Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Three-Cornered Moon (1933)


It is difficult to think of the Great Depression as humorous, but that is what is attempted in Three-Cornered Moon staring Paramount’s darling, young and beautiful actress, Claudette Colbert. The stock market crashed in October of 1929 and much of America had to tighten their belts, but it wasn’t until 1933 that Hollywood started to feel major effects of such a financial crisis. Therefore stories about Depression effected people became a bit more common. In this picture audiences are presented a humorous, satirical look into the world of the wealthy as they come to realize that their fortunes are lost in the stock market after continuing to live the lives they knew before the crash. The characters are goofy and sometimes just plain ignorant, creating situations of downright silliness, producing what many film historians would call one of the first “screwball” comedies. I say it is hard to say that when years before sound we had the antics of the Keystone Cops, but maybe sound plays a role in such a genre. All English definition beside, we look at a film meant to entertain audiences during the time which the film takes place, America’s Great Depression.

Three-Cornered Moon is a comedy about a wealthy family whose lives change literary overnight as they discover their once great family fortune is lost in the stock market, making them sacrifice and take on real jobs. The Rimplegars are a family of good financial stature living off their investments, when the blissfully ignorant Nellie (Mary Boland), matron of the family, discovers that the stocks she bought in ’29 are now (in ’33) worthless. This sends panic through her adult children who still live at home with Nellie, whom never needed to worry about finances in their lives. Daughter Elizabeth (Claudette Colbert) takes to managing the family’s new finances, urging all of her siblings to get jobs and help contribute to getting the family back on its feet. The family battles through humorous and dramatic situations with their jobs and struggles. Though the wealth does not return, things begin to look up as eldest brother Kenneth passes the state bar, assuring him of greater income, meanwhile Elizabeth dumps her hopeless and penniless writer of a boyfriend and becomes engaged to the more financially secure family doctor.

The picture is quite a screwy little story with screwy little characters providing much of the humor. Nellie seems to just ignore all troubles around the wacky household, even ignoring the fact the family is penniless, thanks to investing in a mining company, Three-Cornered Moon (ding ding! We have our title), just before everything crashed. Colbert’s character is the voice of reason in the film, while drama happens around her. The three brothers, played by Wallace Ford, William Bakewell, and Tom Brown, together provide the antics and drama that keep you rooting for the family to make it by together. Though the characters at times are over the top, with the humorous reactions of the family members, the situations they are put in are very real for audiences of its time. The depression was something that afflicted everyone, and that aspect rooted the otherwise oddball comedy to the ground, anchoring the silliness. Though looking back from today’s standards, this film is not too screwball. In fact it is very tame, but for its time it was a little different from the usual comedy, having humor mixed in with such a story.

Not much star power was brought to the picture, which comprised of a sizable ensemble cast of small time Paramount player. Colbert was the headliner, with a few noteworthy films to her credit by then, including The Smiling Lieutenant and The Sign of the Cross. Her career would flourish the following year with her starring role in Cleopatra. Mary Boland, who played Nellie, was a stage actress that signed a contract with the studio in just 1931. She would eventually become a well liked character actor in many films of the later 30s. Richard Arlen played Alan, the doctor and by the end of the film Colbert’s romantic partner. Arlen was a busy Hollywood actor best known from his role in Oscar winning picture, Wings. The three brothers were not greatly known actors, but filled the bill; Wallace Ford being most recognized from his role in the controversial picture Freaks; William Bakewell and Tom Brown being mainly juvenile actors. Even the film’s director was small time actor turned director, Elliot Nugent, working on only his fourth film. Nugent’s work was not bad for a newer director, but her was more or less yet a cog in the wheel of just another Paramount film.

Overall the film can be enjoyable. The picture was just another flick sent out into theaters from Paramount. Clearly based on a stage play, there are not many sets for the characters to visit, keeping the characters primarily contained within the family’s home. The picture was done well enough that it would land on 9th best picture of the year 1933 by the National Board of Review Awards, manifesting that the film made some impact during its time of release. Otherwise the film is one lost in the dust of time, simply as another Claudette Colbert film which only diehard fans would seek out to see. The film provides a little insight into the world of the depression and how families had to sacrifice to get by, even though this is just a screwy comedy.

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