Shamedown #5: That Uncertain Feeling

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We’re back, all, and about time, too. School is out for my son and I, of course, and it feels fine. Anyway, if any of you are wondering what a Shamedown is, click here for the answers.

No one is too big to fail, not even Ernst Lubitsch and his famous touch, as audiences saw in 1941’s That Uncertain Feeling. What made this thing a stinker? Well…

Socialite Jill Baker (Merle Oberon) is paying a visit to her psychiatrist, Dr. Vengard (Alan Mowbray) at the urging of her friends because she has an unusual problem: Stress hiccups. Specifically, stress hiccups that pop up at the mere mention of marriage. Jill is highly affronted when Vengard suggests her marriage might not be as happy as she believes it is.

After all, Jill and her husband, Larry (Melvyn Douglas) are known in the press as “The Happy Bakers.” Other than Larry poking her in the stomach and squeaking out the word, “Keeks,” things are pretty blissful.

The next time Jill goes back to Dr. Vengard, she finds he’s late getting back from something. She also finds concert pianist Alexander Sebastian (Burgess Meredith) in the waiting room cynically appraising the very pedestrian art on the walls (“Phooey” is his favorite word, usually with a nondescript European accent). He’s there because of certain unspecified inhibitions that hold him back from true greatness. Namely, Alexander is fine playing for one or two people, but stick him in a concert hall and he’s an absolute wreck. While Alexander is a little irritating at first, he and Jill end up taking in an art exhibit instead of waiting around for Dr. Vengard.

That night, Jill and Larry are supposed to host a dinner party for a group of visiting Hungarians as well as Jones (Harry Davenport), Larry’s lawyer, but Larry’s shocked to come home and find Alexander nonchalantly sitting on the sofa. Larry is mystified, but takes things more or less in stride because there’s always a chance Alexander could play the piano for them. As fate would have it, the Schumann record he bought to entertain the Hungarians has a wee skipping problem.

Jill starts hanging around with Alexander so much that she takes up music herself and he takes certain liberties, albeit off-camera. While she’s aghast at first, Jill secretly likes it. When Larry comes home early one day and does peekaboo hands on her, Jill gives out with some playful, slightly racy banter. To her horror, she sees her husband instead of Alexander and faints dead away. Larry hands Alexander the smelling salts, and when Jill wakes up she giggles at the sight of Alexander and faints at the sight of Larry.

Larry debates with himself and Jones about how to get his wife back. His first idea is to try playfulness, but since that didn’t work, and Alexander seems to be winning, divorce seems to be Larry’s only option. The trick is that he’s going to act like it’s no big deal, just a parting of the ways. And because Larry’s a real pal (read: goober), he even shows Alexander the “Keeks” bit and tells him Jill loves it.

It’s all a means to an end, of course. Maybe if Jill sees him enjoying himself with other women she’ll come to her senses. Maybe Alexander will wear out his welcome. Who knows.

That Uncertain Feeling has some good moments. It can be cute. It’s got the trademark Lubitsch touch. It was an independent film, which meant it wasn’t hamstrung by picky studio executives. It was even based on a successful French play, Divorçons and its four filmed adaptations. Yet it tanked at the box office and is considered Ernst Lubitsch’s one and only failure. Why is that?

Variety put it thusly: “Taking the picture as a whole it is tiring, very slow generally and embraces numerous situations that are basically weak.”

Yep, that’s about the size of it. Lubitsch ignored his source material and tried to do his own thing, but it didn’t work. Audiences didn’t find the film all that funny and I can’t blame them. There’s just not much to it and what is there isn’t all that entertaining. That “Keeks,” bit gets more annoying with every poke (Heck, even just writing about it is grating). “Phooey” is heard so often it could be a drinking game. Comedy that should have been played up is dropped like the proverbial hot potato before the actors run off to their next bit.

The actors are woefully miscast, particularly Meredith, who gives off a brainy sidekick vibe and is certainly not cocky enough to be a wife-stealing lothario. Melvyn Douglas, who was normally so good at dry, witty comedy (see Ninotchka) is put in half-hearted, silly situations that don’t give him much to do. Not even Eve Arden, who has a tiny part as Jones’s secretary, could save this thing.

At least the actors and crew had fun because Lubitsch was a fun kind of guy. Burgess Meredith remembered falling over laughing at Ernst’s ever-changing, ever-relevant schtick in between takes.

However, this doesn’t save the film, which fell into public domain and can be found in transfers of various qualities. It’s not a complete waste of time, but drumming up much energy for it, especially after the ending credits roll, is kind of a thankless task.

Before we wrap up, there’s a little bit of business to take care of. This month we’re doing a double dose of the Pick My Movie Tag because I forgot to include one last month. Sorry, all. Anyway, drum roll, please…

April and May’s tags are Brian from Films From Beyond the Time Barrier and Emily from The Flapper Dame. Please review, if you’re willing, something from your watchlist, and the longer it’s been there, the better. The tag rules and a banner can be found here.

Oh yeah, and because June starts tomorrow, here’s what’s coming up (click the images for more information):

3-2MGMBlogathonBANNER-BenHur

Thanks for reading, all, and hope to see you tomorrow for a new Page To Screen…


That Uncertain Feeling is available on DVD from Amazon as well as free to stream for Prime customers.

~Purchases made via Amazon Affiliate links found on this site help support Taking Up Room at no extra cost to you.~

If you’re enjoying what you see on Taking Up Room, please look for additional content on Substack, where you’ll find both free and subscriber-only articles. I publish every Wednesday and Saturday.

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