… a review, to be followed (probably tomorrow) by some ramblings on film adaptations of books, and why so many tend to fall flat on their faces.
I adore the books of P G Wodehouse. His writing is utterly charming, very witty, and very intelligently (not to mention intricately) plotted. From the loony Lord Emsworth and his pig, the Empress of Blandings, to the always-broke-but-ambitious Ukridge, to Psmith, Bertie Wooster and the omniscient Jeeves… all absolutely fantastic.
Piccadilly Jim, first published in 1918, features none of these famous Wodehouse characters. Instead, it’s about the American ex-newspaperman Jimmy Crocker, who now lives in London. In the words of the blurb on the back of my copy:
“…But no sooner has Jimmy cut a wild swathe through fashionable London than his terrifying Aunt Nesta decides he must mend his ways. He then falls in love with the girl he has hurt most of all, and after that things get complicated.
In a dizzying plot, impersonations pile on impersonations so that (for reasons that will become clear, we promise) Jimmy ends up having to pretend he’s himself…”
Sounds entertaining? It is, and it’s been one of my favourite Wodehouses as long as I can remember. And, ever since I discovered that it was made into a 1936 film starring Robert Montgomery (another favourite), I’ve wanted to lay my hands on a copy. I still haven’t been able to find a DVD, but some kind soul has uploaded the film on Youtube.
This is how the story (in the film) goes. Jim Crocker (Robert Montgomery) is a caricaturist who lampoons British politicians, the glitterati of London, and other celebrities for The London Gossip. Jim himself isn’t a pattern card of respectability; his nights are spent carousing around town, and he spends the day sleeping—to be woken up at ‘the crack of dusk’ by his butler Bayliss (a delightful Eric Blore).
Also part of Jim’s life is his father, Mr Crocker (Frank Morgan). Mr Crocker was, some twenty years ago, an actor on stage. Even now, he keeps practising in an attempt to not lose the touch, but it’s painfully clear that he may never have had the touch. As it is, he prides himself on his greatest role: that of Osric in Hamlet.
Mr Crocker gives Jim some good news: he (Mr Crocker) has fallen in love. The lady is the sweet, shy, gentle Eugenia (Billie Burke), an American who is visiting England with her sister Nesta Pett (Cora Witherspoon), Mr Pett, and the Pett son, Ogden. Mr Crocker hasn’t met them yet, but they’ll be coming to his house the next day. Nesta Pett has already expressed her disapproval of Mr Crocker, so he needs his son to be there to buoy up his spirits.
Jim agrees, and goes off happily for his night out on the town.
He and a friend end up at a bar, quite tipsy and singing crazy songs together, while they address each other as ‘Mr Black’ and ‘Mr White’ (Jim being ‘Mr White’)…
…when they see a gorgeous girl (Madge Evans) walk in on the arm of a young man (Ralph Forbes). Both Jim and his friend are struck by the girl, and concoct a silly little escapade to get acquainted with her. (It involves the friend pretending to be more drunk than he actually is, and trying to make a pass at the girl, until Jim comes and drags him away, thus enchanting her with his gallantry).
The girl, unfortunately, isn’t quite as enchanted by the gallantry of ‘Mr White’ as Jim would’ve liked her to be. She would much rather be left alone with the man she’s with.
Jim, however, refuses to acknowledge any of their hints, and even trails them into the restaurant next to the bar.
It doesn’t do him any good, because the girl, while friendly, makes it quite clear that she’s not fallen for Jim, nor in any danger of doing so. Jim has to sorrowfully take his leave.
He realises, though, that there may be a chance for him. When he’d been pestering the girl for a date, she’d turned him down for everything—lunch, dinner, breakfast; even before breakfast, since she had a ‘date with a horse, down the bridle path’.
So Jim goes riding before breakfast. Sure enough, perseverance pays, and he discovers that:
(a) the girl’s name is Ann
(b) the man she was with at the restaurant is Lord Frederick ‘Freddie’ Priory
(c) she really, really, doesn’t love Jim
Later in the day, Jim goes to his father’s home. The Petts have already arrived, and haven’t quite hit it off with Mr Crocker.
Mr Pett (Grant Mitchell) is a very wealthy man—his is literally a ‘rags to riches’ story, since he’s pioneered a method to convert scraps of cloth into new fabric. He is very proud of ‘Glorious Blossom: the Reconstructed Fabric’.
Nesta is even more proud of their money and social position. This is largely why she looks down on this two-bit ex-actor Eugenia wants to marry; she’s certain that Mr Crocker wants to marry Eugenia for her money.
Nesta’s disapproval is compounded further when she discovers that Mr Crocker is the father of the irreverent ‘Piccadilly Jim’ (as Jim signs his caricatures).
When Jim puts in an appearance—not quite sober, it seems, and accompanied to the door by two policemen—any last hopes of the Petts giving their blessing to the Mr Crocker-Eugenia match go flying out the window. Nesta puts her foot down. There is no way Eugenia can marry someone so disreputable, and with a son who’s so equally disreputable, too.
Thus, we end up with Mr Crocker being disappointed in love, and Jim in the same boat, since he’s now certain he’s in love with the elusive Ann. He spends the next few days moping about, trying to find her—he goes riding every morning, to no avail—and has so completely left off working that the editor of The London Gossip fires him.
After some more moping and blaming his (and his father’s) misfortunes on the Petts, Jim realises that that is a great idea for a comic strip: a series caricaturing the henpecked Mr Pett, the bossy, snobbish Mrs Pett, and their vile offspring. He quickly draws up some samples of what he has in mind (naming the family ‘The Richswitch Family’). Before he knows it, it’s been lapped up by The London Gossip—and it’s become a hit all over London.
…So much so that when the Petts, Eugenia and their niece return to London after a month in the French Riviera, everybody in town is sniggering at them. At first, the family is puzzled; when they realise what’s happened—that ‘Piccadilly Jim’s’ cartoon strip has made them the laughing stock of all of London—Mrs Pett insists that they immediately sail on the next boat to America.
Meanwhile, the lovelorn Mr Crocker has discovered a newspaper photo of his beloved Eugenia, ‘just returned from the French Riviera’, and has cut it out. He shows it off to Jim, who—instead of noticing Eugenia—notices her niece. It’s Ann! He scurries about, getting his gloves and coat and hat, telling his puzzled father that Ann’s the girl he’s in love with—and then Mr Crocker points out a hitch: considering Jim has poked so much fun at Ann’s family, will Ann want to have anything to do with him?
But Jim cheers up. Ann doesn’t know his name. He’ll sweeten her up until she falls for him too, and then he’ll confess who he is. In any case, he’s not caricatured Ann or Eugenia in the comic strip; just the pesky Petts.
Jim manages to find Ann, who’s rushing around trying to get some last-minute dresses that she and her aunts had ordered in London. In the course of their conversation, Ann tells Jim why she and her family are leaving (that very evening) for America: because of this infernal Piccadilly Jim. She makes it very clear that she thinks Piccadilly Jim is a cad, a rotter, and a bounder.
Jim tries to get into her good books by saying he knows Piccadilly Jim and has some influence with him—he’ll get the comic strip stopped.
In the process, Ann asks Jim what his name is. And Jim, stuck, gives the first name he can think of: Bayliss.
And with that, things start getting complex. Despite all of Jim’s efforts (he takes her out into the countryside for tea), Ann isn’t persuaded to stay back in England. She laughs off all of Jim’s attempts to convince her he loves her. Even Jim’s plans to delay her so that she misses her boat cause further complications. She can’t get back to town in time to catch the boat train, but when she phones her family to let them know, the zealous Lord Priory jumps into the breach and offers to chaperone Ann on the next boat, a great relief to Nesta Pett.
…and Jim, desperate to not let Ann out of his sight, buys a ticket on the same boat.
Bayliss, summoned to pack a suitcase and bring it for Jim to the boat train, arrives—and Ann, seeing Jim with him, calls out to Jim, “Mr Bayliss!” And Bayliss turns. “Yes, ma’am?”
So Jim, thinking on his feet, introduces Bayliss—so obviously a butler—as his father.
There’s lots more to come as Jim tries to woo Ann against all odds, and a variety of unforeseen obstacles crop up. But it’s all loads of fun, and you can see the happy end coming a mile off. It always does, in films like Piccadilly Jim. Thank goodness.
What I liked about it:
The sheer light-heartedness of it, and the fact that it doesn’t take itself seriously. Piccadilly Jim is a good example of the 30s and 40s screwball comedies that combined a basic romantic theme with comedy (a lot of it pretty slapstick), witty dialogue, and pretty faces. It’s fun, period.
The acting, especially of Robert Montgomery, Eric Blore and Frank Morgan. Between them, these three stole the show for me, though Cora Witherspoon is very good too.
The plot elements that didn’t really go anywhere, or the characters that didn’t actually need to be there. I won’t say more, because that could constitute spoilers, but the scripting could’ve been tighter.
Madge Evans as Ann. She’s lovely, but she doesn’t quite fit her role here. Her dialogues are witty enough in places, but as an actress, she’s rather more the chic, elegant sort than the spunky and fiery character Ann might appear from her dialogues—Ms Evans isn’t able to portray Ann as anything more than a pretty face. And, frankly, her chemistry with Robert Montgomery doesn’t work too well.
This had to come, didn’t it? After all, when it’s a question of a film based on one of my favourite books, I had to end up comparing the two.
Well, the book is vastly superior to the film. The problem with the film is mainly in the scripting—it retains only about the first one-third of the book. The convoluted (and vastly more entertaining) latter two-thirds of the film involves impersonations, criminals, detectives, and some absolutely crazy and hilarious jugglery of identities. Remember that bit in the blurb about Jim pretending to be himself? That’s what happens in the book. The film, in contrast, just about touches on these impersonations, and leaves out the rest. It focusses largely on the Jim-Ann romance (which, by the way, is only one of the angles in the book).
There are other differences, too; for instance, in characters. In the book, Eugenia is already married to Mr Crocker, and far from being a submissive little woman, is a very bossy female who bullies her husband no end—all because she wants to score over Nesta. Also, two characters who are present in both book and film—Nesta’s obnoxious son Ogden, and Ann’s aristocratic suitor—are actually there in the book as an important part of the cast, since they play pivotal roles in the story as it unfolds. In the film, both Ogden and Lord Priory are reduced to characters who don’t have much to do with the plot.
Incidentally, Ann’s reason for loathing Jimmy Crocker sight unseen is much more believable in the book; it’s not a mere ‘he slighted my family’ thing, as it is in the film.
Verdict: The book’s a winner (you can read it here, legally). The film is pleasant—but it lacks the punch of the book. It’s better than the execrable A Damsel in Distress (1937) or Thank you, Jeeves! (1936), but it’s not Wodehouse.