Clive Brook adapts, directs, and stars in On Approval (1944)
“On Approval” (1944) catches you off-guard with battle scenes flashing across the opening before Gaumont-British newsreel narrator E.V.H. Emmett asks “Oh dear is this another war picture?” Emmett then launches into a talk of the good old days—first 1939, but that’s neither good enough nor old enough so he us pulls back further to the naughty 90’s, when the bulk of “On Approval” is set.
The madcap opening shows us, among other images, a man riding a motorcycle with a woman on back, to which Emmett comments, “No, this isn’t what we want either,” remarking upon the wild times of the late 1930’s. But the shot is frozen with the woman’s skirt blown up far enough to reveal quite a bit of thigh and accompanying garter, while Emmett adds, “although it’s very pleasant.”
Back to the 1890’s we’re told “A young man was more or less expected to sow his wild oats,” but are then shown a dismayed young man seated with two young children, and so the statement is qualified: “Always providing there was no harvest.”
And so just moments after the opening credits we notice this 1944 British production is far racier than American films of the same period. “On Approval” was my introduction to Clive Brook, who I previously associated most with his having played Sherlock Holmes a couple of times. Brook writes, directs, produces, and most notably stars in “On Approval” as the worthless cad George the ninth, ahem tenth, Duke of Bristol.
Based on Frederick Lonsdale’s mid-20’s play of the same name, Brook brings over most of the dialect word for word, provides a stellar cast around himself—Roland Culver, Beatrice Lillie, and Googie Withers—and sandwiches the bulk of the story between that entertaining opening and a bizarre dream sequence at the end of the picture.
Brook’s Duke of Bristol is broke and despite all of his class pretty much a deadbeat. As George readies to enter a ball the narrator asks, “Tell me your grace, how did you lose your money?” George turns and tells us, “Women.” The narrator persists, “Yes, I know. I mean your big money?” George turns to reply, “Big women.”
Googie Withers plays the hostess, Helen, an American who has rented Bristol House from hard-up George and is hosting the party which he attends. George meets up with his best friend, Richard, played by Roland Culver, who is in as dire straits financially as George and on top of that has no title to fall back upon.
Richard proclaims his love for Beatrice Lillie’s Maria Wislack, a seemingly uptight single woman in her early 40’s, who shocks Helen by telling her she’s decided on a husband and plans to try him out on approval.
Brook’s George is neither a fan of love in general nor especially Maria, as this early conversation with Richard shows:
Richard: We’ll drink to the woman I love.
George: Don’t be disgusting.
Richard: Look, here she comes. The one on the left.
George: Do you mean to tell me that you love Maria Wislack? Have you no respect for age?
Further evidence of George’s wit and cutting personality comes when another guest passes by him and Helen wishing each of them a good evening. When Helen says she didn’t realize George knew the woman, he replies, “Oh yes, we have a sneering acquaintance.”
Back to this idea of on approval. Maria’s idea is to take a prospective husband away for a month and stay isolated with him on an island as sort of a rehearsal to married life. Helen, despite being American, is shocked by this progressive idea and asks Maria what she would do if the man tried anything fresh with her. Maria says that she’ll of course take along a revolver, but Helen asks what would happen if she actually liked the man. “Then my aim might not be so accurate.”
Maria chooses Richard, who’s delighted by the idea of trying out for the part of her husband on approval, even after being informed that he’s to row across to the mainland each night at 11 to stay in a hotel.
Meanwhile Helen has hinted at feelings towards George and so it’s no surprise when all four of our main cast members wind up secluded on the island together. With no vacancies at the nearby hotel the men are clear to remain overnight as well. This doesn’t sit well with the already uncomfortable staff who exit en masse after discovering Helen’s sheer nightie when unpacking her suitcase.
This leaves our four personalities with only each other to play off of. Richard waits on Maria hand and foot, Maria and George trade barbs at every meeting, and Helen devotes herself to George’s happiness. But as the dialogue unfolds and time passes we see Richard’s growing frustration with Maria’s treatment of him and Helen’s outright rejection of George.
When Richard goes to the mainland and forgets to send a telegram for Maria, she cuts into him in front of Helen. Helen shocks Richard, and I think the viewing audience, when she whispers to him, “Tell her to go to hell.” Stunned, Richard asks her to repeat herself not once, but twice. When Maria returns within earshot Helen covers by saying, “I said you look tired and not at all well.” Later Richard is scolded for dropping cigar ashes on the floor and Helen casually drops the same bit of advice to him. Richard feigns deafness once more, so Helen spells it out for him: “I said tell her to go to H-E-double L, hell.”
The relationships take some further twists and turns, but by the end of the movie we are given closure and a peek into the future.
“On Approval” is invariably described as a comedy of manners, witty, daring, ahead of its time and it is all of those things. Some may find it slow moving, but the action is in the language and the entertainment comes from the four fine performances.
The earlier referenced beginning and end pieces could be seen as uneven, perhaps even sloppy to some degree, but whether or not they sit well with you they do bookend action around what is otherwise a stage play with two main settings. But if you like smart dialogue-driven pieces then you’re going to love what comes in between those choppy but enjoyable scenes.
I’d heartily recommend “On Approval” to fans of American pre-code cinema, as despite its distance in both time and origin it plays as if directly from that grouping.