It takes You Gotta Stay Happy a while to get there, but it’s actually a road movie. Well, it’s flying movie. Owner-operator James Stewart flies his cargo plane from New York to California with a number of paying passengers (a no no), with co-pilot Eddie Albert doing most of the ticket sales. The film’s title is Albert’s favorite phrase, used mostly to remind boss and friend Stewart he’s not doing enough to make himself happy.
Except the film’s not about Stewart and Albert’s post-war attempts at getting a freight airline going (okay, maybe fifteen or twenty percent), it’s about Stewart and Joan Fontaine. He doesn’t know it, but she’s a wealthy spinster (at the ripe age of twenty-eight) who’s running away from her new husband on their wedding night. Willard Parker plays the husband. He’s awful. Not the performance, the performance is fine, but the husband. He’d be a troll if he weren’t so tall; he’s a dipshit. There’s no better adjective. He’s a dipshit.
And Fontaine releases she doesn’t want to be married to a dipshit, regardless of his social position, personal wealth, and career success. So she ends up in Stewart’s hotel room, letting him make assumptions about why she’s running away from Parker. Stewart too knows Parker is a dipshit and feels sorry for Fontaine. She doesn’t correct any of his wrong assumptions.
Stewart and Fontaine’s first night, which features mishaps with wake-up calls, sleeping pills, and intrusive hotel staff, sort of acts as first act, sort of not. Karl Tunberg’s screenplay is an adaptation of serialized story, which would make the film seem more episodic if Tunberg weren’t so good at streamlining and director Potter didn’t have such a fine sense of comedy. And, of course, there’s Stewart and Fontaine. They have very different styles in first act; he’s tired and distracted, she’s on the run. They have entirely different motivators and different ways of pacing their performances. The whole film has great pacing and it’s right from the start.
Then Albert comes in and the plane and the passengers and the cargo. There are newlyweds onboard, there’s a chimpanzee who only likes Fontaine, there’s an embezzeler on the run. The plot progresses along the plane’s flight plan, with Stewart and Albert mistakenly concluding Fontaine’s the embezzeler (not a rich heiress). Fontaine gets some fun scenes before the romance subplot takes over. Turns out Stewart’s taken with her, regardless of suspecting her to be a fugitive.
Many complications ensue, including some with phenomenal minature special effects of the airplane. And Stewart and Fontaine get in sync as far as their performances. You Gotta Stay Happy has a short present action–two and a half days at most–and for the romance to work, the chemistry’s got to be palpable. It ends up so thick it needs to chiseled. With Stewart’s arc mostly pragmatic–he’s got a plane to fly, cargo to deliver, Albert to control–and Fontaine losing her share of solo screentime after she gets onboard, their romantic subplot becomes Happy’s relief moments. They’re somehow set back from the plot–they’ve both got their own trajectories, which have to conclude, and their gentle, tender scenes together hint at something deeper.
It’s not easy to imply that depth, either, because the film is pretty clear about Fontaine’s romantic feelings after a certain point. But there are still problems to be resolved and Tunberg has some last act revealations about Stewart’s character to get in as well. There just wasn’t time to reveal them during the screwball scenes.
The supporting cast is excellent. Albert’s awesome. If it weren’t Fontaine and Stewart in the leads, he’d be able to run away with the movie. Percy Kilbride, Porter Hall, Marcy McGuire, Edith Evanson, they’re all excellent. Potter always gives his supporting cast a lot of room to work without ever overpowering a scene. Though Stewart and Fontaine are always more than willing to make room. The film’s got a wonderful balance. Helps there’s a built-in plot with the flight.
Daniele Amfitheatrof’s score, which is very screwball, gets a little much at times but never enough to break a gag. Russell Metty’s photography is gorgeous, especially once he gets to do night time exteriors. The film spends its open in hotels and hotel rooms, then moves into an airplane interior. Getting outside in to the air gives Metty a chance to shine.
Albeit at night.
You Gotta Stay Happy is a lot of fun. Potter’s direction. Stewart, Fontaine, and Albert’s performances. It’s not a surprise it’s a success–it puts a smile on your face and keeps it there once it’s over. The only time it doesn’t is when it’s making you laugh.
Directed by H.C. Potter; screenplay by Karl Tunberg, based on a story by Robert Carson; director of photography, Russell Metty; edited by Paul Weatherwax; music by Daniele Amfitheatrof; production designer, Alexander Golitzen; produced by Tunberg; released by Universal Pictures.
Starring Joan Fontaine (Diana), James Stewart (Marvin), Eddie Albert (Bullets), Willard Parker (Henry Benson), Porter Hall (Mr. Caslon), Marcy McGuire (Georgia Goodrich), Arthur Walsh (Milton Goodrich), William Bakewell (Dick Hebert), Percy Kilbride (Mr. Racknell), Edith Evanson (Mrs. Racknell), and Roland Young (Ralph Tutwiler).