Lucky Jim: Very Good, Eddie

Posted by on February 12th, 2010 at 12:01 AM

Preston Sturges’s Diamond Jim the corpulent life and gastronomic loves of 19th-century entrepreneur and (as here depicted by Edward Arnold) zealous chowhound, James Brady — is (as directed by Edward Sutherland, from Sturges’ screenplay) a cheerfully sensual saga: leisurely, yet sportively energetic. Jim is viewed early on, sampling the hobo’s life with Eric Blore (an impish Pickwick, often adorning Sturges’ productions). Sutherland as may be: the directorial and literary intelligence felt most often here, is that of Sturges, whose screenplays, under whoever else’s direction (William K. Howard in The Power and the Glory; Mitchell Leisen in Easy Living) jealously retain their mingled ebullience and desperation. Jim sternly rejects his Negro butler’s condolence over a broken romance: an assertion of class (and color?) distances all too familiar from, say, Fred MacMurray’s “You numbskull!” flung at his valet, in Remember the Night. Yet, such slightly disturbing moments strengthen the realistic adrenalin that energizes the ur Sturges comic style. The Sturges atmospheric charm twinkles in a briefly glimpsed idyll: Jim bicycling with Lillian Russell (the charming, too-infrequently-seen Binnie Barnes) blazered and straw-hated, through the park. And, when Jim — his health raddled, and raison d’etre shot down — undertakes a course (no pun intended) of gastronomic suicide, the funereal solemnity of the kitchen staff offers a counter-perspective to European feed-farces such as La Grande Bouffe.

II

Arnold brought to the role of Diamond Jim Brady, the Gargantuan/despotic joviality that I recall him roaring and radiating in Come and Get It: wherein he swaggered, bellowed, and occasionally chortled, flanked and foiled by his lumberjack buddy (with a Swedish accent, no less), Walter Brennan. Approaching a modern-day Henry Eighth, Arnold’s solar splendor easily eclipsed the wistful piquancy of Frances Farmer, and the rangy gallantry of Joel McCrea. How strange, yet how typical of the 1930s decade, to recall that I first knew Arnold from radio — that mill of illusions — as host of the Chase & Sanborn Sunday night radio show, featuring Edgar Bergen and Charlie McCarthy. Then, in 1941, Arnold lent a vigorous Yankee gallantry to the heroic oratory of Daniel Webster, out-orating a slick New England Satan (winningly enacted by Walter Huston) in RKO’s The Devil and Devil Webster, under richly atmospheric direction by William Dieterle. And, not many years before, as the financier Kirby he had been tutored in whimsical gallantry by Lionel Barrymore as Grandpa Vanderhof in You Can ‘t Take It With You: a wise and sturdy witness to the turbulent early ’40s. A mellow, weary gallantry permeates the next to last scene of You Can ‘t Take It With You: Arnold side by side with Lionel Barrymore in a harmonica duet of Stephen Foster’s “Polly Wolly Doodle” — while all around them, painters and movers proceed to dismantle the premises. The perfect fadeout, one suspects, would have rested in that eloquent tableau vivant: Arnold, a ferocious champion of winner-take-all capitalism, casting his lot with the dispossessed and footloose. There remained, however, a soothing scene at the Vanderhof-restored dinner table; among the diners, a beaming Edward A., after all, deserved at least equal billing with the Deity addressed by Lionel as “SIR”: Who, as is well known, giveth and taketh away.

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2 Responses to “Lucky Jim: Very Good, Eddie”

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