The Romantic Comedy Blogathon: Love, Laughs, and Life on an Army Base in Over 21

May 2, 2014

Just to put it out there: If you look up a plot description or summary for 1945’s Over 21, you aren't likely to see the word 'romance' mentioned – only comedy. If this were a regular post, I wouldn't feel the need to mention this detail, but since I’m writing this piece as part of Backlots and Carole & Co's Romantic Comedy Blogathon, I thought the issue should be addressed. (Also, be sure to check out both their sites for a variety of great articles on the subject).

 

That being said, the number of times Irene Dunne and Alexander Knox are in each other's arms in Over 21 should automatically qualify it for the romance category (seriously, I thought of taking screen shots of every such scene, but it became too gigantic a task). As you’ll soon see, though, Dunne carries most of the weight in the romantic comedy department, which is fine by me – she sparkles (sometimes literally) and pops in this movie.

 

While there are a variety of ways to look at Over 21 from historical, political, and even feminist standpoints, all that is for another time and place; for now, I’ll focus solely on the topic at hand – romantic comedy – which sadly leaves out some of the film’s funnier bits featuring Charles Coburn but highlights a rarely seen spectacle in Hollywood films: the happily married, loving couple. (Gasp!)

Dunne and Knox play Polly and Max Wharton, a devoted and rather well off married couple who both hold down successful careers: Polly is a famous author who recently completed her first Hollywood screenplay, and Max is the editor of The New York Bulletin. The story begins with Max quitting his plum job to join the Army. Though he's approaching 40, as a journalist Max wants to be close to the action and go through the experience of fighting for peace so he’ll be able to fully appreciate it when the war is over. Max’s boss, Robert Gow (Charles Coburn), owner of The New York Bulletin, is infuriated by the news; he’s convinced the paper will fold without Max and subsequently tries his hardest to get him to change his mind and stay, even after he leaves for training in Florida.

This is how Robert Gow (Charles Coburn) conducts his business.

However, Robert isn’t the only one who wants Max to himself. Polly would also like to be close to her husband, so after wrapping work on her script, she leaves for Florida to take up residence with the other wives near the army barracks. The little bungalow she rents in Palmetto Court comes with charming quirks, like no running water in the kitchen and light switches on the outside of rooms.

Polly Wharton (Irene Dunne) looks like she's moving in for a while.

While Polly slowly adjusts to life near base, which includes cooking her own meals (and learning how to cook and/or lying about making an apple pie), Max finds it harder and harder to keep up with the training materials that his younger bunk mates seem to have no problem memorizing. To make matters worse, Robert calls incessantly, begging Max to return to the paper. In order to alleviate her husband's stress, Polly intercepts Robert's calls ("His job down here is worrying him sick…one second for an outside interest and he’s sunk!"), pretending they're from her producer in Hollywood, Joel Nixon (Pierre Watkin). To get Robert off both her and Max's backs, Polly starts writing editorials under her husband’s name to pass along to Robert so he can keep the paper afloat.

Max (Alexander Knox) walks in unannounced while Polly's working on 'his' editorials.  As he asks what she's writing, she dances around the subject, literally, so he won't look at her papers and find otherwise!

Meanwhile, Max’s final exam looms. Polly keeps an upbeat attitude around him: “We’ve gotten this far, please let’s graduate!”, but speaking to Robert, she seems less sure. (After reading an impossible line from Max's non-English sounding Army manual, Robert asks: "What's a vector?" Polly: "How should I know?") 

"When this war is over, we'll know a lot of useless stuff."

Robert wants Max back writing, and Polly wants a break in her ghostwriting, but everything will come down to whether or not Max passes. To complicate things (because this is a comedy in the third act), both Robert and Joel show up in Florida just in time for Max’s results, and the truth starts to unravel.

The whole crew's here! Now, did Max pass or fail his exam?

Over 21 was based on Ruth Gordon's stage play of the same name, in which Gordon played the main role for 221 performances on Broadway in 1944. The movie version, scripted by Sidney Buchman and directed by Charles Vidor, debuted on August 8, 1945, after the war in Europe ended and sandwiched between the two Japanese atomic bombs at the tail end of the war in the Pacific.

 

The film received mixed reviews and only achieved adequate box office, according to Wes D. Gehring, author of Irene Dunne: First Lady of Hollywood, for two chief reasons. First, there was the timing, which led reviewers like Kate Cameron of the New York Daily News to quip: “It is a bit startling to find oneself…suddenly transported back to the early days of the war” (146). Second, the film laid in the shadow of Gordon's performance a mere year prior, which was “so associated with that actress’ [Ruth Gordon] persona , that Irene [Dunne] was in a no-win position” (145).

 

I wouldn’t necessarily agree with that last statement, but then again, I’m watching the movie in 2014, so I have no Ruth Gordon-led stage play to compare it to. Based on some of the reviews, it's not hard to see why Over 21 is not widely remembered today (it’s certainly not The Awful Truth), but I still found it an enjoyable picture, particularly for Coburn's "comically explosive" turn as the exasperatingly horrible newspaper owner and Dunne’s portrayal of the witty yet persistent wife voluntarily entering a foreign world for the sake of her husband. The New York Times noted her role "was written for an actress to spin all over the place—to toss and catch and juggle in a highly individual way," and juggle she did, nicely conquering the role's physical comedy requirements, hilarious dialogue, and touching moments with charm and ease.

 

(Really, if you're going to tune in to this film for one thing, it would be Irene Dunne...and Charles Coburn in a close second).

Polly taking charge (in a black sparkly jump suit, NO LESS).

The only main player who lacks in comparison to the dynamite Coburn and Dunne is Alexander Knox as Dunne's husband, Max; I'd have to agree with The New York Times in terming his performance as "itchy," though he does redeem himself well at the end, in my opinion. However, I would have liked to see a snippet of the couple's life before the army, as I feel that Max's attitude and actions during recruitment may have been better explained if the audience had a chance to see what he was like before.

 

Regardless of the performances, I was delighted at the depiction of romance and comedy in Max and Polly’s relationship. A story focusing on a modern married couple who are both happy AND devoted - notwithstanding Max’s training stress - is a welcome sight rarely seen in comedies from the 30s and 40s, and the war adds another interesting hurdle in the couple's relationship, as most of the comedy in Over 21 emanates from Polly and Max’s stark age difference and their class distinction on base. Though they physically adjust to their new environment better than expected, mentally they’re still on another plane (particularly Max, who hears over and over again that “over 21 you don’t absorb anymore!”), and their privileged lifestyle is comically knocked down to normalcy (on their own accord!), with the war as the equalizer.

 

And what would be more normal for an army wife than taking up residence in a small bungalow surrounded by countless other wives? Though Max tells Polly the women "live like canned sardines out there," Polly's still a wife who just wants "to be like all those other gals with their fellas;" however, I'm betting she didn’t count on a place like 26B in Palmetto Court, which has no shower and a window you can only open by stomping the floor, in addition to other charming amenities or lack thereof. 

With occupants in the bedroom and no water in the kitchen, Polly is forced to rinse by taking a shot of whiskey from a peroxide bottle.

Robert unveils the bungalow's stylish kitchen...behind a rolling closet like door.

The movie takes place almost wholly in Polly’s tiny bungalow, and the claustrophobia adds nicely to the comedy and conflicts naturally with the romance. For instance, on Polly's first night in her new home, Max visits to welcome her, though he can't spend the night due to army rules or even stay long for that matter. After being apart for a while, the couple gets cozy in the tiny bedroom when a knock on the front door interrupts them. Cutely annoyed, Polly swears: "Well, I'll take care of this.”

Things are going well for Polly and Max until... knock knock!

Seriously, they should have a Do Not Disturb sign on the door. 

Those romantic intruders happen to be Lt. Roy Lupton (Loren Tindall) and his wife, Jan (Jeff Donnell), the previous resident of 26B, looking for a place to spend the night after their train was delayed. After some hesitation on behalf of Max and Polly, the Wharton’s agree to let the Lupton's stay in the bedroom. 

Romance interrupted = a stressed Polly. Jan Lupton (Jeff Donnell) and her husband Roy (Loren Tindall) look on.

Max has to leave anyway - so much for alone time - but Polly adorably remarks with great love and admiration when he leaves: "He's nice, let's have him over again." The scene which follows finds Polly confined to the living room - her sleeping quarters for the night - and the bungalow’s quirks make for an interesting evening for her, particularly when she gets locked out trying to turn off the living room lights outside.

Polly stranded outside on a windy evening with the wolves at her door...

...and rescued/embarassed by the Colonel: "Is there something I can do?" Polly: "No thank you, I just came out to turn the lights off in my bedroom, that's all."

In addition to the small amount of physical time the couple can find together, there’s also the emotional aspect their love affords them in their situation. Thank goodness Polly decided to stay in the rundown housing, because it seems like her mere presence calms down Max on stressful days (which occur more often than not), as they tend to fly into each other’s arms, not caring whether an army buddy or the entire courtyard of the Palmetto sees them.

This fellow recruit will have to wait - it's wife time.

Polly doesn't care if the entire courtyard stares at them!

One adorable sequence has Polly desperately trying to help an exasperated Max memorize his training materials by holding him tightly while reciting his homework into his ear (a scene 1986's Back to School mimics). In this moment, Polly is Max’s cheerleader, school teacher, wife, and therapist, always there for him and constantly encouraging him to keep going, as she tells him: “That’s your genius, angel, never knowing when you’re licked, or certainly never saying you are.”

Now that's love.

And Max doesn't even know the half of what Polly’s doing for him! She’s really got her hands full when Robert shows up unexpectedly, and the comedy - and stakes - kicks into high gear in the tiny bungalow. Polly tries to boot Robert out before Max comes home ("If he walks in and sees your ugly face that'll be it!"), but that fails. Now Polly has to act as Max's personal mental shield, deflecting Robert’s attempts to talk to Max about 'his' editorials (Robert: "Speaking of the newspaper business..." Polly, from the bedroom: "Which no one was, Robert!"), while prepping to play the perfect, domesticated wife and hostess to a visiting family of one of Max's superiors.

With Robert AND guests over, Polly's the leader of a three ring circus.

Polly’s devotion to her husband throughout all the insanity is crystal clear, and sadly, where this film lacks a bit is in Max's return loyalty. He's so caught up with his studies and mental anguish over leaving the paper and his place in the war that he doesn't seem to notice how much he relies on her until the end when he finds out the truth behind what his wife has really been doing for him. However, Max makes up for lost time as he poignantly recites an editorial written by Polly that was attributed to him, and besides the powerful, buoyant dialogue he delivers, this is one scene where Max shines: the love in his voice – and in Polly’s eyes - says it all and makes up for any lack of focus or attention throughout the recruitment period. Max’s gratitude for Polly’s commitment, particularly after she’s offered a writing job – from Robert no less - based on what she’s done for her husband, finally peeks through, as he exclaims to Robert: “Just call her ‘Boss!’”

 

You said it, Max!

Will Polly take the job?

Though the film features several comedic moments I haven’t covered here (watch the movie to catch them all!), Over 21 also offers a rarely-seen - for the 40s - sweetly funny romance between a married couple that I thought was worth pointing out. To get the full experience of Dunne, Knox, AND Coburn, Over 21 is available for purchase on DVD - I highly suggest you enlist your friends, family, and/or significant other and check it out.

Wonder where they're going...

Thank you to both Backlots and Carole & Co. for hosting this blogathon! 

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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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