How to Make an Underrated Romantic Comedy

As the days become colder and the holidays edge nearer, it's always lovely to sit down with a nice cup of something toasty (coffee with Bailey's for me!), wrap yourself in a blanket, and watch a classic film. But what to watch? Personally, I don't think you can go wrong with warm, sweet romantic comedies at this time of the year. 1935's If You Could Only Cook is a great example -- just follow my recipe and you too could be spending your dreary winter with perfect, hilarious company!

First, pour a basic premise into a large bowl. Stir with an electric mixer until it becomes endearingly silly. (If you want your romantic comedy to also be of the screwball variety, just add nuts.)
If You Could Only Cook is your standard mistaken identity plot. Automobile tycoon Jim Buchanan is growing restless. His board of directors refuse to implement his stylish and fresh ideas. He doesn't seem excited at all about his upcoming wedding. Bored, he sits on a park bench next to Joan Hawthorne, who is combing through the want ads. Assuming that he is unemployed like she is, Joan proposes that they pretend they are married in order to nab a
butler and cook job that is being offered to married couples. Intrigued, Jim accepts. They soon discover that their wealthy new employer is a bootlegger, but that isn't the main problem -- that would be Jim's real identity, which becomes harder to hide as he and Joan fall in love.

For your next step, stir in two charming lead actors.
Playing Jim and Joan are debonair Herbert Marshall and effervescent Jean Arthur. Although Trouble in Paradise is one of Marshall's most well-known films, comedy doesn't appear that often in his filmography. While he certainly was no Cary Grant or
Jimmy Stewart when it came to the genre, Marshall was affable, witty, and, because he was such a great actor, convincing. He didn't have to do pratfalls to make you laugh when a well-timed one-liner or a bemused expression could work just as effectively.

While Marshall is good, Jean Arthur is better. Her presence literally lights up the screen. With that indescribable voice and that beautiful face, Arthur was completely unique and completely brilliant. I could watch her do anything and be charmed, but thankfully this film takes advantage of her sharp comedic skills. She makes Marshall look great, she makes the film fun -- she just
makes life wonderful overall.                                       

Next, sprinkle in a fair amount of quirky characters.
If You Could Only Cook doesn't have a very large cast. There are only four characters we really spend much time with: Jim, Joan, their boss Michael Rossini (Leo Carrillo), and his sidekick Flash (Lionel Stander). Rossini isn't your typical gangster. He rarely comes across as dangerous or violent, probably because most of the time, this guy is just all about eating. Rossini doesn't love food -- he is obsessed with it.

His test for hiring the new cook and butler depends on one crucial thing: garlic. He has the potential cook create a specific dish and if
they don't use the garlic just so, they're immediately thrown out. Luckily for Joan and Jim, Joan knows exactly what to do, earning her considerable respect from Rossini.

Throughout the film, he praises her culinary skills ("Is that lobster thermidor or is that lobster thermidor?!") and soon develops a crush on her. When he asks Joan to marry him at one point, she remarks "I'm afraid your stomach's got the better of your heart." She isn't wrong, although Joan is definitely a catch.

Rossini's right-hand man, Flash, doesn't quite understand his boss's passion for gastronomy. This is best summed up when Rossini comments "That's the trouble with you: food is just food, but my stomach lives for good things!" However, there's nothing Flash wouldn't do for Rossini. When he becomes suspicious of Jim and Joan, Flash follows Jim and humorously mistakes him for a con man. In the end, though, Rossini and Flash prove to be big softies as they work to bring Joan and Jim together.

Now add some sugar, vanilla, and a good dose of funny quotes and scenes.
These are vital ingredients. After all, what's a rom-com without sweetness and laughs? There are many good lines in If You Could Only Cook. One of my favorite scenes is right after Joan and Jim get the job and are shown their living quarters. While she goes to bed, he sneaks out and goes to his sleek apartment. He hasn't left Joan, though -- he just wants to take butler lessons from his own butler, Jennings! I love this exchange:

Jennings: "You must know the master of the house like a book.
Most times, sir, you’ll find it a very uninteresting and uninspired book but it’s all part of the job, sir…You must give him the impression you are hanging on every word he says, even though it is drivel."
Jim: "Oh, is that what you do?"
Jennings: "Yes, sir -- I mean, no, sir!"

It's fun watching Jim nervously figuring out how to be a butler. There's this great moment when Rossini has a few gangster pals over for dinner. Instead of waiting for Jim to take their hats, they just throw them at him and he manages to catch every single one.

Finally, add in an interesting production story to give it that extra spice.
As I talked about in my review of You Can't Take It With You, If You Could Only Cook changed Frank Capra's career -- even though he had nothing to do with it. While taking a trip in England, Capra discovered that Columbia head Harry Cohn had attached the director's name to IYCOC's British release. (Poor William Seiter was the actual director.) Cohn had a deal for Capra: if he let things be, Cohn would give him a piece of the movie's profits, as well as some of the profits for more movies that he planned on putting Capra's name on. Disgusted, Capra threatened to sue Columbia if he wasn't released from his contract right away.

Cohn refused, Capra filed the lawsuit, and as the court process dragged on, the director was jobless since outside studios were reluctant to offer him films for fear of Cohn's wrath. Months later, Cohn finally agreed to talk with Capra once it was beginning to look like the courts were going to rule in Capra's favor. Columbia's executives provided another incentive by threatening to fire Cohn if they lost the suit and Capra. In the end, Capra only had to make two more films for Columbia instead of the three his contract obligated. Not only was he paid for the film he didn't have to make, he was also given a story for his next film that he was crazy about: You Can't Take It With You. Despite its hefty price tag of $200,000 ($3.5 million in 2016 money) and his promise that he would never buy such expensive screen rights, Cohn gave in and the film was a massive success. It became the highest grossing film of 1938 and ultimately won Oscars for Best Picture and Best Director.

With all of your prep done, bake in the oven at 350°F for 72 minutes.
Carefully take your confection out and enjoy!


This is my entry to the Food in Film Blogathon, hosted by the lovely ladies of Speakeasy and Silver Screenings. Find the other mouth-watering posts, beginning with Day 1, here.

Also, you can check out If You Could Only Cook on YouTube here.


  1. Michaela, you have introduced me to many delightful movies, and this is another one. I hadn't even heard of this film, even though it stars Jean Arthur AND Herbert Marshall! So thank you for your thoughtfulness in providing the YouTube link. I know I'll love this one.

    And thanks for joining the blogathon. It's always a pleasure to see you at the party.

    1. Well, thank you for that comment! I'm so glad I could introduce you to films you end up enjoying. And I am all too happy to provide that link. More people need to see this film!

  2. I love this film! Herbert and Jean are adorable. It's funny and the characters are likeable. I am so happy to find another fan of this lovely, and sadly, much underrated film. Maddy

    1. Happy to see this film has another fan, too! We're pretty lucky that this movie is available on DVD since it's so overlooked. Thanks for stopping by!

  3. Grand article! I particularly enjoyed your praise of Ms. Arthur and Mr. Marshall because, in my memory, the movie is all Leo Carrillo. I must remember to spread the praise evenly over the fluffy cake base.

    1. Yes, we don't want that cake to be uneven! Leo Carrillo is a very memorable part of this film. I just love the idea of a tough bootlegger who goes crazy over perfectly cooked lobster thermidor. Definitely don't recall seeing that in any of Warners' gangster films.

  4. I can’t believe I haven’t seen this. I am shamed to admit that because I love Jean Arthur so much. This is such a fun, excellent read. Thank you!

    1. Thank YOU for that comment! Since you love Jean Arthur, I have no doubt that you'll like this movie. She absolutely shines in this.

  5. I scrolled my way through this post thinking, I need this movie in my life . . . and I reach the end and there's a YT link! Perfect! I'll definitely be giving this a watch sometime this month, it sounds wonderful :)

    1. Yay! I was thrilled to find it on YouTube so people reading my post could actually watch it if they hadn't yet. I hope you enjoy it!

  6. Nice! If only all moviemakers could follow this recipe and come up with as tasty results! Great choice and thanks so much for being part of the blogathon!

    1. Thanks for hosting it! You're right -- it would be lovely if more filmmakers could learn from the sparkling romantic comedies of the Golden Age!

  7. What a sparkling, witty review. I'm a fan of both Jean Arthur and Herbert Marshall. Although I would never have paired them together, they manage to shine in this film.

    1. Thank you so much! I agree -- I love them separately, and they would seem to be an odd fit, but I think they do quite well together.


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