The lovers in the 1936 romantic comedy "The Moon's Our Home" are a pair of
vain celebrities who decide that the only thing more fun than pulling a
Garbo is pulling a Garbo with each other: They want to be alone --
together. Margaret Sullavan plays Cherry Chester (nee Sarah Brown),
a spoiled-brat movie star whose domineering high society granny bids her to
come to New York. Seems the old girl doesn't like the attention her
granddaughter is getting from a certain Egyptian prince (white lilies
delivered daily, phone calls, that sort of thing) and has determined to
marry her off to wealthy, hapless and well-meaning cousin Horace (Charles
Butterworth). "He's a monument to respectability," somebody says in defense
of Horace, to which Cherry replies, "So's Grant's Tomb, but who wants to
marry it?" For better or worse (and richer or poorer), fate won't seal her
up in unholy matrimony to Horace.
Fate arrives in the person of Anthony Amberton (nee John Smith --
played by Henry Fonda), a famous author/explorer who, pursued by a horde of
ravening fans, leaps into the back of Sarah's horse-drawn carriage as it
glides down Fifth Avenue. (A variation on this bit would later turn up in
"Singin' in the Rain.") Their first exchange sets a tone of sophisticated
and nonsensical frivolity that characterizes the whole movie. Eyeing this
lanky stranger in the torn suit who's plunked down beside her, Cherry asks,
"What's new?" as if he were an old pal, and he says, "Everything's about
the same," as if he'd just pulled up a bar stool.
It doesn't take long for them to discover that they both hate civilization,
rules and conventions. That's less a matter of philosophy than temperament.
The movie star and the celeb writer are so wrapped up in their own worlds
that neither has any idea who the other is. The joke of the movie is they
still don't know as they proceed to court, spark, marry and part.
"The Moon's Our Home" is forgotten now, although it's really among the
cream of the crop in a decade that produced the most sparkling and witty
romantic comedies the movies have ever seen. It's in a class with pictures
like "Trouble in Paradise," "The Lady Eve" and "Holiday." The tone, though,
is completely its own. Joseph A. Valentine's photography gives the movie a
sleek, silvery art deco look. "The Moon's Our Home" is a perfect title: The
elegant foolishness of the goings-on makes it feel like it's taking place a
few feet off the ground. Sullavan and Fonda play at love like a pair of
aviators trying to impress each other, swooping and rolling with carelessly
daring agility. Even their marriage is a dare. Anthony takes Cherry skiing,
and when she falls and refuses his help in getting up, he makes her a bet:
If she can't right herself on her own, she has to marry him. The pair argue
their way through the entire ceremony. All the deaf justice of the peace
(Walter Brennan) hears are their indignant exclamations of "I most
certainly do!" and "Of course!" and before they know it, he's pronounced
them man and wife.
The script is credited to Isabel Dawn and Boyce DeGaw, but the flavor of
the movie probably has more to do with the rewrite by Dorothy Parker and
Alan Campbell (they're credited with additional dialogue). Parker and
Campbell were married at the time, and the sparring familiarity of the
lines they provided is given an extra push by the fact that Sullavan and
Fonda had been married and divorced by the time they made this movie.
There's probably no movie that's funnier about the rapturous volatility of
a love/hate affair.
Sullavan and Fonda are supported by a brace of wonderful second bananas. As
Cherry's would-be fiancé, Butterworth is a genial cartoon of
constant befuddlement. He suggests Stan Laurel crossed with Edward Everett
Horton. As the innkeeper's wife at the New Hampshire getaway where Cherry
and Anthony repair, Margaret Hamilton (better known as the witch from "The
Wizard of Oz") has a moment that's lovely precisely because it's so
uncharacteristic. The woman she plays is all scolding, no-nonsense
Yankeeness ("Breakfast is at 8, and we don't hold it for anybody").
Seeing the floor-length silk nightie Cherry has brought with her, she tells
Cherry she'll catch her death in it and offers her one of her own sensible
flannel ones. Cherry accepts but says the only fair thing is a swap.
Hamilton takes the silk gown from Sullavan as if she never dared to dream
she had a right to anything so lovely, and everything about her softens.
"'Tis pretty, isn't it?" she says. That moment is as much of a gift to the
actress Hamilton as the nightgown is to her character. It's a small
testament to how the elegant spirit of romantic comedy can put the most
unlikely of us under its spell.
We think so much of Fonda as the stoic, decent man he played in later
roles that we forget how well he could parody a self-serious young man
knocked cockeyed by love. The sure-footed stride of his blade-thin build
turns wobbly as a noodle as his life is knocked topsy-turvy. In "The Lady
Eve" he tells Barbara Stanwyck that he's drunk on her perfume. Here, he's
allergic to the stuff Cherry douses herself with on their honeymoon night,
and there's no vanity in the way Fonda launches himself into a spoof of
wedding night jitters.
Sullavan didn't make many movies (she's probably best known for
that slice of Lubitsch heaven "The Shop Around the Corner," with James
Stewart), but every time I see her I think there's never been a more
exquisite or enchanting creature to step in front of a movie camera. "Like
a voice singing in the snow" was how Louise Brooks described her
breathless, brandied tones (Brooks called Sullavan "the person I would be
if I could be anyone"), and everything you need to know about Sullavan is
in that voice. It's dusky and dreamy, faraway and so close you can feel its
breath on your ear. Slim, high-waisted and with soft curls grazing her
forehead, she's an almost stylized creation. It's the big eyes and
downturned mouth that link her to the earth. What haunts you about Sullavan
is the way her breathless impetuousness seems always on the verge of real
sadness. Her Cherry Chester is a high-spirited, high-style take on a
pampered movie star, but with a core of genuine feeling at its center.
Sullavan glides through these 80 minutes of bliss with the foolish courage
of someone who, heart worn proudly on her sleeve, knows no other way to get
through life than skating perpetually on thin ice.