Cinefest 33: The Pursuit of Happiness (1934)
The Pursuit of Happiness (1934), directed by Alexander Hall, starring Francis Lederer, Joan Bennett, and Charles Ruggles, is precisely the kind of movie that makes you want to vacation in Syracuse, NY. The movie offers a nifty little side-step of the infamous Production Code with some pretty clever innuendo.
Francis Lederer is Max Christmann, a Hessian soldier, forcibly conscripted and consigned to the British army to fight the Americans in the Revolutionary War. Joan Bennet is Purdence Kirkland, a young Puritan lady busy fending off unwanted courtship from Thad (Adrian Morris). The cast and the plot is filled out by Prude’s slightly subversive dad Aaron (Charles Ruggles) and her more stringent (but still willing to bend the rules to get her daughter married off) mother, Comfort (Mary Boland), and the town’s moral bully Rev. Lyman Banks (Walter Kingsford) . When Max meets Prudence, at the business end of the shotgun she’s holding, it’s love at first site.
While watching The Pursuit of Happiness it’s sometimes hard to buy Joan Bennett as the chaste and innocent Prudence, but Francis Lederer is pitch perfect as the charming leading man. He’s not only great to look at, his wonder at America’s moral paradox is a delight to watch. As he says to the guys stuck in the stocks for getting drunk on a Saturday night and swearing, “In America you can pursue happiness, but it’s hard to catch.” The more things change, right?
But The Pursuit of Happiness takes that theme and runs with, getting all meta on us in the process. The movie seems to be as much a critique of the moral paradox inherent in the Hays Code as one of the moral paradox found between American’s Puritan founders and their practice of allowing “bundling” between courting couples. Ostensibly to save on firewood, it feels a lot like an excuse to hop into bed together. And Prudence and Max do just that, with a chaste centerboard slotted between them, thus sidestepping the separate beds requirement of the production code. That’s pretty clever, I say.
And there’s more innuendo in The Pursuit of Happiness than you can shake a stick at. My particular favorite comes when Prudence first catches Max in the barn, trying to milk a cow. When she orders him out with hands up at gun point, he shuffles from behind old Bessie with a pail of milk clutched between his legs, milk spilling out all the while. Think about it for it second.
I saw The Pursuit of Happiness at Cinefest 33. If you weren’t there you can watch it right here, though this pales in comparison.