Following Carmen Jones and a trio of forties’ films noir, the BFI return to Otto Preminger with Danger – Love at Work. The director’s second Hollywood feature, this 1937 effort finds him in somewhat unexpected territory – namely at the helm of a screwball comedy. Of course, such a situation exudes a certain fascination; after all - Preminger’s dealing with much lighter material than can be found in Bonjour Tristesse, say, or The Man With the Golden Arm - and whilst he may not have the sense of timing which distinguished the great screwball directors, from Howard Hawks to Preston Sturges, he nonetheless manages a slick, professional job. If you’re after a perfect demonstration of the standard classical Hollywood style, then Danger – Love at Work certainly satisfies the criterion.
Yet if Preminger is something of a misfit amongst the screwball activities, his assortment of players most certainly are not. Indeed, anyone with a knowledge of thirties and forties cinema will spot the likes of Mary Boland or Franklin Pangborn on the cast list and immediately know what to expect. Not that this is meant as a criticism. Rather we have a bunch of actors doing what they do best, much like a repertory company only a within a wider studio system as opposed to under a single director. (Though, of course, Pangborn would go on to be a regular in Preston Sturges’ own screwballs.)
In fact there’s something quite fitting to all this as Danger – Love at Work plays up the eccentricities. Much like Hawks’ Ball of Fire or, to borrow an example used by Philip Kemp in the accompanying booklet, Frank Capra’s You Can’t Take It With You, the plotting – in this case about a lawyer attempting to persuade an oddball, but wealthy family to sell some land to a hunt club – is merely an excuse for two things: a love story between the two relatively normal characters (Jack Haley and Ann Sothern), and a whole lot of weirdness between the supporting cast. (And not only is it the family who could be classed in this manner, their maids and other house help are revealed to be an assortment of drunks, gamblers and helpless film buffs.)
In both cases the film comes off extremely well. Haley may not be the greatest actor to have graced the big screen – oftentimes he feels more a silent performer owing to his expressive eyes, much like Eddie Cantor when he wasn’t singing – but he makes for a fine partner to Sothern, herself an absolute charm. Moreover, the various eccentricities, which could have easily been overindulged in the wrong hands, prove to be wickedly funny.
Of course, given the nature of all this weirdness, this isn’t perhaps Danger – Love at Work’s best structured part. Yet whilst it can seem like a string of character parts thrown in willy-nilly, writers Ben Markson and James Edward Grant (the latter of whom would go on to a number of collaborations with John Wayne, most notably the flagwavers Sands of Iwo Jima and Flying Leathernecks) have honed the material down to series of sharp and snappy, if wilfully odd, gags. Thus we have Aunts Pitty and Patty, and their strange means of burglar prevention; Uncle Goliath, who is to all intents and purposes a caveman in public, but reads Esquire magazine when no-one is around; and a superb turn by Edward Everett Horton as Sothern’s latest fiancé (and therefore Haley’s love rival) and a man who has dedicated himself to being “masterful”.
Indeed, Horton also demonstrates many of the qualities of the supporting cast as a whole. Though perhaps better known today for his voice-over skills (most notably for lending his tones to the various incarnations of the Rocky & Bullwinkle TV series), his distinctive vocals no doubt come in handy here, yet he also demonstrates a wonderful skill as a physical comedian. Likewise, the gangly, deep-voiced figure that was John Carradine slips perfectly into one of his memorable non-horror roles (were horror and screwball the only true homes for this Hollywood misfit?) as a “post-surrealist” artist clearly modelled, though lovingly so, on Salvador Dali. In fact, the cast a whole reveal themselves to be equally adept at handling the brisk, snappy script and make for a wickedly entertaining hour and twenty minutes.
So where does this leave Preminger, the only person involved in Danger – Love at Work to get his named mentioned on the front cover – and the spine, for the matter? It’s certainly not a distinctive work in auteurist terms and does still seem perfectly reasonable to claim that his career began properly with his subsequent feature, 1944’s Laura. And yet there is something pleasing to come from the knowledge that the director of such twisted efforts as Where the Sidewalk Ends, Bunny Lake is Missing and, indeed, Laura could start out in Hollywood on something so relatively straightforward.
Though the film comes without any special features save for the accompanying booklet, it should be noted that its presentation is often superb. The opening credits demonstrate more than a little flicker, but this soon dissipates to reveal a print of excellent clarity, contrast and cleanliness. I only spotted damage on two occasions, and this was of the moderate variety. Indeed, the only disappointment comes when one of the scenes demonstrates some noticeable judder. As for the soundtrack, we get the original mono (spread over the front two channels) and in mostly pleasing condition. There is the expected background hiss to contend with at times, but otherwise the clarity is extremely good; even the catchy little title song which Sothern and Haley break into towards the film’s conclusion comes across well. Plus the disc comes with optional English Hard of Hearing subtitles to round off the package.
Anthony Nield takes a look at the BFI's Region 2 release of Danger - Love at Work, an early entry in Otto Preminger's filmography here given a fine presentation if poor helping of extras.