It All Came True (1940) Directed by Lewis Seiler. Ann Sheridan, Humphrey Bogart, Jeffrey Lynn. (97 min).
Nostalgia comes in waves. You may be nostalgic for your own youth, but also that of your parents, or your grandparents. My daughter is obsessed with the Bad Old New York of the 1980s (just before she was born) but also the midcentury modern style of my youth. Louis Bromfield, writing in the 1930s, looked back at a New York City that seemed very different, of dark Victorian houses, the horse and buggy, and a kinder, gentler pre-Prohibition city where nobody was “hard-boiled.” This story takes place in a forgotten corner of the metropolis, Murray Hill. A residential neighborhood in the east 30s, it has stubbornly resisted becoming newly fashionable, true even up to the present day.
Sheridan wears this gown to sing for the residents of her mother’s boarding house.
Bromfield is a nearly forgotten figure in the 21st century, but he was a very popular author in the 20th, starting in 1924, with The Green Bay Tree, a strange family story about two generations of unhappy women, and their constrained lives in a steel mill town that could be Cleveland, Ohio. His works were often adapted for the movies, perhaps the best known one was The Rains Came, a melodrama set in India. The 1939 version starred Myrna Loy and Tyrone Power, remade in 1955 as The Rains of Ranchipur with Lana Turner and Richard Burton. The book is a compelling read, based on the author’s own experience living in India, and the earlier film is also excellent. I haven’t been able to bring myself to watch Burton play an Indian physician. Bromfield was an early proponent of what we would call organic, or sustainable farming, and he owned a farm near Mansfield, Ohio, Malabar Farm, that was a working prototype of his theories. He gave it an Indian name, in homage of the time he spent on the subcontinent studying soil conservation. Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall were married at his home in 1946. Now owned by a foundation, it continues its owner’s original mission, with the addition of tours and other special events. In the back of the pocket edition of The Green Bay Tree, About the Author states: “Louis Bromfield is described as tall, spare, broad-shouldered, with legs and arms that are loosely but powerfully articulated, quick to smile and given to vivacious gestures. His leisurely manner is deceptive, for by nature he is alert and eager.”
“It All Came True” appeared in Cosmopolitan Magazine in January, 1936. This was a different publication from the modern day version of Cosmopolitan. A book-length short story, the tagline was “a novel as unbelievable and as fantastic as modern New York, itself.” Warner Brothers paid $50,000 for the screen rights, a price validating the author’s popularity and fame. His name is above the movie’s title! The producer of the film was Mark Hellinger, a hard-drinking, fast talking Broadway journalist and pal of various underworld characters. He came to Hollywood first as a writer, but stayed on as a producer, first on Warner Brothers gangster films like The Roaring Twenties and High Sierra, and then as an independent producer at Universal where he produced three seminal films noir, The Killers, Brute Force and The Naked City. Hellinger was an old friend of Bogart’s from New York, and did what he could to support Bogart’s career. Hellinger dressed like a gangster and drove murdered bootlegger Dutch Schultz’s bulletproof Lincoln. According to Sheridan, the studio wanted to cast Bette Davis as Sarah Jane, which would have been ridiculous, but David turned it down. Or, maybe, she automatically just got first pick of everything. According to Sheridan, Hellinger saw her test and said, “I want her” and he had a lot of influence at the studio, so Sheridan was cast (Hagen and Wagner 177).
1940s scrapbooks had a fair number of photos of Sheridan–but not as many as of Rita Hayworth. And, in my entire collection, no pictures of Jeffrey Lynn
According to Forbidden Fruit: The Golden Age of the Exploitation Film, “The Depression years were a time of great myth-making, and the myth Americans were returning to was a 19th century ideal of archetypal, sturdy, largely white American values…But film was uniquely conflicted, for it often favored a conservative, pre-industrial Victorian mindset while representing to many skeptics of progress, the very machinery and industrialization and big city values that were threatening America” (Feaster and Wood 76). Bromfield’s story is almost a parody of that nostalgia, in which desire for the lifestyle of one’s grandparents could be distilled to the essence; a plate of Ma’s Irish stew and a nightclub review with a barbershop quartet.
Like the film version (which follows the story more closely than I would have imagined) the setting is the moth-eaten boarding house of two elderly women, who have inherited it from Miss Minnie, a wealthy socialite for whom they worked when she was alive. One is the mother of a feckless son, Tommy, and the other, a restless daughter, Sarah Jane.
“That was the trouble with Tommy. He would have made an excellent butler, like his father, with his good looks and his gentlemanly air, but education had unsettled him. It was really his father’s fault. It was Mr. Lefferty who let poor Miss Minnie educate Tommy, and teach him to play the piano. And it was American ideas and those dancing lessons that poor Miss Minnie had given Sarah Jane, which sent her off into the chorus with ideas about becoming a famous actress, instead of being content with being a good typist and coming home regularly with her money…” Instead, their mothers are quietly lonely for their children, lost to the Big City, while providing “a shelter and a refuge for those in the march of time had lagged behind…” (Bromfield).
Here is an illustration from the story in Cosmopolitan
Sarah Jane seems tailor made for Ann Sheridan, an actress who always seemed a little bit second string to movie glamour girls like Rita Hayworth. “At home she was known as Sarah Jane, but when she crossed 6th Avenue into the world of theaters and night clubs, she was known simply as ‘Sal’ and sometimes as ‘Big Sal’ because she was at once bold and beautiful, hot-tempered, honest, provocative and virtuous, she was always in trouble and rarely held a job”(Bromfield).
Ann Sheridan was born Clara Lou Sheridan in Denton, TX, the youngest of five children. When she was finishing up at North Texas Teachers’ College, one of her sisters sent her photo to a Paramount “Search for Beauty” contest, and she was one of six finalists who came to Hollywood with small contracts, and the only one who stayed. Sheridan did extra work, doubled and did inserts (close ups of hands and feet) until her contract ran out, and then she moved to Warner Brothers, changing her name to Ann. She was dubbed “The Oomph Girl” and some articles said she disdained the title. But she said in a later interview, “It was a press agent’s invention, but I adopted it whole heartedly” (Hagen and Wagner 176). She was a redhead, down to earth, with a bemused sensuality, “She seemed confident, unhesitant, and she wore the experience of having fought off men as if it were a Girl Scout badge…She could play in musicals as well as comedies and dramas, and she was built to wear the insane clothes of the 1940s. She was one gal who could carry off any crazy getup, no matter what was stuck on her—feathers, chunky jewelry, or portfolio sized purses. As with Eleanor Powell, no outfit ever wore Ann Sheridan” (Basinger 86). In It All Came True she was top billed for the first time, and the studio began to appreciate her abilities. After this film, she made the most well remembered movies of her career.
“I just thought of something that I dimly remember from when I was a tot. Haven’t seen them since, but others around my age have remembered them, too. A series of mystery books using the names of the stars as part of the titles, like “Ann Sheridan and the case of…
” –Ann Sheridan and the Sign of the Sphinx, I’ll have you know. I’ve got a copy that they sent me, but I haven’t had the nerve enough to read it. Utterly horrible, I’m sure. I flipped through a couple of pages, and I couldn’t bear it.” (Hagen and Wagner 196)
As a small digression, three years later she made a film called Edge of Darkness with Errol Flynn. In it, they played Norwegian resistance fighters in a small coastal town commandeered by the Nazis. Sheridan’s character is raped, in that oblique way characters were in classic Hollywood (thanks Production Code for not sensationalizing assault). Flynn’s character is enraged, and ready to avenge her honor and she slaps him, furious that he is making her experience about him, and endangering their comrades. This is the kind of scene that was usually played by “serious” actresses like Bette Davis, or Joan Crawford, but Sheridan is electrifying. I’m not sure another actress classified as a “pin-up” could have been as powerful. It’s a great scene.
And so in this film, audiences began to appreciate Ann Sheridan, just as Mr. Grasselli does in the film. “He had begun to discover what it was that Sarah Jane had—that special something which she had never been able to define or clarify. The Sarah Jane that Mr. Grasselli saw in a moment of revelation was a great comedienne—a better comedienne than she was a singer, and she was a pretty good singer, too. The trouble was that nobody had ever before been able to see beyond her beauty and her famous figure. They’d never let her do anything, but show her body, never suspecting that Sara Jane had other assets, more lasting, which might carry her to fame” (Bromfield).
Unlike many of the characters he played, Humphrey Bogart was an upper crust New Yorker. He was the son of a successful Manhattan surgeon and his wife, Maud Humphrey, a noted magazine illustrator, who had studied with James McNeill Whistler. A drawing of her adorable baby boy was used for many years as a baby food advertisement. The family lived in a fashionable Upper West Side Apartment, and owned a vacation home upstate. Maud Humphrey made $50,000 a year, an astronomical sum at the turn of the century, and more than twice as much as her husband. After prep school at Andover, rather than going to medical school at Yale, per the family’s plans, Bogart enlisted in the Navy in WW I and then pursued a career on the New York stage, which led, eventually, to the movies.
He had been working at Warner Brothers for years, exchanging gunfire with James Cagney and Edward G. Robinson, but he had yet to find stardom. 1940 was his “final phase of purgatory: at the studio” (Meyers 109). A story circulating in Hollywood in the late 1930s had Bogart complaining to studio chief Hal Wallis about his uninteresting roles. “Look, you want Raft’s roles, Raft wants Eddie Robinson’s and Robinson wants Muni’s roles.” “That’s simple. All I do is bump off Muni and we all movie up a step” Bogart is supposed to have said. (Sperber and Lax 122). This part was another of the many that was offered to George Raft, and which he turned down, disdainfully calling it “a Humphrey Bogart part” (Sperber and Lax 112.) It was a rare opportunity for Bogart to use his comic chops, the gangster stuff comes naturally, but being tucked in bed and fed soup by a dotty old lady perhaps does not. He had played another comic role a few years before, in Stand In, but these parts remained exceptions in his career.
Typically for a contract player, for four weeks Bogart worked on two films at once, playing a mustachioed villain in a dusty Nevada boomtown opposite Errol Flynn in Virginia City in the mornings, and, skipping lunch, Mr. Grasselli in the afternoon. The screenwriters couldn’t decide if Grasselli was a good guy or a bad guy, which, like the storied inability to decide if Ilsa Lund in Casablanca would leave with her husband or stay with Bogart’s Sam, actually seems to give the actor room for a little subtlety in what could be a stock character. You have to admire Bogart’s skill at varying a gangster part like the ones he’d played many times before.
Sheridan and Bogart
One major change from the source material was that in Bromfield’s original, the gangster was just biding his time while his lawyer prepared for some tax evasion issues. In the film, the stakes are higher, Grasselli has shot a man (a squealer, but still) with a gun that he has intentionally registered to Jeffrey Lynn’s Tommy, so he can turn him in to the cops if the occasion arises. The reviews headlined, “Bogart Steals Comedy Honors” Humphrey Bogart Excels” and “Humphrey Bogart Tops,” all of which was unaccustomed attention for the hard- working actor. Louis Bromfield, a friend of Bogart’s, wrote to the producer at Warner Brothers praising Bogart, “I doubt that his talents as a comedian, which are very great, have been enough appreciated” (Sklar 102). “Nevertheless, Bogie turned in one of the best comedy performances I’ve ever seen” (Sperber and Lax 102). His next film was arguably his professional nadir, as sinister Doctor X, revived from the dead.
Jeffrey Lynn was not a particularly distinctive leading man, but his bitterness, as Tommy, gives his character some depth. He was born Ragnar Godfrey Lind in Massachusetts. He graduated from college with an education degree, but he became interested in acting, and taught high school drama while doing small parts on stage. Spotted by a Warner Brothers scout, he was signed to a contract in 1938. In his second film, Four Daughters, he played the good boy opposite the bad boy, John Garfield, whose career was also bolstered by this hit film. He was a reliable leading man at Warner Brothers until joining the Army in 1942. He returned to acting after the war and continued acting until 1990; at the end of his career, he was featured in the tv soap, Knot’s Landing. Strangely enough, Jeff Goldblum, born Jeffrey Lynn Goldblum, was named for the actor, which is a strange bit of trivia courtesy of Wikipedia.
The character actors who fill out the eccentrics in the boarding house are, of course, a highlight. Una O’Connor as one of the stubborn but sentimental landladies, Felix Bressart (Ninotchka, The Shop Around the Corner) as the incompetent magician, Mr. Boldini, forever jealous of the attention given to his performing dog, and comic actress Zasu Pitts. During one scene, she fusses and flutters over the tulle scarf draped around her shoulders, giving a master class in prop comedy.
Bogart, John Litel and Zasu Pitts
Felix Bressart in costume as Mr. Boldini
Part of the fun of the film is the musical review at the end, which is not detailed in the novel. In fact, in the story, the nightclub is meant to be a one off, just to pay the old ladies’ bills. In the film, the indication is that it will be an ongoing concern. Whoever was in charge of staging that review, certainly hit a wonderful combination of nostalgia and parody, where the old ladies rocking in their chairs become a hot-cha chorus, and the old fashioned songs that the audience is encouraged to join alternate with new songs written for the review, including the catchy “Angel in Disguise” which Sheridan sings, delightfully, dressed as the 1940s version of a Gibson Girl by designer Howard Shoup.
I don’t want to oversell this amusing trifle. It All Came True is entertaining, and a little off the beam of the usual nightclub musical comedy. I’m writing this in the depths of a coronavirus winter, and any and all escapism is welcome.
It All Came True by Louis Bromfield, digitized by the Duke University Library; all quotations from the story were accessed there, Killer Tomatoes by Ray Hagen and Laura Wagner, The Star Machine by Jeanine Basinger, Bogart: A Life in Hollywood by Jeffrey Meyers, The Great Movie Stars: The Golden Years by David Shipman, City Boys by Robert Sklar, Bogart by A. M. Sperber and Eric Lax, Wikipedia.