Danger - Love at Work
As a young man in Vienna, Preminger pursued a law degree, though he preferred appearing on stage, serving as a protégé to the legendary Max Reinhardt. By age 19, he had earned success as the manager of the Komedia Theater in Vienna, where he acted and worked as a producer-director. In 1932, he took over as manager of Reinhardt's Theater, the Josefstadt , after the great producer went into semi-retirement. The previous year, Preminger had directed his first film, Die Grosse Liebe, but it was his stage plays that secured his reputation. That reputation attracted the attention of Joseph Schenck, Chairman and Chief Executive Officer of 20th Century-Fox, while he was visiting Vienna. Schenck suggested that Preminger come to America because Fox was looking for new talent. When Broadway producer Gilbert Miller learned that Preminger was immigrating to America, he asked the young man to direct the courtroom drama Libel! The play closed five months later after the death of leading man Colin Clive, but by that time Preminger was already in Hollywood.
Fox's newest director got his feet wet with Under Your Spell (1936), a vehicle tailored to the singing talents of baritone Lawrence Tibbett, before his promotion to A-pictures with Danger--Love at Work. The script was based on the unpublished story "Marry an Orphan" by James Edward Grant, which Fox purchased from Universal for $15,000 and the loan of Alice Faye. The story follows successful lawyer Henry MacMorrow, who crosses paths with a family of wealthy eccentrics, the Pembertons. Henry's law firm needs the signatures of the entire Pemberton clan to complete the sale of one of their properties. The family includes Mr. and Mrs. Pemberton, an artist son named Herbert, a genius son named Junior, two maiden aunts, a cave-dwelling uncle, a bachelor uncle, and a beautiful but flighty daughter named Toni. Toni is engaged to the insufferable Howard Rogers, but she is immediately smitten with Henry.
Current descriptions of Danger--Love at Work often refer to it as a screwball comedy, undoubtedly due to the crazy antics of the characters, but it lacks most of the conventions of that genre. Toni and Henry are opposites in personality, which is typical of screwball comedies, but none of the other conventions are evident. The romance structures the narrative but does not propel it. The story does not include a clash of social classes, and the dialogue exchanges between Toni and Henry is devoid of the sexual tension generally found in screwball. As Toni, Ann Sothern is appropriately scatter-brained, not unlike Carole Lombard in My Man Godfrey (1936) or Katharine Hepburn in Bringing Up Baby (1938), but Jack Haley as Henry lacks the romantic appeal of Cary Grant, William Powell, or Clark Gable.
Instead, it is the Pemberton family that dominates the film. No extensive rationale is given for their eccentricities beyond a reference to the influence of Grandfather Pemberton who advocated free expression of personality without inhibitions. Eccentric wealthy families were a common convention of comedies during the Depression as the public struggled with the widening economic gap between the social classes. The wealthy characters' incompetence, lack of compassion, or lack of common sense deflated them, reducing their economic and class superiority in the eyes of average viewers. In Danger--Love at Work, the Pembertons are zany and ineffective but also lovable, and their class is not an issue in the storyline. Mary Boland, who specialized in playing madcap matrons and zany grande dames, steals her scenes as the fluttery Alice Pemberton. Mrs. Pemberton repeatedly mistakes Henry for someone else, devising elaborate explanations for why he simply must be who she thinks he is rather than who he actually is. At first she mistakes him for Howard Rogers, whisking him away to a guest room despite his protests that he is Henry MacMorrow. Later, she insists that he is a friend of the Evans' "who rescued poor Togo" while crossing the Atlantic on the Normandie. Mrs. Pemberton blurts out the entire story of Togo before Henry makes it clear that she is mistaken, only to have her huff that it is Henry who is eccentric, a lunatic, and crazy.
John Carradine plays her artist son Herbert, who is clearly intended as a satire of Salvador Dali. When Henry meets Herbert, he is decked out in a smock painting on the living room window. He is quite pleased with his modernist painting, dubbed "The Love Life of a Cup and Saucer," and announces that he is no longer a surrealist, but a post-surrealist. Later, Henry watches Herbert in action as he furiously paints a seascape while standing in front of a giant fan in a raincoat. A butler pours water on his head from a sprinkler, because, according to Herbert, the artist must experience the subject matter.
Other Pembertons include Albert (Etienne Girardot) and Junior (Benny Bartlett), an elderly father and young son who compete with each other for scientific breakthroughs to win the Nobel Prize. Two spinster aunts, Aunt Pitty (Margaret Seddon) and Aunt Patty (Margaret McWade), live in upstate New York near Uncle Goliath (Maurice Cass), who has eschewed the life of a wealthy socialite in order to return to nature. Dressed in animal skins, Uncle Goliath kills his own food with a club and dwells in a nearby cave. The Pemberton servants are as peculiar as the family: The chauffeur (Hal K. Dawson) repeatedly misses picking up people at the airport or train station because he can't resist the triple feature at the local movie theater. His favorite is the Mickey Mouse cartoons, which he recounts in great detail as family members laugh along with him.
The audience sees the Pembertons through the perspective of the "normal" characters--protagonist Henry MacMorrow and antagonist Howard Rogers, played by Edward Everett Horton. This device helps the audience see the family as unconventional, though Henry grows to accept their peculiarities while Howard is either exasperated by them or tries to exploit them.
The stage experience of the principal actors and director Preminger contributed enormously to the success of the film. From the first scene, in which Henry is assigned the task of tracking down the signatures of the Pembertons, the style of the film is set. The humor is dependent on the rapid-fire, well-timed delivery of dialogue. The actors speak quickly in a rhythm that accentuates certain words so that they are clear and easy to comprehend. Barely a beat separates the dialogue of the different characters. Scenes are dominated by medium long shots to accommodate the interaction of the ensemble cast. It is the snappy dialogue that propels the pace of the film, not the editing. Comedies with rapid-fire dialogue were in vogue at the time, epitomized by the screwball comedies of Howard Hawks (Bringing Up Baby; His Girl Friday, 1940), so Danger--Love at Work is nothing revolutionary. But, the ability of the actors--most of whom had extensive stage experience--to handle the pace of the dialogue combined with Preminger's staging and direction definitely elevate the material.
Originally, Fox president and executive producer Darryl F. Zanuck cast French actress Simone Simon in the role of Toni Pemberton. Preminger disagreed with the casting, telling Zanuck that the actress would not be able to handle the dialogue. The producer, who was notorious for his inability to take constructive criticism, insisted Simon would be just fine. After he saw the first rushes, Zanuck realized his mistake but blamed it on Simon, telling her she should go back to France because she was untalented. It was not a lack of talent that was her problem; it was her heavy accent, which prevented her from delivering the lines quickly and clearly with the required "snap," as Preminger called it.
Danger--Love at Work received good reviews, with critics rightfully crediting the terrific cast, brisk pace, and farcical tone for its sense of fun.
Producer: Harold Wilson
Director: Otto Preminger
Screenplay: James Edward Grant, Ben Markson, and Buddy G. DeSylva (uncredited), based on the story "Marry an Orphan" by Grant
Cinematography: Virgil Miller
Editor: Jack Murray
Art Director: Duncan Cramer
Costume Designer: Gwen Wakeling
Cast: Henry MacMorrow (Jack Haley), Antoinette "Toni" Pemberton (Ann Sothern), Alice Pemberton (Mary Boland), Herbert Pemberton (John Carradine), Howard Rogers (Edward Everett Horton), Uncle Alan (Walter Catlett), Albert Pemberton (Etienne Girardot), Junior Pemberton (Benny Bartlett), Uncle Goliath (Maurice Cass), Alan Dinehart (Allan Duncan), E.E. Clive (Wilbur), Margaret McWade (Aunt Patty), Margaret Seddon (Aunt Pitty), Chauffeur (Hal K. Dawson ), Chemist (Elisha Cook, Jr.), Henry's Valet (Charles Coleman), Maid (Hilda Vaughn).
by Susan Doll