We’re Not Dressing (1934)
If you’ve been waiting to see Carole Lombard knocked over by a roller-skating bear, serenaded (again and again) by a young Bing Crosby, and pursued by Ray Milland as a womanizing prince, your wait is over!
Plus we’ve got Ethel Merman being typically boisterous as Lombard’s wisecracking buddy, and George Burns and Gracie Allen doing their thing as only they can. Sound crazy? It is, but it’s enjoyably so.
We’re Not Dressing feels almost like an evening of vaudeville with only the thinnest of plots stringing together the various musical numbers, animal acts, and comedic bits. Think of each of these posters as advertisements for the various acts within this movie:
Don’t expect the coherence or timelessness of other Lombard classics like Hands Across the Table or My Man Godfrey. Instead, think of this movie as a time capsule featuring early 1930s talent and entertainment conventions. With that in mind, let’s jump in!
Lombard (Hands Across the Table, Love Before Breakfast, The Princess Comes Across, My Man Godfrey) plays super-wealthy heiress Doris Worthington. (Is her name an allusion to Doris Duke? I don’t know, maybe?) She’s sailing somewhere in the Pacific on her yacht “Doris” with her uncle Hubert (Leon Errol), her friend Edith (Ethel Merman), and two princes competing to marry her (Ray Milland of Easy Living, Dial M for Murder, and Jay Henry.)
Bing Crosby is Stephen, a lowly sailor with a golden voice. If you’ve only seen Crosby in White Christmas (released twenty years after this film), get ready for a surprisingly hot young crooner!
The screenplay was based on Peter Pan author J.M. Barrie’s 1902 play “The Admirable Crichton,” about a butler and his “betters” marooned together on a island. At one point, Lombard and Crosby even reference the play. We know that there is a shipwreck coming, but first we get a lengthy look at life aboard “Doris.”
Hubert prefers drinking to cards, so he gets to work. There’s a whole comedic bit about Hubert trying to make a new cocktail, but everything goes haywire when a small fan blows over the pages of the recipe book when Hubert isn’t looking. Rather than act like a normal person and recognize that the title of the drink and the ingredients have changed, he just makes a funny face and follows through with the recipe and the gag. Look at how huge his cocktail shaker is!
After this comic/musical interlude, we return to Doris and Stephen. Turns out that Doris has a pet bear named Droopy, and that this bear is obsessed with Stephen, and the song “Good Night, Lovely Little Lady.” Stephen sings, a fellow sailor grins, Doris listens, and the bear strains at his chain:
Droopy breaks free and tackles Stephen, to the amusement of all involved. You can watch it here.
It’s less funny to me, and most people will probably be a little disturbed by the bear’s appearances in this movie. It’s hard to laugh at Droopy when you feel sorry for him and wish that PETA or someone could have been around to protect him. Time capsule, remember? Anyway, it is interesting to see when it’s a real bear and when Droopy is obviously being played by someone in a bear suit.
After the bear act, we get some more exposition. We learn that both princes are after Doris for her fortune, and that Edith is anxious for Doris to choose a prince so that she can have the other one! The princes are decidedly not the heroes of this film, despite their tidy dinner jackets and suave behavior. Here they are scheming about Doris and who gets to propose first:
Doris is far more interested in her sailor, though. So she orders Stephen to give Droopy some exercise. It’s a loaded, flirtatious encounter with Doris warning the sailor not to be “fresh” or “impertinent,” and Stephen doing what he pleases. Get used to this dynamic.
Hubert is quite intoxicated by this point, so he decides to put Droopy in roller-skates and see what happens. Stephen lets this folly go on, and he ends up chasing poor Droopy (man in a bear suit, thankfully) around and around the deck and almost off of the ship through an open gate! For shame!
Stephen gets in big trouble, but he doesn’t tattle on Hubert. Doris orders him to put Droopy to bed and then return to her for his punishment. Then the princes go to work, but Doris just rolls her eyes:
Costume appreciation break. The costumes were designed by Paramount’s designer Travis Banton, who worked with Lombard on many of her movies (My Man Godfrey, Hands Across the Table, Love Before Breakfast, The Princess Comes Across, and Easy Living and Cover Girl.) He doesn’t get to play much because of the plot, but this white, bias-cut, backless gown with capelet is a knockout:
We head belowdecks and get yet another Crosby tune. This time he sings as he brushes Droopy. You can watch it here.
Songwriters Harry Revel and Mack Gordon (The Gay Divorcee) wrote ten songs for this movie, most of them performed by Crosby. Plus, there are also non-original songs, bringing the grand total to sixteen in a movie that clocks in at just one hour and fourteen minutes. At the twenty minute mark, we’ve already had four Crosby songs! See why it feels like a vaudeville show?
Stephen returns to deck and Doris confronts him. He dares her to slap him, which she does. In retaliation, he kisses her. (It’s the first time that sex and violence are paired, but not the last…) Doris fires him for his impertinence.
But thanks to Hubert, the budding couple don’t have to split up. A thoroughly drunk Hubert stumbles into the bridge, breaks some equipment, causes the captain’s charts to blow overboard, and then grabs the ship’s wheel. The poor yacht starts to sink.
Fortunately, Stephen manages to get Droopy into a life jacket, but then he pushes the bear right over the side! I’ve always hated watching animals in shipwrecks (I think I watched The Black Stallion when I was too young), so I had to turn away at this point, even though it’s played for laughs.
The princes debate giving her one of their life jackets, but when the ship gives a great shudder and groan, they leave Doris and jump overboard. She gets hit in the head by a falling column, and falls to the floor, unconscious. Thank goodness Stephen comes back to check on her! He gives her his life jacket and carries her outside.
Next thing we know, it’s another Crosby song! He perches in a barrel and sings Droopy’s favorite tune as the bear tows him onward. It’s a bit distasteful, that’s for sure.
After a while, he hears Doris calling in the mist, and they eventually find each other. You can watch it here.
Fortunately there aren’t any shark attacks like the one we see in another shipwreck/island movie, The Most Dangerous Game.
Doris and Stephen keep arguing, even as they drift alone in the ocean.
Oddly enough, none of the survivors seem particularly traumatized about what has just befallen them, nor concerned about their fellow passengers. It’s all a grand game!
Doris does wonder which of the princes gave her his life jacket; that’s the last thing she remembers before being knocked out. Stephen doesn’t tell her that the princes ran away and that he is the one who saved her life…
They finally reach land. I rather prefer Lombard’s hair in this wet, natural style than in the frizzy curls she wore on the yacht. Since this is a screwball comedy, naturally Stephen trips as he carries Doris, and they both crash into the water. Comedy?
Fun fact: Crosby and Lombard are at odds for much of this film, but in real life they got along great. Lombard was a fun-loving lady with a penchant for swearing and pranks, and according to Crosby, they had a grand time making this movie. Lombard was in fine form: for example, she often flashed Crosby between takes, and at breakfast in the hotel, she’d loudly inquire if she’d left her nightgown in his room the night before, shocking the hotel guests!
Crosby later wrote, “The fact that she could make us think of her as being a good guy rather than a sexy mamma is one of those unbelievable manifestations impossible to explain. She was the least prudish person I’ve ever known.”
Back to the film: Doris spreads her knickers on a rock to dry, but they blow away just as the other survivors wash up on the beach. As Doris and Stephen go to meet Edith, Hubert, and the princes, we follow Doris’ undies through the air until they land at the feet of another woman. Turns out the island isn’t deserted after all!
Scientist George Martin and his wife Gracie (played by the incomparable comedic duo and real-life spouses George Burns and Gracie Allen) live in a comfortable camp near Doris’ new home.
We join Burns and Allen for the straight man/goofy woman routine that they did so well. You can watch it here. I find their humor and quick absurdities very amusing. Their conversations have the flavor and comic confusion of “Who’s on First?”
Eventually we return to the castaways. Doris and her buddies automatically begin ordering Stephen around just as they would have on the yacht. But he refuses to do their bidding, stating that now everyone needs to pitch in if they want to survive. Naturally, he’s the only one with any clue about what to do, so he goes about building shelter, digging for clams, and starting a fire. All while singing, of course!
At first the useless rich folks try to make it on their own, but they soon realize that they are out of their league. For instance, their shack collapses, but Stephen’s stays up, and they can’t get a fire started no matter how hard they try.
You can watch this scene here.
Stephen gets a tasty dinner together. At first Doris and her buddies stubbornly sit and watch, but eventually their hunger wins out and they ask Stephen how they can help in exchange for food. All except for Doris, who wanders to the beach in a huff.
Oh, she’s a stubborn spoiled brat! But she looks pretty on the beach, even when she’s angry. Fun fact: The island scenes were shot on Catalina Island off the coast of California. The whole movie took about three weeks to shoot. They started on January 15, 1934, and the movie premiered on April 27!
Eventually she comes around, but Stephen scolds her pretty badly when the clams she brings him turn out to be nothing but empty shells. They echo their slap-kiss routine, but this time Stephen slaps Doris, and Doris kisses him instead of the other way around. It’s weird.
Gracie asks George to scare her so that she can go to sleep. I don’t quite get the logic of that, but run with it, anyway. Gracie closes her eyes and counts to ten; George has no intention of playing her game, so he goes to sleep in another tent. She wanders off into the jungle, thinking that George is going to jump out and scare her at any moment. When she meets a lion and then Droopy, she assumes the beasts are George in animal costumes. She’s a loopy one.
She even rides Droopy up a tree! She only comes down when the George finds her and convinces her that he is the real George, not the bear!
I like these Burns and Allen interludes; I think they’re my favorite part of this film.
Fun fact: Yet another musical number, this one starring Ethel Merman, was shot for this movie but was cut from the finished film. Merman sings “It’s the Animal in Me” on this same jungle set, but the scene was used in another Paramount movie, The Big Broadcast of 1936 (1935), instead. You can watch the scene here.
The next morning we’re back with Doris. She and Stephen engage in that long-distance flirting that they did so well on the yacht. Doris sees Stephen fishing on the beach and decides to get his attention. (Somehow she managed to roll her hair!)
Doris is pleased to learn about the comfortable camp, supplies, and people on the island, and about the ship that is due to arrive soon. But rather than share this news and summon her friends to Gracie and George’s well-furnished camp, Doris decides to keep everything secret. Gracie and George are puzzled when she asks if she can have some clothes and tools, but they give her what she needs. Then Doris plants the supplies on the beach and watches Stephen “discover” them!
Soon they’ve built a tidy little village, and Stephen is making plans for a water system! Doris still hasn’t told anyone that they’re not alone on the island and will be rescued shortly. She’s enjoying “playing house” and spending uncivilized time with Stephen. It’s cruel, if you ask me.
That evening, Doris follows Stephen to a romantic, secluded cove where they declare their love for each other, and then, guess what? Bing sings!
Fun fact: It’s during this scene that Doris and Stephen talk about “The Admirable Crichton.” Stephen sees it as a cautionary tale warning him not to get involved with his wealthy employer… The problem with all the music and comedic interludes in this film is that there’s not enough time for plot or character development. It’s not clear why Stephen likes Doris or why she likes him, so their deep love for one another seems odd. Plus, she seems pretty spoiled and even dangerously selfish. But they embrace and gaze into each others’ eyes, and it’s very pretty. You can watch it here.
Naturally, things quickly fall apart as soon as Stephen finishes his love song. George and Gracie show up in the cove to tell Doris that they just heard great news on the radio! A rescue ship is coming to the island tomorrow!
Stephen is furious, hurt, and confused by these strangers on his “deserted island.” He assumes that Doris was just playing with him the whole time and never really loved him.
He lets his anger overwhelm him and lashes out in a very disturbing way. He drags her back to camp. As he yanks her along, she says acerbically, “I suppose a fate worse than death awaits me?” His serious reply: “How do you know it’s worse than death? You’ve never been dead, have you?” Charming, Stephen. He once kissed her because she slapped him; now it seems he is going to rape her because she humiliated him.
Doris isn’t laughing now. She fights back, but he wins and ties her to a pole. Just when he’s got her completely powerless and vulnerable, he tells her that he doesn’t even want her because she isn’t worth it. He walks away.
It is a disturbing, violent twist in this light film. Not many comedies feature almost-rape like this. We’re Not Dressing is a pre-Code movie (produced before the Production Code was implemented in 1934, so it gets closer to topics like sex and rape than later films could), but still.
Soon the castaways are on ships (the rich on one, Stephen on another) heading back to civilization. Hubert is drunk again and almost sinks another ship, the princes are perusing the passenger list for eligible heiresses, and Doris is pensive.
Happily ever after? I suppose so. It reminds me of The Most Dangerous Game, but a cute, non-human hunting version (although its foray into sexual violence mitigates some of the “cute.”) For some great reviews of this film, check out Backlots and Pre-Code.com.