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The Model and the Marriage Broker
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,The Model and the Marriage Broker

The Model and the Marriage Broker

Even by 1951 the genre conventions of romantic comedy had become familiar enough to verge on cliché. The first-reel "meet-cute", the second act complication that drives the lovers apart, the grand romantic gesture that allows love to triumph-these were the ingredients of a successful recipe. So it comes as no surprise to find these established beats played out dutifully in Charles Brackett and George Cukor's 1951 comedy The Model and the Marriage Broker: Fashion model Jeanne Crain, beautiful but poorly treated by men, meets the roguish radiologist Scott Brady under comically contrived circumstances; their relationship is threatened by his belief she's stepping out behind his back and her belief he doesn't want to commit; there's room for a grand romantic gesture on both their parts to overcome these obstacles, fade to black...

Not so fast. The trick of The Model and the Marriage Broker is that this by-the-numbers romantic comedy routine is only a subplot, and the actual star of the film is Thelma Ritter as the puppet master responsible for manipulating all these incidents. Like the audience, she's a fan of this stuff, and knows how it's supposed to go. Sometimes love needs a little help, so if it takes some secret social engineering to contrive a "meet-cute," so be it-now, who wants to swallow an earring so we can go to the radiologist?

Thelma Ritter may not be anyone's first pick to top-line a romantic comedy-in fact, she was not known as a leading lady at all in any genre. Less than five years previously she made her screen debut, at the age of 45, in an uncredited bit part (in Miracle on 34th Street, 1947). For the next couple of years, Ritter continued to draw attention as a memorable supporting player in mostly uncredited walk-on roles. When she started earning Oscar® nominations for these supporting bits, casting directors started to take notice. In 1951, she was nominated again for her role in the romantic comedy The Mating Season, directed by Mitchell Leisen for screenwriter-producer Charles Brackett.

Brackett recognized her masterful comic timing, and had the confidence to give her the main stage in his production of The Model and the Marriage Broker later that same year.

Brackett knew something about the value of a breakout gig-his own breakthrough moment came back in 1938, after years of paying his dues as a struggling and largely unnoticed screenwriter. Brackett had been hired by the great Ernst Lubitsch to help write Bluebeard's Eighth Wife, where he met another aspiring writer by the name of Billy Wilder. Brackett and Wilder formed an instant partnership. Although their work on Bluebeard's Eighth Wife was unremarkable by anyone's standards (Lubitsch's, Wilder's, or Brackett's), it was the start of a lasting and influential collaboration.

Brackett's Old World gentility tempered Wilder's sarcasm, while Wilder's raunchy flippancy gave fire to Brackett's mellow side.

That fundamental difference in temperament, however, ultimately drove them apart. After 1950's Sunset Boulevard, Brackett and Wilder went their separate ways.

The Model and the Marriage Broker was one of the first pictures Brackett wrote and produced following his professional split from Wilder. In it, Thelma Ritter plays a matchmaker for hire, although her determination to see others happily married inspires her to do more "matchmaking" than the "for hire" part. When she meets model Jeanne Crain, her motherly instincts kick in and she can't help but engineer a perfect romantic comedy love affair with Scott Brady. But what about Ritter's own happiness? Who can write her happy ending, and what would it look like?

Brackett co-wrote the film with Walter Reisch and Richard Breen-fellow alums from Billy Wilder's films. Reisch and Brackett had also previously collaborated on Ernst Lubitsch's Ninotchka (1939). These experienced writers grounded The Model and the Marriage Broker in a gritty, lived-in humanity not often seen in romantic comedies-far from the light, airiness of the usual rom-com fantasy, this is a story about deeply lonely people, whose happiness is a long shot. Thelma Ritter's clients are funny-looking, socially awkward, wounded creatures. They deserve love as much as the next person, but when the next person is a stunning fashion model, it's clear they might need a helping hand. Although the film spends much of its running time exploring these supporting characters, and their seemingly doomed romantic prospects, the effect is uplifting and hopeful. There is none of Wilder's cynical venom to be seen, only Lubitsch-style tolerance and love.

Jeanne Crain was an accomplished ice skater who made her movie debut in 1943. By 1949 she had an Academy Award nomination to her name, for the leading role in Pinky, in which she played a light-skinned African-American passing for white in order to escape segregation. Her co-star Scott Brady was a familiar face from tough guy roles in Westerns and film noir, who would go on to have a busy career in television.

Director George Cukor was known for coaxing career-best performances from his already luminous and talented stars. In fact, it was that proficiency which had brought him to movies in the first place. During the 1920s Cukor was an accomplished Broadway director, and happy with his chosen career-Broadway was the better paying, more prestigious place to be in those days. As Hollywood made the transition to talkies, nervous studio executives feared their existing stable of silent directors would have no idea how to direct actors actually talking, and so hired Broadway veterans to handle dialog scenes. Cukor found himself swept up in that net, and thrust onto the movie soundstages, where he quickly proved his mettle, and found his calling.

"The great difference between the stage director and the film director is the extent of control which is necessary in the film studio," wrote Cukor in a 1938 essay. "In the film studio the player never steps outside the control of the director...[E]very scene which reaches the screen has passed the censorship of the director; he cannot please to be absolved from responsibility for the merest flicker of an eyelash, because it was at one time within his power to remake that scene and remake it again until he had the effect he desired. The fact that the scene is in the final film is proof that he decided it was good enough to be there."

Before long, Cukor had amassed a catalog of successes: Dinner at Eight (1933), Little Women (1933), The Philadelphia Story (1940), Gaslight (1944), Adam's Rib (1949), Born Yesterday (1950), to name just a few highlights. Cukor focused his energies on the actors, rather than camera technique. He told Peter Bogdanovich, "One can do very dazzling tricks-dazzling beauty and pyrotechnics-but unless the human heart is there I don't think it goes very deep."

By David Kalat

Sources:
Peter Bogdanovich, Who the Devil Made It: Conversations with Legendary Film Directors.
Richard Corliss, Talking Pictures: Screenwriters in the American Cinema
Richard Koszarski, Hollywood Directors 1914-1940

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