This movie gave me a recurring sense of déjà vu. But perhaps that’s just because I saw it after I’d watched other comedies of remarriage such as The Awful Truth, The Feminine Touch, I Love You Again, Mr. and Mrs. Smith, and The Palm Beach Story. Indeed, Skylark is one of many “husband-wife” films from the 1930s and early ’40s in which love is a fickle game, no one trusts their partner (which turns out to be wise), and relationships go from “Nice to meet you,” to “Let’s get married” in about three minutes. Sound like fun?
Skylark is not the most original of the genre, nor the most sparkling, but it’s got a great cast and an appealing style. Plus, the film’s derivative feeling helps elucidate some of the trends running through Hollywood in this era. (For more on comedies of remarriage, visit my post here.)
Skylark was based on a short story by Samson Raphaelson called “Streamlined Heart” published in the Saturday Evening Post in 1939. Raphaelson turned the story into a novel entitled Skylark (as in the cheery songbird and/or the verb meaning to frolic, play tricks, or “lark”) and then a play that succeeded in both New York and London in 1939-1940. Famed actress Gertrude Lawrence played the lead role in New York, and Constance Cummings, another big-time thespian, brought the role to the West End. It was only a matter of time before Skylark became a movie.
Fun fact: a song by that name with music by Hoagy Carmicheal and lyrics by Johnny Mercer also premiered in 1941, but I don’t think it was officially linked to this film. The song quickly became a standard. Here’s Helen Forrest singing “Skylark” with Harry James and his Orchestra in 1941.
Paramount bought the rights to Skylark and cast one of their biggest stars, Claudette Colbert, in the lead role. She’d been at the studio since 1928, and had been a star for almost as long. In the late 1930s, she was one of the top stars in the world, and one of the highest paid. By contrast, her co-star in Skylark, Ray Milland, had yet to hit his stride.
The English actor had been working in Hollywood since the late 1920s, but he didn’t get his big break until 1936 with The Jungle Princess. His high point came in the 1940s and ’50s with films such as The Major and the Minor (1942), The Lost Weekend (1945), The Big Clock (1948), The Thief (1952), and Dial M for Murder (1954).
Milland had already proved himself as a charming and sometimes rascally leading man in comedies (I love him in Easy Living (1937), for example), but he wasn’t a shoo-in for Skylark. In fact, Hollywood Reporter wrote that Paramount originally cast Melvyn Douglas in the role. But fortunately for Milland, Colbert was a fan. She had worked with him on 1935’s Gilded Lily and more recently on Arise, My Love (1940), and she told Paramount that she wouldn’t make the movie unless Milland was in it. The studio caved to their star.
Casting of the love triangle was completed with Brian Aherne, another British actor who found success in Hollywood. Supporting the trio are several character actors you might recognize from other movies, namely Grant Mitchell and Walter Abel. Paramount assigned Mark Sandrich to direct; he is perhaps most famous today for directing five of the Ginger Rogers/Fred Astaire films, including their earliest outings The Gay Divorcee (1934) and Top Hat (1935).
To the film! We open in an elegant jewelry store where our main lady Lydia (Claudette Colbert) waits to pick up a gift. It’s her fifth wedding anniversary, and she’s bought her husband a handsome leather scrapbook with an embossed inscription.
As she’s waiting for the gift to be boxed up, a man named George Gorell (Walter Abel) rushes in and tells the salesman that he needs a fifth anniversary gift for his buddy’s wife. His friend totally forgot and doesn’t have time to stop in, so he sent George, instead. George does “Eeny, meeny, miny, moe” to randomly choose a bauble. It’s what every wife dreams about…
After picking a brooch, George asks the salesman to charge it to Tony Kenyon’s account. That gets Lydia’s attention–she is Mrs. Kenyon! That’s a rather inauspicious beginning to her anniversary.
Once George hurries away, Lydia approaches the salesman, introduces herself, and asks to see what George picked out. The salesman is embarrassed, but Lydia laughs it off. This must not be the first time that something like this has happened.
Lydia doesn’t love the brooch, so she chooses a gift that she actually likes and asks the salesman to make the switch. It’s a swell reaction to a potentially hurtful situation. We like her.
At home, Lydia fills the scrapbook with thoughtful photos and ephemera from the last five years. But all is not as perfect as the scrapbook might suggest.
For one thing, the Kenyon’s anniversary party that night will be populated with several of her husband’s clients rather than friends. Tony Kenyon (Ray Milland) works in advertising in New York, and his social life consists of schmoozing and entertaining clients. So whenever the Kenyons have parties, their staff has to change out the cigarettes, soap, and even dog food they actually use for the products that Tony represents.
Secondly, when Tony gets home, he acts rather distant and distracted. He’s far more interested in work and the newspaper than in his wife or the anniversary gift she made.
Lydia practically throws the scrapbook in his lap but he doesn’t notice until she drops it on the floor in frustration. (I don’t know why it’s so massive, but maybe that’s what albums looked like in the 1940s?) You can watch the funny scene here.
Once she has his attention, they peruse the pages and reminisce about their first year as a married couple. Tony had lost his job around Christmas and they were broke. Lydia’s eyes grow misty as she says that it was her favorite Christmas. Tony is shocked–he’s so much happier now that he has a great job and they’re rich!
Drum roll, please…this is their relationship in a nutshell! Lydia is focused on their love and being a couple, and Tony is focused on material concerns. He thinks they’re happy because he’s successful, but she wishes that he wasn’t so obsessed with his job. She would give up their money and servants if it meant he would pay attention to her again!
Just then, George arrives with Lydia’s gift “from” Tony. George is rather surprised when she unwraps a bracelet (that she picked out) and not the brooch he chose! It’s fun.
That evening, the party quickly turns sour. A very obnoxious woman named Myrtle Vantine (Binnie Barnes) snidely comments on Lydia’s “little” bracelet and says that maybe one day Tony can get her some bigger pieces like the ones that crowd Myrtle’s wrist! How lovely.
But Lydia can’t retaliate because Mr. Vantine (Grant Mitchell) owns Tony’s biggest client, Vantine Dog Food. Tony gets a huge commission from the Vantine account, so Lydia has to keep the couple happy even though they’re horrible.
Fun fact: the DeBeers Company loaned Paramount several jewels for this movie, including the diamonds that Colbert wears. DeBeers formed relationships with the movie studios in the 1930s as a way to get their name and diamonds on the screen–product placement has existed for a long time!
Myrtle is focused on more than Lydia’s diamonds, though. We learn that she often makes pointed comments about how she’d love to steal the Kenyon’s cook because she adores their food. Tony would send their cook right over, but Lydia refuses. As she says, that’s too much even for Tony’s biggest account, plus, the cook is not a slave! It’s crazy to just “give” her to someone else!
But when Myrtle makes yet another comment about the wonderful food that evening, Tony can’t resist. He announces that he and Lydia have decided to give the Vantines their cook. Lydia is furious, but her anger soon turns to defeated sadness. Does Tony care so little for her compared to his career?
Fun fact: they’re sipping their champagne out of shallow bowled coupes, not the flutes we use. For more on that, visit my History Through Hollywood: Vice.
Also, when watching a Claudette Colbert film, pay attention to how her face was filmed. Apparently, she only liked the left side of her face (she thought her nose was crooked or something) and demanded that directors and cinematographers favor her “good side.” So she is almost always positioned on the right side of the frame and looks to her right instead of the other way around.
After this infuriating business about the cook, Lydia fixes Myrtle a plate and pours salt and vinegar all over it! Then she goes outside to compose herself. A man watches her prank Myrtle, then follows her. Eventually, they go for a drive. Isn’t that a gorgeous car? It’s a 1941 Cadillac convertible.
The man is Jim Blake (Brian Aherne), and he’s a very charming attorney. He’s also adept at seducing married ladies, and he’d be honored to add Lydia to the list. But he admits all of this with refreshing honesty right off the bat as they drive! Lydia is tickled, so she flirts and basks in his undivided attention. What a change from Tony! You can watch the scene here.
And Primrose Path:
But that was an RKO film and this is Paramount, so I’m not sure. Maybe roadside diners just looked like that in the early 1940s. Also, notice the donuts displayed so prominently in front of Lydia and Jim. For more on the ubiquity of “sinkers” in old movies, visit this History Through Hollywood.
Jim and Lydia settle at the counter and order hamburgers. In a not so subtle cue to Jim that she intends to keep things innocent, she orders hers with onions. He orders his without, but the waiter tells him that if she’s getting onions, he might as well get them, too. Ha!
Then Jim goes to work on his patented seduction routine. There’s a lot of talk of the moon and the horizon. It works on the waitress, who swoons even as the line cook rolls his eyes. But it doesn’t soften Lydia’s resolve. She knows she’s only taking a break from “real life,” and she doesn’t intend to do anything that would truly jeopardize her marriage.
Meanwhile, back at the party, Myrtle fumes because Jim and Lydia are out together. Apparently, she and Jim go “driving” a lot, and she’s jealous. Later, Jim admits to Lydia that he can’t stand Myrtle, but his law firm gets half of its business from the Vantines, so he has to keep her happy.
Eventually, Jim and Lydia head back to her house. Tony is mad, but not because she went off Jim. No, he’s angry that she upset Myrtle! He orders her to call Mrs. Vantine and explain that it was all an innocent mistake. She does, but as soon as Tony goes upstairs, Lydia calls a cab and leaves. She’s had enough.
Costume appreciation break. I love this gown! Irene designed Colbert’s costumes for this film, and they’re beautifully tailored, elegant, and detailed. Plus, look at that back slit! Apparently Colbert loved the looks from this film, too, and she purchased some of the outfits for her personal wardrobe. You can see an advertising spread in Photoplay featuring some of the costumes at the end of this post.
The next day, Tony goes to Jim’s office looking for Lydia. She isn’t there, but she arrives a few minutes later, so Jim’s secretary efficiently puts her in a back room. Tony leaves, but he recognizes her umbrella and decides to wait outside for her.
Lydia has come to ask Jim about a divorce, but she decides to hold off for now. But she changes her mind when Tony grabs her as she exits the building and tries to drag her home. She breaks away and he follows her into the subway.
They argue: she wishes that he wasn’t so obsessed with work so that he could save some time and energy for her. He doesn’t understand why she’s unhappy because they’re rich! Several passengers contribute to the argument with voyeuristic relish.
As I mentioned, this movie is full of déjà vu moments. It’s like a patchwork quilt of various motifs and scenes from other movies. I already mentioned the diner scene, but this subway argument reminds me of the subway scene in The Feminine Touch (1941).
Lydia tells Tony that she’s afraid he will never change, so she is going to Reno tomorrow. Why? Well, as I discussed in this History Through Hollywood, it was extremely difficult to get a divorce until the 1960s. Some states’ laws required ridiculously clear evidence of infidelity or cruelty, and without such proof, an unhappy spouse was stuck in the marriage.
Plus, if you managed to successfully file, sometimes it would take a year or more for the divorce to be final. But in Nevada you could choose from nine different grounds for divorce, none of which required proof. And as long as one of the spouses had been a resident of the state for six weeks, there was no waiting period. A judge could dissolve the marriage in a matter of minutes.
So husbands and wives, but mainly wives, flocked to Reno to take advantage of the divorce laws. And Nevada liked it that way. For instance, the state had originally required a six-month residency, then dropped it to three-months in the 1920s. The legislators then reduced it even further to just six weeks in 1931, hoping to entice more unhappy spouses to the state during the Great Depression.
It worked, and “divorce ranches” sprang up to house and entertain the influx of divorcing wives who arrived for six-week “Reno-vations.” Many film characters (and the actresses who played them) arrived in Nevada to “take the six-week cure.” And “going to Reno” became shorthand for getting a divorce.
Tony desperately wants to keep Lydia from divorcing him, but he knows that she won’t change her mind unless he quits his job. But that’s not going to happen, so instead he lies and tells her he quit just before she leaves for Reno! Surely nothing bad can come from this situation…
She is delighted and they spend a wonderful evening together. We get some nice glimpses of their house in these scenes, including their twin beds, dressing rooms, and bathroom with monogrammed door. (Why twin beds? Read more in History Through Hollywood: Vice to find out!)
It looks as though the troubled marriage might recover, but the next morning things get screwy again.
Myrtle pops by to warn Lydia to stay away from Jim–he’s her boy toy! But Lydia doesn’t care about Myrtle now that Tony has quit his job. So she fires right back and dares her to get Tony fired.
Lydia wears an amazing monogrammed outfit during this scene. Large monograms were quite the thing in this era.
Lydia thinks Myrtle’s threat is all a big joke because Tony has already quit. But of course that’s not the case, and when Lydia tells Tony the hilarious news, he doesn’t find it very amusing…
Then Jim shows up, and with his help the truth comes out. Lydia’s heart breaks when she learns that Tony lied to her. His job still outranks her. So she takes off for Reno, and this time it sticks.
Cut to six weeks later. In a great touch, Lydia throws her wedding ring in a fountain outside of the courthouse where it will be fished out to benefit the Reno Welfare Association.
Then she heads back to New York where Jim waits for her. When she arrives, he clears his schedule and spends his days and evenings accompanying her about town. He’s quite smitten, and it’s a lovely treat for Lydia to have a man place her above all his other commitments. Quite different from her ex-husband!
In a cute callback, the pair visit the roadside diner from their first date together. But this time, they both get onions on their hamburgers, and grin at each other after they order! Kisses!
Fun fact: notice the “War Relief Tea” written on his agenda. That’s one of the only mentions of WWII in this film, which isn’t terribly surprising as it was filmed in early 1941, almost a year before Pearl Harbor.
But where is Tony? The genre dictates that the new couple must run into the discarded husband when they are on a date. Preferably a black tie event. So naturally Tony wiggles his way into a seat next to Lydia at a concert. He’s smug and obnoxious, and he ignores her pleas to leave her alone. He wants her back.
It’s all reminiscent of The Awful Truth (1937), Mr. and Mrs. Smith (1941), The Palm Beach Story (1942), I Love You Again (1940), etc. The “freed” wife tries to move on with a new suitor, but the husband keeps aggressively chasing.
At the end of the evening, Jim chastely wishes Lydia good night, and she enters her apartment to find Tony waiting for her. It would serve him right to get pepper sprayed!
Lydia begs him to let her go, reminding him that she refused alimony and plans to get her old job back. (We never learn what that was.) She wants to cut all ties–why can’t he understand that?
Tony thinks that Lydia must still be in love with him, and he kisses her to prove it. It’s the old “I’ll force myself on you and if you react at all then obviously you love me” routine. It’s problematic, and boy, is it common.
Lydia finally gets him to leave, but when she turns down her bed she finds “Tony” in it. It’s a pretty good joke, though it would be really creepy in a stalker film. The line between comedy and horror can get pretty thin.
Costume appreciation break. Irene was brilliant at the sleek, draped-yet-streamlined style popular in the late 1930s to mid ’40s. Colbert wears the gowns beautifully, too.
Irene would use similar plant motifs in a casual “weekend-at-the-hunting-lodge” outfit on Esther Williams in Easy to Wed (1946), and more trailing vine/flowers on this stunning green gown and the white dresses in Thrill of a Romance (1945). In fact, if you like the look of Irene’s costumes, I’d recommend browsing through some of the early Esther Williams’ films. Irene’s use of color and striking, focal embellishments are especially glorious in Technicolor on tall Miss Williams.
Anyway, Tony has remained unemployed ever since Myrtle got him fired because he wants to prove he’s not obsessed with the advertising world. He thinks his lack of a high-powered job will help him win Lydia back. It’s an interesting reversal of the usual ploy: try to be less important, less powerful, and a lot less rich–you’ll definitely get the girl!
But Tony is not just playing golf on his terrace. He took a trip to South America when Lydia was in Reno, and he’s in talks with Washington to work on something called “hemisphere defense” on that continent. (That’s another vague WWII reference.)
Meanwhile, Lydia goes to “the island” to think after Tony’s confusing kiss. Lots of characters in these movies retreat to their island, cabin or boat when they’re trying to decide between two suitors. And generally both suitors give chase, as they do in this movie.
Sidenote: throughout the film there’s a comic subplot about Tony’s friend George constantly getting drunk and doing things he shouldn’t, such as telling Jim the island’s location, or following Tony around, but I’m not going to get into it.
On the island, Jim and Lydia have a lovely sunset chat, but then Tony spoils it by falling down a hill. He fakes an injury, but Jim and Lydia figure it out and throw him into the bay. It takes Lombard and Raymond a lot longer to detect Montgomery’s fake illness in Mr. and Mrs. Smith!
It’s fun to see Tony dunked, which brings me to this point: Skylark is the strange comedy of remarriage where you don’t really want the original couple to get back together. Tony is smug, selfish, and manipulative, and we never see him treat Lydia very well. But Jim is sweet, solicitous, and charming, and he offers Lydia a delightful life.
Plus, he’s not as goofy as Ralph Bellamy‘s “other guy” characters in The Awful Truth or His Girl Friday, nor as obviously wrong for Lydia as Rudy Vallee or Gene Raymond are for the ladies in The Palm Beach Story or Mr. and Mrs. Smith, respectively. Indeed, as I watch this movie, I find myself cheering, “Go for the new guy, Lydia!”
And she appears to be doing just that. She decides that the best way to get rid of Tony is to make him stop wanting her. So she stops by his cabin and throws herself at him in a very wanton way. (Wanton for 1941, of course. So pretty tame.)
Her flirtatiousness encourages Tony, and he asks her to marry him and come to South America. She summons all of her courage and coyly asks “Why get married?” She could just pose as his wife for a month if he’d like; she does “owe him something” after all the money and time he spent on her during their marriage.
He shies away in scandalized horror, and she purrs that since they used to be married, surely it doesn’t matter if they act as though they’re married now? Wink wink.
Tony is shocked, but then he catches on to the game. He begins seducing her right back, and agrees that maybe she could just “pretend” to be his wife for a while. It’s a game of chicken, and Lydia gives in first. She screams and pushes Tony off of her. Jim and Lydia’s friend Charlotte burst into the cabin to rescue her.
This incident sends Lydia straight into Jim’s hopeful arms. Tony finally realizes that Lydia really does want him to leave her alone. Duh. He decides to leave for South America right away.
It’s boat time! Tony boards an ocean liner while Jim takes Lydia on his sailboat.
Jim and Lydia sail into a storm, and Lydia struggles with the waves and wind. She tries to make coffee in the rocky seas, and the scene turns into a slapstick sequence of falls, slips, and spills. With a splash of seasickness.
Eventually, a bruised, nauseous, coffee and rain-splattered Lydia begins to cry, and she wails for Tony, not Jim. So he turns the boat around. But why couldn’t she just tell Jim she doesn’t like boats, and perhaps he can go sailing without her next time? Just because she’s seasick and uncomfortable doesn’t mean she should run to Tony! Stay with Jim, Lydia! But the disastrous boat trip must serve its purpose: humiliating the proud heroine into realizing she needs her ex-husband after all.
Fun fact: apparently Colbert ended up with 27 bruises thanks to all the falls she took filming this slapstick sequence!
For a moment you think that Jim will be able to pull up beside Tony’s ocean liner and transfer Lydia, (especially because that’s what happens in Love Before Breakfast when Lombard jumps from the wrong man’s little boat to the right man’s yacht), but in this movie they are literally two ships passing in the night.
So Lydia takes a plane to Havana, the ship’s next stop on its route to South America. She barely makes it before they pull in the gangplank, but she quickly finds her ex-husband, kisses him, and presumably gets the captain to remarry them. The End! I wish it was Jim locking lips with Lydia at the end, but maybe Tony has learned his lesson and will treat Lydia better than he did before.
So that’s Skylark! It was filmed in late January to April 1941, and did well at the box office when it was released that November. The New York Times critic Bosley Crowther called it “a saucy and flavorsome little delicacy…” and recommended that viewers “Cut yourself a slice of it, if your taste is for frivolous fun,” (it was Thanksgiving).
Crowther’s review continues in that whimsical tone. He calls the film an “elegant bit of nonsense…seasoned with chucklesome wit, garnished with fine-feathered acting and done to a fly-away turn. In the line of fancy tit-bits, ‘Skylark’ is a cinema caterer’s dream.”
But Crowther noted the similarity of this film to others in the genre, writing that he has found “the abundance of husband-wife films very much on the surfeiting side lately, and repetition has dulled the flavor of many of them. There is no use denying that ‘Skylark’ is pretty much the same old dish. But this time a dash of pepper—or horseradish, if you prefer—has been added to the routine story…”
He enjoyed the performances, writing:
Credit Claudette Colbert with being the blithest spirit in the case—and also for one of the spunkiest and most body-bruising performances in her career…She makes domestic truancy seem the most charming and natural thing in the world. And in one scene aboard a small sailboat, she takes such a farcical knocking about that even you will likely be infected with sympathetic mal-de-mer. Mr. Milland is also attractive as a trade-mark aristocrat, and Brian Aherne is surprisingly droll as the gent who baits the skylark with the moon.
He ended with another Thanksgiving-inspired metaphor, concluding that the movie “is far from filling, but it is highly palatable fare.”
Skylark was nominated for an Oscar for Best Sound, though it lost to That Hamilton Woman. But at least Brian Aherne went home happy, because his wife Joan Fontaine won the Best Actress Oscar for Suspicion.
A few months after the film premiered, the three stars reunited to record a Lux Radio Theatre version that was broadcast on February 2, 1942. You can listen to it here.