A Star is Born (1937) and Another Star Burns Out

 

A Star is Born is a Hollywood archetype and it’s a prevalent one at that. Why else would we have so many remakes — one as recently as 2018 — because the Hollywood success story is something that captivates us all. If we haven’t ever dreamed of being in the movies, then we’ve at least been taken with their magic. I never was in a hurry to watch any of the adaptations, probably because there was a sense I already knew them.

One of the shards of inspiration that gave me a greater interest in this story had to be the early relationship between Barbara Stanwyck and Frank Fay. For those unfamiliar, Fay was the father of modern standup comics on the vaudeville circuit and was also wildly popular in his day. Stanwyck married him when she was still an up-and-comer, but soon her blooming talent outpaced his as they headed in opposite directions. 

Although there’s something inherently tragic in this trajectory — perfect for a moving cinematic drama — it should be noted that fact wasn’t completely aligned with fiction. Because Fay was also an abusive alcoholic with a mercurial temper and fascist tendencies. If he didn’t exactly deserve his destitution in later years, then Fay wasn’t doing himself any favors. Some people are lost to time for good reason. 

William A. Wellman doesn’t immediately pop out as being a splendid match for the material but you could easily suggest this is a Selznick picture first and foremost as he showcases the latest Technicolor processes still being optimized in preparation for Gone with the Wind only a couple years later. 

As alluded to already, the picture is pregnant with the prototypical Hollywood fairy tale. Esther Blodgett is bitten by the Hollywood bug like many an impressionable young woman. It’s rather curious seeing Janet Gaynor in the part since she is a talent held over from Hollywood’s earliest days. I’m thinking of the likes of Sunrise and Seventh Heaven, but there’s also something apropos in this. Gaynor is such a sweet incandescent face and hearing her talk in the pictures makes her even more endearing. She’s robed in sweetness. We want her to succeed. 

In this way, we share the sentiments of her grandmother (May Robson), who reminds her of the differences between dreaming and doing, given her own upbringing as a pioneer. Going out west is a new frontier — a new wilderness to be conquered and many folks have been trying to cow it ever since. Screen acting feels positively twee compared to the furies of the pioneers, but the feeling remains true. 

Hollywood is introduced with the musical motif “California Here We Come” and the visuals are just as important: namely, Grauman Chinese. The footprints of Jean Harlow, Joe E. Brown, Harold Lloyd, Shirley Temple, and Eddie Cantor all canonized out front for the doting public. For now, Esther is one of them though she aspires to something more. For now, she is content following their footsteps and walking on the same hallowed ground where they tread. The chances are 1 in 100,000, but she’s the kind of idealistic girl not listening to her family, not listening to industry naysayers, and believing she is the one. 

Maybe she could be like the great Norman Maine (Frederic March); she spots him one evening out with her newfound beau (Andy Devine), and the acclaimed star is soused and belligerent at the Hollywood Bowl. The initial impression of the world is that there’s a spareness to it. In her boarding house, you never see any other tenants, only the skeptical desk clerk (Edgar Kennedy); this isn’t Stage Door, and when she gets a gig as a waitress for the Hollywood Elite, the party feels relaxed, hardly bustling as one might imagine.

Eventually, the break does come. She meets Maine at the very same party. She strikes up a relationship. Not in an opportunistic way. She never loses her sincerity, and she gets a screen test. In the aftermath, Esther is reimagined as Vicky Lester. 

The preview screening forecasts her as the next big talent, and for Maine, the writing is already on the wall. A star is born before our eyes and Norman is on the way out. Her ascension as media darling continues as he continues to slide into has-been territory.

Lionel Stander is their PR man bloated with every colossal idea in the book from padding starlets’ backstories, writing big news spreads about their private lives, and making a big to-do so everyone and their mother knows about them. It’s all Maine and Lester can do to keep him out of their business so they can live their personal life in peace, together.

For a time they are happy. Her talents continue to proliferate until the day that she takes home the Academy Award, but it’s too late. Norman is already finished. It’s sad really as he’s stashed away in a sanitarium to steady himself and beat his drinking habit. The industry has a convenient habit of burying those things it doesn’t want anymore.

When he comes out of rehabilitation, he’s at Santa Anita drinking ginger ale and walking around like a stale star of yesteryear. Not a smidgeon of respect from anyone. His old publicity man Libby gets ugly, exhibiting a great amount of relish dressing down the former heavyweight. He’s not simply dismissive. He’s incisive and cruel (even if Maine did bring most of it upon himself).

One of the few times it feels crowded is at the racetrack now that he’s a walking social pariah. It’s a pointed bit of staging as crowds all but materialize to emphasize his public ignominy. The irony isn’t lost on us because the biggest crowd he’ll draw comes only when he’s gone for good.

Personally, I’m partial to the comic proclivities of What Price Hollywood? but there’s something quintessential and iconic about this narrative even as it was remade countless times and was a loose reworking itself. It speaks to all the dreams and devastations of the Hollywood industry, highlighting them in all their complexities, while still managing to revel in them, in part, due to the coloring of the world. There’s something beautiful about this picture totally overwhelming any of the ugliness.

When we talk about beauty it’s not simply about a palette or elegance; this has to do with people and themes. Janet Gaynor for one and her love played out on the screen for her husband. It’s a continual reminder that the Hollywood mythos was not a new phenomenon and the industry was very well aware of the aura and the narrative it was projecting. It’s movies like A Star is Born putting Hollywood in dialogue with itself. Over 80 years later and we’re still engaging in much the same dialogue.

Although George Cukor may have passed on directing A Star is Born after having done What Price Hollywood?, there is something fitting in him taking the reins on Judy Garland’s musical version in 1954. It’s like the story continually reinvents itself for ensuing generations. Because if All About Eve feels more like our jaded reality, I think all of us want to believe in our heart of hearts that we can be that one star shining brightly. Then, we must ask, what star must die to make way for us?

4/5 Stars

Ladies They Talk About (1933): Starring Barbara Stanwyck

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“Too much deaconing took all the sweetness out of me” – Barbara Stanwyck as Nan Taylor

From its opening moments, the movie feels like a  fine prelude to Baby Face for Barbara Stanwyck, who flaunts her feminine wiles and indecent levels of charisma as a gangster’s moll.

After sending the police on a wild goose chase with an erroneous tip, she runs interference, schmoozing her way past the bank security guard. He obviously ignores protocol and normal operating hours in deference to a pretty face. 

Soon the thugs in the idling getaway car burst in and get down to business raiding the establishment and their inside man — actually their inside woman — plays the damsel in distress. She plays her part quite well fainting on the spot. But when a police detective comes onto the scene, her resourcefulness runs out. He’s familiar with her rap sheet and all of sudden she’s left holding the bag. Stanwyck’s made her M.O. quite clear. 

In stark contrast, the film introduces pious David Slade (Preston Foster), a young man on a righteous tirade against dirty politics, and he takes to the radio waves to mobilize the votes of the public with an “Old Fashioned Revival.” He’s the kind of principled, tough-on-crime type of person, who becomes a thorn in the backside of miscreants and city officials alike. Because he’s more than prepared to shake up the status quo. 

The narrative strands are tied together by our two leads because they have a shared past — from the same town no less — although they’ve followed starkly different paths. Nan rebelled against her father’s religiosity, and it led to a life in reform school. There are still fragments of goodness in her, and they make Slade fall in love with her. He sees only her innocence, all but ignorant of her past sins. 

One of the best sequences in the movie is understated — completely focused on Stanwycks’s emotive face as she finally levels with him about her past sins. Here she is being real for the first time and her savior takes offense. He thinks he’s been used. All we see are her eyes cast upwards before she senses the movement as he huffs away to his desk. It’s such a tiny moment within the film but how it’s articulated exemplifies such a lovely bit of nuance.

Because it’s imperative Stanwyck treads this line between vice and virtue as she gets caught between a man who wants her and a district attorney who wants to keep his job. However, she feels betrayed and castigated for finally laying herself bare. The window for them is closing. 

After opening up, she hardens again, closing up like a steel trap; this is what she knows. It’s a defense mechanism, and she’s not going to let the world hurt her anymore. Even if it means a prison sentence.

San Quentin Penitentiary feels a bit like the playground with everyone eyeing and feeling out the fresh meat. Nan throws her weight around not taking any flack from the “Daffodils” especially when it’s Slade speaking on the other end of the tube. Everything she loathes in life is exemplified in Sister Susie (Dorothy Burgess) a former sinner who now is hopelessly devoted to Slade’s righteous war. 

Nan is far more chummy with Linda, a fellow inmate who obliges by showing her the ropes. This is hardly what I was expecting from Ladies They Talk About; it becomes a bona fide story about incarcerated women. It has all the beats. A highlight is watching Stawnyck give a massive wallop to her rival even as she acclimates to life and earns a rapport with such chipper lifers as Aunt Maggie (Maude Eburne). 

Lillian Roth plays her streetwise yet amiable second banana with a casual charm. Doing some quick tabulation, my mind went to Susan Hayward and her role in I Want to Live. A few years after that she would actually play Roth in the biopic treatment of her life I’ll Cry Tomorrow. It’s nothing more than a trifle of an observation.

But a movie that started with a brazen bank robbery, must include an Alcatraz-level escape attempt. Once more Nan finds herself being the inside woman joining up with her old cronies. It looks like the movie can only have a tragic fall for Nan Taylor. She bides her time in the clink just to get another chance at the outside — an opportunity to face her old rival — and give him the business. 

Sure enough, she’s back at “The Old-Fashioned Revival,” runs into an old friend, and enters the reverent proceedings with a gun. There’s only one place this drama is going. That is until it gets maudlin. Although perhaps this is too harsh because, for once, the story relinquishes puritan religiosity for agape love — a sacrificial love that holds no record of wrongs. Given what it is in terms of genre, mixing a wayward woman picture with crime and prison drama, Ladies They Talk About is a hardy recommend if only for Stanwyck’s talents. 

There are some actresses you could watch in just about anything because they take on all sorts of roles and no matter the breadth or the make-up of the characters, they seem to intuit and then embody the humanity found therein. If the moral dichotomy of the movie is obvious and the tropes easy enough to guess, then Stanwyck elevates the material to a degree and actually makes us care for a moment, long enough to enjoy the thrills. It’s a solid Warner Bros. picture thanks in part to her. 

3.5/5 Stars

What Price Hollywood? (1932): Starring Constance Bennett

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Here is a film so completely attuned to Hollywood celebrity and fandom in its heyday. We open on Hollywood fashion magazines full of stockings and lipstick, and glossies of Greta Garbo & Clark Gable. Then, Mary Evans (Constance Bennett) pushes her retractable bed into the wall to head off to her shift and our dramatic situation is made instantly identifiable. 

She’s not there yet, but she has aspirations to be under the bright lights someday. For now, she frequents Hollywood haunts like the legendary Brown Derby, although she gets in by the back way — through the kitchen. You see, she’s a waitress there. She’s like so many bright-eyed starlets before and after her — even to this present day — looking for their big break. 

In her case, it comes thanks to a veteran director, Max Carey, whom she waits on. Lowell Sherman is not altogether well-remembered today, but he has a smoky idiosyncratic charm about him playing well off Bennett’s vivacity.

He’s not quite the eccentric heights of late-period John Barrymore nor is he equal to the quipping suavity of William Powell, but his career is as remarkable as it was preempted. Not only was he an actor but also a director of such films as She Done Him Wrong and Morning Glory. This was before his sudden passing in 1934.

The fact that Hollywood always seems self-absorbed and preoccupied with its own mystique and inner workings actually bodes well for all those who desire a microscope to see how the industry actually functioned in the past. For this reason alone What Price Hollywood is a lark from the get-go.

Through her cajoling and giddy persistence, Mary gets her bit part, works tirelessly on her craft, and it gets notices. During the rushes, she’s made a contract player on the spot by the demonstrative Mr. Sax, who offers her a notorious 7-year contract. Far from feeling like a straight jacket, it seems to encapsulate her life’s ambition. She’s on cloud nine even as Carey looks on wryly, sunken down in his theater seat. He’s seen this film before. 

You Ask Me! gossip column supplies juicy bits of exposition all throughout the movie charting the rise and fall of our stars. Mary begins her ascension in the industry even as Carey begins to falter. His films are over budget, he’s a bit temperamental, and his drinking problem has gone off the rails.

These are the obvious beats of melodrama, but in the hands of George Cukor, still an up-and-coming director exerting himself, the story is allowed to play like something more. There’s a lot of good-humored charm, but it’s not just about laughs. At the same time, because it leads with this kind of playful screwball sensibility, we never totally enter that perilous territory of overwrought melodrama. It feels quite light on its feet in all circumstances.

Mary has spunk flying out of her left and right, and it sees her straight to the top. Her first big picture gets her mixed up with a polo-playing playboy. Not only is Lonny Borden (Neil Hamilton) rich and dashingly handsome, but he’s also rather forthright. After setting up an extraordinary dinner, he’s not about to be stood up, and he pulls his date right out of bed to dine with our heroine kicking and screaming her way to a luxuriant dinner for two. What a lovely way it is to do romance, at least in the movies.  

The revelations continue as we get to stand with the grips and the stagehands behind the scenes of the magical world of Classic Hollywood. When Bennett sings her French torch song and we see the camera coming toward her, the light nearby and the spotlights up above shining down, it offers such a delightful visual anatomy of a scene.

While not quite Casablanca, we are afforded a different kind of atmosphere. It gives it breadth outside the bounds of typical movie scenes because we are seeing both what’s in front of and behind the camera in equal measures. It also gives Cukor greater narrative freedom, and he can show us more as Mary’s personal and professional life bleed into one. 

Although Max Carey and Lonny Borden never quite play as romantic rivals — the movie never aspires to be that kind of tripe — they do war for Mary’s affections because she has a soft spot for them both. The director and dear friend who got her into the business; the man who discovered her when she was a nobody, and then the other man who swept her off her feet. 

What Price Hollywood?, like so many other such examinations, must chart both a shooting star and a falling star. Mary wins her Oscar. Max Carey is now an untouchable drunk with no place left in the business. Mary remains his only friend even as her marriage takes a nosedive, and she’s forced to soldier on as a single mother. She’s a highly successful mother but alone nonetheless. 

In the final act, it looks like we might have spoken too soon. We’ve seen this melodrama coming from miles away. It’s embedded in the rhetorical evocation of the title. Mary is beside herself with the gossip and the baseless slander of the fickle journalist and viewing public. Now she only has one friend: the old softie Julius Saxe. The public will make you and break you. It’s true. 

But the movie doesn’t end in the pits. This might be the key. Forget a sudden move to Paris that feels all too convenient or another all too expected happy ending. In some ways, it stays true to the overarching mood of the picture. At its best, it channels the effervescence of Constance Bennett and reminds us why she was one of the unsung comediennes, and one of the unsung talents, of the 1930s. 

4/5 Stars

The Bowery (1933) and Jumping Off Brooklyn Bridge

There is an immediate sense The Bowery was meant to capitalize on Wallace Beery and Jackie Cooper’s success in The Champ from the year prior, as well as the rising stock of George Raft after Scarface. In short, the creative paring works quite well because although Beery was the highest-paid talent at MGM, Raft proves himself to be a chipper and able sparring partner for his formidable colleague. 

The world being projected and explored is the relatively distant past of the Gay Nineties, and yet still recent enough to remain as a living memory for some contemporary audiences. The movie is capped off by a prologue touting the Bowery as “The Livest mile of the face of the globe,” and here we have our entry point into the turn-of-the-century milieu. 

Before The Rifleman, there was another Chuck Connors (Beery), who is a larger-than-life figure on the bowery with his bowler hat and brawny shoulders. He runs the local saloon, an expectantly raucous and bawdy place, it also carries with it a rather off-putting name. Strike one.

Of course, none of these folks care and why should they? They’re too busy knocking back a pint and ogling the floor show. And Connors is right in the middle of the daily bedlam. One of Beery’s favorite drinks is “boy-bin” in the local parlance. He’s also not above clubbing a woman who gets too touchy-feely with him. 

However, for all his boisterous show of bravado, he does have a soft spot. One of the most important people in his life is Swipes (Cooper) a young vagabond he adopted off the streets whose hobbies include throwing rocks at the Chinks. Strike two. Does it need to be said that, although these elements are period, they definitely don’t play now? Well, there you are. 

Despite, these immediate if realistic racial insensitivities, there is some instantly immersive world-building director Raoul Walsh synthesizes through a host of vignettes on the streets. It might only be a figment of my own mind, but there’s a reason Bowery sounds like Bowels because we’ve found ourselves in one of the lowliest, basest melting pots of the world.  

But there would be no movie without our two stars. If Beery opens the film and establishes himself, then George Raft comes right on his heels making an entrance of his own as Steve Brodie (Don’t ever say I don’t give you nothin’!). What they provide the movie is the simultaneous presence of two colossal movers and shakers in the local community. 

Beyond being snappy dressers, they are men of many hobbies and even bigger boasts. They’re both pugilistic promoters in the ring, and they run rival fire brigades on the side, which consequently are more like street gangs than civil servant assemblies. It’s all the better to whip up some brassy entertainment. 

The street brawl in the wake of a conflagration is extraordinarily choreographed as pure fist and brick-throwing chaos. While I’m not altogether enamored with the world, the ongoing sense of atmosphere is impressive in such moments of machismo.

What’s more, they become tempered and subsequently more complicated by the introduction of another character. Because the mantle of the movie is built off the trifecta of males, and they remain the focal point. However, then one Lucy Calhoun (Fay Wray) arrives on the scene. She’s a woman from Albany — a virtuous schoolteacher — who Chuck rescues from the depths of destitution. She’s eternally grateful and offers to clean house for him. The most telling outcome is the big man’s chivalry. 

It is a bit of a clash of cultures — she is not of this world — and it’s in part because of her vulnerability; he protects her from the wolves on the prowl. But if Lucy brings out another side of Chuck, the same might be said of Steve Brodie. He comes off as a brute in their opening encounter, everything we expect him to be, but then he warms and softens. And she does too.

She’s still devoted to Chuck (though Swipes can’t stand her much), but her romance with Steve starts to bloom. They have excursions out to the beach at Coney Island — romantic moments like that. The only question remaining is where will the movie go? 

For those familiar with the real-life Steve Brodie, it must escalate into a bet and a dare to jump off the Brooklyn Bridge, which he looks to weasel his way out of. Although, in the end, he’s forced to prove his mettle with the whole town gaping and the authorities on high alert. 

Walsh expertly understands the cadence of the scene with Brodie flying across the bridge in his carriage — the policeman sprinting after him in pursuit. Meanwhile, the director cuts across the panoply of humanity — the faces we know like Wray and Cooper — and the host of onlookers who fill out the world. It’s the strangest kind of social event, and yet how it’s delivered to us builds up the mounting tension of the moment.

Ultimately, Chuck loses at the hands of Brodie (and Carrie Nation!). His bar is flipped in the process. With his pride and joy taken away from him, and his gambling debts weighing him down, he winds up living a life of poverty as Brodie ascends and becomes the new grand man about town. The balance of power — their aggressive stalemate — has finally shifted, and there is a forlornness about it. What made them such formidable rivals before had to do with them both being on equal footing. It looks like one has finally won out. 

Being a proud man, Chuck isn’t quite over his vendetta, and knowing Brodie’s own wellspring of pride, they agree to a river barge face-off, man to man, just like the old days. But the most curious development is this. It’s summed up with only a few words: “Remember the Maine.” Suddenly patriotic fervor is afoot. There is a new enemy. Suddenly, the two sworn enemies make their amends.

Fay Wray is a mediator, and they agree to have themselves a lark in Cuba because with two palookas like them, the war’s bound to be over in a fortnight. So the Bowery’s greatest source of conflict simultaneously becomes its new hub of comedy and comradery as the rivalry evolves, and we get to see it turn. It’s yet another entry in the Walsh canon fully in tune with its own idea of fun. There’s never a sense this picture takes itself too seriously. 

I am not sure if the director had a certain preoccupation with the Gay Nineties from his youth or what have you — his filmography is very robust and equally diverse — but the Bowery certainly would pair nicely with the likes of Strawberry Blonde and Gentleman Jim in how they so readily evoke the era. Nothing speaks to that more than John L. Sullivan and a bit of temperance imposed by Carrie Nation.

4/5 Stars

Me and My Gal (1932): Spencer Tracy and Joan Bennett

Spencer Tracy falls easily into the role of an Irish cop on the beat, Danny Dolan, working in the heart of the pier on the Lower East Side. What stands out immediately is his humanity and good-natured benevolence extended to his neighbors. In a matter of minutes, he’s nabbed himself a banana, rescued a dog, and drummed up a bit of small talk with a pretty cashier (Joan Bennett).

The film itself provides a  fairly simple framework. Director Raoul Walsh finds himself sculpting a world out of characterizations and vignettes, not unlike future endeavors like Strawberry Blonde or Gentleman Jim. But it showcases precisely how a couple of weeks of shooting can translate into an enjoyable piece of work.

Dolan falls into company with a detective named Al (Adrian Morris) hanging around the docks and watching out for a big-time gangster named Duke Castanega. However, before they can roll out the welcome wagon, they get accosted and thoroughly distracted by the most persistent drunks in film history (Will Stanton). He’s in a perpetual state of belligerent inebriation only made funnier by the fact he’s probably the scrawniest character in the whole picture.

One of the other scenes bursting with life comes in the wake of the marriage of Kate Riley with her sister Helen (Bennett) by her side. Soon the minister has summed up the proceedings and every man looks to get a smooch from the bride before her nebbish husband can get in edgewise.

Soon the after-party is flowing with beer, belches, drumsticks, and boisterous conversation. Walsh pulls out a trick he would use later in Gentleman Jim where his characters speak to the camera. Actually, they speak over and past it and what it does is intuitive, bringing us into the fold of the movie. So right in this moment, we as an audience are there at the wedding experiencing the frenzy with everyone else.

The chemistry sparks early between Tracy and Bennett, and it slowly grows into a mutual appreciation. He does her a good deed at her sister’s wedding, turning a blind eye and earning points with her blustering father. Later, Danny and Helen trade advice: He straightens his new bowler and she stops chewing gum.

One of their lighter moments on the beat involves the aforementioned drunk in yet another altercation. This time they must defuse a confrontation involving a man who was slapped in the face with a fish. It doesn’t fall into the realm of high-brow comedy, but that doesn’t mean it can’t be delightful.

For Me and My Gal — like many films from bygone eras — also has standalone details we can look at from our current station in history and truly appreciate. A radio salesman pulls out all the tricks to get the Rileys to bite on his best merchandise. The budding couple eat vanilla ice cream together in the kitchen, and a cup of java is two bits.

Even better is the linguistic education. Sporting the new bowler, one asks the other “Well, how do I look?” They say “Jake”  with a playful flick of the brim and a superlative adjective is born. Likewise, the weighty insult getting hurled around on all sides is “beezock.” Look it up. 

In fact, nothing’s sacred. They take a few minutes to razz a contemporary moving picture where they say one thing out loud, and then a minute later express what they really think. The way they amuse themselves with this gag feels like unusual territory for the era as we hear their inner thoughts playing against their spoken words (in a prodding nod to the movie Strange Interlude). 

As he tugs her down and she plops on the couch next to him, they are such a wonderful portrait of romance so perfectly in sync. In these self-reflexive sequences, I couldn’t help but find my mind drifting to Joan Bennett and Spencer Tracy. They both had long and illustrious careers, and almost 20 years later they would play opposite one another in a starkly different picture: Father of the Bride.

For now, they are young and in love. Bursting with all sorts of sass and equally romantic elan. Take the scene later on when he charges into her hash house aiming to marry her, and she’s clattering around behind the counter giving him her glib repartee. It’s the way romance is supposed to play out and around all the cliche beats of wanted gangsters and what-have-you, these are the other elements of the movie that feel singular and almost transcendent.

These are the little “pieces of time” Jimmy Stewart said actors can give an audience. When they reach over the counter to kiss, the embrace sends both their feet shooting up in the air like a pair of cinderellas. Tracy’s a terribly genial chap, but he works all the better with an able sparring partner. Bennett has a whipsmart, blistering independence about her, and she’s also constantly at the defense of her cowering sister.

Kate’s one weakness is the man she’s trying to forget, an escaped gangster named Duke (Walsh’s brother George). We know where the picture is going after a prison escape, the sheltering of a fugitive in an attic, and a brazen bank robbery. Only one logical resolution remains. There’s the obligatory confrontation and Tracy becomes a hero. Why dwell on any of this? We’ve seen it umpteen times before (and after). 

Walsh seems to have a great deal more fun in the final minutes. Now there is a second wedding in process, and it’s yet another excuse for mayhem. We sit there trying to take it all in as Tracy and Bennett get whisked around, swamped by people, trading kisses. How lovely it is to be a part of this contingent living vicariously off their energy. 

Spencer Tracy always makes the toils of an actor feel effortless and Bennett does a swell job to counter him. People don’t talk much about their onscreen partnership, but it’s pleasantly appealing. In the back of our minds, we know with content in our hearts Me and My Gal was just the beginning. More people should seek it out.

3.5/5 Stars

Scarlet Empress (1934): Marlene The Great

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In the case of his excursions into historical drama, director Joseph Von Sternberg only used the past as a kind of malleable tableau on which to impart his own creative vision. Once more the cornerstone of this vision is Marlene Dietrich, and she is poised to become the greatest monarch of her time: Catherine The Great.

A nice bit of tribute finds Dietrich’s daughter (Maria Riva) portraying Sophia in her youth. Her movie mother’s only desire is to find a fine husband for her to marry to improve the family’s stability. Her father is a far more benevolent figure (C. Aubrey Smith).

Very early on there is the juxtaposition of ghastly torture mechanisms reminding us how dastardly humans can be with their cruel devices. Contrary to this is the sheer opulence and in this regard, The Scarlet Empress is all but unparalleled in its generation of period dramas. Historical accuracy be hanged.

The story continues with pace which is usually a welcomed addition when it comes to the often sluggish genre of period drama. Marlene plays her opening scenes wide-eyed, with a kind of spaced-out innocence. Because she is still a creature of adolescence as she gets sent to Russia as the betrothed of Peter III.

Her husband to be (Sam Jaffe in his debut) is vacuous, head on a swivel with a dopey incredulousness plastered on his face. Meanwhile, her demonstrative Queen Mother (Louise Dresser) remakes the impressionable girl to her liking — with a new name, new clothes, and all the expectations that come with her new station. More than anything else, she is expected to bear a son, an heir to the throne, and this is her primary usefulness. This is her only agency.

It’s almost gluttonous how indulgent the wedding sequence and all the subsequent sequences are in their pomp and regal showmanship. With the nation still dragged down by the Depression, one questions if the common man was taken with the escapism or was nauseated by the sheer extravagance.

While the images are visually splendorous, initially there are far too many title cards interspersed. However, they do begin to make their purpose more evident as the movie never seems to get unnecessarily bloated by dialogue. In some respects, they do set a kind of narrative precedent and use that to create a rhythm throughout the movie. It’s almost more like a silent picture, more concerned with a sweeping overview of a life — the impressions left behind — than honing in on every significant moment.

The sheer scale is staggering in the most extraordinary manner because there is no CGI. Von Sternberg has manicured and incubated this entire consolidated world inside the palace that’s without equal.

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The lighting, the ornate touches, gossamer canopies veiling Dietrich’s face in her chamber, and then outside the inner court hosts of ghoulish gargoyles, statuettes, and iconography of the Pantokrator fill the halls. It gives this uneasy sense of orthodoxy mixed with German Expressionism, but Von Sternberg utilizes it well. The Scarlett Empress really does feel like an exhibition for his skills as a wizard of mise en scene and environment. The costuming certainly is another extension of this.

Dietrich doesn’t really come into her own until a good hour and 10 minutes into the movie. From thenceforward there’s no stopping her consolidation of power. With his mother on a sharp decline and then on her deathbed, the king (Jaffe) is ready to marry his mistress and cast his wife out as he makes his long-awaited ascension.

But Catherine is no longer that ignorant girl she once was who merely avoided her gawky husband. She now knows how to play the political game — the kind of nepotism a station like hers relies on, and she readily uses all the means at her disposal.

Her feminine wiles mean she has the army in her skirt pocket bent to her whim. One of her greatest allies and lovers is the dashing rapscallion Count Alexei (John David Lodge). She has a secret passageway in the back of her chambers where she can usher her lovers in and out so they realize they aren’t totally indispensable.

What’s intriguing about the movie is not distinct plot points but growing to understand the textures of the world and how they form and shape the people in their midst. The Scarlet Empress becomes as much about how people look and how they carry themselves as much as anything else.

Marlene Dietrich might be altogether unmatched in this department. Purportedly she requested her iconic fur hat to be created especially for her, and it met with some resistance from the costuming department. Whatever the qualms, who could ever doubt her?

She only wears it momentarily. Maybe for a mere scene. Is it too frivolous? Certainly, but as she walks through the chambers inspecting the troops, looking as smart as she ever has, she’s totally inimitable. In that moment, she feels like one of the greatest cinematic royals hands down. Images are powerful. We know that.

It has little to do with policy or even action. All these things come later and that’s why we read our history books. No, here in The Scarlet Empress it’s about posture and presence and all those intangibles making the greats great and all the others merely peons and subsidiaries in the game of life.

Amid the clamoring bells and rapid montage, as she charges up the steps triumphant, flanked by her newfound army, Von Sternberg aids in The Scarlett Empress’s ascension to the epoch and with it the ascension of Marlene Dietrich as a star. It takes someone with true magnetism to fill up such a role promising so much, and she handles it with her usual aplomb. You can’t well forget her. She won’t let you. She embodies the Scarlet Empress. She is Marlene The Great.

4/5 Stars

Dishonored (1931): Marlena Dietrich, The Sultry Spy

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The premise is established in broad strokes. It’s 1915 and the remnants of the Austrian empire are caught up in war. This can only have meaning if we see some of the chaos in front of us. In this case, a prostitute lies dead in the street — with a host of onlookers crowded around — a mysterious mustachioed man eavesdropping and poking about. He’s looking for someone, listening to their conversation.

As the people walk through the streets, the sensation of rain sounds almost tinny and fake but this is part of the marvelous illusion. Because this is Joseph Von Sternberg, the famed spinner of bounteous tales offering so much to their audiences in the form of sensations and palpable milieu.

Eventually, the clandestine man — actually the chief of Austrian secret police — settles on a woman, but not just any woman. It is Marlene Dietrich in all her glory. They settle on a romantic rendezvous.

Not only does Dietrich give us so much, as is her habit, but her apartment itself is cluttered with all the sorts of trinkets that allow us to make sense of a person or at the very least appreciate them more fully.

There’s the piano. Sketches up on the walls. The place where she stashes her shoes. The little dancing figurines suspended from the ceiling. The empty bottle of wine. However, more crucial than anything else she proves her own character — she might live a meretricious lifestyle, and yet she’s a staunch loyalist and a war widow. Her allegiances are unmistakable.

It’s immediately evident Marlene is a woman in a man’s world, but she sure has her pick of the litter. Because everyone is bending over backward to escort her, to be with her, to get to know her. Her new superior is well aware of her assets supplying her a new alias — X-27 — and an assignment of vital importance to her homeland.

There’s a casual nonchalance to her when being propositioned spy work. But this only works if there’s a brazenness in the face of certain danger. She has both in equal measure. It’s true the subject matter plays as surprisingly lithe and modern for Von Sternberg as he casts his muse as a Mata Hari-inspired spy with steely poise and a touch of class. She’s an inscrutable beauty fit to play the game.

What’s lovely is how everything is delivered in between the lines. Heroes. Villains. Friends. Enemies. What’s the difference? For these people, it’s their business and so they find time for romance whatever the scenario might be. There are no hard feelings because the current climate has bred this kind of immediacy. Nothing beyond the here and now can matter. One must make the most of the moment.

Dietrich is brilliant at the masquerade party. It’s our first chance to see her in her new regalia — plumed and sequined, teeth smiling from under her disguise — and she’s only one of a myriad. It’s the most gloriously decadent party I’ve ever seen. You’ll have to see for yourself if it’s hyperbole or not.

However, X-27 has other business to attend to. Her first mark is Warner Oland a high-ranking General who’s also subsequently purported to be a turncoat. She must use the art of seduction to implicate him. But he’s not the only one.

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Captain Kranau (Victor MacLagen) was also present at the party and equally taken with the woman’s allure. He’s a Russian Agent playing the same game of cat and mouse she is. In the service, of Ford, MacLagen always felt broadly Irish. Here he seems toned down and well-fitted for the role if only for the fact he hardly tries to upstage Marlene. It’s better not to have Coop. She needs no equal in this picture and it’s true no one can outdo her. This is her story more than anyone else’s.

What more can be said as they joust back and forth globetrotting across borders and meeting under all varying degrees of circumstances? X-27 does her finest impression of a cleaning woman and a kitty cat all in one sequence. He finally has her cornered. We think this spells the end and yet she riggles free. Her wealth of secrets transcribed into music and memorized. She wins another round.

This is what becomes so riveting because the movie is constructed out of these kinds of jocular bits of leisure, but they are a pretense or a visual projection or smokescreen over a very harsh even cutthroat subject matter. He tells her in one interchange, “the more you cheat the more you lie, the more exciting you become.” It’s like a harbinger of Bond decades later.

However, lest anyone misconstrue his intentions, Von Sternberg is vehemently critical of unyielding military protocol. In fact, in a gut-wrenching final scene, it makes a young soldier blubber. He witnesses the utter cruelty of war when it comes to the rule of spy and counter-spy. Still, Marlene takes it with her usual poise — stalwart to the end — and frankly, she’s unforgettable. As she waits out her final days, her last requests are authentic to her character from the beginning. She requests her piano and the black dress she used to wear in her previous life. These are her identity. This is her uniform.

The ultimate irony of the movie is its title. Against the vociferous objects of Von Sternberg, the studio settled on “Dishonored.” But this cut-and-dry analysis of her station in life fails to understand the intent of the entire film. It’s tantamount to saying Sophie Scholl was dishonored in standing up to the Nazis or that the figure of Christ was dishonored for standing up for what he believed in, what he was called to. In X-27’s case, her guiding light was love — even love precipitated in momentary encounters — it can still be a driving source behind any human heart.

We have a fair amount of modern spy movies now anchored by female stars. Their main objective seems to be an exhibition in showing women as powerful entities, capable of kicking butt. This is fine, but sometimes there is no illusion left. No added depth of character. Dietrich is unparalleled, feeling exciting and aloof until the very last frame. We want more of her not less, but she leaves us while she’s still ahead. What a run she had with Von Sternberg, in her third picture following The Blue Angel and Morocco, with still more to come.

It’s less heralded but might just be the best of the lot. It comes quietly and then ambushes you with all its many assets — thoroughly exquisite to look at and also thematically resonate. What’s more, it has a genuine sense of fun and intrigue which isn’t always the easiest combination to come by. Its range of surprises is the kind you relish as a moviegoer. They stay with you.

4.5/5 Stars

Angel (1937): A Mature Lubitsch Love Triangle

For those familiar with Trouble in Paradise, Angel has a  sublime outside-the-window tracking shot in its own right to bring us flush into the world of Parisian soirees. Thusly, we become acquainted with Russian Grand Duchess Anna (Laura Hope Crews), who facilitates meetings between men and women. 

It’s possible to barely catch the subtext here. What’s apparent is by the sheer serendipity of cinema Marlene Dietrich and Melvyn Douglas wind up in a drawing-room together. Dietrich feels particularly laid back. Normally, she’s beautifully aloof; here it’s a bit different because she’s not looking to maintain an aura at all. It makes her all the more genial.

Joseph Von Sternberg always cast and projected Dietrich as a screen goddess. Working with Lubitsch, Dietrich feels like a far more relatable human being albeit a beautiful, refined one. She doesn’t totally overwhelm with her sensuality remaining mostly reserved. 

Tony Halton (Douglas) is in town for the day and is looking for a time. She offers up the Mona Lisa, the Eiffel Tower (that big steel thing sticking up in the air), and Notre Dame. No offense to “The City of Light,” but none of them pique his interest. The lady in front of his eyes is far more incandescent. She’s a bonafide angel.  

It’s true there’s something fresh and appealing about their interaction. They don’t know one another’s names nor does she bother to correct the mistaken identity, and it doesn’t matter. In fact, it even augments what they have because they are so fascinated by one another. It means a dinner invitation and spending the night together. This could be the movie right there. 

Then, Sir Frederick Barker (Herbert Marshall) is shown aboard a screeching steam engine 20 minutes into the picture. We almost forgot about him, and we take a total about-face toward events that remain interrelated. Before we ever meet the man, we learn he must be a gentleman of some renown because he’s all over the papers. 

He is served faithfully by his fastidious manservant (Edward Everett Horton), Graham, who has the ear of a very powerful man. He’s seen his fair share of diplomatic affairs: dinners, white ties, and tailcoats. They make him quick to judge the merits of international diplomats. Because his master is one of the finest, single-handedly standing up to 21 countries in The League of Nations (not including the U.S.). 

Barker returns home late one evening to be reunited with his wife Maria (Dietrich). It’s obvious they have affection for one another — they care deeply about their marriage — but before she fell for another man, there was already a third party in their relationship: his work. 

To grasp at obvious metaphors, there’s a tinge of Casablanca married with a kind of Melvyn Douglas Ninotchka romance and the stuffy propriety of Cluny Brown. Take, for instance, the melange of servants headlined exquisitely by Horton and Ernest Cossart.

In perfect Lubitschian fashion, a dinner is viewed from the kitchen’s point of view as they perceptively observe two of their dinner guests are out of sorts. They didn’t touch their food. They weren’t hungry. Although it’s never said outright, Lubitsch allows us to put two and two together. One can only surmise it’s due to lovesickness. 

Because there is only one way this movie can get more complicated and more painful. The men must meet. However, far from being antagonistic, they are old friends meeting on a whim. Once upon a time, they shared a French girl all the way back during the war years when they were both still young. Whether they know it or not, they also share another girl: Angel. They have no idea the beehive that’s been kicked. Lubitsch only gives that to us. We are resigned to watching the outcomes. 

The hourglass structure of the movie means we must end where we began. We know time is running out. We are back in Paris, back with the Duchess, and she performs her narrative duties a bit like a maestro. Unwittingly or not, she has all the main players stashed away in different drawing rooms. It’s inevitable that they find each other. The situation calls for it. There is no other possible resolution. 

In the olden days, you have a sense this film would have been lithe and effervescent as only Lubtisch could offer up. Standing before us are all his penchants for drawing rooms, the affluent classes, and their servants. 

But what sets Angel apart is the tone and the profound solemnity Lubitsch often brings to the proceedings. The melancholy of the central love triangle is unmistakable even in the final minutes of the film. In this case, it’s difficult to totally dismiss the extravagance. Still, we’ve come to understand these people, both their passions and their nobility. Because Lubitsch’s films somehow compel me the most when they grab hold of such feelings, where the emotions cut far deeper than the surface ironies. 

As far as Dietrich’s concerned, it might be one of her greatest performances. In the place of ostentatious allure, there stands a quiet dignity comfortable with silence. The whole movie is made in such a mode where these interludes develop the longing. In a quiet encapsulation, husband and wife walk out of the giant estate both together and apart. Their marriage still standing but on the verge of dissolution.  It’s not so much a paradox as it is an indication of the tenuous nature of their lives moving forward.

3.5/5 Stars

One Hour With You (1931): Jeanette MacDonald and Maurice Chevalier

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Ah, Spring in Paris! The local gendarmerie is intent on cleaning up the parks of couples canoodling. Among them are Andre Bertier (Maurice Chevalier) and his gal pal Colette (Jeanette MacDonald). But it’s perfectly decent. As they sing, later in bed together, “what a little thing like a wedding ring can do.”

Samson Raphaelson avails himself, having a fine time turning a phrase in all sorts of situations — in a police station or romantic tete-a-tete — it really doesn’t matter, and it serves Lubitsch’s standard suavity wrapped up in the sing-song operetta quite well.

Chevalier offers up his winking monologue to the camera and all the folks sitting out in the audience, providing a theatrical aside borrowed most obviously from the stage. His prevailing charms do not cater to everyone nor does his style of balladeering, but there’s no denying he carved out a niche for himself in the 20s and 30s as one of the most romantic swoons of his generation. Whether that had more to do with his coveted Europeanness or something else…

This story is built out of a taxi ride. Andre happens to hop into the cab with a person of the opposite sex named Mitzi (Genevieve Tobin). The possibilities are endless. It’s the fact that they totally dissect the situation, insinuate and flutter their eyes at one another, taking a banal scenario, and instantly giving it romantic tension. In fact, just about every scene informs a world full of sensual suggestions and connotations.

He abruptly ditches the taxi on the verge of a kiss and infidelity, though the damage is already done. No one will ever believe them to be perfectly innocent, and they’ve conveniently created a comic drama for themselves out of nothing. It almost blows up between them, and they are as good as guilty.

This would all mean nothing, if not for the subsequent scene. Colette is reunited with her best friend: Mitzi! They share all the usual chatter, fawning over wardrobes and shared memories. Imagine the devoted husband’s shock when the woman in the taxi and his wife’s best pal are one and the same! We have a real story on our hands and Lubitsch knows precisely how to work it.

Take another scene where Mitzi feigns illness to get the doctor alone with her. Mitzi’s own husband (Roland Young) walks in on a doctor’s visit. It’s all perfectly innocent (as it always is). They trade pleasantries. One’s a doctor, the other a professor — ancient history. It’s an emphatic punchline hanging in the air.

There’s also a glamorous party put on by the Bertiers. All their friends will be there sitting at a table together in a very public environment. A round of name card roulette takes place between husband and wife with diabolical consequences — romantic speaking of course. Colette is trying to protect her man from the wrong woman even as she rebuffs the blundering advances of a madly infatuated socialite (Charlie Ruggles).

Genevieve Tobin remains out on the prowl for Chevalier. It doesn’t much matter what she’s does; it’s how she does it. This is the secret of most of the characters in this movie. It’s the power of inference.

When she musses up his bowtie, he doesn’t know how to remedy the situation (because he can’t tie a bowtie). Going back inside is tantamount to social suicide — people will talk — but if he follows the beguiling harpy into the garden, who knows what fate will befall him. He’s a prisoner on his own veranda! This is the movie’s persistent predicament in a nutshell.

However, there must be a caveat in any discussion of One Our With You. His name is George Cukor, and he was actually the original director of the picture, although he eventually relinquished his duties to Lubitsch.

With complicated productions such as this one, considering where one director begins and the other ends is always an intriguing conundrum. Take, for example, something like Come and Get It from a few years later, directed by Howard Hawks and William Wyler at different points. One doesn’t often confuse their filmographies but shot to shot it’s not exactly easy to ascertain the difference aside from some intuitive observations.

There are moments of cloying cattiness, particularly between the female characters and at the grand party that we might find down the road in a picture like The Women, but we never quite broach that territory completely. Because ultimately, it’s the overarching sensibilities and the shepherding of the comedy by Lubitsch leaving their mark. It certainly makes for another fine exemplar of his work during the period.

My main qualm is the squandering of its supporting cast. Between the likes of Tobin, Ruggles, and Roland, there are some real personalities, and opposite our stars, they do yeoman’s work in a handful of scenes. However, it does feel like they drop off and disappear rather conveniently. Their arcs never coil up in a sufficient manner — in a way we can appreciate — and they probably deserve a few more minutes of satisfying resolution.

However, Lubitsch is not concerned with a more raucous screwball crescendo. Thus, the ending just about wins it for me, partially because for once MacDonald is in on the gag, and it doesn’t feel like the Chevalier show. They’re in this kissing comedy together, beginning to end, singing to their little hearts’ content. If you like it, you like it…anywhere.

3.5/5 Stars

Broken Lullaby (1931) and The 5th Commandment

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It intrigues me that this fascinating outlier in Ernst Lubitsch oveure, once upon a time was released as The Fifth Commandment. For those keeping count, it’s the one in the Catholic faith that says thou shall not kill or rather thou shall not murder. But already you might see the semantic ambiguities at play in the translation. In modern English, murder and killing can maintain different definitions. Often you only need to look at a human conscience to deduct the difference. This is integral to the movie’s core dramatic question.

However, we must first unveil the scene, introduced as only Lubitsch could envision it. It’s now the first anniversary of armistice: November 11, 1919. It becomes a montage of perceptive comic juxtapositions — with small-town jingoism in full-force — parades, bells ringing, and cannon shots booming right outside a hospital. No one seems to heed the sign calling for silence while the shellshocked vets remain terrified by the living nightmare.

Then, inside a grand cathedral, the minister extolls peace in the wake of such carnage. Thinking better of it, Lubitsch focuses on the sabers of all the military men as they sit listening in the pews, weighed down by their many war medals — no doubt won in battles. The camera focuses on the crucifix hanging on the wall as “bombs burst in air.” These are all incongruous pictures if we want to make any sense of war.

With the stirring homily done, the pews clear out in a flurry and only one man is left prostrate in the pew. He comes up to the religious man seeking absolution. In a former life, he was a first violinist, now he wishes to confess to a “murder.” It registers a response of repugnance until the minster finds out it was out on the battlefield. He is freed from any crime having done nothing but his duty.

For this man, Paul Renard (Phillips Holmes), it’s some small recompense for the tribulation of his soul moaning out on his behalf — on behalf of the man he killed — because surely this is not the way men were supposed to live with one another.

In all earnestness he yells out, “I came to find peace and you haven’t given it to me.” He gets chastised, has his absolution read, and feels little better for it. Again, his heart still aches with guilt. His head goes aloft to the portrait of the Pietta — she lost her son — and she forgave the murderers…

It’s the germination of an idea: a mission of mercy and a personal pilgrimage. Paul must go to the homeland of the man he murdered and see his parents — to call upon their mercies — and assuage his wounded conscience. Holmes is a bit of an exaggerated talent but his zombie-like despondency allows him to function rather well in the shell-shocked part.

It’s apparent from the opening interludes a kind of pre-world war II chivalry and romanticism still exists between the Teutonic and Gallic traditions because they have yet to experience the full thrust of the radicalized regime of Hitler.

This doesn’t mean war is logical and totally naive. Far from it. There’s a prescience in the following line from Raphaelson’s script: “9 million people got slaughtered and they’re already talking about another war and the next there will be 19 million and the world calls that sane.”

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Broken Lullaby simultaneously becomes an impeccable exercise in how Lubitsch is able to take the material from Samson Raphaelson — their first of many collaborations together — and in some integral way, shape it to his will. Continually the dramatic irony can be cut with a knife, and so in specific scenes, you don’t need much more aside from the knowledge. Lubitsch does the rest and uses that to benefit his audience.

Because Renard makes his journey — dutifully visits the grave of the man he killed. War mothers often come to visit and on this day the dead man’s fiancee: Elsa (Nancy Carroll). He flees the scene like a frightened deer, but his mission is clear. He visits Dr. H. Holderein (Lionel Barrymore); he is the father who lost his boy in the war. We know what must come next.

Lubitsch doesn’t make it easy — it detonates in our faces — wrenches the knife into our emotional hearts and forces us to continue on the dramatic arc. Even as Paul is eventually brought into the Holderin family, he grasps at illusions to make them happy — in an attempt to not totally trample the fond memories of their son from when he was alive. Because he only knew the man in the pitiful trenches of war on the edge of death. It’s not a nice type of place to keep people within your memories.

Likewise, the town is a textbook Lubitschian environ of Europe through the lens of Hollywoodland. It’s the old world spritzed with the touches of the movies. It’s a magical land where the discrepancy of language and culture fall to the wayside in deference to emotional truth and visual elegance. Where Zasu Pitts showing up as a housemaid hardly feels anachronistic or out of the ordinary.

It also plays like a precursor to To Be or Not to Be‘s lucid commentary overlapping with the quaint familiarity of The Shop Around the Corner. There are many such establishments in a place like this. Perfect for blissful love to come into bloom. Because it’s true Paul and Elsa take a shine to one another — they share a naive benevolence as they try and pick up the pieces in the shadow of war.

They also turn all the heads and ring all the bells in the town as they walk by together arm-in-arm. In this regard, any sense of realism or authenticity is made superfluous. This is a film made out of its emotional impressions more than anything else.

Meanwhile, Elsa’s scorned suitor drums up conspiracy about the foreigner with his brood of beer drinkers at the local Hofbrau. A newfound absurdity is born as they secretly contest the content of his locked violin case. Surely, it holds something far more nefarious than a musical instrument.

Finally, the good doctor is shocked out of any former strains of narrow-mindedness. He sees it spewed back at him, and it repulses his sensibilities. Barrymore stares down the gauntlet at all the men affronted by his house guest, and he lets them know promptly his wife likes him, Elsa likes him, and he loves him. It’s such a courageous pronouncement in such company.

He says, “No one can tell me the meaning of death or the meaning of hatred. I’ve drunk deep of both of them.” In some form, he’s beginning to understand the world anew much like Paul before him. Fathers drinks to the death of sons (on the other side). Some drink beer and others wine. It’s no different, and they all propagate the system of patriotic butchering. It’s insanity.

Broken Lullaby does what a majority of movies try to accomplish with any amount of dialogue and plot points. Lubitsch doesn’t need them. Instead, we get an impression. Paul is able to take up his original calling once more — that of a violinist — and he is joined on piano by Elsa. The parents look on in a contented reverie. Before us is the reconciliation of residual hurt leftover from an entire war allayed by two melodies joined together in perfect harmony.

We must stand corrected. The Broken Lullaby is the right title for the picture. It might be difficult to categorize for movie pundits, but this is of negligible importance here. What remains are the reactions. In turns, it’s moving and it’s excruciating. I was made totally distraught, and yet the salve is finer still.

Life, even today, is won in no man’s land where no one wants to go. Still, I am reminded of even a monumental moment of harmony like the famed Christmas day ceasefire in 1914. I’d like to believe restoration is possible. Lubitsch seems to suggest as much and he does so quite elegantly. I’d expect nothing less.

4/5 Stars