In Praise of the Extra Man

Ah, the sweet savagery of the screwball comedy.  Characters in this genre behave so badly.  They lie, cheat, steal; fight, battle, brawl; cozen, cheat, trick; and scream, shout, and snarl at each at each other, often at the top of their lungs.  Such is the nature of courtship.  And it’s all to get what the lead couple wants.  Usually each other, though sometimes you wonder.  As I noted in an earlier post, the screwball film is, at heart, a nasty and cold-blooded affair, though presumably in a good cause:  To bring the leads together, so they can get on with marriage, home, family, kids—in short, the continuation of humanity.  Golly, what it takes to perpetuate a species.

As with all battles, whether war, politics, or (especially) love, someone must lose out.  In screwball, the loser is the Extra Man.  That’s the fellow who starts out with the girl but ends up girl-less.  In screwball’s fierce triangle he’s the third, and tamest, point, and the smallest.  Yet so essential is this character to the genre that he’s been embodied in one name.  Say “Ralph Bellamy” to hard-core classic-film fans, and we instantly know what you’re talking about.  For those for whom that name means nothing, or who may associate it with Eddie Murphy comedies, Ralph Bellamy was The Man Who Knew Damn Little.  As Dan Callahan notes in his profile on the actor, Bellamy was the “guy who didn’t get the girl, a thick and thick-witted fellow that the heroine would strenuously try to imagine settling down with.”  It’s a tribute to Bellamy’s talent that, though he played such a character only twice (in The Awful Truth and His Girl Friday), such was his impact that he set the role’s Template, both within the screwball genre and in audience minds.  Whenever a chump needs to be shoved out of the way (and in screwball, it’s always a firm shove), that poor chump has Ralph Bellamy to thank.

Thus in a series of screwball comedies, we see a variety of Extra Unwanted Men, tossed out like used tissues—It Happened One Night, My Man Godfrey, The Palm Beach Story, The Philadelphia Story, The Bride Came C.O.D., Swing Time, The More the Merrier (in Bringing Up Baby and Holiday it’s an Extra Unwanted Woman, just to even out the sexes)—all of whom are basically etching their own Ralph Bellamy imitations, pale as they may be.  Which isn’t saying much, as no actor, I have a sneaking suspicion, wants to be Ralph Bellamy.  Mainly because you’re shoved out of both movie and audience favoritism, with not so much as a please-and-thank-you to send you on your way.  It’s a dirty job, but, per genre demands, some poor sucker’s gotta do it.

The ONLY problem with this set-up, however, is when the Extra Man himself becomes the more desirable Object of Choice.  Which kind of defeats the genre’s whole imagining purpose.

That, after this long preamble, is the problem I have with the 1945 film Christmas in Connecticut.  The screwball set-up is typical:   Ambitious magazine writer Barbara Stanwyck, unhappily engaged to a stodgy architect, falls for hunky sailor Dennis Morgan, and intrigues and connives to get out of her engagement with the former and pair up with the latter; and for the life of me I cannot see why.

The issue is in the casting.  C in C’s Extra Man, per IMDB, was originally supposed to be John Alexander (Teddy Brewster in Arsenic and Old Lace), but the part eventually went to Reginald Gardiner, and I’ll be upfront about it:  I adore Reginald Gardiner.  I’ll put that in caps:  ADORE.  He’s part of that urbane, sophisticated, charming, impeccably dressed, wryly humorous class of actor, so popular in the 1930s and 1940s; like William Powell with a British accent the British Queen might envy.  Whatever the film or character, Gardiner was always suave, cheerful, dapper, ready with a quip, compliment, or dry martini.  It’s a style of performance, and performer, that went out in the 1950s with the advent of Method mumbles and torn t-shirts, and I regret the loss.  Gardiner’s type, flourishing in an era of terrible depression and war, cut a spruce and sporty image in defiance of the times—giving a sense that, no matter how grim the reality, wit, civilized discourse, and a perfectly timed sense of the absurd could still hold sway.

Hence the dilemma of Gardiner as the Extra Man in C in C.  He’s supposed to be the jerk, but Gardiner’s very technique and screen presence belie that premise.  The “jerk” lines assigned to his character—long discourses, for example, on the latest architectural innovations—become, in Gardiner’s light, precise, beautifully timed delivery, interesting; whenever I watch the film I’m all agog to hear more about those new designs in plumbing.  There’s nothing thick or thick-witted about this man; he could make the proverbial reading of the phone book fascinating.  Per his Wikipedia entry, Gardiner even did a version of that, “delighting Broadway audiences in 1935 with a wallpaper imitation act.”  Imagine:  A guy who can delight when imitating wallpaper.  That beats a Ralph Bellamy imitation any day.

C in C thus ends up violating the basic screwballian premise, as indicated in Callahan’s above quote:  We are not supposed to be able to imagine the heroine settling down with the Extra Man.  Yet I always find myself, with C in C, imagining alternative scenarios of Stanwyck ending up with Gardiner, whereas I must strenuously attempt to picture her and Morgan as a couple.  It’s not helped by the latter pair’s zero chemistry onscreen.  As I noted in my post here, Morgan was a pleasantly bland actor but not a memorable one, seeming to leave a film outright whenever out of camera range.  (He’s not empty screen space, but he comes close.)  Perhaps to make up for his somewhat lack of screen presence, Morgan’s performance in C in C emphasizes how sincere he is.  I’m earnest, he seems to insist, meaning that I’m serious, and that means—well, that I’m earnest.  So very…earnest.

Earnestness, however, is death to a screwball hero (it’s what you expect of Ralph Bellamy).  Which is why Gardiner, as nimble and sharp as a rapier, steals the film.  I wish he could also have stolen Stanwyck.  Like Gardiner, Stanwyck’s comic delivery was light and quick, matching Gardiner’s style, and the two set up a bantering rhythm in their scenes; their timing is in sync.  And he’s the only actor I’ve seen who could get the ultra-professional Stanwyck to crack up, out of character, onscreen.  It happens during the Christmas square dance, when a grinning Gardiner literally leaps into a swing, and Stanwyck crumples in laughter, holding a hand to her convulsed face.  I just love that bit; I look forward to it whenever I watch.  It’s got a happy spontaneity rarely seen in commercial movies; it’s fun.  I’m glad it was left in.

I know C in C has its madly devoted fans, so I’m taking a risk stating that I find it an unpleasant entry in the screwball genre.  The movie is about fooling people—Morgan fools his nurse into thinking he’s in love with her so he can wangle a steak dinner, Stanwyck’s food writer fools her publisher (Sydney Greenstreet) into believing she knows all about cooking to keep her job, and she also fools her fiancé into thinking she wants to marry him so she can use his splendid Connecticut house.  Not to mention that the nurse is played as a dumb-blonde Southern stereotype, Greenstreet’s publisher is played as a bully, and S.Z. Sakall plays, as usual, his “Cuddles” persona, a creation whose manufactured cuteness sends my blood sugar levels through the roof.  It’s a relief, trust me, when the elegant and courteous Gardiner walks in.

Which touches on an aspect of screwball’s Extra Man that’s never mentioned.  Amid all the other characters’ scheming, maneuvering, mendacity (what a great word!), and dirty work at the crossroads, the Extra Man is the one behaving honestly.  No tricking or scheming; he’s straightforward about what he wants.  And all he wants is to marry the girl.  While the leads may bicker, argue, squabble, pair up, and fall out again, before finally making up their minds, the Extra Man waits on the sidelines, ring and license at the ready—chivalrous, calm, and steadfast in purpose, qualities that, in circumstances outside the general cruelty of screwball, would be thought worthy of admiration.  They’re certainly attributes that, at this Festive Time of the Year, are worthy of ours.

So (whether you can imagine it or not) here’s raising a glass of cheer to cinema’s Extra Man.  And Merry Christmas.

Bonus Clip:  Click here to listen to an audio clip of Reginald Gardiner performing a version of his famous comic routine “Trains,” in which he imagines (with his own sound effects) how a train (“this livid beast”) is really alive.  The clip is from a January 1939 episode of Screen Guild Theater.  Although not identified in the clip, “Mr. Murphy” is the actor-dancer George Murphy, while the “Judy” you hear is undoubtedly Judy Garland.

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