Directed by Michael Curtiz, Four’s A Crowd is a romantic comedy starring Rosalind Russell as reporter Jean Christy, Errol Flynn as editor-in-chief Robert Lansford, Patric Knowles as the newspaper’s owner Pat Buckley, and Olivia de Havilland as his fiancée Lorri.
Michael Curtiz was a highly experienced director by the time he made Four’s A Crowd, having worked prolifically in Europe before being brought to Hollywood on the personal invitation of Jack and Harry Warner. He began his contract at their studio by making Noah’s Ark (1928), and seven years later would direct Olivia de Havilland and Errol Flynn in Captain Blood (1935), their first onscreen outing together. It would earn an Academy Award nomination for Best Picture, and Curtiz – although he wasn’t officially nominated – received so many write-in votes for Best Director he could lay a solid claim on second place. He was offered the reigns of Four’s A Crowd after Edmund Golding declined to direct the picture, as he was spending the year making a number of films with Bette Davis.
Errol Flynn was widely known for playing swashbuckling heroes, and was keen to avoid becoming typecast. He appealed to Warner Bros. to cast him in more varied roles, like the romantic lead of a screwball comedy, and Jack Warner appeased him with the offer of Four’s A Crowd. It was the fourth of nine movies in which he starred with Olivia de Havilland, who’d been with Warner Bros. since Alibi Ike (1935). The pairing was a reliable one in terms of audience appeal, but de Havilland wasn’t an obvious comedic actress. However, at this point in her career, neither was Rosalind Russell.
Russell, who got her start in show business as a model and Broadway performer, had signed a contract with Universal in the early 1930s. The partnership was an unhappy one, and she quickly and deftly negotiated a transfer to MGM where she debuted in Evelyn Prentice (1934), followed by a string of serious roles in which she tended to appear as a dignified and aristocratic lady. Like Flynn she had concerns about being typecast, and was frustrated at the lack of variety in the parts offered to her. In a March 1936 interview with the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette she said:
“I am tired of being a clothes horse – a sort of hothouse orchid in a stand of wild flowers”
The release of Man-Proof (1938), in which she starred opposite Myrna Loy, would prove to be a turning point in Russell’s career. Whilst the film itself received largely negative reviews and disappointing box office returns, it was her first turn in a comedy, and she held her own. Warner Bros. set their sights on Russell to appear in their own upcoming screwball, and borrowed her from MGM for Four’s A Crowd.
The film’s story is supposedly based on the life of Ivy Ledbetter Lee, a public relations man who worked for the prominent Rockefeller family, stirring up publicity stunts to keep them in the papers. The plot feels familiar to anyone with a screwball comedy habit; a busy newspaper office, jokes at the expense of the wealthy and well-to-do, and a bit of light subterfuge in the name of love.
Four’s A Crowd is an enjoyable film, and I can’t help but feel it’s been somewhat unfairly mauled by critics both contemporary and modern. It’s certainly nothing groundbreaking, and the twists and turns of the plot may be a little creaky, but it’s fascinating to see Russell take what feels like a first run at a role she’d perfect in His Girl Friday (1940), and she steals the screen in a loaded cast.
Unfortunately Four’s A Crowd performed poorly at the box office, effectively putting an end to Flynn’s chances at a broader career. It didn’t stop Rosalind Russell though – she was propelled to further comedic and career heights with the release of The Women (1939) and His Girl Friday, and became equally as well known for her lighthearted roles as her serious ones. Four’s A Crowd is good fun, and worth a look for the fantastic cast alone. It proves what we already knew – that Rosalind Russell was fantastically funny from the very beginning.