Friday, March 13, 2009

Mayo Methot Redux in Brother Rat and a Baby (1940)

After writing an appreciation of actress Mayo Methot here previously, I was a bit surprised to come across a B movie the other night on TCM that offered evidence of the effect that her life had on her career and looks. While desultorily watching Brother Rat and a Baby (1940) I was a bit surprised to spy Mayo Methot (seen earlier in the 1930s at left) as a fellow passenger on a bus with central characters Eddie Albert and Jane Bryan (seen with baby below). What a change in her appearance and demeanor from just a few years before! The poor woman had gone from tough and bouncy and occasionally touching to just tough, wan and shopworn. It must have been particularly humiliating for the actress to appear in a role that was barely noticable after hoping for a career upturn, particularly after her marriage to Humphrey Bogart in 1938. The camera, which was never kind to Mayo's looks, recorded her physical deterioration from alcoholism with brutal accuracy here. Not surprisingly, this was 36 year old Mayo Methot's last movie. Though her husband tried to encourage her to pursue stage and character work fitfully, he was increasingly absorbed in his own frustrations at this time, which found him making what he regarded as among the worst films of his film career, The Return of Doctor X (1939), just prior to his breakthrough into more challenging leading parts beginning with High Sierra (1941). From a 21st century viewpoint one of the strangest features of Brother Rat and a Baby may have been the fact that, in the sequence of the movie featuring Methot as an anonymous passenger, the parents, seeking a moment's respite from tending their baby at a bus rest stop, accept the offer of this complete stranger to look after their tyke! And this movie was made after the Lindbergh Baby kidnapping? The fact that Methot gives the lad a valuable diamond to play with which he proceeds to swallow was apparently meant to be an uproarious feature of the scene. I thought it was as tedious as naming the baby "Commemencement" since he'd been born just before the father (Eddie Albert) had graduated college.

The overall intelligence of all the cast seemed well below average in this movie. The only cast member who seemed determined to take advantage of a college education and carve out a career through hard work rather than just connections and chiseling was, perhaps prophetically, Ronald Reagan, who kept wanting to get back to his office rather than pitching woo to bespectacled cutie pie Jane Wyman. Fortunately, Reagan's acting got a bit more convincing and, for a time, at least, his rapport with Wyman bloomed off screen as well. The pair were married from 1940 until 1948 and had two children.

The film of Brother Rat and a Baby was a follow-up to the innocuous college comedy Brother Rat (1938), which had turned out to be a hit for all involved, including Wayne Morris, Priscilla Lane, Ronald Reagan, his future wife, Jane Wyman and Jane Bryan as well as Eddie Albert, who received the biggest career boost from the picture. The story was based on the hit Broadway play, "Brother Rat" by VMI grad Fred F. Finklehoffe and John Monks, Jr. It told the embroidered adventures of some underclassmen at at a school very like Virginia Military Institute, though the movie version was a bit bizarre since the men who starred in the movie were closer to thirty rather than new college grad's ages. Reality never stopped a studio, much less Warner Brothers, from milking a concept dry, now did it?


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