Wednesday, May 3, 2017

Alexander Korda | The Wedding Rehearsal

the matchmaker, or, the tie that binds

by Douglas Messerli

Lajos Bíró  and George Grossmith, Jr. (story), Helen Gardom, Robert Vansittart, and Arthur Wimperis (dialogue), Alexander Korda (director) The Wedding Rehearsal  / 1932

Like many interesting movies, Alexander Korda’s 1932 film, The Wedding Rehearsal is many things: a satire about the upper classes in the manner of that same generation’s The Philadelphia Story, a political statement of class privilege in post-World War I England, a straight-forward social comedy, and an almost Wildeian statement about the trials and tribulations of marriage. Underneath all of these popular genres, moreover, The Wedding Rehearsal is a kind a “rehearsal” for the far darker kinds of comedies we would later see in works such as Robert Altman’s A Wedding and a whole series of later films that mock that institution.

The Marquis of Buckminster (Roland Young) is what we might have described earlier in the 20th century as the “not the marrying kind,” a perennial bachelor, which is code for his closeted homosexuality. Yes, he loves the company of beautiful women, but only when they’re safely removed from any true sexual encounters such as Mrs. Dryden (Diana Napier), whom he “pretends” to be courting. Obviously a film of 1932, even a world by the more explicitly expressive Noel Coward, could not come out to actually express the fact that the elite and perfectly groomed Buckminster was not at all interested in women. He, like so many others of the movies of the time, simply didn’t want to be married, or, given the conventions of the day, simply had not yet found the young woman, or, as he himself describes it, has not yet found the right “tie” that might perfectly match his immaculate tuxedo. It’s clear early on this in this spritely movie that he far prefers the company of his Queen’s guard friends, who all dress up in uniforms and outrageously coifed headdresses.
      But what do you do if your Arthur-like (I’m speaking her of the Steve Gordon’s silly 1981 Dudley Moore vehicle) grandmother, in this case the Dowager Marchioness of Buckminster (Kate Cutler) demands you immediately marry or cut you off without another cent of her quite liberal allowance. At least she, unlike Moore’s granny Martha Bach, gives him a list of possible alliances. As the clever script sums it up:

Marquis of Buckminster: Oh, all right, I'll marry somebody.
Dowager Marchioness of Buckminster: "Somebody"! Do you know how many girls there are for you to choose from?
Marquis of Buckminster: Roughly 6,000,000, aren't there?
Dowager Marchioness of Buckminster: Exactly 7 young women who are fit to bear our name, and
your children.
Marquis of Buckminster: Oh...
Dowager Marchioness of Buckminster: That is, in England.
Marquis of Buckminster: That's right, dear, buy British, yes. Well, come on, tell me the worst.
Dowager Marchioness of Buckminster: My first choice, the Roxbury twins.
Marquis of Buckminster: Both of them? 

     Buckminster quickly removes the Roxbury twins, Lady Mary Rose and Lady Rose Mary (Wendy Barrie and Joan Gardner) off his list when he discovers that they are madly in love with the commoners “Bimbo” (John Loder) and “Tootles” (Maurice Evans)—it’s interesting in this more feminist-leaning film, the males are given the names traditionally applied to “on-the-up” achieving females. These formidable two are different only in that one adores dogs, and the other cats.
      Crossing these abashed lovers off his list, Buckminster quickly plants their marriage plans in the local newspapers (another delight of this film, is its satire of newspaper reportage, already foretelling how the tabloids would soon replace actual news reporting), and forcing the truly snobbish Earl of Stokeshire (George Grossmith, Jr.) to accept his daughters’ choices, particularly when goaded by the Marchioness’ suggestion that no one would possibly attend such a double wedding.

Making a decision for once in his life, the Earl determines that the two shall not only be married but that that institution will be celebrated as the biggest event in the British Isles. Although his wife, the Countess (Lady Tree) is delighted with the result, the utterly confused mother is faced with the problem of so many people crowded into her palatial estate, that she doesn’t know what do: “They’ve already removed everything but his drawers,” she observes at one point, suggesting that her husband has been undressed down to his pants, when she means, obviously, that the furniture has been completely removed from their suite to accommodate their guests—a comic gesture surely tame by today’s standards, but quite risqué, surely, in its day.
     Invited to be, yet again, the best man at this wedding—a role that obviously Buckminster has played throughout his dapper youth—he goes down his grandmother’s list of prospective wives, serving as a kind of mad matchmaker, connecting impossible women such Audrey Ferraby, for example, who has a nose that comes “straight down from the Conqueror” (“I know it does, darling, but, well, it comes down such a long way,” responds Buckminster), and a boring woman who is related to the Plantagenets (“But that was so long again that you really can’t blame them.”), with equally unmarriageable men. Clearly, the clever Buckminster has found his natural calling.
     Even when the entire wedding affair is threatened by the young commoner mens’ inability to omit the “obedience” clause from their marriage vows, and the twins are equally offended by their would-be husband’s stubbornness, the bachelor Buckminster intercedes, like a mad costume designer, suggesting they wear daisies and long “Victorian-like dresses” to please their male counterparts. It works, and the wedding is on again.
       In the process of his “Miss Lonelyhearts” existence, however, Buckminster encounters yet one more unhappy woman, his grandmother’s secretary, a long-time acquaintance, Miss Hutchinson (Merle Oberon), who is also in tears about a man she loves who doesn’t seem to recognize her existence. “Look him in the eyes," he consuls, and tell him how you love him. When she does so—obviously it is he whom she loves—he melts, realizing that the perfect necktie, which he has argued that all men seek, is this woman; his crazy matchmaking antics end, much like Dolly Levi’s in Thornton Wilder’s The Merchant of Yonkers and Jerry Herman’s later Hello, Dolly!, as he has finally found his “home.” 
      Of course, the conventions of the time demanded that the unmarrying bachelor had, like Henry Higgins of My Fair Lady, to find his “woman” before play’s end, even if we know that his marriage to Hutchy will merely be one of convenience. They’ll both now be rich and live happily ever after, so who cares whether or not they sleep in the same bed? One of the Countess Buckminster’s early complaints in the movie, when attempting to find room for all of her guests, is that no couple any longer sleeps in the same room.
      Marriage is a symbolic necktie in Korda’s comedy, not a truly psychological intermingling of identities we often presume it is.

Los Angeles, May 3, 2017

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