Big Bear Lake as the stand-in for the Adirondacks has never been so much fun as it is in Having Wonderful Time.
Teddy Shaw (Ginger Rogers) only gets two weeks vacation every year. Her friend Kitty suggests she go to camp Kare-Free, which is advertised as a luscious retreat with luxurious private cabanas and loads of fresh air and lovely scenery. When Teddy arrives, after we see her fighting through loads of family all bunched up in a small New York flat, she finds herself surrounded by people and escorted by a frustrated waiter (Douglas Fairbanks, Jr.) to a small cabin with three other girls (Lucille Ball, Eve Arden, and Peggy Conklin). Teddy wants to go home, but a talk in the light of a full moon convinces her to stay around.
Douglas Fairbanks, Jr. said in his autobiography, The Salad Days, that originally when they filmed the movie Fairbanks and Rogers did Brooklyn-Bronx accents. When they screened the film in the midwest nobody could understand them, so they had to redub the entire film much to the chagrin of the executives. This was Fairbanks’ third film of four released in 1938. The others were Joy of Living, The Rage of Paris, and The Young in Heart. The years just before the war had promise of a great career ahead of him, which he just didn’t quite achieve after the war.
When Having Wonderful Time was released, Holiday and The Joy of Living were playing as well–both films also look at whether wealth is important and whether or not society should intrude on living life with substance and quality rather than by the dictates of class or family. The film was panned by critics. The review from the Oakland Tribune said that the B picture was far superior and despite the acting skills of Rogers and Fairbanks, the plot was so inferior to the original play that not even the best actors could dredge it from the depths.
Being completely unfamiliar with the play, I think the only thing wrong with the film is that it actually comes off a little heavy-handed at times. Would have been a little more fun intellectually if Teddy and Chick delved a little farther into why society has forced them into this little corner of the earth in the Catskills to forge for fresh air and a good time without bringing the moon so far into the equation. Then again, we might not have gotten Ginger Rogers’ backgammon insanity and that is necessary, because it makes me happy. Although, it always drives me a little batty when a Ginger Rogers character acts naive. Ginger is great playing that character, but because she’s so quick with the quips and so able to deliver great turns of phrase I always expect more from her characters than they deliver in certain films.
One possible cause of the film’s holes may be Red Skelton. He made his debut in this film, though the powers that be didn’t particularly care for his antics and left a lot of his screen time on the cutting room floor. This could be why the film is a little on the short side at 70 minutes and why some substance is lost. Perhaps if his character were a little more fleshed out and involved with the rest of the cast in some fashion, he would be less of a novelty and more of a fixture for the film. That’s a lot to ask of a script that doesn’t quite meet it’s predecessor, but it may explain the gaps better than I’m able to articulate.
Although, I must say, the title of this film is always altered out of telegram form and I’ve fought hard throughout this review not to add the ‘a’. Perhaps it was obvious at the time, but there’s no reference to the title in the movie. Might have helped if she sent a telegram with “Having Wonderful Time” to her ex-boyfriend in New York, at least that would give a reason for why he just seems to show up out of the blue.
Overall, the film works, but it doesn’t quite gel together as it may have been intended to. And I can’t help but be pleased to see Ginger and Douglas Fairbanks, Jr. together. Fairbanks does well at portraying characters who are analytical and self-aware, simply because he was both fairly insecure and self-aware himself. Ginger is excellent at just about anything. The film is a pleasure to watch, eccentricities and all.