Tuesday, March 21, 2023

Martha's affairs

I've argued before that MGM had a lot of polish in its pictures, and sometimes that was too much polish for its own good. I think that's the case with a B movie I watched recently, The Affairs of Martha.

The movie stars off by telling us it's set in the town of Rock Bay on Long Island, one of those ritzy rich towns with all the proper decorum. So proper, in fact, that the town tut-tuts if anybody's too loud. But the town is about to get in a tizzy, because somebody is going to violate that decorum. New York gossip columnist Joel Archer (Allyn Joslyn) informs the fine people of Rock Bay, and the rest of the region, in one of his columns that a new book is about to be published. That book has been written by one of the maids in Rock Bay who, like Grace Metalious a dozen years later in Peyton Place, used the people in town as a model for her book. No wonder the upper-class populace of Rock Bay is in that tizzy.

The likeliest family to have a maid that would write such a book are the Sommerfields, with parents Melville Cooper and Spring Byington, and daughter Virginia Weidler. They're one of those less-than-normal families that you'd find in screwball comedies like the recently-mentioned Joy of Living, although this isn't really a screwball comedy. The family also has two maids, McKissick (Marjorie Main) and Martha (Marsha Hunt). As you might be able to guess by the title, Martha will turn out to be the one who wrote the book, and the rest of the town is going to learn this in the final reel.

Of course, Martha has much more going on in her life. The Sommerfields do, too. They've also got a son, Jeff (Richard Carlson), whom I haven't mentioned before simply because he hasn't shown up yet. He's studied anthropology, and is currently on an expedition to the Arctic to study dementia in the eskimos, who were not yet called the Inuit by polite society. He hasn't even come back for the start of the war; although the film was released in June of 1942 it feels like it was set some time before the war because there's no mention of any sort of outside affairs other than Jeff's being in the Arctic.

Jeff is about to return from the Arctic though, and this makes Martha very happy. You see, before Jeff left for the Arctic, the two of them got drunk at some sort of a party that resulted in the two of them getting married with almost nobody -- other than Archer -- knowing about the marriage. Jeff and Martha agreed that she was going to get an annulment while he was in the Arctic, but she couldn't get the time off work to go to Reno to get that divorce. And she decided she was going to write a book to show Jeff that she was as much a part of the intelligent people as all those upper-class people she and her class have been working for.

Unfortunately, Jeff wasn't counting on any of this. On his way back from the Arctic, he met Sylvia (Frances Drake) and immediately fell for her, to the point that he returned home engaged to her, and with her in tow. But because Martha hasn't annulled the first marriage....

The big problem with The Affairs of Martha is that it feels like the screenplay goes all over the place. The opening, and the synopses, all deal with the fact that a maid has written that book. If the movie stayed there, it could have mined the vein of comedy in movies like Theodora Goes Wild, and yes, I know Irene Dunne and Melvyn Douglas have a romance in that one. Here, however, the romantic conflict comes in out of nowhere, making the movie feel like it's doing too much for a 66-minute B film. On top of that, there's all the antics of the family in the third act. Somebody could have written a tighter script for The Affairs of Martha, and we would have gotten a pretty good B movie. Instead, we get a bit of a muddle, with MGM trying to cover it up with its production values.

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