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Casanova Brown
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Casanova Brown

A forgotten comedy from the war era, Casanova Brown (1944) represents a noteworthy juncture in the career of Gary Cooper. The middle-aged Cooper had just completed The Story of Dr. Wassell (1944), the last film under his contract to Paramount. After appearing in Paramount films for 18 years, which had turned him into a major movie star, the tall, lanky actor had an itch to do something more than just act. Also, The Story of Dr. Wassell was the last in a string of heavy biopics and tragic dramas for Cooper, and he felt the need to star in something lighter. Casanova Brown afforded him an opportunity to satisfy both urges.

In this slight comedy with a charming cast, Cooper plays the title character, an unassuming young man who is about to marry Madge Ferris (Anita Louise). On the day of his wedding rehearsal, he receives a letter from a maternity hospital in Chicago informing him that he is the father of a baby daughter. Months earlier, Casanova (called Cass) had enjoyed a whirlwind romance with Isabel Drury (Teresa Wright), and the young couple married in haste. But, the Drurys turned out to be an eccentric family, and Cass didn't fit in. The relationship between Cass and his in-laws deteriorated further when he accidentally burned down the Drury mansion, resulting in the annulment of his marriage. But, given the birth of a daughter, there was much more to the marriage than a piece of paper.

Cass returns to Chicago to confront Isabel and discovers that she is about to put up the baby for adoption. He kidnaps his child and takes her to his hotel room where a maid named Monica and a bell captain called Frank help him care for the infant. Cass proposes to Monica to strengthen his parental rights, but Madge, her father, and Isabel descend on the hotel to stake their own claims. When Isabel confesses that she used the threat of adoption to win back Cass, the young parents reconcile.

After starring in three serious films, The Pride of the Yankees (1942), For Whom the Bell Tolls (1943), and The Story of Dr. Wassell, Cooper enjoyed returning to comedy. His star image as the strong, silent man of action and integrity worked differently in comedy, where he tended to be shy and humble or a bit bumbling and naïve on top of his all-American persona. The scenes with the baby relied on the gentle, bumbling side of Cooper's image as the inexperienced Casanova Brown tries his hand at diapering, feeding, and taking care of his newborn daughter. But, the character is dependent on Cooper's trademark integrity, too. On the page, Casanova's abandonment of his first wife, his kidnapping of his daughter, and his willingness to leave his fiancée at the altar represent questionable behavior for a protagonist, but Cooper's trademark integrity helps viewers understand that Cass believes he's doing everything for the right reasons.

Scriptwriter Nunnally Johnson penned Casanova Brown especially for Cooper and tailored the material to suit his star image. Johnson adapted the script from a play titled The Little Accident, which he had seen on Broadway during the 1920s. Actor Thomas Mitchell co-wrote the play with Floyd Dell, who had written the book An Unmarried Father on which the comedy was based. In the novel and play, the main characters were not married, so the baby was illegitimate as indicated by the original titles; however, Hollywood's Motion Picture Production Code would not have approved of that detail in a movie during the Golden Age. The play had been turned into a film once before during the pre-Code era, with Douglas Fairbanks, Jr. as the main character, and there were other versions that wandered afar of the original story. But, the Production Code carried its unique set of limitations, so Johnson reworked the initial situation so that the young couple was legally wed. Despite the softening of the material, the dialogue and innocent nature of the characters helped the story retain an air of scandal.

Casanova Brown represented more than just a comedy vehicle for Cooper, however, it was also the first film from International Pictures, an independent production company formed in January 1944. William Goetz, a former producer at Twentieth Century Fox, served as president of International, with Leo Spitz, the former president of RKO, working the distribution. Johnson was brought in to handle the day-to-day production and to write the first couple of scripts. Cooper, International's largest stock holder at the time, was given a say in creative decisions. A production company and not a studio, International did not own equipment or a sound stage. Instead, they rented equipment and space in order to keep their company small and manageable. At this time, independent production companies were few in number in Hollywood, which was still dominated by the five major studios and three minor ones. However, within just a few years, the Supreme Court's Paramount Decree would break up the oligopoly that the eight largest studios had over the industry, and dozens of small production companies would pop up in the wake. International was a few years ahead of the pack.

Goetz, Spitz, and Johnson planned to make two films per year, with Spitz managing the distribution through a deal with RKO. Cooper's major contribution to Casanova Brown was to bring in his friend Sam Wood to direct. Wood was a studio veteran who had worked in the film industry since 1906 when one of his properties was rented by a movie company to shoot a one-reeler. He began directing in 1919 and earned a reputation as an efficient director who moved the plots of his films along at a fast clip to give them vitality, even when the material was slight. Wood was enjoying his greatest critical success in the early 1940s, having directed Goodbye, Mr. Chips (1939), Kitty Foyle, (1940), The Devil and Miss Jones (1941), Kings Row (1942), and The Pride of the Yankees in a three-year period. Cooper and Wood hit it off during the production of The Pride of the Yankees, and the pair reteamed to make For Whom the Bell Tolls and Saratoga Trunk (1945) in addition to Casanova Brown. The archly conservative Wood, who was outspoken about his anti-communist opinions, died unexpectedly of a massive heart attack in 1949. Whether due to his "style less" directorial style or his conservative views, he has never been fully appreciated by critics or scholars for his ability to bring out the entertainment value in even the slightest of material.

Cooper also had cast approval on Casanova Brown and was particularly pleased to lure Teresa Wright from the Samuel Goldwyn Studio to play Isabel Drury. Though Casanova Brown was only her fifth film, Wright had garnered much critical acclaim for her debut performance in The Little Foxes (1941), for which she was Oscar®-nominated as Best Supporting Actress. The following year she was a double nominee, as Best Actress for The Pride of the Yankees and Best Supporting Actress for Mrs. Miniver (1942). She won the Oscar® for the latter. Wright and Cooper had costarred in The Pride of the Yankees, and the no-nonsense actor was eager to reteam with the serious actress, who eschewed the Hollywood scene to concentrate on her acting.

Though Casanova Brown made some money at the box office and snagged three Oscar® nominations (art direction, sound recording, and scoring), it received mixed reviews and was a disappointment to Goetz, Spitz, Johnson, and Cooper. Undaunted, the group moved on to International's second film, a western comedy called Along Came Jones (1945). Johnson again tailored the script to Cooper's image, this time spoofing his persona as the laconic cowboy hero who is long on action but short on words. This time, Cooper served as the film's official producer. He thought he was well suited to the role of producer because he knew how to cut corners and pare down on waste, which he believed was rampant in the productions of the major studios. Cooper's admiration for Sam Wood was probably founded on the veteran director's ability to bring a movie in on time and on budget, though Stuart Heisler ended up directing Along Came Jones. The production of Along Came Jones not only proved to be a model of economy it was also the most financially successful of International's brief history.

Between his experiences on Casanova Brown and Along Came Jones, Cooper discovered he disliked producing. When crew members came to him with details or questions about the minutiae of film production, such as the appropriateness of a dress for a certain character, he became annoyed. He never produced another film, and he returned to starring in films for the major studios, severing his connection to International Pictures. International produced about 12 films with decent production values over the next few years before merging with Universal in 1946.

At the time, Casanova Brown was more famous for another distinction unrelated to its role in International Pictures and the rise of independent production companies. The film premiered overseas on August 8, 1944, in 16 locations along the Normandy front, so that U.S. servicemen could be the first to watch it. The premiere marked the first celebration held on the soil of liberated France. Before making the film, Cooper had visited U.S. soldiers in the camps and outposts along several fronts and was moved by their bravery and ability to endure harsh conditions. Cooper realized that even in peace time, the men who were soldiers probably could never have visited Hollywood for a real premiere, so he brought the premiere to them.

Producer: Nunnally Johnson
Director: Sam Wood
Screenplay: Nunnally Johnson, based on the play The Little Accident by Thomas Mitchell and Floyd Dell and the novel An Unmarried Father by Dell
Cinematography: John Seitz
Editor: Thomas Neff
Art Director: Perry Ferguson
Music: Arthur Lange
Cast: Casanova Q. Brown (Gary Cooper), Isabel Drury (Teresa Wright), Mr. Ferris (Frank Morgan), Madge Ferris (Anita Louise), Mrs. Drury (Patricia Collinge), Mr. Drury (Edmund Breon), Dr. Zernerke (Jill Esmond), Monica (Mary Treen), Mrs. Ferris (Isobel Elsom), Butler (Halliwell Hobbes).
B&W-91m.

by Susan Doll

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