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Watching the fine film Primrose Path last month encouraged me to leap at the opportunity to see Ginger Rogers and Joel McCrea playing opposite one another again. Seven years earlier, Rogers and McCrea starred in the RKO picture Chance at Heaven which turns out to be a mixed bag. The stars are as attractive as ever and the movie is more than enjoyable for their sake. But its love triangle doesn't function very well, even if one gives the film extra points for trying to be different. The romantic comedy was one of the projects made under Merian C.Cooper's reign at RKO.
Viña Delmar might have thought up her original story on a short ride to the studio. In a small coastal town back East, young Marje Harris (Rogers) has been waiting a couple of years for her handsome boyfriend Blacky Gorman (McCrea) to propose. Blacky runs and operates one filling station and has plans to buy more. Marje doesn't believe in pushing her man into marriage, a strategy that fails when the vivacious, and rich, Glory Franklyn (Marian Nixon) breezes through. The ditzy debutante easily lures Blacky to her family's seaside villa, and they're married almost immediately. Glory moves into Blacky's little house and tries to be a good wife, but has never cooked in her life. She replaces his furniture with art objects one cannot sit in. Instead of sulking, Marje helps Glory out unselfishly; she only excuses herself when the newlyweds kiss in front of her. But the marriage begins to self-destruct when the bride becomes pregnant, and Glory's snobby mother (Virginia Hamilton) insists that she join her in New York.
Chance at Heaven is an entertaining show simply because watching Ginger Rogers & Joel McCrea is a pleasure, no matter what they're doing. But the story ... makes us scratch our heads. The characters have little or no "internal integrity." Rogers' Marje is strong willed, opinionated and spirited, yet behaves like a doormat for McCrea's Blacky. Blacky is simply not consistent. He seems thoughtful and caring yet repeatedly shows himself unable to take Marje into consideration, even before Glory comes along. That Blacky can be such an airhead not only makes him less likeable, it makes Marje look foolish for having faith in him. Push come to shove, Blacky's comic assistant Al (Andy Devine) seems a more dependable catch.
Marian Nixon's Glory rejects the rich lizard her mother has picked out for her, Sid (George Meeker) and instead goes for the handsome gas station man, somebody her high-toned mother even refuses to converse with. Glory is supposed to be a charming ditz, but she comes off as mentally impaired. The script makes a running joke out of her constant auto accidents. We'd think Blacky would see her as a moving disaster area, not a potential missus.
Things really go off the rails when Marje inexplicably volunteers to help Glory try to be a middle-class wife. Marje is totally sincere and does her best, but we just don't believe that she could be so unselfish, if only for pride's sake. Nope, Marje watches as Blacky blindly assumes that the meals that taste just like Marje's best work, were prepared by Glory. We keep waiting for some major character development, but none ever comes. Nobody really changes or learns much of anything. All that happens is that Mrs. Franklyn gets her claws into her daughter once again, and Glory exits for the big city. Is the lesson supposed to be that cruelly jilted girls should wait for the rat that dumped them to come wandering back again? Marje doesn't exhibit any practical virtue I can think of, and her example is certainly not a good one.
Chance at Heaven refers to Blacky's chance at the rich life, I suppose, but he never wants any of Glory's money and turns down Mrs. Franklyn's offer to find him a business position in New York. If money isn't important, Glory really seems a poor second to Marje. Blacky is saddened to learn that marrying Glory wasn't such a hot idea after all, but the problem doesn't seem to do him much harm. This part of the film is very unsatisfying ... it's as if they were baking a movie and forgot to add the drama.
The film is a Pre-Code item that has only one potentially censorable detail. A character well established as pregnant, simply says later on that she isn't pregnant, that the small-town doctor made a mistake. Normally, we might think that the scene is an evasion for a subplot about an abortion. But Chance at Heaven shows no signs that it's that sophisticated.
The actors can't be faulted, as both Rogers and McCrea give their parts all they have. Ginger Rogers is always interesting to watch, even when she's standing off to the side observing other characters. Marj Harris doesn't beg for sympathy. We keep expecting to see her reach her limit of tolerance, but the event never comes to pass. One scene is a definite winner. Blacky takes Marje out to a nice nightclub to prove that he's still her beau, but Marje notices right away that he's waiting to see if Glory shows up. When Glory does glide in with the snobbish Sid, the couples share a table. The partners soon change. It's the first time that Marje would be within her rights to cause a scene - we'd be happy if she tried to tear Glory's hair out. Chance at Heaven instead wants to take us in a different direction, but can't find its way.
Celebrity spotters will recognize future kitchen appliance saleswoman Betty Furness as a guest at the ritzy party at the Franklyns' seaside villa.
The Warner Archive Collection's DVD-R of Chance at Heaven is one of the RKO releases that looks just fine. Original elements seem to have survived with little or no wear. The film is an early talkie credit for Nicholas Musuraca, who gives the daytime scenes a sunny look that seems more like California than Massachusetts. Musuraca's name wasn't attached to very many classic films in the 1930s, but after his successes with producer Val Lewton his career really took off.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Chance at Heaven rates:
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T'was Ever Thus.