Wednesday, 10 November 2010

Turnabout (1940)

When I wrote about “Love Me Tonight” I mentioned how much better the film would be if only it had different leads. I now found a companion piece, Hal Roach’s “Turnabout”. This largely forgotten film, released in 1940, was shown as part of the London Film Festival’s “Treasures from the Archives” section. To be entirely honest, I had never heard of the film until I saw the programme. It caught my attention as it had Mary Astor in the cast, and that usually is rewarding (and was, but more of that in a moment).

The film tells a story of a couple (a health-obsessed advertiser and his lady-who-lunches wife) who switch bodies when they agree that they would like to step into each other’s shoes – being the first time they agree on something the wish is granted. Both actors, Carole Landis and John Hubbard, were altogether unknown to me and going through their filmography I hardly recognised any title. And from what I saw, it came as no surprise.

The leads’ main problem is that they are, to put it mildly, extremely irritating. There is clearly no chemistry between them, and they just left me wonder what did each saw in the other. They’re also a source of uncomfortable humour when they switch bodies. Playing on easy laughs, John Hubbard is camper than a drag queen (and far more effeminate than his wife, if that makes sense) although he does imitate some of her facial expressions well – we are certainly miles away from Dustin Hoffman’s superb Tootsie. It also pushes credibility a bit too much: how many women, finding themselves in a man's body would go around carrying a handbag? Carole Landis is a bit better but not much more. Both characters behave as if oblivious to the fact they changed bodies. Script logic holes like this only sem to reinforce the film's sole point - don't try to change your life; be content - and if you're a woman, remember, you're frivolous and of no consequence and your real place is in the home.

On the other hand the film is filled of an amazing cast of supporting actors, all of them excellent. Adolph Menjou (who gets top billing although he’s the third lead) and Mary Astor, as Hubbard's main business partner and his bitchy wife steal the show, as you’d expect from actors of that quality. But you also have Donald Meek, Marjorie Main, Franklin Pangborn and a few others familiar faces who manage to salvage as much as possible of the film.

I was impressed with the ending of the film, which is a bit risqué (apparently it and some other scenes were controversial with the censors) and with the mention, during the film’s introduction, of a scene not in the film but in the novel – the rape of the husband in the wife’s body by the wife in the husband’s body. Wonder if they would touch that scene today…

Still the biggest laughs came, not from the film itself, but from something else. While restoring the film the archivists found the original introduction, interval and closing to film’s first TV presentation. Because these were shot on film, they decided to incorporate them into this screening, as it was shown in 1951 on American TV, sponsored by Schlitz, “the beer that made Milwaukee famous”. And since 1950s TV adverts have not aged very well, they are hilarious.

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