Oh, For a Man! (1930)


CREDITS
BACKGROUND
PLOT
REVIEWS
MUSIC IN THE FILM


Fox
Released December 14, 1930.
Produced and directed by Hamilton MacFadden.
86 minutes.

French release title: L’Amant de Minuit (Midnight Lover)

Spanish release title: ¡Mio Sera! (Mine alone)

Based on the short story “Stolen Thunder” by Mary T. Watkins, published in the Saturday Evening Post, June 7, 1930. Screenplay: Philip Klein. Dialogue: Lynn Starling. Photography: Charles Clarke. Art Director: Stephen Goosson. Music Director: Arthur Kay. Sound Recording: E. Clayton Ward. Costumes: Sophie Wachner. Editor: Al De Gaetano. Movietone Recording.

The film was announced in September, 1930 as a forthcoming vehicle for the popular Fox team of Janet Gaynor and Charles Farrell.

The only known surviving print of this film, missing reel 7, is at the Museum of Modern Art in New York.

Jeanette MacDonald (Carlotta Manson)
Reginald Denny (Barney McGann)
Warren Hymer (Pug Morini, the “Walloping Wop”)
Marjorie White (Totsy Franklin)
Alison Skipworth (Laura, Carlotta’s maid)
Albert Conti (Peck)
Bela Lugosi (Frescatti)
André Cheron (Costello, the voice coach)
William B. Davidson (Kerry Stokes)
Bodil Rosing (Masseuse)
Donald Hall (Backstage admirer)
Evelyn Hall (Pushy dowager with daughter)
Althea Henley (Dowager’s daughter, June)
Mary Gordon (Flower seller)
Gino Corrado (Signor Ferrari)


Background

With the fading of the film musical in late 1930, Jeanette continued to be deadwood at Para­mount. After The Lottery Bride at United Artists she was lent to Fox for the remainder of her two-year contract.

The three films she made there disappeared during Fox’s stormy merger with Twentieth
Century Pictures in 1935, and they were believed lost until 1969 when portions turned up during a preservation program initiated by Alex Gordon. His efforts also located many of Fox’s musical gems of the 1929–30 period, including Fox Movietone Follies of 1930Sunny Side Up, and George Gershwin’s Delicious, the latter two with Janet Gaynor.

Two of Jeanette’s films at Fox were considered then and now as Bs, programmers to round out the new double bills. As with many Bs of the period, their very economy of length and “production value” make them the entertainment equals of heavier, more pretentious works.

Oh, for a Man! isn’t a lost classic, but it has enough sparkle and historical interest to be worth saving. It’s the first film in which Jeanette sings opera (the “Liebestod” from Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde!) A fast and funny comedy, slim but refreshing as a summer lemonade, its sophisticated battle-of-the-sexes tale is nicely handled. It’s Jeanette’s picture all the way, and she tears a passion to tatters with elegance and great good humor. Her performance is almost balletic, her body, her arms, hands, fingers, eyebrows posed theatrically at every moment, a culmination of her stage training and her Lubitsch film technique. But never, even in the hands of Lubitsch, had she been more lovingly photographed or more stunningly gowned.

Director Hamilton MacFadden dealt mainly in Bs and westerns (later he did Charlie Chan vehicles) and it shows in his quick, simple style and bluff approach to situations that Paramount would have nursed for innuendo.

Jeanette’s leading man is Reginald Denny, an elegant Englishman who had an impressive silent career, mainly as a zany romantic comedian of the Cary Grant school. Only re­cently have some of these films become avail­able, allowing a renewed apprecia­tion of his flawless comedic timing.
In the early days of sound, Denny maintained leading man status, appearing opposite Grace Moore in the fictionalized Jenny Lind biography, A Lady’s Morals (1930), and as the errant husband of the exquisite Kay Johnson in Cecil B. DeMille’s only musical, Madame Satan (1930). However his casting as the befuddled and discarded husband in Noël Coward’s Private Lives (1931) was more typical of the rôles that would keep him in sound films for the next thirty-five years. His career encom­passed more than eighty-five films.

The cast of Oh, for a Man! includes two bright ladies from Broadway. Bouncy, blonde Marjorie White’s wisecracking and boisterous song and dance delivery had made her a staple of the early Fox musicals (Sunny Side Up, Fox Movietone Follies of 1930Just Imagine) but, as with Jeanette, the demand for her talents was diminishing. Magnificent grand-dame Alison Skipworth plays Jeanette’s motherly companion. She had begun as a Gaiety Girl and had a distinguished stage career behind her as did most of the notable Hollywood character actors of the 1930s. On Broadway, Skipworth had appeared briefly with Jeanette in the ill-fated Angela in 1928. Her elegant British diction and benign truck-driver face brought her dozens of rôles in good to middling films, including Tillie and Gus and If I had a Million, before she retired from the screen in 1938, but she never got the one really memorable rôle she deserved.


Plot

Oh, for a Man! opens with Jeanette singing “The Liebestod” from Wagner’s Tristan and Isolde behind the credits, the first time she sang opera on the screen. A program tells us that we are in the New York Opera House. Stage center, Carlotta Manson (Jeanette) is singing the famous aria over the body of her dead lover. High above, two stagehands ignore the drama below and match pennies on a catwalk. One jogs the spotlight with his elbow, and the lady finds herself in near darkness on her high note. Her cries of outrage bring them back to their job and Carlotta, exquisitely gowned in sequined chiffon, dies long and languidly, her voice revealing a surprisingly dark lower register for this early in the MacDonald career. The curtain descends on the prostrate Carlotta, and she springs to her feet, denouncing the electricians, her tenor, the management, everyone. She has only time to compose her features for a triumphant curtain call.

Backstage is just as hectic. She thanks an admirer for his recent gift of pearls and learns that he sent emeralds. A gushing patroness of the opera is waiting in her dressing room, hoping to arrange an audition for her giggling daughter. Fortunately Carlotta’s maid-companion, Laura (Alison Skipworth), announces that the diva’s calendar is entirely filled and shows them out. While Carlotta suffers fools badly, she still considers herself a friend of struggling artists. She is very sympathetic to a young composer who shoves through the crowd at the stage door to speak with her and she promises to hear his songs.

In Carlotta’s elegant drawing room, several formally dressed men wait uneasily for the lady, From the next room come her ever-rising moans of pleasure. “It won’t be long now,” Laura comments. “She’s loudest at the end.”

Sure enough, the lady emerges ecstatically in a filmy peignoir. We are quickly set straight, for Carlotta is followed by her masseuse (Bodil Rosing) who is explaining she won’t be able to come the next day. Her sister is having a baby. Carlotta is thrilled at the news, her arms making exultant arcs in the air. How marvelous! How splendid! She will be godmother and the christening will be held right here.

She turns on her waiting admirers. “Everyone cries ‘Carlotta, give me a song,’” she declares grandly. “No one ever cries ‘Oh Carlotta, give me a baby!’” Thus inspired, Kerry Stokes (William B. Davidson) stays and proposes. Carlotta tells him quite touchingly that she plans to sing and sing until she’s eighty and then be a lonely old lady. He shakes his head sadly. “You always win,” he says. “Why not?” she replies. “No one ever offered me enough opposition.”

He departs, and, in the awaited negligee sequence, she prepares for bed in the seductive half-light. Laura tucks her under her satin coverlet and opens the French doors for air as Carlotta snuggles happily into her pillow.

We fade in on a man’s wristwatch set at 3:00. The French doors open onto a moonlit balcony (beyond which hangs a solid black velour curtain, a holdover from the stage convention). An arm sporting the same wristwatch comes over the edge of the balcony, and a shadowy figure pulls himself up and enters the room. His flashlight wanders about until it settles on a jewel box. “They’re not real,” Carlotta tells him calmly. The figure rushes at the bed and tries to slip a chloroformed rag over her face. She announces that she is Carlotta Manson and shrilly orders him to stop at once. “Do you want to ruin the world’s most beautiful voice?”

The malevolent figure draws back. Why, he gasps, he always goes to the opera when she is singing! Good opera inspires him to do his best work. Carlotta is fascinated and soon charms him into removing his bandana mask and cap. The bed light reveals a chiseled profile that goes nicely with his muscular body. (Denny was frequently cast as a boxer in silents, although here, nearing forty, he was getting a bit chunky. Denny’s American boy-next-door image had been shattered when sound revealed his British origin, and directors were still not sure what to do with him. Here, he attempts to be “American” with a somewhat erratic Irish brogue.) Carlotta studies the interloper. “Why, you’re much too good looking to be a burglar!” she gushes.

“I’ve been pretty nice to you,” he says suddenly. “Now you’re going to do something for me.” The lady’s little shiver of happy horror turns to amazement when he explains that he wants her opinion of his voice. She must make allowances, of course. His night work is pretty rough on the throat. “We singers understand,” she nods. He launches into a high powered rendition of “Believe Me If All Those Endearing Young Charms.” The tone is good, but the high notes are deliberately strained off key. (Denny was announced for the rôle of “Danilo” in the planned 1930 film version of The Merry Widow and could really sing.)

Nevertheless, Carlotta finds herself strangely stirred by the handsome robber. It must be his singing, she decides.

At this moment, Laura pounds on the door. “Who’s singing?” she calls. “I am,” Carlotta replies. The knowing Laura makes a perfunctory fuss about Carlotta having a man in her room and leaves. Carlotta confides that they won’t be bothered again and turns her attention to her burglar’s career. She can just see him in tights, she thrills, happily hugging herself. She will arrange everything. Tomorrow night her very own conductor and manager will audition him. The burglar is cynical. Suppose they turn out to be police officers? She gives him her pearl ring as a sign of faith. And what is his name? she cries as he starts toward the balcony. “Never ask a burglar his real name,” he says, “but you can call me ‘Barney McGann.’” Then he kisses her long and hard. She comes up for air spluttering angrily. “I might have taken a lot more than that,” he laughs and leaves.

Carlotta rages silently at the window, her body writhing in fury. The arch of her back slowly changes to a catlike sensuality, and her clenched fists uncurl to make little stroking gestures in the air. She turns and dances slowly across the room, crooning to herself. Then purring, she flings herself on the bed with a happy convulsion: “Oh, Carlotta, this is life!”

Barney arrives belligerently the next day to audition for Peck (Albert Conti) and Frescatti (Bela Lugosi, already famous for his stage portrayal of Dracula and shortly to appear in the film version). Barney tells them he doesn’t know what his song is about because it is in German. He belts out a very loud, very Germanic art song. Peck and Frescatti’s faces are a study, but Carlotta is radiant. “What do you think?” she cries when Barney has left the room. “Well, what do you think?” asks the kindly Peck. Carlotta rages that they are prejudiced, that they won’t give a young singer a chance. She wants no less than an opera contract for the coming season. Barney can start in the chorus and work up. It will only cost them one hundred dollars a week (quite a salary in those days when a family could live comfortably on thirty dollars a week). Peck sees the value of this investment in Carlotta’s tranquility and consents.

Barney agrees to give up his night work—“You can’t afford to expose that marvelous throat”—and begins his lessons. Carlotta’s very own teacher, Costello (André Cheron, the irate husband in The Love Parade) takes on the job, but is soon at the end of his wits. Although Barney dutifully swallows the raw eggs Carlotta brings him, he can’t get his vocalizing right. He tells Costello to keep his shirt on and the little man explodes. “All right, take it off,” Barney says. “Run around in your B.V.D.s.”

Costello storms that Barney will never be a singer and stalks out. Carlotta turns on Barney. How does he expect to be a singer? “I don’t,” he replies. He’s always had his freedom—“except for two years and six months”—and he isn’t going to give it up now. He’ll send her a check to pay the maestro for the lessons. He has never owed a woman anything, he says, picking up his cap.

Carlotta realizes that desperate measures are called for and flings herself in his way. “I couldn’t live without you,” she says tremu­lously. “Forget everything except me…I love you.” She moves her face closer to his, and he kisses her. “I want to marry you,” she sighs, clinging to him. Barney laughs harshly.

He won’t be the husband of a prima donna. Why, he’d end up carrying her luggage around and fetching her things and walking her dogs while she performed. He’d be known only as her husband. Carlotta knows her own mind. She’ll quit. She’s always loathed this life and now she has the courage to give it all up. “You kinda like me?” Barney asks. She exults in his embrace, head back, arms extended. “Ah, this is life!”

She rushes about, preparing for her new life. Barney must call her chauffeur, Laura must get her coat, and Peck must call the opera house. Barney reluctantly goes to look for the chauffeur, Peck dashes for the phone, and Laura more sensibly announces that she is quitting. Carlotta is too excited to notice. “My heart is like a singing bird,” she cries and exits with a grand flourish.

In a beautifully lit night shot on a boat deck, Carlotta and Barney are being seen off to Italy. Laura comes trudging up the gangplank, much to Barney’s dismay. “What is that sister of Satan doing here?” he growls. Carlotta airily assures him that she can’t live without Laura and thrusts her two Pomeranians into his arms while she poses for photographers. As Barney sulks, someone cries, “Oh, there’s Carlotta Manson’s husband.” His gloom deepens.

A title over a lake and mountain scene tells us: “In Sunny Italy—‘Love works its magic spell.’” Barney is awakened in his fantastic brocaded bed by the sound of Carlotta vocalizing in the next room. He expresses his displeasure by going to the punching bag incongruously sitting in one corner and whamming away. Carlotta is then revealed lying in her bed next door. She sits up in astonishment and vocalizes even more insistently. The volley of noise from Barney’s room increases. The sound mixing on this scene, indeed the sound quality in the whole picture, is superb.

Carlotta shouts inaudibly to Laura to tell Barney to stop, but Laura’s pounding on the intervening door is lost in the sounds of Barney’s anger. Carlotta flees to her dressing room, and Laura notices Barney’s slippers at the foot of Carlotta’s bed. With an air of studied distaste she picks them up between thumb and forefinger and, holding them at arm’s length slips Barney’s door open and drops them inside.

Breakfast is laid on the terrace, and Barney’s bad day continues. The newspaper is all in Italian, a language he doesn’t understand. Laura dumps his breakfast on the table. The soft-boiled egg comes apart in his hand. Then the Pomeranians come out to yap at him. He scares them away by pounding on the ground with a large loaf of Italian bread just as Carlotta sweeps out in another fabulous negligee. “If you must be brutal,” she says icily, “why don’t you attack someone your own size.” “I haven’t seen someone my own size since I got here,” he cries.

She begins reading the newspaper, clucking happily over the news of the opera world. “Is there anything in there to interest me?” he growls. Yes, she replies tartly. A jewel robbery. They quarrel until she has him near the point of striking her, then they kiss passionately. “Oh, darling,” she sighs, “I don’t believe I’ve ever been so happy.” They nuzzle affectionately. “These perfect days,” Carlotta murmurs, “and the nights are even more wonderful.”

Doesn’t she miss her fine friends, he asks. Oh, no, she replies. There’s no one else in the world but Barney. At these words, a car pulls up and a group of her friends pour out, talking volubly in Italian. She carries on an animated conversation with them, introducing Barney. They depart, still talking, and she tells him she has been asked to sing at a charity bazaar that night. She simply can’t refuse. Then, of course, they must go away at once or her friends will never leave them alone. Unfortunately she has friends in all the interesting places so she’s not sure where they can go.

The bazaar takes place on the huge “Long Island estate” set used in Sunny Side Up. Barney is discovered sullenly wadding bits of chocolate cake into balls and tossing them at a statue of Venus where they form “buttons” down her ample bosom. Suddenly he is recognized by an old friend, Totsy Franklin (Marjorie White). She also is in Italy on her honeymoon. She has married Barney’s friend, Pug Morini, the “Walloping Wop” (Warren Hymer). Pug dashes over to greet Barney just as Carlotta is intro­duced on stage.

Wearing an enormous and very becoming horsehair garden hat, she struggles through her art song, “On a Summer Night,” disconcerted by the bursts of laughter from Barney and his friends.

She finishes and comes coolly to meet them. He tells her that Totsy is a singer too, and Totsy asks innocently, “Oh, do you sing?”

“I was just trying to,” Carlotta replies, “but you probably didn’t hear me through all the din and excitement.” She and Barney tiff, and he tells her to stay with her high-hat friends. He is going home with Totsy and Pug.

Reel seven is still lost, but in it we presume that Carlotta returns home to find a boisterous revel in progress. We know from contemporary reviews that Totsy sings a red-hot number called “I’m Just Nuts About You.” Apparently this is the source of more friction, for reel eight begins with Carlotta weeping on her bed. “My lover has left me,” she wails, flailing the pillows. “I’ll kill myself!”

“Yes, darling,” Laura replies matter of factly, “but not today. Never kill yourself when you’re miserable.” She suggests that Carlotta lose herself in her work, but the lady is set on more histrionics. “I want to stay here and dream of my lost love!”

Laura continues her good humored advice until Carlotta’s anguish subsides. Her body sags, then stiffens with resolve. She has been a traitor to her public. Now she will make amends. She will sing. “This is the life!” she cries, tears streaming down her face.

Another title tells us that it is “New York City—opening of the opera season.” Carlotta rushes into her dressing room in a fantastically jeweled and low cut “Juliet” costume. Why is she doing all this? she demands of Laura. “Three thousand dollars,” Laura replies. “Dust and ashes!” wails the prima donna. There hasn’t been a word from Barney, but Laura suspects that the six-foot flower-covered heart in the corner is not from one of Carlotta’s aristocratic friends. Carlotta grabs the attached note: “Hope you knock ’em cold tonight.”

She decides Barney must be in the opera house and sends Peck to watch the exits. Find him, she orders, bring him back. Peck promises and sprints off.

At her apartment, Carlotta paces the floor, waiting. A knock, and Peck appears. She looks eagerly past him, but he is alone. She sends Peck away and begins stalking the room. She loathes the world! She wants to get away from it.

“How about Mars?” suggests Laura lan­guidly. Carlotta has another idea. “I’ll become a nun!” she cries happily. Laura will follow her to Mars, but not into a convent. She leaves Carlotta who has assumed a radiant, prayerful attitude in the moonlit bedroom.

Carlotta has slipped into bed when a familiar arm reaches over the balcony. “Barney…is that you?” she calls.

“How many burglars do you know?” replies a familiar voice. He had a job down the block and so he stopped in to see how she was. He admits he saw her sing. The first part was okay, but the last act was “punk.” Her heart wasn’t in it, she sighs. “Artists like you and me,” he says sternly, “never get anywhere unless we keep our minds on our jobs.” He starts toward the balcony.

“Wouldn’t you like to stay a little while?” she calls, plucking at the coverlet.

He turns. “Longer than that if someone should ask me.” He sinks down on the bed and they kiss for a fadeout which surprisingly is unaccompanied by music. We assume they are reunited happily if not peacefully ever after.


Reviews

Variety reported that the film was “a frothy farce…one of those physical romances nicely shaded through Hamilton MacFadden’s suave direction and capable performances by Jeanette MacDonald and Reginald Denny. Picture is hardly of deluxe house caliber, but should get by nicely in the neighborhoods. Miss MacDonald handled several comic situations with finesse and sings two interpolated songs, one operatic to set her among the best of the screen sopranos.”

Mildred Martin in the Philadelphia Inquirer thought Jeanette’s Isolde was “self conscious…. fortunately picture audiences are not as exacting as operatic ones.” She conceded that “[Car­lotta’s] tantrums, her vanity, and her power of self-dramatization are amusingly handled by Miss MacDonald.”


Music in the Film

In listing performers after each title, “and” denotes a genuine duet, while commas between names indicate a sequence of singers.

Overture and opening sequence: “The Liebestod” from Tristan und Isolde by Richard Wagner
(MacDonald)
“Believe Me If All Those Endearing Young Charms” – traditional music, lyrics by Thomas
Moore (Denny)
German art song – composer uncertain (Denny)
“On a Summer Night” – William Kernell (MacDonald)
“I’m Just Nuts About You” – William Kernell (White)
No finale, film ends in silence.