"Oh dear, is this another war picture?" In a Way, Yes: Hidden Gem On Approval at the TCM Classic Film Festival

May 28, 2014

The day TCM releases its schedule for the Classic Film Festival each year, I eagerly run through the selections. My eyes search not only for my favorite movies but also any intriguing entries, which for me are films I've never heard of before (bonus points if any 1. are rarely screened 2. have a catchy title and/or 3. feature an interesting plot).

 

Hence, when I read the following phrase found in On Approval's description: "the escapades of two couples sharing a platonic trial marriage to see if they’re suited to each other," and I saw the year (1944), I was sold. On Approval - whatever that was - instantly earned must-see status.  

On Approval: "Not suitable for general exhibition." 

However, I almost didn't get to see On Approval at the festival. The movie played first early on a Friday morning and, in a rare move, some pass holders were turned away from the theater. Those who made it in raved about it on Twitter, which is my go-to news source during the festival, and luckily, TCM added a second show on Sunday afternoon. I was committed to catching this screening, but to my astonishment, as the start time slowly approached the seating situation began to look unlikely for those of us in the standby line. However, at the last minute, technically after the introduction began, my luck changed: I was the last one ushered in from standby - at number four - sadly leaving at least 20 or 30 people behind me. The film's popularity alone was sufficient endorsement before I set eyes on nary a frame.  

 

As for the plot…honestly, I would like to simply copy and paste the entire script here; so many of the lines crackle and pop beautifully, even on paper (though when they come out of the actor's mouths - perfection!). In particular, the first 10 or 15 minutes beautifully introduces the time, place, and characters in both a swift and hilarious manner and could be quoted here word for word, frame by frame.

 

That being said, please excuse me while I transcribe the film. In the meantime, enjoy this detailed summary, in which many quotes (and spoilers) abound.

 

On Approval is a comedy or manners, or rather the lack thereof. After opening with a brilliant montage in which a narrator sarcastically compares ‘wild’ 1939 with 'grand-mama’s' time, the prim and proper 1890s (where the biggest thrill a woman got out of a carriage ride was a tip of a hat from a gentlemen passerby), the camera focuses on a playbill for On Approval as a woman's voice remarks: “They say it’s very modern, and terribly daring!” 

"Modern and terribly daring" Exhibit A:

Helen (Googie Withers), owner of the right leg: But Maria, is it fair to expose a man to such temptation? 

Maria (Beatrice Lillie), owner of the left body: I shall of course take a revolver.

And the female voice doesn't leave us hanging, for the narrator quickly picks back up: “Perhaps we’ll find out just why they were called the Naughty Nineties! I don’t think he would know, or she...”and the page turns, introducing the main characters until we come to Clive Brook, who plays George, the 10th Duke of Bristol (not the 9th, as he corrects the narrator). “He would know!”

 

Yes, it seems that George, who is attending a party being thrown at his own house as a guest, would know a bit or two about those good ol' days:

 

Narrator: Tell me, Duke, how did you lose your money?

George: Women.

Narrator: Yes, I know. I mean your big money?

George: Big women.

 

And so the party begins...

George (Clive Brook) in discussion/disagreement with the film's narrator. 

Though George is a Duke, he's broke, so wealthy American Helen (Googie Withers) rents his lavish house. Coincidentally, Helen happens to be in love with George and wants to marry him, though he doesn't exactly return the sentiment. George's friend Richard (Roland Culver) is in the same financial position as George and a similar romantic boat as Helen: he's penniless but infatuated with rich widow Maria (Beatrice Lillie), whom he would love to marry.

 

George, ever the good friend, can’t seem to bring himself to approve of Richard’s choice:

 

George: Did you know her late husband Arthur Wislack?

Richard: Did I know him…did I watch him with murder in my heart, treating that divine creature with cruelty, neglect, and eventually die of drink.

George: He hated drink.

Richard: Then why did he?

George: He chose it as the most agreeable way of being unconscious while awaiting his release.

 

Some pep talk! Meanwhile, Maria confides in Helen, and afterwards the couples regroup. In Richard and Maria's corner, the subject of marriage arises again. Maria, who has already been married, looks upon the commitment in a more practical way:

 

Maria: Now, tell me Richard, do you love me?

Richard: With all my heart.

Maria: 'I love you' embraces all that. Now then, is your object matrimony...or the other thing?

Richard: I'd give 10 years of my life to be your husband.

Maria: Thank you, but I've no desire that our marriage ceremony be in the form of a burial service. Richard, I shall like you to know I'm very fond of you.

Richard: But I can't believe it. Why should you care for me?

Maria: You'd be wise not to let me dwell on that.

Richard: This is too wonderful!

Maria: Don't get excited. 

 

Seems like a loving relationship, no? Partly due to his financial situation (she makes £25,000 a year - Richard: "Many congratulations." Maria: "Thank you."), Maria wants a test run and proposes that she and Richard live together for one month to see if they are suited for marriage. Did he hear that right? Yes, he did, and Richard naturally jumps on board:

 

Richard: But what an extremely good idea...this is perfectly delightful and the courage of it all! If there were only more women in the world like you what a happy world the world would be!

What an atypical marriage discussion! Maria: How much longer are you going to beat around the bush? Why not come out in the open like a man and say 'Maria, I love you, will you or won't you be my wife?' 

HOWEVER, there's a catch: every evening at 11pm, Richard must get his coat as if to go outside ("but I should have had all the exercise I need during the day!" he protests) and row from Maria's Scottish island to the mainland to sleep at the local hotel.

 

Richard: "So I don't sleep with...- in the house?"

 

Nope.

 

Over in George's court, marriage is also on the mind - but Helen's, not his. As we'll see in this scene and also later on, George can be a great lover of the ladies, and he doesn't discriminate - unmarried, married, younger, doesn't matter.

George: You weren't here in my time, were you?

Maid: No, your grace.

George: Pity.

However, marriage is a different story for George:

 

Helen: You were talking of marriage.

George: Alas, yes.

Helen: It has no attraction to you?

George: On the contrary, the husbands of no less than 3 women I know have threatened me with it...

Helen: No, I meant some unmarried girl who might make you happy.

George: I've often thought of marriage -

Helen: Yes?

George:  -with distaste. But there is one woman.

Helen: Yes?

George: One woman in the world. Beautiful, charming, gracious, intelligent...

Helen: You'd marry her?

George: Happily...but where is she? Where?

Helen: Where indeed.

 

How oblivious can one be?!

 

Putting aside the romantic issues thus far, it's obvious that one half of each couple - in this case, Maria and George - aren't on the friendliest of terms; in fact, George makes Maria cry in the beginning when bringing up her age but insists "she's not crying because I said she was forty-one. She's crying because she is forty-one!"

 

Despite the barbs, George wants to join in the fun experiment, probably to watch the action unfold - plus, he has nothing better to do - and during a drunken evening with Richard in which he keeps feeding Richard soda while he takes all the whisky (hilariously, Richard seems drunker), they devise a hasty/semi-logical plan to sabotage the small detail of the mainland hotel. Unbeknownst to them, though, Helen uncovers their plot when she finds them passed out the next morning. 

 

Thus, the original twosome becomes a foursome, as George worms his way into the trip, surprising Maria and Richard on the train to Maria’s utter discontent, and Helen joins Maria for support at the hotel, where they (surprise!) find no available rooms for the men. Pity.

Some of Helen's party guests overstayed their welcome....

...and got drunk and tried to sabotage Maria's "On Approval" plan...

...which was successful. No rooms at the inn. For anyone. 

Looks like they'll all have to stay at Maria's. Four single people living together in a Scottish mansion in the 1890s? What could happen under that roof?

 

Plenty, according to the staff, who are appalled by the entire situation, as they originally only expected Maria and Helen to come. The men, Maria tells them, “happened afterwards.”

 

Mrs. McCosh (housekeeper): Is it your honeymoon you’re on?

Maria: Oh nonsense, I’m not married. Nobody’s married.

 

GASP. Pesky George doesn’t make the situation any better either:

 

Mrs. McCosh: I hope you find your bed comfortable.

George: Oh, I shan't be using that very much.

 

Being proper 1890s ladies, the staff promptly quits, leaving the foursome to (God forbid) fend for themselves, which makes for a hilarious ride for the audience that begins with the below:   

 

Maria: Well, we’ll have to manage ourselves. I’ll cook and you [Richard] and Helen I know will help...George of course will be utterly useless.

George: On the contrary Maria, you’ll find I'm incredibly useful. I'm my best at beds, I welcome washing up and I'm a dab at dusting. You’ll leave everything to me.

 

And guess what happens?

As suspected, George (top left) and Maria (bottom left) do nothing, while Helen (top right) and Richard (bottom right) toil away.

The days pass and the trial period winds down, but the results are far from what each character anticipated, as George and Maria again broach the subject of matrimony with Helen and Richard, respectively. To his utter surprise, George's proposal to Helen is met with an unexpected denial, as she (finally) stands up to him, which knocks him clear on his backside:

 

George: You've refused to be the Duchess of Bristol?

Helen: I do.

George: May I ask why?

Helen: Only because you happen to be the Duke.

George: Are you insulting me Helen?

Helen: Not nearly as much as you’ve insulted me.

George: What do you mean?

Helen: You should have only asked me for my money; you should not have included me with it...I'm sure there would be many women who wanted to be the Duchess of Bristol. Frankly, I wanted to myself, until I spent three weeks with you here.

 

Ouch! George's appeal falls flat:

 

George: You know Helen, I'm always being asked to dinner parties because people find me amusing.

Helen: Dinner parties only last 2 hours; a marriage has been known to last 2 years.

 

BURN. And as a follow up punch in the heart, Helen imparts some friendly advice: “If ever a girl falls in love with you, marry her the next day.” DOUBLE BURN.

 

Maria's luck isn't running any better. After she haughtily promises Richard a £5000 yearly allowance (“are you pleased?”) and so kindly grants him the right for her hand in marriage, Richard sighs a breath of relief: he survived Maria's tortuous test!  Huh? She's confused. Richard explains:

 

Richard: All this time I thought you disliked me! You'll never begin to know how miserable I've been.

Maria: But why?

Richard: You’ve been so intolerable and horrid to me!

Maria: Horrid to you - what are you talking about?

Richard: Now let’s straighten this out. You know you've tried every way of provoking me to see whether I was bad tempered or not.

Maria: I did nothing of the kind. I’d never descend to something so mean.

Richard: You don’t mean to tell me that was really you all the time?

Maria: Of course.

Richard: Is that how you'd be if we were married?

Maria: Naturally.

Richard: How long did your late husband live with you, Maria?

Maria: 18 years, why?

Richard: What a man...what a constitution!

This is one of the greatest expressions of realization ever.

After dumping their respective partners, Helen and Richard seem to be the only people who realize Maria and George are perfect for each other (Helen: "To do any good, I’m convinced he needs at least six months on a desert island." Richard: "Hmm, alone with Maria!" Light bulb.) Consequently, they conspire to get them together by leaving them alone in the house. However, while doing so, Helen and Richard conveniently realize a fondness for each other in an adorable scene which involves Richard smoothly passing an eye color test that George so dismally failed.  

It should be easy to fly under the radar with all these people around, right?

This is the tough part of being a spy: flirting with the enemy.

If you know the color of Helen's eyes, you win.

Meanwhile, oblivious to Helen and Richard's scheme and what is actually going on, George attempts to help Maria win Richard back in a hilarious meeting that takes place in her bedroom (using her nightgown as a symbol of truce, no less). Even though they're declaring peace, the jabs still flow freely:

 

George: I never thought I would willingly enter here. Please be seated. I feel less frightened of you when you’re sitting down.

 

Their plan involves being nice and acting “even affectionate” to each other so Richard won’t leave Maria alone with George, but by the time they set their strategy in motion, they've found that Helen and Richard have left, leaving behind a simple note on the dock: “Ho!” (The note alluded to an earlier scene in which Maria kept scoffing at George, uttering "Ho!" at his attempts to talk to her, which prompted George to reply: “It’s unlike you to only be able to say ‘Ho.'")

Neither Richard nor that dog like what is going on here....

So...what will they do all alone in the mansion?! Desperate situations call for desperate measures (or at least thoughts):

 

George: Couldn't we signal to the mainland?

Maria: How?

George: Burn down the house?

 

It's clear that mere minutes into their new living situation, things aren't going well. The barbs are still being served up strongly by both parties - case in point - George: “You needn’t lock your door, Maria. Only the rain will want to come in.”

 

Meanwhile, on the mainland, both Helen and Richard both fight off random nightmares that of course have to do with their respective (ex)-lovers. Helen's visions lean more towards the bizarre, as she dreams up cycles which include images of her standing likes a goddess on a pedestal, still as stone, while George and Maria prance and fool around in slow motion beneath her; shots of George strangling Maria; and images of Maria hitting George over the head (all for the comedy, of course). 

Helen's got some weird dreams.

The visions that haunt Richard focus on the theme of George and Maria in various locales, always kissing, always strangely accompanied by a talking moose (from Maria's mansion), and always haughtily yelling "Ho!"  It's a tough call as to whose hallucinations are the more fantastic of the two, but I am open for any way a talking moose head can be maneuvered into a movie, so Richard's dreams take the cake for me.

My dreams usually involve talking moose heads too (not).

Consequently, Richard and Helen journey to the island in the middle of the night to rescue their (still ex)-lovers. Richard’s attempt to scale the mansion walls to access Maria’s room frightens her, and as a result, when Richard and Helen finally get inside the house, they find Maria in George’s room (though still not without those digs from both parties!). Cue: controlled chaos, romantic arguments, and…wedding bells?

Maria: George, there's a man in my room! George: Why?

Maria's still throwing barbs too!

But we're not finished yet! Just in time for the ending, the narrator returns, and this time it’s Helen who engages him, as she shows her wedding album to her children and sets the narrator straight on the fates of all four characters. 

Narrator: Pardon me, Lady Bristol, haven’t you made a mistake?

Helen: Oh, I’m not Lady Bristol, and I don’t think I made a mistake.

Narrator: But what happened to George? Whom did he marry in the end?

Helen: You'd be surprised.

Narrator: You're joking. George: Believe me, it's no joke. Maria: George! George: Coming darling!

To begin with, the more bizarre and risqué the humor, the better I (tend to) enjoy the film. Bar for some screwball comedies of the 30s and 40s that included similarly mind comedic tendencies, I had never seen anything like On Approval before, and the change in setting from the 1920s (as in the play) to the naughty 1890s served to displace the 1940s audience another 30 years to a time most of the viewers probably weren't as intimately familiar with, which further contributed to the comedy and shock value, both then and now. Though the film opens with a signed approval from the British Board of Film Censors (which garnered some laughs in our screening), England wasn't subject to America's infamous Production Code, which gave the filmmaker's more freedom to explore the humor found in the movie's plot. I could think of a handful of exchanges Joe Breen's Production Code office would most likely have stifled, and I could also see that wonderfully odd finale montage eliciting some scratching heads from American censors (aka, potential deletion). Thank goodness for peculiar British humor, and during the war, no less.  

 

As for the characters, Brook's George and Lillie's Maria in particular shine. Both are so incredibly narcissistic and bossy that they can’t see much beyond their outrageous personas. I’d have to say the best part of their performances is their dialogue and its delivery; their language is chock full of scathing banter that's not quite malicious, and though we never find out why they seem to hate each other, it doesn't matter - their jabs back and forth are too electric and hilarious to question the source, and their terrible treatment of their respective romantic partners is just as humorous, in a horrible sort of way. Half the time, the off-handed manner in which Brook enunciates his lines alone cracks me up, and the way Lillie nonchalantly delivers her incredibly haughty and unromantic dialogue, particularly to Richard, is wonderfully droll and biting.

 

TCM Film Festival’s summary of the film perhaps puts it best, describing the pair's gleeful insults as “foreplay.” It’s true - though Maria is with Richard and George is with Helen, it’s clear from the beginning that Maria and George bicker like two school-aged children who secretly like each other, and they physically treat each other the same way. The duo's exchanges at times feel similar to Cary Grant and Rosalind Russell in His Girl Friday (1940), with their (misplaced) revulsion, intensity, and pure delivery speed – that last point, in addition to the British accents, made it necessary for me to replay a few scenes when watching on DVD to hear exactly what was said! Both characters are so delectably snooty, ignorant, and self-absorbed that they don't even realize their constant stream of insults back and forth overshadows an undeniable attraction.   

Maria and George are SO irritated by each other's existence. 

This is the correct way to treat someone you like.

Meanwhile, George and Maria's suffering counterparts and butts of their bad behavior, Helen and Richard, are equally matched up. Both are comically stomped upon by their respective partners, though Richard takes more than Helen – for example, when he forgets to send Maria’s telegram he gets yelled at by both George and Maria, but Maria’s utter disrespect prompts Helen to nudge Richard to tell Maria to “go to hell” for the way he treats her. Similarly, though, in a scene only minutes prior, Helen bends to George’s will, as she comically hurries back and forth from the kitchen to the patio to bring George his (late) lunch…piece by piece.

 

Both Withers and Culver’s fantastic performances in the straight roles comfortably mesh with Lillie and Brook's outrageously self-centered personalities; the latter seem to have a ball ordering everyone else around until its rains on their parade in the form of rejection from the former, who have both firmed up and decided to fight back in wonderfully surprising and dignified ways. For example, the look on Richard’s face when he finds out Maria was just being herself and not acting like an “intolerable and horrid” b*tch the whole month is simply priceless. Time to take control, Richard. Similarly, Helen rather graciously turns down George when he can't even guess her eye color correctly. 

Come on, George. You basically had a 33% chance on this one.

Besides the fantastic characters and the succulent, sharp dialogue thrown between the four, the film elicits laughs from several visual gags, including an amusing scene where all four main players dance together and another sequence in which George drives a carriage…with the driver as a passenger. However, the most extreme visuals are found in the film’s several montages, particularly the two zany medleys that bookend the film. The first montage, which sets a high comedic bar for the rest of the picture, establishes a brisk pace and adequately sets the audience up for what promises to be anything but a normal British comedy of manners: within the first 10 minutes, our narrator has rather absurdly compared and contrasted the tranquil days before the war in 1939 with the good old fashioned 1890s through sharp imagery and amusingly elaborate setups. It’s a perfect opening to a film that steadily keeps up the flow of outrageous dialogue and sometimes peculiar visuals throughout its entirety, the latter of which reaches its zenith during the two most surreal montages (which I've already discussed above), which close out the film just as bizarrely as it was opened - complete with the aforementioned talking moose head.

1939:

“This is the age of speed and noise as much like war you hardly know the difference”

"Before the days of petrol rationing, you moderns looked upon the motor car as the most useful invention."

"This is the day of the worship of the beautiful wide open spaces."

"Very little remains undiscovered about the modern girl."

1890s:

The good ol' days

"When they had finished their embroidery and needed a thrill of excitement, they could always unpick it and start again." 

"And you needn't think they didn't have their moments...a young man was more or less expected to sow his wild oats..."

"...always provided there was no harvest."

The only fault I really found with the picture was the 3rd act, which I felt was a bit rushed. Though I enjoyed the utter absurdity of the final few minutes, I found it more random than it was necessary, as it simply serves to show in a nightmarish way what Richard and Helen think of George and Maria - thoughts they pretty much vocalized to each other before leaving Maria's house.

 

As sparkling as the movie still comes off today, from what I could find, the production wasn’t as smooth. Though I was unable to locate any information on the film in Beatrice Lillie’s autobiography Every Other Inch A Lady, I did read an interview with Googie Withers, who played Helen, in Brian McFarlane’s An Autobiography of British Cinema. Withers recalled that originally, the film was not slated to be directed by Brook but rather Brian Desmond Hurst; however, he and Brook “didn’t see eye-to-eye” and had “some awful rows.” After the film was finished, it was shelved, and only months later did Withers receive a call saying that Brook was going to put up his own money to release it because he thought it would be a success. However, this required massive editing and three weeks worth of reshoots with Brook at the helm, and looking back, Withers admitted: “I imagine he [Brook] was responsible for that spoke prologue” (score Brook!). As for working with the infamous Beatrice Lillie, Withers recalls it as being, well, an experience: “I mean, Bea Lillie was bizarre…she was hopeless to work with because she was too used to working on her own. She really was a marvelous performer, so funny, but she had to be a one-woman act” (609). It must have been interesting simply being on that set and observing how Lillie rehearsed and worked; you can clearly tell she was a riot, and her character pops wonderfully, but luckily, Brook was strong enough to stand up to and beside her. A weaker actor would have sunk under her comedic weight.               

 

Considering Withers’ account that the film was originally shot with Hurst as the director, it’s hard to figure out exactly which characteristics of the final film belong to him or Brook, but since three weeks worth of footage was re-shot, I think it’s safe to say that Brook had a strong hand over the final product. In a smart directorial move, several of the theatrical characteristics of the story are utilized in the screen version, including breaking the 4th wall to talk and dispute with the film's narrator, which mostly occurs at the beginning and very end of the film. Brook (or Hurst) also did a great job of letting the action speak for the comedy, particularly through the montages, the scene in the carriage, and the lunch sequence in which Helen runs back and forth between rooms; regardless of what is being said (or not) during those scenes, the humor emanates from the staging and action as opposed to, or in conjunction with, the dialogue. 

Who else would not be comfortable with George as the carriage driver? The real one, right, seems content...

As showcased in these scenes, the editing in particular contributes immensely to the film’s humor. Most of the movie consists of shots cutting back and forth between relationships, whether between the women and men, Richard and Maria and Helen and George, or, later, Richard and Helen and Maria and George. This technique serves to move the plot along nicely while also amusingly revealing the story through each character’s eyes. 

 

On Approval is a little known gem that I’m glad the TCM Classic Film Festival programmed. I know several attendees discovered a new favorite in this film, and if you get the chance to see it (DO IT), I think you’ll feel the same way too.  Warning: To fully appreciate the absurdity, multiple viewings are necessary. You’ll probably want to do that anyway.

 

How to catch a glimpse of platonic marriage, 1890s/1940s style: 

On Approval is available on both DVD and Blu-Ray. You may want to purchase both, in case your copy gets worn out from the above-suggested repeat viewings. 

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I See a Dark Theater is a website dedicated to classic movie-going—and loving—in the City of Angels. Whether it's coverage on screenings, special presentations, or Q&As around Los Angeles that you're looking for, or commentary on the wonderful and sometimes wacky world of classic cinema, you've come to the right place for a variety of pieces written with zeal, awe, and (occasionally) wit. Enjoy.

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