Made for Each Other (1939)

I've encountered a few movies from the 1930s that follow a similar template to Made for Each Other, a film that shifts genre relatively dramatically between comedy and melodrama. The idea seems to be to offer a film encompassing a bit of everything, or at least as close as they could cram in. This can feel off-putting now that we're no longer accustomed to this particular mix of tones, but conceptually it's not all that different than what Marvel movies attempt: it's only that the specific genres being incorporated have changed.

That does mean this movie feels dated in a way several more straightforward comedies don't. The first half of Made for Each Other holds up pretty well, but as the movie grows more and more serious, I found it difficult to enjoy unironically. Though, for better or worse, moments of the last third kind of come off as unintentionally funny.

The movie stars Carole Lombard and James Stewart as newlyweds Jane and John, who eloped immediately after meeting each other a few days before the movie starts. This creates some friction, as both John's live-in mother and his boss had been hoping to see him married to said boss's daughter. This seemingly costs John a promotion at the law firm he works at, which places stress on him and Jane, who's already unhappy John's job cost them a honeymoon.

Things get even more complicated when Jane becomes pregnant and gives birth to a son (who actually seems to be portrayed by a very young infant in early scenes). John's salary isn't enough to afford a larger apartment, and he doesn't seem to have the backbone to demand the money he deserves. Jane pushes him to stand up for himself, but - despite being more than capable of fighting for his clients in the courtroom - he's unable or unwilling to stand up to his boss.

Around the two-thirds mark, we find ourselves at New Year's Eve. They grudgingly go out, and John apologizes for failing to provide for his family. He more or less says they should get a divorce, so he stops dragging Jane down. She goes home but quickly circles back with the news their baby is extremely ill.

They take the child to a hospital where they learn he'll die without a rare serum, the only available supply of which is in Nevada on the other side of the country. Making matters worse, a severe winter storm is preventing planes from taking off, and the only pilot they locate even willing to entertain the idea refuses to take the job for less than five thousand dollars.

John goes to his boss's house and wakes him up to ask for help. Somewhat surprisingly, the old man is more than willing to do so, no strings attached. The pilots try to back out, but John argues one into submission.

We then spend a substantial amount of time cutting back and forth between his adventures braving the storm and Jane dealing with the devastating realization she might lose her child. At one point, a nun brings her to a chapel to pray to God for help. Immediately after, we see the airplane - now lost - break down, forcing the pilot to bail out.

Despite this, God's attempt to kill the baby is thwarted. The pilot manages to crawl to a farmhouse before collapsing (it's not at all clear whether he lives or dies, incidentally), and the owner finds the package and calls the hospital, which is conveniently close by. They get the medicine, and the child recovers.

The timeline is slightly unclear, but I believe the implication is that all of this occurred over the course of one night.

We then jump ahead in time a few months to see John, now an assertive, respected man (honestly, he's kind of turned into a dick). He's about to lay out some conditions for accepting being made a partner at his law firm when Jane and his son interrupt with the exciting news that the child can speak, and the movie closes on an awkward joke about the boss's hearing aid.

To be fair, the bulk of the comedy in this lands pretty well. Stewart and Lombard are both fantastic actors, and when the script tries to be funny, it generally succeeds. It's only when the movie starts shifting gears that it becomes harder to appreciate.

Even then, there are quite a few elements I respect. Rather than abruptly shifting into melodrama, Made for Each Other sort of evolves from one genre to another, and even then it peppers the humorous segment with serious beats and the dramatic half with moments of levity. It makes the transition feel less jarring than it otherwise might.

I also felt like the movie did a good job giving its characters depth. The boss at first seems like a two-dimensional antagonist, but when the chips are down, he behaves heroically. Likewise, John's mother is presented as overly critical, but as we get to know her she reveals a great deal of pain - the movie's strongest dramatic scene is one in which she and Jane reconcile their differences and bond.

Somewhat harder to rate is the movie's portrayal of its only major black character, Lily (played by Louise Beavers, who also appears in Holiday Inn). Lily is the last in a line of cooks employed by John and Jane, and she comes across as significantly smarter and more perceptive than the white women she replaces. In that sense, she's a fairly progressive character for the time. The problem is that, despite her strengths, she's absolutely written as a stereotype. Hell, the key speech she gives takes the form of a metaphor about watermelons.

Although the New Year's setting only encompasses about a third of the movie, it's leveraged to enhance the drama and play up traditional themes associated with the holidays. The movie is largely a story of a couple struggling through economic hardships, a concept that would have been on the minds of its audience, who'd been going through the Great Depression for the previous decade. The connection between the holidays and the plight of the disadvantaged was well established between Dickens's A Christmas Carol and (more applicable to New Year's Eve) Hans Christian Andersen's The Little Match Girl, to say nothing of nine decades worth of imitators to both. This is of course on top of the usual associations between the New Year's and transformation, new beginnings, and renewed connections, all of which play significant roles in the film.

I'm almost more interested in the religious aspects exploiting the idea of a child at risk during the holidays. The surprising part of this might be that none of this is being set on Christmas Day, which is more immediately associated with both babies and religion. I can't imagine the same choice being made a decade later, but movies in the 1930s seem to prioritize New Year's over Christmas.

There's one other possible holiday connection I want to mention, though it's likely coincidental. I noticed watching this that several aspects of Made for Each Other are similar to those that would be incorporated by Billy Wilder a few decades later in The Apartment. Both movies focus on somewhat effeminate men working in offices who learn to stand up for themselves. Likewise, there are some similar design choices, particularly early on (I noticed at least one shot of a backdrop used to create the illusion of a long hallway reminiscent of the forced perspective used by Wilder to give the office in The Apartment a sense of intimidating scale). But of course, these movies go in very different directions: here, the character stands up for himself by essentially taking command and embracing the masculine culture around him. In The Apartment, the main character becomes a mensch by finding the courage to walk away from the toxic environment exploiting him. I can't help but wonder if The Apartment might have been in some small way responding to Made for Each Other (though, even if it in some way was one of The Apartment's inspirations, it's worth noting Wilder's classic has other, better established ones).

On the whole, this one isn't a bad picture, but the tone of the last third makes it a tough sell to anyone not accustomed to films of the decade. Fans of its leads should check it out - both give fine performances - but there are better places to start if you're beginning to explore 1930s cinema.