Movie Of The Month by JB Kaufman

Vagabond Lady (1935)

June, 2015

Hal Roach/MGM, 1935. Director: Sam Taylor. Scenario: Frank Butler. Camera: Jack MacKenzie. Film editor: Bernard Burton. Cast: Robert Young, Evelyn Venable, Reginald Denny, Frank Craven, Berton Churchill, Ferdinand Gottschalk, Forrester Harvey.
            While working on my book Pinocchio: The Making of the Disney Epic, I took the opportunity to research the careers of the talented actors who provided character voices for Pinocchio. Evelyn Venable, the voice of the Blue Fairy, intrigued me because she is relatively little remembered today. She actually began her career as a Shakespearean stage actress, and when Hollywood did discover her, she appeared in only a couple of dozen features before retiring in the early 1940s. But if her film roles were few, they were interestingly varied. Evelyn performed for both major and poverty-row studios in her ten-year film career, working with talents as diverse as Fredric March, Katharine Hepburn, Will Rogers, and Shirley Temple. And then there was the 1935 feature Vagabond Lady. This modest picture offered Evelyn her first leading role in light romantic comedy, and paired her with up-and-coming leading man Robert Young. And it was produced by Hal Roach.
            I won’t lie: I’m a huge fan of the Hal Roach studio. And I know I have plenty of company. Who doesn’t love the scores of brilliant two-reel (and, occasionally, feature-length) comedies that Roach produced during the 1920s and ’30s, featuring Harold Lloyd, Laurel & Hardy, Our Gang, Charley Chase, and other comedians? But fans also know that Roach was actively shifting gears by the mid-1930s. Always the savvy showman, Roach perceived that the market for his brand of expertly crafted slapstick was diminishing. Now he took steps to reinvent himself, tackling the emerging genre of the screwball comedy. And his first venture in this unfamiliar field was Vagabond Lady.
            This film’s screwball credentials are unmistakable from the very opening scene. It begins with a classic plot premise: a department-store empire, founded by an established family—a family whose vaunted dignity is just asking to be punctured. Evelyn, an employee of the store, is as good as engaged to the son of the family, a proper, dignified citizen. Right on cue, the irresponsible, happy-go-lucky younger son of the family—who has been away for years, sailing around the world—returns home to disrupt the decorum of the store, wreak havoc on family traditions, and cause romantic complications. Robert Young is the carefree young rogue, and no seasoned filmgoer needs to be told how the story will end. As with most screwball comedies, the pleasure lies in seeing how the characters will be brought to that inevitable resolution.
            Unfortunately, after that promising beginning, Vagabond Lady loses its way. Young’s irrepressible spontaneity is played at such a strident pitch that it seems forced, losing its effectiveness. The script, too, seems to miss several golden opportunities, and wanders into questionable territory—not least in the climactic scene depicting a fight between Young and Venable, just before they confess their love for each other. Lovers’ quarrels were, of course, another convention of the genre, but this is no witty war of words; it’s an actual physical brawl, played in earnest, and featuring a level of brutality that becomes more than a little disturbing.
            Saddled with these problems, Vagabond Lady is ultimately a lesser film than we’re expecting it to be. But what an interesting one! Especially if, like me, the viewer is inclined to give any Roach film the benefit of the doubt. Make no mistake: even with its problems, there is much to enjoy in Vagabond Lady. In fact, Roach would seem to have done everything right: the director is comedy veteran Sam Taylor, and the original scenario is the work of Frank Butler, a Hollywood writer with a long and stellar track record. The cast, too, is mostly excellent. One might quibble with the casting of Frank Craven as Evelyn’s father (a role reportedly originally cast with Joseph Cawthorn), but Berton Churchill, that icon of stuffy pomposity, is splendid as the patriarch of the department-store family, and Reginald Denny is ideally cast as his straitlaced older son. Robert Young, riding the wave of his early career success, is breezy, energetic, and quite likable when he has the chance. As for Evelyn Venable, the soon-to-be Blue Fairy, she’s charming, spirited, and fully up to this lighthearted romantic role. She maintains her wholesome image—but also refutes the popular rumor that she refused to play kissing scenes in her films!
            And, in fairness, the screwball comedy itself was still in a formative state in 1935. Capra’s It Happened One Night had just enjoyed its successful run in theaters when Vagabond Lady started shooting, and such defining landmarks of the genre as My Man Godfrey and Libeled Lady were still a year or more in the future. In any case, whatever he may have thought of the finished film, Roach wasn’t about to give up on screwball comedies. He continued to experiment with the form, and in 1937 he would knock the ball out of the park—with Topper.

J.B. Kaufman