Saturday, January 4, 2014

Design for Scandal

TCM is showing a night of Walter Pidgeon movies to go with this week's Essential, The Bad and the Beautiful at 8:00 PM. The second of these movies, Design for Scandal, comes on at 10:15 PM.

Edward Arnold plays newspaper magnate JM Blair. Blair has a wife, Adele, who isn't quite being wifely, so Blair decides he's going to get a divorce with cause: if he can prove she's at fault, he won't have to give up any of his fortune in the divorce settlement. (Didn't they have prenups back in 1940?) Unfortunately, there's a problem. Blair gets in divorce court, Judge Cornelia Potter (Rosalind Russell). Yes, a lady judge. There are men nowadays who claim that famiy court is severely biased against men, although they at least have the claim that it's normal for women to support themselves financially. Back in the 1940s when women were expected to stay home and be housewives, there might have been more of a need for women to get alimony. But the movie plays it more as though of course Cornelia is going to be biased toward the wife, since the judge is a woman.

Blair, being forced to pay a princely sum in alimony, decides that the best way to get out of it is to dig up some dirt on the judge, which would presumably get her brought up on ethics violations or something like that. So he calls on his best reporter, Jeff Sherman (Walter Pidgeon), to get to know Judge Potter and get the dirt. Well, except that Sherman isn't Blair's best reporter right now because he's just been fired again. (How much of this shtick have we seen in Libeled Lady or It Happened One Night?) Sherman takes on the job in exchange for a hefty raise, and follows Judge Potter off to Cape Cod where she's about to go on vacation with her sister and nephew.

You can probably guess what's going to happen next. Cornelia avoids Jeff at first. But then the two finally meet, and you just know they're going to fall in love. That, of course, means serious plot complications: The love affair itself might actually be the dirt on her, since Jeff already has a lady friend he was intending to marry. But Jeff, falling in love with Cornelia, will have moral qualms about giving that dirt to Blair. (Gee, didn't we see some of this in Libeled Lady too?)

When I blogged about Johnny Eager back in April 2010, I suggested that it looks like what you'd get if you put MGM's glitz on a Warner Bros. gangster movie. By the same token, I might say that Design for Scandal could be what you'd get if you took MGM's other values of being oh so morally upstanding and tacked those onto a screwball comedy. And yet, with Libeled Lady five years earlier, MGM had already made one of the great screwball comedies. Design for Scandal, on the other hand, comes across as a bit tired and tedious. Walter Pidgeon and Rosalind Russell try, but they've got such leaden material. They're not bad; it's just that they don't really get the opportunity to show how good they really could be. On its own it's not terrible, but compared to all those other screwball comedies it really begins to pale.

Design for Scandal has received a DVD release from the Warner Archive.

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