In this screwball comedy, William Powell plays an astronomer who’s discovered a new comet. But the weeks of working nights leading up to this career-defining moment have left his younger wife, played by Hedy Lamarr, feeling neglected. On the advice of their nosy neighbor, Lamarr visits an astrologer, who tells her she’ll soon meet a man “who really loves her.” This man manifests as the local air-raid warden, played by James Craig.
If you enjoy screwball comedies, add a star to my rating. For me, the genre’s trope of portraying the female lead as self-absorbed renders them grating. The Heavenly Body proves no exception.
In an opening scene, Lamarr confuses astronomy with astrology, calling Powell, “Her clever little astrologer.”
Powell shakes his head and closes his eyes, saying, “Darling… scientist, mathematician, physicist, bacon eater, yes. But not astrologer.”
“Astronomy is a science,” he continues. “Astrology is a superstition.”
Of course, she goes to the astrologer, and returns full of nonsense like Powell must not kiss her on Tuesdays. To this, Powell replies with, “Baby, what have I ever done to you that you’d do this to me?”
It gets worse. Lamarr moves out of the couple’s shared bedroom and announces she’s leaving Powell for a man she hasn’t yet met. She does this on the verge of Powell’s big presentation of his discovery to the press, leading him to flub what should have been a career pinnacle.
This kind of myopic behavior robs Lamarr’s character of any sympathy. She comes across as petulant instead of reasonable, needy instead of neglected. The screwball trope.
I watched the film because it stars Powell. He’s fine but, despite his top billing, it’s Lamarr’s picture and she struggles. In her best scenes, she apes Myrna Loy’s delivery, turning up her chin and nose to punctuate lines. It’s an endearing tick in Loy, but in Lamarr it feels forced. In scenes where she’s not imitating Loy, Lamarr looks lost, her Austrian accent furthering her dissonance. Yodeling the chorus during a musical duet with Craig doesn’t help.
Compounding matters, the film tacks on a disappointing quasi-endorsement of astrology. You know the beats. The astrologist makes wild predictions that the script ensures prove accurate, like Powell having asthma, despite no case history. It justifies astrology as “a science two thousand years before astronomy was ever heard of,” and that it’s “the wisdom of the ages written in the zodiac.” Powell poo-poos this Appeal to Ancient Wisdom fallacy, which along with a third act that sees him blackmail the astrologer, makes this plot point easier to swallow.
That said, I enjoyed Fay Bainter’s portrayal of the astrologer. No tarot cards or crystal balls, just a calm, authoritative demeanor and a smooth projection of unshakable confidence. A classic con artist.
The film ends with the lone scene that made me laugh. Powell has gone missing, and Lamarr discovers him holed up in their mountain cabin. Astonished, she asks how he’s survived.
Clutching his rifle, Powell says with pride, “I shot my food.”
“Quail?” Lamarr asks, clasping her hands with anticipation.
Powell shakes his head. “Soup,” he says pointing to a pile of lidless cans.”Noodle soup. I shot the tops off.”
A funny line, but too little too late.