Love Before Breakfast (1936)
Carole Lombard, the queen of comedy, is back with another 1936 film called Love Before Breakfast. And I’ll definitely talk about that black eye.
It was adapted from Faith Baldwin’s short story “Spinster Dinner,” so you know it’s gonna be good…
But maybe not, since Faith Baldwin no longer enjoys the cultural cachet she once did. She was an astonishingly prolific and popular author who wrote 85 novels and loads of short stories over a fifty year career beginning in the 1920s. She was most popular in the 1930s, and raked in the equivalent of about four million dollars in 1936 alone.
Love Before Breakfast is just one of many of Baldwin’s stories and novels adapted for the silver screen; she’s the pen behind Wife vs. Secretary (1935), Men Are Such Fools (1936), The Office Wife (1934), and Comet Over Broadway (1938), among others. The first three titles should give you a good idea of her themes, and “Spinster Dinner” is pretty revealing, too.
I really can’t account for the film’s title. “Spinster Dinner” is rather off-putting, but I don’t know where they got Love for Breakfast. Breakfast isn’t a key plot point. Lombard doesn’t fall in love before breakfast, or at a diner, and there’s no morning deadline or anything. So I’m flummoxed.
The novel was adapted for the screen by six writers, though Herbert Fields gets onscreen credit for the screenplay. One of the uncredited writers was Preston Sturges, who would go on to write Easy Living (1937), and eventually become a famous writer/director of such classics as The Lady Eve (1941), Sullivan’s Travels (1942), and The Palm Beach Story (1942). The latter two star Joel McCrea; ergo, I love them.
You’ll see a bit later why he’s a good fit for this role.
The movie begins with an adorable animated Universal logo. The little plane flies around the globe, and the words appear as it passes.
But wait–Carole Lombard was under contract to Paramount! Why is she in a film produced by Universal? Paramount loaned her out in exchange for Universal’s actress Margaret Sullavan. They wanted Sullavan for the movie So Red the Rose (1935), Universal agreed to swap Sullavan for Lombard for Love Before Breakfast.
This arrangement almost backfired, though. Carole Lombard was pretty powerful and she hated the first versions of the scripts and refused to do the film. But she eventually agreed to do Love Before Breakfast, and she got to bring a Paramount crew with her.
Ted Tetzlaff, a cinematographer she liked (who also shot The Princess Comes Across, Hands Across the Table, My Man Godfrey, Notorious, The More the Merrier, and Easy Living), and her trusted costume designer, Travis Banton, who designed her costumes in The Princess Comes Across, We’re Not Dressing, Hands Across the Table, and My Man Godfrey.
Banton designed her spectacular bias cut satin gowns and embellished fur coats, and everyone else’s clothes were designed by Universal’s costume designer Brymer. (Though actors generally wore their own suits and would not get “costumes” unless it was a period piece.)
This wasn’t so uncommon once an actress became powerful enough to demand it. It was quite a feather in a costume designer’s cap to follow an actress from one studio to another, and a mark of status for the actress, too. Barbara Stanwyck, for example, adored how she looked in Edith Head‘s designs in The Lady Eve, so she brought Head along any time she was loaned out. This type of arrangement means you’ll see onscreen credits like this fairly often.
The title card and credits are wonderfully art deco, and the film opens with another 1930s deco staple: geometric shots of Manhattan skyscrapers, in this case the Empire State Building. Now we know we’re in New York, and that this will be a movie about the people who live and work in such modern, sophisticated buildings.
Kay Colby (Carole Lombard) is in love with Bill Wadsworth (Cesar Romero). And crazy-rich and powerful Scott Miller (Preston Foster) is in love with Kay, though she continually rebuffs him. She’s head-over-heels for Bill, and they’re engaged, but he doesn’t want to get married until he’s gotten richer. Kay would marry him that moment, but he’s determined to make more money first.
Bill is employed by an oil company, so crazy-rich, (and just plain crazy) Scott buys the oil company and gets Bill transferred to Japan. You know, the typical things men do when they’re in love.
Kay (in a fantastic beaded fur coat) accompanies Bill to his Japan-bound ship, and surprise, surprise! They run into Scott, who’s at the dock to say goodbye to his Kay-placeholder, the Countess Campanella and her little dogs. But he’s really there to comfort Kay once Bill sails away…
Kay’s quite upset to see her fiancé sail away for two whole years in Japan. She’s even more upset when she sees him happily chatting with the Countess before the boat has even been unloosed from its moorings.
Plus, he keeps calling Bill “George,” to which Kay issues this charming comeback: “We call George “Bill” for short.” The movie goes on from there with Scott chasing Kay and Kay eluding him, for a while.
I’m intrigued by this film because if you added some sinister music, this light comedy could very easily become a scary stalker movie. For example, Kay storms out of the restaurant after Scott admits that he sent Bill to Japan as part of his scheme to marry Kay. She makes her way through the city to a swanky club.
We’ll pause for a moment of appreciation for this beaded fur coat. Banton knew how to make Lombard shimmer in black and white.
Can you imagine a modern day film poster featuring a battered female star with a black eye? For a comedy? I don’t think the same poster could be circulated today with a bruised Reese Witherspoon or Emma Stone. It’s disturbing, and for me the entire movie lingers on the edge of amusing, snappy comedy and dark, obsessive love story.
The next day Kay’s mother (Janet Beecher), in a sharp black and white frock (how free her elbows must have felt!) suggests that Kay go to the beauty parlor to see if they can fix her black eye.
Kay arranges a cunning little cap over her eye and heads out in a very chic suit.
But Mom is all for wealthy Scott, and she tells him where Kay has gone. So Scott shows up at the beauty parlor, pays Kay’s beautician to go away, and appears at Kay’s side as she ices her eye. (In the poster it’s Lombard’s left eye that’s bruised, in the movie it’s her right. Meaningless.) Creepy, right?
A few days later Kay goes riding and warns the groom that a man might come looking for her. She says he is mentally unstable, and suggests they give him the craziest horse in the barn.
Here’s Carole Lombard with director Walter Lang as they film this sequence:
Kay remains devoted to the absent Bill, even though he hasn’t written her in ages. She stays strong even when Scott sends her a puppy. That’s how much she loves Bill.
So Scott has sent Kay’s fiancé halfway around the world, punched her, sneaked up on her at the spa, tracked her down in the woods, and stolen her horse. For his next trick he gets Kay’s date to a fancy dress party dangerously drunk so that Scott can escort Kay, instead. Again, charming.
Honestly, though, I’m distracted from Scott’s despicable scheme by this incredible beaded, feathered, and pearl-draped outfit. The front is basically sheer with some strategically placed beading, the back is almost nonexistent except for a T strap, there’s an entire flock of feathers in the skirt, three knee-length strands of pearls and a choker, and that hat! There’s also a feather boa that goes with it. Thanks to reader Doreen Marshall, I now know that Kay is dressed as Gaby Deslys, a French singer and dancer who became an international celebrity.
I think the movie itself is pretty distracted by this dress. We first see it as Kay paces back and forth in her apartment waiting for her date and posing in the mirror, giving the audience a nice, full length view of the back and the front. And look at how the dress was featured in the publicity for the movie: this lobby card shows the moment Kay’s date passes out at her door. And they’ve imagined the dress in a pretty salmon pink.
We see it again in the right corner of this poster, and she’s wearing it as Scott embraces her, though this time it’s yellow.
And then of course the publicity photos:
Back to the movie. Scott corners her on the terrace and tells her that he’s tired of chasing her, and if she really wants him to go away, he’ll go. It’s a very glamorous, smoky, gorgeous scene. But squint a little and you can imagine it slightly differently: Kay tries to look brave but really she’s terrified of this violent, obsessive brute of a man…
But he seems to have meant what he said on that smoky terrace. He stops calling, stops tracking her down, stops incapacitating every man she talks to.
And you know what? Turns out she misses him. She paces back and forth in her art deco-with-an-Asian- theme apartment…
…in a fabulous shimmery robe and silk pajama pants:
She ends up at his office with a proposition and a hairy coat.
She’ll marry him, but only for his money. She wants to be sure he realizes that she does not love him. And she tells him that “It’s not going to be a taming of the shrew” situation. Can he handle that? (Of course the whole plot is a version of The Taming of the Shrew.)
Why, the old dog. He was waiting for her:
She thinks she gets to choose one engagement ring, but in fact he wants her to have all three so that she can switch when she feels like it. Maybe he’s not such a creeper. Or maybe I just want those rings…
They start spending time together (with her mother and her mother’s friend as chaperone) in a friendly way, and it all seems to be going fine. Her mother appears to be fond of gardenias.
Scott teaches Kay a fun game with matchsticks.
And she wears the hell out of a gorgeous black gown. Well done, Banton, well done.
Scott picks back up with the Countess, and naturally they all run into each other at a swanky restaurant where the dance floor stays still but the tables around the edge spin like a merry-go-round.
Notice how the background has changed between these two images, though Kay and Bill haven’t switched tables. It sounds like a terrible idea to have tables on a moving floor, but it makes Kay and Bill’s conversation more visually interesting, and dizzying, than a typical table talk.
Let us pause again for a look at this latest Banton confection, complete with orchid at Lombard’s décolletage. There’s even a cape.
Now it’s a battle of pride for Kay, because in her heart she loves Scott, but she told him that he was despicable and that she loved Bill.
Unbeknownst to her, Scott decides to change his house party to a yacht party, just to be on hand, you know. Creeper.
And he invites Kay’s mother.
When Kay and her mother arrive at the yacht club, Kay is dismayed when she realizes that she is impeccably overdressed for the little sloop Bill has acquired.
Kay’s mother, who has brought the dog Scott gave Kay, makes a killer comment about Kay’s little boat: “It’s cunning, Kay. Do you get into it or put it on?”
Scott anchors his yacht near Bill and Kay, and kindly invites them to join his party. But Kay refuses. Oh, her pride! She’s not having much fun with Bill, though.
She’s totally over it. Scott’s invitations get more urgent as a storm comes up and threatens to capsize the little boat.
Kay finally comes aboard Scott’s yacht. She wraps up in a big robe and they somehow, inexplicably make up. And the film ends with a wedding:
Enjoy! But first, how cool is this photograph taken in 1936 in Atlanta?