The Affairs of Annabel (1938)
The Affairs of Annabel was a wild-care choice for my TCM Top 12 in April, mostly because I adore Lucille Ball and I’ve only seen her work in Stage Door. The Affairs of Annabel isn’t a bad movie, it’s just unmemorable and entirely blah. The daffy hijinks of a movie star and her publicity agent become increasingly grandiose, all the while the laughs are non-existent. The script wants to be a screwball comedy, and the leads are scattered at opposite ends of the comedy spectrum. It’s not the best work from Ball.
Annabel (Ball) is a popular star, but her publicist Morgan (Jack Oakie) thinks she can always be bigger. He devises a series of schemes that run the gamut of Annabel going to jail, to being the maid to a rich family, all with an eye toward opening her next picture.
The Affairs of Annabel is an intriguing antecedent to the work Ball would become famous for later on. The audience certainly has to get used to seeing Ball act like a posh, refined, demanding actress because it’s so incongruous to the image we’re used to now. Annabel, at one point, is described as “delicate” and she certainly wants to live up to that, but it doesn’t work. Ball is best when she’s being physical, and the script is afraid to crack that refined veneer and let her loose. The best comparison I could make for the heights the script wants Ball to reach is Jean Harlow. The script and director believe Ball could be similar to the blonde bombshell by having Annabel be sophisticated, brash, and shrill; Lucille Ball is no Jean Harlow, and fans don’t want her to be.
What little set-up the movie has involves a series of gags strung together under the guise it’ll help Annabel’s next picture. The problem is the entire movie plays like a series of short films strung together; Annabel goes to jail and is released, Annabel is a maid and is a better person than the wealthy family. I was surprised the studio didn’t try (at least I didn’t read anything that pointed to it) to make a series of Annabel films with the same premise because this movie is so episodic. The humor is as non-existent as the plot, which is unfortunate since Ball is funny on her own. As she’s co-lead with Oakie, the movie is more interested in Oakie than Ball which is a bad bet because I didn’t laugh at the man once. The rapid-fire dialogue that works best in a screwball comedy comes off as two people yelling as loud as they can over each other. In a screwball, it’s hard to understand dialogue because each actor is saying such funny stuff quickly; here, you can’t understand what they’re saying because it’s garbled and incomprehensible! We also have muddled characters that make decisions only to immediately backtrack on it. Annabel says she refuses to fall for, or be party to, any of Morgan’s schemes, and what do you know, we get a 68 minute movie of her saying “never mind” to it all.
Since the movie is barely an hour, the episodic nature works for and against it. For, since the movie is so short the director can’t include a convoluted plot and easily resolve it; against, because after three or so gags you wonder how much longer it could be. The climax has a group of gangsters holding the wealthy family hostage, of which Annabel is masquerading as a maid, and becomes utterly ridiculous. Annabel sits around waiting for Morgan to save her while he continues to find ways to turn the event into added popularity for Annabel! It’s not just that it comes out of nowhere, but also that the script wants to shoehorn this into a broad comedy. By the end, the characters end up exactly where they started. Neither Annabel nor Morgan learns from their experiences and the actress is set-up to be in another stunt! By the end, you’ll ask “What was the point?” The movie doesn’t have one!
The Affairs of Annabel is an uneventful comedy that fails to provide laughs to its audience. Ball is good, but she’s simply waiting for her time to shine, and would make far better films later.
Kristen Lopez View All
A freelance film critic whose work fuels the Rotten Tomatoes meter. I've been published on The Hollywood Reporter, Remezcla, and The Daily Beast. I've been featured in the L.A. Times. I currently run two podcasts, Citizen Dame and Ticklish Business.
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