Arise, My Love (1940): Milland and Colbert

arise my love milland and colbert

“Arise, my fair love and come away” – Song of Solomon 2:13

The screenplays of Charles Brackett and Billy Wilder are often literal master classes in hooking the audience. They understand intuitively the construction necessary to bring us into a story so we’re invested. Take the opening of Arise, My Love. Yes, there’s some throw-away text about the Spanish Civil War in the summer of 1939. It’s in the aftermath, but then we’re introduced to a telling scene.

One of these soldiers of fortune, American Tom Martin (Ray Milland) sits in confinement as a father (Frank Puglia) from the local monastery pays him a visit. The firing squads right outside his annex make it painfully clear the hour of his own execution is imminent. Those aren’t rubber bullets. The man of faith feels some urgency to ask the prisoner if he even feels penitent — if he needs to clear his chest of anything.

All this sounds rote so far. Anyone could write this scene like so. Then, individuality sets in. Instead of contrition, he bemoans the fact he didn’t get into the action with Chamberlain and Hitler nor has he gotten a chance to take potshots at Nazis. It has the vitriolic gallows wit of Wilder setting up the gag.

Here’s the kicker. The inevitable is whisked right out from under Martin by the most unexpected of Providences. He’s been granted a pardon! It came through the pleading of his wife! It’s an obvious punchline if I know Wilder (and Brackett): he has no wife!

This plucky mystery woman (Claudette Colbert) is a reporter out for a story and boy does she has a way of making a doozy of a spread. They get out of the scenario thanks to her charm, his flying, and a bit of luck.

We are reminded the movie is planted squarely in its moment from the headlines about the Yankees in the World Series and the hunt for Scarlet O’Hara finally being over. Tom was among three American flyboys, who are a group of idealistic interventionists siding with the little guys against the big boys.

Paris, the city of amour, is still free from Nazi influence, and the pilot does his best to channel what’s already in the air. “Gusto” rebuffs him — albeit good-naturedly — because she’s an all-or-nothing gal. She knows if she says “yes” she’ll be head over heels. There’s nothing wrong with that per se. But she’s a career woman.

Now Claudette Colbert doesn’t quite strike me as a typewriter-plunking type like Rosalind Russell or Barbara Stanwyck — one of the boys as it were — but she comes off as deliriously happy. Because it feels like she’s in her element again in this world, whether or not it’s totally manufactured by Hollywood. As her slighted suitor sits in the Cafe Magenta just betting she’ll walk over from her hotel, she looks to climb the journalistic ladder.

She’s dropped with quite the gig: Special Berlin Correspondent. The previous correspondent was kindly asked to leave by the Nazis. Among other infractions, he went to a reception for Herr von Ribbentropp and yelled “Gefilte Fish!”

The agitated editor (Walter Abel) is a long-running trope, but here it works as well as it did anywhere else in that he provides yet another antagonistic force to push against our heroine. Although, given the state of the world, she hardly needs it. He more likely serves as a bit of comic relief.

Because while Tom decides to go off to Warsaw, Poland to fly with his buddies (“I’ve always wanted to drop something on Hamburg after I got ptomaine from that hamburger”), while simultaneously stealing a few more hours with Gusto, Hitler rudely kicks off WWII. They plan to get out of town on the fated S.S. Athenia. No one told them the battle for the Atlantic has already geared up. Though hit hard, they are luckier than most. At the end of the day, Tom and Gusto are still together (and alive)…

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If you humor me for only a moment, there is a habit that can get me into trouble. Reading other people’s reviews. I’m as insecure as the next fellow about my writing. I could never do it as good as so-and-so or why didn’t think of that! That’s all that comparison gets you. Worse yet it can start infecting your own point of view if you consider other voices. Usually, I hold off until after my words are set in cement.

However, in a rare instance, I happen upon a contemporary review of Bosley Crowther, and it gave birth to some thoughts. He ends his piece on Arise, My Love in this manner:

“It is simply a synthetic picture which attempts to give consequence to a pleasant April-in-Paris romance by involving it in the realities of war — but a war which is patently conceived by someone who has been reading headlines in California. Miss Colbert and Mr. Milland are very charming when tête-tête. But, with Europe going up in flames around them, they are, paradoxically, not so hot. Same goes for the film.”

While I understand where Crowther is coming from, I will politely dissent, armed with hindsight as I most conveniently am. I’m often of the mind Hollywood folks are too self-important. How much influence do they really have? And yet even to look back at cinema in 1940 there is a sense there was real social importance in the movies being made — at least the ones that were truly aware of the cultural moment.

I am reminded Hitler was a cinema nut and Goebbels (derided briefly in this film) was deeply engaged in harnessing film for propagandistic purposes. Hitler even had a special prize for capturing Clark Gable. They really could be taken down a few pegs by the medium they too seemed to admire in spite of all their dementedness, and it’s quite a fitting mode of attack.

Think of Chaplin’s lampoon. Think of the various contours of Nazi menace explored in the likes of The Night Train to Munich, Foreign Correspondent, and The Mortal Storm from both inside and out. Hold Back The Dawn shows the implications on the American homefront. Even the passing remark from Cary Grant in His Girl Friday to stick Hitler on the funny pages brandishes something momentarily powerful.

If Billy Wilder is not considered to be an integral part of this company, he deserves to be. Because Arise, My Love taps into the same immediacy available only in those uncertain months. He gladly sticks his nose out to be bitten and whether it was from the relative comfort of California, Wilder was not a stranger to personal heartache. He lost loved ones at the hands of the Nazis. It’s a personal context I doubt Crowther could have been aware of. Arise, My Love was promoted as a romance that could only happen in 1940, which is a key to its resonance; it’s effectively encased in the amber of the times.

The final interludes are in a forest, a pasture, as Colbert stands on her soapbox, as it were, in a lasting embrace with her love. It’s not as stunning as Joel McCrea’s delivery of Ben Hecht’s prose in Foreign Correspondent, nor is it Wilder/Brackett’s finest hour. But that’s just it.

For an effort that’s not even that well-remembered in Classic movie circles, Arise, My Love is a charming picture. The word proves apt for much of Mitchell Leisen’s filmography. And yet there is the undeniable wit and sophistication of its writers. Right down to its title. The full passage reads like this:

My beloved speaks and says to me:
“Arise, my love, my beautiful one,
and come away,
11 for behold, the winter is past;
the rain is over and gone.
12 The flowers appear on the earth,
the time of singing has come,
and the voice of the turtledove
is heard in our land.
13 The fig tree ripens its figs,
and the vines are in blossom;
they give forth fragrance.
Arise, my love, my beautiful one,
and come away.

So you see, it’s not only an inflection of passionate love but also naturalistic hope.

3.5/5 Stars

Ruggles of Red Gap (1935): An All-American Gentleman’s Gentleman

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It’s Paris in the spring of 1908. The mumble-mouthed, rather sheepish Roland Young admits to his manservant Ruggles (Charles Laughton) he’s gone and lost him in a poker game. He was terribly good at the art of bluffing. A little too good as it were.

The kicker is the folks he’s handing him off to, vacationers from rural America! Ruggles does a deadpan double-take upon hearing he might be sent to the United States: the land of slavery. His former lord helpfully interjects a fellow named Pocahontas helped put an end to that.

The husband, played by Charlie Ruggles (Coincidentally, sharing his name with one of our characters), is Egbert Floud, a man of the land, totally at odds with hoighty-toighty Parisian high society. He has no qualms about his heritage. In fact, he’s darn proud of it. Handlebar mustache and all.

His wife (Mary Boland) is positively obsessed with social status — tone and Joyeux de vie — and acquiring Ruggles so they might gain a new sophistication. When her husband learns they are about to have a servant, his voice is exasperation personified.

She makes him go off to get some culture, and he proceeds to drag his new manservant along to the nearest gin joint. He’s not a man beholden to any kind of hierarchy. Everyone is a neighbor and a friend. It’s quite unsettling to Ruggles at first, if not a totally novel concept. He’s never had cause to fraternize with Americans before.

Charles Laughton, eyes lolling about in his head, makes it one of the funniest situations I’ve been privy to in some time. To call him robotic is doing him a discredit. He’s so stiff it emphasizes his propriety and his station in life. He’s quietly beside himself performing his duties with these fits and starts. Then, he’s subsequently crawling inside his skin at the cavalier indecency of what he’s being subjected to; he’s too well-mannered to dissent of course.

Except the punchline is how easily he mellows in the company of Egbert and one of his buddies. The alcohol flows, they take to a carousel and wind up crashing Effie’s grand dinner party royally swacked, Ruggles most of all. Mrs. Floud attempting to apologize to the guests with her infantile French. It signals a change and the mistress of the house starts to disdain her help for leading her husband astray — even if it’s decidedly the other way around.

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But the great departure happens and with it comes Ruggles fateful arrival in Red Gap, a place he’s no doubt been dreading for some time. For him, it’s a distant incarnation of America and their antediluvian ways.

What a surprise it is that he makes a striking first impression. Everyone seems to take an instant shining to him as Egbert walks him around to introduce him to all his pals, bestowing him the good-natured nickname “Colonel Ruggles.”

He catches the eye of Mrs. Judson (Zasu Pitts) after complimenting her meat sauce. Meanwhile, the editor of the local paper takes an interest in this regal gentleman with military rank, ready to write an entire spread about him on the spot. Almost instantly he’s become a local celebrity.

He is quite taken with the life and the normally raw, rough and tumble lifestyle takes a genuine shine to him, at least the good honest folk who still have a love of the land and earthier ways. Ironically it’s the aspiring elites — like Effie Flowd — who are turned off by him, whether through misunderstanding or jealousy. He has breeding they can never hope to have.

The best part of Laughton’s performance is how he’ll slyly “break character” as it were, getting drunk on the town in Paris, stirred on by his jovial company, and then later giving a particularly aggravating man named Belknap-Jackson a kick in the seat of the pants in retaliation (the other man did it to him first). It’s these wildly conceived digressions making the movie for me because Ruggles suddenly breaks out of the convenient archetype we have for him as a gentleman’s gentleman.

I grew up watching (and reading) a lot of Jeeves and Wooster after all, where the comedy is born out of the continually failed plans and romantic miscues of the dopey protagonist. It’s his man Jeeves who must use his acumen to rescue his master from inevitable social suicide.

The beauty of this narrative is how it poses one obvious scenario before devolving into something else. Far from being a story of class clashes, it is a fish-out-of-water tale turned on its head. Ruggles is gradually transformed into a new man, exercising unheard-of freedom over his own life. He becomes a man whose future is entirely in his own hands, and he’s totally taken with the ideology of America.

One day he is unceremoniously fired by his rival just as he was sitting down with an improving book on the 16th president of the United States. At first, you think nothing of it — the book he’s reading. However, most crucially he rectifies his former historical blunder. It was not Pocahontas who had a part in freeing the slaves but Abraham Lincoln.

In the local saloon, he is reminded of who his friends really are and he, in turn, reminds them what their country is really about. What’d Lincoln say at Gettysburg? Everyone’s asking everyone else and nobody knows. Even in 1935, arguably in earshot of someone who could have been there, it’s still a fickle generation far too easily forgetting the past.

It’s easy to feel a bit tentative about themes of Lincoln as a white savior. That he single-handedly fixed the problems of America. That he was a martyr for a cause. But the movie never quite says any of this. I’m putting words into its mouth. What it does suggest is the egregious sin slavery engendered on American soil. Thus, it’s not totally Pollyanna.

Instead, Ruggles stands up and evokes the words of the great emancipator. I need not recite them and could not, but they instill in the people of Red Gap what are nation is called to — exemplifying the principles meant to set this land apart.  It’s a sober reminder that it’s sometimes those on the outside who recognize the great luxuries we are afforded and must give us pause.

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The final act keeps on riding these same waves with the grand opening of Ruggle’s new restaurant, offering two major developments. First, there is the return of the Earl of Burnstead — honored guest of the Flowds — who shows up late to announce his marriage to a local girl. Ruggles, having quite enough of the conceited Belknapp-Jackson, boots him soundly out of his establishment with added relish.

However, as a result of his unseemly behavior, Ruggles thinks his reputation and his business are finished for good. And yet he goes out the kitchen’s swinging doors to hear “He’s a Jolly Good Fellow,” not for the Earl but for him! If the Gettysburg address is the first moment of immense pathos, this is the crescendo — the camera turning to the reactions of all the town — these folks who all are part of his adoring crowd. They sing and smile and clap for him.

In my own sentimentality, I couldn’t help but think of George Bailey’s own serenade as all his friends gather around him to lift him up. There’s the same kind of communal exultation and the joy of being beloved by the company around you. It leaves Ruggles almost speechless. So Egbert pushes him through the swinging doors so he can snatch a kiss from his best girl.

I’m not sure I believe in love at first sight, regardless, I was positively charmed by this picture. The cast feels impeccably crafted to fit together, teasing out the comedy and making the story develop into a full-bodied piece of humor and All-American tenderness. It takes caricatures and stereotypes and somehow molds them into the most honorable and lovable ideals.

However, in the context of the times, Leo McCarey’s comedy — his first removed from the very particular influence of The Marx Brothers — feels more like a precursor to Preston Sturgess than a Capra picture. There’s the influence of the pure zaniness of the scenario, with the social elites being brought down a few pegs. Moreover, it feels like there’s a sense, this hope and hankering for America and humanity as a whole to still be something we can believe in.

The farce is of the most good-natured variety. Far from being vitriolic, we laugh with those we were meant to laugh with and laugh at all others who more than deserve it. It might be a simple, idealistic world, but sometimes it’s nice to believe that a gentlemen’s gentleman can make something of himself — like a  well-respected pillar of society in Red Gap, Washington. It works because the gags give way to something more.

For a first-time comedian, Charles Laughton is superb. But he’s hardly a one-man show. That’s the beauty of it. There’s a kind of genial comedic utilitarianism to the proceedings where all can be involved — audience included.

4.5/5 Stars

Les Miserables (1935) and Candlesticks

les miserables 1935 march and laughton

There’s a biblical verse that warns against storing up treasures in heaven where moth and rust destroy and where thieves break in a steal. Jean Valjean keeps two silver candlesticks with him always — they’re probably the nicest things he owns — but their true value signifies something more than worldly wealth.

While it cannot cope with the sheer scale and transcendent grandiloquence of Victor Hugo’s eponymous work, 20th Century Fox makes a valiant go at it using all the resources at its disposal to deliver the 1930s version of a prestige period piece.

Jean Valjean (Fredric March) is before the courts in the year 1800. The judge utters the purposefully grating words “guilty until proven innocent.” After all, the law is explicit. It makes no provisions for a man who stole out of desperation since he couldn’t get work with none to be found. His sister and nephew were starving. It makes no difference. Retribution is swift. 10 years in the galleys for his infraction.

Watching March in such abhorrent conditions is akin to any major movie star being forced to suffer so. Errol Flynn suffered a similar fate in Captain Blood. Charlton Heston and Kirk Douglas being enslaved years later also springs to mind. There’s a fortitude they earn in conjunction with the audience. It makes us commiserate with their lot in life — especially when the world seems so unfair.

Stylistically, the direction is a bit clunky with nothing particularly appealing with how Richard Boleslawski handles the material but given who he’s taking from, perhaps it’s for the best there are not many undue flourishes. Although artistic license is taken with innumerable details, the general essence of the novel (from what little I know) is still present, and, if anything, it has been shaped into a social piece to speak to the times.

But we have yet to speak of the story’s other crucial figure. Javert (Charles Laughton) is a devoted lawman with a sordid family history hanging over him. He’s trying to do everything in his power to get out from under its legacy.

There’s a recalcitrant timidity to Laughton even as he plays another fellow with power (like Captain Bligh) who is wholly beholden to the law. It becomes more and more apparent how relentless he is in his line of work — to the point of obsession and steep paranoia.

But make no mistake. He is no Captain Bligh. Laughton brings something of a different sort to him going beyond convenient descriptors. He’s merciless in another way with a deceptive even evasive cunning. And again you can’t help but feel sorry for the compulsive way in which he adheres to his duties. There’s something behind his eyes crying out even as his posture is always uncomfortable.  Can we say he’s fragile? Somewhere in there is the little boy making amends for his parent’s failures. He’s part of the same legalistic system that put Jean Valjean into prison.

Here the candlesticks come back into play. The 10 years are up and after an escape attempt, our protagonist gets out of prison hardened and totally skeptical of the rehabilitation the government has in mind for him.

It’s not simply about there being no room; no one wants a scraggly social pariah like him in their establishment. He’s subsequently kicked out of every tavern and evey inn. It gets to the point that he sits in the pelting rain covering himself feebly against the elements. There’s one person he hasn’t tried and on some friendly advice, he seeks asylum with a local bishop (the quietly unperturbed Cedrick Hardwicke).

He soon is introduced to a kind of up-side-down radical generosity (involving the very same candlesticks), which feels so foolish by the world’s standards. And yet it makes people sit up and take note. For one, Valjean, who is a beneficiary, is blessed by charity in ways he’s never experienced in his life.  It changes him, even melts his jaundiced attitudes. Angelic choruses are sung over triumphant imagery as Valjean takes on a firm resolve to change his life.

The movie makes it obvious. He literally becomes a new man — more like the well-groomed, charismatic Fredric March we typically know. He’s robed with a new character and from henceforward March wears the role quite regally going from forlorn criminal to man of the people, held in the highest regard. It’s not an altogether straightforward transformation, and he still manages it with relative ease.

Javert is his obvious foil. The two of them are incongruous. Valjean at his new post as mayor is forever dogged by the inspector’s unyielding ways. Yet again, justice cannot be tempered by mercy. If it’s not already obvious within the dramatic situation, Valjean’s own past must collide with Javert’s hound-like instinct.

les miserables Rochelle Hudson and Fredric March

As a charming background detail informing the film, March gets the opportunity to play across from his real-life spouse of many years Florence Eldridge. However, it is her cinematic daughter who is the other most integral piece. Cosette is a charming girl and an even more effervescent young woman (Rochelle Hudson). She makes her adopted father all the happier and fast becomes his most cherished treasure in the world.

The final sequence in this Les Mis is the first great show of period hubbub with gunfire, swords, horsemen, and smoke all conjoining on the screen. The youth movements have stirred up against the authoritarian forces of the status quo. It’s their fearless leader, Marius (John Beal), who is smitten with Cosette and vice versa. However, it never feels like a purely political story. We never hear the gory details of Napoleon or any of the trials and tribulations besetting Hugo himself for his outgoing stances.

It’s all about giving Valjean a stake in this cultural moment even as he and Javert must have their inevitable faceoff. First and foremost, it must be understood as a broader tale of sacrifice, forgiveness, and redemption. These are big words but then again, there are few books more deserving of such consideration.

It’s no wonder Valjean and Javert are archetypes unto themselves. One of sacrifice, the other of tragedy. The weight of the debt he owes — one he cannot repay — is far too much for Javert to bear. He takes a leap into the realm of Judas Iscariot as the story’s great catastrophe. Is he a villain? Aren’t we all?

The conceit at the center of this adaptation might be simplified, but it gets the theme across. Namely, it takes someone showing us the depths of grace and mercy for us to truly experience what radical love looks like. The law in all its nobility, justice, and truth will crush us under its weight. We cannot stand up against its regulations or else we’ll die trying. It’s best to realize our shortcomings and lend a generous hand to others.

Also, it gives a striking new meaning to candlesticks. They are no longer a blunt instrument with which to murder someone in the parlor. Instead, they are tokens, even tools, of redemption. Though only for some.

4/5 Stars

 

Mutiny on The Bounty (1935) with Gable, Laughton, and Tone

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More recently I’ve found myself straying away from period pieces and epics and not necessarily because there is something fundamentally off-putting about them. Nor do I think it can solely be blamed on my admittedly short attention span in this increasingly inane and vapid social media-fueled society we live in.

To prove my reasoning, I only need to express a couple of repurposed lines, “To whom much is given, much is required.” It’s not from Spider-Man, no, but it does suggest a movie like Mutiny on the Bounty already has a mountain to climb. It needs to do more to wow me than one of its shorter more economical brethren. Therein lies the issue at hand: greater expectations.

The year is 1787 and the Royal Navy is on a mission to acquire breadfruit trees as sustenance for slaves in the West Indies. This is implied to be a tale about how a mutiny led by a man named Fletcher Christian (Clark Gable) laid the groundwork for modern British sea law still ruling the seas to the present day (that is, 1935).

Thankfully, it never feels quite like we are being taught a moral or a lesson of social significance. It’s nothing more than entertainment, though it’s still one of the great seafaring epics (not starring Errol Flynn).

A handful of hapless men are pulled out of a tavern away from their wives and loved ones and conscripted into a two years voyage with a Captain Bligh (Charles Laughton). Another man of privileged stock takes his post gladly (Franchot Tone).

When his crew is finally aboard and assembled, Bligh sets the precedent of unyielding discipline with a flogging of some poor unfortunate chap. His men look on gravely, no doubt questioning what they’ve gotten themselves into. It’s true the sea is a fierce adversary with gales whipped up and immersive wave-drenched decks swaying madly under their legs. However, if there is a touch of man vs nature in the drama, it’s even more vehemently about bouts of human conflict and insurrection.

Director Frank Lloyd makes liberal use of claustrophobic close-ups played in sharp juxtaposition to the more grandiose naval imagery. It signals the tone of the world even as this grand scale is made tactile through the onscreen relationships. Namely, that of a tyrannical captain and his hapless crew as he ceaselessly dishes out lashes and other sordid punishments indiscriminately even unto the point of death. There must be a breaking point. For now, we wait as they grin and bear their taskmaster.

One of the few sources of jocularity is the ship’s surgeon (Dudley Digges) a blustering old sea dog who dubiously lost his leg — the story of how it happened is the source of many of his largest yarns. Still, he too is in danger of being a casualty. No one is safe on a boat where the most precious cargo is botanical and not human. It’s these plants that are given preferential treatment when rations are concerned.

The crew is half-raving, stir-crazy as they finally weigh anchor on the shores of Tahiti — taken by the country’s beauty, coconut milk, and native girls. Our voyage has reached its midpoint and dipped its toes into what feels like paradise. Is it a coincidence that Bligh seems to all but disappear? Instead,  Tone busies himself picking up as much of the dialect as possible, and then Gable is taken by the pretty woman making eyes at him; they don’t need language to communicate.

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It’s the interim period of leisure and romance. But this respite must come to an end and with it, we arrive at the beginning of the end. After all, the whole story has been mounting to this precise point as we’ve all but avoided the inevitable.

If I’m to engage with my boyhood proclivities, Mutiny is not much of an actioner or at least not in the sense of a rip-roaring swashbuckler. It’s a war between titans, men of differing ideals, only to be interrupted by the unpredictable ferocity of the sea. So in this way, it’s more of a character piece injected with action. Still, this is not the bottom line.

The conflict is in staying the voyage (and the film) to see whose will is enacted in the end: Bligh’s or Christians with Byam forced to navigate the turbulent waters of ambiguity in-between. One positive of the picture is how none of the three men seem to entirely steal the show; they seem to be on surprisingly equal footing.

Yes, Laughton is an impudent, bull-headed taskmaster but hardly one of the most nefarious villains of all time. This is a tribute to the actor. He sculpts Bligh into a wretched, small-time human being who’s too big for his britches.  A paranoid weasel blinded by his devotion to duty and the sound of his own voice. He doesn’t forget those who revolt and his retribution is swift.

However, he is all but cast aside and forgotten, an insignificant little man, who knows how to make his way amid the rules and regulations of the Navy. It’s a more galling ending than if he had been lost at sea or most preferably eaten by a shark. But Laughton is a credit to the role showcasing his mind-boggling dexterity and range among actors of his day and age.

Gable is ultimately made into a kind of mythical figure out there on the ocean somewhere, but he is not destined to wander aimlessly — he and his rag-tag crew find a place to rest and call home. He wears the fierce, proud masculinity of Fletcher Christian just as you would expect him to (with our without his trademark pencil-thin mustache).

But if they are the two behemoths doing war against one another with the ship and the sea as their arena of battle, it is Tone who actually gets the final word as our initial in to the story. He is the every man, and therefore, the voice of reason for all of us. While I wouldn’t go out on the plank to say The Mutiny on The Bounty is a so-called “great film,” it does a service to its genre as one of MGM’s most prominent period pieces of the decade and a fine showcase for some of their most acclaimed stars.

4/5 Stars

It Happened One Night (1934): Carrots and The Walls of Jericho

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When I was growing up we had a VHS of Warner Bros. Bugs Bunny cartoons and like any lad my age, he was an immediate sensation. Casual, mischievous, and yet generally good-natured and out-and-out hilarious. I had no concept of cartoon logic and what made him so memorable as a cartoon character; you didn’t have to tell me. I knew he was because he made me laugh.

Well, it turns out I must attribute some of this childhood entertainment to It Happened One Night because, without the inspiration of its own fanciful whimsy, Bugs Bunny as we know him might never have been born.

But let us rewind for a moment. The movie itself is conceived with one of the great screwball openings as spoiled Ellie Andrews (Claudette Colbert) quarrels with her protective father (Walter Connolly) about being held against her will on his yacht. Not to be outdone, she dives off the side of the boat and swims away ready to join her suitor.

Meanwhile, Clark Gable is Peter Warne, a man of the people — drunkards, vagabonds, and newspapermen — recently fired from his paper and looking for a way to get back in his editor’s good graces.

There’s a sense he would not have gotten this kind of rounded, contoured part at MGM, which was more intent on casting him as their ever-reliable, hard-edged he-man keeping all the hearts of their leading ladies palpating. It has to do with audience supply and demand. It Happened One Night allows him to live a little — to burst out of the mold created for him at his home studio — and the results are a divine departure.

Today the night bus circuit feels like an antiquated or at least a bygone segment of society. Not that Greyhounds don’t exist, but the world’s been proliferated with commercial air travel made available to the economy classes over the past 80 years.

In It Happened One Night, it’s a convenience only to be utilized by those affluent enough to afford such luxury. Hence, the reason Ellie’s father goes searching for her by aeroplane.

What the road trip becomes is a kind of universal equalizer where everyone is on the same playing field, low on money and just getting by. As an audience, for the majority of time, we are resigned to view life from the cheap seats with everyone else. It breeds this kind of communal rapport that only builds over time. Because, of course, two of our co-passengers wind up being Colbert and Gable.

So we have an element of class injected into the action as Ellie is forced off her high-horse. She gets a reality check of how real people live and what life’s like with moderate inconveniences and discomforts. These are sensations she has never experienced. They are foreign to her world. She’s also an easy target getting her suitcase swiped from under her nose.

Being on the lam, it’s not like she can wire dear old dad for more funds. Likewise, lowlifes like the skeezy Roscoe Karns, one-on-the-side Shapely, with an accent on fun, are on the prowl for a pretty dame to annoy. However, it’s Karns portrayal giving the world one of its other foremost cultural icons. That’s right, doc. Bug Bunny! I

n the end, Gable dreams up a farfetched gangster plot to keep him quiet sending the spineless sot fleeing for his life. Because this is the role of Peter. He’s a real person; he’s seen the world and knows how to take care of himself. So despite their initial antagonism, Ellie sheds her ignorance and grows to appreciate the man’s watchful eye verging on moments of brusque thoughtfulness.

He sets them up with two separate beds at Dyke’s auto camp when they are forced to take a rainy evening detour. For Ellie, she has the unpleasant sensation of playing his wife, and it adds the tension to the preempted romance.

Gable dominates the evening when he strips down to his bare chest and supposedly helped increase the mortality rates of male undershirts all across the country. You can’t say people didn’t notice, Ellie included. So she joins the Israelites on the other side of “The Walls of Jericho,” the blanket keeping them at a respectable distance.

This scene is a lynchpin moment based on what happens the following morning. Ellie wakes up, and it’s like a switch has gone off. She meets the day disgustingly cheerful as if a screwball dame has replaced her formerly socialite self. We’ve entered the role reversal.

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At first, it’s all fun and games as we witness the utter lunacy of their escapades, maintaining the charade for a couple of detectives nosing around for dear old dad. Peter teaches his travel companion about a real piggyback ride — a pastime for the humble and the poor. Low on money, they hitchhike and gnaw on raw carrots by the roadside (like a certain looney tune).

It turns into the Indianapolis speedway as he attempts unsuccessfully to hail a ride. His thumb proves ineffective. Claudette Colbert has a far more viable solution. It’s yet another turn in the story — from helpless waif to resourceful daytripper.

The joy of the movie is how there is a pace to it because we all know intuitively we need to get to New York with Claudette. Capra mimics the continual movement of the film from town to town with his camera set on a crane to follow his couple on their road together. And yet as she begins to soften and warm to her co-companion, some of the urgency is lost but not the delight of the film.

Because we’ve already had time to grow with the characters, appreciate what they’ve drummed up together, and desire to spend the rest of our time with them. Anything else would feel like an early and highly disagreeable end to our time together. What’s marvelous is how Claudette doesn’t want it to end either. The three hours to New York never felt more infinitesimal.

Peter’s exclusive story feels immaterial; he’s certainly not taking any notes to develop copy, and the nightly rituals, The Walls of Jericho et al. feel rote at this point. Where might they go from here? It calls for some kind of emotional response.

Colbert obliges. The love is there. He just needs to respond — to understand there really is something fundamentally different about who she is as a person. Still, fate gets in the way as it always has a habit of doing in rom-coms. There would be no final act otherwise.

The most glorious discovery is not solely our leads but Walter Connolly who is granted a change of heart, one that the final act requires, I might add. Suddenly, we have a new screwball wrinkle: a father who is benevolent and understanding nudging his daughter on to ditch convention and the foregone wedding march for someone she really loves.

Why does this change happen you ask? Much like Colbert’s evolution, I’m not sure we can pinpoint it specifically, nor do we care. The only thing that matters is the inevitable: The Walls of Jericho come tumbling down. Ellie and Peter are finally allowed to know one another in the Biblical sense.

5/5 Stars

Rain (1932): Joan Crawford and Walter Huston

Rain finds its origins in a short story by W. Somerset Maugham, and it was also preceded by a picture starring Gloria Swanson titled Sadie Thompson. She is indeed the central character of this adaptation as well, although the title of this version focuses in on the dreary poeticism.

It’s true that a kind of rainy exoticism defines the entire mood of Lewis Milestone’s movie as this perpetual gloominess sets the tone for the story at stake. A few years before Safe in Hell, we have another picture set on an island. This one is named Pago Pago, and it serves as a weigh station for passengers during a cholera scare.

Among those laid up are Mr. and Mrs. Alfred Davidson (Walter Huston and Beulah Bondi), a pair of religious reformers, who are intent on completing their voyage so they might begin administering to the nonbelievers. They are reformers who’ll gladly break your back to save your soul.

The good, innocuous Doctor MacPhail (Matt Moore) feels like an author’s creation; he’s a character we can identify with as an audience — a stand-in of sorts — who ably fits into the company of respectable folks but remains an impartial observer.

Then, you have a much different ilk, part of the earthier, more salacious crowd, headed up by the island’s local proprietor (Guy Kibbee) and made a lot more enticing by the one and only Sadie Thompson (Joan Crawford). With her checkered dress and made-up eyes, she falls in with the soldier boys on leave, introduced in saucy fashion through a mixture of appendages and hot jazz. In her own estimation, some lively music and a nip of liquor are what rainy days are for.

The movie itself can easily be summed up by a clash of moral prerogatives; it becomes plainly apparent who’s on each side. Kibbee’s character is especially wary of their latest visitors because it’s crusaders like them who readily sully the last remnants of earthly paradise. This is his picture of Eden — freedom to do whatever he sees fit — although it’s quite different than their conception of it. He’s got a gripe with their kind because they represent the age and the newest commandment, “thou shall not enjoy life.”

Throughout the movie, Milestone’s whips and whirls make the film feel all the more alive even as it rages to burst out of the restraint and aestheticism of its more pious players. This obvious motion accentuates what otherwise feels a bit like an island chamber piece.

Because it’s built completely out of the performances. First, it’s Mrs. Davenport (Bondi) denouncing the lady of loose morals dancing on the Lord’s Day — the sabbath — and she wants her husband to put the fear of God into the tramp.

Soon enough, he does just that, confronting Sadie with the fervent belief that it is up to him to save her incorrigible soul. Though he admittedly burns with conviction, it’s his overall demeanor that’s offputting to the likes of her. She doesn’t take kindly to his Pharisaic demeanor.

Their words, thoughts, and deeds are worlds apart as exemplified in this more understated confrontation. We see them for who they are fundamentally at the core of their beings. He talks of presenting her “a gift.” He’s speaking of eternal things — salvation as Christians think of it — this is her chance to be saved. Meanwhile, she’s thinking about life on this terrestrial rock. Where people get knocked down and beaten up and the like. It’s in this world where she reckons to make out and survive, living her happy-go-lucky kind of life day-to-day.

More than rejecting his religiosity, she rejects his self-righteousness even as his pronouncements come off almost incomprehensible to her. What she does understand is his dismissiveness, his callousness toward her precarious station in life. The doctor, standing by the wayside for most of the picture, finally lets his companion know he thinks the man harsh and tyrannical,  although Davenport affirms his heart bleeds for the poor wayward sinner.

The reformer evokes the Lord’s Prayer as Sadie rails into him with her own indignant tirade only for it to evaporate around her. It comes out of a place of fear and dejection. For all her outward confidence, she really doesn’t know what she’s doing. Shellshocked piety is a strange garment for her to wear if altogether understandable. But others must judge the outcomes for themselves and the same goes for the denouement.

For all its provocative flaunting in the beginning, Rain relies on an ending of inference, happening between the lines. A lot is at play in the final moments on a subtextual level — be it latent desires or closeted hypocrisies. Instead of a hangman’s noose in a discarded field, it’s a cut throat on the shoreline, but the similarities are undeniable.

It sends shockwaves through the population even as it suggests the conflicted nature of humanity. As far as its impact on Sadie, it leaves her much where she began, though now at least she has a man (William Gargan) to take her by the arm.

Rain was not much of a box office attraction in its day and part of this might have to do with the brazen ending. It’s not a straightforward picture, but like Safe in Hell, between loose morals and redemptive religiosity, the picture jockeys for an uneasy equilibrium. If nothing else, Joan Crawford and Walter Huston make it feel like a seismic battle that’s eyecatching in fits and starts.

3.5/5 Stars

Letty Lynton (1932): A Hidden Classic

Letty Lynton is one of those hidden movies cinephiles look to unearth from the sands of time. In this case, it’s namely because it’s notoriously difficult to view after a court case in 1936 deemed it was too close in plot to the play Unfaithful Woman, which, coincidentally was made into a later movie with Hedy Lamarr.

It’s rather astounding, as we near a century later, the film is still fairly hard to come by though not entirely obsolete. Could it be that this plays mostly into its mystique as a forgotten classic? Partially, yes. But it’s yet another stellar showcase for Joan Crawford’s unparalleled stardom in the 1930s even as it highlights the perils and burden of womanhood.

Letty (Crawford) is a gorgeous socialite who has all the men fawning over her and why not? She’s Joan Crawford draped in luxuriant furs and the immaculate creations of Adrian. However, one of her suitors, Emille (Nils Aster) is particularly persistent. She’s made a habit of leaving him only to return for more passionate romance. This time she’s ready to end it for good.

It’s not healthy for her and so she and her faithful maid prepare to run to another far-off destination by ocean liner never to be seen by Emille again. This is of primary concern. It just happens she is birthed across from Robert Montgomery and you hardly have to tell him twice when he’s caught a pretty girl in his sights. He makes a note of it until the right moment…

Still, two can play the game. They’re both intent on making each other’s acquaintance, and so it is arranged. They spend a jaunty evening cavorting until the wee hours of the morning, being chased around the decks by the crew of sailors washing it down for the night. Their rapport builds fast and easily.

Crawford is a modern girl with her puffed sleeves as decadent as can be. It seems obvious that you need a certain amount of confidence or, dare I say, audacity, to pull off such a look, and Crawford was nothing if not audacious. It helps to cement her legacy in the annals of cinematic fashion.

Christmas comes with streamers and ice sculptures. Despite the gaiety, she has a few bittersweet tears, and he does everything to cheer her up. There they are in her cabin, their feet kicked up on the furniture, and he proposes marriage with a glance as he holds a lit cigarette.

Letty is incredulous, even mesmerized by him. He’s a different sort of man. In a world swimming with men all clawing to get their hands on her, Jerry’s not like that at all. He never tries to kiss her or hold her hand or any of that. He’s not looking to get fresh because his character is genuine.

It wins her over. And then we remember it’s still Christmas, and they are deliriously happy banging on every cabin door as they stroll down the corridor madly in love and rousing the deck with some late-night yuletide cheer. For the first time in her life, she’s going straight and sincere, and Letty’s never felt better.

But it’s inevitable. The boat docks and waiting on the other side stands Emille. It’s wishful thinking to assume he would leave her be. She’s faced with a problem: there are two men in her life. One she doesn’t want to lose and the other she wants desperately to get rid of.

Not taking “no” for an answer, Emille pulls her in his arms and kisses her — trying to seduce her — and she rears back to slap him.”I’ve never had anything in my life I’ve loathed like that,” she says.

In a world hopefully far more aware of the burden of proof thrust upon women, Letty Lynton hardly feels dated. The import of its core drama is here with us today, despite the obvious notes of theatricality. It’s all spelled out through the crazed expression on Crawford’s face, a mix of relish and abject horror at what she’s witnessing.

Because she was prepared to end her life with poison rather than be forced to be blackmailed by her former lover, but she never has the chance to drink her medicine. In a development analogous to future dramas like Blue Gardenia, she becomes both a victim and the accused simultaneously.

Again, she looks to delay the repercussions and kick the can down the line. There’s the obligatory meeting with Jerry’s parents. They are decent, down-to-earth folks who welcome her in, thankful their son has settled on such a fine woman.

Imagine the embarrassment when a police detective shows up to take Letty in for questioning as she is closely implicated in a crime. Her fiance stays by her side as they go before the judge (Lewis Stone) in the privacy of his office as he deliberates on whether or not to bring the case to court. It doesn’t look good.

In her state of hopeless helplessness, Letty receives some steadfast aid from all sides. The ending is too pat — with looming consequences of perjury — but they insinuate the theme of the movie: happiness is tenable when we surround ourselves with loved ones who will loyally intercede on our behalf. So often relationships are tossed by the waves or racked with tension. What a wonderful thing it is to find the kind of renewed stability Letty installs in her own life.

The movie employs a bit of a cornball ending, but between the amiable chemistry of Montgomery and Crawford, and the redemptive arc, for such a hard-sought picture, Letty Lynton is a worthwhile film to seek out.

3.5/5 Stars

Together Again (1944): Boyer and Dunne

The film’s title couldn’t be more true as Irene Dunne and Charles Boyer pooled their talents for a third go-around, and what a pleasant experience it is. If it wasn’t evidenced by the soaring romance and light comedy of Love Affair and When Tomorrow Comes, they share that thing that is so often conveniently distilled into the word “chemistry.” You can’t bottle it, and it’s rarely a given. Still, on the screen together, something tangible happens.

In this regard, the plot almost feels of secondary importance though Together Again begins with a quirky and, frankly, intriguing premise. One of the most prominent landmarks in the town of Brookhaven, is a giant statue to the late Mayor Crandall.

After his sudden departure from this mortal coil, his wife Anne (Dunne) was quick to shoulder the responsibility. Now she lives in their home with her curmudgeonly father-in-law (Charles Coburn) and a histrionic daughter (Mona Freeman), who is beside herself with hysteria. You see, the head of her beloved father is knocked clean off his body by a stray lightning bolt.

Being the faithful civil servant that she is, the mayor sets aside her day-to-day duties post haste in order to enlist the services of a sculptor. She takes a day trip to the city in order to requisition the new statue, but the artist she calls upon is hardly who she was expecting. Then again, George Corday (Boyer) was hardly expecting to meet such a beautiful mayor. Every mayor he’s ever known was a stodgy old man. They’re both taken aback.

Despite her misgivings, she manages to get talked into going to a quiet little club only to renege their partnership. He’s not the kind of innocuous creative type she had in mind to do justice to their sleepy little town. Obviously, Boyer smolders too much with latent passion and charisma. He unnerves her.

Could the movie be over? She wanders off to the powder room. She looks curiously like the showgirl providing the floorshow. Then, the attendant offers to iron her dress with a wet spot. Minutes later, a raid and someone running off with her garment, means she’s caught in a compromising position when the police waltz in. If we see it coming from a mile away, the beauty of the character is how she walks into it all so innocently.

Anne flees her hotel before Corday can catch her, and she tries to ignore her obscured face on the scandal sheets. It’s all a horrible misunderstanding that she tries to dismiss. When she returns home, a new extravagant hat in tow (she can’t seem to misplace it), she’s practically jumping out of her shoes.

The evolution of Dunne in the picture might be familiar to those who’ve witnessed her about-face in Theodora Goes Wild. There’s this sense of propriety that all a sudden is besieged with all the fits and giggles, quirks, and foibles one comes to expect in a screwy brand of comedy. As her daughter observes, she’s become a little “leapy.”

As mayor, she’s supposed to “keep her shirt on,” but she’s concerned what happened on her little excursion will come out and, of course, it does. This time it’s not Melvyn Douglas but Charles Boyer catching her in her “lie” so to speak. She’s traded out a salacious novel-writing career for a wild night of accidental indiscretion that might rattle her upright standing as mayor of her small town. Her beau even winds up sleeping on the premises much in the same manner of Douglas before him.

It doesn’t offer too much in the realm of invention, but the ongoing rapport of Dunne and Boyer keeps things convivial enough as they get caught up in your typical entanglements. Upon meeting him for the first time, Diana swoons and young love sweeps over her as she tries to dress the part and act more cultured, spending extra time plonking away at the piano. Why she even addresses him in French, when heading off to school, dropping a refined “Bonsoir” bright and early in the morning.

As her daughter tries to impress upon this gentleman her newfound womanhood, Anne unwittingly shows off a bit of her youth, with a becoming new hairstyle and a less fastidious demeanor. As Diana’s main beau, the lanky Gilbert “Good Night” Parker (Jerome Courtland), finds himself more and more scorned; his spirits are lifted by a show of kindness from Mrs. Crandall. He simultaneously alights on his own amorous advances.

There’s nothing particularly inspired in these beats. It’s Dunne and Boyer who continue to make it amicable. Under the circumstances, it’s difficult to consider any two people we would rather see together in the scenario. Coburn for one is tickled pink to finally see his daughter-in-law going in with another eligible man.

The denouement of the movie does provide some mixed signals. Granted, they feel like the status quo dichotomy in 1944. It seems Anne must make a choice between love and duty — her job as mayor or a life away from the stifling town — they are presented as mutually exclusive.

Boyer plays a bit of the cad in the final act when it seems almost laughable that she might have to choose. He draws a comparison between himself and that hat she tried to hide away on the top shelf of her closet. It doesn’t seem quite fair. There’s not much to spoil, but I won’t divulge what happens next.

Instead, my mind drifts once more to Charles Coburn; he was made for these types of supporting roles: crotchety yet secretly good-natured matchmakers. Surely he could deliver on them in his sleep.

Although it’s not quite as stellar as Theodora in the comedy department, Dunne still shows her usual aplomb, and out of personal preference, I fancy Charles Boyer over Melvyn Douglas on most occasions. This one is little different. Forgive my impudence. It’s just so good to have Boyer and Dunne together again.

3.5/5 Stars

When Tomorrow Comes (1939) and Romantic Shelter From The Storm

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Waitresses bustle about on their beats passing along the news like busy bees: eight o’clock tonight unity hall! It caused quite a stir in the ranks and the girls are currently walking on eggshells afraid to get canned. A few of the gals are especially jumpy including poor Lulu who drops a whole tray laden with plates.

So when a Frenchmen sits down during the dinner rush it’s how do you say, disconcerting. He’s not rude by any means. His manners are fine. But he’s a foreigner and he asks for things outside of her comfort zone like bouillabaisse for instance (I had to look up the spelling just now). For instance, we can’t hold it against her when she says “To me all foreigners are spies until I learn different.”

The prevailing thought is he might be with the management to check them out. So they put their most level-headed colleague on the assignment. It’s none other than Irene Dunne. He has no malicious intentions at all. In fact, it’s quite the contrary. After making the acquaintance of such a charming lady, he wishes to see her again.

Irene Dunne feels like the original Norma Rae. She has spirit — the kind of spirit that stands up against injustice and will not allow others to be bullied into submission. But this is grounded by a charitable heart and a sense of decency. It’s what makes people get up and take note within the clamor. Because there’s genuine substance to her words. We believe them to be true.

Amid the host of admirers is one very special one. He’s attended in hopes of seeing her, a man oozing with names (and the Boyer charm). What might have been a chance encounter in real-life, in turn breaths life into an entire movie romance. The humid streets of New York don’t exactly scream love nest, but the man is so taken with his company, he doesn’t mind if he has to meet half the city just to be with her.

There are other interludes in this budding relationship, though we might as well focus on the focal point. It comes during the onslaught of a tropical storm. The man, she now learns is the famed pianist, and he welcomes her into his home to get out of the elements. Far from feeling surreptitious, it seems like an oasis from the world outside.

She walks around one of the bedrooms scanning around, leafing through an album of pictures, trying to glean more about the man downstairs. What follows is an enchanting zoom mimicking Dunne’s gaze as she returns from freshening up. She’s brought down the stairs by the sound of his playing. There’s a forceful authority to it to, matching the gale raging outside the windows. On her face, we see the love brooding right in front of us.

The dramatic situation is made plain by the inclement weather (that’s an understatement) and falling trees overhead. Blaring coast guard bullhorns warn of waters rising. They must find high ground.

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Rest assured, this is hardly a survival film. The scenario itself is ripe with more intimate pleasures as Helen and Philip seek asylum in a church during the brunt of the storm. After the crowded, liveliness of the city, the actors are contented in one another’s company, and it provides an understated satisfaction.

They light candles, she raises a prayer to the unnamed Providence for getting them to safety. He has the subtle tact to take her up into the balcony to the organ as the water starts to flood inside. It’s a thoughtful act, and they continue their genial conversation unencumbered. As she sits, listening to him quietly play “Fur Elise,” she thanks him. Because she saw what he did too.

What a lovely digression it is for those willing to partake of the solace. The gentle hospitality of the minister and church organist is yet another touch of decency in a picture ripe with such encounters.

If this sounds blase, rest assured, it plays to the rhythms we might attribute to a Stahl melodrama. They somehow bend away from the brunt of drama and pierce our hearts far deeper. Like Tay Garnett’s One Way Passage, there’s the sense of a destined love of the highest most ethereal kind — a love that can never be — it can never fully acted upon.

Because if it’s not evident already, they are people of principle and conscience. It goes unspoken for so long — the impediment between then. But she knows. He is not free. He is married to someone else, albeit loosely, as Mrs. Chagal (Barbara O’Neil) is a sick woman.

When Helen’s roommate notes it looks like she’s been away for 20 years like Rip Van Winkle upon her return, there’s some truth in the words. Even an evening can feel like a lifetime under the circumstances.

She eventually meets his catatonic wife and lovely mother-in-law. There’s no malice or ill-will, only a bit of sadness on her part to see what his life really is. She feels obligated to leave him behind — to not make this any more difficult for either of them. So she goes back to her picketing and wins the victory she helped champion. The film has gone too far though. It is no longer about unions or these type of ideals. At the very least it is about romantic ones.

There is another scene where she answers a caller at the door. It’s the wife, out on the street, as if she’s perfectly fine, and she might very well be. The scene has been written many times before: A wife confronts the other woman. We’ve seen the scene play out in so many stories it’s mind-boggling. Here it’s different. You almost don’t realize what is upon you.

There is a curious energy about it. Quieter and yet not unsure. Forthright and devastating in its very simplicity. What could be incisive and vindictive feels blunted and equally delicate in the hands of Stahl, and I believe this is quite purposeful. The main characters pull back, compelled by their sense of good and decent feelings. The “villain” in actuality is a helpless victim.

In another film the ending of When Tomorrow Comes would feel uncomfortably abrupt. Here it somehow works for me and not because the swelling music is cued. It’s because we know there is a foregone finality. It might not be today or tomorrow exactly, but it will have to end, going their separate ways and holding onto the love they had and what could have been. That is all.

Because unrequited love is not the most tragic form; it is the uninitiated followed closely by the unfulfilled romances that sear the most. If you are inclined, this is a tender drama more than capable of inducing a few misty eyes. I’ll never get over the grace of Irene Dunne, the adroitness of her reactions, touching on each and every emotion. Boyer has never been more gentlemanly. Together they feel sublime.

If my praise sounds too effusive, I’ll admit I haven’t seen Love Affair for some time. Have I simply forgotten what their chemistry was like? I’d like to believe Stahl brings something of his own to the material as well.

3.5/5 Stars

Cluny Brown (1946): Nuts to The Squirrels

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The title card introduces our time and place. It’s a lazy Sunday afternoon in England. The year: 1938. Nothing particularly important is going on except a cocktail party and that’s only important to the host, one Mr. Hilary Ames (Reginald Gardiner).

You wouldn’t call this much of a dramatic situation aside from the minor detail: his stopped sink is about to put a catastrophic wrench into his fast-approaching party. The guests will be coming soon! What will they say?

If this feels like an inane dilemma, then you already have a heart and pulse for what Ernst Lubitsch will be doing over the next hour and a half. Because this is his brand of continental comedy of manners, taking particular aim at the British classes.

However, he’s in need of some conduits and they arrive at Mr. Ames’s door in the form of Adam Belinski (Charles Boyer) and Cluny Brown (Jennifer Jones). They couldn’t be more disparate figures.

He is an esteemed professor wanted by Hitler for some abstruse reason that’s never explained. Nevertheless, all the social elites pay him the highest amount of deference. Cluny is one of the lower classes — a chipper young lass — with an affinity for plumbing. Fixing pipes that is. She comes to repair the sink of Mr. Ames on behalf of her surly uncle. Although a crisis is averted, the bubbly girl is soon sent off to the country to be a housemaid — a position of propriety for a girl as herself.

Meanwhile, the party finally commences, and it’s what we expect, full of pretentious, huffy party guests. A trio of stultified mischief seekers, Peter Lawford, Helen Walker, and Michael Dyne are on the hunt for something to bring them out of the doldrums. They finally happen upon something arcane enough to pique their interests — a man sleeping on a bed tucked away in a back room.

What’s hilarious about Boyer is how he’s quite literally an anti-scandal maker. Lawford recognizes him as the esteemed thinker and immediately extends him the highest degree of repute. He’s falling over backward to take him wherever he needs to go and shoveling out pound notes to support his cause against the miserable Nazis.

Boyer doesn’t take advantage of these good graces as he meekly deflects most and then folds to a few. The biggest offer is a place to stay at Andrew’s parents — a lovely estate out in the countryside: Friars Carmel Manor. The very same place our plumbing prodigy is taking up residence.

However, the vivacious Cluny starts off her first day on the job on a dubious foot. She actually makes small-talk with the Lord and Mistress of the manor going so far as to drink tea and eat crumpets in their company! This will never do as far as the other staff is concerned. Her catchphrase of choice, “nuts to the squirrels” is tantamount to public indecency.

The key observation is how she never intends to bawdy; she never is. Her spirit simply sparkles brighter than any of them dare to. Because there is an intrinsic bounce in her step and a winsome demeanor burgeoning with innocence and goodwill. It feels totally at odds with the world she’s gone and got herself immersed in. But she makes a bright-eyed go of it all the same. She knows no other way to tackle life.

It’s easy to view this as a riff off the upstairs-downstairs dramas of Jean Renoir — Diary of a Chambermaid for instance — though this does have a Lubitsch twist. He, like the eminent Frenchmen, is readily poking a wry bit of fun at the lunacy of rigid class structures.

In other words, once it becomes evident who you are, people start treating you with respect or lack thereof. The good professor gets royal treatment. Cluny Brown receives the cold shoulder. And of course, they are the most crucial figures as two people totally out of place in the prim and proper hierarchy of the English countryside.

On her day off, Cluny goes prancing off to the chemist, swinging her purse, and wearing a garden on her head. She shares tea with the punctilious Mr. Wilson (Richard Haydn) and his grunting mother, then treated to harmonium music as the man of the house proudly acknowledges his position in the volunteer fire brigade. A walk in the countryside afterward sounds more rewarding. Mostly because they bump into Mr. Belinski; his candor can more than break up the turgidness of the bespectacled chemist.

On another evening, it’s the birthday celebration for Mrs. Wilson, which becomes a telling proofing ground for why this romance of opposites was destined for failure. As the candles are lit and snooty-voiced Mr. Wilson pontificates once more, the plumbing goes haywire. Cluny Brown does what comes naturally to her; she jumps into action, banging away at the pipes right then and there! It’s immaterial whether she succeeds or not. She has trampled over what is considered sacrosanct in these circles. A female plumber! It just isn’t done, and the party dissolves unceremoniously.

Thankfully, there is more to the story. The movie is blessed by these immaculately arranged character parts placed throughout for the likes of Reginald Gardiner, C. Aubrey Smith, Una O’Connor, and still others.

But the most sublime of the surprises, aside from Jones’s sheer ebullience, is how Boyer constantly feints away from his dashing leading man persona. I’m not sure if other moviegoers assumed the same, but one cannot help think that Boyer hearkens back to Maurice Chevalier in all those saucy operettas from the 20s and 30s. For many, Boyer was heir apparent as the only other cinematic Frenchmen they might have known and a dashing one at that.

In other words, we think he’ll do something — act the rapscallion in such a prim society — but this is never his flaw (or his charm). Instead, he takes a genuine interest in others. He feels more like a matchmaker and a fix-it-man making his way through the story with a perceptive eye. And yet Lubitsch is good enough to give him a moment of romance for the sake of the audience since he sees the light in Cluny no one else appreciates.

Likewise, I don’t think I’ve ever appreciated him a role so much, for the very reason he was allowed to be far more than the stereotypical reputation that proceeds him. This extends to him a power — a new kind of novel flexibility — to be something he was rarely granted the opportunity to be before.

He and Cluny make a fine pair of kindred spirits and resident outsiders. In fact, they take to English society like squirrels take to nuts — a bit baffled but good-willed — adding a strain of much-needed gaiety to otherwise stuffy lives. Bless them.

3.5/5 Stars