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June Moon: Three Cornered Moon (1933)

This month we’re under the sway of the pale satellite in the night sky. Because it’s June, the spotlight is on the Moon. This week Samantha and Adam gaze upon Three Cornered Moon.

ADAM: The Rimplegars, matriarch Nellie (Mary Boland) and her four children, live luxuriously in a mansion in Brooklyn. That is until Nellie’s deep investment in the metal mine Three Cornered Moon tanks in the rapid vortex of the Depression. The carefree days come to a grinding halt and the family must learn to navigate a world of humble self-sufficiency. The Rimplegar children are Elizabeth (Claudette Colbert) and the boisterous brothers Kenneth (Wallace Ford), Eddie (Tom Brown), and Douglas (William Bakewell).

SAMANTHA: I liked this movie from the start. We hear "Sweeping the Clouds Away," a popular song from the era I've always liked. The credits introduce each actor visually, each one walking across in character for a few seconds. The sequence reminded me of those 90s sitcom credits sequences where Candace Cameron notices the cameraman filming her, looks embarrassed, then gives a winning smile. I think the choice to do the credits this way makes sense for the ensemble cast. Each person is a valuable contributor to the overall story, even though some names are better known than others now.

A: Yes, it’s a beautifully done credit sequence and it’s a purely movie-oriented way to start a movie based on a play. The Broadway comedy by Gertrude Friedberg née Tonkonogy still gets an occasional revival which should come as no surprise. By flitting between critiquing capitalism and championing coquetting the play has just the right balance between earnestness and whimsy. It’s similar to You Can’t Take It with You, in that respect. The original stage ensemble included future-film stars Ruth Gordon, Brian Donlevy, and Elisha Cook, Jr. Unless you were a theatergoer in 1933, you’ll have to guess what Ruth Gordon made of this role. Moviegoers of the 21st century will have to make do with Claudette Colbert’s interpretation in B.P. Schulberg’s film production. Fortunately, it’s a performance that expresses a full range of emotions, all endearing. Her body language swings from frumpy reticence to come-hither flirtation in the blink of an eye. Speaking of eyes, her full-moon peepers do so much work they deserve separate billing.

A taxi for every Rimplegar

S: Colbert is gorgeous, and she's also a wonderful comedienne. She delivers her lines earnestly and plays a standard part with intelligence. Sometimes she doesn't get the credit she deserves because she makes it look so easy. Contemporary reviewers seemed to chalk her presence up to window dressing.

One sequence that stood out was when Kenneth (Wallace Ford) woke at the crack of dawn looking for a newspaper to find out the results of the bar exam he took. The anxiety and franticness of this scene rang true, although now the results are posted online.

Actor-turned-director Elliott Nugent deftly directs the film, giving it movement by utilizing multiple locations, incorporating sight gags to emphasize the written comedy, and offering equal screen time to each of the actors instead of favoring anyone.

ELIZABETH: It isn't all mother's fault. After all there's a house full of adults here. The least we could have done was to have realized how incompetent she was and taken things out of her hands. NELLIE: That's right.
Actor-turned-director Nugent

A: Nugent doesn’t go into great detail about this film in his autobiography, Events Leading up to the Comedy other than to say that the success of this modest-budgeted film paved the way for a contract with RKO and a home in Bel-Air. This triumph as a director was just one facet of Renaissance man Nugent. In his memoir, the Ohio-native (and graduate of Ohio State University) details a drunken debate he had with fellow-Buckeye James Thurber. Nugent posited his Platonic theory that one should explore as many careers as possible. In his case, this meant acting, writing, directing, playing tennis, and heading a household. Thurber extolled his Aristotelian belief that man should dedicate himself to just one discipline (a funny idea from a writer who is almost as well known for his illustrations). It’s a curious dichotomy between these two unlikely friends who were able to bring their artistic temperaments together once with the successful play—and later the Henry Fonda and Olivia de Havilland-starring movie—The Male Animal. Even though Nugent is not necessarily the main steering force behind Three Cornered Moon, it’s easy to see his sympathy with the eclectic Rimplegar family. Nugent’s parents were both stage actors—bringing along “Master Elliott, The Boy Monologist” in their vaudeville act—and although his mother gave up the career when her health declined, his father stayed active in film and theater until his death at 79. Look for the director’s cameo as a decidedly dull stockbroker.

It’s also interesting to view Nugent’s quite-literally manic life when thinking about the film’s striking position regarding Colbert’s ne’er-do-well boyfriend Ronald (Hardie Albright). The Irish Times’ review states, “The telling of the story is done so pleasantly, and with such frequent touches of wit that one can even forgive the outlook which regards artists as no better than parasites: a point of view that is brought out rather strongly.” Indeed, for a film about an odd family, it’s most odd how starkly immoral the artist is portrayed. For a good litmus test of an audience (or simply good old-fashioned devil’s advocacy), I suggest leading a post-film discussion about the relative positions taken by the film’s artiste and the bull-headed pragmatist doctor played by the corn-fed Richard Arlen.

S: What I especially like about the story is that when poverty hits the extravagant family, they don't continue to live an impossibly lavish lifestyle. They buckle down, get jobs, and they don't complain about the work, only that their wallets and stomachs are perpetually empty. This family is a team and they're willing to do what it takes to lift each other up, instead of using the opportunity to blame each other and fight. I think that's why Ronald comes out looking so ridiculous by comparison. He isn't willing to change even though times have changed. It's the Great Depression; seeing glamorous actors buckle down and work menial jobs must've been a morale boost to the thousands of unemployed people who went to the movies to escape the desperation of their daily lives. For the price of this ticket, they got to see how the other half lived, and that they could be regular guys too.

A: The comedy is as free-and-easy as Claudette Colbert’s silky garments. The drama is a bit more constricting. Still and all I recommend this one: 3 stars.

S: Photoplay called this, "A laugh from the first moment to the end." Modern Screen Magazine called it, "Good entertainment. Here's a pix that's brimming over with clever situations, uproarious comedy and some real down-to-earth characters." I agree with their assessments; it is a solid film. You can find a copy from the Universal Vault Series. Three stars.

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