Watching 1939: It’s a Wonderful World (1939)

In 2011, I announced I was trying to see every film released in 1939. This new series chronicles films released in 1939 as I watch them. As we start out this blog feature, this section may become more concrete as I search for a common thread that runs throughout each film of the year. Right now, that’s difficult. 

1939 Film: It’s a Wonderful World

Release date: May 19, 1939

Cast: Claudette Colbert, James Stewart, Guy Kibbee, Nat Pendleton, Frances Drake, Edgar Kennedy, Sidney Blackmer, Ernest Truex, Hans Conried, Grady Sutton, Cecilia Callejo, Cecil Cunningham, Frank Faylen (uncredited), Phillip Terry (uncredited)

Studio:
Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer

Director:
W.S. Van Dyke

Plot:
Wealthy Willie Heyward (Treux) is accused of murder and his private detective Guy Johnson (Stewart) is arrested for obstruction of justice for hiding Heyward after the murder. Johnson escapes the police by jumping off a train, and poetess Edwina Corday (Colbert) witnesses his escape. Guy kidnaps Edwina so she won’t report him to the police as he tries to continue to clear Heyward of murder.

1939 notes:
• Claudette Colbert’s first film for Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer.

• Claudette Colbert was in three films released in 1939 and James Stewart was in five.

Other Trivia:
• Story written by Ben Hecht

• Claudette Colbert was unhappy at the brisk pace that the film was shot. She was used to being able to take her time at her home studio of Paramount.

My review: Searching for the “1939 feature”:
With this 1939 film, “It’s a Wonderful World” places Claudette Colbert in a similar situation we found her in back in 1934 with “It Happened One Night.” Colbert is traveling with a man to evade another group of people. However, this time it isn’t by her own free will. This man, played by James Stewart, is wanted by the police but escapes arrest in order to solve the crime.

James Stewart and Claudette Colbert in “It’s a Wonderful World” (1939)

Going into the film you think that it couldn’t be better cast: Claudette Colbert and James Stewart – two actors that seemingly fit well with any costar…except with each other. They just don’t seem to fit. The two eventually are supposed to be romantically involved, which isn’t believable anyhow, but it’s a constant see-saw of loving or hating one another.

This screwball comedy starts off promisingly, but the script plays both characters too extreme. Stewart is teeth-grittingly cynical and Claudette Colbert’s character is shrill and rather whiny. She is always “swearing by her eyes.” (Which is supposed to be funny, but it got old).

This was Claudette Colbert’s first film for MGM. She later said she did not care for “It’s a Wonderful World” and found the quick, one-take shooting disconcerting, compared to her home studio of Paramount where she was able to take her time and work with cameramen to get the best shot, according to James Stewart: Behind the Scenes of a Wonderful Life by Lawrence J. Quirk.

“Speedy Van Dyke, as he was known, shot the film in something like two weeks, and it looked it too!” Stewart said in an interview with Quirk.

I’m reluctant to say I dislike this film, because I really don’t but it is hard to like. It’s more so disappointing. There are some funny scenes, though, like when James Stewart dresses up like a scout leader.

In the grand scheme of 1939, the storyline and brisk-paced comedy is similar to other films released during this time. However, it feels like Herman J. Mankiewicz and Ben Hecht quickly slapped a story together that was then shot by W. S. “One Take Woody” Van Dyke. The production of the film feels as rushed as our lead characters do during their police chase.

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6 thoughts on “Watching 1939: It’s a Wonderful World (1939)

  1. I recorded this movie off of TCM last week – or was it the week before last? – and I hafta say that it disappointed me SO MUCH. Like you said, Stewart and Colbert just didn’t fit nicely together. I sensed no real warmth between them onscreen. The story/plot got kinda repetitive and old too by the final 30 or 40 minutes. Didn’t like it.

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  2. I am reading Marc Eliot’s bio on Jimmy Stewart… very interesting. He mentions how Stewart’s screen persona offered no sexual charisma for actresses to play off of… he was great as an aw shucks sort of brother friend and the fighter of social ills, but he could never be believable as a romantic lover… one can understand how Claudette and Gable could feel sexual attraction being stuck together throughout It Happened One Night, whereas It’s A Wonderful World is one long tedious test for the viewer. Kind of like using David Niven in an obviously meant for Cary Grant role in The Pink Panther… it just falls flat in terms of sexual tension and leaves the viewer, and fellow actresses, bored.

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    • Take this book – and everything else written by Marc Eliot – with several hundred pounds of salt. His research and are shoddy, and so is his writing (how can he state with such authority what people were thinking, and what’s with all the dramatic imagery and sexual preoccupation??). Laura Wagner of Classic images absolutely rips him to shreds in her reviews.

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  3. I just watched this film on Sunday. I was disappointed too! I love Claudette Colbert but she didn’t come across at all well in this role. Same with Jimmy Stewart… and you are so right that they have no chemistry. Stewart’s character was much more convincing when he was annoyed with Claudette’s.
    Talking of Jimmy Stewart, I very recently finished Scott Ryan’s new book on him and Henry Fonda, Hank and Jim. It was great! If you haven’t read it yet, I think you’d enjoy it.

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