Jeeves and The Hollywood Way

“You hurt and disappoint me, Jeeves,” I said….  “I could understand your attitude if the object under advisement were something bushy and waxed at the ends like a sergeant major’s, but it is merely the delicate wisp of vegetation with which David Niven has for years been winning the applause of millions.  When you see David Niven on the screen, you don’t recoil in horror, do you?”

“No, sir.  His mustache is very becoming to Mr. Niven”

“But mine isn’t to me?”

“No, sir.”

Bertie Wooster to Jeeves, regarding the latter’s disapproval of the former’s mustache, in Jeeves and the Feudal Spirit, P.G. Wodehouse, published 1954.

In RE the above bit of dialogue:  In what seems an odd bit of prescience, David Niven, complete with (becoming) mustache, actually played the role of Bertie Wooster in a 1936 Hollywood adaptation of P.G. Wodehouse titled Thank You, Jeeves!, a movie pretty much forgotten today.  Could Wodehouse, writing nearly twenty years later and stirred, perhaps, by some (extremely) faint memory of said film, have thus incorporated Niven’s presence into his 1954 novel via the mustache Bertie grows (to Jeeves’ dismay)?  Just a thought for any Wodehousians out there to mull over, while sipping a cocktail before dinner or perhaps settling down for an evening with a stiffish whiskey-and-soda and an improving book.  Though, as Jeeves himself might say, the contingency is a remote one.

To clarify one thing for any non-Wodehousians reading this post:  Jeeves is not a butler.  He is a self-described gentleman’s personal gentleman, acting as manservant to Bertie Wooster; but his duties, in both stories and novels, go beyond mere service:  He’s a combined valet, consultant, guardian, nanny, advisor, chief cook and bottle washer, analyzer of the psychology of the individual, and fashion arbiter of men’s dress.  He knows, for instance, what to do when faced with a rampaging aunt, a loud pair of purple socks, or an angry swan during the nesting season.  A man, as Bertie says, of infinite resource and sagacity, and a good fellow to keep around when the fierce rush of life becomes a  bit too much for one to handle.

Little of these Jeevesian qualities, unfortunately, appear in the two 1930s Hollywood films about him, the above-mentioned Thank You, Jeeves!, and its 1937 follow-up, Step Lively, Jeeves! (although in the latter Jeeves does discourse on the virtues of wearing the right tie with the right suit).  Had not the name ‘Jeeves’ appeared in the titles, viewers probably would not have guessed the Wodehouse connection at all.  A familiar case, it seems, of a studio (here, 20th-Century Fox) cynically slapping on a recognizable label to enhance the box office.  I hope Wodehouse, with equal cynicism, took the money and ran.

The first film does suggest the basic relationship between the pair:  Jeeves’ role is essentially to pull Bertie out of the soup into which he frequently slips.  In the film’s case, the bowl containing the soup is a pretty young blonde who, at the beginning, fast-talks her way into Bertie’s palatial domicile to use as a hide-out.  Several things we Wodehousians note right away are wrong:  Bertie does not live in a junior-sized castle but a luxury apartment in Berkeley Mansions, W1; visitors to Bertie’s residence are usually one or more of his Drones Club pals, frequently seeking advice from Jeeves; women in pursuit of Bertie are generally large, domineering types, who attempt to mold him into something considerably more brainy than his usual hapless self; and Jeeves would never allow anyone to fast-talk him.  I might almost suspect that the adaptors had never even bothered to read a Wodehouse novel (surely that can’t be the case!), despite the film’s credit claiming they had done so.

The Wodehouse novel on which this film is oh so loosely based is probably Thank You, Jeeves (1933), to which the movie bears no resemblance, except for an instance of Bertie playing a musical instrument (in the novel, a banjolele; in the film, drums).  Some of the one-on-one exchanges between the wide-eyed innocence of Niven as Bertie and the dry, flat delivery of Arthur Treacher as Jeeves are mildly amusing, and may even suggest (oh so dimly) Plum’s own inimitable prose:

Bertie (pointing to a portrait of a family ancestor):  “No doubt, Jeeves, you notice the family resemblance?”

Jeeves:  “Many times, sir.”

Imagine that last said dryly and flatly, and it works.  Sort of.

The problem faced by this, and any other film attempting to adapt Wodehouse is that his is a comedy of language, impossible to recreate in film.  As Robert McCrum notes, “no one [can] find a way to render the interior monologues, so essential to his style, in script form.”  So the adaptors here discarded whatever was Wodehouse and went full B-Film Hollywood instead:  Bertie and Jeeves are entangled in a thieves-after-the-valuable-papers plot, replete with mysterious assignations, mysterious blueprints, mysterious pursuers, and a mysterious hotel honeycombed with mysterious underground passages, and where most of the humor relies (lamely) on Jeeves/Treacher’s indignation at the idiocy of it all.  Oddly, the story resembles one of those Edgar Wallace mystery-thrillers that Bertie is so fond of reading (with the hero trapped in the Den of the Secret Nine and the heroine menaced by a Faceless Fiend).  But the film isn’t self-aware enough, nor Wodehousian enough, to play off such allusions.  It does have Jeeves saving the day by cracking a club on a miscreant’s skull, a move that might wistfully recall for us Wodehouse devotees Jeeves’ adroit use of a cosh in Wodehouse’s The Mating Season.  Though by this point you might wish Jeeves had used it on the adaptors instead.

The follow-up film, Step Lively, Jeeves!, can’t properly be called a sequel—Bertie doesn’t appear at all (apparently the studio could not obtain Niven’s services), and the adaptors’ idea was to compensate by making Jeeves as dim as his former master.  No resource or sagacity here; instead, Jeeves is tricked by a pair of con men into believing he’s the Earl of Braddock, heir to a fortune (I need hardly add this would not happen to the real Jeeves).  Shipped off to America, Jeeves and his conning pals become the guests of a nouveau-riche ex-gangster and his social-climbing wife, and it only gets more confusing.  A few Wodehousian echoes are sounded:  The impersonation plot recalls the Blandings novels, the con artist angle the Ukridge stories.  There’s also a reference to Jeeves’ famous pick-me-ups, only here being the invention not of Jeeves but of the gangster’s wife (oh sacrilege!).  I don’t count these as Wodehouse references, though; they’re more the staples of the hackneyed drawing-room mystery fiction genre that Wodehouse himself plumbed deliberately for his own stories and turned into gold.  But it manages to stay hackneyed here.

Basically the film is a string of situations—Jeeves is caught up in a cops-and-robbers chase, the conmen trick the gangster into ‘investing’ in their scheme, two reporters snoop around for a scoop—that don’t cohere.  It’s as if the writers, stymied for a story, bunged about ideas the way Drones Club members bung about bits of bread in the dining hall, the fallen scraps forming something vaguely narrativish.  Wodehouse was known for the tight construction of his own plots, on which he worked tirelessly; yet the film spends its first ten minutes introducing the two con men in a separate, complicated scheme, with no Jeeves in sight.  On its own the sequence is quite funny—the pair can’t pay for an expensive dinner so they pretend to have food poisoning—as a self-contained vignette.  But it goes on too long before we get to Jeeves, and has no relation to him (Jeeves is in the title, you know).  A bit elaborate, as Bertie (and also Jeeves) might say.

The one good, if not gold, part in the film comes from an actor named George Givot playing one of the con men, a fake Russian count who pronounces his vowels in a way that cannot be reproduced with the slim resources of the English alphabet.  His mangling of the word “perfect,” for instance:  Is it “puorfect” or maybe “pourfect” or perhaps “puurfect”?  It’s like nothing I’ve heard, and mere letters can’t do it justice.  Similarly, with the word “naturally,” which comes out as “naotcherly,” a nasal twang twinging on an extra first syllable—how to mimic such sound in writing?  I hadn’t seen Givot in films before; per his IMDB page, he was a habitué of the B-movie universe.  But he’s hilarious here.  A good-looking man, very funny, great timing, and that perfect (or puorfect, or pourfect) con-artistry air of seeming to believe the guff he’s telling.  No, not seeming—he does believe it; that’s what makes his performance so effective.  As his bumbling partner in crime, Alan Dinehart is also quite good, playing off Givot’s charm with irascible glares.  An example of just how deep was the golden-age Hollywood talent pool.

Truth to tell, I wouldn’t have minded if this film has skipped Jeeves altogether and stayed focused on these two guys instead.  Why not slip them into the storyline as, say, a fake butler and fake valet and see where it takes them?  The imagined consequences would surely have stimulated any screenwriters of infinite resource and sagacity.   It’s an idea that might even have appealed to the great Wodehouse himself.

This post is part of THE BUTLERS & MAIDS BLOGATHON, Feb. 22-23, 2020, hosted by Caftan Woman and Wide Screen World.  Click here to read more movie blog posts on maids and butlers in cinema.

BONUS CLIP:  David Niven took another whack at Wodehouse when he played the irrepressible Uncle Fred, Earl of Ickenham, in an adaptation of Wodehouse’s “Uncle Fred Flits By,” on an episode of Niven’s 1950s TV show, Four Star Playhouse.  An inveterate impersonator, one of the personas Uncle Fred takes on here is that of the man from the bird shop come to clip the parrot’s claws.  Just another instance of spreading sweetness and light in Wodehouse’s world:

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  1. The studio dove into the endless talent pool and found the perfect actors to portray Jeeves and Wooster. It is only a shame they didn’t give them the full Wodehouse treatment.

    I heartily approve of your idea of a renovation of Step Lively, Jeeves! Ah, what could have been.

    PS: You have settled my dialysis treatment entertainment. I shall read a little Wodehouse (readily available on my kobo) and watch a little Four Star television.

  2. David Niven is quite endearing as Bertie, and he comes across here as very sweet and silly – as you note, if only the studio production could have done him and Arthur Treacher a modicum of justice (as Wodehouse might say) in their roles. As for George Givot, I was surprised by how funny he was and that I hadn’t heard of him before. Sometimes you wonder at who gets overlooked in Hollywood and why…

    For your afternoon Wodehouse reading, I heartily recommend, for Jeeves & Bertie, “The Mating Season” and “The Code of the Woosters” (my own favorite of the J&B novels). Peerless entertainment indeed!

  3. Dan

     /  February 22, 2020

    Found an interesting Wodehouse Film Review here:

  4. Rich

     /  February 22, 2020

    Well, I knew absolutely nothing about Wodehouse prior to this and Arthur Treacher, to me, was always the fish and chips guy, so thank you for filling in those gaps, if nothing else. If Jeeves isn’t an actual butler, I suppose the term for him might be “manservant.” That’s what he sounds like, anyway.

    • ‘Manservant’ is basically Jeeves’ description – apparently the difference is that a butler functions for a whole household, while a manservant (or valet) works for one person (although there are times in the stories when Jeeves will “buttle” when needed). I remember those Treacher Fish ‘n Chips shops also. Treacher seems to have had a long career in Hollywood playing supporting roles. He’s even in the 1936 film Satan Met a Lady, the 2nd ‘adaptation’ of The Maltese Falcon, in the Joel Cairo role. Thanks for hosting this great blogathon!

  5. This is great! Thank you. I think your assessment is spot on.

  6. Film and TV adaptations of Wodehouse stories expose how short (and often thin) his plotlines are, such that many TV episodes manage to combine two or three or more lines in a half-hour show. The delight of a Wodehouse novel lies in the padding-out, whereas on film the padding becomes tedious. You can’t have the actors explaining to each other that, for example, his face was as shiny as the seat of busman’s trousers, or that a chair was made for a woman by someone who knew they were wearing them tight around the hips that year. I could go on but . . . BTW, Niven is terrific as Uncle Fred (and Uncle Fred Flits By is mostly plot without much padding — so it works as a film). And may I plead, for the sake of something or other, that the term for PGW addicts be WodehousEan, rather than “WodehousIan”?

    • You make an excellent point on why so many film/video/TV Wodehouse adaptations are disappointing: Wodehouse, meaning his humor and characters, reside in the language, not in action. I sense most adaptors are baffled when confronted with Wodehouse’s stories for the very feature you mention: the plots are thin, the characters repetitive. Many adaptations resort to slapstick or dumb gags (such as the teeth gag in the David Niven/Uncle Fred episode) that don’t come close to what happens in a Wodehouse story.

      I also liked Niven as Uncle Fred; he suggested some of the character’s ebullience (although even in this short adaptation, we don’t get the sense of Uncle Fred’s “excesses” where he elects to “step high, wide, and plentiful”). Wodehouse’s inimitable way of nailing it with words is what can’t be realized in visual form.

      Point taken on the use of ‘Wodehousean’! Thanks for your comment!

  7. A splendid post! It’s been years since I’ve read Wodehouse – surely not an improving book – but I think my introduction as a teen was the “Wodehouse Playhouse” from the BBC, and Treacher – though he was always playing somebody’s butler — was a not discovered as Jeeves until later.

    • Wodehouse is always worth re-reading and re-discovering; i have about 2/3 of his output and I find it never stales. I remember the Wodehouse Playhouse series also, which did some amusing adaptations of his non-Jeeves-and-Bertie stories. The Master never disappoints. Thanks for commenting!

  1. The latest on Wodehouse: movie reviews, Slapstick festival & a Japanese stage adaptation – Plumtopia

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