Watching 1939: Invitation to Happiness (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. 

invitation to ahppiness1939 film: 
Invitation to Happiness (1939)

Release date: 
June 7, 1939

Cast: 
Irene Dunne, Fred MacMurray, Charles Ruggles, Billy Cook, William Collier Sr., Marion Martin, Oscar O’Shea, Burr Caruth, Eddie Hogan

Studio: 
Paramount Pictures

Director: 
Wesley Ruggles

Plot:
Mr. Wayne (Collier Sr.) decides to buy a half interest in backing boxer Albert “King” Cole (MacMurray). His daughter, Eleanor Wayne (Dunne), is concerned about how her retired father is spending his money and tags along to a fight to see what Cole is all about. Eleanor and Cole instantly clash, Eleanor calling Cole brash and egotistical while Cole finds Eleanor snobby and too high class. But they also fall in love. Shortly after the two marry, Cole has to continue training and fighting in order to become the champ, which is his goal. This means Cole is largely away from home and doesn’t get to know his son, Albert (Cook).

1939 Notes:
• By the numbers:
– Irene Dunne was in three films released in 1939.
– Director Wesley Ruggles’s only film of 1939.
– Fred MacMurray was in three films released in 1939.
– Charles Ruggles was in five films released in 1939. In three of those he was billed as “Charlie Ruggles,” but in two films (including Invitation to Happiness), he was billed as Charles Ruggles.
– Billy Cook was in seven films released in 1939. He left films in 1941.
– Marion Martin was in five feature-length films released in 1939.
– William Collier Sr. was in six films released in 1939. He left films in 1941.
– Oscar O’Shea was in 15 films released in 1939.
– Burr Caruth was in seven films released in 1939.
– Eddie Hogan was in two films in released in 1939, and “Invitation to Happiness” was his first film. Hogan was a pro-boxer and play
– Edith Head designed costumes in 15 films released in 1939.
– Costume jeweler Eugene Joseff outfitted the costume jewelry for 96 films in 1939.

invitation

Charles Ruggles nad Fred MacMurray

Other trivia: 
• The plot for this film was developed by 19-year-old Mark Jerome, a New York University student who won second prize in a short story contest. Paramount bought the story and it was adapted by Claude Binyon, according to an Aug. 25, 1938, news brief, by Frederick C. Othman.
• Director Wesley Ruggles was the brother of actor Charles Ruggles, who co-stars in this film.
• Eddie Hogan who plays “The Champ” in this film was a professional boxer.
• A radio version of “Invitation to Happiness” was adapted for the Lux Radio Theater, which aired Oct. 23, 1939, starring Fred MacMurray and Madeleine Carroll.
• Original working title was “The Pushover.”
• Donald O’Connor was originally announced to play in this film as MacMurray and Dunne’s son, in an Aug. 8, 1938, Los Angeles Times news brief.
• Mary Boland was announced as having a role in “Invitation to Happiness” but wasn’t able to fulfill due to scheduling, according to a Dec. 1, 1938, Los Angeles Times brief.
• Boxer Johnny Indrisano was the technical advisor on the film.

invitation

My review: Searching for the “1939 feature”:
You rarely can go wrong with a movie starring Irene Dunne and Fred MacMurray. And while critics weren’t fond of “Invitation to Happiness,” this is a lovely, tender film.

However, when the film begins, you think the story will go in a different direction.

As wealthy Eleanor Wayne and boxer King Cole meet, you think it will be a comedic romance about class differences. The type where the society dame learns to enjoy boxing matches and the boxer figures out which fork to use at a classy dinner. However, once the characters of Eleanor and King marry, the film’s plot shifts from what you think it will be.

“Invitation to Happiness” becomes a film about loneliness, emotional unavailability, and the price you pay for success and fame – mainly not being with those you love. It also ends up having a custody plotline.

Irene Dunne plays the role with loveliness, grit and grace as usual. And Fred MacMurray plays the roughneck boxer well.

But the performance I was most interested in was of King Cole’s trainer, Pop Hardy, played by Charles Ruggles. Ruggles (brother of this film’s director Wesley Ruggles) generally plays witty and comedic role in films. But here, Ruggles plays a serious, downtrodden character which is against his type. I found this unexpected and he did a good job of it.

Something else I found interesting about this film was the accuracy of period-themed costuming. “Invitation to Happiness” (1939) begins in 1927. Designer Edith Head used authentic 1920s designs for Irene Dunne, including a three-piece Kasha suit, straight skirt, short capes and cloche hats, which her biographer Jay Jorgensen notes. Often when films are set in different time periods (like a 1950s film set in the 1920s, or a 1960s film set in the 1940s) clothing fads of the past are ignored, so I thought it was interesting that Head incorporated these.

I think some of the critic’s disappointment with “Invitation to Happiness” is that Irene Dunne started off 1939 with a high – Leo McCarey’s “Love Affair” (1939). And her two other films – “When Tomorrow Comes” and “Invitation to Happiness” were often compared to that success.

Now, I think “Invitation to Happiness” is an interesting melodrama. Even New York Times critic Frank S. Nugent said, “Of course, no (Wesley) Ruggles film is ever really bad. They always have saving grace and humor and a compassionate understanding of people.”

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