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Star of the Month: Olivia de Havilland
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Call It a Day

Call It a Day

Call It a Day might have been forgotten or lost if not for the fact that a young Olivia de Havilland costarred in a secondary role. And yet, this light-hearted comedy is more than just an early step in the career of a legendary movie star. Call It a Day is a film version of a type of British play that was popular in the first half of the twentieth century. It also features performances by actors who were quite popular during the 1930s but are relatively unknown now. Call It a Day is a cinematic chronicle of the tastes of another time and place.

The film opens with an intertitle that telegraphs the story: "The first spring day is in the devil's pay." The action takes place entirely on the first day of spring, when the five members of the Hilton family fall prey to romantic quandaries. The opening scene introduces the family, who live a comfortable, middle-class existence. Dorothy and Roger Hilton wake up to what they think will be a normal day as their new maid caters to their needs. Their morning routine of drinking tea and bantering over the newspaper is disrupted by their children, who gripe about sharing the bathroom.

As the day progresses, each member of the Hilton family faces a romantic crisis. Youngest daughter Ann is obsessed with the dark romanticism of the pre-Raphaelite poets and artists. Martin, the seventeen-year-old son, wants to leave home to find his own path until he meets the beautiful new neighbor. Catherine, the eldest, is hopelessly in love with the married painter who is doing her portrait, and she continually throws herself at him. Roger, who works for a bank, is tempted by one of his clients, a flirtatious actress who invites him to her apartment for a candlelight dinner. Finally, flighty Dorothy is attracted to the droll male acquaintance of her friend Muriel. He pursues Dorothy relentlessly, breaking down her reserve with the kind of romantic attention she no longer receives from Roger.

As Roger and Dorothy, Ian Hunter and Frieda Inescort were touted as the stars of Call It a Day, and Anita Louise as pretty neighbor Joan Collett was billed as a secondary star. Inescort was in her mid-30s when she arrived in Hollywood in 1935, too old for roles as the romantic leading lady. However, her extensive stage experience became her calling card as an actress, and reviews and promotional support for this film, which was based on a stage play, made ample reference to her reputation in theater. Cultured Ian Hunter was a popular leading man of British silent cinema. His extensive filmography included roles in three Hitchcock films during the late 1920s. Anita Louise, who had been a child actress during the silent era, was a budding leading lady in the early 1930s, gaining popularity for her roles in historical dramas such as Madame Du Barry, The Story of Louis Pasteur, and Marie Antoinette. Her star image was constructed around her delicate beauty, which too often relegated her to roles as the object of male romantic desires. As the new neighbor who catches the attention of young Martin, played by Peter Willes, the character of Joan was tailor-made for Louise.

Warner Bros. may have cast Louise in the key ingénue role in Call It a Day, but it was Olivia de Havilland who caught the attention of reviewers and columnists. As the young girl with a hopeless crush on an older, married man, Catherine Hilton is a more interesting character than the passive Joan Collett, who exists as a romantic ideal for Martin. De Havilland plays Catherine as spunky, emotional, and full of passion. She bolts into a room with starry-eyed exuberance, believing she can get what she wants through sheer force of will. The role and the performance helped de Havilland stand out among the ensemble cast. Landing the role of Catherine Hilton did little to alleviate the competition between de Havilland and her sister, Joan Fontaine, who was paving her own path to movie stardom. In one of those fateful situations that is almost too coincidental, Fontaine had played the role of Catherine on stage. The casting of de Havilland in the film version, which brought her accolades and publicity, only added fuel to their burgeoning feud.

The real force behind Call It a Day was playwright Dorothy Gladys Smith, who was known as Dodie. Smith wrote the original play, which ran for over 200 performances in New York and almost 500 in London. Though Smith did not write the script, screenwriter Casey Robinson adhered closely to her dialogue and episodic structure.

Smith began her career as an actress, entering the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art in 1914. She joined the Portsmouth Repertory theater, performing for the troops in France during World War I. After the war, Smith left the stage for a more secure job as a toy buyer for London's famed Heals Furniture Store The job served her well when she later began writing children's novels, including her most recognizable work, The Hundred and One Dalmatians. Disney adapted her delightful novel into an animated feature in 1961.

While working in the secure world of retailing, Smith never lost interest in the theater. She launched her literary career in 1931 with the play Autumn Crocus, writing under the pseudonym C.L. Anthony. Encouraged by the play's critical and commercial success, she continued to write for the stage and screen throughout the 1930s. By 1935, her true identity had been discovered. Call It a Day became the first work she penned under her own name. It was produced that same year in London and on Broadway, becoming a hit on both sides of the Atlantic.

The play and film versions of Call It a Day are typical of Smith's work, which followed the conventions of a genre popular between the wars. Set in everyday domestic environments, with ensemble casts, the plots revolved around romance, but their defining characteristic was the use of light but witty drawing-room repartee. The appeal of the stories rested on their use of ordinary people and families dealing with relatable issues, albeit in a light-hearted and humorous way. Smith in particular excelled at using noticeable details and distinct minor characters to add texture to narratives that might otherwise be too slight. In Call It a Day, the Hiltons are depicted as slightly eccentric to make them lovable and memorable. This is conveyed through the servants' actions and comments, as when the maid and the cook knowingly expect to find the sugar in the coffee tin and the coffee in the sugar tin.

Director Archie Mayo attempted to overcome the inherent staginess of the material by using extensive tracking shots, but the film remains dialogue driven and slow paced. Understanding its roots and context helps to appreciate its strengths and significance.

By Susan Doll

Producer: Jack Warner, Hal Wallis, Harry Joe Brown, and Henry Blanke. A Cosmopolitan Production for Warner Bros.
Director: Archie Mayo
Screenplay: Casey Robinson, based on the play by Dodie Smith
Cinematography: Ernest Haller
Editor: James Gibbon
Art Direction: John Hughes
Costumes: Orry-Kelly (gowns)
Music: Leo F. Forbstein
Cast: Roger Hilton (Ian Hunter), Dorothy Hilton (Frieda Inescort), Joan Collett (Anita Louise), Catherine Hilton (Olivia de Havilland), Martin Hilton (Peter Willes), Ann Hilton (Bonita Granville), Muriel West (Alice Brady), Frank Haines (Roland Young ), Marcia Ralston (Beatrice Gwynn), Paul Francis (Walter Woolf King), Ethel Francis (Peggy Wood), Mrs. Milson, the housekeeper (Una O'Connor), Mrs. Elkins (Beryl Mercer), Vera (Elsa Buchanan), Elsie Lester (Mary Field).
BW-90m.

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