With You. Cohn said the $200,000 price tag was too high. Cohn also was still angry at Capra over editing battles the two had just fought on Lost Horizon (1937), and he was resentful that Capra was quickly becoming the face of Columbia Pictures at the expense of Cohn himself.

In this climate, Capra challenged Cohn over If You Could Only Cook. Cohn tried to buy him off, offering a piece of the film's profits plus those of a few more each year that would be sold the same way. Capra would have none of it, and countered by threatening to sue the studio if Cohn didn't immediately let him out of his contract. Cohn was outraged, Capra filed suit, and a long court process began. For months Capra sat at home, not getting any outside job offers; such was the power of moguls like Cohn and the fear they engendered all over Hollywood. No one wanted to cross him by hiring Capra. After months of waiting and legal proceedings, it finally looked likely that Capra would win his case in a British court. Cohn showed up at Capra's house. The New York moneymen, Cohn said, had threatened to axe Cohn from the studio if they lost the suit and the services of Frank Capra. Cohn was now here to ask Capra to drop the litigation.

According to his autobiography, Capra replied, "Damn you, Cohn. You know what you're asking me to do? Lose a year's time, a year's salary, ten thousand dollars in attorney's fees, forget a year of eating my guts out, and come back to the studio as if nothing had happened. Just to save your neck. Is that what you expect me to do?"

"Yes, Frank. That's what I'm asking you to do."

Capra poured himself a drink, then amazed himself by giving in and agreeing to do it. But Cohn then made a startling concession of his own: "Tell you what I'm gonna do," Cohn said. "I'm gonna call my New York partners and tell 'em to approve paying you for one of the contract pictures as if you had made it. That leaves you only two. I'm gonna tell 'em to approve buying that play you're nuts about, You Can't Take It With You, for $200,000 - that last year I told you I wouldn't pay two hundred G's for the second coming."

After Cohn left the house, Capra recalled, "disgust and admiration swirled through my head... He disarmed me with my own specialty: sentiment. Capra-corn."

You Can't Take It With You (1938) ended up being Capra's next picture, and one of his best. It starred none other than Jean Arthur and won Capra two Oscars®, for Best Picture and Director.

Producer: Everett Riskin
Director: William A. Seiter
Screenplay: Howard J. Green, Gertrude Purcell, F. Hugh Herbert (story)
Cinematography: John Stumar
Film Editing: Gene Havlick
Art Direction: Stephen Goosson
Cast: Herbert Marshall (Jim Buchanan), Jean Arthur (Joan Hawthorne), Leo Carrillo (Mike Rossini), Lionel Stander (Flash), Alan Edwards (Bob Reynolds), Frieda Inescort (Evelyn Fletcher).
BW-75m.

by Jeremy Arnold

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