John Hoyt steals Everybody Does It, as far as I’m concerned. The film’s a 1949 Paul Douglas vehicle, and Douglas does his usual lumbering-bear performance in it. He’s awkward and appealing, I’ll grant that (Bosley Crowther raved about Douglas in his review), exhibiting a kind of rhino-at-the-Ritz quality. Which is how Douglas was often cast: the mud-flapped Mack Truck among the polished Lincoln Continentals. Joseph Mankiewicz brilliantly used this quality in Douglas’s first major film, A Letter to Three Wives; Douglas is so clearly ill at ease trying to keep up with the swank set that he’s endearing—striking chords with what’s probably a widely shared discomfort with dress clothes and brittle-stemmed cocktail glasses.
His performance in Everybody Does It refers back to the one he gave in the Mankiewicz film, but now it’s a bit monotonous. Douglas overplays his dumb-happy-kid grin and Average-Joe persona; he barks out his lines as if selling hot dogs to the bleachers. And his character, a man who tries to keep his wife (Celeste Holm) from pursuing a professional singing career while becoming a singer himself, is unlikable. Granted, his spouse has a small, unimpressive voice, but I disliked his paternal manner towards her; I wanted to dump a brittle-stemmed cocktail on him. The film also reunites Douglas with his Wives co-star, Linda Darnell, who plays an opera singer taking an interest in his talents, vocal and otherwise. My guess is that the studio, 20th-Century Fox, was trying to sell the now-hot actor as a leading man, and was setting him up for vehicles to attract female audiences. Which seems a misunderstanding of Douglas’s I’m-just-a-regular-mug appeal.
But to get back to John Hoyt. His role is that of an acerbic piano accompanist to both Darnell and Douglas, and he drops acid at every turn (the vocal, not the hallucinogenic, kind), whenever he speaks. In his scenes with Douglas, Hoyt’s a haughty Ariel to the latter’s clueless Caliban, urbane and aloof, as if not deigning to touch the ground the other fellow clomps on with his size-12 boots. Accompanying Douglas at a song recital, Hoyt has to instruct him in stage manners: “Bow, stupid, bow,” he prompts. The line isn’t funny in print, but Hoyt’s reading of it had me shrieking with laughter (it even made Douglas seem funnier). He doesn’t snarl or growl it, he says it naturally, with just the barest kink of sarcasm, his voice rising in controlled half-tones on each enunciated syllable. Right there you see Douglas’s character as Hoyt’s character sees him, a crude clown who doesn’t know how to behave—which is precisely how I saw him. It’s always nice to have an ally and I was on Hoyt’s side from that moment on.
Unlike Douglas, Hoyt onscreen seemed at home with white ties, tuxedos, and tiny finger foods. As an actor, his temperament fell between the effete elegance of Otto Kruger and the bitchy snootiness of Clifton Webb (Hoyt played a Webb-like character in Winter Meeting, which I wrote about here). And his voice, like polished sandpaper, a smooth surface overlaying a rough, gravelly base, was strange and distinctive. He could wield this instrument like a diamond glass-cutter, etching out words with sharp, angled cracks at the edges. I could never place his accent, which sounds vaguely Euro-trash-pean (though Wikipedia says he was born in Bronxville!). That slightly out-of-this-world superiority he projected makes you curious about him; like Michael Rennie, he seems to have stepped out of a spaceship, only a temporary visitor to our realm (one of his best-known roles was as a supercilious Martian). That’s probably why he played so many aristocratic villains. I’ve liked him in everything I’ve seen him in.
I also liked Darnell in the film, though she was underused. She looked good in her opera scenes, moving well on a stage, her gestures coming out naturally, but with the stylized look of singers. She also did well in a recital sequence, where she held herself the way a professional classical singer does, straight up and down, hands held down low in front, but the shoulders and torso relaxed (you need to be, to produce such volumes of sound). She’s lip-syncing, of course; her soprano was supplied by a Helen Spann, who sang for the San Francisco Opera. Not bad. Otherwise, Darnell has a blah part. Her character is attracted to Douglas even before she discovers he has a voice, but what piques her interest in this uncouth man isn’t clear, and nothing much develops between them. Her character is unfortunately one-note, not interestingly written, and the script and direction, by Edmund Goulding, don’t give her much to do. And, outside of the singing sequences, Darnell doesn’t do much with what she does have.
I think Darnell needed a good part that could play to her strengths, in tandem with a director she could respond to, as she did with Mankiewicz in Wives and No Way Out. Or maybe even a bully; one of her best performances is as the sluttish waitress in Fallen Angel, under Otto the Terrible’s direction (I wrote about her in that film here). Darnell hated working with Preminger, but he seemed to have prodded and pushed her into pulling something out of her gut; everything she does in that film—her walk, her speech, even how she curls a lip—is dead on. And when Darnell is dead on—as in Wives or Fallen Angel, or as a showgirl-trollop with a heart of pyrite in Hangover Square—she’s stunning: a witchy-bitchy brew of contemptuous sex and sneering come-ons whipped together into a package of cool, heartless beauty. She could have done the same in Everybody Does It (the title seems meant to refer to singing, not to, uh, other activities), but circumstances seemed to work against her. A loss for the film audience and for us fans.