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The Algonquin Round Table Goes Hollywood
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Live, Love and Learn

After teaming Rosalind Russell and Robert Montgomery in the artistically ambitious Night Must Fall (1937), MGM hedged its bets by putting them into the more traditional 1937 screwball comedy, Live, Love and Learn. Though less noteworthy than their earlier film that year, however, it offered Russell a fascinating chance to show what she could do with the role of a madcap heiress.

Live, Love and Learn was very much a product of the studio era. MGM was dedicated to turning out a film a week in the '30s, keeping their stars in front of the public in a variety of genres designed to capitalize on the appeal of established players like Montgomery while building the popularity of developing stars like Russell. With their roles in a thriller that unconventionally (and against studio head Louis B. Mayer's better judgment) cast Montgomery as a serial killer who romances Russell already completed, they moved to more solid box-office ground with this tale of an heiress who gives up her fortune to marry a struggling artist only to see his first success turn him into a sell-out. Montgomery had already earned a reputation as a light comedian in films such as Private Lives (1931) and When Ladies Meet (1933), but this was Russell's first brush with screwball comedy after a series of more patrician roles.

To direct the film, the studio assigned the dependable if far from dazzling George Fitzmaurice, who was best known for such romantic dramas as Raffles (1930) and Mata Hari (1931). If the story was a busy mess, it may be because of the number of hands involved in the writing process. The original plot was an adaptation of an original story by Helen Grace Carlisle and eventually had three credited screenwriters. Richard Maibaum had only recently arrived in Hollywood following success on Broadway, though he would go on to his greatest fame as the screenwriter of thirteen of the James Bond films, from the first, Dr. No (1962), through Licence to Kill (1989). Cyril Hume had worked on the script for MGM's classic Tarzan, the Ape Man (1932) and would continue to team with Maibaum through the years. If neither seems the perfect choice for a screwball comedy, throw in Charles Brackett, on loan from Paramount. The urbane Brackett would soon find his perfect writing partner in future director Billy Wilder, with whom he would team for such dazzling comic scripts as Midnight and Ninotchka (both 1939). Perhaps it was Brackett, who was gay, who contributed the jokes about a male decorator and his "partner" and the strange friendship between Montgomery and his former roommate (played by Robert Benchley).

Live, Love and Learn also includes a pair of in-jokes for film fans. When journalists begin to hound the newly famous Montgomery, Benchley warns them that "He wants to be alone," a clear reference to the studio's most famous female star, Greta Garbo. At another point, Montgomery puts a drunken Benchley to sleep on his couch, then covers his face with a rag and says "Now he looks like a decapitated corpse." In Night Must Fall, Montgomery had played a killer who not only decapitates his victims, but carries a severed head around in a hatbox. It's doubtful that the writers were aware of how future generations would view another plot development. Desperate to get back in touch with his talents after languishing as a society portraitist, Montgomery pays an Italian immigrant to have her young son model for him, which the boy does, wearing nothing but a fig leaf. Considered comic at the time, the scene today seems more cringe-worthy.

Like most studio films of Hollywood's golden age, Live, Love and Learn features an array of supporting players churning out films at an often amazing rate. These include Maude Eburne (seven films that year), Al Shean (eight), Zeffie Tilbury (thirteen), Minerva Urecal (thirteen), E.E. Clive (seventeen), Charles Judels (eighteen) and Billy Gilbert (twenty-two, including the voice of Sneezy in Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs). Mickey Rooney's small role was one of seven he played that year, but it would be one of his last supporting performances. Live, Love and Learn was made only a few months after A Family Affair (1937), the first of the Hardy family films. Before the year's end, he would shoot to stardom with a larger role in the first real Andy Hardy film, You're Only Young Once.

Though she wasn't credited for her performance as an art school's class president in Live, Love and Learn, Ann Rutherford (a slow starter with only six 1937 credits) would rise to fame alongside Rooney as his small-town sweetheart, Polly Benedict, in the Hardy films. Also on the road to stardom was Monty Woolley, a Broadway favorite making his film debut here (though his second film, Nothing Sacred, would reach theaters first). He would achieve his greatest success as acerbic columnist Sheridan Whiteside in the stage and screen versions of The Man Who Came to Dinner (1942).

Although less of a critical success than Night Must Fall, Live, Love and Learn probably performed better at the box office, presenting Montgomery as his fans would have preferred. The stars would re-team in 1939 for Fast and Loose, an attempt to create another husband-and-wife detective series like The Thin Man (1934), ironic since Russell had been brought to MGM as back-up in case that series' star, Myrna Loy, grew difficult. Also ironic is Russell's casting just a year after Live, Love and Learn, once again playing a wife trying to keep her husband from selling out, in the award-winning medical drama The Citadel (1938).

Producer: Harry Rapf
Director: George Fitzmaurice
Screenplay: Charles Brackett, Cyril Hume, Richard Maibaum
Based on a story by Marion Parsonnet, suggested by a story by Helen Grace Carlisle
Cinematography: Ray June
Art Direction: Cedric Gibbons
Music: Edward Ward
Cast: Robert Montgomery (Bob Graham), Rosalind Russell (Julie Stoddard), Robert Benchley (Oscar), Helen Vinson (Lily Chalmers), Mickey Rooney (Jerry Crump), Monty Woolley (Mr. Bawltitude), E.E. Clive (Mr. Palmiston), Maude Eburne (Mrs. Crump), Al Shean (Professor Fraum), Billy Gilbert (Newsboy), Ann Rutherford (Class President), Zeffie Tilbury (Mrs. Venable).
BW-79m.

by Frank Miller

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