Made for Each Other (1939)
Long-time readers of JiCF know I’m a sucker for a domestic melodrama and only Old Hollywood knows how to take a simple story about a couple struggling to make a go of it and turn it completely bonkers! On the surface Made for Each Other is reminiscent of Saturday’s Children (1940), albeit that film came out a year later and seems somewhat grounded in reality (and that isn’t said in disparagement). Director John Cromwell directs a movie that, at times, feels like a domestic precursor to film noir with a powerhouse performance by Jimmy Stewart. The plot twists meant to heighten the tension are silly, but certainly make the movie memorable for what it’s trying to say.
In a meet-cute we never see but that could only exist in a romantic drama of this era, lawyer John Mason (James Stewart) meets the beautiful Jane (Carole Lombard) after helping her remove a cinder from her eye. That cinder ends up being a catalyst that changes everything, putting the two on the fast-track to matrimony before the film even begins. Like the aforementioned Saturday’s Children, Made for Each Other focuses on how this young couple will make it through the trials and tribulations of life. Their love is never in question, in fact it’s downright passionate. When John introduces Jane to his mother, played with maximum nag by Lucile Watson, he can barely contain his lust, telling his mother in a growly voice how “crazy” he is about Jane.
The couple fall quickly into the routine of domesticity, though their marriage itself is the main complication for everything in John’s world. Because he’s married Jane his boss’ daughter marries John’s main rival, Carter (Donald Briggs), who ends up getting a big promotion at work over John. John and Jane struggle with money issues – or money issues as defined by the times which is still fairly comfortable – and when baby makes three everything comes to a head. The birth of John Jr. is one of several moments in Made for Each Other that seems ripped for a darker, harsher movie. As John tosses and turns in his hospital bed before wandering the hallways, the interplay of shadow and light leaves the audience wondering if this is a noir. Is poor Jane going to have something traumatic happen to her? Nope, Cromwell and crew just want to play up the suspense of childbirth.
But these camera techniques leave Made for Each Other in a constant state of tension, just waiting for someone to metaphorically pop out and say, “Boo!” As Jane and John struggle to make ends meet, they run through the requisite domestic problems with an added sense of weight to everything. Their arguments aren’t presented as the stuff of fantasy, where the couple squabbles over mismatched ties, but real problems. John is rational, worried, frightened of being unable to provide for his family and what that failure says about him as a man; Jane is optimistic, but never so bubbly that it feels she’s just following the role of happy housewife. When the two finally have a moment of respite on New Year’s Eve, they’re not able to shake off the problems of their home. Jo Swerling’s script packs a punch in this moment specifically, as Johnny lays out the harsh fact that maybe being married and having a baby was a big mistake. Carole Lombard’s quiet dejection is heartbreaking, as she resigns herself to knowing her husband regrets their entire lives, yet she still wants to dance with him.
But it’s evident the film’s serious tone wasn’t particularly what the studio wanted, so after spending over an hour on domestic issues, the final third is aggressively shoved into overwrought drama and fear. Almost immediately after the heartbreaking and well-performed moment of brutal honesty between the couple, their baby is struck down with pneumonia, as if God himself besmirched the child for his parents’ lack of romance. This is a common theme in most domestic melodramas – only a tragedy can bring the wayward couple back together – but it gives Made for Each Other a Hollywood veneer it doesn’t need. Yes, Cromwell can return to these evocative camera shots, particularly as Stewart anxiously tries to find serum for his son and when a daring pilot risks a blizzard to deliver it. But even this bombast isn’t necessary when the performers are so superlative. Stewart himself magnetically infuses John with such emotion. He isn’t afraid to openly sob in frustration at the thought that his child might die. Where most Hollywood movies of the time presented women as the emotional ones, seeing Stewart get rightfully choked up over his kid pulls on the heartstrings.
Commonly found in the public domain, Kino Lorber beautifully restored this for its recent Blu-ray release. The film comes with an informative audio commentary I recommend you give a listen to after watching this. Made for Each Other certainly suffers from a more is more mentality with its third act, but Lombard and Stewart are so eye-catching and make the most of a movie that attempts to showcase relationship struggles, even when things get a bit silly.
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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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