Tuesday, February 05, 2002

PICCADILLY JIM (1936) & My Robert Montgomery Problem

Sometimes, I like Robert Montgomery, sometimes I don't. This movie, based on a story by PG Wodehouse, falls in his negative column for me. Montgomery is a cartoonist (an American living in England) who falls in love, rather on a whim, with a young lady. It turns out that she is the niece of a woman that Montgomery has been making fun of in his comic strip. Complications ensue. At almost 100 minutes, it's way too long to keep up its whimsical tone. The supporting cast is wonderful, with Frank Morgan, Billie Burke, and Robert Benchley all doing nice work. Eric Blore really saves the day as Montgomery's butler--he is perhaps at his very best here. He steals every scene he's in, even when he's competing with Frank Morgan. The female lead, Madge Evans, is rather bland, and Cora Witherspoon, as her mother, gets a bit shrill after a while.

But the real problem is Montgomery. He just is not able to pull off the charm needed to make his character sympathetic. He sees Evans at a nightclub (while he's quite drunk) and immediately and rather improbably falls head over heels for her. His pursuit of her would be called "stalking" today; a different actor (or maybe Montgomery working with better material) could have pulled it off, but the more the movie went on, the more I wanted Montgomery to just fall off the face of the earth, and wanted Blore, Morgan, and Burke to take over all the parts. When Evans finally gives in, it's for no good purpose at all except that the damned movie had to come to an end sometime!

When I look back on Montgomery's movies, I realize that I frequently have this problem with his leading romantic parts--and the more whimsical or lighthearted he is supposed to be, the worse it is: BUT THE FLESH IS WEAK, TROUBLE FOR TWO, MYSTERY OF MR. X. I guess I like him best when he's not the leading character (THE DIVORCEE) or in a different genre. I liked him very much as Lord Peter Whimsey--how ironic--in BUSMAN'S HONEYMOON, and I also liked him in FAST AND LOOSE and NIGHT MUST FALL. But I'm seeing an unpleasant pattern when it comes to his lighter, earlier films.

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