Small-scaled, genial-enough comedy, with an amusing cast. 20th Century-Fox's Cinema Archives line of hard-to-find library and cult titles has released Molly and Me, the 1945 comedy from Fox, directed by Lewis Seiler, and starring British star Gracie Fields, Monty Woolley, Roddy McDowall, Reginald Gardiner, and Natalie Schafer. Based on a Francis Marion novel, Molly and Me has a standard "plebian life force shakes up a staid, snooty household" storyline which will hold no surprises for most viewers. However, its cast is reasonably game (particularly the marvelous Gardiner and Schafer, who steal the show whenever they're on), making for a pleasant, if unremarkable, comedy. No extras for this near-pristine black and white fullscreen transfer.
London stage actress Molly Barry (Gracie Fields), experiencing an extended dry spell in her career, has no other choice than to apply for a housekeeping job in a wealthy household. A mother hen to other out-of-work pros at Mrs. Lamb's Theatrical Boarding House, this servant's position will provide much needed food and money for her fellow down-and-out show biz pals. There's only one problem: Molly lied about having references, and a representative of the household is on his way to interview her. The sudden arrival of former chorus girl-turned-society-dame Kitty Burroughs (Natalie "Lovey Howell" Schafer) is a god-send: she can play Molly's former employer. Unfortunately, Peabody (Reginald Gardiner), the butler sent to interview Molly, instantly recognizes "Lady Burroughs" as Kitty--since "Peabody" is really Harry Phillips, an actor hiding his socially "suspect" background, as well. The jig is up for Molly. When Peabody rules out another performer at his employer's residence, Molly gets the former alcoholic actor drunk, and deposits him at his boss' plush residence. That morning, Molly just assumes the mantle of housekeeper, with Peabody powerless to stop her, lest she reveal his secret. Molly's cheery, "common" familiarity and kindness is a shock, to say the least, to her new employer, John Graham (Monty Woolley), a reserved, stern, imposing figure--a personality that has driven away his son, Jimmy (Roddy McDowall), who falsely believes that the death of his mother has caused his father to hate him. Soon, however, the very much alive Mrs. Graham (Doris Lloyd) shows up, intent on causing her estranged husband--who is being asked to stand for Parliament--even more scandal than when she first left him 15 years ago. Can Molly stop this from happening, while thawing Graham's cold heart?
From what I could gather online, Molly, Bless Her, the Francis Marion novel that inspired Molly and Me, was a fictionalized expansion of a true-life event in famed M-G-M movie star Marie Dressler's life, when a lengthy hiatus during star Dressler's earlier stage career resulted in the rather desperate measure of her almost becoming a domestic. Adapted by Roger Burford, and scripted by Leonard Praskins, Molly and Me does initially sport that familiar--and always enjoyable--cinematic framework where theatrical people are portrayed as one big extended "family" of cynical realists, whose sophisticated wit and a willingness to assume other identities or to put up a facade of respectability, helps them survive the even harsher world outside the insular theater. Fields, a stable anchor for the flightier members of her "stage family" (she's rather subdued here), is a good straight man for the more outsized performers like Queenie Leonard (as Fields' overly dramatic friend), Schafer (perfectly cast as a gorgeous gold-digger anxious to keep her new gig) and Gardiner (absolutely hilarious in his drunk scene). When circumstances demand that Fields bring in her show biz friends to not only staff Woolley's house (they're amusingly unsuccessful in assuming a servant's deference), but to also aid her in a phony scam to send Woolley's wife on her way, Molly and Me is low-key but deft in creating a theatrical farce that delivers consistent laughs (director Lewis Seiler has the wisdom to stay back and let his performers do what they do without too much fiddling).
Had Molly and Me stayed in that vein, it might have been a funnier picture; however, equal time is given to dramatic scenes where Fields tries to "heal" Woolley and his son McDowall--scenes far too familiar to the viewer, and without the corresponding snap of the farcical elements, to level out Molly and Me. Molly and Me was a reteaming of Fields and Woolley, who had a better-received picture (according to reports) in 1943's Holy Matrimony. I haven't seen that title, so I can't compare, but in Molly and Me, they're an engaging-enough "couple," I suppose...but not an especially memorable one. As I wrote before, Fields seems tentative and preoccupied here, while Woolley does his usual imperious, unctuous diction shtick to increasingly diminishing returns (when you've seen one Monty Woolley performance after the first five minutes, you have seen them all). While we wait for the funnier Gardiner or Schafer to infrequently pop up, too many scenes intrude of Fields incongruously singing her songs (one of her signatures, Christopher Robin Is Saying His Prayers, is quite sweetly done...but this isn't a musical), or a perfunctory Woolley very mildly blowing his stack (we never really feel Fields is in danger of being chucked out of his house, because he never seems all that mad at her; besides, he softens to her at very first sight--where's the comedic tension in that?). By the strangely-pitched wrap-up (the scam scene's tone plays far too "theatrical" and broad ), we're way ahead of Molly and Me, and while it was mild fun watching the performers, we can't help but think: they could have been better served elsewhere.
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.