Merrily We Live (1938): Screwball Comedy Starring Constance Bennett, Brian Aherne, and Billie Burke in her Only Oscar Nominated Role

Norman Z. McLeod directed Merrily We Live, a popular screwball comedy, starring Constance Bennett and Brian Aherne and featuring Ann Dvorak, Bonita Granville, Billie Burke, Tom Brown, Alan Mowbray, Clarence Kolb and Patsy Kelly.

The film, scripted by Eddie Moran and Jack Jevne, was produced by Hal Roach and was released by MGM.

This was the fifth of six films that Billie Burke and Alan Mowbray collaborated in.

The others were: Where Sinners Meet (1934), Becky Sharp (1935), She Couldn’t Take It (1935), Topper (1937) and Topper Takes a Trip (1938).

Norman Z. McLeod and written by Eddie Moran and Jack Jevne. It stars Constance Bennett and Brian Aherne and features Ann Dvorak, Bonita Granville, Billie Burke, Tom Brown, Alan Mowbray, Clarence Kolb, and Patsy Kelly.

The film was produced by Hal Roach for Hal Roach Studios, and was distributed by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer.

While based on a reworking of the 1930 movie What a Man – itself based on the 1924 novel The Dark Chapter: A Comedy of Class Distinctions by E.J. Rath, and its 1926 Broadway adaptation They All Want Something by Courtenay Savage – a number of critics find the plot of the film is similar to the 1936 film My Man Godfrey.

Grosvenor (Alan Mowbray), the Kilbournes’ butler, discovers at breakfast that the family silver has been stolen by the latest tramp, Ambrose, whom Emily Kilbourne (Billie Burke) had taken under her wing as the family chauffeur, in her obsession to reform fallen and destitute men, much to the exasperation of the rest of the family. A distressed Emily swears off taking in any more tramps, to the delight of the rest of the family.

However, Wade Rawlins (Brian Aherne) appears at the Kilbourne’s doorstep. His ramshackle car had broken down; when he got out, it rolled off a cliff. He wants to use the telephone, but is instead immediately adopted by Emily Kilbourne and appointed as the replacement chauffeur, despite the rude efforts of Grosvenor and Emily’s daughters Geraldine “Jerry” (Constance Bennett) and Marion (Bonita Granville). Further attempts to convince Mrs. Kilbourne to get rid of this latest tramp are blissfully ignored.

Rawlins, the new chauffeur, is housed in the servant’s quarters. He is overheard talking to himself while cleaning up and suspected to be crazy.

Jerry and Marion see the spruced-up tramp looking the perfect gentleman and Jerry approves when Rawlins later brushes off Jerry’s arrogant would-be suitor, Herbert Wheeler (Phillip Reed).

They now have second thoughts when their father, Henry Kilbourne (Clarence Kolb), who has returned from work, tells Emily that he is putting his foot down and orders that they get rid of her latest tramp the next day.

A comedy of errors, nighttime interludes with drunken family behavior, the arrogant Herbert making a move on Jerry, follows with the rescue of the damsel in distress who has also somehow misplaced her keys where some delightful flirting ensues, resulting in Jerry falling in love with Wade. Marion also expresses a crush on Wade. The next day, Emily Kilbourne, despite orders to get rid of Wade, trains him to be a footman at the important dinner party that evening for Senator Harlan (Paul Everton). That evening, through a contrived prank by Marion, Rawlins is accidentally invited to the important dinner party for Senator Harlan, who takes quite a liking to him, as does his daughter Minerva (Ann Dvorak).

The next morning, the family finds Rawlins occupying the guest room. It is impossible to throw him out, as it is discovered that he is now a confidant of Senator Harlan and his daughter’s target of affection. Jerry is consumed with jealousy, as she sees Minerva flirting with Rawlins at golf later that morning. After a fudge-making spat with Jerry, Rawlins takes the rest of the day off on an errand. The car he wrecked turns out to be a loan. He goes to pay for it, but the car has been found and the police inform the car’s owner that Rawlins is assumed to be dead. The man leaves to identify his car. Thus, when Rawlins arrives, the owner’s assistant George (Willie Best) thinks he is a ghost. The Kilbournes believe Rawlins has left for good, much to Jerry’s dismay after waiting up to reconcile with him.

The next morning at breakfast, the newspaper reports the death of E. Wade Rawlins, the “noted novelist,” from car crash, to the shock and dismay of the family, the cook and the maid.

When Rawlins reappears alive, Jerry is relieved.

Constance Bennett as Geraldine “Jerry” Kilbourne
Brian Aherne as E. Wade Rawlins, the tramp
Alan Mowbray as Grosvenor, the butler
Billie Burke as Emily Kilbourne
Patsy Kelly as Etta, the cook
Ann Dvorak as Minerva Harlan
Tom Brown as Kane Kilbourne
Clarence Kolb as Henry Kilbourne
Bonita Granville as Marion Kilbourne
Marjorie Rambeau as Mrs. Harlan
Phillip Reed as Herbert Wheeler
Willie Best as George W. Jones, the store assistant
Sidney Bracey as hired Second Butler/Footman
Paul Everton as Senator Willie Harlan
Marjorie Kane as Rosa, the maid
Olin Howland as Jed Smith, general store owner (uncredited)
Cast notes

This was the fifth of six films that Billie Burke and Alan Mowbray appeared together in. The others were Where Sinners Meet (1934), Becky Sharp (1935), She Couldn’t Take It (1935), Topper (1937), and Topper Takes a Trip (1938).

Merrily We Live was in production from October 27, 1937, to January 10, 1938. Some location shoot took place at Arrowhead Hot Spring and Big Bear Lake in the San Bernardino Mountains of southern California.

Titles that were considered for the film included “Take It Easy,” “Love Without Reason”, and “Dark Chapter,” which is the title of the E.J. Rath book the film is in part based on–though neither Rath’s novel nor Courtenay Savage’s play are credited.

Broadway columnist Ed Sullivan provided additional dialogue for the film, his first assignment for Hal Roach Studios.

Oscar Context

Oscar Nominations: 5

Merrily We Live received five Oscar nominations: Best Supporting Actress (Billie Burke), Best Sound Recording (Elmer Raguse), Best Song (“Merrily We Live”), Best Art Direction (Charles D. Hall), and Best Cinematography (Norbert Brodine).

Billie Burke’s Best Supporting Actress nomination was the only Oscar nomination of her career.

Oscar Awards: None


On March 3, 1938, parts of Merrily We Live were recreated for the radio on MGM’s Good News Radio program, featuring the stars of the film.

In 1955, there was a Mexican version of the film under the title Escuela de vagabundos (School for Vagabonds) with Pedro Infante and Miroslava Stern as the lead actors.

Films directed by Norman Z. McLeod

Taking a Chance (1928)Along Came Youth (1930)Touchdown (1931)Monkey Business (1931)The Miracle Man (1932)Horse Feathers (1932)A Lady’s Profession (1933)Mama Loves Papa (1933)Alice in Wonderland (1933)Melody in Spring (1934)Many Happy Returns (1934)It’s a Gift (1934)Redheads on Parade (1935)Here Comes Cookie (1935)Coronado (1935)Early to Bed (1936)Pennies from Heaven (1936)Mind Your Own Business (1936)Topper (1937)Merrily We Live (1938)There Goes My Heart (1938)Topper Takes a Trip (1938)Remember? (1939)Little Men (1940)The Trial of Mary Dugan (1941)Lady Be Good (1941)Jackass Mail (1942)Panama Hattie (1942)The Powers Girl (1943)Swing Shift Maisie (1943)The Kid from Brooklyn (1946)The Secret Life of Walter Mitty (1947)Road to Rio (1947)Isn’t It Romantic? (1948)The Paleface (1948)Let’s Dance (1950)My Favorite Spy (1951)Never Wave at a WAC (1953)Casanova’s Big Night (1954)Public Pigeon No. 1 (1957)Alias Jesse James (1959)