Classic Film Talk: ‘Casanova Brown’ (1944)

Teresa Wright Centennial

Today we reminisce about

Casanova Brown (1944)

Directed by Sam Wood

Starring: Gary Cooper, Teresa Wright, Frank Morgan, Anita Louise

 

Synopsis

The melancholy season of Autumn in Rossmore, Ill… Heavy with disillusionment and small head colds.

Casanova “Cas” Brown (Gary Cooper), a professor of Literature, arrives in Rossmore on a train from New York looking distraught and dishevelled. He is welcomed back by a beautiful woman named Madge (Anita Louise), to whom he asks never to be reminded of New York again.

Spring in Rossmore… Bringing joy and happiness to all save Madge’s father.

Cas and Madge are in love and wish to get married. They visit Madge’s father, J.J. (Frank Morgan) so that Cas can formally ask for Madge’s hand in marriage. J.J., who has a vendetta against women and who is obsessed with money, thinks that Cas is joking around. He tells Cas that Madge can be a pain and that it will be next-to-impossible to ever gain access to her family fortune. These statements do not deter Cas as he has a good job with which he can provide for his soon-to-be wife.

Madge trying to reassure Cas before he talks with her father.

And now Summer has rolled around in Rossmore…

It is the day before Cas and Madge’s wedding and everyone is gathered for the rehearsal. J.J. checks-up on Cas as he is getting himself ready and checks the mail that has just been delivered to his door. Inside, there is a letter from a maternity hospital in Chicago expressing that they need to speak with Cas but that the subject matter is so sensitive that they wish to see him in-person. Cas thinks nothing of it and proceeds to the wedding rehearsal where he is overcome with anxiety. He hurriedly leaves, telling everyone that he simply does not feel well. Later that evening, J.J. comes to see Cas, who has since realised that there is a chance that the letter is legitimately for him.

He recants through a flashback about how he came to meet Isabel Drury (Teresa Wright), a beautiful New Yorker with whom he fell in love and married in a whirlwind fashion. They wed in the city and a few days after go to visit her parents. The Drury’s are quite wealthy folk, living in an elaborately decorated house with at least a dozen servants. Isabel first goes to see her parents alone, leaving Cas to have a smoke while waiting. When it comes time for him to meet his new in-laws, things do not go too smoothly. His mother-in-law has decided that he is bad for her daughter based on astrology and horoscopes. Unfortunately for Cas, he does nothing to help his own case. The result is that Isabel and Cas become estranged from each other at that moment and do not speak to each other again.

That is, of course, until now. Back in the present, Cas must decide whether to ignore the letter and get on with marrying Madge or to go to Chicago and face the situation, whatever it may be.

 

Background

The idea behind Casanova Brown came from a 1927 novel by famous poet Floyd Dell called An Unmarried Father. Dell would go on to develop his story into a 1928 Broadway play along with the writing talents of actor Thomas Mitchell. Two films were released afterwards: A Little Accident in 1930 with Douglas Fairbanks, Jr. and Anita Page and then again in 1939 with Little Accident starring Hugh Herbert and Florence Rice, although the latter version’s story veered from the original one. For the 1944 version, writer/producer/director Nunnally Johnson was assigned the task of writing the screenplay and then acting as producer. Nunnally’s past work had mainly included writing and producing serious pictures like Jesse James, Rose of Washington Square, The Grapes of Wrath and Tobacco Road (all for 20th Century Fox), so needless to say a screwball romantic comedy was quite a bit of a departure for him. He would later go on to direct Black Widow, The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit, The Three Faces of Eve and The Angel Wore Red, amongst others, owing to a very rich and diverse filmography.

Thoughts

My overall feelings about the film are mixed. I found that the story was uneven in parts although the intentions behind the ideas were clearly sincere. It is a little confusing in the beginning to figure out exactly what is going on with the characters because there is a lack of information shared. For instance, there was no indication that Cas and Madge had been a romantic item before he left for New York. Cas only mentions this to J.J. after the flashback. Hiding the fact that you quickly eloped with another woman you had just met while away for a few days all the while being practically engaged to another woman is definitely a bit extreme, at least in my book. I also felt that the way they handled Cas’s realisation that he could have fathered a child disappointingly executed. Added to that matter, Cas never again spoke face-to-face with Madge after the wedding rehearsal. It seems to me that she would have given up on Cas long before making a trip to Chicago in order to win him back.

Perhaps the most bothersome detail for me was witnessing Gary Cooper try his hand at screwball comedy and not quite succeeding at it. I will admit to having limited knowledge of Coop in comparison to many other Golden Era stars. The handful of his films that I have seen are mostly westerns or dramas. It is quite clear to me that comedy was not his natural “forté”. Another actor who shared a similar plight to comedy was Henry Fonda, a brilliant thespian who always looks like he is trying too hard when a role calls for him to be funny. Men like Clark Gable, Cary Grant and James Stewart were naturals at the genre. (Cary did admit to overdoing it more than once.) That being said, I did find that Coop handled the scenes with the baby quite fantastically. Seeing as how Cas is highly educated and well-read, he remains a little stale personality-wise. He talks about making a bottle of baby formula in the same way that surgeons react while performing operations. His meticulous way with words makes it so that he happens to provide excellent care for his child.

The film has aged a little worse than others in some aspects. Seeing a Fathers Only waiting room is quite something as is the nonchalant attitudes of the nurses. As another expectant father says to Cas: “This is a maternity hospital, brother. If they had nine watches, they wouldn’t tell a father what time it was.” When Cas goes in for some tests and reappears in a hospital gown and on a stretcher, the fathers cannot believe their eyes. This gives insinuation that Cas is a medical experiment, perhaps the first man to have a child. (A similar gag is used in the Rock Hudson and Doris Day romantic comedy Pillow Talk.) The most squeamish moment comes when Cas disguises himself as a doctor and proceeds to take his baby from the nursery. He walks through the hospital and out the back delivery entrance of the hospital carrying the baby in a blanket. No one tries to stop him or questions his intentions. I am fully aware that the same security concerns did not exist back then as they do today but this scene does make me quite uncomfortable.

Casanova Brown does have some good moments and is worth a watch to those interested in seeing another Cooper/Wright pairing. The end result could have been better, no doubt about it. The ever grand Frank Morgan is a delight and plays his part magnificently. It is interesting to see him in a role where he is rather ill tempered rather than being the nicer older man. He breathes vital life into the film.

 

Teresa Wright

Having just finished Shadow of a Doubt, Teresa was at the top of her game in 1943-1944 during the shooting of Casanova Brown. Her greatest top-billed performance was behind her while her greatest critical role in The Best Years of Our Lives was a couple of years ahead. Personally speaking, she had just married Niven Busch the year earlier and would give birth to her first child by the end of 1944.

Teresa and Coop made a lovely couple and their chemistry is as strong in this film as it was in The Pride of the Yankees. Their screen time together was sadly more limited in Casanova Brown because the character of Isabel is not introduced for a while and Cas spends a great deal of the film’s second half hiding from everyone so that he and the baby will not be found. This is a noticeable trend is many of the films I have watched and written about with Teresa. Her characters are usually not seen right away and they tend to be supporting roles, like being a wife. Rarely did Teresa get to stand on her own two feet. A notable exception to this is in Shadow of a Doubt, a film that she owns as much as Joseph Cotten and without standing in his… shadow. (No pun intended!) Nonetheless, Teresa is as beautiful as ever in this film and I quite liked her with darker locks. She was always such a joy to see on the big screen.

Trivia

  • It is sometimes suggested in some published synopsises that Isabel finds out that she is pregnant right before her divorce from Cas is final. This is false. Their marriage was annulled not long after he left New York.
  • This is the third and final film in which Patricia Collinge co-stars with Teresa Wright. They first appeared together in The Little Foxes and then in Shadow of a Doubt.
  • Casanova Brown was the first production from International Pictures, a potent new independent company formed by William Goetz and former RKO corporate president Leo Spitz. (Source: The RKO Story by Richard B. Jewell with Veron Harbin, page 192)

Gary Cooper and Teresa Wright having a laugh on the set with director Sam Wood.