For most of its eighty minute runtime, Petticoat Fever operates entirely on charm and technical competence. The charm of its cast, not the charm of Harold Goodman’s screenplay (from Mark Reed’s play). Robert Montgomery is the sole operator of a wireless station in arctic Canada (save Otto Yamaoka as his Inuit servant; the film’s moderately gross on Yamaoka’s treatment, though that grossness is front-loaded) who unexpectedly has Myrna Loy dropped in his proverbial lap. She’s fiancée to a jackass, adventuring British lord, Reginald Owen, whose plane runs out of fuel near the wireless station. They need to bunk up with Montgomery, who takes one look at Loy and decides his guests can’t leave and that he’s got to seduce Loy.
Of course, Montgomery’s form of seducing is this amiable, infectous goofiness, which Loy can’t help but find endearing. Meanwhile Owen’s oblivious to the depth of Montgomery’s intentions and his determination to see them through; Owen’s also oblivious to Loy’s reception of said intentions, which isn’t a surprise. Owen’s a complete jackass. Though there is a bit of a first act faux pas when Loy, who’s cynical in her reasons for marrying Owen but not hostilely so, initiates some physical affection, which serves to inform the viewer of their relationship status. Despite the script’s mediocrity, it’s one of Goldman’s only actual obvious narrative missteps. It sets Loy’s character development back five or ten minutes; the movie’s eighty, she doesn’t show up until ten plus in; the time can’t be wasted.
Of course, the audience already knows Montgomery also has a fiancée, he just doesn’t know she (Winifred Shotter) still considers him her fiancé. The film opens with Shotter iced in on a ship on her way to finally join Montgomery, two years later than she’d promised him. That opening bookend, which also has this great playing checkers via wireless transition from ship to Montgomery’s station, is Shotter’s only scene until the end of the first hour. She comes back at the worse possible time, when the film’s finally got Montgomery and Loy on the same page and Owen a fantastic foil. All that setup and character positioning gets flushed for Shotter, who’s not worth it. Not in terms of performance (she’s fine, but utterly disposable) or narrative.
Because Petticoat is about its stars’ charm, not the supporting cast. Except Owen. It needs Owen. He’s utterly believable as a titled jackass.
With a handful of excursions outdoors to the frozen, snowy landscape–including a cute polar bear–the film takes place in the station. Mostly in the large, open living room. A couple other locations inside the station get introduced in the last twenty-five minutes and it’s sort of a shock. Director Fitzmaurice isn’t interested in showcasing the sets, interior or exterior (the snowy exteriors–but soundstage–look great, Fitzmaurice just doesn’t care); he’s all about the actors. Not directing their performances or figuring out interesting ways to support them through composition, just shooting them delivering their lines and relying on them to convey all the emotion and subtext the film needs to succeed.
And, of course, Montgomery, Loy, and Owen can do it. It just would’ve been nice if Fitzmaurice cared enough to ask more from them.
Montgomery’s immediately likable; no small feat as his first full scene–which is very long–involves being a dipshit to Yamaoka specifically and about Inuit people in general. Once Owen arrives–who’s immediately an amusing jackass–Goldman no longer has to leverage entirely on racist jokes to fill minutes. There are still a few, but nothing like that opening scene. Not even when the two girls Yamaoka affably kidnaps–Bo Ching and Iris Yamaoka (Otto’s sister and, no one caught it apparently, love interest)–show up.
And Loy’s Loy. She’s charming, graceful, and affable. The script gives her almost nothing to do for the first fifty minutes of the film; once it does, Loy handles it beautifully. Then it seems like the movie’s going one way and it’ll give her something to do. Then it doesn’t–the aforementioned failed plot foil–but sort of promises to give Loy an even better thing to do. Then it doesn’t. Despite her being essential to the film’s success, Petticoat Fever dreadfully underutilizes Loy. It’s like it knows Montgomery can carry it, so it doesn’t even try sharing that responsibility.
Basically, the film’s charm sustains it until things start getting better, when that elevation suddenly drops, the charm’s still there for Fever to fall back on. In the last half hour, the film all of a sudden gets potentially better only to end up disappointing, which didn’t seem possible for the first fifty minutes. Fever pretends it’s going to get (very measuredly) ambitious, then doesn’t.
It’d help a lot if Shotter were better. Between Fitzmaurice’s flat direction and Goldman’s flatter script, just being fine isn’t good enough given how important Shotter is to the third act.
Rather nice photography from Ernest Haller. Fredrick Y. Smith’s editing could be a lot better; he doesn’t seem to know how to cut for the comedy. Maybe he was having trouble finding it too. Fitzmaurice tends to mute it.
Petticoat Fever is an entirely affable, entertaining, competently executed comedy. It could’ve been more. And should’ve been, given the principal cast.
Directed by George Fitzmaurice; screenplay by Harold Goldman, based on the play by Mark Reed; director of photography, Ernest Haller; edited by Fredrick Y. Smith; music by William Axt; produced by Frank Davis; released by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer.
Starring Robert Montgomery (Dascom Dinsmore), Myrna Loy (Irene Campton), Reginald Owen (Sir James Felton), Otto Yamaoka (Kimo), Winifred Shotter (Clara Wilson), Bo Ching (Big Seal), Iris Yamaoka (Little Seal), and George Hassell (Captain Landry).