I never like Leslie Howard so much as when he is doing comedy or adventure. Remembered today for his role as Ashley Wilkes in Gone With the Wind and a man who did serious acting on the stage, he actually has a real flair for comedy and high spirits. He’s wonderful in The Scarlet Pimpernel and Pygmalion, and I just saw him in a screwball comedy called It’s Love I’m After, made in 1937 and directed by Archie L. Mayo.
Here he plays Basil Underwood, a ham actor, evidently adored by his female public, self-centered and always fighting with his costar and girlfriend, Joyce Arden (Bette Davis) and quoting from his various plays, usually Shakespeare. He and Joyce have been on the point of marriage so many times, but they always manage to have a fight right before actually going through with it.
And then Marcia West enters the picture (played by Olivia de Havilland). She has seen Basil perform and become completely infatuated with him. Her fiancé is the son of an old friend of Basil’s and asks him for a favor, that he come to Marcia’s family house for the weekend and behave like a boar so she’ll fall out of love with him. Basil has been feeling a little unworthy of Joyce and resolves that he will do this good deed and will come back to Joyce a better man. Of course, since he was on the point of marrying Joyce that night, she doesn’t exactly appreciate this gesture; which is what Basil’s extremely devoted gentleman’s gentleman, Digges, told him would happen (played hilariously by Eric Blore).
But Basil goes down for the weekend and tries to repulse Marcia. However she is not easily repulsed and his plans always seem to work in reverse The fiancé is in despair, poor Digges is in despair, and Joyce comes down to the house and soon Basil is in despair.
In this film, Leslie Howard also has the opportunity to spoof his own performance of Romeo from the 1936 movie Romeo and Juliet that he did with Norma Shearers. At the beginning of It’s Love I’m After, he is doing the last scene of Shakespeare’s play, with Bette Davis’ Joyce playing Juliet. While Olivia de Havilland practically faints with romantic ardor in the balcony, Basil and Joyce try to undermine each other; he kisses her tenderly and complains under his breath about her own, garlic breath. She puts her hand over his face so the audience can’t see him and calls him a ham at one point, while he keeps stealing glances up at the balcony and the lovely ladies. During the applause, they fight behind the curtain about who gets to take the first bow.
Although Bette Davis and Leslie Howard would seem like something of an odd couple, they actually have a very good rapport together. This is the third movie that they did with each other, although it is the only comedy, which is a pity. Neither actor is known for their comedy (especially Davis), but watching them play up their characters as feuding, self-dramatizing, larger-than-life actors is a ball to see and the script serves them well.
Now, Olivia de Havilland was only two years into her movie career and Marcia West is also a bit of a different role for her, at least as far as I’ve seen. Her Marcia West is an airhead and she plays her with such frenetic breathlessness that it’s like she’s channeling Carole Lombard.
And finally, Eric Blore. I don’t think this film would have been nearly as good without Eric Blore, who enriches any film that he appears in. He was in multiple movies with Fred Astaire, like Top Hat, The Gay Divorcee, Shall We Dance, as well as other great comedies like The Lady Eve. He always seems to be the butler or the valet. In this film, he is the valet; so devoted to Basil that he says “we” rather than “you.” He is the one Basil unburdens his soul to, usually laced with some Shakespeare, and knows all of Basil’s plays, lines and offstage misdeeds. He is also determined to get Basil and Joyce together again and without him, poor Basil would probably be a very lost soul, indeed.