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The Toast of New York (October 6, 2011)

The Toast of New York was based on a couple of histories chronicling what we used to call “The Robber Barons”, a set of capitalists that arose in the United States after the Civil War. Of them all, Jim Fisk, played in this movie by Edward Arnold, was perhaps the most audacious. He was someone for whom the patterns of corporate governance (as we call it now) were simply a suggestion. He more or less did whatever he wanted within his power.

The script was by Dudley Nichols, John Twist and Joel Sayre, and the film was produced at RKO from December 14, 1936 to mid-April, 1937 and was released on July 30, 1937. Two-thirds of the film was directed by Alexander Hall, who fell ill during the shoot and was replaced by Rowland V. Lee, who gets the director credit on the print. The length of principal photography suggests that Lee reshot much of Hall’s footage, and contemporary press reports indicate that the script was rewritten on the set by Nichols. The film cost $1,072,000 to make, and it lost $530,000, which meant it was RKO’s biggest box office failure of 1937.

Edward Arnold, born Gunther Edward Arnold Schneider in New York in 1890, played plutocrats, millionaires and political bosses in a long career in pictures from the 1930s through the 1950s. We’ve seen him more than once before in films at the library, in Mitchell Leisen’s Easy Living as well as Frank Capra’s Mr. Smith and You Can’t Take It With You. When I showed Easy Living my friends and frequent library film attendees Tom and Vicki Horvath shared with me their copy of Come And Get It, a 1936 film, also with Edward Arnold and tonight’s leading lady, Frances Farmer, with Arnold as a pulp and paper magnate from Wisconsin. That’s a great film too, that we’ll no doubt see at some future time.

This picture doesn’t exactly follow the historical facts about Jim Fisk. He was shot and killed by a man named Edward Stokes in 1872 in a fight over a woman. Josie Mansfield, the actress played by Farmer, was only one of Fisk’s romantic partners. The Jim Fisk story as played in this movie is a comedy biopic. Cary Grant, at the end of his Paramount contract, was lent to RKO for this film. He would afterwards leave for two non-exclusive contracts with RKO and Columbia that would result in many of his classic comedy roles (Bringing Up Baby and His Girl Friday, among others). Jack Oakie was a well-loved comedian from the early 1930s who made many still quite watchable movies, mostly for Paramount. Donald Meek and Clarence Kolb demonstrate their perfected comedy styles as Daniel Drew and Commodore Vanderbilt. The camera loves Edward Arnold, his timing is classic, and it’s pleasant to see him as the lead in a movie. I hope you enjoy watching The Toast of New York with me tonight.