I loved this movie...when it was called You Can't Take It With You a year later. 20th Century-Fox's Cinema Archives line of hard-to-find cult and library titles has released Danger--Love at Work, the 1937 laugher (with screwball aspirations) from Fox and director Otto Preminger (...yep, Otto "The King of Comedy" Preminger), and starring miscast Ann Sothern and Jack Haley, as well as superlative supporting cast members Edward Everett Horton, Mary Boland, John Carradine, Walter Catlett, Benny Bartlett, Maurice Cass, Charles Coleman, Margaret Seddon, and Margaret McWade. Only Preminger's third feature, made before he felt comfortable throwing a Teutonic fit over marginal material like this, Danger--Love at Work certainly isn't completely worthless; you'll laugh anytime that cast of supporting pros get to do their shtick. However, Sothern is too smart for her boring character here; Haley isn't anything in his strangely ill-defined role; and the Preminger I know is nowhere to be seen here--all three of which only contribute to the further hollowing out of this contrived, derivative piece. No extras for this good black and white fullscreen transfer.
High atop the Empire State Building, Parsons, Hilton, Trent & MacMorrow, Attorneys-at-Law have a big problem; junior attorney Allan Duncan (Alan Dinehart) is ready to quit the firm, having been driven crazy by his latest assignment: getting eight signatures from the notoriously oddball Pemberton clan, down in Aiken, South Carolina. You see, up in Westchester County, the Westchester Country Club, a client of P, H, T, & M, wants to expand its borders by buying an abandoned farm owned by the eccentric Pemberton family, and eight sign-offs from the remaining relatives are needed to approve the $100,000 sale--eight sign-offs that Duncan miserably failed to get. Enter rich slacker Henry MacMorrow (Jack Haley), a "legacy" hire who has one more shot of keeping his job, should he get the Pemberton family to sign. Heading down South by train, Henry unknowingly runs into snotty little genius, Junior Pemberton (Bennie Bartlett), and his wacky, beautiful sister, Toni (Ann Sothern), who doesn't appreciate the fact that Henry winds up kicking the annoying Junior right in the *ss. Mistaken at the Pemberton estate as Toni's new fiance, Howard Rogers (Edward Everett Horton)--hence the warm welcome--Henry quickly sees that the Pemberton family is in a word, "crazy." Playing on Toni's sympathies, Howard tells her this mission is do or die for him, so she invites him to stay, offering help in getting the signatures. However, after constant interruptions...including when he's in the tub as Pemberton matriarch Alice (Mary Boland) breezes in, looking for a razor, and the snotty insinuations of legal double dealing from the real, obnoxious Howard Rogers, Henry hightails it back to New York, and is promptly fired. Now it's up to Toni and her family to "help poor" Henry, a rescue mission complicated by Howard's assertion that Henry is cheating the family...since there's oil on the farm.
I always initially feel bad giving a knock to a movie like Danger--Love at Work. After all, it's completely innocuous and harmless, and it only wants to entertain us and make us laugh, which it does in fits and starts, particularly when those pros like Boland and Horton and Catlett and Cass and Seddon and McWade first start to wind up in their individual scenes. However, the laughter we experience is spotty, growing increasingly sparser as the movie grinds along, before we realize that other people have done this same material much better...and therefore there's really no need to cut Danger--Love at Work a major break. According to what I've read, Danger--Love at Work was adapted from an unpublished, uncopyrighted story (red flag) called Marry an Orphan, that was written by scripter James Edward Grant (among many other efforts, a ton of John Wayne movies...and everyone of them goddamned great) for Universal, where B. G. DeSylva further refined it. As well, it appeared that the script was more noteworthy for the multiple actor/director horse-trades that were side-dealed along with the purchase between the various studios attached to the script...rather than the script itself (another red flag). Regardless of its origins, what shows up on the screen is readily apparent as a thinly reworked take-off on Kaufman's and Hart's 1936 Pulitzer Prize-winning play, You Can't Take It With You (perhaps this was a case of Zanuck and Fox hoping to beat Capra and Harry Cohn to the punch before their own official adaptation of the play came out in 1938?). Seen today outside that timeline context, Danger--Love at Work's cleaving so closely to material that just the next year would be turned into Capra's same-named beloved classic and box office smash that snagged the Best Picture and Director Oscars, it's inevitable that unfavorable comparisons will be made...unfavorable to Danger--Love at Work, of course.
The opening scene sets the forced, misfired tone of the whole piece. When Duncan comes into his bosses' law office, setting us up for the movie's whacky, screwball premise, we should believe something wild and hilarious and truly dangerous is happening with the unseen, untamed Pemberton family...but we don't, because Alan Dinehart can't sell "manic helplessness," and the actors playing the lawyers seem remarkably blase about the whole affair in this flat, arbitrary, unamusing first scene. Clearly the problem here is Preminger's inability to possess one goddamned funny bone in his whole gigantic Austrian body (I direct you to his other woeful out-and-out "comedies," Skidoo and Such Good Friends, for further proof...even The Moon is Blue is boring as hell). Matters aren't helped when our lead character, Haley, is also referenced for his kookiness--he's a rich boy wastrel who spends his working days in the park, feeding pigeons, or going to the aquarium--rather than having that kookiness shown to us. Instead, we hear he's a real character, and then he's on the train, bound for the South, and we don't know him, or find him particularly funny. Nothing on the train trip enhances our appreciation of this lead character--the "obnoxious" boy-genius is merely grating, not transcendentally "off," so why is Haley so bugged by him?--while Haley's "meet cute" with Sothern is anti-climatic, at best (these two have zero sexual chemistry together--an absolute must for screwball comedy). So, with a premise we don't altogether buy (a "wild" family that doesn't sound or initially look all that wild), and an uninteresting, ill-defined male lead character, we're in big trouble with Danger--Love at Work before it even really picks up steam.
It's tough to know where to lay the most blame by this point in Danger--Love at Work: either on the incompatible, miscast stars, or the tired antics of the Pembertons. When referencing Haley's most famous (or more accurately, only famous) movie role as the Tin Man in The Wizard of Oz, it's probably best to always keep in mind that he was second choice there. Certainly any number of other stars could have done more with this role than Haley manages (Don Ameche, for example, would have been perfect here, getting laughs from a combination of the character's laziness and outraged frustration). Merely bugging one's eyes over and over again in an expressionless face, like a weird combination of Eddie Cantor and Harry Langdon, isn't enough to help create laughs when the script is already so thin on them (and his supposed comedic/romantic frustration comes off instead as mildly-bothered pissyness). As for that doll Sothern, no matter how far over they comb that Carole Lombard 'do, she's too practical, too grounded, to ever be believable as a free spirit who supposedly lives life without convention. This is the future Maisie, after all; that wiseass who's seen it all twice (and done it all at least once). That vague sneer and those penny-bright, sardonic eyes don't say "wild child" to me, but "shrewd ballbuster" who needed a guy like Gable or Tracy with whom to verbally spar--not fey, ineffectual Haley. She's too hard and savvy (and frankly too simmeringly sexual) to be comically "kooky."
And with those two failing to anchor the "screwing" in this screwball comedy, we're left with the phony, tame wackiness of the Pembertons, with such craziness as a stiff John Carradine painting a sea scene with water poured over his head (har dee har har), and Boland blithely walking in on Haley bathing (oy vey ist mir!)...and it's simply not enough. Sure, the actors crack us up; how can you not laugh at Mary Boland's delightful daffiness, or Edward Everett Horton's prissy, pucker-mouthed meddling? But we know deep down they're better than the gags they're given, and ultimately, we feel like they're wasting their time. And ours, particularly when the synthetic, cumbersome story machinations just keep grinding on and on, until the dud ending (all that cacophonous chaos needs a proper "big problem" resolution...which isn't found in the limp wrap-up here). Preminger (and Zanuck) may have beaten Capra to the punch back in 1937 with Danger--Love at Work, but today it's not remembered at all...with good reason.
Paul Mavis is an internationally published movie and television historian, a member of the Online Film Critics Society, and the author of The Espionage Filmography.