Despite being included in Mill Creek’s Comedy Kings box-set, I would not class The Animal Kingdom as a comedy. To me, this film – known in the UK as The Woman in His House – is a romantic drama.
The film’s screenplay is based on a stage play (by the same name) by Philip Barry, who would later also write The Philadelphia Story for the stage. The film was directed by Edward H. Griffith, but according to imdb he did not finish the film and George Cukor had to film the final scenes.
+++ Tom Collier (played by Leslie Howard), an artistically-minded young man from a very rich family, owns and runs a small, artsy publishing house. Much to the chagrin of his father (Henry Stephenson), who believes that Tom is wasting his time and his talents and should rather enter the real business world. Tom’s unconventional outlook on life also includes an on-again-off-again semi-platonic affair with an artist friend, Daisy (Ann Harding). So his father is delighted to learn that Tom has decided to marry a respectable woman (Myrna Loy). But Tom’s friendship to Daisy suffers greatly from his marriage. +++
The story is stretching over quite some time – at least 18 months, from what I can tell. The passage of time is indicated, amongst other things, by showing houses/streets with and without snow. While The Animal Kingdom is a romantic drama framed around a love triangle of sorts, at its core it is the story of one man’s struggle to navigate between his artistic integrity and the demands of the marketplace: artful books vs. novels that sell; artist friends vs. respectable society; passion vs. money. The question is: does “growing up” and being respectable mean that Tom will lose himself and his dreams?
The comedy, such as there is, is shouldered by supporting characters and their interactions. Tom’s ill-disciplined butler Red (William Gargan), who is really just an injured, unemployed prize-fighter, is not as amusing as the director intended. His drunken acting mostly falls flat. But he is very funny when he interacts with “respectable” people, first and foremost Tom’s father. Ilka Chase is very good as the shallow but sharp-tongued socialite Grace, but she has very little screen-time. Apart from Leslie Howard, Chase and Gargan are the only cast-members of the stage play who reprised their roles for the film.
As for the main cast, Myrna Loy is very good in her role, which came before her career really took off. British actor Leslie Howard – though only 39 at the time – looks too old and haggard for a romantic lead. He certainly doesn’t pass for the 31 he is supposed to be in the story. It is the same problem I had with Sinatra in Double Dynamite. There is also something weird about his makeup, especially in the early scenes. It simply looks “off”, and it makes Howard look pale and sickly. And there is too much lipstick, so he looks a bit like an actor in an early silent film. I guess it is possible – given the amount of time that passes over the course of the story – that they tried to make him look younger in the earlier scenes and ended up using too much makeup.
I addition, Tom comes across as both fragile and prickly – as does Harding’s Daisy. So, in a way it works: we have two artistically-minded characters who are different from the world around them. But somehow I find it difficult to connect to either of them.
The sets look nice, and the dialogue is well written (as you would expect in a film based on a play); while the music, presided over by famous composer Max Steiner, is largely unremarkable.
There is not much more to say about this film. The story plays out as you expect it to. And there is a weirdly misogynist vibe to the film that turns sour towards the end.
Rating: 5.5 to 6.0 – perfectly serviceable as a drama, but not the comedy I was led to expect.
I am not quite sure how the production schedule worked out, but things seem to have moved very quickly in those days. The play opened on Broadway in January 1932, and when it proved to be a success, the decision to make a film must have been made rather soon, and the negotiations and paperwork must have been done very quickly. Because although there were some casting issues and delays in filming, the film (with pre-production, shooting, post-production, copying, etc., etc.) still managed to open in cinemas by the end of 1932.
The film seems to have lost its studio (RKO) over 100.000 dollars. According to imdb, RKO considered re-releasing it later in the 1930s to recoup some more money, but the now-enforced Hayes Code did not allow for that, because of some innuendo and other elements in the film.
This may have contributed to a general loss of interest in the film, although MGM later bought the rights for a remake that never happened. The Animal Kingdom‘s copyright lapsed in 1960 and so it came into the public domain; and the film was considered more or less lost until the early 1980s when Ronald Haver stumbled upon a mislaid copy at MGM, which was apparently stored (and lost) there when MGM bought the remake rights in the 1940s.