Starring Errol Flynn, Rosalind Russell, Olivia de Havilland, Patric Knowles, and Walter Connolly
My rating: ★★★ stars
Breezy screwball comedy reveals Errol Flynn’s untapped comedy skills.
The plot of Four’s a Crowd is too convoluted to sum up in a few sentences, but it’s a screwball comedy, a genre where convoluted plots are part of the charm. As the title suggests, the film is about a love quadrangle (as opposed to a love triangle) involving a reporter, an heiress, a publisher, and a PR man—except for the last, all common figures in the screwball comedy genre.
The central conflict in Four’s a Crowd may be difficult for modern viewers to understand. Bob Lansford (Errol Flynn) is a revered newspaper editor who left the business to launch a more lucrative career in public relations, a new field at the time. Dedicated reporter Jean Christy (Rosalind Russell) and her playboy boss, Patterson Buckley (Patric Knowles), floundering in his new position as publisher, hold the view that helping plutocrats whitewash their public image is a dishonest practice, one that the public would object to if they knew about it. The climax comes when Jean gets a scoop that would expose Lansford’s attempt to manipulate the public into liking ruthless tycoon John Dillingwell (Walter Connolly) by having him build a polio clinic. Nowadays, we’re so accustomed to the practice of public relations and pervasive manipulation of images that Lansford’s position—that the only important issue is the good that will come from the donations—seems obvious, and Jean and Buckley’s objections to the practice as being wrong because it’s dishonest seem absurd.
But screwball comedies are not about plots. They’re about the clever, frenetic interactions between the characters. This is where Four’s a Crowd shines. As Lansford, Flynn impresses, showing an unmined talent for comedy. His performances in his more famous adventure films show that he possessed wit and charm to spare. Here, those qualities are allowed free rein, and he delivers a performance that rivals those of Cary Grant in similar roles.
Rosalind Russell proves an able counterpart. Much of the appeal of screwball comedies as a genre comes from the parity between the couples. Many people forget that strong female characters abounded during Hollywood’s golden age when females were the primary audience for movies. Russell presented one of the strongest on-screen personas of all. In this movie, Russell’s Jean Christy foreshadows her later portrayal of Hildy Johnson from His Girl Friday, the character for which Russell is best known.
In one of the film’s finest moments, Lansford and Jean declare their love for each other. Then, Lansford asks Jean if she would go ahead with a story that would damage his client. She responds that she would, adding, “Because I’m a reporter, and I owe a certain amount of loyalty and devotion to my job.” Lansford accepts that. The script doesn’t punish her for that, as later films would punish their female characters for being career-focused (see 1940s movies with Katharine Hepburn or Barbara Stanwyck). Jean doesn’t feel conflicted about being devoted to her job. She may not like what she perceives as her duty as a reporter, but that she does have a duty to her job is not a source of conflict.
The other major female in the quadrangle is Dillingwell’s granddaughter, Lori (Olivia de Havilland). While not as sturdy and intelligent as Jean, Lori is no pushover. When Lansford tries to manipulate the Dillingwells, she sees through his machinations and calls him on it. De Havilland brings a lively intelligence to the role, which, nonetheless, is not as weighty or complex as her talent deserves.
If the film doesn’t rank among the top-tier screwball comedies, it’s because it lacks really big laughs. Here, the cause of this deficiency is the pacing, which is never as chaotic as the material requires. Michael Curtiz (Yankee Doodle Dandy, Casablanca) may be one of the greatest directors of his era, but he rarely directed comedies. With Four’s a Crowd, he shows a great talent for composition and for getting good performances from the actors, but not for the genre. (Curtiz, Flynn, and de Havilland would work together on seven films, with Four’s a Crowd coming out right after arguably the greatest of these collaborations, The Adventures of Robin Hood.)
Dedicated fans of the screwball comedy genre will be happy to see many of the classic trappings of the genre: a supper club scene, a bit with a dog (or, in this case, dogs), newspaper reporters, and a free-spirited heiress. Even if Four’s a Crowd isn’t one of the best of its type, it’s still an entertaining and worthwhile film that deserves a viewing.