Breakfast for Two (1937)
“Butch,” the loyal valet of playboy shipping heir Jonathan Blair, enters his employer’s bathroom one morning, chattering away about the bright, beautiful day. He asks Jonathan what he would like to wear, only to have the shower door fly open as a shower-capped Valentine Ransome pokes her head out and asks for a bath towel. Butch stutters and stammers, grabs a brassiere by mistake, and finally hands Val a towel before fleeing pell-mell from the room.
So begins the series of nutty happenings in RKO’s 1937 screwball comedy Breakfast for Two, starring Barbara Stanwyck, Herbert Marshall, and Eric Blore. Filmed and released immediately after Stanwyck’s Oscar-nominated performance in Stella Dallas, Breakfast provided a respite for the actress after the emotionally-draining role of self-sacrificing mother Stella, and its breezy daffiness is nothing short of entertaining. And “daffy” is the perfect word to define this movie–after all, how else could you describe a film with a gigantic “talking” dog named Peewee, the wildest wedding this side of a Preston Sturges flick, and a heroine named Valentine?
Despite her flowery name, Stanwyck’s Val is no shrinking violet–she’s a ball-busting Texas heiress determined to reform the wastrel Jonathan (Marshall), save his failing business, rescue him from the clutches of ditzy blond debutante “actress” Carol Wallace (Glenda Farrell), and make him prime husband material. She is aided in her quest by Butch (Blore), who decides almost immediately that Val is just the woman for his boss, and through a series of comical mishaps, the playboy and the businesswoman find their happy ending.
The film is a gender-skewed take on the Taming of the Shrew trope: Jonathan is a misogynistic dilettante whose behavior is eventually modified through the exertions of the wily Val. And she certainly has her work cut out for her, because with every fiber of his being, Jonathan seems to loathe the female sex. When Butch tries to talk to him about his financial problems, he impatiently dismisses him: “Stop nagging. You’re being feminine and I don’t like it.” To Jonathan, any sign of femininity is a weakness, and though he obviously enjoys the company of women in a sexual sense, he has little respect for their abilities.
Because of this, Val’s dominant personality disconcerts Jonathan and puts him off-balance throughout the film. He doesn’t know how to react to her; she doesn’t waver and simper like the typical women he consorts with–she is his equal and, in some ways, his better, and that simply does not compute. Jonathan’s reaction after Valentine buys the company is predictable: he believes she “took him home” to pump him for information about the company’s financial situation. Val remains calm in the face of his anger, which only serves to infuriate him more: ”You’re the type of woman who wants to wear the pants! All right, MISTER, wear them! Trip over them! And break your neck!”
For her part, Val has inexplicably formed an attachment to Jonathan, and she takes ownership of him from the start. Initially, Val views him with humor and indulgence–she has decided to marry this man-child, but she accepts that she must first bring him to heel. When her uncle Sam (Frank M. Thomas) tries to talk some sense into his niece, Valentine confidently brushes off his concerns:
Sam: “Ah, come on! Who cares about a crazy bronco that–”
Val: “I’ve seen you turn many a crazy bronco into a fine horse, Sam.”
Sam: “Yeah, but human flesh hasn’t got the sense of horse flesh!”
Val: “Sometimes they both need a whip to put some sense into them. First you have to slip a bit in his mouth and … make him like it.”
To that end, Val does everything in her power to goad Jonathan to “take it like a man.” When, after his initial outburst, Jonathan decides that he cannot fight her and win back his company, Val insults him and questions his manhood. When Val purchases Jonathan’s house, and he finds her in the home gymnasium, he peevishly tells her that he’ll be leaving as soon as he can remove his personal belongings, “unless, of course, you counted on getting them, too.” Val’s nonchalant reply–”No, thanks. You need your clothes in order to look like a man”–incites Jonathan’s rage, just as she intends. He’s putty in her hands, and you know that eventually, Val will get her way. She is just that determined.
This is not to say that Jonathan does not get under Val’s skin, too. She’s going to make a man out of him even if she has to beat him into acting like one … which she does, handily, in one of the funniest scenes of the film. When he confronts her in the gymnasium of his home–which he has just discovered that she bought out from under him–Blair accuses Val of tricking him so that she could get her hands on the family business. An exchange of insults follows, and Val throws down the gauntlet by picking up a nearby boxing glove and smacking Jonathan across the face with it. When he bemoans that her womanhood prevents him from being able to smack her right back, she tells him, “Don’t let that stop you!,” and the fight is on. And by the end of it, both Jonathan and hapless bystander Butch are sporting black eyes.
The lesson here? Don’t mess with Barbara Stanwyck. She’ll kick your ass.
When Carol becomes a problem, Val makes short work of her, too. Carol is determined to marry Jonathan herself, but Val attempts to circumvent Carol’s plan by naming Jonathan vice president of the company, so that he need not wed Carol for her money. But Jonathan figures out Val’s intent to reform him and decides to do whatever it takes to ruin her plans–even if it means going through with marriage to the insufferably witless Carol. In response, Val implements an increasingly zany series of distractions to interrupt not one, but TWO ceremonies, from a group of loudly squeaking window washers to Uncle Sam’s claim that Carol is the mother of his children … and Butch even gets in on the act with a faked marriage certificate!
I guess it’s no surprise to say that, in the end, Val’s plan is effective; in his desire to thwart her, Jonathan perversely becomes a responsible leadership figure within his own company, to Val’s endless pleasure and pride. The dizzy blonde is sent packing, Val’s bucking bronco is effectively tamed, and they all live happily, crazily, ever after.
Breakfast for Two may not be as well-remembered as some of its screwball counterparts of the 1930s, but it is nonetheless charming and genuinely funny, helped immensely by a smart script and an effective cast (notably the ever-entertaining Blore and a hilarious turn by Donald Meek as the Justice of the Peace whose premarital spiel keeps getting interrupted). And Stanwyck, in what could be considered the first truly “screwball” role of her career, is easily the highlight of the film, handily demonstrating the comic timing and innate sense of fun that she would bring to future screwball classics like The Mad Miss Manton (1938) and The Lady Eve and Ball of Fire (both 1941).