Classic Film of the Week #5: Forsaking All Others (1934)

Sometimes drama gets a little old, and laughter is truly the best medicine. That was my thinking as I was selecting a film from the Gable pre-Code binge I've been on this week: there were so many good ones to choose from, but the one that stood out most of all was an underrated, under-seen, truly hilarious little diamond in the rough called Forsaking All Others (1934).

Forsaking All Others is directed by W.S. Van Dyke and stars Joan Crawford, Clark Gable, and Robert Montgomery. The trio play a set of childhood friends who have grown up into a group of rich socialites wrapped up in a love triangle: Jeff (Gable) secretly loves Mary (Crawford) who openly loves Dill (Montgomery) who also loves Mary, but has an infatuation with the much more sexually-forthcoming Connie (Frances Drake). As the film opens, Jeff comes back from a stint in Spain to confess his feelings and propose to Mary, but discovers that she is to be married the next day to Dill, immediately halting his plan because he doesn't want to hurt either of his closest friends. However, Connie also shows up the night before the wedding and in a rash moment, Dill elopes with her, leaving Mary to learn the news just moments before she's supposed to walk down the aisle. Try as she might, she can't move past her feelings for Dill--even as Jeff loyally stands by her through everything--and, miserable with Connie, Dill can't stop thinking of her either, resulting in the start of an affair that leads to hilarious consequences for all involved.

Forsaking All Others is not technically a Pre-Code film, but it was among the last group of films that still embodied that sense of spirit and rebellion, with its creators fighting the newly-enforced censors at every chance they got. The resulting film, while tamed down, still contains a lot of the risque content that would be absent from Hollywood for decades to come: from Crawford getting a massage wearing nothing but a towel and Montgomery leading the entire wedding party--men and women--into the session to congratulate her, to Montgomery wearing a dress after his own clothes get soaked in the rain, to Gable and his buddy (played by Charles Butterworth) jokingly acting the part of a married couple seeking a home as they look around Crawford's country cabin. This playfully scandalous tone is wonderfully combined with the emerging Screwball style of writing, where the actors constantly pummel the viewer with dialogue at a rapid-fire pace. Not since His Girl Friday have I seen a cast talk so fast and tell so many jokes in such a short span of time, and while the plot may not be as memorable as that other film, the wit is certainly just as funny--if you can manage to keep up with it.

By this point in time, Gable and Crawford's chemistry was legendary, but here it takes on a new form: where most of their previous films see the pair desperate for each other but with some kind of external obstacle keeping them apart, here Crawford is oblivious to Gable's love and she herself becomes the obstacle. Perhaps the only downfall of the film is her infatuation with Montgomery: as a grown man who still behaves with the impulsiveness of a child, he is fairly unlikable and utterly unappealing romantically, making Crawford look incredibly silly as she chooses him, over and over again, over the obviously better suited Gable. However, golden age Hollywood comedies were never about their characters being smart: if they were, they would avoid most of the ridiculous pitfalls that make these films so funny. And indeed, the climatic romantic rendezvous between Crawford and Montgomery is one for the ages, with rain, fire, an antique spinning wheel, and a can of sardines all playing their part in the disaster. Really, who can ask for more than that?

Forsaking All Others is a ridiculous film, with a stellar cast coming together to create one of the best, and funniest, comedies mid-30s Hollywood has to offer. Its non-stop barrage of jokes ensures that even if one doesn't land, there's always another one coming right behind it, and the charm and chemistry of the cast sells it every step of the way. Well worth it for fans of classic Hollywood comedies, as well as those who are interested in witnessing first-hand the awkward transition between pre-Code and post-Code cinema, Forsaking All Others comes highly recommended and is available on DVD and as a showing on TCM.


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