HIGH, WIDE AND HANDSOME is one of a trio of Jerome Kern musicals Irene Dunne starred in in 1935, '36, and '37. Randolph Scott was Dunne's costar in both HIGH, WIDE AND HANDSOME and ROBERTA (1935), which also starred Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers; and the third film was the immortal SHOW BOAT (1936).
I have special memories of seeing HIGH, WIDE AND HANDSOME at the Vagabond Theater in Los Angeles in the late '70s. In the decades since that viewing, some of the plot about Pennsylvania oilmen became hazy, but I have never forgotten Irene Dunne sitting on a hillside singing "Can I Forget You?" and most especially "The Folks Who Live on the Hill." I've always felt a warm glow when I think of the movie and the latter song, and in fact for a number of years I had a framed still of Dunne and Scott sitting on the hill hanging in my childhood bedroom. I need to dig that out and scan it...
"The Folks Who Live on the Hill" is one of the scenes which comes to mind when I think of the phrase "the silver screen" to describe black and white movies. The scene is on YouTube -- as is "Can I Forget You?" -- although it doesn't seem quite right to watch them out of context and in somewhat squished-up prints.
I was extremely happy when a very kind friend recently enabled me to see the film again for the first time in decades. I also approached the film with a bit of trepidation, wondering if it would live up to my childhood memories. Indeed, the plot does sag a bit in the second hour, but those scenes with Irene Dunne singing...they're still magical, and seeing them again brought a tear to my eye.
The plot is an unusual piece of Americana about a Pennsylvania farmer (Scott) who dreams of striking oil. He falls in love with and marries a girl (Dunne) who sings in a traveling medicine show, and they blissfully plan to build their "house on a hill."
Then the oil well comes in and the farmer neglects his wife -- not to mention plans for the house -- while working and battling an evil tycoon (Alan Hale Sr.) and his henchman (Charles Bickford) who want to take control of the oil industry. The film culminates in a gloriously improbable battle over an oil pipeline which involves clowns and elephants...!
Dunne is absolutely charming; I especially love the scenes where she wraps Scott's skeptical grandmother (Elizabeth Patterson) around her little finger. The scenes of Dunne learning about farm life and her courtship with Scott are the best in the film. And those scenes on the hill...well, they'll stay with you.
Scott is fine as the busy husband. He and Dunne would work together yet again in the classic comedy MY FAVORITE WIFE (1940). Patterson is delicious as the spunky grandmother, who won't put up with townsfolk gossiping about her granddaughter-in-law's somewhat scandalous past as an entertainer.
Dorothy Lamour offers solid support as Molly, a riverboat chanteuse who initially seems as though she might be a rival to Dunne, but when she's going to be rousted out of town Dunne takes the singer into her home and then helps her find a job...a kindness which is repaid at a critical moment.
The cast is filled with familiar faces, including William Frawley, Ben Blue, Akim Tamiroff, Raymond Walburn, and Irving Pichel, who was also a film director.
The movie was directed by Rouben Mamoulian, who previously directed the groundbreaking Rodgers and Hart movie musical LOVE ME TONIGHT (1932). He went on to direct Rodgers and Hammerstein's OKLAHOMA! and CAROUSEL on Broadway; Hammerstein, in fact, wrote the lyrics for HIGH, WIDE AND HANDSOME. Mamoulian returned to movie musicals in 1948 with MGM's SUMMER HOLIDAY (1948). Other notable Mamoulian film work includes the Tyrone Power films THE MARK OF ZORRO (1940) and BLOOD AND SAND (1941).
HIGH, WIDE AND HANDSOME runs 110 minutes. It's a Paramount film which is not available on DVD or video. Perhaps it will turn up on Turner Classic Movies in the coming months, as part of their contract to show more Paramount movies...it also wouldn't hurt to go to TCM and vote for the movie to be released on DVD. The copy I watched was apparently recorded from television once upon a time...this is a film which deserves to be released in a beautiful restored DVD print.
For more information on this film, visit these notes which accompanied a screening at UCLA.