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 (Marie Dressler) 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

Our Daily Bread (1934) in The Age of FDR

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The title, of course, comes from the Lord’s Prayer evoking images of contrite men and women thankful for the bounties they’re provided on God’s green earth. Director King Vidor took an immediate interest in the project because it was a timely piece in the age of FDR’s public work programs about individual humans looking for ways to eke out an honest living.

Our Daily Bread is based on one such project with a host of men utilizing some vacant, barren land for sustenance. There is a sense the topic was too down to earth for a big studio — at least in the midst of the depression — so Vidor took on the expenses himself because he felt strongly enough about the material.

It’s a  story of hope burgeoning out of the pits of the depression. This is the key. We are used to stories of degradation and hardship in the throes of the 1930s because this was human reality. But King Vidor promotes a story that while acknowledging the headlines, hones in on a nugget of encouragement — a reminder of the indefatigable flame of the human spirit.

John and Mary Sims (Tom Keene and Karen Morley) are like so many other folks, they’re falling behind on rent, work is scarce, and they barely survive by hocking their possessions.

It might be easy to forget that the names of our two protagonists in this picture are plucked out of The Crowd — King Vidor’s magnum opus about the American way of life. The fact that two new actors don the roles feels mostly inconsequential because they are only symbols of the human experience — stand-ins for us all — and thus anyone who is genuine and honest is fit to play them. Surely we can relate.

It’s true Tom Keene and Karen Morley are not altogether well-remembered today. They aren’t electric talents, but she is wholesome (consider this interview), and he is exuberant bursting with new ideas. They set up camp in the dilapidated home on the fallow ground armed with their eagerness. By itself, it seems foolhardy.

However, John is soon joined by a passerby — a Swedish farmer (John Qualen) who knows how to raise crops and more men soon follow from all sorts of trades and backgrounds. They too want a second chance and an opportunity to prove their usefulness.

Although a stirring speech about John Smith and the Mayflower doesn’t play as compelling now, nevertheless, their de facto leader urges them to help themselves by helping others, and they need no further encouragement.

In the ensuing days, the able-bodied men hitch plows up to every conceivable contraption imaginable as they get to work. They become a bustling colony of industry made up of idyllic shanty houses. Best of all, they’re in it together.

As they gain traction, the movie is pregnant with these heart-rendering vignettes leaping to mind one after another. Upon the first sign of a harvest, they celebrate with hands raised aloft and knees bowed as the preacher among them thanks the good Lord for this bounty.

Then, the most formidable and brusque member of the commune — a wanted criminal, nevertheless is beholden to a higher form of justice, sticking out for his fellow man. He goes so far as to turn himself in so the reward money can be used to stock up on much-needed provisions until the first crop can be harvested. He’s yet another noble man who has the good of the whole in mind.

If it’s not apparent already, Our Daily Bread blends its religious sentiment with deeply socialist themes. It was, after all, the age of FDR’s New Deal sentiment effectively retrofitting how American society operated and was perceived. Still, Vidor utilizes an ongoing visual methodology Eisenstein might have appreciated. By 1950, a film as blatant as Our Daily Bread would have probably been excised from the cultural conversation.

However, although the socialist proclivities are quite apparent, for me, it’s never a political film, nor does it bludgeon us over the head with the idealogy completely. It’s very much an exercise in promoting this same dogma of the group over a single individual.

Because the story starts out with a couple — we can relate with them and appreciate them — but even as they pool together into this cooperative community, they only become two elements in a broader social amoeba. This hardly seems like an accident, especially as the narrative progresses.

If there are seasons of rejoicing and dance, then there must also be tribulation. Such is life. Tom’s indomitable vision is ultimately soured by drought and the temptation of another woman.

When Barbara Peppers shows up in the rain — we’re wary of her — what purpose could she possibly serve? With her batting eyes and saucy come-on attitude, she becomes a new love interest. And the cinema archetypes suggest Mary in all her devotedness doesn’t stand a chance. Surely, Vidor and his audience have seen Sunrise. I for one took a deepening relish in Peppers part due to her later credit as Doris Ziffel in Green Acres. She’s well nigh unrecognizable as a slender teenager, but if nothing else, it feels like an unknowing if uncanny parallel.

Vidor’s greatest triumph comes in the finale. The men band together to create irrigation to salvage their perishing corn crop before it’s too late. We have this heave-ho as rows of men pickaxe their way in unison, lumbering along to remove all the boulders from their path. They’re like a machine of manpower.

If the Grapes of Wrath is about the unstoppable tractors rolling over the land and taking it over, then these moments feel like a counterargument of frenetic human industry and solidarity. It’s not that there’s a lack of reliance on tools and the like. It only works when the humans who are behind them — living and breathing — are working together and building up a head of steam.

As they forge onward with their work night and day — everyone doing their part and investing wholeheartedly in this group utility — you see the message once more in stark relief. They are cheered onto the finish line by the women and children — their crops in sight and the goal on hand.

What an earnest climax it is! Swelling with angel song, everyone jumping with joy, doing black flips in the muddied ground. And as we watch them wading around in the mud, we know it is a signifier of life and a renewed future.

Here Our Daily Bread ceases to be a mere articulation or mimesis of the struggle to cow the depression. It’s a full-fledged metaphor for the enduring fortitude of the American spirit. Whether or not it’s a myth, King Vidor makes us want to believe in it all the more fervently. Likewise, the swelling angel songs might be too much for some — if you don’t believe in Providence. For these folks, Providence goes hand in hand with hard work.  And that flow of living water, notwithstanding the spiritual undertones, represents their daily bread.

4/5 Stars

The Story of Temple Drake (1933) with Miriam Hopkins

The Story of Temple Drake was adapted from a contemporary William Faulkner novel called Sanctuary. It’s putting it lightly to say it was the subject of controversy — even in the Pre-Code film era — but part of what the film version gives us is this instant sense of Southern Gothic environs.

It’s as much about atmosphere and the salacious nature of the material — leaning into what we might easily term Pre-Code sensibilities. But with such a film like Temple Drake where its reputation precedes it, it behooves audiences to consider what it is actually putting across.

Some studios might have been keen on peddling titillating smut or at least just enough sensuality to get a rise out of the paying public — to make it worth their while so to speak. But even a story like this, which might seem to have such a cut-and-dry trajectory, actually offers up something a bit more involving when we consider the evolution of our heroine and what she must come to terms with.

Temple Drake (Miriam Hopkins) is a girl about town, and she really does get around. She’s the sought-after debutante at the ball with her pick of all the eligible young bachelors. She can dance with them, toy with them, and there’s no consequence to it. It’s merely a game and seeing as her grandfather is a prominent Judge (Guy Standing), he does his utmost to make sure she is sheltered and well-taken care of. She’s never had to worry about anything in her life.

Aside from her come-hither reputation, playful romance is often denoted visually through the hands. If you’ll pardon the unforgivable phrasing, they become a kind of shorthand for the broader passion. They can be playful, alive, yet elusive. It’s put succinctly by how Temple can fire a man up. Then poof! She’s gone.

On one such evening, her late-night companion is a soused playboy. They leave the party behind and go blazing down the roadways at madcap rates only to have a dramatic spill and tumble out of their car. The crash itself is hardly a drop in the bucket to them. It’s what happens thereafter that rattles them both.

There’s something uneasy about where the story is going. Unrest is in the air. Lightning shakes the foundations of the film. They get taken in by some shady characters holding out in a rundown house. The thugs lurking about are a lecherous breed, the most menacing of the bunch is a man named Trigger (Jack La Rue).

Suddenly, life is no longer a lark. They’ve run into a harrowing life or death reality as Temple is subjected to a prison of terror and ruination, hopelessly trapped and vulnerable. So quickly she goes from the frisky huntress to the victimized prey. It’s true she’s entered an entirely different world where all the harmless frivolity is quickly replaced with the kind of contentiousness and fear she’s never experienced in her life. This is how real people live: rough and hard.

The barn where she seeks refuge for an uneasy night away from the prying eyes of men is a bit like the lion’s den, but there is no one to deliver her when the beast comes prowling around. After she is roughed up and attacked, she enters into an almost catatonic state of trauma and survivor’s guilt.

Her Grandpa can’t protect her anymore and the only man who is willing to fight for her is the one admirer, who’s not disappeared: Stephen Benbow (William Gargan) is an up-and-coming lawyer who once had aspirations to marry Temple. She always rebuffed him as a kindness. She thinks he’s too good for her.

But in a crucial moment, she protects him. In fact, she does something almost decent, sacrificial even, making herself look all the more the tramp. Pretending to scorn her good friend for the thick-headed thug, she even sells it by planting a kiss on the man’s lips. Even he’s got himself believing it. After all he’s done to her, in some sick demented way, she must actually want him.

It couldn’t be further from the truth. In a single moment, she finds his gun deposited on the bed and lashes out to defend herself. It’s carried out with some crucial closeups punctuating one of the film’s most emphatic developments. It’s also empathetic as we grow to sympathize all the more with our heroine’s terrifying position.

But her work is not done. Stephen, always the honorable one, beseeches her to testify on behalf of the man he is defending from murder. Only they know what really happened. However, this is such a deep wound. She must come clean with her deepest, darkest shame in a public forum all but prepared to ostracize her for a scandal that she wanted no part of. The movie’s pitting the life of a man against the sullied reputation of Temple. It’s her “duty before God.”

As the story goes out with this kind of optimistic glimmer of redemption, resurging against all the darkness we have already witnessed, it’s hard not to consider the significance of the name Temple. With the evocation of God, it feels like a kind of spiritual allegory is in order. Each of us with the desires of our hearts — with our wants, time, resources, and actions, create alters to something.

We always hear it told that our bodies are temples, and it’s no different here. We all worship something. However, when our lives get shaken up, it makes us take stock of our priorities and consider what we look venerate and celebrate in our lives.

Fluttering behind her eyes Miriam Hopkins does her best to dance between jovial gaiety, subsequent terror, and this kind of resting despondency flooding over her when she is finally taken advantage of. It changes her. In an earlier scene, she makes a passing comment about how “It’s like there are two of me.”

How right this proves to be, and it’s not so much like Jekyll and Hyde. It evolves into this schism between her personage before and after this event. Temple can never be the same again. Of course, that doesn’t mean she’s irredeemable or totally befouled. Far from it. Restoration is available to all even someone traumatized in the worst manner possible like Temple Drake. Because each one of us can be a Temple.

3.5/5 Stars

The Stranger’s Return (1933): Lionel Barrymore and His Granddaughter

Strangersreturn

Establishing shots often get a bad name for their bland or token quality, but it’s true when done well, they can set the tone and create an instant impression on the audience. King Vidor’s The Stranger’s Return instantly accentuates this rural milieu. It feels like a stable and equestrian existence, a supremely serene safe haven.

As the movie progresses, we are privy to marvelous pictorials feeling akin to Jean Renoir or John Ford. There is a bit of that pastoral sense of space where the landscapes feel untarnished and beautiful down to their very compositions. Regardless, the land is nothing if not punctuated by human beings meant to till the soil and cultivate it.

Inside a farmhouse, we meet a family of grown-ups sitting around the breakfast table with their patriarch. Beulah Bondi is among them, and they aren’t mean-spirited folks by any means, but they’re generally dutiful and reserved.

I am reminded of the moral tale in the Book of Virtues from my childhood where the adult children care for their dying mother and the chest under her table — just waiting to swoop in and get their due. They can only imagine what treasures she will bequeath them upon her death. It’s the same unspoken undercurrent in this film because Grandpa Storr isn’t oblivious. He knows what’s going on. The difference is, that he’s not ready to go down without a fight.

Lionel Barrymore is bearded like you’ve rarely seen him before. He plays Storr as an ornery man of the old world — giving his healthy cereal to the chickens and proceeding to cook himself up some steak and eggs. He grumbles about how he would rather do something he likes for a few minutes than have to live a hundred years hogtied. We understand him and appreciate his convictions in minutes.

He’s rich with recollections of the Civil War and his childhood exploits on the farm he still maintains. There’s this curmudgeonly bluster about him that is the perfect façade for an obvious heart of gold. As he’s advanced in years, he’s aided by his trusty cowhand Simon who’s known to take a nip of the corn liquor but also remains steadfast when it comes to working Grandpa’s land. The elder Storr also keeps up a good-natured feud with this closest neighbor (Franchot Tone). He’s built himself quite a life of contentment.

The entire movie develops out of the momentous return of his granddaughter — just recently divorced and living back east — who’s prepared to pay her grandfather a visit and go back to basics. Louise (Miriam Hopkins) becomes quite the talking point in the household seeing as she doesn’t live with her husband. That just isn’t done. Of course, Grandpa operates outside of the typical small-minded hypocrisy. He’s radically individual-minded and stubbornly prodigal himself.

Barrymore and Miriam Hopkins cultivate what feels like an instant rapport. Consider the moment where they sit outside on the hanging bench together — their conversation so easy and amicable. She might come off a bit like the prodigal daughter, but if this is true, then he’s more than generous in spirit to be the father figure who welcomes her back to her roots.

Together they strike up a fine friendship with Guy Crane (Tone) and his sympathetic wife Nettie, who both live just down the road. Crane’s the old story of a charming young man who went off to college and then wound up marrying his childhood sweetheart and returning to farm life.

It happens rather organically but Guy and Louise strike up an instant chemistry — at first, it’s good-natured and innocent. It comes to a head at a local dance where they spend plenty of time in each other’s arms and people will talk. One, because Louise is a divorcee and totally alluring, and, two, because Guy dances divinely and is spoken for. If the relationship between grandfather and granddaughter is the crux of the storyline, Tone and Hopkins do much to augment the film. He’s deeply charismatic and there’s always a wry twinkle of mischief in her eyes bringing them together gaily.

There’s nothing dismissive in the simple observation that Louise doesn’t seem like the churchgoing type, but it’s a delight when Grandpa is concerned. After all, as a faithful parishioner, he hasn’t missed a Sunday in years. It gives him peace being there.

The preacher gives his fitting message on 1 Corinthians (Therefore let him who thinks he stands take heed lest he falls). Far from being an implicit indictment of Louise and Guy, it seems to be aimed all the more at any snooty-nosed hypocrite who feels affirmed in their own preening self-righteousness. Grandpa is hardly one of their ilk even as he nods off perfectly at ease.

In the tradition of communal farm life, the Storrs put on a huge spread in exchange for local labor. The bountiful feast the women whip together makes the eyes bulge in its sheer extravagance. Hopkins does her duty gallantly by going out to the pump for water and passing around the plates and coffee, turning the heads of all the farmhands as she goes about her work. Grandpa couldn’t be prouder of his kin.

In what look to be his waning hours, Grandpa’s mind gets overtaken by fanciful delusions about the Civil War, and his children look to cart him off away from the farm for his own good. Could it signal the end of Grandpa or is it a ruse to divvy up the goats from the sheep? Metaphorically speaking, he knows the ones who love him will take care of his sheep. That person is Louise.

The Stranger’s Return lingers over an illicit theme as the two lovers have their affections grow deeper by the hour. It’s such an obvious outcome, and yet the story never succumbs to anything. This is never its intent. Instead, it finds meaning and sincerity dancing sensitively around all of this. In the end, it slates itself as an archetypal tale of a city girl destined for the farm and the farm boy who chose the city as an act of preservation.

What sets the movie apart is this amiable quality — how it is blessed with both humor and integrity of character. People don’t want to hurt one another because they’ve forged relationships cutting deeper than convenient altruism. As someone familiar with two worlds, it makes me hold a deeper affection for rural and urban lifestyles. They both have pros and cons, but what makes them impactful are the people you forge bonds with.

4/5 Stars

Street Scene (1931): King Vidor and Sylvia Sidney

street scene

Film at its finest is able to use images to leave an indelible impression on an audience. King Vidor’s Street Scene opens with a telling montage. Kids being sprayed by a hose in a street. A slab of ice being carried off by a worker. A man swatting gnats away from his horse. A dog sprawled out on the pavement. There’s more, but we already get the idea: it’s a blisteringly hot day in a New York neighborhood.

The foreknowledge that this is a stage-bound studio street corner makes the “scene” no less engaging. There would be later pictures to channel the same intimacy and sense of a world — some of the Warner Bros. Cagney pictures or Dead End spring to mind. However, here we also get a sense of a myriad of voices — even immigrant stories — and plenty of people chewing the fat all across the city.

While it’s faux reality, it does feel like a wonderful piece of world-building. We get to know the whole row of people for minutes at a time. What Vidor has done is pluck out a moment in time for us to just sit in and relish. People shuffle by in and out of frame, down the sidewalk, poking heads out of second-story windows, or lounging on the front steps.

Beulah Bondi, in her debut (God bless her soul), is one of the first we get to know. When she’s not out walking her dog or bemoaning the weather, she’s gossipin’ about other folks. Namely, Mrs. Marraunt (Estelle Taylor), who is rumored to have a male suitor. She’s married of course. The busybodies love to titter on about this juicy piece of scandal. They fail to recognize how lonely she is with a husband (David Landau) who is totally absent from her life.

Sylvia Sidney doesn’t show up until 20 minutes into the movie although she could be considered the star of the picture. Recently, she’s been accompanying a local boss (Walter Miller) who has the hots for her. It’s possible he can get her out of her humble community. It’s not the nicest place. Her father is the same absent, aloof breadwinner and her mother is constantly agitated and beside herself with nerves. Their home life is hardly stable, and it’s quite public given the close-knit existence with folks window to window in the tenement.

In one of the intermittent visual montages, Vidor captures daily life in the community adding some lovely touches you couldn’t get any other way. With the very focused framework of this individual housing complex, the story builds out from here, layering in the moments on top of one another.

When Sidney asks her Jewish neighbor and childhood friend Sam (William Collier Jr.) how you’re supposed to act in the synagogue — she has a funeral to go to — the very pointed question feels genuine.  She’s hardly interrogating him. Instead, she’s curious and surprised he has no spiritual beliefs.

All his knowledge and truth come out of the many books he consumes. She holds the sentiment “You gotta believe in something to be a little happy.” We hear little more about such matters but the hope might as well color her entire outlook on life even in the midst of tragedy. Their Romeo and Juliet friendship feels like a minor caveat underlying entirely different familial issues.

In one particular scene, Vidor instantly mobilizes what feels like the whole mass of humanity to overwhelm the movie. At its apex, New York comes alive. In fact, a moment must be taken to make a stunning acknowledgment. There’s an uncanny resemblance to Spike Lee’s incisive tour de force Do The Right Thing.

Surely as such a prominent cinephile, Spike Lee has seen the picture or somehow imbibed it. The cursory similarities begin with the heatwave and the cross-section of humanity, and then come down to the same inherent eye for human drama as well as intercultural relationships. Both directors feel fully engaged even immersed in their worlds.

For his part, King Vidor intuitively understands the material coaxing a great deal more depth out of it than what initially meets the eye. Part of what differentiates this picture is its lead. Sidney is the picture of stoic beauty going on bravely in the face of unimaginable tragedy. There’s a strength and assurance present in her being but also a quiet dignity. We watch her actions and responses and each and everyone feels enriched with candor.

It’s the contemporary world distilled into a moment — the street bustling with people of all sorts of backgrounds, beliefs, and fears. The picture is 90 years old, and yet I look at it rather incredulously. Not because of what doesn’t translate, but because so much still resonates within its frames.

There are gossips, lonely people, bullies, and young dreamers trying to figure out what to do with their lives. The world is still made up of all sorts, and when we’re thrown together, we very rarely agree. We have to learn how to live with one another each and every day. Sometimes we fail miserably.

In its closing moments, the world returns to the same shorthand of children playing in the street. Sidney walks off determined to move forward with her life by getting away from the street that has represented her entire existence thus far.

At the same time, it has so many memories attached to it and also instigated the greatest traumas she’s ever had to endure. For such a short, stagy endeavor, Street Scene is deceptively rendered. Vidor somehow makes it chockful of what can only be described as human pathos. From the days of The Crowd, he still gets it and puts it to good use. Sidney does the rest.

Alfred Newman’s theme would take on a life of its own as a motif recurring again and again in numerous of the studio’s movies.  Here it plays almost as ironic counterpoint. A straightforward score would have brimmed with some kind of dramatic crescendo. Newman’s work, which I have heard referred to as Gershwinesque, is far more playful. I would stop short of saying it’s unfitting. More so, it accentuates a different kind of tone altogether.

3.5/5 Stars

The Front Page (1931): His Boy Friday

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With The Front Page, Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur’s ode to the Mythical Kingdom, the world of newshounds was translated to the movies by Bartlett Cormack and Charles Lederer. Given their own experience hammering away at copy, they locked in on the newsroom parlance going so far as to base many of the characters on their associates. Having not seen the play, it’s difficult to know what liberties were taken.

Many might already know it was reworked as His Girl Friday and it’s true The Front Page serves as the fitting prototype for all of these newsroom pictures of the day. Lewis Milestone does an admirable job trying to liven up the stage beats and the camera does move laterally more than I was expecting. When Hildy Johnson (Pat O’Brien) makes his fateful exit from his “office,” it’s hard to forget the host of reactions to his departure with time stretched out by the magic of cinema.

Likewise, the talking picture still feels youthful, learning what it means to move, as Adolphe Menjou huffs around his office looking for his best story scribe Hildy. They provide the central dynamic for the story to rest on as conniving editor Walter Burns tries with all his might to hook his best writer before he quits the business to go off to New York with his fiancee and her mother, never to be seen from again. Burn’s last chance to nab him is the biggest local story: The hanging of a man named Williams. More on that in a moment.

It should be noted that the most immediate alteration Howard Hawks made was to make Hildy Johnson — not an altogether masculine name — into a woman, who in the Hawkian mode, is capably one of the boys. What it did was ratchet up the contentious romantic dynamics between Cary Grant and Rosalind Russell, who elevated the screwball antics to their zenith. It was a stroke of genius.

After oozing so much about their chemistry, it’s hard to fairly evaluate Grant and Russell’s predecessors. To be fair, I’ve nothing against Pat O’Brien but he’s simply not the most intriguing nucleus when placed together with Menjou. O’Brien did his best work opposite a charismatic lead like a Cagney or even Walter Huston.

Also, Menjou hardly has the caddish charm of Cary Grant. In fact, the meat of their performances feels staid and conventional in comparison. I know this is dangerous, but it’s an unavoidable trap.

It is easy to be complimentary of the picture in other areas. The Front Page really sings in the adjoining spaces because even more so than His Girl Friday it thrives on being an ensemble piece carried over from the stage. The majority of its time is spent in the writer’s room with the colorful gallery of working stiffs and this is where all the action is anyway.

Between cards and puffs of smoke, they’re on the telephones nosing around for a story. Walter Catlett, the bespectacled veteran, is at the center of the action, anchoring the community with his quips. Floating on the fringes around a host of wisecrackers are the likes of Frank McHugh and then Edward Everett Horton. The beloved character player is unmistakable as his typical boob, a germaphobe named Benzinger. He writes for The Tribune.

The rest of the plot will be familiar to anyone who is aware of Hawks’ film. Williams is sentenced to be hung for killing a colored man in a city where the colored vote counts. There’s a sense that we are talking about a vague approximation. The fact we never hear more commentary on the crime and that our cast is entirely white is certainly a sign of the times and another potentially worthwhile caveat.

Mae Clarke reached immortality by getting a grapefruit squashed in her face, but she also performs as the first cinematic Molly Malloy — the one person willing to intercede on Williams’s behalf. The other fact worthy of mention is Clarence Wilson, the bald, pipsqueak making the rounds of the newsroom. It took me a moment to figure out that he’s supposed to be the police chief. In his trembling hands, law and order don’t have a prayer.

When it’s all said and done, it’s hard not to see the voluminous shadow cast by His Girl Friday. Sure, it technically came after but its reputation looms large. The Front Page isn’t a bad picture. It’s still in the nascent days of Hollywood. Lewis Milestone does a decent job of visualizing the stage play, and the cast is ripe with all sorts of colorful talents. The dialogue flies. There’s no problem in that department. From hamburger sandwiches to peeping in teepees, to Jack London-style journalism, you get all sorts. This is the beauty of the bustling environment drummed up. We get to be passive observers of the world.

However, if there is one area of critique to hone in on it’s mainly the leads. To be frank, in weighing Cary Grant and Rosalind Russell with Adolphe Menjou and Pat O’Brien as a unit, there’s just no comparison. These feelings are my own — totally subjective as they may be — but their screwball chemistry cannot be topped. The Front Page still remains as an important historical marker, if only partially because of its relation to the later film. It definitely speaks more of His Girl Friday than it proves a critique of Lewis Milestone’s movie. In fact, aside from All Quiet on The Western Front, Milestone probably deserves a lot more respect than he usually garners.

3.5/5 Stars