|Released by RKO-Pathe | Directed by George Cukor
Run time: 68 minutes
Proof That It’s a Pre-Code Film
- “You have a baby, do you not, Miss Carroll? You don’t mind me calling you ‘miss’ in a question like that, do you?”
- McCrea wants to start an affair with Bennett even though he’s married.
- She at one point jokes about wanting ‘a colored baby’.
- “Children don’t keep man and wife together anymore! That’s old fashioned!”
Rockabye: Don’t Go to Sleep
“You know, I’ve never had enough pancakes.”
‘What the fuck is happening in this movie.’ That was my second note on the film as I was watching it, so I suppose it requires some modicum of explanation where I was coming from. Constance Bennett, one of the most popular actresses of the early 1930s (and certainly possessor of one of the highest salaries) was coming off of What Price Hollywood?, which is a good, fun movie directed by George Cukor that to this day has a pretty faithful audience.
Rockabye, in contrast, is a disaster. Its plot is a mishmash of woman’s movies cliches stringed together with a noticable amount of re-recorded dialogue to smooth over some extremely rough transitions. There’s a lot of problems in the film and it’s easy to lay the blame at any one of them, but that can’t possibly encapsulate what a failure this movie is in practically any regard.
But, let me also make it clear up front, this movie is a mitigated disaster. From TCMDB on the film’s production:
According to Hollywood Reporter news items, George Fitzmaurice, whom RKO borrowed from M-G-M, was the original director of the film, resigned on September 16, 1932 because of a disagreement with the producers. After George Cukor was brought in to direct, Jobyna Howland replaced Laura Hope Crews in the role of “Snooks Carroll,” and Joel McCrea replaced Phillips Holmes, whom RKO had borrowed from Paramount, in the role of “Jake.” Modern sources add the following information about the production: RKO rushed the script into production with Fitzmaurice at the helm in order to meet the exhibitors’ deadline for a new “Bennett” film. The studio broke speed records for shooting and editing, but when the film was shown to executives, it was declared unreleasable. To save the production, RKO brought in Cukor. After two or three weeks of reshooting and editing with the new actors, the film was ready for release.
I feel for the makers of this film. It’s hard when you pump hundred of thousands of dollars into something with good ingredients only to find out it’s not only inedible, but it may kill someone if consumed improperly. But the real question that haunts this story is the big one: if the final movie is this bad, how awful must Fitzmaurice’s version have been? It’s mind boggling.
The problems with Rockabye begin at the script level and balloon from there; it’s hard to see where there was ever a good point to begin here. Jody (Bennett) is a stage singing star who came from a rough neighborhood. A while ago, she dated Hal (Walter Pidgeon), a nascent crony but who looks like Walter Pigeon. They break up, Jody becomes a big success, and she decides to adopt little Elizabeth AKA Lilybet (June Filmer). There are some hints that Lilybet may secretly be Jody’s daughter by Hal whom she’s adopted to throw off suspicions that the kid was born out of wedlock, a not-wholly-ridiculous turn since Loretta Young was about to perform the same magic trick in real life in a few years time. However, the movie is desperately non-committal to the point of maddening, in turns making Jody look hysterical or like a sociopath since her reaction to Lilybet’s welfare is never consistent.
Anyway, this is where the movie begins. (I’m really laying the italics thick on this one, but trust me, it’s worth it.) Hal is on trial for corruption, and Jody is called in to testify. She does no one any good, giving an angry outburst when it’s implied that Lilybet is Hal’s daughter. Bennett, who is a very sophisticated, capable actress and would later make a number of great screwball comedies, was never funnier anywhere but here; her ‘violently angry’ is most people’s ‘stubbed my toe’. It’s awful, awful, awful.
After she’s released from the stand, Jody heads home to find that the adoption agency wants to take Lilybet back after her headline grabbing appearance at the trial, but only after a long discussion between Jody and her confidant Sola (Lukas) about her small child’s future sex life. Bennett’s reaction is cringeworthy, crying and yelling good things at the sobbing child, trying to get her to play piggyback and waving her goodbye while not even leaving the apartment. Bennett just looks embarrassed… or maybe I’m projecting.
Anyway, that’s enough of that, since the rest of the movie has practically nothing to do with it. Sure, thematically, it ties together, but Lilybet gets shipped off magically to a nice home with good parents who love it when Jody swings by. That helps.
Jody goes to Europe for a few months to get over things, taking along her alcoholic mother, Snooks (Jobyna Howland). (Also please keep in mind that her alcoholic mother was Lilybet’s primary babysitter, which is probably more important than the movie lets on.) While on the continent, she’d come across a play called Rockabye whose plot closely mimics what she’d been through with Lilybet, and Jody has decided that she’ll make her dramatic debut in it. She invites the playwright to her bungalow and discovers that his name is Jake and he’s played by Joel McCrea.
McCrea is fucking lost here, as Bennett’s performance, no doubt hampered by the sloppy Frankensteinian editing, is all over the map. All he can do is smile past her as the movie bounces about. Also messing with things is how dumb his Jake character is, just a nice guy who slips into petty jealousy and whining at the drop of the hat. Actually, Lukas’ Sola is also infatuated with Jody and similarly wears his wounded male ego around his neck. The only man in this movie with a sense of decency is Hal, and he’s killed off in the first ten minutes of the film.
Jody and Jake go out on the old town so she can show off her street cred, which is a long, limp sequence. They head back to Jody’s place for some food, and there’s one scene that lasts for a few minutes where McCrea keeps pushing Bennett into a cabinet and bumping her butt. She then walks up to him and slaps him. Then repeat. This happens four or five times before she throws a pie in his face. Because this was a Three Stooges short and I had no idea before or after this point.
The next morning Jody wakes up in a room filled by balloons. Jake has decided to tell her that he loves her, the only complication being that he’s technically still married, though filing for divorce. There’s a twist here, which means that Jody has to make a noble sacrifice (mind you, this is all set up in the last ten minutes of the film) and give up someone she’s loved after a full week of courtship. What a tragedy.
So just what is the thrust of the plot? If it’s Jody’s love for Lilybet, she never seriously pursues it beyond just having a cute kid. If it’s professional disillusionment, that’s wallpapered over as soon as possible. If it’s her love for a married man, he doesn’t show up for the film’s first half hour. Who’s bright idea was that?
There are some awkward line reads and awkward cuts. Once the movie fades out in the middle of a conversation that’s obviously been ADRed in. The comedy coming from Jobyna Howland is painful, and many of the jokes are followed by an awkward silence presumably for laughter. It just makes the movie last longer– and what a sin that is.
There’s just a stunning amount of bad ideas meshed into this film. Rockabye may be one of the least professional looking films of Old Hollywood, an emotion-free, unequivocal disaster. And it will always be haunted by the fact that this, somehow, is the improved version.
Click to enlarge. All of my images are taken by me– please feel free to reuse with credit!
Trivia & Links
- RKO bought Pathe a few years earlier to capitalize on its stable of stars, including Constance Bennett. This is the last film released under the joint RKO-Pathe banner, which certainly rings true in regards to what it did to Bennett’s career.
- Andre Sennwald is trying to give this one the benefit of the doubt, but even he can’t take it seriously:
The mother instinct must be preserved at any cost. Three cheers for the mother instinct, and a zissboom-bah for “Rockabye.”
- There’s some good stills over at the Constance Bennett fanpage.
- Theresa Brown at Cinemaven is much more up on this one than me:
The film contains a splendid performance and is quite absorbing and well acted, but in spite of Ms. Bennett’s charms and talent, towards the end it turns quite melodramatic. The ending is perhaps not satisfactory, but considering the time when it was filmed it is perhaps plausible.
Awards, Accolades & Availability
- This film is a rare one– it does pop up on TCM every so often, but I think they really do try their best to keep this stinker in the vault.