In cinematic screwball comedies of the 1930s/1940s, wealthy people were always given a hefty transfusion of eccentricity in order to make them more accessible to non-wealthy folks. (Rich people! They’re just like us!) That is most definitely the case with the Kilbourne family, a clan whose matriarch Emily (Billie Burke) has an interesting hobby: hiring transients to work on the Kilbourne estate. We never meet “Ambrose” in person, but as the opening credits of Merrily We Live (1938) close, the audience learns that Ambrose has departed from the family’s fortunes…with a large fortune (namely, all the Kilbourne silverware) in tow.
La Familia Kilbourne will not be without a “tramp” in their employ for long, however. When Wade Rawlins (Brian Aherne) watches helplessly as the rattletrap he rented rolls off a cliff, he winds up at the front door of the Kilbourne’s, requesting to use their telephone. Rawlins is mistaken for a man “down on his uppers” and, hired to be the new chauffeur, soon gets a first-hand glance at a family who—with an exception or two—really should be locked up in Casa del Cashew. Along the way, Wade falls in love with eldest daughter Geraldine (Constance Bennett)—known to close friends and family as “Jerry”—in that delightful way of classic movie comedies from the past.
Flush from the box office smash that was Topper (1937), Hal Roach recruited three of that film’s stars—Bennett, Burke, and Alan Mowbray—to appear in Merrily We Live, a motion picture based on E.J. Rath’s 1924 novel The Dark Chapter (A Comedy of Class Distinctions). Rath’s book had already been adapted for the stage in They All Want Something (by Courtenay Savage) in 1926, and produced for the silver screen in 1930 as What a Man. Merrily doesn’t acknowledge either Rath’s novel or Savage’s play in its opening credits, but the screenplay penned by Eddie Moran and Jack Jevne (and uncredited contributions by some newspaper columnist named Ed Sullivan) borrows the same plot and the names of some of the characters (Rawlins and the Kilbourne family—though Bennett’s Jerry goes by “Eileen” in the 1930 film).
The plot of Merrily We Live is somewhat reminiscent of My Man Godfrey (1936) with its “Forgotten-Man-is-practically-a-member-of-the-family” premise. (Carole & Co.’s own Vincent Paterno remarked to me on Facebook that Universal had originally wanted Constance Bennett for the female lead in Godfrey, but co-star William Powell exercised a strong veto.) The fact that the source material for Merrily was written before the novel that became Godfrey (Eric S. Hatch’s 1101 Park Avenue) would throw a little water on those critics who opine that Merrily is merely a carbon copy (admittedly, I had the same opinion until I did the research)…but at the same time, you can’t completely overlook that a few Godfrey elements seep into the film. I watched Merrily many, many years ago (I try to watch as much of the Roach product as I have access to because I’m such a big fan) and to be honest, I kind of dismissed it as “Godfrey-lite” at first viewing. As a rule, movies about lovable wealthy families tend to peg my Cynic-o-Meter into the red because I tend to sympathize more with the proletariat; I always think of that wonderful line of Robert Greig’s Burrows in Sullivan’s Travels:
You see, sir, rich people and theorists—who are usually rich people—think of poverty in the negative, as the lack of riches…as disease might be called the lack of health. But it isn’t, sir. Poverty is not the lack of anything, but a positive plague, virulent in itself, contagious as cholera, with filth, criminality, vice and despair as only a few of its symptoms. It is to be stayed away from, even for purposes of study. It is to be shunned.
Because ClassicFlix asked me to contribute the back notes on their Blu-ray/DVD release of Merrily We Live (released on August 28) I thought it might be a good idea to refresh my memories of the movie…and to my surprise, it played much better at a second glance. I’d be lying to you if I didn’t admit that I roll my eyes now and then at some of its plot elements (particularly when what the Rawlins character does for a living is revealed)…but the most part, it’s a falling-down funny film put together by consummate comedy professionals—its director was the legendary Norman Z. McLeod (who had held the reins on the previous Topper). My Facebook compadre, writer Stephen Winer, speaks wisely and well when he remarks: “The thing about these Hal Roach-produced comedies is that they have hard jokes in them. A lot of studio comedies of this period have the general air of comedy but few real laughs (think of the Paramount Claudette Colbert films, for example).”
You can choose to believe it or don’t…but according to the [always reliable] IMDb, Ronald Colman was considered for the role of Wade Rawlins. If this is true (I’m a bit skeptical but that’s just my nature), it’s fitting that Brian Aherne wound up playing the part because the underrated Aherne acquired a reputation throughout his career as “the poor man’s Colman.” It does the actor a disservice, however, because Brian was extraordinarily good when he was in his element (he had a flair for light comedy; I’m a big fan of his turn in 1943’s A Night to Remember) and he’s exceptionally excellent in Merrily We Live because from the moment we first see him onscreen he’s clearly determined to have fun with his role (Aherne’s hysterical in a “making faces” scene with Bennett)—he’s parachuted into a family of lunatics and he’s just going to go with the flow.
As Jerry Kilbourne, Constance Bennett is allowed to move back and forth from family protector to slightly loopy heiress (she pretends to make fudge—with pickles—to keep from acknowledging to Wade that she’s spying on him). I think I prefer Bennett in Merrily than I do her more celebrated turn in Topper, to be honest. As Mama Kilbourne, Billie Burke demonstrates she had no peer when it came to portraying dotty society matrons; my favorite bit of business involving Billie in Merrily is when she chides her younger daughter Marian (Bonita Granville): “My mother always told me that children should be seen and not heard.”
“Yes, but your mother was smarter than my mother,” cracks Marian in response, to which Emily blithely returns “I know she was.” I’ve always been fond of Bonita, but she practically walks off with the movie as the free-spirited Marian, constantly scheming to cadge four bits from any family member (even Rawlins!) and accompanied by two large dogs who answer to “Get off the rug!” and “You, too.” Second place acting honors go to character veteran Clarence Kolb as the Eugene Pallette-like Henry Kilbourne (the family patriarch). Irascible and apoplectic, Kolb’s Henry also has a tender and supportive side (I love his scene with Bennett as he gives his daughter romantic advice) but he gets major props for executing some outstanding physical comedy in this (he takes two incredible pratfalls in Merrily’s hilarious climax—and this from a guy who was in his sixties at the time). (I know Kolb mainly from His Girl Friday  and TV’s My Little Margie, so he really impressed me here.)
Merrily We Live boasts a wonderful supporting cast in Alan Mowbray (who gets the last lines like he did in Topper), Patsy Kelly, Tom Brown, Marjorie Rambeau, Willie Best, Philip Reed (as Bennett’s wanker boyfriend), and Marjorie Kane; TDOY fave Ann Dvorak is also on hand though her role as a woman competing with Bennett for Aherne’s affections is sadly underwritten. Merrily did both very well at the box office and when it came time for Oscars to be handed out; Burke received the only acting nomination of her career (well-deserved) in addition to nods for the film’s cinematography, art direction, sound recording, and original song (which is featured during the film’s opening credits as members of the cast walk arm-in-arm up the driveway of what presumably is the Kilbourne estate). It makes the rounds of The Greatest Cable Channel Known to Mankind™ from time to time…but you’re going to want to purchase ClassicFlix’s newly transferred and restored Blu-ray. (Because I asked you nicely.)