|Released by Paramount Pictures | Directed by Stephen Roberts
One Sunday Afternoon: Regrets, I Have a Few
“Ain’t no crime in this world like stealing another man’s woman.”
One Sunday Afternoon is about two things that constantly interest me: class conflict and how our memory clouds reality. It also has two things that don’t interest me, which is a first act that takes too damn long and characters that are more cartoon than reality. One Sunday Afternoon has an interesting premise, but its characters are too black and white to connect to, and, damn, it feels like a slog.
Drunk dentist Dr. Biff Grimes (Gary Cooper) is entertaining his friend Snappy (Roscoe Karns) as he puts together some dentures. While Grimes’ wife frets in the other room, the two get drunk and discuss Grimes’ carrying a torch for old friend Virginia (Fay Wray) for years and how he still fumes over how Hugo (Neil Hamilton) stole her away. As fate would have it, Hugo arrives to have several teeth pulled, mocking Grimes as he’s put under for the procedure. As Grimes debates whether or not to suffocate the patient under his care, we flashback a few decades earlier.
We’re treated to Biff’s story, how he and Hugo were good friends despite the fact that Hugo was wealthy and Grimes was more of a short tempered scrapper. The two arrange a double date with Virginia and Amy (Frances Fuller), the latter having had a crush on Grimes for ages. Biff still pursues Virginia to the point of embarrassment, so, to spite her, he marries the doting Amy instead.
Time passes, but Biff continues to carry his torch. Hugo reenters their lives and fires Biff from his job at a factor for refusing to snitch on other employees, leading to a fight and Biff accidentally shooting a guard in a scuffle. He’s sent to jail, and Amy remains loyal. But Biff still seethes: he deserved to have Virginia, not the buffoonish Hugo. And now we’re back to the present, with the oxygen off and Biff staring straight at the unconscious man in the chair…
The climax arrives when Virginia enters and all of those heavenly auras that Gus had dipped her in suddenly melt. Wray’s dressed up like an over-the-top skeeze with a swagger to match. She hits on him and insist that he kill her husband just because she hates him so much. Realizing that he’d been caught up in his own bluster for so many years and had married the right girl– Amy had stuck by his side and believed in him– he revives Hugo and practically kicks him out the door. He then sweeps up his wife and professes that he loves her.
The lesson of the movie is pretty reductive– find someone who loves you for the idiot you are. And don’t envy others– they’re probably all old and miserable and Neil Hamilton-y. And who wants to be that way?
Gary Cooper seems in a little over his head here; he’s essentially doing a dry run for Mr. Deeds without the charm. It also hurts that the character simply seems to lack any introspection at all, something that probably came from the stage version, but makes him hard to empathize with. He does get a number of scuffles in and there are quite a few nice sinister moments for him to linger on, but otherwise it’s just white bread.
The movie definitely gets one thing right: Neil Hamilton is an actor who is very easy to hate. (Can you remember when they tried to make him a romantic lead in Strangers May Kiss? What was up with that?) Frances Fuller’s Amy is the right mix of sweet and trusting, though the character also comes across like most of the rest in that they’re terminally dumb. Wray has a little bit of fun by underplaying Virginia. It’s clear the character’s a snob, but not until the final reveal with Wray made up like Gloria Swanson in Sunset Boulevard do all of Biff’s (and the audience’s) carefully constructed illusions come crashing down.
Besides the horrifying world of 1930s dentistry we see on display here (his living room? really?) and Biff’s attempt at ridding himself of Hugo, there’s not much very pre-Code about the film. It’s a straight drama and it really feels its stage origins, at least in plot and execution. The dramatic ironies in the third act are carefully nursed, and there’s little to keep an audience member awake outside of Wray’s transformation and maybe the joy of watching the cast briefly try and impersonate teenagers.
One Sunday Afternoon talks about being shaken out of complacency and appreciating what you have. While it’s nice to be reminded about that, one can wish that the screenplay had taken its own advice and pushed for something deeper and more meaningful.
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Trivia & Links
- IMDB’s Trivia notes that the film originally ran 85 minutes but was cut down to 69.
- The movie is owned by Warner Brothers because they bought it for two remakes. The Strawberry Blonde with James Cagney in 1941 and a musical version also called One Sunday Afternoon in 1948.
- Frances Fuller was primarily a stage actress. This is one of only two movies she made in the 30s.
- The hit stage version of One Sunday Afternoon and this movie actually played in New York at the same time. In his contemporaneous review, Mordaunt Hall notes this and says that the movie is weaker for the comparison.
One might venture that the studio chieftains have been a little too hasty in this case, for, although the shadow conception of “One Sunday Afternoon” is not without merit, it often fails in the dramatic impact given in the original, especially in the closing episodes. Like the film versions of one or two other plays, this Paramount feature constantly impresses one with the sketchiness of some of its episodes. There are periods that are unnecessarily short and others that do not deserve the footage they receive.
- Andrew at The Stop Button says that this one takes too long to get started but acquits itself in the second half. Here’s what saves the movie for him:
What makes the film is Cooper’s performance. He’s not playing a smart guy here or even a nice one. Cooper does a great job of it, never making his character amusing in his denseness or self-absorbtion. He never makes him entirely bad either, the stupidity excuses just enough of the inconsideration.
- A number of stills and lobby cards over at Doctor Macro, as well as a link to the radio adaptation.
- TCMDB mostly talks about how Cooper got a drubbing for the role and how the movie flopped. They note:
Cooper adopted a bulldog shortly after the film opened, and named it Biff, since it seemed more properly suited to the role.
Awards, Accolades & Availability
- This film is available on Amazon.
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