The Love Parade (1929): Ernst Lubitsch’s First Talkie

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Looking over it now, The Love Parade just might be one of the finest pre-1930s musicals, capitalizing on the rising trend thanks to the success of The Jazz Singer and Broadway Melody. Whereas many of its contemporaries are mainly interesting as historical relics, this Lubitsch comedy still has some inspiration to offer, riding on its own merits alone.

The acclaimed German director’s first sound project shows no signs of a needed learning curve all but translating his command of the medium into the sound era with ease. Yes, the set-ups appear choppy due to the editing of sequences.  True, the action is often static because the camera was yet to be truly mobile. But this is also part of Lubitsch’s deceptive skill in incisively drawing our eye to whatever will give us the clearest visual cue to the jokes that he’s staging.

It’s rarely a cluttered experience though Chevalier adds to it by breaking the fourth wall, even intermittently speaking in French and English. In fact, a separate cut of the picture was made in the French-language. Also, much of the sound design was synced afterward. Both are realities of the changing times and what talkies meant for the evolution of a global industry.

But what is most striking of all is, again, Lubitsch’s impeccable handle of the visually comic because that’s something that translates from the silent days exquisitely and far from using dialogue as a mere crutch or idle chatter, in its very best applications, it’s used to punctuate the scenes with a gag.

The same goes for noises and sounds. Far from oversaturating our ears, Lubitsch almost uses them strategically giving each more import whether a whistle, a song, or erupting cannon fire. There’s a cadence in the use of noise to underscore scenes, and it feels succinct and genuinely artful.

It’s true that it’s difficult to go backward, but sometimes you wonder if filmmakers should.  Allow me to explain. The likes of Lubitsch and Hitchcock had substantial success in the modern era of filmmaking and yet they never lost their early sensibilities. It goes allow with this innate principle suggesting moviemaking was a visual medium above all else. Of course, for Hitch that meant he was the master of staging thrillers. Lubitsch will always be remembered as the king of sophisticated comedies of manners. The Love Parade is little different.

Sylvania is a country with marriage on the mind. It seems like everyone from subjects to royal courtesans are constantly obsessing over who is to be married and when. Most important of all is their Queen Louise (Jeanette MacDonald) who has yet to tie the knot. It’s very much an unfortunate circumstance for the honor of the kingdom.

However, their savior just might come in the form of Count Alfred Renard who resides as the military attache in the Sylvanian embassy in France. But he also happens to be quite the lady’s man. It is true that the somehow deeply-rooted stereotype of Frenchmen as witty, suave romantics must at least, cinematically, start with Maurice Chevalier, before making its way through Charles Boyer and later generations.

He and the Queen gladly trade repartee in the winking song “Anything to Please the Queen” and the comic conundrum proceeds from there. He is sent before her to be reprimanded for his indiscretions, and she finds she rather likes him.

Their first dinner together carries the rapt attention of many invested onlookers from all walks of life and any number of perches, from ladies in waiting to cabinet members, and then lowly servants played uproariously by Lupino Lane and the ill-fated Lillian Roth.

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However, an onslaught of bad luck comes in full force on the wedding day including whistling, mirrors, and the piece de resistance: a cross-eyed man. Chevalier shudders at the thought until his worst nightmares come true in the form of a palace guard (Ben Turpin). The vows are spoken with a twist as the minister confirms, “I pronounce you wife and man.”

It’s summed up succinctly by one of the portly advisers (Eugene Pallette) as such, “Man is man and woman is woman. No man can be a wife.”

Perhaps it seems a silly bit of conflict and yet even now, it feels cutting-edge for the day because men still feel emasculated for such a thing. We are still so used to being the breadwinners and in positions of power almost a century later. Yes, it’s played for a certain comic effect, but the fact is MacDonald has the position of true influence as ruler of the kingdom, while Chevalier is brought up to her station in life by the title bestowed upon him when he becomes her husband.

Jacques and Lulu revel in the fact that they can get married without the complications of class in “Let’s Be Common,” backed by some stellar physical acrobatics verging on vaudeville-style slapstick. And still, marital discord exerts itself behind the palace doors. Renard is unhappy with his pointless life. Meanwhile, downstairs the male and female servants quarrel over whether or not “The Queen is Always Right.”

Is it a spoiler to admit that some concession is arrived at in the end, for the sake of love? I don’t think so, and Chevalier and MacDonald shine in the first of several pairings together. What we are left with is that unprecedented blending of sauciness and sophistication afforded to Lubitsch, particularly at this time in history, without the harsh enforcement of production codes for a few more years. What is more, the films arguably only became richer over time from The Smiling Lieutenant (1931) to Rouben Marmoulian’s Love Me Tonight (1932) and finally The Merry Widow (1934).

3.5/5 Stars

Maytime (1937): Starring Jeanette MacDonald and Nelson Eddy

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The arrival of a local May Fair celebration brings back a flurry of bittersweet memories for elderly Miss Morrison (a made-up Jeanette MacDonald). She fondly recalls some past romantic dreams that we have yet to discover, which color how she sees the young lovers before her, caught in a quarrel.

There is the young woman who has aspirations for a career in the big city and the faithful boyfriend she looks to leave behind. The spat between them looks to be the end of it, but in her tranquil way, Miss Morrison finally opens up about her earlier years, setting up the flashback composing much of the picture.

Once she was living the dream as a pupil to a well-respected member of the French cultural elite Nicolai Nazaroff (John Barrymore) who was, in one sense, an exacting individual but also a highly knowledgeable mentor for her. His shrewdness quickly trains her up in the ways of the art world and soon enough an opera is being written specifically for her. Marcia is on her way to stirring success.

In truth, she’s heavily indebted to her voice teacher, grateful for everything he has done for her, and so when he proposes marriage, she excepts not out of romantic love but due to a certain amount of gratitude and platonic affection.

In another life, it’s easy to imagine that Maytime might have been a precursor to Gone with The Wind (1939). Actually, the production was meant to be shot in color initially though this was later overhauled in deference to black and white.

Still, the costuming and lavish sets carried over, and we do still have the contemporary star power of Jeanette MacDonald and Nelson Eddy, who did so much for the modern popularity of opera, channeling it through the medium of film. To put it another way,  what Astaire and Rogers did for dance, these two did for operettas.

Previously, I never gave much respect to MacDonald, but somehow the winsomely attractive appeal she exudes is more evident now, even as she wows with her vocal talents. However, part of this newfound geniality is also due to Eddy who makes a stirring impression from the get-go in a rousing role that bowls you over not only in song but with the outright fervor he takes to every moment on screen. It’s infectiously disarming.

I indubitably do our stars a major disservice because I’m no musical protege or deep opera aficionado. Regardless, they certainly have a pair of pipes. My word! Together there is something deeply affecting coursing through them (purportedly both onscreen and off). But now’s the time to mention Paul Allison (Eddy) who doesn’t show up until well into the picture.

The first time she sets eyes on him, following a restless jaunt to clear her mind, his passionate charisma sweeps her up along with everyone else in the local tavern she finds herself frequenting. Of course, she has her career ahead of her with rehearsals and the like, and he’s only a lowly singer, but he also happens to be a very persistent gentleman.

He inquires about her coming to lunch with him — a connection made between two Americans in a foreign land — and she reluctantly agrees, partially to assuage him. But that’s not the end of it. He finagles any way he can to possibly be close to her, and it earns him another outing.

Together they share in a May Day carnival conjuring up images of not only the Naughty Nineties but the Rococo confections of Fragonard. There’s certainly something lovely in the air, full of gaiety and amusement, underscoring the time spent between the two singers. They top off a glorious day with a lovely rendition of that beloved standard “Santa Lucia.”

It becomes increasingly obvious that Barrymore has a bit of a thankless part. He’s part tyrant, part taskmaster, and yet strangely affectionate and thoughtful at times. It’s at the crossroads of such a life as his where you find such individuals who prove complex characters indeed.

He is the lover scorned by the most benevolent woman who ever lived so it seems and still somehow, we cannot bring it within ourselves to hate him. Because he hardly did anything wrong and yet he is getting the short end of the stick. His reactions are understandable if not completely prudent.

It’s a heartbreaking albeit touching sentiment that the film obliges with as we return back to the present. It almost makes you forget the somehow implicit moral of the story: It seems to be saying that, for a woman, the love of a man surpasses any aspirations of career advancement. There’s a dichotomy.

One is good and the other inevitably leads to tragedy. But why get caught up in that? Maytime has some lovely moments of genuine repute. MacDonald and Eddy were a big deal during the 1930s for reasons made obvious herein. Song and romance were rarely this passionately elegant, and they make it continually rapturous, even as it ultimately turns tragic. One could wager that it, in some ways, mirrored life.

3.5/5 Stars

Shall We Dance (1937): Fred, Ginger, and The Gershwins

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The name Gershwin is synonymous with “The American Songbook” and part of the draw of Shall We Dance is how it included two of them: both the brothers, George and Ira Gershwin. Ira would tragically pass away that same year. However, together they provided the compositions and lyrics for the film which, in some sense, feels like an atypical Astaire and Rogers vehicle.

While Mark Sandrich is in the director’s chair once more following The Gay Divorcee (1934), Top Hat (1935), and Follow The Fleet (1936), there are some unprecedented deviations from the normal foolproof formula. Namely, Astaire plays Peter P. Peters, an American who trades in his taps for a Russian ballet company. He’s certainly will always be a hoofer in most people’s eyes, and it does feel oddly out of character.

What hasn’t changed is his instant infatuation with Rogers, a famous tap dancer in her own right, named Linda Keane. But he must contrive some sort of gimmick and thusly takes up the persona of the touchy Russian dancer “Petrov” to antagonize her on the road toward love. Meanwhile, he tries his very best to evade the flirtations of his former dance partner Denise (Ketti Gallian) who looks to snatch him up.

Of the earliest offerings, Astaire gives us the treat of his cane dancing like he did in Top Hat and then there’s a fine boiler room number, “Slap that Bass” supported by a host of African-American performers thrumming with a healthy dose of character.

The film’s most catastrophic mix-up comes when the newspapers begin promoting a secret marriage between our two stars, thanks to a cockamamie story Peters cooked up on the spot to keep his former suitor at bay as he leaves on an ocean liner.

Petrov and Keane develop some chemistry dog walking together on the deck of the ship only for the gossip swirling about to reach a fever pitch. Astaire’s bumbling boss, Mr. Beard (Edward Everett Horton) uses it as the perfect chance to get rid of her for good. Meanwhile, Eric Blore as his ever-huffy hotel clerk tries his best to figure out the marital status of Petrov and Ms. Keane when preparing their rooms. They leave him ceaselessly befuddled.

Then, a second nefarious scandal is cooked up by Keane’s road manager (Jerome Cowan feeling out of place with the screwball elements), who does his best to kill the upcoming marriage his star has embarked on.  Thanks to some late-night photography and a mannequin bearing a striking resemblance to Linda, the news spreads like wildfire. What are his motives, you ask? He’s got his own reasons.

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Not surprisingly, the closest thing we get to the Astaire and Rogers numbers of old are also the film’s finest entries, including the comic tune “They Laughed at Me” sung by Rogers before being joined in a routine by Astaire. After they sneak out to get away from the publicity hounds, “Let’s Call The Whole Thing Off” proves a handy follow-up number.

The extended sequence purportedly took a plethora of takes, upwards of 100, while the final fall into the grass left Fred and Ginger with black and blue backsides. They suffered and yet as the audience, we no doubt reap the benefits, especially because Shall We Dance hardly has their traditional big numbers like a Top Hat (1935) or Swing Time (1936) so seeing them on skates together is nearly consolation enough.

They show everyone by getting married, making it easy enough to get divorced so Linda can marry the man she’s meant to. Since their movies always took a page out of screwball comedies anyway, it makes sense this picture is another riff on the comedy of remarriage, which could be a sub-genre all its own.

Ultimately, two shows are merged in an instance of inspiration and yet that doesn’t mean that Petrov’s got the girl. An oddly disconcerting final number follows as Astaire dances with a host of gals all donning Ginger Roger’s face, disrupted by a shushing war instigated by our favorite misfits Blore and Horton. Though the picture could have used a feisty female like a Helen Broderick or Alice Brady, there’s also never enough of Blore and Horton to suit their faithful fans. They make every film a little more colorful, and it would hardly be an Astaire-Rogers picture without a stellar supporting cast of veteran jokesmiths.

Surveying Shall We Dance, it’s certainly not at the top of the pantheon of the movie musicals that these two icons made together, but it’s ripe with some of the usual delights in spite of a laborious plot and a different brand of dancing than we’re used to. It’s hard to complain too much about the results. There’s no doubt the entertainment value for true aficionados still remains.

3.5/5 Stars

The Gay Divorcee (1934): The Astaire & Rogers Foolproof Formula

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The plots to the Astaire and Rogers musicals are usually deceptively simple. Thus, thanks be to their dancing transcending it all. The affair opens in some posh corner of Europe where the always dithering Edward Everett Horton is sitting with Fred Astaire who has to prove his identity to get out of paying a check. They’ve both conveniently misplaced their wallets. After a routine complete with pretty girls and dancing fingers, he gives an impromptu performance of his own bringing down the house and proving he really is world-renowned performer Guy Holden.

Later on, at the docks, a fellow American, arriving in England (Ginger Rogers), is meeting her lovably fatuous aunt (Alice Brady) only to have her dress accidentally caught in a travel trunk. The man who comes to her aid and subsequently rips her garment is, of course, Astaire. Being a gentleman and genuinely taken with her, he gives her his coat to cover up, but the damage has already been done. She finds him a bit bothersome. You can tell it instantly by every look of disdain she throws him. Meanwhile, he eats up any pretense to talk with her, though she dismisses his advances. It’s how the story always goes.

He turns his resolve to find the girl, matched with the everyday occurrence of getting dressed to go out on the town, into the number “Needle in a Haystack,” which has Astaire exuding his typical elan on taps. Of the millions of women around, he’s looking for one very particular needle, and he’s not above canvassing the streets, even if it’s an insurmountable task, made increasingly apparent through montage. It goes to all this trouble only to very coincidentally rear-end her as he’s rubbernecking (adding yet another reason for her not to like him much).

Meanwhile, Egbert (Horton) is looking to make his father proud of him in the family law firm, though he’s never seemed to have much gumption or stomach for the trade. His worst nightmare, Hortense (the same Alice Brady) comes back into his life also bringing with her the proposition of a case that just might be his opportunity to assert himself. Mimi, the same woman constantly harried by Holden, is looking to get out of a loveless marriage and so the inept lawyer suggests setting up a rendezvous with a professional gigolo to end the union for good.

He invites Guy along for the ride knowing the sunshine, gaiety, and girls might do him good as a distraction for his lovesickness. He needs to forget this girl he’s so taken with. However, they’ve failed to compare notes. It doesn’t take extra-sensory perception to read where the picture will go from here, in fact, there’s hardly a need to continue. The human mind might do a finer job in its vivid imagination to derive what complications will arise from such a premise.

It’s a pleasant surprise to see Edward Horton doing a little saucy jig, “K-nock K-nees,” which also proves an early showcase for 40s wartime superstar Betty Grable if you’re able to recognize her. Likewise, in the subsequent scenes, Eric Blore is delightful as ever, this time as a waiter with his typical crisp & snooty delivery, ably sparring with the comic foibles of Horton.

Fortuitously, he turns up in several more instances to serve up the tea things along with idle chatter to anyone who will lend an ear. Astaire and Rogers’s first number together is the Cole Porter standard “Night and Day,” only to birth further misunderstands thanks to one ironic code phrase, “Chance is the fool’s name for fate.” Don’t ask for an explanation.

“The Continental” is an impressively glossy number that until Gene Kelly conjured up his American in Paris (1951) dream sequence, clocked in as the industry’s longest continuous dance number. Some of it involves our leads, but not the whole thing. It feels much more like a Busby Berkeley extravaganza.

And yet right there you understand the exquisite nature of Astaire and Rogers because they made dancing into something intimate and personal. It was between two people as much as it was a lavish production number, and that’s what resonates with us even after the curtain falls and we’ve been wowed by the expansive nature of the staging.

Yes, the geologist husband finally makes his token appearance as expected and the hired romancer Tonetti (Erik Rhodes) continues to bumble along in an effort to play his raffish role. Of course, Astaire proves far more convincing in the part of the lover finally getting the girl as expected.

Does any of this matter? Hardly. But it’s one final opportunity to get Astaire, Rogers, Blore, Horton, and everyone else in a room together. That’s surely enough to recommend this frolicking trifle of gaiety starring everyone’s favorite couple on taps. There’s nothing better to lift your spirits than Astaire and Rogers.

4/5 Stars

A Christmas Carol (1938) and The Meaning of Humbug

achristmascarol1938In viewing the 1951 version of the Christmas classic, I took particular interest in the name of our protagonist Ebenezer Scrooge, attempting to redeem it for the masses. For this picture, I was curious in considering another integral term in our lexicon: Humbug.

The term is so ubiquitous and elicits such an explicit connotation, one surmises it loses much of its inherent meaning. What is humbug exactly? To put it simply: hypocrisy. And it’s telling coming from the lips of Scrooge.

It suggests, in his contorted world, he believes himself to be the only honest soul in Britain because he is not taken in by this pipe dream of Christmas. Of celebrating when you have nothing and giving when it probably won’t do any good anyway. He cannot understand how joyous his nephew manages to be, despite being no better than a pauper. In fact, Scrooge holds scorn for just about everyone.

There are actually some prominent revisions to the traditional story that generally succeed in adhering to the tone this picture is searching out. An opening connection is made between Scrooge’s merry nephew Fred and the Cratchit boys. They have quite a time of it sliding across the ice together — even crippled Tiny Tim — riding on the young man’s back.

Fred finally makes it to the offices of Scrooge and Marley paying his yuletide greetings to the jovial yet flighty Bob Cratchit (Gene Lockhart). Years in the service of Mr. Scrooge have taught him to always keep on his toes and never push the envelope. Because Scrooge is the sort of man who invests his money in such eminent institutions as the local prisons.

For him, charity is, again, humbug. Altruism is all a put-on to make people feel good and make the world out to be a nicer play than it is. Of course, he would never tell you that. The only way to get at this conclusion is by the most roundabout manner.

It’s true this version of A Christmas Carol works in swift, impressionistic strokes of the past. Before we know it, Scrooge has awoken at night and begins his fateful journey. The narrative zips along telling his story through the visitations of Jacob Marley (Leo G. Carol) and the three Christmas spirits. First, he’s being fetched from school by his ebullient little sister for Christmas away from his boarding school.

Then, he’s back at the old warehouse where he worked for the generous soul Fezziwig and first met his curmudgeonly partner Marley. The church chapel is full of the merry intonations of “O Come All Ye Faithful,” not to mention a few furtive slides on the ice by Fred and his lovely fiancee. Of course, there is the final vision as well featuring a world with Tiny Tim (the marker of wide-eyed innocence) dead and gone.

Because it never attempts to go into the gothic depths of despair (nor does it have ample time), there is not the same rapturous payoff, but then again it manages to be quite cheery from beginning to end. Cratchit loses his job only to go home to his family, arms stacked high with food and happy as ever. Why he even levels a snowball at his good master on accident, resulting in his dismissal.

Promoted from his minor spot, Scrooge’s nephew adds dollops of his own charm to the mix supplying a few good slides across the icy streets. All parties involved contribute to the holiday cheerfulness such that even Scrooge seems unable to douse the gaiety, although there is hardly enough screentime for him to manage the task.

When I was in middle school, I once saw the eminent Hal Landon Jr. in his own stage interpretation of Scrooge, his most famous feat being his somersault on the bed to put on his hat. Meanwhile, Alistair Sim manages to be giddy with delirious delight as the utter despair of Christmas Yet to Come is stripped away from him fortuitously. Upon hearing Lionel Barrymore was meant to star and performed the role countless times on the radio, I am even more curious to hear him. Thanks be we have Mr. Potter.

Reginald Owen is a sterling Scrooge in his own right, even a yuletide archetype of the old crusty miser. Though a respectable performance, it’s no doubt overshadowed by Sim’s, among others, for the simple fact it feels conventional. There’s little wrong with this and the 1938 version of A Christmas Carol is nothing if not sentimental and streamlined for annual holiday viewing with the whole family. There’s time yet for other entries to sink into the depths of woe in order to reach the zenith of Christmas cheer. The final word is to not live a humbug life. Christmas is meant for so much more. Where jaded cynicism is replaced with radical generosity and even child-like faith.

3.5/5 Stars

Beau Geste (1939): Brotherly Love in The French Legion

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“The love of a man for a woman waxes and wanes like the moon…but the love of brother for brother is steadfast as the stars, and endures like the word of the prophet.” ~ Arabian Proverb

No matter what Joseph Von Sternberg thought of such a proclamation, we can concede his Morrocco was a film concerned with the former. Von Sternberg’s dalliances with Marlene Dietrich behind the scenes and then Dietrich and Cooper in front of the camera are a living testament.

Beau Geste stakes its claim early to being a film of undying brotherly love. It brings to mind the words of scholar and author C.S. Lewis when talking about philia as a “side by side, shoulder to shoulder” appreciative love. It comes not by looking at each other but having a vision of something in front of us.

“Every step of the common journey tests his metal; and the tests are tests we fully understand because we are undergoing them ourselves. Hence, as rings true time after time, our reliance, our respect and our admiration blossom into an Appreciative love of a singularly robust and well-informed kind.”

I think this is a perfect illustration to begin to understand why Beau Geste is an initially compelling hero’s journey because it relies on a joint adventure to bring out expressions of deep-rooted love.

Admittedly, William A Wellman’s film is a close remake of the 1926 silent Ronald Colman vehicle. One element this film borrows from its predecessor are intertitles, and they’re too many of them for a talking picture.

But soon enough a cold open places us within the ranks of some French Legionnaires who come upon a fortress only to find the stronghold littered with the bodies of their comrades propped up against the walls. Something dreadful must have happened to them. For now, we get no more explanation as the story quickly fades back into the past, 15 years prior.

There we meet five children, three of them named Geste, one of them named Isobel, and the fifth a bespectacled killjoy named Augustus. You see, the others are still enraptured with adolescent imaginations that find them gallivanting around on the most glorious adventures as soldiers or possibly members of King Arthur’s court.

Their exploits are to be remembered with a Viking’s funeral with a dog lying at their feet. The beauty of their temperaments is the fact they hold on to a bit of their youthful exuberance when they grow into young men.

It always is a bit of a start when you jump from child actors to their corresponding adult selves. In the picture, I couldn’t quite make the jump seamlessly but no matter. All I know is I do have an appreciation for our leads — that is the three Geste brothers. They really are rather like the three Musketeers with Gary Cooper, Ray Milland, and Robert Preston making a jocund company.

Also, on a side note, this is too perturbing for me not to mention. I double-checked records multiple times and our three stars were born in 1901, 1907, and 1918 respectively. I’m still trying to figure out why Robert Preston hardly looks any younger than his costars or at least Milland. Maybe it’s his mustache. At any rate, age differences aside, the chemistry is present.

What is not present is the priceless jewel “The Blue Water” that was stolen one evening from the home of their adopted aunt Lady Patricia. The same evening Beau runs off to the Foreign Legion followed soon thereafter by Digby (Preston) and finally John (Milland) who gives one parting embrace to Isobel (Susan Hayward) before leaving on the grand adventure. Hayward is exquisitely beautiful and though her ingenue role is in no way groundbreaking, we have the solace of many meaty performances to come.

The film’s true standout is Brian Donlevy as an unscrupulous tyrant in charge of new recruits. He eventually finds himself commanding the entire outpost with the whole outfit threatening insubordination. His hunger for power verges on the deranged.

My expectations were more of the rip-roaring adventure variety but as the previous commander’s remarks on his deathbed, “Soldiers die as much from fevers as they do battles.” Meanwhile, Digby is unceremoniously pulled away from his brothers on a work detail and subsequently, misses out on most of the final act.

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I would say wholeheartedly the film is salvaged in its last push as we are granted the spectacle we have been waiting for as the remaining men hold down the fort against incoming marauders. It makes one nearly cry out “Remember The Alamo!” The sentiment is there anyway.

It seems a horrible thing to say, but Cooper affected me more when he was on the verge of death than when he was alive. The all but wordless finale plays particularly cryptically as Digby sneaks around the compound to carry out his oldest brother’s wishes.

I must admit to dismissing Beau Geste‘s storytelling prematurely as it evoked greater complexities than I would have expected. The mechanisms of the opening and overlapping moments are more intricate than I might have given them credit for. The mysterious words spoken once upon a time, while Beau was hiding in the suit of armor, come to fruition as do the opening moments, neatly folding back into the tale.

The reunion of John with Isobel and his Aunt arrives in the nick of time to satiate audience wish-fulfillment. It almost elevates the film wholeheartedly, but the pacing and where the story chooses to focus its efforts feel scattered. Had they come together more succinctly we might be hailing Beau Geste one of the great actioners.

While Gary Cooper in a foreign legion kepi is nonetheless iconic, I am apt to remember him more so for Morocco (even if that picture belonged to Dietrich). Although if one is sentimental enough to forgive the faults, it’s painless enough to say Beau Geste belongs to three devoted brothers. Coop, Milland, and Preston maintain a spirited solidarity throughout.

3.5/5 Stars

The Lives of Bengal Lancers (1935): Colonial Comaderie Sullied by Hitler

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In the imperialist traditions of the likes of Tarzan The Ape Man (1932), Gunga Din (1939) and even Lawrence of Arabia (1962) comes The Lives of Bengal Lancers. We cannot take the era or the colonial sentiments for granted like the contemporary viewer did since we must reconcile with the complicated filter hindsight lends.

It’s a bit like an old Cowboy and Indians picture except instead we have lancers and Indians. In theory, our allegiances lie solely with the dominant sides, and the rebels have our ire because revisionist filmmaking had yet to be created. This is the victor’s myth.

Director Henry Hathaway in later years would be remembered as a veteran of both crime pictures and classic John Wayne westerns including True Grit. The Lives of Bengal Lancers was his first formidable success, and the action and adventure itself are frankly quite thrilling.

Gary Cooper, as one of American’s dashing action heroes of the day, plays our protagonist MacGregor, a rough-edged soldier who nevertheless conceals the age-old heart of gold. A prime example comes when he makes up some excuse to send a new recruit to call on his father so they can talk in confidence. The boy has yet to see his flesh and blood face-to-face without constant rules and regulations getting between them.

Actually, we have two new recruits who come aboard: Forsythe (Franchot Tone) a glib sportsman who finds great relish in crossing wills with MacGregor and then dashing Lieutenant Stone (Richard Cromwell) still wet behind the ears. His father is the commander of the entire outpost. A journeyman soldier, “Old Ramrod” Stone (Guy Stander) is an incorrigible stickler for duty and discipline.

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But the task at hand is the apprehending of a charismatic gunrunner and local outlaw Ahmad Khan (Douglass Dumbrille), who subsequently holds great power over the territory. The favored sport of “Pig Sticking” provides a handy cover for snooping around.

Most delightful of all is the one-upmanship fostered between our two manly specimens played by Cooper and Tone. The constant friendly competition between the blunt Canadian straight-arrow and the more polished and tempered “Blues Man” brought up in Britain is one of the film’s finer assets.

But of course, the inevitable happens and our heroes get captured by Khan. The famed line misstated on numerous occasions is actually, “We have ways to make men talk.” However, it feels anticlimactic considering.

It’s also difficult to decide if it’s to the film’s credit or not, but the villain, played by the white actor Douglas Dumbrille, is not trying to hide it. He is educated and resists playing up some savage image. He leaves that to all his underlings who do his every bidding.

While imprisoned, our heroes spend their idle time, outside of being tortured, playing at cockroach races and letting their stubble grow out. Once again, it represents the very best of the film instilled by the performances of Cooper and Tone opposite one other. Because everyone else we can easily see in any of these old adventure epics. It feels like standard stuff. They are not.

Certainly, the story teases out this issue between the duties of a soldier and the scruples of a man with inbred common decency. Should the family be sacrificed for the sake of the outfit? Is a man who has poured everything into his military career because he believes in regulation fit to be praised and venerated? The commander’s appreciative colleague (C. Aubrey Smith) lauds his actions acknowledging, “Love or death won’t get in the way of his duty.” Whether that is an entirely good thing remains to be seen.

Of course, we see analogous themes in even some of John Ford’s pictures like Fort Apache and specifically Rio Grande. The latter film has the same father-son dynamic playing out, except inside of conveniently killing off the spouse to streamline the conflict, that film actually digs into the themes more definitively. Anyone who has seen the film will agree Wayne and Maureen O’Hara’s relationship is the most interesting dynamic. A close second is the camaraderie of the soldiers.

In The Lives of Bengal Lancers, again, we have no such relationship, so the film is at its best with the soldiers sharing their lives together. One must note while the western might be dead, these old adventure yarns feel even more archaic. This brings up a host of other issues to parse through.

Watching the film unfold we cannot know for sure if we are on the right side of a righteous or unjust war; the underlying problem is the film does not leave it open. It’s already accepted who the conquers and heroes will be. I have nothing against the likes of Gary Cooper and Franchot Tone. I rather like them. But I can’t help but feel their team is playing a bit unfairly. The deck is stacked in their favor.

This ties into another notable caveat to make the viewer wary because Lives of a Bengal Lancer was purportedly a favorite of Hitler. In its digressions, he saw agreeable conclusions to inspire his own empire — the Third Reich — namely an unswerving duty to country along with elements of racial superiority.

Because it is these Brits with their bravery and know-how who are able to hold off the hordes of enemies. Their valor in itself is not an issue but placed up against their enemy, it is slightly troubling. The fact Hitler made it compulsory viewing to members of the SS is another level of bone-chilling. It’s hard to look at the picture in the same light after such a revelation.

3.5/5 Stars

Design For Living (1933): An Atypical Lubitsch Comedy

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“Immorality may be fun but it’s not fun enough to take the place of virtue and three square meals a day.” 

All director Ernst Lubitsch has at his disposal is a train compartment and three actors. Yet the opening scene of Design for Living positions itself as one of the most delightful moments in this entire picture. It’s a pure testament to bold visual filmmaking with nary a word spoken for at least 4 or 5 minutes. Few modern filmmakers would have the gumption to attempt it.

Lubitsch knows exactly what to do with such situations, and he was bred not only in sophistication but silent comedy. Because you see, the ultimate joke is when they actually start conversing with one another these three very familiar faces open their mouths and French comes out (Gary Cooper apparently was fluent).

Simultaneously, the director has also set up the relational dynamic of the film without a peep of dialogue. It really is a superb opener. However, this opening scene is almost too delectable for its own good. The film cannot possibly sustain such a  level of perfection. But more on that later.

When the three expatriates finally switch over to their native tongue, we have an uproarious discussion on art versus commercialism, Napoleon wearing a coat, and Lady Godiva riding a bicycle. Don’t ask for any explanation. In the parry and thrust of their conversation, we find out one is a painter (Cooper), the other is a playwright (Fredric March), and both are failures for the time being.

We are instantly reminded by a certain level of sauciness this is the Pre-Code era, though we are on the cusp of harsher censoring to come. For now, the picture is able to nonchalantly hang its hat on a central plot point involving our leading lady (Miriam Hopkins) and her two men embroiled in a menage a trois — a so-called “Gentlemen’s Agreement.” Her conundrum is very male and libertine in nature. She has different men to try and she likens them to hats she wants to put on.

Yes, there is innuendo and some contemporary audiences might have shuddered at the admission they mention the word “sex” out loud on multiple occasions. And yet none of this titillating attraction speaks to much of the underlying allure of this picture.

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Look at who we have assembled on top of the acting talent. It sounds too good to be true. If the name Noel Coward doesn’t carry emphatic weight in your life, you might as well cross it out and consider this a Ben Hecht picture. He was, of course, one of the great purveyors of Americana through aphorisms and pervasive wit.

He famously scrapped all of Coward’s play aside from a single line of dialogue. Leaving a mark on the material in a way that was far more suitable to not only Lubitsch but an American audience.

All the gloriously tantalizing pieces are in place but the question remains, Is comedic cohesion possible? Understandably, Hopkins and Edward Everett Horton take up their allotted positions with ease invariably suiting them. Though their own personas aren’t on par with Chevalier or Herbert Marshall, the two American lads do their darnedest. The fact Cooper always feels so awkward in comedy somehow even plays a bit to his favor.

Unfortunately, it just doesn’t take. Again, we are putting it up rather unfairly against the likes of Trouble in Paradise or even The Smiling Lieutenant. Those are high benchmarks indeed. Put simply, the buoyancy is not there frequently enough.

Instead, we have a residual wistful melancholy that feels atypical for your usual Lubitsch drawing-room comedy. Cooper and March become a pair of “Gloomy Gusses” as Hopkins winds up marrying Horton to save them all grief. Even before that, the trio has their share of disagreements simply sorting out their inevitably complicated relationship.

If anything, it suggests in more rational terms that such an existence, as bohemian and open-minded as it may be, also becomes one of the most emotionally taxing. Not to mention relationally murky. In real life that is.

But when you expect something effervescent and gay, Design for Living is a bit of a letdown as a movie. After such a strong charge out of the starting gates, the storyline feels wanting in the middle, sluggishly rolling into the final act. One could wager whether or not plucking more out of Coward’s play might have been the most prudent choice. It’s possible it might have made the setup even droller. I can’t say.

Then again, maybe my own comic proclivities range toward screwball and the overtly visual far too much. It is true it often takes finer sensibilities to appreciate ironies and an astute sense of perception to read between the lines. An appreciation for wit and not solely physical comedy is key.

At least in my estimation, the movie is aided by a final party crashing in an attempt to get their girl. These bookends at the front and back half of the picture are vitalized by our stars being brought together. In such close quarters, there’s this inherent possibility for inspiration.

Lubitsch or not, if you have Gary Cooper, Miriam Hopkins, Fredric March, and Edward Everett Horton together in a room, it’s infinitely better than watching grass grow. The same might be said of Design for Living because if it speaks to anything, the final notes impart a lightness of camaraderie and lithe romance rather than any morose confusions. As it should be. Though it winds up being too little too late.

3.5/5 Stars

Daughter of Shanghai (1937) Starring Anna May Wong and Philip Ahn

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No, this isn’t an alternate universe. There really was a film from the 1930s starring both Anna May Wong and Phillip Ahn. They’re not just supporting players or bit parts to fill in a few stereotypical roles, either, but actual leads. More amazing still, they both speak English without a hint of an accent. They are Asian-American, intelligent and brave — in an era lacking comparable heroes.

Ahn is a G-Man sent by the government to investigate a smuggling ring bringing in hordes of aliens from foreign locales. Wong is front and center as a woman whose father, a local merchant, will not cave to the strong-arm tactics.  He ultimately becomes a casualty of the clandestine syndicate looking to elbow its way further still into the illegal trade.

Lan Ying Lin (Wong) escapes her captors and is intent on infiltrating their racket and putting an end to it, once and for all, to avenge her father’s death. She ends up going undercover as a dancer at an exotic dive in an effort to get to the bottom of the mystery. She does not know the meaning of the word danger, her finest attributes being a certain stubbornness and resiliency.

She makes quite the impression bringing her “Daughter of Shanghai” act to the seedy exotic cantina. Her boss (Charles Bickford) is a grungy braggart who discloses that he is instrumental in helping sneak certain people in through Uncle Sam’s backdoor. Bingo.

Meanwhile, Kim Lee (Ahn) takes up with a mangy sea captain who’s on the other end of the racket supplying the “cargo.” The inside man convinces his not too bright superior that he can speak Russian — a sample of his linguistic skills include those useful Russian phrases, “Alpha, Beta, Gamma, Epsilon.” Being as “exotic” as he is, it’s easy enough to swallow and not another inquiry is made on the subject.

Despite being a quickie, clocking in at barely over an hour, Daughter of Shanghai still manages to have enough time for a couple murders, a barroom brawl, some exotic dance numbers, gambling, and copious amounts of alcohol. The dialogue’s a bit shoddy and there’s no time to waste so the story operates in very straightforward, uncomplicated turns. It’s B level without a doubt, but it utilizes everything at its disposal to draw up the punchy melodramatics necessary to make a story such as this impressionable.

In the end, our two heroes are reunited in their quest only to make the chilling discovery that villainy is a little closer than they ever dreamed. Ahn gets a chance to slug it to Anthony Quinn in a very early spot in the actor’s career. But he gets some much-appreciated help from a pug-nosed, good-natured chauffeur who makes up for his lack of brains with brawn.

One of the strangest dichotomies comes at this point because although Wong has been our guiding heroine thus far, she nevertheless watches the fighting between the men all but powerless to intercede. Regardless, justice is enacted. It’s a group effort.

Admittedly, if it wasn’t for the leads, maybe we would quickly forget The Daughter of Shanghai, but such a cast is so few and far between that this is a historical relic certainly worth unearthing and therefore worth remembering. That doesn’t imply it’s perfect by any means.

The road toward nuanced representation is a long and arduous one requiring baby steps only to be impeded with various obstacles and inevitable steps backward. Because it’s easy to be homogenous, unimaginative, and flat. The outliers are where we find intriguing artifacts suggesting exceptions to the rule, cultural documents that dared to give us a different portrait of humanity. In my labyrinthian odyssey to discover hidden gems, those are the ones I’m invariably drawn to.

Anna May Wong and Philip Ahn should have been bigger stars if not for the perceived impediment of their ethnicity. Daughters of Shanghai is a tantalizing taste of something altogether groundbreaking. That makes it worthwhile even as there’s an air of disappointment. Oh, what might have been. However, we must be thankful this treasure still exists.

3.5/5 Stars

Dodge City (1939): An Errol Flynn Western

Dodge_City_1939_Poster.jpgThe year is 1866. The Civil War is over and anyone with vision is moving west. One such outpost is Kansas where the railway is replacing the stagecoach. It’s a world of iron men and iron horses. Because a place like the notorious Dodge City is a “town that knew no ethics but cash and killing.”

It’s not a decent place for children and womenfolk for the time being. But some affluent magnates with vision see the profits it affords. That’s their business. It will take others to smooth out the rawness and make it into a land worth cultivating and settling down in.

Though lawlessness runs rampant in the streets led by town bad boy Jeff Surret (Bruce Cabot), a wagon train led by a caravan of seasoned cowhands looks to be yet another signifier of change. Because one of the men riding with the rest is self-assured Wade Hatton (Errol Flynn) supported by his pals. You can bet even with an accent Mr. Flynn makes an able-bodied western hero but he’s not alone.

Alan Hale was forever Flynn’s right-hand man from Robin Hood to The Sea Hawk (even playing his father in Gentleman Jim). They also get the boisterous and yet generally good-natured Tex (Guinn Big Boy Williams) to round out their trio. Hatton has his eyes on a pretty passenger who is easy on the eyes. Unfortunately, her younger brother is a drunken hellraising nuisance. He instigates a stampede that turns deadly and from thenceforward Wade and Ms. Abbie Irving (Olivia de Havilland) have a contentious relationship at best.

Seeing Dodge growing so much leaves everyone all agog. Never has a western outpost been crammed with such activity. It feels authentic in one sense. You understand how disease and waste could begin to run rampant in such a bustling atmosphere and crowded conditions. Hatton gets his first taste of Surret when one of his business associates named Orth is shot. But the story is not all drama.

In an ongoing scenario, the boisterous Algernon Hart (Hale) forgoes the tempting calls of the local Gay Lady Saloon for the Pure Prairie League, residing right next door, attended by all the town’s most proper womenfolk.

What follows just might be one of the finest brawl fight ever spilling over into the lady’s social, overwhelming the scene with all sorts of gory sights and gut-busting crashes, bams, and bangs. It feels wild, alive, and somehow thoroughly enjoyable. Maybe because we get to sit on the outside looking in at the merry madness accompanied by whoops and raucous accordion music.

What’s more, it forces a response. A drunken Hart is singled out by Surret and his thugs who get ready to string him up in the plaza right then and there. While Hatton quells the injustice without a standoff, there’s a sense that things will only continue to escalate. No sheriff will stick out their neck in such a country. No man seems strong enough.

Finally, a child (Bobs Watson) is lost it’s the final straw and Hatton vows to clean up the streets and bring civility, law and order to the territory. Rounding up the rowdy troublemakers and ending the citywide shootouts forcibly. He clamps down like no one has ever done and it begins to make things peaceable again.

It’s the old story of civilization moving in on the wheels of law and order, which slowly begin to push out the graft and corruption. Someone must have the guts to lead the crusade with ideals and guns, if necessary. But it takes a community behind him to make it stick.

In this case, he is backed by the paper and its audacious editor Joe Clemons (Frank McHugh) an ardent purveyor of free speech. Change happens incrementally. Scare tactics come and go. De Havilland joins the paper too in order to represent the interests of the local ladies and then becomes an integral member of Hatton’s crusade for good. He takes Surret’s right-hand man Yancy (Victor Jory) into his custody knowing full well that fierce retribution is coming.

Because it’s common knowledge that when two immovable objects come barreling toward each other, there’s bound to be drama. In Dodge City it comes to pass in a flaming railcar finale, one moment dire and in another thrilling, with faceoffs, ambushes, gunfights, prisoners, hostages, and some stellar sharpshooting. But a man like Wade is not meant to remain stagnant. Husband and wife ride off toward their next adventure on the range.

It truly is double trouble with Ann Sheridan and Olivia de Havilland. But Sheridan’s role had the potential to be far more compelling than it is, unfortunately. Aside from a few musical numbers and screaming for a brawl to stop, she doesn’t get much screentime before disappearing for good.

De Havilland is the obvious ingenue love interest and though she abhorred the unimaginative parts she was being handed, she nevertheless has ample talents to imprint herself on the picture. She and Flynn go through the expected beats of mutual distaste toward ultimate affection, and we delight in their chemistry even if it’s easily plotted from start to finish.

However, to survey Dodge City is to look at various pieces that feel almost incongruous. Here is Erroll Flynn playing a cowboy. The palette is Technicolor but the action is focused on towns and interiors opposed to magnificent plains. It’s not Ford. It’s not Wayne or Fonda, and yet it manages to be a fine actioner to add to the western canon due to compelling characterizations, deep-seated conflict, and of course, enough gunplay and romance to make it a true horse opera.

4/5 Stars