If there was a running joke for this year’s TCM Classic Movie Film Festival, it was certainly among those who failed to get into the 1933 pre-Code comedy Double Harness.
Presented on a 35mm print from the TCM collection at UCLA Film & TV Archives and introduced by James Cromwell—the actor and director John Cromwell’s son—and TV host Alicia Malone, Double Harness drew enough of a Friday morning crowd that roughly 100 pass holders were turned away from Chinese Multiplex House #4 once the 177 seat theater was filled. For the remainder of Friday and well into Saturday, the discussion in other queues revolved around those who didn’t get in. The legend grew. So much so that when Double Harness was announced for a TBD slot, more passholders showed up for the Sunday morning screening than on Friday. Even more were turned away, and the conversation moved from the festival to Twitter, including an apology from Charles Tabish, the SVP of Programming and Production at TCM.
After the TCMFF dust settled, Double Harness showed up on TCM’s May programming along with a selection of films from producer Merian C. Cooper. It may not have been on 35mm or with James Cromwell in attendance, but here was a chance to see the festival’s most talked-about movie. Was it worth the hype?
Unfortunately, no. Largely unknown and rarely seen, Double Harness was one of six films that RKO forked over to Cooper in a 1946 settlement. Cooper withdrew the movies from distribution and only allowed them to be shown on TV in New York City in 1955–56. It wasn’t until TCM acquired the rights in 2007 that the six were even given public screenings—which gives Double Harness and the other five an interesting backstory, but backstory is one thing. Entertainment is another.
The story of Double Harness is a trifle. Joan (Ann Harding) has a cynical approach to marriage, especially after her younger sister, Valerie (Lucile Browne), becomes engaged to Dennis (George Meeker). Deciding to join in social conventions, Joan tricks John (William Powell) into marrying her. John is a swinging playboy with no intention of stopping until Joan’s father, Col. Sam (Henry Stephenson), catches the two after-hours in John’s apartment. To avoid shame, the two are wed at once.
While on their honeymoon, it is revealed that John and Joan’s marriage is one of financial convenience, not romantic desire. John and Joan settle on divorce after six months. To complicate matters, Joan legitimately falls for John and tries to concoct a way to keep him around, while Valerie spends her way into debt and leans on John for financial help. As to be expected of any William Powell role, John is accommodating to both sisters—and his mistress Monica Page (Lilian Bond)—and in the end, all’s well that ends well.
Made in 1933, Double Harness is billed as a pre-Code comedy, and though it has moments of risqué, it lacks the bluntness of the harder-edged Baby Face or Night Nurse. Double Harness has moments of back-and-forth patter, but Cromwell does not have Howard Hawks, Preston Sturges, or Gregory La Cava’s ear for it. Powell and Harding come equipped with a few zingers, but a lack of tightness and clever staging lets them down.
What Double Harness does have is a dashing and debonair William Powell, a funny Lucile Browne, and a couple of impressive camera moves, including one bravura crane shot that follows the two sisters from the front door of their mansion up the stairs as they discuss relationships. Double Harness is not a hallmark in the history of cinema, but not many films are. Instead, it is a light and fluffy diversion with a scant running time of 69 minutes.
Double Harness (1933)
Directed by: John Cromwell
Written by: Jane Murfin
From the play by Edward Poor Montgomery
Produced by: Merian C. Cooper
Starring: William Powell, Ann Harding, Lucile Browne, Henry Stephenson, Lilian Bond, George Meerker
RKO Radio Pictures, Not Rated, 69 minutes, Released July 21, 1933