Two of my favourite bloggers, Paddy at Caftan Woman, and Rich at Wide Screen World, are teaming up to co-host this blogathon dedicated to screen butlers and maids. Be sure to visit their sites to read all the entries. I can’t wait to read them all myself.
If You Could Only Cook is a little gem which holds a very special place in my heart. Not only is it a lovely and little known film filled with humour and great characters, but it is also the film which first introduced me to the actors Jean Arthur and Herbert Marshall.While I know that my opinion of some films could well change over the years, I know that this one will always remain beloved by yours truly.
Jean Arthur and Herbert Marshall both shine here and their performances in this have become favourites of mine. Herbert is all charm and world weariness as the wealthy man turned servant, while Jean is bubbly and determined as a down on her luck woman who will keep trying to better herself in spite of her current circumstances. This was Herbert’s twenty-first film. Unlike many other actors, it hadn’t really taken Herbert very long to become a popular star, with roles in films such as Blonde Venus and Trouble In Paradise earning him leading man status.
Jean and Herbert. Image source IMDb.
Jean Arthur had been working in films since 1923, but until 1935 hadn’t really given a performance that would change things for her. In this year however she shone, not only in this film, but also in The Whole Town’s Talking. The following year came Mr. Deeds Came To Town. She would quickly become forever immortalised on screen as the no nonsense, tough, and bubbly girl next door type.
If You Could Only Cook is directed by William A. Seiter, who is unfortunately a rather unknown and seldom discussed director these days. He worked steadily all throughout the classic film era, from the Silent era right up until 1954. If he’s remembered at all today then it’s for directing the Astaire and Rogers musical Roberta(1935), and the Shirley Temple version of The Little Princess(1939).
If You Could Only Cook contains many characters who would be right at home in a Frank Capra film, and that is interesting due to how this film was released here in the UK by Columbia Pictures. Capra films were very popular here and it was felt his name would be a box office draw for audiences, so the film was marketed as being a Frank Capra production. Frank Capra however had nothing at all to do with the film and he was furious when he found out what was going on. Capra sued Columbia Studios, and a bitter dispute developed between him and Columbia studio head Harry Cohen. The following year, Frank Capra made his classic Mr. Deeds Goes To Town.His leading lady in that film? Ironically it was none other than Jean Arthur.
If You Could Only Cook is set against the backdrop of the American Depression. Jim Buchanan(Herbert Marshall)is the wealthy head of a large Automobile Company. He is deeply frustrated when his board of directors refuse to accept his latest designs for a new type of car to be built and sold. Leaving his office after an angry meeting with the board which resulted in him deciding to take time off work, Jim takes himself off to the local park.
At the park Jim finds himself sharing a bench with out of work Joan(Jean Arthur), who is looking through job adverts in the paper. Assuming that Jim is also an ordinary person out of work, Joan passes him the job ads. They get talking and Joan persuades him into applying for a Butler and Cook job open to married couples only. Jim plays along with her, agrees to her proposal, and the pair decide to pretend to be married and apply for the vacancy.
The employer is a Mr. Rossini(an hilarious Leo Carrillo)who unbeknown to the couple is the head of a bootlegging gang. Rossini loves his food, and is desperate to hire a cook who knows their job. In a very amusing scene he dismisses a potential applicant because of how she prepares the sauce he asks her to – “Not in my house you don’t put the garlic in the sauce!” To his great delight when it comes to Joan’s interview/test, Joan prepares the sauce the correct way, by wafting the garlic six inches above the surface of the sauce. Joan and Jim are hired. Jim sneaks out at night to take some side lessons on how to pass as a butler from his own butler, Jennings(Romaine Callender, reminding me very much of Eric Blore). Jim is a quick study and makes a very good butler indeed.
So begins a lot of funny moments as Joan and Jim begin work around the house. As they spend more time together it’s clear they are starting to like one another quite a bit. When they get hired they are placed in a double room over the garage, which of course poses problems as regards to the sleeping arrangements. They move a sofa out onto the balcony to serve as a second bed. This aspect of the film reminds me somewhat of the “Walls of Jericho” part of It Happened One Night(1934).
Joan and Jim get to work around the house and get cosy later. Screenshot by me.
While it’s fair to say the film is no masterpiece and only clocks in at 1 hour 11 minutes long, it is however one of the most enjoyable and fun films from the classic era for me. It’s become a comfort film and it’s one I love to return to again and again. I also like that none of the characters are perfect. For all their faults, and for the fact that many lies are told by some of them, you can’t really hate any of the main characters in this. Even after it’s revealed what Rossini does for a living, and even after he comes onto Joan at one point, you still like the guy. The character of Jim serves to show that the rich don’t have happy and perfect lives just because they are rolling in money. Joan serves to show that the unemployed are looking for work and want to work, rather than receive handouts and not gain employment. Rossini serves to remind us that sometimes even someone who does great wrong, can weirdly be a very nice person at the same time.
While Jean and Herbert are undeniably the main attraction of this film, they have fine support from the rest of the cast, Len Carillo stands out as the tough and loud Rossini, who is a real sweetheart, despite the fact he is a thug and orders killings for a living. I love the affection that develops between Rossini and Joan later in the film and how he brings about Joan and Jim’s eventual happy ending.
A young Lionel Stander is absolutely hilarious as Rossini’s baffled pal,Flash. He steals all the scenes he’s in. Years later of course Lionel would get to show off some butler skills of his own, when he was cast as Max in the TV series Hart To Hart.
Let’s hear it for If You Could Only Cook!