Rather desperate romantic comedy from that gifted comedienne, Joan Crawford. Warner Bros.' Archive Collection of hard-to-find library and cult titles has released I Live My Life, the 1935 screwball starring Crawford, Brian Aherne, Frank Morgan, Aline MacMahon, Eric Blore, Fred Keating, Jessie Ralph, Frank Conroy, and Arthur Treacher. Top-of-the-line talent here, with W.S. "Woody" Van Dyke directing Joseph L. Mankiewicz's script...too bad it's all shrill and unconvincing and alarmingly unfunny, with brittle laugh-killer Crawford completely out of her element, and Aherne acting far too above-it-all to care. An original trailer is included in this okay fullscreen black and white transfer.
Wealthy businessman G.P. Bentley (Frank Morgan), now docked at the Greek Islands during his around-the-world yachting excursion, has hastily agreed, to the tune of $400,000 of his own money, to a private real estate investment deal--something his friend and financial adviser, "the Doctor" (Frank Conroy), has strongly advised against. Bentley's spoiled, beautiful socialite daughter, Kay (Joan Crawford) is unaware of all of this; she's too busy riding donkeys in the Greek mountains for a lark. When she comes upon unfriendly Irish archeologist Terence O'Neill (Brian Aherne), she can't resist taking advantage of the tall, handsome
The nice thing about reviewing a bad comedy is it doesn't take too long to get to the heart of the matter: over and above any subjective reasoning, in the end a comedy is either amusing or not...and I Live My Life just isn't funny. Why Metro decided to switch-up Crawford's usual "poor shop girl makes good" bailiwick for a stint as a spoiled, entitled society gal is anybody's guess, but not only does she fail to impress (as usual) in a comedic role...I'm not too sure there was anything truly funny about I Live My Life to begin with (increasingly, these kind of misjudged entries would lead to her precipitous fall in moviegoers' hearts in just a few short years). The first sign of serious trouble for both Crawford and scripter Mankiewicz comes quite early when she "meets cute" with Aherne. The sight of Crawford grotesquely mugging, struggling for "madcap" as she rides a donkey, is bad enough (she has zero facility for slapstick), but when she shoots for "banter" with a distant, unimpressed Aherne and comes up craps, disaster for all is clearly foretold here. Whether she's forcing laughs about a donkey that's wandered off (har dee har har), or failing to get laughs with one of the easiest set-ups for visual comedy you can have--the old spaghetti noodle-eating scene--there's just no getting around the fact that there's a hard, cold, brittle glint behind those huge, rather terrifyingly observant eyes of Crawford's that lends nothing to comedy. And when a performer limited in that skill set isn't given much more than cheapjack yoks like donkey riding and spaghetti noodling to sell, it's no wonder Crawford flounders so badly here.
Aherne, an acceptable light comedian (he was an even better writer, as his delightful autobio A Proper Job, and autobiography of friend George Sanders, A Dreadful Man, prove) doesn't fare any better under Woody Van Dyke's plodding direction. You simply can't have a screwball romantic comedy if your two leads have no chemistry together, and that's unfortunately the case here. Aherne did have a way around a smart line of dialogue, but since he gets very few of those in I Live My Life, he affects as cover an alternately snooty, put-out / arrogant, condescending demeanor that effectively shuts down any sympathy for his character--and any chance of rapport with Crawford. According to the conventions of the screwball comedy, we're supposed to root for proletarian Aherne to forcibly put rich, spoiled Crawford in her place, but the way Aherne's part is written (and for that matter, Crawford's, too), we couldn't care less if these two drips get together. Since Joan is so joyless as a supposedly carefree, nutty socialite, we don't give her any slack for being such a bitch to Aherne, playing with his affections--nor do we vicariously enjoy her privileged games. And since Aherne plays his proletarian archeologist (hee hee!) in such an affected, snide manner, we hardly see his side of the argument, either (who would want to dig around in the dirt with this uptight snot?). Mankiewicz makes some feeble stabs about class consciousness (a distressingly frequent occurrence in these New Deal comedies), but it's so watered down as to be pointless...and yet it's brought up so many times, in such a grinding, repetitious manner, we start hoping for the exact opposite outcome: who needs cranky, complaining Aherne and his supposed love of poverty? At least phony, "worthless" rich girl Crawford is having some forced fun out of life. You know it's a Metro picture when the movie's socialist worker hero is an archeologist, for god's sake--as if all those poor schlubs back in 1935, watching this with scraped-up nickels and dimes, would consider an over-educated, well-paid, globe-hopping archeologist "one of them," bleating for their equality (there's nothing as funny in I Live My Life as a wealthy Hollywood scriptwriter sending messages out for "the people").
Goofball politics aside, I Live My Life's biggest problem is a lack of amusing situations and funny one-liners and dialogue. Sure, some of the supporting cast members get a laugh or two with their small bits. Frank Morgan is on-screen the most, but his loveable, fumbling shtick wears out its welcome fast, while Aline MacMahon inhabits some kind of phantom character in Betty, who is so vaguely sketched we don't know if she's Aherne's co-worker, or former girlfriend, or what (maybe it all ended up on the cutting room floor). We're set up to enjoy fireworks when Eric Blore and Arthur Treacher butt heads as competing snit butlers, but their encounter is over in nothing flat (and poorly staged and cut, as well). And what's with Mankiewicz setting us up constantly to think there's some kind of scam going on with the Doctor trying to force Crawford to marry Fred Keating's character--are they both in it for the money, we think? Are they going to trick old Frank Morgan?--before poof it all goes away without any kind of satisfying payoff (oh, you mean the Doctor was honestly looking out for Morgan? How dull...). But then again, I Live My Life is constantly jerking our chain, promising things it can't deliver, from the tease of seeing Aherne screw up on the dance floor (if you have a character in a screwball comedy say he can't dance...why in the hell would you then have him being able to dance?), to the protracted build-up to Crawford's grandmother lowering the boom on her relationship with Aherne ("funny" and "disturbingly mean" aren't the same things, as Jessie Ralph unfortunately wasn't told by Van Dyke: her big blow-up lasts all of 20 seconds before it's swept under the rug, too), to endlessly grinding-on fights and resolutions that make you think I Live My Life wraps-up at least four times before it actually does (even though the runtime is "only" 97 minutes, it feels a minimum 20 minutes too long). If you're a Joan Crawford fan (like I am), and I Live My Life didn't ring a bell before reading this review...there's a reason for that.
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.