Sunday, April 18, 2010

Tonight's Movie: The Heavenly Body (1944)

THE HEAVENLY BODY stars one of my favorite actors, William Powell, and one of my favorite actresses, Hedy Lamarr. They are always pleasant company to have on screen, but that's pretty much all that can be said for this very lightweight marital comedy.

This is a film I recall watching as a teenager on Ben Hunter's Movie Matinee on Ch. 11 in Los Angeles. It was fun to revisit it for the first time in many years. I didn't remember much about the film, which perhaps isn't surprising given the flimsy plot.

Astronomer William Whitley (Powell) has been happily married to Vicky (Lamarr) for two years. Bill is busy working nights at the observatory, discovering a new comet, and he sleeps during the day. The idle, gullible Vicky falls under the sway of astrology, due to the influence of her neighbor (Spring Byington) and an astrologer (Fay Bainter). Vicky becomes convinced that it's "written in the stars" that she is meant to leave Bill for a handsome air raid warden, Lloyd (James Craig).

Lamarr plays the part with such wide-eyed innocence that she doesn't come off as hateful for wanting to leave her loving (if preoccupied) husband...she's just very, very silly, which is exasperating. Fortunately for the movie, Lamarr is on camera a large percentage of the time; she's absolutely gorgeous, dressed in beautiful creations by Irene, and it's hard to dislike the film too much while she's smiling on the screen.

It's rather hard to understand how Bill could constantly ignore a woman as beautiful as Vicky!  Powell, of course, is a wonderful farceur, and he finally gets a chance to do his thing during a vodka-drinking scene near the end of the film. Until this scene Bill never drinks alcohol, which seems to be a tweak of Powell's THIN MAN character, legendary imbiber Nick Charles; another amusing nod to the THIN MAN has Bill calling his imaginary pal "Nick" on the phone at one point.

The most interesting aspects of the film are perhaps the brief references to wartime conditions, including air raid wardens, shades over windows at night, and gas labels on automobiles. When Bill walks out on Vicky, he huffily tells her to send him his ration book! Hoarding rations also plays into the storyline. The print shown on TCM ended with a card telling audiences the film would be shown to their loved ones in the service overseas, courtesy of the motion picture industry.

Otherwise, it's 95 minutes of pretty dry going. Powell and Lamarr fans will want to give it a look at some point, but don't expect more than a very mild, handsome-looking diversion, with classy MGM production values including beautiful black and white cinematography by Robert Planck and the uncredited William H. Daniels.

Powell and Lamarr's characters live on an MGM backlot street seen in SMALL TOWN GIRL (1953), with a large church at the end of the block.

The supporting cast includes Henry O'Neill, Morris Ankrum, Arthur Space, Marietta Canty, Connie Gilchrist, Phyllis Kennedy, and Robert Sully.

THE HEAVENLY BODY was directed by Alexander Hall, who directed many romantic comedies including THE DOCTOR TAKES A WIFE (1940), HERE COMES MR. JORDAN (1941), and BEDTIME STORY (1941). This was not one of his better efforts, though I think he did his best given the weak material he had to work with.

This film can be seen from time to time on Turner Classic Movies. The trailer is here.

THE HEAVENLY BODY is available on DVD-R from the Warner Archive.


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