Whenever the subject of screwball comedy comes up, I usually think of the same handful of titles in this short-lived movie genre which began sometime in the early thirties with such models of the form as Twentieth Century (1934) and It Happened One Night (1934) and ended sometime in the early forties between the time of Preston Sturges’ The Palm Beach Story (1942) and Frank Capra’s Arsenic and Old Lace (1944). Like the film noir genre which continues to yield overlooked gems like Crime Wave (1954) and Highway 301 (1950), many lesser known and almost forgotten entries in the screwball comedy category continue to resurface on Turner Classic Movies, reminding us that occasionally you might find a diamond in the rough. Such is the case with If You Could Only Cook (1935).
Why this film isn’t as well known as My Man Godfrey (1936) or Nothing Sacred (1937) or other more famous screwball comedies is a bit of a mystery because it is practically note perfect from start to finish and a total delight for the duration of its brisk 72-minute running time. The storyline might not be particularly original as it trades on a class reversal/mistaken identity plot twist so popular in comedies of its era but the sharp, socially observant dialogue by Howard J. Green & Gertrude Purcell, witty performances by the ensemble cast, stylish Art Deco art direction and a Capra-like mixture of wisecracks, sentiment, romance and Depression era populism elevate If You Could Only Cook to the upper echelons of the genre.
When the film opens, Jim Buchanan (Herbert Marshall), the head of a large automobile firm, walks out on a board of directors meeting when they reject one of his new car designs and goes to the park to gather his thoughts. Sharing a bench with a woman searching the want ads, he is mistaken for someone unemployed like her. When Joan (Jean Arthur) proposes that they pose as a married couple and apply for a butler and maid position, Jim agrees because he wants to help her and the masquerade intrigues him.
The complications begin once they are hired as servants for Mike Rossini (Leo Carrillo), a notorious mobster, and have to maintain their charade of being married. Jim, of course, hides his real identity from Joan, as well including the fact that his pending marriage to Evelyn Fletcher (Frieda Inescort) is only a few days away. Anxious to play his part well, Jim even sneaks home at one point to take lessons in “butlering” from his baffled manservant Jennings (Romaine Callender).
“You must know the master of the house like a book,” Jennings informs him, stressing “Most times sir, you’ll find it a very uninteresting and uninspired book but it’s all part of the job, sir…You must give him the impression you are hanging on every word he says, even though it is drivel.”
“Oh, is that what you do?” Buchanan asks.
“Yes, sir…I mean no sir,” Jennings quickly answers, realizing his candor has just overstepped the bounds of their master-servant relationship.
Meanwhile, Flash (Lionel Stander), Rossini’s overly suspicious henchman, smells something funny about the whole servant arrangement and starts his own investigation of Buchanan, which brings about the topsy-turvy ending.
Herbert Marshall, who always projects an elegant, sophisticated and intelligent demeanor that is the epitome of an upper class British gentleman, is allowed to loosen up in this outing. Or maybe it’s Jean Arthur who deserves the credit for drawing him out of his stereotypical mode, resulting in a much more animated and lively performance than usual. They really do make a marvelous comedy team with real chemistry between them and it makes their evolving romance something to root for.
Almost upstaging them are Leo Carrillo and Lionel Stander who are great fun in their tongue-in-cheek impersonations of a nouveau-riche gangster and his crude, streetwise sidekick. Carrillo, in particular, is hilarious as an enthusiastic gourmet who gets wildly excited by Joan’s cooking (watch him roll those crazy eyes). “Is this Lobster Thermidor or is that Lobster Thermidor?,” he exclaims rapturously after taking a bite of Joan’s latest creation while Stander denotes his boss’s pretentiousness with the sarcastic response: “I don’t know. Is it?” Stander’s sour, disdainful personality and his disinterest in just about everything that reeks of upper class respectability makes him the ideal straight man for Carrillo’s whimsical, status-conscious racketeer.
Carrillo was usually stereotyped as a Latino character in films (In Caliente , The Gay Desperado ) and television (The Cisco Kid [1950-1956]) and often played gangsters and villains (Parachute Jumper , Manhattan Merry-Go-Round ) so it’s fun to see him here, playing fast and loose as this self-made “businessman” with obvious Italian roots.
Offscreen Carrillo was a man of many talents who began his career as a cartoonist at the San Francisco Examiner before turning to the stage and later movies. He was also a dedicated conservationist who served on the California Beach and Parks commission for years and eventually had a park dedicated to him for his service to the state – The Leo Carrillo State Park, off the Pacific Coast Highway, west of Malibu. It’s also interesting to note that in the context of the film If You Could Only Cook, Herbert Marshall’s Buchanan character is depicted as an automobile industry visionary but in real life Carrillo was a genuine connoisseur of cars and his customized version of a 1947 Chrysler Town and Country convertible has been featured in several photograph books.
Stander, like Carrillo, was also typecast often, playing cynical urban types with shark-like instincts (The Last Gangster , A Star is Born  ). He gets to parody that aspect of himself here and the only times he shows any real joy or love for his work is when he’s either rushing off to shoot or kidnap somebody – all of which is played for laughs. But even if Rossini and Flash are clearly dangerous individuals if crossed, they have their soft spots and, in one of the more touching and sweetly comic scenes in If You Could Only Cook, they bail Joan out of jail for a false theft charge. As they take her home in a taxi, Rossini, who has designs on Joan, can’t resist showing her the goodbye note Jim left her when he returned to his fiancee and scheduled wedding. Heartbroken, Joan breaks down in tears. Instead of feeling vindication for their actions, both Rossini and Flash feel embarrassed by their attempts to expose Buchanan and its effect on Joan, which the camera captures in short, telling closeups.
Rossini: “Didn’t you know his racket when you married him?”
Joan: “I didn’t marry him.”
Rossini: “Well, how’d a nice girl like you get mixed up with a mug like that?”
Joan (sobbing): “He isn’t a mug.”
Rossini: “How’d he manage to sell you that bill of goods? Why did you fall for him?”
Joan mournfully says, “The Depression,” and starts bawling again, while Flash shakes his head disgustedly and mutters, “I’ve heard a lot of things blamed on the Depression.”
When If You Could Only Cook was released in England, it was advertised as a Frank Capra production though Capra had no connection to the film at all. It was directed by William A. Seiter (Roberta , Room Service ) but Harry Cohn, the studio head at Columbia, was exploiting Capra’s name erroneously as a way to market it since Capra was a household name after the runaway success of It Happened One Night. When Capra found out about this, he was outraged and filed a lawsuit against Cohn.
To placate the director, Cohn offered Capra a percentage of the profits of If You Could Only Cook and some upcoming films that would exploit the Capra name. But the director refused and demanded a release from his contract. Feuds over the editing of Lost Horizon and Cohn’s refusal to purchase the film rights to the George S. Kaufman-Moss Hart play You Can’t Take It With You had soured permanently soured Capra on Columbia.
The lawsuit proceeded and after several months of Capra not working, it began to look like the director might win his case. Cohn paid Capra a surprise visit at his house and asked him to drop the litigation. “Damn you, Cohn,” Capra said, “You know what you’re asking me to do? Lose a year’s time, a year’s salary, ten thousand dollars in attorney’s fees, forget a year of eating my guts out, and come back to the studio as if nothing had happened. Just to save your neck. Is that what you expect me to do?”
“Yes, Frank. That’s what I’m asking you to do,” Cohn replied.
In his autobiography, The Name Above the Title, Capra admitted that he surprised himself by agreeing to Cohn’s request but the mogul then offered him an unexpected concession: “Tell you what I’m gonna do. I’m gonna call my New York partners and tell ‘em to approve paying you for one of the contract pictures as if you had made it. That leaves you only two [more pictures on the contract]. I’m gonna tell ‘em to approve buying that play you’re nuts about, You Can’t Take It With You, for $200,000 – that last year I told you I wouldn’t pay two hundred G’s for the second coming.” Capra later admitted after the Cohn meeting that “disgust and admiration swirled through my head…He disarmed me with my own specialty: sentiment. Capra-corn.”
Even if the director had been furious at Cohn for promoting If You Could Only Cook as if it were a Capra movie, he must have seen the film because he cast Jean Arthur in his next feature Mr. Deeds Goes to Town (1936), which Arthur made directly after this. Arthur would continue to shine and steal the spotlight in such subsequent Capra productions as You Can’t Take It With You (1938) and Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939) but if you’ve never seen her in If You Could Only Cook, you’re in for a treat. The film airs occasionally on Turner Classic Movies but it is still available as one of four titles on Volume 1 of the DVD series Icons of Screwball Comedy from Columbia; the other titles include 1940’s Too Many Husbands (also starring Jean Arthur) and two Rosalind Russell comedies, My Sister Eileen (1942) and She Wouldn’t Say Yes (1945).
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