Here's a screwball comedy from 1933. Hollywood historians usually tell you that screwball first manifested in 1934, though they'll debate which film was actually first, and I've portrayed screwball as a comedy style suitable (for various reasons) for the era of Code Enforcement. If you believe all that, then what we have here is a premature screwball comedy. If you ever wondered how screwball characters would fare in a Pre-Code film, here you are. It is almost predictably schizoid, incapable of maintaining the blithe tone typical of true screwball, often lapsing into melodramatic hysteria. The pivotal figure here is Claudette Colbert. A key player in the emergence of screwball as the leading lady of Frank Capra's It Happened One Night, she seems here to be performing in Pre-Code and screwball simultaneously. She's the sole daughter of the flighty Widow Rimplegar (Mary Boland), who doubled down on her dubious stock investments after the 1929 Crash only to have it all catch up to her as the film opens. Responding to a margin call from her broker, she finds that she's down to $1.65 in the family bank account. That leaves the Rimplegars -- Colbert has three brothers, including Wallace Ford -- wiped out except for their mansion and its furnishings, none of which are likely to find a buyer at the trough of the Depression. None of the kids work, but now they'll have to. Ford had abandoned his law studies, but now takes them up with new urgency. The youngest son becomes a lifeguard for a dollar a day. The middle son gets an acting job (he uses Rouben Mamoulian as a reference) with one line. Claudette bluffs her way into a shoe-factory job with help from a newfound friend who appears in only two scenes. She quickly falls behind her production quotas, but her supervisor will let her keep the job if she satisfies him in other ways. Like I say, Pre-Code can dress up as screwball but something will always show through a hole in the garment.
The Rimplegars are the kind of zany family of overgrown children that would become more typical after 1934, but the stakes seem higher in 1933. For Claudette, the challenge beyond making money and getting food on the table is choosing between two potential husbands. The choice should be obvious between the pretentious writer Ronald (Hardie Albright) and the prosperous doctor Alan (Richard Arlen). Both live with the Rimplegars, but the rent-paying Alan is the family's main lifeline while Ronald is a complete parasite who scoffs at a job offer from one of Alan's patients until our heroine shames him into interviewing for the position. Ronald suffers from writer's block and fantasizes about romantic double suicide, provoking Colbert's comment that she last considered suicide after failing an algebra test at age 14. Despite his shiftlessness Ronald represents the kind of life Colbert still dreams of, the world she imagines still living in yet needs to leave behind. She feels the shocks of downhill poverty harder than her mother or siblings, exacerbated by Ronald's several betrayals, and Nugent does an effective job at making us appreciate the absurd crisis that results when Mama Rimplegar ruins a dinner made with the family's last stock of food, as well as the critical absurdity of the family squabbling childishly over who'll ask Alan for the rent money. When the youngest son faints from hunger and Colbert starts screaming that he's dead, it's hard in an interesting way to tell whether this is a dramatic highlight or if we're supposed to find her hysteria funny. With one foot in Pre-Code and another in screwball, the tone of Three-Cornered Moon is hard to gauge at times, and the film may ultimately seem neither fish nor fowl. The ad above calls the Rimplegars "sappy" and "nitwits" yet promises that you'll love them. I wouldn't go that far; the male Rimplegars are nearly insufferable, and Lyda Roberti is wasted as their imbecilic Polish maid. In the end, there may be just enough suffering for them to satisfy a Pre-Code sense of poetic justice, yet not so much to make the film other than a comedy. Any label beyond that may be giving it too much credit.