Bobbed Robert

MGM’s 1941 opus Rage in Heaven starts right out by attributing a quote to Milton that’s actually from Congreve: “Heav’n has no Rage, like Love to Hatred turn’d.” Not the most encouraging portent, I’d say, if you’re botching quotes. The movie slides off the cliff from there. It’s a silly film, with a preposterous plot, hokey dialogue, paper characters, a dumb ending, and weird touches of humor. I enjoyed it immensely. There’s something so satisfying in watching what was obviously the product of a large budget, careful planning, and nurtured talents go so wrong. It restores my faith in human fallibility. No AI robot, no computer brain, no mechanized algorithm or electronic calculation, could make anything this entertaining. Mere people can still do some things better. Even if it’s just screwing up royally.

Could that refer to Congreve’s misattributed mood?…

Where does the fun start? Well, Robert Montgomery plays a psychopath. He had done so brilliantly some four years earlier in Night Must Fall; but that was a role he wanted. The role in this film he didn’t. It wasn’t so much the part, that of a stinking rich paranoid nutjob who’s got a complex about always getting his way, as that Bob wanted a vacation, but MGM refused to grant it. So Bob committed acting sabotage. Per co-star Ingrid Bergman’s bio, Montgomery decided to “protest” his role by “just say[ing] the lines but not act.” And by Jove, it worked. The film ran through two directors before the studio brought on martinet Woody Van Dyke, who, said Ingrid, “shouted and screamed” and lacked only “a whip and a revolver” to do the job. Talk about herding cats. Maybe it wasn’t pretty, but he got the film finished and in the can. For posterity to goggle at.

Although not even One-Take Woody could get a performance out of Bob Montgomery. Gotta love that Bob…

MGM may have found another way round what I like to think of as Bob’s Rebellion. There’s a bit in the opening scene in which Oscar Homolka, who plays a psychiatrist and who’s sprouting so much top hair and eyebrows he resembles a bearskin rug during molting season, explains how a paranoid nutjob speaks: With “a certain curious lack of emotion, a certain tonelessness in his speech.” My guess is MGM inserted that line to counter Montgomery’s deliberate non-performance. Audiences would then be prepped to view Bob’s un-acting as acting. Even as bringing a startling new realism to the screen. That’s not Bob sloughing off, we think, that’s how psychos are supposed to behave. It’s honest and true, and real. It might even be proto-Method. Cinematic history will have to be re-written: It wasn’t Brando who brought full-throated Method acting to the screen. No, it was Bob, a full ten years earlier. When he was deciding not to act.

MGM may have been throwing a Hail-Mary pass with Homolka’s pronouncement, but it kinda works. Because you watch the film kinda not noticing that Bob’s not acting. He just seems strange. I don’t mean that his character seems strange. I mean that Bob seems strange. Maybe it was a case of getting through a bad job as painlessly as possible, a mind-over-matter thing. Like reciting a mantra when you’re at the dentist so you don’t hear the drill. Mostly Bob stares slightly off-center, with a fixed smirk on his face, looking like a boy who’s stolen from the cookie jar and knows he’s gotten away with it but doesn’t want you to know it. Though, come to think of it, that’s how Bob often looked in his movies.

It does make you wonder…

Anyway, the film’s story revolves around Bob as the non-emoting psycho and Ingrid as his lovely and radiant but slowly-becoming-aware-that-all-is-not-right bride, along with George Sanders as Bob’s nice best buddy who’s also in love with lovely and radiant Ingrid and who’s also becoming aware that Bob’s off his beam. Ingrid was enough of a pro not to slouch in her own acting, doing lovely-and-radiant till her teeth must’ve ached; they glow onscreen with the effort. George backs her up, looking sympathetic and sweet and even a little dopey as he moons over her; and they both look slightly wary of Bob. Who was off in his corner feeling, per Ingrid, sorry for himself because he had to do this film to pay for his big house and bigger swimming pool. I wish I had the luxury to pay for a swimming pool, but then, no one is asking me to play psychos. At least not for pay, that is.

Today, of course, Old-Hollywood-savvy viewers watching this film and thinking who could have better played the psycho, will probably come to the same conclusion I did: Wouldn’t it have made sense to make George the psycho and Bob the buddy? Instead, George must play nice here and that makes him seem strange. Ingrid wrote in her bio that George didn’t care about his role and slept (literally) between takes. (No doubt, playing nice took effort.) Being that we’re not used to seeing George pleasant and sweet—indeed, being that we prefer seeing him nasty and sneering—we might think we’re not seeing George at all, but his brother, Tom Conway. Who was known in Hollywoodland as “the nice George Sanders.” Now there’s an idea. Why not George play the psycho and brother Tom the nice buddy? Then any confusion about George being nice or not nice could be easily dealt with. That’s not George being nice, viewers could reassure themselves, that’s just Tom. Who’s always nice, anyway.  What’s so strange about that?

It’s VERY strange…

As it is, Tom’s not the nice one, George is. Which is pretty strange. And so George seems strange, and Bob seems strange, and in-between is lovely-and-radiant Ingrid, doing enough lovely-and-radiant smiling to beat the band, and the strain tells. So, she begins to seem strange. How much lovely and radiant smiling can one do? On one side is emoteless Bob, on the other is sleeping George, and in the middle is Ingrid, lovely and radiant and smiling, and probably wishing from the depths of her soul she could unleash a snarl or two, just to feel like a human being again. The strain must have told on everybody because there’s a moment when Lucile Watson snarls. I know, I know: sweet, dear, kind Lucile, whom we all picture as our ideal Mom. It boggles the mind, but near the end she lets rip a frown that almost wrinkles the screen. Just how tough a shoot was this film anyway?

Meanwhile, the film keeps trying to show us how strange Bob’s nutjob is by having him do strange things. Not only does he say his lines without feeling, he sits up in a tree while in formal dress and plays crosswords puzzles while at work and walks in the rain while umbrella-less. This could have been played for comedy. You know, like Bob being a nice-guy nutjob whom nobody understands, who does cute things like tree-sitting and crossword-puzzling and rain-walking, and who periodically signs himself into insane asylums under assumed names just to annoy headshrinker Oscar Homolka, whose eyebrows look fat and furry enough to spin cocoons and sit up in trees themselves. Indeed, why not have Bob play two nutjobs, a nice one and a psycho one, who both romance lovely-and-etc. Ingrid, and who both do crazy things such as sit in trees and not carry umbrellas? It would at least spare us the confusion of watching George Sanders do un-George-Sanders-like things. Which might make us nutty.

Being it was tough enough for MGM to get Bob to play one nutjob, I doubt if the studio could have gotten him to play two. To which problem I propose a solution. And that is: Get Another Bob. When it came to Bobs, Old Hollywood had no shortage of ‘em; it was Bobs-a-plenty. There was Bob Taylor, tailor-made for the nice-buddy part (and who was nearly as pretty as Ingrid Bergman), or Bob Young, or Bob Donat, or even Bob Cummings, though I kinda like the idea of casting him against type as the psycho. Then you’d have Bob versus Bob. Has a nice rhythm, hasn’t it? Had the film been made a couple of years later, you could have used Bob Mitchum or Bob Ryan, two actors who knew something about playing psychos, with Bob Alda or Bob Preston doing nicey-nice duties; then add a flashback with young Bobbie Blake as psycho-child Bob; or even stage a dance-dream sequence, in which Bobby Van makes like crazy to a soft shoe. Hey, why not cast Bob Benchley as the psycho—I mean, how hard is it to sit up a tree? Throw in direction by Bob Rossen or Bob Leonard, stir it all together and heat it in the pot, and Bob’s your uncle. Kind of.

However, Bob—Montgomery, that is—got stuck with the psycho role, and he does such thoroughly psycho things as menace lovely and radiant brides and almost push nice best buddies into steaming vats of molten steel. Meanwhile, nice George Sanders—not Tom “nice George Sanders” Conway, but real George Sanders, playing nice here and looking kinda strange about it—but where was I? Oh, yes, nice George Sanders—meaning George George Sanders—gazes on Ingrid with shining eyes—and why not, she’s so lovely and radiant she’s practically incandescent—and tries to save her from psycho Bob; but then, Bob goes and gets George arrested for Bob’s murder. Got that? Only Bob isn’t murdered but has done himself in and framed George for it. Then we have a tense build-up to a will-George-or-will-not-George-be-hanged climax, while Ingrid and Oscar, who’s looking more and more like a wool blanket being attacked by moths, race to find Bob’s tell-all diary and get George a last-minute noose reprieve by reading the tell-all passages over the phone to the prison governor, who apparently believes it unstintingly. I mean—OVER THE PHONE?

But it ends happily, with George and Ingrid sailing to a new life in America where, one hopes, there are no Bobs. How about Gary, Indiana? Gary’s a nice name. Or Lawrence, Kansas? Or maybe Allentown, Pennsylvania? I think I’m stuck on a theme here.

But I did enjoy watching Robert Montgomery up a tree. Which is kinda where this movie is.

BONUS CLIP: See Bob not act! See Ingrid not smile! See George do nice! Here’s MGM’s trailer for Rage in Heaven when the studio re-released it after Ingrid Bergman won her Oscar for Gaslight, as a way to capitalize on “The Academy Award Star of 1945!” See MGM cash in!

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