Saturday, November 14, 2020

Cheaters Sometimes Prosper

Film: The Guardsman
Format: Internet video on laptop.

Adolysti has come through once again. Just as I was resigned to leaving the Oscar list at “all but 8,” Adol found The Guardsman online. Not only does this get me that one step closer (and almost certainly the final step from these earliest years), it completes both Best Actor and Best Actress for 1931/32 for me. In fact, it completes the entirety of the 1930s for both of those categories.

My initial experience with this was similar to the one I had with Libeled Lady. I went into The Guardsman completely cold. In both cases, my first thought was that the movie was going to be serious. The original picture I had found for The Guardsman looked like it was a serious, tragic romance. It’s not. It’s a farce and a screwball comedy, and it’s a very good one, very much like Libeled Lady in that regard.

The basic story here is ridiculously simple, as befits a screwball. An actor (most of the characters are essentially unnamed—the actor is played by Alfred Lunt) and an actress (Lynn Fontanne) are married and a successful stage duo. To the adoring masses, they are wonderful on stage together and madly in love with each other. In reality, they are quarreling, specifically because he has decided that she would be unfaithful to him at first opportunity.

In fact, he has arranged to test her. With the knowledge of their friend, the critic (Roland Young), the actor creates an alternate personality for himself, that of a military man (the guardsman of the title). Under this false persona, he sends her flowers with notes and asks to meet her. To sell the ruse, he creates an excuse to be gone for a day or two, and then dresses up in his military persona to woo his own wife to demonstrate that she is unfaithful to him. That’s it. That’s the entire plot.

The Guardsman is successful for a few reasons. The first is that Lunt and Fontanne are natural together on the screen. They had been married for nine years or so when The Guardsman was made, and both were nominated for Oscars for these roles. It was the only nomination for each of them, and the only time they starred in a movie together; both were far more noted as stage actors than film actors. Lunt and Fontanne were married for more than five decades, so whatever the plot of this may have been, their actual marriage seems to have not had these issues.

It also benefits from the presence of Zasu Pitts as one of the actress’s servants, Liesl, the only truly named character. Pitts, with her moon-shaped face, querulous voice, and constantly flapping hands, was in many ways the model for Olive Oyl (and was sort of the original prototype of Kristen Schaal). Pitts is almost always a joy on screen, and was never used nearly enough even in the films she was in.

So let’s talk about the two central performances. Both Lunt and Fontanne are ridiculously broad, playing to the back seats of the theater as the stage actors they both were. Lunt in particular, in his soldier persona, is absolutely playing this for the comedic potential. Only in a screwball farce could anyone take him and his forced Russian accent seriously. And that’s okay. This isn’t meant to be taken seriously. It’s supposed to be ridiculous, and so it is. Outside of the disguise, Lunt has a great deal of Edward Everett Horton in him, both in mannerisms (the bulging eye double take is a classic), and in his voice.

Fontanne is having a great deal of fun here as well. She’s much more restrained (she would have to be), but is nonetheless having a great time toying with the men in her life. There’s never a doubt that she is in charge in this film, and while Lunt does much of the heavy comedic lifting, it’s Fontanne who is always the focus.

The Guardsman was fun. Screwball comedies don’t always work for me, but this one does. It’s sweet and goofy, and good-natured. Why is this movie so difficult to find? This should be in regular rotation on TCM, but here we are.

Why to watch The Guardsman: Pre-Code comedies are just raunchy enough to be fun.
Why not to watch: The only available version has a lot of white noise in it.

The Guardsman, Best Actor, Best Actress, comedy, romance, Sidney Franklin


  1. This looks like something I'll seek out and if it's on TCM in a remastered/restored version. I'll check it out.

    1. That's just it--since I started looking seriously at Oscar films, it hasn't been anywhere. Here's the link, though:

  2. Congratulations! This was the one I figured you'd be able to track down eventually though I agree it is ridiculous for something like this with all its historical points (two Oscar nominated performances starring a legendary stage couple in their only film) to not be readily available and restored to boot. Get with it Academy!

    I did see it on one of its very rare showings on TCM many years ago and remembering liking it but nowhere near the level of Libeled Lady. But then there are few films I flat out enjoy as much as Libeled Lady.

    Odd that Lunt & Fontanne never made another film but perhaps they thought why be small fish in a big pond when we're already some of the biggest fish in a much smaller pond. I do remember their performances being broad so maybe that played into it too, they weren't comfortable in the medium.

    This gives you a couple more Who Should Have Won? posts too!

    1. I have very minor hope held out for The White Parade, but not really. I think this might be it.

      Honestly, I agree in terms of the quality of this film vs. Libeled Lady. I own a copy of that, and while I wouldn't say "no" to a copy of this, I wouldn't normally seek it out as something to own.

      It turns out that I have also finished Best Actor for 1929/1930 as well--but I'm going to put up posts for those years where I'm missing films as well. I may as well, since I'm almost certainly never going to get them.