Friday, December 7, 2007
Vamp When Ready: Wedding Present
"Screenwriter Joseph Anthony's refusal to infuse the proceedings with anything even resembling a plot proves to be disastrous," huffs Reel Film Reviews' David Nusair in his capsule take on the Wedding Present DVD, but that's exactly the quality I loved about this 1936 film, released last year as part of a five-film box from Universal, Cary Grant: Screen Legend Collection. As part of a collection of lesser-known Grant films-- Thirty-Day Princess, Wings In Dark, Big Brown Eyes, Kiss and Make-Up-- Wedding Present offers a Grant whose star persona is still nascent, but whose talent, humor and charisma shine through, not in spite of the film's light-hearted incoherence, but precisely because of it. Freed of the obligation for narrative coherence and thematic "significance," Wedding Present offers a series of performance sketches, which allow Grant and his co-star, the delightfully game Constance [Correction-- I meant Joan Bennett, of course] Bennett, the opportunity to sing silly songs, roll one-liners off their tongues and one-up each other's slapstick. The plot, such as it is, unfolds as a series of surreal, jazzy tangents: what feels like a Front Page-style newspaper comedy quickly becomes a witty marriage comedy (standing in the hallway of the courthouse, Grant offers Bennett a vacuum cleaner like it was a box of candy), which quickly morphs into a Capraesque observation of cross-cultural exchange when Bennett and Grant go to interview a vistiting ambassador, which somehow takes us into one the 30s' favorite genres, the airplane drama. Then, we're back at the newspaper again. Ask for depth, consistency of tone, and narrative closure as your defining qualities of meaning, and you'll get stuck-- but why be a Ralph Bellamy about the proceedings? Wedding Present knows that its real purpose is to provide just enough harmonic background for its stars to riff on, reminding us that Hollywood in the 1930s was best described by French writer and journalist Blaise Cendrars; he wasn't writing about Wedding Present, but his description of a trip to that film's studio, Paramount, conveys its mood:
The studio was jammed with jazz—pianos, violins, flutes, saxophones, the clangs of a gong, brass, drums. Thousands of clustered lamps sparkled, hundreds of spotlights heaved, capsized in the distance. Above the innumerable heads of the costumed actors and extras, the giant lever for panoramic shots moved about the battens in the loft, swinging Robert Z. Leonard, director of this admirable production honoring the cinema, his cameramen, and his team of helpers and electricians in tubs suspended in midair.