Wednesday, January 16, 2019

Three Hearts for Julia (Richard Thorpe, 1943)

I watched Three Hearts for Julia only because IMDb claims that Joan Crawford was offered the lead role but turned it down. Not sure if that's true even though Crawford starred in Above Suspicion (my vote for her most underrated film) also directed by Thorpe and released the same year. But it makes sense since Melvyn Douglas has the lead role. The female lead (Ann Sothern) would have proven too back seat for Crawford.

The mostly negative IMDb reviews note the poverty of laughs in this screwball comedy. But even though screwball comedies feature more violence (as a result from having to live by the dictates of monogamous heterosexual romance, say) than yuks, this one is especially odd since the dictates of wartime propaganda abrade against the comedy. It would make a great double feature with Daisy Kenyon (Otto Preminger, 1947) in which Crawford oscillates between two men. Here, Sothern juggles three men and the atmosphere feels on its way to Daisy Kenyon's enervated milieu populated with characters pulling themselves in myriad directions only to arrive at a nerve-wracked nowhere.

Douglas plays a war correspondent who returns home to find that his wife, Sothern, a violinist in an all-woman orchestra, has filed for divorce due to his lengthy absences. She tries to be best friends with him and even enlists his help in choosing between two suitors after her favor. Sothern's blasé path toward monogamy gives off a distinctive Lubitschian fragrance. But to continue along that path would have given the MPPDA pre-Code jitters. Douglas wants and eventually gets her back via the help of conductor and Czech refugee Anton Ottoway (Felix Bressart).

The inevitable reunion pivots more on (wartime) musical logic rather than comedic exigencies, exemplifying Jane Feuer's notion, from her seminal book The Hollywood Musical, that the musical marshals the forces of American entertainment to bring a film to its resolution. Ottoway longs to do a solid for Uncle Sam. So he plans a USO concert of Americana instead of the Borodin, Wagner, and Rimsky-Korsakov of previous scenes (during which the women preposterously halt rehearsals with makeup applications and child rearing) and through various machinations, uses the event to bring the two principals together. The concert is a medley of warhorses like "Kingdom Coming" and "Home on the Range." Sothern has been playing somewhat listlessly until she sees Douglas in the wings at which point she launches into a near-lusty solo of "I've Been Workin' on the Railroad." But their reformation is made through the music - they never embrace! And given that WWII is raging, it's more important to form a community on the heels of the formation of a heterosexual couple. So as the orchestra moves into "Don't Sit Under the Apple Tree," the audience of military men sing along suddenly. Ottoway turns to them(/us) and the sing along blends imperceptibly into "America the Beautiful" for the last shot before the closing credits. If it feels uneasy, just wait 'til Daisy Kenyon.

Look fast for Marie Windsor in the orchestra.

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