Like his fictional lead character here, English humorist Wodehouse specialized in gentle lampoons of the upper crust himself. His best-known work is a series of books and stories recounting the foibles of likeable but dimwitted gentleman Bertie Wooster and his sharp and sensible valet Jeeves. Loaded with affectionate satire and engaging wordplay, Wodehouse's style comes through in much of the film, despite changes in plot and character elements in the adaptation by a number of writers, chiefly Charles Brackett. No stranger himself to sharp satire and sophisticated wit, Brackett and colleague Billy Wilder were responsible for the excellent screenplays of such comedies as Midnight (1939), Ninotchka (1939) and Ball of Fire (1941). Their partnership continued through Wilder's transition to director, culminating in perhaps their greatest triumph, Sunset Boulevard (1950). Brackett won an Academy Award for his work on that classic, as well as for Titanic (1953) and The Lost Weekend (1945), also directed by Wilder.
Montgomery has a lot of great character actors to play off in this picture. His conniving father is played by Frank Morgan, most widely recognized as the title character of The Wizard of Oz (1939), but an actor of great range whose career spanned from the pre-World War I era through the late 40s and included musicals (Broadway Melody of 1940, 1940), comedies (Bombshell, 1933; The Shop Around the Corner, 1940) and dramas (The Mortal Storm, 1940; Tortilla Flat, 1942, which earned him a Best Supporting Actor Oscar® nomination). The object of his affection is played by Billie Burke, also a cast member in The Wizard of Oz (Glinda the Good Witch) and more than 80 other films. Bayliss the Butler is, of course, the screen's all-time great flustered domestic, Eric Blore, who played valets and butlers in dozens of pictures over the course of more than three decades, attending to the needs of such stars as William Powell, Fred Astaire, Joel McCrea, Leslie Howard and Herbert Marshall. There is also an appearance by American humorist, screenwriter and sometimes actor Robert Benchley, who worked on the screenplay for Piccadilly Jim in its early stages but received no credit.
Finally, the picture benefits from the assured direction of Robert Z. Leonard, working on his fourth and final film with Montgomery. Although never classed among the great directors of American cinema, Leonard built a solid career as a workhorse at MGM, one who could be counted on to turn out efficient, popular vehicles for the studio's stable of stars. It speaks well for the regard in which he was held by Metro executives that he was regularly assigned projects for the three queens of the lot in the 1930s, Greta Garbo (he directed her first American screen test), Norma Shearer and Joan Crawford, as well as such important properties as Jeannette MacDonald and Nelson Eddy, Judy Garland and Greer Garson. He was also at the helm of such big-budget prestige pictures as The Great Ziegfeld (1936) and Pride and Prejudice (1940). It speaks volumes for Leonard's indelible connection to the studio that between 1925 (a year after its founding) and the end of his career in 1957 (a period encompassing more than 60 films), he only worked entirely outside MGM a few times.
The Wodehouse story was adapted for the screen once before, in 1920, and again in 2004, with Sam Rockwell in the role of Jim. The screenplay for the remake was written by Julian Fellowes, Academy Award winner for Gosford Park (2001).
A handful of reviews that accompanied the release of Piccadilly Jim sum up the picture's appeal quite well. Although not overwhelmed by the movie, Variety admitted "Its function is to entertain in a snappy yet simple and innocuous manner, with interesting people as the characters." The New York Evening Journal praised its star with: "Give Bob Montgomery an impudent role and he goes to town." Montgomery certainly added to his credit another solid performance in the kind of role he did so well (and, to his dismay, so often) in the 1930s. But MGM had little faith in the picture and refused to promote it. Without sufficient word of mouth to save it, the film rather quickly faded at the box office.
Director: Robert Z. Leonard
Producers: Robert Z. Leonard, Harry Rapf
Screenplay: Charles Brackett, Edwin H. Knopf, based on the novel by P.G. Wodehouse
Cinematography: Joseph Ruttenberg
Editing: William S. Gray
Art Direction: Cedric Gibbons
Original Music: William Axt
Cast: Robert Montgomery (Jim Crocker), Frank Morgan (James Crocker, Sr.), Madge Evans (Ann Chester), Billie Burke (Eugenia Willis), Robert Benchley (Bill Macon), Eric Blore (Bayliss).
By Rob Nixon