Simone and I were on our own for a week while her mother was out of state, and so one evening I pulled out an old VHS copy of Fools for Scandal that I forgot 20 years ago I even owned. Fools for Scandal is the result of Jack Warner luring Carole Lombard to Warner Bros. because of a desire to get his studio up to speed on screwball comedy. Just for a little context, Fools went into release around the same time as The Adventures of Robin Hood.
I said to Simone, “Let’s watch a Lombard movie,” but Simone wasn’t interested. Then I told her that this picture was set in Paris, and that perked up her ears and she agreed to give Fools for Scandal a shot.
Thirty minutes later, Simone had been rendered unconscious and so had I. Although stuporous, I roused myself for the last couple reels and then went back the following morning to confirm for myself that I had indeed been neutron-bombed by this picture.
Simone will tell you, and I agree, that there’s just no accounting for funny. I don’t want to scarze you off from giving Fools for Scandal a try (actually, yes I do), but let me present it this way: In one sequence, the dialogue shared between Carole and her co-star is in rhyme. I mean, for no good reason, they start talking in rhymes. Then he starts singing, shakily, in rhymes and you expect her to sing too but she knows she can’t carry a tune so she talks it while he sings it. I can only imagine that 1938 audiences knew right around now that they were the fools of this particular scandal.
The plot of Fools for Scandal is about as funny as a salvaged cinder block: A French chef becomes enamored of a woman he sees on the street and stalks her. He sends her fleeing to the safety of a taxi, then hops in the taxi and badgers her to see the sites of Paris until finally, exhausted, she relents. She manages to escape him and make her way to London but he follows, all stalker-like, and worms his way onto her domestic staff. Then he refuses to leave. Ask those poor California people in the news whose nanny refuses to be evicted just how funny this scenario is and they’ll tell you—this scenario isn’t funny; it’s horrifying.
Carole here portrays Kay Winters, an American movie star off to Paris in disguise for some R&R. Instead, she picks up a stalker and spends roughly 90 minutes of her life and ours shrieking for liberation and running for her life. At one point she even says to her stalker-who-refuses-to-leave, “My life was so nice and peaceful until you came along.” At the very end of the last reel, the Stockholm Syndrome dooms poor Kay Winters.
How did Miss Lombard find herself in this wretched predicament? FLASH BACK to just a year earlier when her contract at Paramount Pictures expired and super agent Myron Selznick convinced her that the grass was greener at other studios. She made the Technicolor comedy Nothing Sacred for Myron’s brother, David, and that picture scored good reviews and solid box-office returns. But there must have been a dearth of good screwball scripts out there at the second half of 1937 because the offer she decided to accept came from Warner Bros. of Burbank, a studio known for gangsters and swashbucklers and not comedy. The script was adapted from a stage play called Food for Scandal, the double meaning being that the boy in this boy-meets-girl tale is a chef who shacks up with the girl in London, causing a scandal. When the boy breaks into shaky song, what he’s singing is “Food for Scandal.”
I guess Carole thought this thing had a chance because the Warners brought in Mervyn LeRoy to direct, and the talented Warner stock company would back her up, and the studio invited her to bring along her hand-picked cameraman, clothing designer, and hair stylist. As a result she looks like a million bucks in Fools for Scandal only to be defeated by a 10-cent script and total lack of directorial support.
If this isn’t a Hollywood axiom, it should be: It’s always dicey adapting stage plays for the screen.
If this isn’t a Hollywood axiom, it should be: It’s always dicey importing foreign movie stars to appear in American pictures.
So here is Carole set to star in a stage-play-turned movie with a French leading man of some experience, Fernand Gravet (pronounced Graw-VAY), who is new to Hollywood. If you’re thinking Charles Boyer when you hear Fernand Graw-VAY, forget it. The former had that voice and a certain debonair manner to offset average looks. The latter also sported average looks and a nearly impenetrable accent hung like bad wallpaper on a tenor voice and about as much charm as you’d expect from your average, garden-variety psycho. And speaking of psychos, Ralph Bellamy portrays Kay Winters’ boyfriend and manages to be unlikeable even in a situation where you want to root for him because his life and relationship have been invaded by a maniac. Instead, Bellamy plays cuckold in strange eye makeup that renders him a beady-eyed muppet.
In researching Fireball, I went through the Warner Bros. production files on Fools for Scandal and relived anguish that began with the title Food for Scandal. How can we even fathom now that censors found it too suggestive—a man living in a woman’s house without a wedding ring in sight? Fools for Scandal better suited the negative implications of such a situation, so they changed it, even though Fernand breaks into “Food for Scandal” about 30 minutes in.
The other thing that the production files reveal is pain. Pain from all involved. Pain from Hal Wallis the executive producer, pain from the unit manager, pain from the stars. Your run-of-the-mill A picture wrapped in seven or eight weeks, but this production dragged on for three months, with endless retakes on the Warner backlot, day after day, week after week. Stalingrad went better for the Germans than Fools went for Carole.
Lombard was always at her best when she underplayed the comedy, and we can see in this picture that she knew she was in trouble because she starts playing it frantic about two minutes in and doesn’t stop until The End. Carole desperately needed the firm hand of a director here and Mervyn LeRoy wasn’t it. LeRoy made some decent pictures in his career but never excelled at comedy. You could point to another converted stage play that worked under his direction, Mister Roberts, but I’d argue that he had three men in that cast—James Cagney, William Powell, and Jack Lemmon—with impeccable comic timing and a vehicle that had been proven effective.
Seventeen years earlier, he had Lombard and a cinder block, and what happens when you attach one to the other? It’s inevitable, and that’s exactly what happened here. I don’t think Simone will ever trust me again.