A shipwrecked society girl tries to survive on an island with Bing Crosby, Ethel Merman, Burns and Allen, and a circus bear. Far from the feverish dream with which one might associate such a scenario, this is in fact the bizarre plot of We’re Not Dressing, a low budget Paramount comedy in which Carole Lombard stars with the personalities above, all playing parts reminiscent of their own personalities.
Based on the 1902 J.M. Barrie play, there is a nominal plot involving a sailor (Bing Crosby) trying to woo the socialite (Carole Lombard). Bing Crosby has very little actual dialogue, but a huge number of songs–it seems that Bing Crosby is constantly onscreen in this movie, and always singing. Aside from the minimal semblance of a plot, We’re Not Dressing is more like a variety show than a traditional film. George Burns and Gracie Allen often take center stage to show off their antics, while Ethel Merman and Bing Crosby sing their way through the entire movie.
The circus bear, Droopy, plays as prominent a role in this movie as any of his human costars. The way he is treated was obviously intended for comedic effect, but to the viewer sensitive to the treatment of animals it comes off as cruel and unnecessary. The bear is led around on a leash, tied up, and at one point, put on roller skates. Granted, the roller skate bit was done with a fake bear, but it was nonetheless a bit distressing to watch.
It is very interesting to watch the young Ethel Merman, as her character and demeanor are already much like the Mama Rose role with which we have come to associate Merman’s Broadway work. At the time of We’re Not Dressing, Merman was just beginning to make a splash on the Broadway scene, and in this movie there the brassy confidence that later became a Merman signature is already evident. The second that booming mezzo-soprano speaking voice hit my eardrums, I knew without a doubt to whom it belonged.
An Ethel Merman number that was ultimately cut from the movie.
The real highlight of this movie, though, is Burns and Allen. Their comedy is sharp, quick, and inventive, and the consistency of their comedic chemistry is what helped to make them some of the most respected names in the history of the art form. Here is an example of a classic Burns and Allen exchange in the movie:
George Martin: [watching through binoculars] Gracie, my gun! A bird!
Gracie Martin: What?
George Martin: A bird! A bird!
Gracie Martin: O, my goodness. Here.
[hands him a live duck]
George Martin: Not a duck. My gun! How can you shoot with a duck?
Gracie Martin: Well, my father used to shoot ducks. But maybe that duck wasn’t loaded, eh?
George Martin: The duck wasn’t loaded but I’d like to bet that your father was.
Gracie Martin: Well, if he wasn’t then why did the duck shoot my father because I always thought…
George Martin: Quiet! Quiet! Well, I missed him. He’s gone and that was a stratospheric duck and very rare.
Gracie Martin: Well, I am just as glad that you missed him because I don’t like rare ducks. I like my ducks well-done.
Gracie Martin: Now, take my uncle.
George Martin: *You* take your uncle.
Gracie Martin: They did.
Aside from Burns and Allen and the novelty of watching Ethel Merman at the beginning of her career, the movie is a prime example of the low-budget films to which studios would relegate their stars in retribution for declined parts. Despite ostensibly being the star, Carole Lombard’s part is rather insignificant. The film misses an opportunity to use her considerable talents to progress a flawed film, and the film suffers.
Fortunately for Lombard, the movie directly following this one more than made up for whatever setback Lombard might have otherwise experienced due to this movie. Twentieth Century was released 2 weeks after We’re Not Dressing, and continues to be one of Carole Lombard’s most highly respected and beloved films.
See you next time!