Monday, December 21, 2009

Angel (1937)

Angel was the first film Ernst Lubitsch directed under the production code. And it shows. You can see Lubitsch struggling against the Code. His usual "touch," that light unobtrusive slyly sexual humor that his best movies exhibit, is a bit off somehow. To add to Angel's troubles, the film was cut down by twenty minutes to please the studio. That also shows. There are chunks of explanatory dialog missing. I was confused about the opening scene of the film, expecting it to be explained in the end and it simply wasn't. Worse, you can see moments where Lubitsch had given the actors space to actually react to things and those are pared down in the most noticeable way. In one scene Herbert Marshall comes to realize that his wife is the woman, "Angel" that his buddy Melvyn Douglas has been nattering on about for two reels. The film fades to black right in the middle of Marshall's reaction. His face is still changing. It's most disconcerting and I can only blame Paramount for this incompetence because I can't see a genius like Lubitsch actually pulling such a hack move.

Dietrich plays Maria Barker, wife of an important British diplomat, Sir Frederick Barker (Herbert Marshall) whose time is consumed by attempting to make peace in the Pre-World War II era. Through a slight case of mistaken identity she meets Tony Halton (Melvyn Douglas) in the Grand Duchess' Salon, which is far as I can tell is a cross between a single's bar and a brothel. The Grand Duchess, ably portrayed by Laura Hope Crewes is part time agony aunt to Maria with whom she has some mysterious, never quite explained connection. Halton shows up on the recommendation of a never-seen Captain Butler (remember this is two years BEFORE Gone With The Wind, I think the name was merely coincidence) looking for a good time. Maria offers to show him the Louvre, the Eiffel Tower and Notre Dame, though that's not what he had in mind. Those reading along might think some of this sounds remarkably similar to Ninotchka, made by Lubitsch also with Douglas and a fake Russian Emigre, Greta Garbo a few years later. But Angel is no Ninotchka and it's a bit of a puzzle as to why. Dietrich and Douglas' early scenes together, so critical to the believability of the rest of the film, are leaden where they should be light and ponderous when they should be breezy. I like both these actors separately, but together in these early scenes, I can't wait for the movie to well, move along.

I literally said aloud, "oh thank God!" when I saw Edward Everett Horton's face in the next scenes. Now, we are actually going to have a comedy, I said. Well, almost. Horton has a small part that he does his best with as Graham, Barker's loyal manservant who judges the various European powers by the manners of their representatives at the League of Nations. He holds them all up to be lacking compared to those of his master, Sir Frederick who is smooth, easy-going and impecable in every way a butler could wish for. Unfortunately he's not so impeccable in every way a wife could wish for. After a wonderful bit of Lubitsch nonsense involving mixed up sleeping arrangements in the bedroom suite (the highlight of the movie for me), we see that Maria and Frederick's relationship is more or less platonic. I love Herbert Marshall and all, but really man, do you need a B12 shot or something? Can I get you a plate of oysters? This is Marlene Dietrich telling you about a dream she had in which you beat her and she quite liked it (Oh Lubitsch and his references to S&M are one of my favorite little quirks) and you run off to answer a telegram from the Yugoslavians. Sigh.

At a scene quite reminiscent of Notorious, Maria spots Halton at races through a pair of binoculars and begs to go home with a headache. Speaking of Hitchcock, the whole pre-World War II vibe is very Foriegn Correspondent-ish, right down to the fact that Maria and Sir Frederick have the exact same enormous Great Dane as Marhsall's character does in the later Hitchcock film. Wierd. Anywho, inevitably Halton and Sir Frederick meet, discover they once shared the affections of the same Parisian woman during the Great War and become fast friends. When Douglas and Dietrich are reunited, the sparks finally fly and both actors are really wonderful at showing just enough emotion to let the audience know what they are thinking. The way Douglas says "Hello, Angel" when they are finally alone together is enough to make me almost root for him. And that's saying a lot because y'all know I'm bananas for Herbie. Marshall and Douglas seem to enjoy being with each other more than they do Dietrich, which makes me wonder if Lubtisch wasn't just trying to remake Design for Living with the promise of "no sex" actually coming true. Marshall and Douglas' scenes together all slap you on the back old man, make you a gin and tonic and light your cigarette. I could just about watch 90 minutes of this camaraderie, but if it Lubitsch had allowed it to go on a second longer I would be convinced that it was the two guys who were lovers after all.

I wouldn't discount any Ernest Lubitsch film entirely. Though it's been difficult to find in the U.S. , some kind soul has uploaded it to Youtube. It is worth watching to appreciate the enormous tension wrought by Lubitsch in this comedy that wants to be a thriller. It wants to be Notorious. How I ache for Marshall to come out at the end and admit he's a fat-headed guy full of pain. Actually, almost any movie would be better with that as the ending. Dietrich keeps hinting that she could be a spy when she first meets Douglas. I kept hoping that would be the case. Her marriage would be revealed as a sham so she could run off with Halton. Graham and Sir Frederick could live happily ever after in a Jeeves and Wooster rip-off drawing room comedy.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Ten Favorite Pre-Code Love Scenes

Well it's the end of a decade folks so all the movie blogs are bound to have a lot of lists. Since I have barely watched ten movies from this decade (if I didn't exaggerate, I would die) I will focus on stuff I'm actually watching. You know: old movies. So here's my Ten Favorite Pre-Code Love Scenes to keep you heated up on this cold winter's day.

10)Gary Cooper and Cary Grant in Uniform. And if that's not enough...submarines! Gary Cooper has many great pre-code love scenes: The scene at the end of One Sunday Afternoon where he in a matter of a few minutes saves his marriage and wins the audience's grudging affection. Not to mention scenes in Farewell to Arms where he makes you forget momentarily that the script has left Hemingway behind pages ago. But none of these scenes are really all that different from Gary Cooper love scenes after the code. A big exception is to be found in the oddball melodrama Devil and the Deep co-starring Tellulah Bankhead, Charles Laughton and a little known (at the time) actor named Cary Grant. Cooper picks Bankhead up, literally, he saves her from keeling over in the midst of a festival, and spends the night with her in an oasis. The scene lasts ten or eleven minutes following the couple as they move through crowded streets, back-alley bazaars and eventually the moonlit dessert. At one point she's trying to get rid of him and she shakes his hand to say goodbye, he keeps it and continues talking to her in a low monotone of hypnotic seduction while stroking the inside of her wrist with his forefinger. It's a completely cheeky thing which would get a mere mortal slapped, if he didn't look like Gary Cooper. Bankhead plays into it beautifully, protesting half-heartedly until it's too late. The rest of the film is campy good fun that ends in a submarine crash in which everyone gets wet (except Cary Grant, who sadly left the movie before this point, D'oh!)

9) Cheap and Vulgar. Warren William and Joan Blondell in The Goldiggers of 1933. Joan Blondell calls herself "Cheap and vulgar Carol" and Warren William replies "I love you, whatever your name is." It's really pretty awesome. See it here. More on Golddigers here.

8)Put em round me. Norma Shearer and Clark Gable in a Free Soul. This whole scene is the essence of pre-code from the costumes (Norma Shearer's loose, low cut dressing gown worn without underwear would never be permitted a few years later) to the context (the scene takes place as the couple are spending the night in Ace's hideaway.) Gable and Shearer argue. He wants to marry and she doesn't. She ends the dialog and the argument with a direct command for some lovin. "Come on. Put 'em round me." A contemporary review of the film found this couple preposterous, but now they are almost cliche--the gangster bad boy and the wild, society girl. The whole scene is linked here, and starts at about the three minute mark. More on A Free Soul can be found here.

7)The pussyfooting. Barbara Stanwyck and James Rennie discuss the ups and downs of shacking up together in Illicit. "I can't stand all this pussy-footing around," he declares to which she replies, "Don't say you don't like the pussy-footing." Stanwyck is adorable and hilarious and Rennie has stuck with me, even though this is the only movie I've ever seen him in. The combination of romance, comedy and a head-strong heroine mixed in this scene would be repeated frequently in Stanwyck's best pictures. Highlights are linked here and begins around the 55 second mark. More about Illicit can be found here.

6) Jungle love. Four Frightened People. Herbert Marshall and Claudette Colbert lose their clothes and, eventually, their inhibitions as they lose their way in the jungle. After epic quantities of flirtation, he touches her shoulder. She tells him that it feels so good when he touches her and he replies "everything I've touched for weeks now has seemed to be you." Squeeeeee! Later in the film the lovers, exchange wedding vows while tied back to back to a piece of bamboo. Marshall's character has a wife back home which adds an extra level of pre-code angst to the proceedings. More about Four Frightened People here.

5) I'm gonna let you watch me shave. In Bed of Roses (1933), Joel McCrea plays a gritty ship's captain who falls for a prostitute (Constance Bennet). The whole thing is a bit of Red Dust rip off in that respect, but it's a fun movie, with well-written dialogue and enormous chemistry between the leads in their third pairing on film. In one scene McCrea's character shaves in front of Bennett and things get pretty steamy. I happened upon this movie in the last five minutes and I was completely mesmerized by McCrea and Bennett, so much so that I made a point to seek out the whole film and others with these two actors. McCrea is ridiculously handsome in this movie. I'd been used to seeing his films from the early Forties, where he was pretty, but wow. OK, just... wow. Fan of Palm Beach Story? Watch one of his pre-code comedies with Bennett and prepare to have your mind blown.

4) They are still talking about typewriters, right? Leave it to Lubitsch to make even an old typewriter sexy. In Design for Living Frederich March and Glinda admit there feelings for one another and then move on to more important matters--talking about Tommy's old typewriter. Him: "Ya didn't keep it oiled! The keys are rusty." Her, "It still rings." He moves really close to her and she whispers, "it still rings." See the whole scene here starting at around minute 54.

3)Garbo and the furniture In Queen Christina Garbo and her real-life lover John Gilbert act out the doomed love affair between a queen dressed as a man and her Spanish lover, Antononio. They spend three days together snow bound in an inn. In one memorable scene Garbo moves around the room touching the furniture and draperies with a sensual delight. She explains to Anotonio "in the future in my memory I shall live a great deal in this room." See the whole scene here.

2) What about breakfast? In The Smiling Lieutenant, Claudette Colbert and Maurice Chevalier discuss when they will next see each other. She suggests dinner, but he says no that's too long to wait he is hungry now. Then she suggests tea and he says, knowingly, what about breakfast? As she's leaving, they kiss and the screen fades to black. In the next scene she is happily cooking him breakfast. And that, ladies and gentleman is why they call it the Lubitsch touch! See the whole thing here, from the five minute mark.

1)UNF. If you don't know what UNF is try looking it up and you might just find a scene from Red Dust there as an explanation. The rather crude acronym has come to mean"paradigm of sexiness" and that about says it all really. It's hard to pick just one scene from Red Dust. One might do a list of at least five just from that film. My favorite is the first meeting of the couple in which they mostly debate the merits of different kinds of cheese. It's almost as if the writers were trying to come up with the least sexy dialog possible, but Gable and Harlow somehow set it on fire anyway. See it here.

Sunday, December 13, 2009

All About Eve (1950)

I've been talking a lot about the ages of various actors and actresses in my last few posts and discussing the viability of their careers after they were deemed Over the Hill. It reminded me to re-watch the movie All About Eve, which is at its heart about the struggles of a 40-year-old actress, Margot Channing (played by 42 year old Bette Davis) to hang onto her career, her 30 Something boyfriend and her sanity in the face of a young, ambitious and insidiously manipulative rival, Eve Harrington (Anne Baxter). Davis used all kinds of personal tics and charming idiosyncrasies to put a part of her soul up on that screen. That is great acting, as opposed to merely competent acting which allows us to imagine a person is someone else. In one scene, Davis reveals her real age to her playwright friend and says, "I feel as if I'd just taken off all my clothes." My reaction watching that was that I've seen into a person's real, secret pain. She might as well have taken off all her clothes.

Maybe I'm so age obsessed lately because I'm just days away from the big 4-0 myself. These kinds of milestones are bound to bring out the erratic behavior. Bill Simpson (Gary Merrill), Margot's lover is dismissive of her fears, calling them childish, which they may be, in at least the way she has a tendency to bring them forth in tantrums, but they are reasonable concerns, nonetheless. Whenever I watch a movie like this it just makes me wanna take up arms against...I don't know what. Like seeing Emma Thomspon cheated on in Love Actually, is actually physically painful because I think, "damn if it could happen to Emma with all her looks, talent and brains, then the rest of us mortals are all totally screwed." This is the essence of what a "Women's Picture" is all about. It is a theme which resonates with women and more than a half century later, All About Eve is just as potent a cocktail as the day it was made.

Written and directed by Joseph L. Mankiewitz, All About Eve has one of the best script's ever put before a camera. The opening monologue alone, delivered in a tone of perfect derision by theater critic, Addison DeWitt (George Sanders) is probably one of the all-time ten best opening sequences. Sanders is the picture of wickedness and yet he's so dang funny you just can't hate him. He is the devil, but you find yourself wanting to hang out with him anyway. Other supporting players shine, like Thelma Ritter who literally makes me say aloud "I love you, Thelma" during every scene in which she appears. Even Miss Casswell (Marilyn Monroe), DeWitt's ditsy like a fox escort to Margot's disastrous party, is memorable and not just because she's Marilyn Monroe. She's just perfect--conveying the same menacing ambition as Eve, but without the dishonest facade of naivete which Eve uses to worm her way to the top. Miss Casswell plans on sleeping her way to the top, with stops in the middle range couch of a theatrical critic. There's a sort of crude honesty about the way in which DeWitt points her in the direction of a bigger fish at the party, presumably having been paid in kind for his services as pimp. It's not exactly admirable, but at least it is straight-forward. The same can not be said for Eve.

Watching Eve slowly rise at the expense of others is a bit like watching a horror movie. You shout, "don't go there, stupid!!" at the screen every time one of Margot or her friends cuts her a break. The worst part is that Eve is probably talented enough that she could make it without all the backstabbing. At a certain point Margot just wants to retire and get married, in which case she would have been happy to see her protege rise, I think. By the way, I'm not sure I buy that whole premise much anyway. Can't Margot be married and continue to work? It's how you know you're watching a Women's Picture, I guess. That and at any point after 1950 people would have spotted Eve's behavior as pathological right from the get go.

The ending is sort of hokey, and perhaps the only weakness of the film. Eve is stalked by a very young Eve-y type stalker, which is all just a bit too pat for my taste. I would rather the film end with Eve accepting her Major Award and getting away with all her crimes. At least we get to see DeWitt one more time and he has a great moment of recognition when he meets Eve's young fan. The look on Sander's face is pretty priceless and takes the sting out of the unsatisfactory conclusion.

Friday, December 11, 2009

Eye Candy of the Day: Found Footage

Last night I had the good fortune to attend the Fourth Annual Found Footage Festival at the Heights Theater in Minneapolis. A good friend of mine put the DVD of last year's festival in our hands and we found it greatly amusing. Seeing it live with the film's creators commenting Mystery Science Theater style is a whole other level of funny. I laughed so hard I cramped up my jaw.

As we were leaving the theater I kept remarking to my friends, that I had to get a hold of one of the videos in the festival. I couldn't put my finger on it at the time, but there was something about it. And then it hit me: I think I found Warren William's modern day doppleganger, appearing in a 80s Eurotrash new wave band called "Something Big" in what is billed as the "World's First Nude Pop Video." To paraphrase the best thing about the video, it's elaborately crafted disclaimer, "Please don't watch this video programme, if nudity offends you." What it should really say is "Please don't watch this video programme if Warren William lookalikes and blurry photos of topless (and sometimes headless) women offend you."


Something Big

Found Footage Festival | MySpace Video

Friday, December 4, 2009

Some people call me Maurice

I'd never watched any Maurice Chevalier movies until recently, and then I watched two, from the book-ends of his career: The Smiling Lieutenant (1931) and Love in the Afternoon (1957). Chevalier made his name as a suave singing comic lover on the stage before he signed with Paramount and starred in their earliest musicals. In The Smiling Lieutenant, a thin, spicy plot hangs together around Chevalier's musical numbers which are charming and often quite bawdy. He is the apex of a love-triangle with Claudette Colbert and Miriam Hopkins and in one memorable scene the two women get together to prepare notes, cooing over how handsome he looks in his signature straw boater. "Did you ever see him in...oh, no nevermind" Colbert says, blushing. She goes on to give Hopkins some musical tips about spicing up her lingerie wardrobe before leaving Chevalier to enjoy the fruits of her makeover talent. Only in a pre-code Ernest Lubitsch movie would you have such a sophisticated and nonchalant attitude toward sex. Well, perhaps in a modern French film, but then they'd all stand around and look out the window all day and no one would sing or dance or anything!

in Love in the Afternoon, Chevalier plays a private detective whose daughter (Audrey Hepburn) falls in love with one of his most notorious targets--an American playboy played by Gary Cooper. Cooper and Chevalier were both leading men at Paramount in the early 30s and it must have been a bit irksome to him to be relegated to the fatherly role, while aging Coop still clung to his male lead status. The movie is delightful and funny and while many people have a problem with pairing 56-year-old Cooper with 28-year-old Hepburn. It is well-known that director Billy Wilder's first choice for the part was Cary Grant. Now I can never deny feeling that Grant would be a superior choice in almost any film (OK, maybe not in say, A Streetcar Named Desire), but I actually think Cooper is just fine. Yes, he looks his age, as Grant did not at that point. Cooper shows a bit of vulnerability when he becomes insanely jealous over Hepburn's implied experience with men. Of course the whole thing is a big bluff, but that doesn't stop him from going completely over the top. If this weren't handled just right, I think it would be kind of creepy, which is why I'm glad Cooper finesses the situation just perfectly.

My only real beef is with Wilder who seems completely paranoid about Cooper's face. He is never shown in close-up until almost the very end and he is almost always in shadow. This very frustrating for Cooper's fans. If so much had not been made of his age by the director, I don't think it would be such a big deal.

Anyway, Chevalier and the whole rest of the cast are wonderfully charming and fun. I love the script which tries very hard at being European and sophisticated, but still comes off being pretty quaint by today's standards. Hepburn is worthy of everyone of Wilder's loving close-ups, the ones he didn't give to Coop, and she and her leading man, and her pretend father all act wonderfully together. This is really one of those movies that is kind of like comfy old slipper that you could try on any time you need to feel warm and fuzzy.

Thursday, December 3, 2009

Platinum Blonde (1931)

Though Platinum Blonde is primarily remembered today as a Jean Harlow vehicle, it may surprise many people to learn that Harlow was actually given third billing behind Loretta Young and Robert Williams in the movie. The latter is especially shocking given that the leading man is all but forgotten today, with the exception of his appearance in this film. This is too bad because the comic talent Williams displays in the movie is a revelation. He died of complications from a burst appendix a few days after this film's release. The early reviews were very positive and it's certain that he would have become a major leading man. Williams had an archly comic style of a William Powell or Lee Tracy and the looks and romantic moves of a young Frederic March.

The story follows a reporter, Stew Smith (Williams) who helps an heiress' family with a paternity suit and wins her hand in marriage as a reward. Harlow isn't terribly believable as a society dame and her usual quirky comic personality is subdued in order to play a somewhat shrill chic who has looks and money but little else to offer (as if that ain't enough!) She and Williams have some nice love scenes together, though which adds at least a touch of humanity to her character. After a few months of trying to live in the family mansion, dress for dinner and stay away from his cronies back at the office, including his gal pal, Gallagher (Loretta Young), and Stew has a meltdown. He invites all his reporter friends over and they trash the mansion. If that's not enough, he and Gallagher are caught collaborating on a sofa in a rather unprofessional pose. I've never seen Young play this sort of role before, and I think she does fine. Although, she is insanely pretty and its a bit of stretch to believe that Stew never notices her until the end of the movie. The movie is definitely pre-Code in that it ends with Stew and Gallagher living together in his old apartment, while he's waiting for his divorce from the heiress to come through! Try that after 1934!

Frank Capra directed Platinum Blonde and it has the comic energy and passion of his later films minus the crusading bent. That isn't meant as a criticism. I actually enjoy taking a break from the crusading Capra every once in a while. Loretta Young plays the first in a long line of Capra female newspaper reporters in movies like Meet John Doe, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, and Mr. Deeds Goes to Town. What's missing from the formula here is the fatherly editorial figure whose special relationship sees the female reporter through difficult times. That's because the emphasis is on Stew and maintaining his integrity in the face of his wife's money.

I love newspaper movies and this is a good one. It's more about the culture of being a reporter than about any one big story, which is another refreshing break. No major corruption scandal is broken; no Tammany Hall is toppled. In fact the leads leave the reporting game altogether to write a novel together, a perhaps laughable plan, but one that's inconceivable from Capra later in the decade.

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Ever Since Eve (1937)

It's really hard to watch a movie with Marion Davies and not think of the whole "Rosebud" thing. It's also hard to watch her not imagine that the actors and actresses around her wouldn't be just a touch resentful of her star status. As William Randoph Hearst's mistress, she had an entire film production company created to give her a showcase. Of course, as Irving Thalberg's wife, Norma Shearer had a similar degree of unfair advantage. But Shearer won over critics and the public were crazy about her. She would have been a star without being Mrs. Thalberg. The same can not be said for Davies, though as a comic actress, she is actually quite good. Ever Since Eve was her final film and was a fitting movie to go out on. It is a breezy screwball comedy, co-starring Robert Montgomery and the always hilarious Patsy Kelly. I watched this movie for Montgomery and Kelly, but I was impressed with Davies' ability to hold her own in with these top notch comic actors.

Davies retired from Hollywood at age 40 to devote herself to Hearst full-time. Without Hearst's backing, she might have made a very first rate actor, though perhaps never a star. I think she was wise not to try to force her way into the glamor gal roles any more. Hollywood then as now had little room for women over forty who had the misfortune to look their age. Looks are an important part of my assessment of this movie because the entire film is predicated on the conceit that Davies character is so incredibly gorgeous and sexy that her bosses can't keep their hands off of her. She looses job after job because she refuses to submit to sexual harassment. While I'm happy to see the issue of sexual harassment brought up, I think it's a mistake to think that it only happens to pretty girls. Even more offensive is the joking way in which Patsy Kelly is disappointed that her boss is a perfect gentleman with her.

As a solution to her employment problem, she gets an ugly bob wig, a dumpy double breasted suit, some thick glasses and manages to get along fine as Robert Montgomery's secretary. Like those movies where women dress in drag and men find themselves strangely attracted to them, only to be relieved when the ruse is revealed later in the film, Montgomery's character seems drawn to her. Absurdly he doesn't recognize her voice or face when she he meets her dressed in her normal "beautiful" attire. My willingness to suspend disbelief is further stretched by the fact that Davies looks pretty dowdy in the supposedly fashionable wardrobe she wears in this part of the film. Whatever happened to the kind of outrageously glamorous work attire that say Kay Francis would wear? The fitted pencil skirts and short jackets she's wedged into do nothing for Davies. Even the gown she wears in a nightclub scene makes her look lumpy. Maybe it was more than the actors who were resentful and Orry Kelly hated her as well? Hearst moved his production company from MGM to Warner's because Davies was tired of being second fiddle to Norma Shearer. Though she might have lost parts to Shearer at MGM, I'm pretty sure they wouldn't have allowed her to go before the cameras like this.

What works in this movie is the script which is frothy and full of dozens of memorable one-liners. Patsy Kelly is a hoot and so is her fiancee played by Allen Jenkins. This is definitely a case in which the secondary couple were entertaining enough to draw my interest away from the leads. Montgomery was charming and funny as usual and he and Davies are quite fun together especially when she is impersonating a plain girl. I couldn't help but wish he would have just fallen in love with her like that. Or better yet, run off with Patsy Kelly.