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The Pursuit of Happiness

The Pursuit of Happiness(1934)


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teaser The Pursuit of Happiness (1934)

"Since in a bed a man and maid, may bundle and be chaste, it does no good to burn our wood, it is a needless waste" -- Old Puritan Saying

Based on the popular Broadway stage comedy of the same name, The Pursuit of Happiness, released by Paramount in 1934, is a saucy romp whose plot revolves around the curious and titillating 18th century Puritan courtship custom of bundling. Written for the stage by husband-and-wife team Lawrence Langner and Armina Marshall (under the pen names Alan Child and Isabelle Louden) the play debuted in October of 1933 and ran until May of 1934. It was a charming and mildly scandalous hit, and was soon snapped up by Hollywood for the big screen adaptation.

Bundling, though briefly (and unsuccessfully) brought back as a rallying cry in the late 1960s by a group of chaste and concerned religious teenagers, was the often misunderstood practice whereby a man and a maiden, in days of olde, would spend the night together in the same bed, clothed, for the purpose of getting better acquainted and exploring their compatibility for marriage. Far from a furtive or clandestine move, bundling was done with the full knowledge of the parents of the girl, and in fact was encouraged as a means for young couples to learn about each other and make an intelligent match. Though it may sound too good--or too nave--to be true, there were consequences for going beyond the bundling protocol; if a girl ended up pregnant, marriage was immediate with no other alternative considered. It was bundling, this unusual and intriguing custom in the history of romance, that provides the crux of the conflict in The Pursuit of Happiness.

Set for the most part in the bucolic Connecticut countryside at the farmstead of the Kirkland family, The Pursuit of Happiness draws upon the American Revolution for its storyline. A Hessian soldier is at the center, and if your Revolutionary history is a little shaky, all you need to know is that they were German soldiers pressed into service by Britain to fight against the colonial Americans. Anyway, this Hessian, unhappy with his involuntary servitude and learning that the rebels would gladly make his defection worth his while, escapes his regiment and hides out in the Kirkland barn. He's discovered by the family, including the comely young daughter Prudence, who's of course already engaged to straight-laced Thad, who wants the foreign deserter put behind bars. Max and Prudence are attracted to one another, and she invites him up to her room to bundle. Thad finds them together, and all hell breaketh loose when the town minister, assuming the worst, demands that the couple marry. All ends well, however, as Max ends up as General Washington's interpreter. More importantly, he and Prudence get married, enabling Max to truly understand the American ideal of the pursuit of happiness, which now is coming true for him.

Although the leading male role was first offered to Paramount's rising young talent George Raft, the actor declined the role, saying he was philosophically opposed to the practice of bundling. That opened up the way for classically-trained Czechoslovakia-born actor Francis Lederer to step into the dashing role of Hessian runaway Max, opposite the lovely young actress Joan Bennett, who came from a theatrical family and began her movie career at the age of six.

The darkly handsome Lederer had been a top stage star in Europe, touring throughout the region and eventually establishing a huge following in Berlin, where he was particularly beloved for his leading role in director Max Reinhardt's production of Romeo and Juliet as well as for his singing and dancing talent in musicals. Lederer began making films around the end of the 1920s, including Pandora's Box (1929), directed by G.W. Pabst, opposite American acting legend Louise Brooks. Although offers to come to Hollywood soon followed, Lederer had not learned English at this time and so continued in European productions but eventually felt confident enough to try his hand on the English stage. His mastery of the English language grew and in 1932 he tackled Broadway, and then moved into Hollywood films, including his starring role in The Pursuit of Happiness.

The supporting cast of the movie was filled with veteran character actors, including as Prudence's father Charlie Ruggles, who had been appearing in films since the mid-teens and was by 1934 a veteran of over forty films, and who would go on to make a hundred more before his final movie in 1968. Her mother was played by Mary Boland, who had also made her debut in early silent pictures and was an accomplished light comedienne as well as dramatic actress. The outraged Rev. Banks was Walter Kingsford, a British actor who would amass a resume of over one hundred and thirty roles during his thirty-year career. Prudence's fianc Thad was played by Adrian Morris, the brother of star Chester Morris. Adrian made over forty films during his barely ten year career which ended with his sudden and unexpected death in 1941.

The Pursuit of Happiness was directed by Alexander Hall, a Hollywood veteran who had started out as a child stage actor, then branched out into editing and direction in silent films. During the early 1930s he worked primarily at Paramount, helming a variety of pictures including the 1934 Shirley Temple feature Little Miss Marker and Goin' to Town, starring the sultry Mae West, in 1935. He directed his last movie in 1956, the Lucille Ball/Desi Arnaz comedy Forever, Darling.

In preparation for the release of The Pursuit of Happiness, the Paramount publicity department didn't shy away from the racier elements of the film's plot. They touted it in studio press materials as "The Bundling Hit" and used a comparison chart --1776, Bundling; 1823, Tarrying; 1875, Snuggling; 1901, Sparking, 1934, Necking -- to illustrate the timelessness of the story's appeal. Though times have certainly changed, the charm and playful naughtiness that made The Pursuit of Happiness a hit on Broadway came through in the movie which is still enjoyable today. Especially noteworthy is the setting itself, the American Colonial period, a time in our country's history which has been given short shrift over the years in Hollywood but which is delightfully captured here.

Producer: Arthur Hornblow, Jr., Emanuel Cohen
Director: Alexander Hall
Screenplay: Stephen Morehouse Avery, J.P. McEvoy, Virginia Van Upp, Armina Marshall Langner (play), Lawrence Langner (play)
Cinematography: Karl Struss
Film Editing: James Smith
Art Direction: Hans Dreier, Bernard Herzbrun
Music: Heinz Roemheld, Tom Satterfield
Cast: Francis Lederer (Max Christmann), Joan Bennett (Prudence Kirkland), Charles Ruggles (Aaron Kirkland), Mary Boland (Comfort Kirkland), Walter Kingsford (Rev. Lyman Banks), Minor Watson (Col. Sherwood).

by Lisa Mateas

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