I often ruminate on how the screwball comedies of the ‘30s and ’40s can’t be recreated in modern times. I’ve always assumed they couldn’t be redone because, well, they never have been. When they try, we get things like The Money Pit or Legal Eagles which, whatever their merits, do not manage to capture the spirit of those films. Often, even good modern movies are hurt by trying to be like these old movies and failing.
Miss Pettigrew Lives For A Day, however, proves that it’s possible. This film is so straight out of the ’30s that it’s absolutely obvious from the trailers how the outcome has to…uh…come out. You know the poor Miss Pettigrew has to hook up with the rich guy with the shrewish girlfriend just as you know that Delysia, the ingénue, is going to end up with her true love, instead of the guys who can advance her career.
Anything else just would have–to use a non-’30s expression–sucked.
This movie, which takes place in ’39 (I think), touches on a lot of the tropes of the ’30s-’40s with just the right lightness. It starts with Frances McDormand doing a bit of down-and-out nanny that reminds one (favorably) of Charlie Chaplin’s “Tramp”. That’s saying a lot right there, though the scene never goes into full on slapstick (a good thing, I think).
When Miss Pettigrew and Delysio meet, you get the screwball, fast-paced dialogue of, say, a Howard Hawks, along with some zany antics as the two try to keep the delightful Delysio from the sort of social embarrassment that comes when one of your boyfriends walks in while you’re having sex with the other. This sort of dialogue cropped up relatively recently in Joss Whedon’s series Buffy, The Vampire Slayer and Angel, and was a staple of The Gilmore Girls, but in this case, it’s well choreographed with the action. Actually it reminds more of Leo McCarey than Hawks.
The modernization of the story shows up only a bit at this point. First, we get some Amy Adams cheesecake. Second, the girl in the ’30s movies was usually playing with the men as opposed to actually having sex with them. There was usually a “plausibly deniable” out for the audience who didn’t want to imagine the characters being less than pure.
This is one of the things that makes a ’30s-’40s style zany comedy ordinarily impossible to remake. The audience rejects too much coquettish-ness but the character of the movie changes if it rubs your nose the characters’ sexual indiscretions.
Somehow, Delysio remains charming despite her relatively libertine ways, which is in no small part due to the charms of Amy Adams.
Rounding out the pith-perfect cast is Shirley Henderson (best known as Moaning Myrtle from the Potter movies), Ciaran Hinds (late of the HBO/BBC series “Rome”, as Julius Caeasar), and Delysio’s three boyfriends (Lee Pace, Tom Payne and Mark Strong).
Is anything off about this film? Well, yeah: The characters are mostly too old to be who they’re playing. Amy Adams is 33. I’m pretty sure ingénue age stops at 28, tops. Now, she’s quite lovely, and the character can easily be on the high end of the age range (adding to her desperation), so only occasionally did I find myself thinking, “Hmmm, she’s a little old for that.”
One of those occasions was, however, when McDormand and Hinds respond to the younger people cheering at the airplanes flying overhead with “they don’t remember the first one”. The practical age cap for not remembering WWI when WWII started would be around 25, I think. (Keep in mind that Shirley “Moaning Myrtle” Henderson is 40, however young she looks!)
Still, the whole thing works well–surprisingly well.
The boy said “Tell them the boy is pleased.”
And he was.
UPDATE: Kelly H. talks about the movie and source book in her “movies from books” series here. Turns out it is derived from a ’30s book. It would be a good template to draw from if someone wanted to re-do Thorne Smith.