It’s Love I’m After is a screwball comedy directed by Archie Mayo, starring Leslie Howard and Bette Davis as Basil Underwood and Joyce Arden, the constantly bickering Shakespearean actors with a highly dysfunctional relationship who are starring in Romeo and Juliet, and Olivia de Havilland as Marcia West, a debutante who becomes infatuated with Basil after seeing him perform.
Basil Underwood and Joyce Arden are starring in a successful run of Romeo and Juliet, and whilst the audience is utterly convinced by them, the supposedly star-crossed lovers are constantly bickering, sniping at each other between lines. Meanwhile, socialite Marcia West watches the play enraptured, and is so overcome when Romeo dies that she can do longer bear to watch. She flees her seat, and after the show goes backstage to breathlessly compliment Basil on his performance. This is much to the dismay of her wealthy fiancé Henry Grant (played by Patric Knowles), who is wildly jealous of the attention his future wife lavishes on the thespian.
Marcia’s affections have a wide-eyed innocence to them, and she certainly doesn’t go backstage to throw herself at Basil, but Joyce is nonetheless furious to find Basil alone with her in his dressing room. In his desperate attempts to win her back, Basil promises Joyce that they’ll go to the courtroom right away and get married. However, before they can leave, Henry shows up with a proposition. He wants Basil to come and stay with Marcia and her family, and whilst he’s there, to behave so terribly that Marcia will be thoroughly put off the actor and driven back into the arms of her fiancé.
Basil agrees, arriving at the West’s expansive home in the middle of the night, rousing everyone from their beds by loudly pretending to be drunk. Marcia is thrilled to see him, and instead of being repelled by his behaviour, the two only grow closer as they spend time with one another, her infatuation growing by the day. He’s in the middle of spectacularly failing to break it off with Marcia when Joyce appears, tipped off as to what Basil’s been up to. She lies to Marcia, telling her that she’s Basil’s wife, and screwball antics ensue as she refuses to help him escape from his entanglement with Marcia. Joyce tells Marcia she’ll divorce Basil so that the two of them can be together, unable to pass up the opportunity to torture Basil further after the hurt and humiliation he’s inflicted on her. Joyce sums up the difference between her and Marcia’s characters in a furious speech she gives to Basil:
“I’m going to tell you exactly what your life is going to be like. You’re going to have love for breakfast, love for lunch, and love for dinner. Sweet, sticky, sugary worship. You’re going to live on a steady diet of it until you’re ready to scream. You’re going to long for a good brawl, but she won’t fight. You’re going to struggle to escape, but she’ll never let you away from her. And it’s just exactly what you deserve, you…you billy goat!”
Incensed, Basil is determined to behave so awfully that Marcia will be terrified by him forever. Locking the door to her bedroom whilst the two are inside, he approaches her in a manner he clearly thinks is menacing, but he’s no match for Marcia, who interprets it as an attempt at seduction, and therefore proof of his love for her, and she tells Henry she cannot marry him. Henry is furious with Basil, believing him to have deliberately double crossed him, and Basil flees the West’s home in his desperation to be free of the entire affair. But he can’t outrun Marcia, who’s waiting for him at his apartment. But Henry is close behind, and during his row with Basil, Marcia overhears him confessing the depths of his feelings for her. She rushes into his arms, and in her swift dismissal of Basil, delivers one of my favourite lines of the film:
“I was in love with Clark Gable last year, and if I can get over him, it’s a cinch I can get over you!”
Marcia and Henry leave together, their relationship repaired. As they exit the elevator they bump into Joyce, who’s delighted to realise she hasn’t lost Basil forever. The end of the film sees them planning to elope to Las Vegas, bickering and embracing with each alternating breath.
It’s Love I’m After allows De Havilland to demonstrate a skill for comedy that she is all too rarely lauded for. Her performance has touches of both Katharine Hepburn’s self-assured uptightness, and Carole Lombard’s wealth-fuelled hysteria in My Man Godfrey, without appearing to imitate either. She makes the role her own and is an excellent screwball comedienne, showing her ability to quip with the best of them with a wild, wide-eyed enthusiasm which contrasts with Bette Davis’ signature dry wit wonderfully. The film itself is very funny; I hadn’t seen it before watching it for this blogathon, and I’m genuinely surprised it isn’t more widely celebrated as one of the classics of the genre. It’s also a delight to see Bette Davis and Olivia de Havilland – one of Hollywood’s most enduring friendships – on screen together, especially in a picture which suits both of their talents so well.