If the title didn’t tip you off, the opening shot of a toy yacht steaming across a studio sea half the size of your garage gives notice that we’ve entered the bliss of 1930s Hollywood. “We’re Not Dressing” is a screwball comedy with a cast descended straight from heaven, a film that owes as much to vaudeville and Broadway as to the cinematic arts. It’s not the best screwball you’ll ever see, but shame on you if you don’t love it.
The story is nothing much. Carole Lombard, in trademark clinging satin, portrays a haughty young heiress with a terrible hair-do, plummy accent, and an annoying pet bear; you can’t wait till she’s dunked in the sea. She seems to have no great experience of men, which makes her a sucker for Bing Crosby, a self-confident proletarian with a gift for song who does sweaty stuff below decks and is just the fellow to teach her a lesson. Their romance is a class struggle, which the working class inevitably wins — all this occurring during the happy days before the formation of the House Committee on Un-American Activities.
Most of the fun here is delivered by Leon Errol as a limber-legged drunk, and Ethel Merman, as a practical gal happy to feed on the romantic scraps from Lombard’s table. There’s one gigantic laugh when Errol makes the most of a sheet of glass marked BREAK ONLY IN CASE OF DANGER.
Lombard, at her best one of the greatest comic actors of all time (see “My Man Godfrey” “Twentieth Century,” “Nothing Sacred,” and “To Be or Not to Be”), is not at her best here. But Crosby is. Young, surprisingly sexy despite a soft body in a tight shirt, he’s got something, and it’s not only the catchy “Lovely Little Lady” song that will infest your subconscious for weeks to come.
George Burns and Gracie Allen, seen here halfway between vaudeville and TV, aren’t all that funny, but they’re young and fully themselves. Their appearance here will be soul food for fans. And anybody familiar with the film career of Ray Milland will enjoy his breezy portrayal of a lily-livered society pup.
Did I mention that the yacht hits a reef?
Once the cast, in sopping-wet evening dress, lands on a desert island, the ineptitude of the rich sissies naturally renders them subject to the robust practicality of the working class, as personified by Bing Crosby. This socialist reversal fantasy is big fun so long as we’re focused on firewood and shellfish. But when Crosby, humiliated in love, overpowers Lombard and chains her to a post, 21st century audiences may rebel, In the romantic finale, Lombard tells Crosby, I’ll be good, Steven, really I will. I’ll do anything you tell me to.
Don’t go there, Carole! Chain Bing to the deck until he begs for forgiveness and mends his ways!
Truth is, 1934 is a fair distance from 2011. Across that span of time, the charming association of self-destructive drunks and bullied women with harmless fun has evaporated, more or less. In fairness, though, I was far more disgusted by the finale of the Aeneid, when our hero plunges his sword with merciless triumph into the flesh of a cowering, defenseless, already defeated enemy. That’s not what I would do, but hey, times change.
If we can’t handle these differences in thought and behavior, we lose access to history, to the whole continuum of human experience, to such wisdom as our frail species has developed. That’s fine, so long as we’re willing to swap Carole Lombard, Virgil, and Jesus Christ for Carey Mulligan, Transformers, and Rick Perry. Problem is, you and I –- no matter who we are and no matter where we live — are much the same as all people of all previous eras. If you doubt this, we’ve got to talk.
Being no more than human, we’d all be wise to withhold judgment of others and devote our energies to perfecting ourselves. And since self-mastery is such awfully hard work, let’s feel free to reward our earnest efforts with fair doses of screwball comedy.