Woman Chases Man (1937)
Woman Chases Man is the fifth and last movie that Joel McCrea made with Miriam Hopkins. They first starred together in The Richest Girl in the World (1934), followed by Barbary Coast (1935), Splendor (1935), and These Three (1936). But their fifth film together almost didn’t happen.
Sam Goldwyn spearheaded the project, but almost from the beginning the movie was in trouble. Married screenwriters Bella and Samuel Spewack wrote the script but hated their work. They were so disappointed in their efforts that they asked Goldwyn to take their names off the script! They even returned the money that Goldwyn had paid them for the work.
Goldwyn then asked Eric Hatch to take a crack at the story, but he refused once he’d read the Spewack script. Then director William Wyler decided he hated the movie, too. In order to get out of directing Woman Chases Man, he returned the $25,000 bonus Goldwyn had given him for Dodsworth and Come and Get It!
Miriam Hopkins, who was under contract to Goldwyn at the time, wasn’t thrilled, either, and only agreed to be in the movie if Gregory La Cava, who had recently helmed My Man Godfrey (1936), would direct it. So Goldwyn dutifully hired La Cava, but once he read the script, he refused the movie, too! Goldwyn even struggled with the supporting roles when Andrea Leeds backed out of playing Nina. The producer had to borrow Leona Maricle from her home studio Columbia for the part.
Goldwyn eventually got Joseph Anthony, Manuel Seff and David Hertz to write a new script (with uncredited contributions by Dorothy Parker and her husband Alan Campbell). Then he hired director John Blystone and cinematographer Gregg Toland (who would later become famous for his work on Citizen Kane (1941)). Eventually, Goldwyn convinced Hopkins to take the role without La Cava. (It would be the last movie the actress would make for Goldwyn, though.)
McCrea, meanwhile, didn’t seem to mind it, though he knew it wasn’t the greatest movie ever. Like Hopkins, he was under contract to Goldwyn, so he didn’t have a lot of choice in the matter. McCrea would say later that “Woman Chases Man was just nonsense to use Miriam and me, because Goldwyn was paying us a good salary and he wanted to put us into something.”
One would think that Woman Chases Man is absolutely horrendous or offensive to create such strenuous objections by so many people, but their responses baffle me. I agree with TIME magazine when it wondered why the project caused such a fuss:
What, after viewing the results of these endeavors, astounded those who knew the picture’s history was not Mr. Goldwyn’s superior foresight but the fact that anybody should be moved either to violent objection to the material in hand or to stubborn faith in it. Woman Chases Man is a haywire story made in the mold of the current vogue for haywire stories. After wavering on the fringes of light comedy for a little while, it sheds its inhibitions and goes whole hog into farce.
To the film! We open at B.J. Nolan’s (Charles Winninger) office where creditors anxiously wait to speak with the bankrupt millionaire. Unfortunately, B.J. has a weakness for harebrained schemes, and he has blown his last bucks. So he calls his son, Kenneth (Joel McCrea), for a loan.
Kenneth is currently sunning himself on a ship from Europe to the US. He takes his father’s call, but coldly dismisses B.J.’s pleas for cash to satisfy his creditors. Sensible Kenneth is tired of bailing out his kooky father.
Kenneth is as practical and level-headed as his father is goofy, but he’s not as savvy as he thinks he is. He is currently traveling with his girlfriend, Nina, (Leona Maricle) pronounced “Nine-ah,” and her uncle, Henri (Erik Rhodes). But Henri is not really her uncle…the sneaky couple has befriended Kenneth in order to get his money. As soon as the foolish young man marries Nina, they will take off with his fortune.
Back in New York, a plucky architect named Virginia Travis (Miriam Hopkins) with a drawling Southern accent (it’s real, she was born in Savannah), worms her way into B.J.’s office. She has drawn up plans for his latest scheme, a town called Nolan Heights.
At first, B.J. dismisses Virginia because she is a woman, and whoever heard of a female architect? But “There’s nothing feminine about my mind,” Virginia assures him as she shows off her sketches. Yikes.
B.J. is impressed with Virginia and her ideas, but regretfully explains that Nolan Heights will never be built because he is out of money. He needs $100,000 to make it happen, and now that Kenneth has refused his request, B.J. doesn’t have any way to get it.
Virginia faints, though it’s not entirely because of the bad news. She is broke, hasn’t eaten in days, and pinned all her hopes on this job.
When Virginia wakes up, B.J. invites her to come stay with him since she can’t pay her rent. So off the mismatched pair go to B.J.’s mansion in the country. The servants have left since B.J. couldn’t pay them, but the furniture is still there.
That evening, B.J. explains that the Nolan family fortune is still quite healthy, but after he made a string of silly, unsuccessful investments, his son took control of the purse strings. So they need Kenneth’s support if Nolan Heights will ever become a reality. But that seems doubtful: look at that straitlaced nerd! He’ll never agree to invest in the town.
But what if Virginia and B.J. can trick Kenneth into giving them the money? The pair come up with a scheme: they will pretend that B.J. is off in Chicago working on a big deal to get the $100,000 for Nolan Heights. If Kenneth thinks they have a solid plan, already have investors, and don’t need his dough, maybe then he will give them the money. It doesn’t make a ton of sense, but Virginia and B.J. are excited.
Virginia calls her friends, husband-and-wife duo Hunk (Broderick Crawford in his film debut) and Judy (Ella Logan), who come to the house to pretend to be their servants. After all, Kenneth would never believe his father has money if the mansion has no staff.
Virginia and Judy used to work as ushers at a movie theater together, so there are several gags about how Judy “ushers” the guests around the house as though she is in a theater. There is also an odd but funny scene when Virginia tells B.J. that she has the bad habit of talking out of the side of her mouth like a gangster thanks to all the G-men movies she watched as an usher!
The next day, Kenneth and his friends arrive at the mansion. He is alarmed to find the familiar servants missing, his father gone, and a strange woman welcoming him to his own house. He calls the police, but Hunk and Virginia manage to tackle him and then convince him that everything is alright, thanks to a letter from his father in “Chicago.” But B.J. is really hiding in the kitchen. There are several gags about B.J. almost being discovered by Nina, Kenneth, and Henri, though he manages to barely stay out of sight. There are also plenty of jokes about how bad Hunk and Judy are as servants.
Anyway, Kenneth sort of likes this strange woman, and Virginia is enamored with him, too. He is much more handsome than his goofy graduation photo! And she is much more fun than glamorous, cold Nina. Plus, she senses some whimsy underneath his serious exterior and wants to bring it out. Fun fact: in many ways, the Virginia/Kenneth dynamic is similar to the Susan/David relationship in Bringing Up Baby (1938)…goofy, eccentric gal and a boy who takes himself far too seriously before he finally loosens up. McCrea is one of my very favorite actors, and he is so good at playing sensible with a whole lot of goofy underneath. This movie keeps him straitlaced for longer than normal, but it’s still enjoyable to watch.
Things get understandably awkward at dinner. Nina does not like Virginia, and the feeling is quite mutual. Virginia senses right away that Nina is not the right woman for Kenneth, and she does her best to break them up.
You can watch the slapstick dinner scene here:
Fun fact: In Philip K. Scheuer’s review of the movie in The Los Angeles Times, he noted that the film “has the feel of the stage,” which is quite right. Most of the scenes are in one location and last a while, so you could see this being a stage play.
That evening and the next day, Virginia tries to get Kenneth on board with Nolan Heights, but he refuses to entertain the idea. He explains his hesitation by showing her all of the gadgets his father has foolishly and unsuccessfully invested in. One particularly silly idea was a five-pen machine that lets someone sign five checks at once. But that’s just one on a long list, and Virginia starts to doubt B.J.
But B.J. brings her back onboard with the plan by asking her to help “save” Kenneth. They need to get the money from Kenneth to keep him from becoming an old fuddy-duddy who is sensible all the time and never has any fun. If they build Nolan Heights and can show him that it works, maybe he will loosen up a little.
Whimsical Virginia agrees, and they decide to use the five-pen machine to get Kenneth to unknowingly sign a check for $100,000. She asks Kenneth to demonstrate the gadget, then slips the real check into the machine without him noticing.
It works! Virginia and B.J. rush to the bank with the check, only to find out that Kenneth double-locked the account by requiring his approval for any check over $1,000. They need a new plan. And Virginia needs a new dress if she is going to entrance Kenneth into giving her the money. Fortunately, there are some lovely curtains in her bedroom. B.J. is quite handy!
Meanwhile, Nina is getting worried because Kenneth seems awfully taken with Virginia. So she tries to get him drunk at dinner. She knows he gets silly and bold if he drinks more than one glass of wine, and she hopes he will finally propose if she gets him tipsy enough.
Virginia has the same idea, though she hopes Kenneth will finance Nolan Heights if she gets him drunk. So the pair enjoy some champagne on the terrace. But Virginia keeps pace with him through several glass of champagne, and eventually she gets too drunk to remember why she is getting him drunk in the first place! The bubbles do work some magic though; Kenneth relaxes and gets goofy, and the pair realize how much they have in common. For example, they both love to recite the alphabet backwards. And kiss.
Meanwhile, B.J. and Judy watch from a window, thrilled.
Kenneth is bewildered because he thought he only liked “sensible girls,” but he knows he has fallen for Virginia. He even tells her he loves her, but she has already passed out.
Throughout the movie, Kenneth and his father were set up as polar opposites, but when Kenneth loosens up a little (thanks to alcohol or a goofball like Virginia), he’s a lot more like his eccentric old man than he thought. Which is why he generally stays away from booze and only chases “sensible girls”…
Anyway, Kenneth takes the unconscious Virginia to her bedroom and returns at once to Nina and Henri. (He’s a good man even when he’s drunk.)
That nefarious duo then plie him with brandy in the hopes of further degrading his rational mind. But it doesn’t have the effect they want. Instead of proposing to Nina, Kenneth tries to buy everything he sees and then rushes upstairs to go to sleep.
Meanwhile, Virginia has awoken from her drunken slumber, and with B.J.’s prodding, she decides to talk to Kenneth while he is still tipsy and hopefully amenable to Nolan Heights.
But then Nina shows up at his door, so Virginia hides and eventually climbs out of Kenneth’s window into a tree (remember, she isn’t quite sober). She promptly catches her bathrobe on a branch and gets stuck. And so begins a truly delightful slapstick sequence. Virginia and Kenneth are absolutely adorable when they get goofy, and they get really goofy.
Pretty soon after she gets caught, he brings a lamp out so he can see her better. (Most of this movie is so-so, but it’s worth it for the tree scene. It’s almost ten minutes of screwball joy.)
At one point, Virginia even powders her nose! One should always look one’s best, even in the dark in a tree.
Eventually, the lamp and Kenneth and a chair end up in the tree with Virginia. Kenneth gets inspired and begins spouting about the new world he and Virginia will build together. Then he finds the Nolan Heights contract in her pocket, and can’t wait to sign it. New world and all of that.
But Virginia tells him to worry about it tomorrow. She is enjoying this time with a relaxed, ridiculous Kenneth and doesn’t want to ruin it with the Nolan Heights scheme. But he insists, and tells her he is tired of being “sensible.” Hurray!
But then Nina realizes what is going on and tries her best to break up the romantic screwball magic. Henri enters the scene on the ground and tries to help Nina, but then Hunk and Judy arrive to support Virginia. One of my favorite parts comes when Hunk and Judy start throwing a pen and blotter (Virginia brought the contract but no pen!) up into the tree while Henri does his best to prevent them.
Then Nina falls out of the tree (she’s fine), and in the heat of the moment Henri forgets he is pretending to be her uncle. Now everyone knows they’re actually lovers. Oops.
Back in the tree, Kenneth is about to sign the contract when Virginia realizes just how drunk he is. She knows it isn’t right to trick him into signing when he is this wasted.
So when B.J. shows up with a pail of water meant for Nina, Virginia throws it in Kenneth’s face to sober him up. It works. (Shockingly quickly, in fact). Immediately, the adorable, funny, screwball hero disappears and sensible Kenneth comes back. He appears to have total amnesia of the entire evening. Virginia is devastated. But then Kenneth starts expounding once again about the new world he wants to build with Virginia.
He meant it after all! Hurray! The end!
It’s cute, but the whole sobering-up-in-an-instant thing isn’t believable. It would have been more satisfying if the movie had continued until the next morning and shown a totally sober Kenneth goofing around with Virginia as they discussed their plans for Nolan Heights. Otherwise, his reformation doesn’t seem real.
This movie was in production from mid-February to late March 1937 and premiered shortly thereafter on May 7. Working titles included Princess and Pauper and The Woman’s Touch before landing on the equally nonsensical Woman Chases Man.
McCrea later summed up the movie as “a mediocre exercise to keep people on salary working and made as cheaply as possible…With a good director that picture might have been good, but Blystone was the kind of director that should have made Hopalong Cassidys [a quickly and inexpensively produced western series.] He was a nice guy, but out of his league. I tried, but it was not well handled.”
Most agreed with this lukewarm assessment. Film Daily was one of the most positive, writing that the film “may be described as delirious, mad, screwy, or anything else like it, but it’s delightful. It is the sort of thing that keeps an audience in a continuous uproar.”
Film Daily then compared the movie to a screwball classic: “The same qualities that made ‘My Man Godfrey’ such a hilarious affair are here provided and the picture should appeal to the same type of audiences and in the same large numbers.” The magazine praised the direction, cinematography, script, “classy Goldwyn style,” and the actors.
Philip K. Scheuer’s review in The Los Angeles Times was a little less effusive. He wrote that the movie “starts slowly but builds to a pell-mell climax in a tree,” and although the direction was a little too subtle (not something one usually thinks of about a farce), the acting was good. Miriam Hopkins “knows how to read lines,” and “a lot of comedy is lines.” Also, “McCrea, speaking lines that have been tailored to his measure, doesn’t come off badly as the good-natured but not over-bright rich man’s son.”
Variety’s review contradicted the others, claiming that the audience “laughed with approval of this picture for the first three-quarters of its running, and then the giggles stopped. Laughs ceased when the action on the screen became so insanely illogical, and dull, that the amazed disappointment of the house expressed itself in chilly silence. It sums up as just a fair feature.”
In my experience, Variety has it backwards, with most of the laughs coming during the tree scene, but maybe it was different in 1937. The review continues with this criticism of the finale: “There they are, out on a limb, so to speak, bereft of business or dialog. It’s the meanest trick scenario writers have played on actors for a long time.” The review then lists the credited writers, but alludes to the chaotic beginning of the production by noting that “reports from the Coast state half a dozen others also contributed.”
Variety did praise a few things, namely Miriam Hopkins, who “displays exceptional skill, charm, and resource. She is effective and amusing as long as she has something to do.” Also, “fine settings, splendid photography and general production excellence are as expected in a Goldwyn picture.”
As I mentioned, this was the fifth and final film starring McCrea and Hopkins. Both had long careers after this movie, but their paths never crossed again onscreen. Their other films get more attention than this one, but I think it’s a fun ’30s screwball. Not quite in Bringing Up Baby, My Man Godfrey, or Easy Living‘s league, but enjoyable nonetheless.