The Uninvited (1944) and Stella by Starlight

To place my cards on the table, next to the ouija boards and ghost catchers, I’m not always fond of haunted house movies because how many truly original iterations can you have out of one premise? Granted, there are lots of houses in the world, but how do you make each one stand out among the crowd? If it’s not obvious already I’m already originating from a place of skepticism and apathy. There you have it.

There is some good news. Although The Uninvited won’t exactly make a convert out of me, it is freed up by the fact it was the instigator of many of the archetypes the genre holds onto even to this day. Since this is a movie from the 1940s, the onus is not on the picture to be pop-out scary; instead, it uses its assets of music, mood, and atmosphere to project an inedible impression.

The brother-sister relationship between Ray Milland and Ruth Hussey on the screen is not so common in movies, and you could easily see them playing romantic partners in another movie. The novelty is agreeable enough as they gayly happen upon an old house in Cornwall that they are just thrilled to see since it reminds them of warm childhood memories.

So they walk in of their own accord — their yippy dog scurrying after a squirrel in a fairly spectacular bit of choreography — waltzing around the place just as if they own the place. They have no misgivings until they walk up to an eery room overlooking the cliffside. Just being there makes them heavy and already we have a portent of things to come.

As it turns out, the siblings get an opportunity to buy Windward House and at a real steal too. The owner, a somber commander named Beech (Donald Crisp), is more than happy to get rid of it even as his earnest granddaughter (Gail Russell) can’t bear to see the place leave their possession. You might say she has an attachment, even a compulsion to be there. The old man goes so far as to say the house is filled with malignity against the girl.

Still, brother and sister get their wish, moving in, setting up their housekeeper, and trying to get acclimated. What the sibling dynamic does tease out are other romantic interests. Roderick, for one, is fascinated by the “sleeping beauty magic” about the girl Stella, even as they got off on a bit of a wrong foot.

When they finally do make amends, there’s a conviviality born between them. As a musician and one-time music critic, he plays her quite the tribute: none other than “Stella by Starlight.” It’s an immortal tune, and it also, coincidentally, was composed by Victor Young just for this picture. It becomes a haunting song of lament and romance on par with the entrancing theme from Laura also released the same year. It’s yet another case of music having such a mesmerizing grip on a movie.

If the aura around Laura is one adaptable touchstone, another closely related one is the unnerving ambiance of Rebecca. Daphne du Maurier’s novel, turned into the well-remembered Hitchcock drama, played with this same spectral sense of the otherwordly. The house, Manderley, became a character in its own right, and the deceased first Mrs. De Winter effectively made it into her eternal haunt. As an embodiment of obsessive devotion, Mrs. Danvers played so forebodingly by Judith Anderson, knows few equals.

Much of The Uninvited is about set-up and even the delay tactics bringing us to the point of release. It rarely confronts us only inhabiting the corners and peripheries of the story and milking Charles Lang’s delicious cinematography for every drop of darkness it’s worth. It has a lot to offer.

For instance, there are wailing and moaning noises in the middle of the night. Word of some apparition. Smells of mimosa that flood the air on other occasions. At a later date, their housekeeper raves about a crawling mist upstairs. It’s all very peculiar.

Alan Napier comes into the story as a voice of refined observation — a local physician who partners with them. He effectively brings clarity to the situation by disclosing some of the local history. You see, Stella’s mother died on the edge of the cliffs many years before under tragic circumstances.

If anything, it gives the Fitzgeralds more reason to worry about Stella’s well-being. They somehow decide the best option is to face the spirit head-on with a seance. It’s taken for granted that something exists; this is not a total figment of their overactive imaginations.

And it’s true, something fills up the room. There’s a look in the girl’s eyes of terrible happiness, a possessed euphoria. She’s resolute throughout the entire film; if they destroy that house, they’ll be destroying her. In some unexplainable way, it is a sanctuary for her.

Ultimately, the captain sends her away to a sanitarium run by a local plaster saint, Miss Holloway. Her reputation proceeds her; she’s renowned around town for her charity and stately benevolence. However, up close and personal, it’s only too evident there’s something suspect about her. She obviously still harbors a deep affection for the deceased Mrs. Meredith, championing her memory for future generations. It lends the movie yet another level of subtext.

From thenceforward we deal in ghosts, twists of exposition, and jumps in internal logic that must be parsed through. I’m often not a stickler for plot details, but it felt like The Uninvited ultimately relies on them too much. There are some genuine instances of dread or at the very least intrigue, but I’m more enamored with the Lauras and Rebeccas of the world. Their mystery manages to linger over me.

With The Uninvited my greatest takeaway was “Stella by Starlight” and the starring turn for Gail Russell. She, of course, would remain a bright hopeful in Hollywood for a few more years until alcoholism crippled her career and her personal life. However, within the frames of this movie, she is still brimming with the buoyancy of youth. It’s a pleasure to see her in such a place. If nothing else, I consider this a victory. “Stella by Starlight” might as well be a eulogy to a shooting star that burned out far too quickly.

3.5/5 Stars

Arise, My Love (1940): Milland and Colbert

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

3.5/5 Stars

Together Again (1944): Boyer and Dunne

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

3.5/5 Stars

Cluny Brown (1946): Nuts to The Squirrels

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

3.5/5 Stars

To Be or Not to Be (1942): Lubitsch Vs. The Nazis

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“What he did to Shakespeare, we are doing now to Poland.” – Ehrhardt about Josef Tura

Our story begins in Warsaw during peacetime. In some sense, this is a period piece because the gulf between the Nazi invasion of Poland in September 1939 and the comparably idyllic years prior could not be more starkly different. The world still maintains its innocence.

And yet, what’s this! A stir in the streets. Taxis stop. Heads turn. What are they gaping at? It’s none other than Adolf Hitler walking down Main Street! How in Hades did he get there? It catches the audience off guard, though not as much as seeing Jack Benny in a Gestapo uniform.

Of course, this sequence is all part of a performance as the stage elements fall away. The story focuses on a theater troupe trying to carry on with Europe in an uproar. From a purely theatrical perspective, this allows To Be or Not To Be license to literally lift Hamlet’s own play within a play (or in this case a movie) structure. So now with the framework set in place, there is ample space for meta qualities, breaking of the fourth wall, and with it, satirical commentary.

Joseph and Maria Tura are an acting power couple with dueling vanities headlining Hamlet. Carole Lombard, in ravishing dress, is elegance personified. Imagine, this was my first impression of her before dipping into her screwball filmography. It suits her in her final screen performance.

What an odd choice Jack Benny seems for this picture. Even today, he’s far more well-known for his radio show, violin playing, and his public persona as the hand-to-cheek comedian. He was a contemporary of Bob Hope and Bing Crosby but never managed the same share of the box office. Regardless, Lubitsch saw something in him no one else was willing to consider. He’s not exactly Laurence Olivier, but that’s precisely the point.

However, we are also reminded how theater is communal. The hammy Lionel Atwill is always pushing the envelope, both in life and reality. It takes his colleagues to rein him in. The spear holders Greenberg and Bromski, meanwhile, dream of roles that might one day actually utilize their talents. Their exacting director Dobosh (Charles Halton in one of his more animated performances) keeps the egos in check and the performances grounded in the material.

Circumstances always seem to get in the way of the best-laid plans. Maria has a handsome admirer (Robert Stack), who repeatedly visits her backstage, much to her husband’s chagrin. No, he doesn’t know about their private meetings. It’s the fact the young man gets up repeatedly during his “To Be or Not To Be” soliloquy; he doesn’t take kindly to the insult. Yes, he’s a jealous husband, but his whiny, puffed-up ego is the first thing to be affronted.

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Another slap to the face comes when their new play, “Gestapo,” gets nixed because it might offend Hitler, so they keep Hamlet going instead. It signals a change. It means War! The Nazis roll into Poland, and the city takes a hit. Bressart looks on glumly, uttering a fitting observation, “There was no censor to stop them.”

The embodiment of evil — in all its grotesque idiocy is Colonel Ehrhardt (Sig Ruman) — his orders posted up all around the city. We don’t get the fine print, but we get the gist: concentration camps, the death penalty, and being shot on sight are frank enough.

But the roots of Nazism are even more insidious. They have snuck behind enemy lines. Stack is among those who band together in the Polish branch of the RAF freedom fighters. In good faith, they pass on goodwill to loved ones to a Professor Siletsky — only for his wires to get crossed. They must eradicate the mole.

This is no goofy charade and Lubitsch sells out to tell the story. In this regard, he lends his players an amount of dramatic integrity. The menace is overt throughout the picture. For instance, when Stack parachutes back into Poland and flees into the night as a patrol of German fan out to intercept him.

In her own harrowing arc, Maria Tura is taken by the Gestapo. However, there’s nothing quite so sinister about it — at least in terms of her person — they offer a proposal for her to become a spy. She has to think about it.

Her husband, Joseph, has his own conundrum in the form of a befuddling Goldilocks moment, finding a young man sleeping in his bed. He does one of his iconic double-takes followed by others in quick succession as he makes his way around the room leaning over the bed. It couldn’t possibly be his soliloquy defector, could it?

For the entire acting troupe, their greatest performances are called upon to intercept the Nazi spy with his incriminating cache of papers. They rebrand their theater as Gestapo headquarters with Tura cast as their irrepressible lead, struggling to originate such an uncharted role. He’s eventually relieved of his ad-libbing responsibilities when he can take on a more biographical role — based on, shall we say, previous experiences.

The petty feud and marital jealousies between Mr. and Mrs. Tura remain an undercurrent to all their valorous acts. One of their constant marks is the oaffish tyrant portrayed by Ruman and his bumbling underling Captain Schultz. In fact, with Rugman later playing a joking barracks guard in Stalag 17 (1953), it’s hard not to see the origins of Hogan’s Heroes own roly-poly Sergeant being conceived.

There’s an obvious issue at the core of the story. Because, despite their best efforts, there are now two Siletskys running about. It leaves a lot of explaining to do, and the Nazis are reasonably suspicious.

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The final act is the finest. They make the most solemn Nazis out of the bunch the night of the show. Even if it is fiction, it still makes the hair on my arms stand on edge — all the men in Nazi uniforms streaming into the theater, standing in unison to salute.

Felix Bressart finally gets his chance to play Shylock in the most crucial turn of his career, and he brings every ounce of pathos he has into the performance. The recontextualization of the passage takes on new import pregnant with so much meaning. It is an assertion of such dignity in the face of such an egregious and ugly juggernaut as the Nazi war machine.

Truthfully, one of the hardest elements to appreciate about To Be or Not to Be is just how layered and multifaceted it remains. Being bred on Hogan’s Heroes and knowing a bit of the Lubitsch repertoire, there are some preconceived notions about what we might be exposed to. And the film certainly has wit, but we must be careful here lest the indignant get the wrong idea.

It’s quite alright to not like the film. I can only gather there are many detractors because this history is so deeply devastating. It carries so many wounds and grievances for the atrocities committed against not only Poland, but the Jews, and anyone else who was considered a target of the Nazis. The controversy is founded for these reasons. Rightfully so, I might add. Perhaps the picture is making light of this.

In my earlier days, I even believe I tried to defend this and other earlier films suggesting they could not have known the extent of the Nazis. This too seems a weak argument. And yet when I watched the film this time, I was reminded just how sincere even profound it is in-between the lines.

Yes, Benny at the center seems vain and conceited — this American comedian known for a very particular shtick — but then I look to Carole Lombard. Never has she been more majestic and extraordinary. Then the likes of Felix Bressart and Tom Dugan are forlorn while still carrying a quiet dignity about them. They get the laughs but with a straight face. They understand the gravity of what they are taking part in.

It’s too convenient to say To Be or Not To Be was ahead of its time. Certainly, there was controversy and the resolution to WWII was far from a foregone conclusion. Thus, it makes Lubitsch’s perceptiveness all the more startling. Likewise, there’s the defense he made of his work even going to the papers to do so. This is an excerpt of what he said:

“What I have satirized in this picture are the Nazis and their ridiculous ideology. I have also satirized the attitude of actors who always remain actors regardless how dangerous the situation might be, which I believe is a true observation. It can be argued if the tragedy of Poland realistically portrayed in To Be or Not to Be can be merged with satire. I believe it can be and so do the audience which I observed during a screening of To Be or Not to Be, but this is a matter of debate and everyone is entitled to his point of view.”

Ironically, here the touch of Lubitsch is not so much a comic fingerprint or sophisticated implementation of visual or even sensual comedy. What I am left with is the veracity and the bravery of his humanity. Not many men would be bold enough to make this film and then double down on what they had created.

4.5/5 Stars

Till We Meet Again (1944): Directed by Frank Borzage

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This is my entry in the CMBA’s Hidden Classics Blogathon!

The movie is built out of the opening juxtaposition. A youthful nun with an angelic countenance (Barbara Britton) lifts up supplications to her triune God asking for prayers on their behalf — herself and the host of children and other sisters around them.

Their daily discipline is disrupted by a commotion down the road — Nazi soldiers firing after fleeing prisoners. It’s a signifier of tense times, but very real and pertinent ones in a French village plunged deep into Nazi occupation.

One of the girls asks Sister Clothhilde, “What happened outside?” All she can manage in response is that she doesn’t know, nor does she want to know. It suggests the core tenets of her character, maintaining all levels of religious piety, even her own serenity, above all else. She’s cloistered from the outside world.

Because it’s true the convent walls provide a buffer — a peaceful asylum — and for someone like the young sister it’s all she’s ever known and all she’s ever loved. Sister Clothilde is generally content with the amiable life of a nun, taking care of the young children in her dormitory with warmth and diligence. That could be the end of it right there, but as this is a movie, of course, there must be more.

The Reverend Mother has a rather pointed distaste for the Germans (enduring three wars will do that to even the most generous of spirits), but she and the local Major Krupp maintain their etiquette amid obdurate conflict. He has orders to make a search for runaway prisoners, and she is adamant about not opening her doors. For a time they can play the game easily enough, and Sister Clothilde can remain equally ignorant of the world outside.

However, all of this changes with the appearance of a wanted American pilot carrying vital information for the local underground. He all but appears out of nowhere, happening upon the sister quite by accident. In the darkness and the solitude, there is something strange outlined around them. It’s not menace nor romantic melodrama exactly but a yet to be discovered facet in their relationship.

Milland, terse and paranoid, wants to get to his contact and the sister wants nothing of his world. Ultimately, she has no choice but to become a part of it. There is no one else and so she instantly finds herself giving up her small comforts for a mission of immense peril that, coincidentally, takes her outside the walls she’s grown so accustomed to. She goes from a woman of faith to a full-fledged civilian on the outside, given a new name — that of Louise Dupree — and betrothed in marriage.

If there are all the nuts and bolts of a cloak and dagger thriller, these are never a part of Frank Borzage’s primary agenda. After all, he is a far cry from a Friz Lang or an Alfred Hitchcock. I’m thinking of Ministry of Fear or even Foreign Correspondent in particular. Also, although it’s not as robust as The Mortal Storm, Till We Meet Again becomes both an extension of that world and its themes courtesy of screenwriter Lenore Coffee.

What’s evident is Borzage’s forever visible sense of this kind of high-minded naturalism. Where they can momentarily forget the task at hand, that is getting to a distant airbase and freedom, so they can help return a wayward baby bird back to its mother. Is there a need for such a scene? In a word, no, but in Borzage’s conception, this is the more crucial matter because it denotes something elemental.

Man’s duty is not only to his fellow man but to the creatures on God’s green earth. The director gravitates toward acts of care and goodness as opposed to the needless destruction as represented by the Nazis in their brutish, insensitive clumsiness.

Even as they travel together and “Louise” comes to know John as a most intimate friend, she learns a great deal from his assertions. That God is everywhere: reflected in acts of beauty, nature, the vows of marriage, and the goodness that crops up in any person who lives in this world.

It comes through thanks to Milland gushing affection about the marvelous intricacies of marriage between two human beings in intimate union, babies, jam in the morning newspapers, and tripping over the slippers. To her own astonishment, he speaks the words with a kind of devoted reverence. “You say it like a litany — a kind of prayer.”

But to those who think of Borzage as merely a starry-eyed dreamer, the movie is still compelling when they are forced to evade the Nazis, now trailing them with ill-intent and more precise intel. The sense of dread is immediate, and there are stakes.

In another key scene, after she’s done so much on this treacherous journey, the sister makes one false step. Smoke billows out from a dimly lit room, and she rushes toward it to sound the alarm for John to make his getaway. Instead, out steps an old adversary showing himself from under the shroud of darkness.

She is from thenceforward intimidated and threatened in a way that feels so real you can just imagine have it was used against so many victims before her. She has committed an act of treason, put herself beyond the protection of her church, and acted as an enemy of the German Reich. Under such duress, she has every right to feel hopeless.

Instead, she makes a personal judgment, a double sacrifice out of this transcendental love of hers. It’s not simply romantic love but love wrapped up with ideals and goodness that must be shielded from the Nazis at all cost.

They escape to England with Milland, and she lets him go gladly. But the second sacrifice is the Christ-like one. If I have to spell it out for you then the allusion means nothing nor the cross she holds in her grasp. You have to see it for yourself.

Although it’s sublimely sentimental and swelling with angel’s song, this simply means Till We Meet Again is yet another definitive Borzage picture. It’s somehow fitting he would trace the line of religious iconography all throughout the picture even as a woman learns what her faith means in all walks of life.

Far from trivializing it, her vocation feels richer, bolder, and freer than it ever was before. And yet with Borzage, he’s not so much a champion of religious ardor as he is a believer in the grandeur available in life for those who readily embrace it.

These large, esoteric, unsearchable concepts whether they be spiritual, transcendent, or in other ways ethereal are there for the taking. For a humble movie, Till We Meet Again gets swept up with the same scope. Importantly, it’s kept accessible by the candor of Milland and the vestal warmth of Barbara Britton. Because it is once and for all a litany — a kind of layman’s prayer.

4/5 Stars

Johnny Eager (1941): Taylor and Turner Spark Dynamite

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“Are you thinking of allowing her to play Roxanne to your Cyrano?” – Van Hefflin to Robert Taylor

Pretty faces don’t always add up to a quality movie and if you want to find where the faults lie, you might look between the players and the script then split the difference. Johnny Eager has all the Classic Hollywood trappings that very well could have made it dead on arrival — especially years later.

Because our protagonist has a name that only exists in the movies (or Hollywood for that matter). He’s a gangster from the old days formerly clad in the finest of threads and raking in the dough. To this day, he’s unrepentant or at least blatantly honest about how he feels; he’s no chump, even despite a stint he did behind bars.

Now he’s on the outside on parole making a go at propriety as a cabby. After this preliminary bit of eye-opening exposition, the story has all but telegraphed its intentions, really no fault of its own. It doesn’t take much imagination to put a reformed Robert Taylor and a curious young sociology debutant like Lana Turner together.

They meet through his parole officer: a white-haired, benevolent picture of authority. He seems to believe every man is capable of reform and human goodness if only given a chance. His secretary, on the other hand, gives Johnny the stink eye. Lisbeth Bard can hardly take her eyes off of him.

Of course, none of this is on the level because Johnny is busy getting into his old rackets, including an ambitious plan to resurrect the Alongonquin dog races to make a killing out of it. Simultaneously, he’s double-dealing, getting his sister and bratty niece to masquerade as his alibi. They’re nicely compensated of course to play up a squeaky clean picture of domesticity.

One has to laugh. The authorities must be idiots and Johnny accordingly plays them for fools. He’s a modern-day Machiavelli and this combination of authority, guile, strength, and charm makes Johnny Eager come off a bit more significant than a walking caricature.

It’s true Taylor had caught ahold of something in his career and whether or not he was considered a negligent actor and merely a pretty face, he brings a definite machismo to the screen more than capable of knocking off everyone else around him. He’s without a doubt the center of the action despite the plethora of scene stealers around him.

But one cannot forget the diffident school girl played by Turner, quoting Cyrano de Bergerac and sporting a hat to beat them all. What overtakes her exactly? Is it some compulsion to flirt to convert a wayward soul? Is it simply yearning passion? Whatever the reason, the film is full of “inamorata” — men and women lovers.

Not least among them is Van Hefflin who’s quite the educated fellow, quick and rich on the prose, especially when he’s soused with liquor. Jeb is Johnny’s most faithful friend for reasons the movie never puts to words. But whereas everyone else is either a hired ally, a paid stooge, or an easy rival, Jeb stays by him because he has no one else.

The film is at its most engaging tracing the lines and mixing its reference points between literate dames and men pontificating with a grandiloquent verbosity while the thugs rattle off their own barb-wire jargon prickling the ears. They tumble around inside the head as the most unrealistic and simultaneously peculiar cocktail of discordant voices.

Hefflin does very little compared to the other forthcoming gruff, garble-mouthed, shifty-eyed types, and yet he doesn’t need to because the words flowing off his lips play like riffs off the rest of the film. He seems to relish every soliloquy he gets to run off, and it definitely leaves an overall impression.

But the real fire is between Taylor and Turner for as long as they get on screen together. Aside from Johnny’s clandestine activity, Lisbeth Bard’s step-father happens to be a crucial man. Edward Arnold aptly plays the domineering and vengeful district attorney, who just so happens to be situated in the most convenient place in the movie. He helped put Eager away in the penitentiary as a service to the public. Now Johnny’s looking to stick it to him with Lisbeth implicated in his own crimes.

Could it be he never loved her at all? It always functioned as business over love? Regardless of his motives, enemies become accomplices as he leverages his new position to open up the long-dormant dog racing track. Everyone across the board has got an angle. What sets Johnny apart is his self-serving shrewdness, never blinded by sentimentalities such as sacrificial love, grace, or a guilty conscience.

Meanwhile, Lisabeth is overtaken by mental frailty and paranoia. She’s not bred for the cutthroat gangster’s life like Johnny. Her tragic hysteria forces him into a type of hero’s choice. It’s what all Hollywood movies ask of their protagonists. Something is required of them in the end.

In its day, Johnny Eager was a stirling success, and if history is any indication, it might have one of the most tragic days in American history to thank. It premiered in Los Angeles on December 9th, 1941. For those keeping tabs, this is two days after Pearl Harbor.

It heightens the dramatics just enough to bring out of the realm of reality and into the spaces of escapism. Where illicit romance can shoot off like fireworks on the screen between two scintillating specimens like Taylor and Turner. They were TNT as the contemporary advertisements so aptly framed it. They were the eye candy; they were the distraction to take the masses away from the tragedy right outside those cinema doors.

In a short time, the movies would be acting as a comment on the world at-large and the war at-large with propaganda machines spinning on all cylinders. For now, they still act as a counterpoint saying something about the state of a nation by not saying anything at all.

The story ends in a somewhat comforting manner, ultimately capping off with a Hollywood moralism that made sense, creating heroes out of gangsters far away from the chaos of sneak attacks and brazen days of infamy. It just goes to show life is more ambiguous and thus more complex than a movie.

3.5/5 Stars

Waterloo Bridge (1940) and The Farewell Waltz

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If you’re like me, Waterloo conjures up a limited array of mental images. Napoleon and The Battle of Waterloo. The Kinks and Waterloo Sunset. That’s about the extent of it. Now I can add Vivien Leigh, Robert Taylor, and Waterloo Bridge to the list.

Fittingly, our opening prologue begins at the titular location, as a handsome man with a touch of gray, dressed in military attire, makes a ponderous appearance. The place holds an obvious resonance for him even as he holds an unnamed token in his hands. This is Robert Taylor. He probably looks too virile to be an old man, but that’s hardly his fault. At any rate, he’s preparing to give one of the most continuously amiable performances of his career.

Then, we’re back in time. For a minute the cultural moment caught me off guard. Even though the flashback seemed to denote the first war to end all wars, how our star couple first meets, heading to the Underground for an air raid, feels like a distinctly World War II-era image. However, it happened earlier as well, and it makes for a very practical meet-cute.

With the Germans threatening to rain down their ammunition, the Underground is stuffed to the gills with all sorts including Captain Roy Cronin and Myra Lester (Vivien Leigh), a member of a ballet troupe. This might be their first and last meeting, but the spell between them is too bewitching. The cinematic mechanisms of star-crossed love are at work.

There’s a warmth and romantic civility bathing the picture, and it’s the kind of feeling you often seem to get in pictures of old — at least the most supernal ones. I can think of a handful: Random Harvest, Love Affair, Now Voyager, maybe The Ghost and Mrs. Muir. In a word: Stars. Because the scenario can change and yet when the talents fit together, there’s just something so disarming and delightful released into the atmosphere.

We want to soak it in and be in the moments with them to feel the same swells of emotion. Whether war or some other force pulls them apart or gets in the way of their love, they always face it with a good humor and a grace that we can live vicariously through as the audience out in the dark.

All of this might see like an admittedly surprising proclamation because anyone who knows anything about Leigh will first consider Gone With The Wind from the year before and then her larger-than-life relationship with Laurence Olivier. He was the man she wanted for this picture. Alas, he was called to make Pride and Prejudice (1940). What came into being with Waterloo Bridge is probably better.

Oh that we could be as handsome a Scotsman as Robert Taylor (with a better accent) or such an immaculate and gorgeous ballerina as Vivien Leigh. As such, their romance is set in this heightened supercharged arena created by wartime.

The film’s most illustrious scene is the “Farewell Waltz” by candlelight, played to the soft melancholy tones of “Auld Lang Syne.” In the silence or, rather, without dialogue, the magic of the moment is the film’s apogee. That song becomes one of the strongest motifs at the movie’s disposal.

It might have been the most bittersweet short film of all time if the first 30 minutes were all we got. All things considered, it wouldn’t be a bad place to end allowing the pleasantness to waft over us and invade our collective hearts and minds.

Still, their story continues for over an hour more. There must be complications. Robert Taylor is soon on the train platform, a fellow soldier holds a bawling son amid the hubbub, and our protagonist’s head is on a swivel as he moves down the platform. The camera follows close behind; he’s anxious to see his love just one last time before he ships out for what may as well be forever. It sets the tone going forward.

Their joint life together suffers in the wake of his departure and we can say “departure” because the movie stays behind as he goes overseas. It works in the story’s favor not to break off and try and tell both sides because this way it gets at the feelings of those left behind fretting on the home front.

Still, the final act needs something more. In comparison, it feels like a bit throwaway as if the movie is coasting on the power of those first minutes of romance and quite literally that haunting chorus of “Auld Lang Syne.”

You can write it off as sanitized rendition of its 1931 brethren or otherwise call for a perceptive reading between the lines, but what the picture must resolve once and for all is Myra’s shame — the guilt she holds onto while her man is gone.

Because even with the spunky support of her best friend Kitty (Virginia Field), she is left destitute without the lifeline of her husband. Whether he lives or not, she must subsist someway, and she chooses the only conceivable path, prepared to live with the ignominious consequences.

The only way to redeem the ending is to reflect it back at the audience — back at all of us — because it’s indicative of what many of us deal with. It consists of the lies we tell ourselves when no one is around. We’re unlovable. We’re too far gone. We’re the Judas. But the movie fails to go anywhere creative and poor, downtrodden Myra hardly fits the description of a loveless tramp.

The final saving grace is Vivien Leigh. Her quizzical right eyebrow gives all of us lacking perfect facial symmetry hope. Despite her final moments being trance-like, she is more than capable of the art of captivation even in her character’s execution of the inevitable. If I don’t quite buy her convictions taking her to such a sorry conclusion — the logic seems a bit drastic even for the time period — it’s easy enough to get swept away by her emotion alone.

Robert Taylor for one, gives a performance brimming with vitality, and he feels like more than a chiseled block of wood. He reminds us that in order to have true love there must be two involved. That place. His token. They only maintain their meaning because he shared them with someone else. We get the privilege of being there with them both.

4/5 Stars

Unfinished Business (1941) for Irene Dunne

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Unfinished Business commences with a wedding ceremony we’re trying to place. Because it is not Irene Dunne getting married, although she stretches her famed vocal cords in lieu of a wedding march. It is her baby sister — the girl she’s mothered her entire life up to this point. Now that the responsibility is over with, she wants to give up motherhood to be herself. After all, she’s been settled down her entire life and now she wants to get unsettled.

She’s a rural Ohio gal and intially feels like the most simplistic, idealistic I’ve ever seen Irene Dunne in a picture. However, this might establish the wrong impression. Because Unfinished Business gives an inclination of being in the mold of Theodora Goes Wild, though it does make its own digressions in favor of a softer even sadder tone. It’s actually more complicated than it appears, and Dunne’s character is very much the same.

The whole conceit is in the title really, although it takes on multiple meanings. First, there’s the unfinished business in reference to her life thus far. And then, when she has a romantic encounter rudely sidelined and left unrequited, it’s quite something else entirely.

The heart of the story starts aboard the train she boards to who-knows-where to live a little. Instead, she gets seduced by a handsome man who’s waging a bet he can find the most attractive conquest on the train. Their expectations and the meaning of the encounter mean two very different things to both of them. She will never forget him with a starry-eyed infatuation. He’s moved on to other things and over women soon thereafter because that’s who Steve Duncan is.

Not to be totally paralyzed by love, Nancy, endeavoring for an opera career, spends her waking hours on her arias. By day she must settle for singing telephone messages to customers, a rather demeaning art compared to what she’s used to. Though it does wind up getting her a new job; the pays better even if it’s hardly a more glamorous turn.

Billy Ross is the first truly curious character actor out of the rank and file old Classical Hollywood normally bequeaths us in pictures like these. He has this sense about him that screams screwball comedy as does Eugene Pallete, though he comes later. But the distinction is how La Cava’s film never resorts to this plane of existence. This is a far cry from My Man Godfrey. At first, it seems like this is a bad thing.

Nancy’s still a few rungs below hatcheck girl hidden behind a counter at a switchboard still singing messages. At least this time she gets some company with a touch of humor in the form of Tommy Duncan (Robert Montgomery) who is, among other exploits, a noted alcoholic.

Montgomery’s delivery always feels abrupt and unsorted to me. Though I’m admittedly coming around to him because in this picture, in particular, he’s the one man who notices Nancy’s tears — going so far as to commandeer the switchboard for her. If you’re beginning to connect the dots, you’ll realize his older brother is Steve, her one-time, one-day love.

Nancy and Tommy prove to be a strange company going out together. It’s almost like they have a shared camaraderie however thinly connected. He can’t stand his brother with typical sibling syndrome, and she still harbors a melancholy flame. At any rate, they drown their sorrows with some extra hard milk.

They wake up in the morning — the valet (Eugene Pallette) calling on Mr. Duncan, his musical shoes needing a grease — and they have flown to South Carolina and gotten themselves Married! But it almost plays as matter-of-fact, not one of those wonky sitcoms episodes. The whole movie functions like this.

Nancy dresses up and goes “wild” in an effort to make up for her ho-hum existence thus far. It comes with mixed results, eliciting the grouchy contempt of their sleep-deprived butler Elmer. Part of the issue is how we only hear word of her merriment after the fact. We are robbed of the delight of Dunne going a little ditzy and a little wacky and breaking up the screen. This is not that kind of movie (although Montgomery does get an extended number with a pair of opera glasses).

Otherwise it feels subdued in comparison to other contemporary examples like My Favorite Wife or Here Comes Mr. Jordan. It’s very possible La Cava’s film was striving for a more delicate tone somewhere in between, which is certainly admirable, but it never seems to reach its optimal effectiveness.

While Dunne is always lovely and we do appreciate here more often than not, somehow the movie never feels centered even as Preston Foster and then Robert Montgomery drift into her life for different reasons. There is an emptiness to it. Can we say purposelessness?

But then maybe there you have a bit of Dunne’s predicament. Shall she wait around for love, focus on her career, marry for money? The options are in one way bountiful but no less restricting for a woman in her position.

One visually impactful scene comes right after the wrong Mrs. Duncan kisses the wrong Mr. Duncan. That is Dunne and Foster. The catty blonde at the party passes what she’s witnessed along gleefully, and the camera takes a hop, skip, and a whip across the various partygoers as the words catch like wildfire. It’s the most blatant of ripostes in a film where stories begin to quietly overlap. Still, it hardly unloads on the drama.

What sets the movie apart is probably the honesty — this underlying sense of pragmatism. I have no illusions that it is similar to Daisy Kenyon, but I remember watching that film and Joan Crawford’s role in it, which somehow felt unextraordinary. And yet I realized it was extraordinary for the ordinariness, at times, because it was so very unlike the cultivated or perceived Hollywood of the 40s, not to mention its lack of emotional hyperbole.

I’m curious if my gut reaction to Unfinished Business is very much the same. There’s an undue skill and finesse to it no doubt, but this never moved beyond observation and then admiration for an underrated director. It didn’t get to my core through laughs or drama like My Man Godrey or Stage Door, and I must simply come to terms with it.

3/5 Stars

A Foreign Affair (1948): Billy Wilder and Post-War Germany

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What A Foreign Affair offers is a curious mix of Billy Wilder’s brand of gleeful satire with docudrama. In this regard, it stands alongside the likes of The Search (1948) as one of the earliest American films to explore the world of post-war Europe with so much rebuilding to do both physically and emotionally. It plays as a precursor to One, Two, Three (1961) certainly, offering contemporary observations of the new world order. Still, one cannot even consider these films without acknowledging Wilder’s own background.

He was an exile from Nazi Germany who was welcomed into the American film industry with a myriad of emigre filmmakers, who, subsequently, helped fashion Hollywood into the worldwide powerhouse it would become. He was eternally grateful but never allowed that to totally cow his pointed barbs aimed at America’s inherent flaws.

During the dwindling days of the war, he even served with the Psychological Warfare Department to help develop propaganda material about the concentration camps. His time abroad and the securing of funding launched A Foreign Affair as his latest project.

In the opening moments, a Senate Committee is preparing to make their official visit to observe the current climate. The script’s aims are twofold, setting up the story while also bringing audiences up to speed about the bombed-out world below.

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Jean Arthur is more repressed than she’s ever been in her life with some license for her typical comedic chops written in as the narrative progresses. For now, she is a methodical taskmaster very cognizant of her constituents’ tax dollars. Perhaps we need more like her, but for the butt of a comedy, she’s an easy target. The congresswoman entreats her venerable colleagues that they must eradicate moral malaria once and for all as she’s increasingly wary of what they might uncover.

Col Rufus J. Plummer (Millard Mitchell) shows them the sights, stroking his cheek with bemusement (a recurring gag), as he catches everyone up on current events with his wry bent. Meanwhile, serving under him is Captain John Pringle (John Lund), one of the brave boys from home who has taken it upon himself to help rebuild the new world order on the liberating tenets of capitalism.

His typical hobbies include fraternizing with black marketeers to haggle for mattresses using chocolate cakes as collateral. As it turns out, it’s for a girl who drops her key out of the window every time he honks the horn of his jeep. Suddenly the film’s title has become an overt double entendre, and we have our movie.

John Lund is not without charisma and yet somehow the way he goes about this characterization feels all wrong. There’s nary an ounce of genuine charm conjured up by his faux tough-guy persona. It seems ill-fitting. At least he was likable in The Mating Season. Here he can barely hold a candle to the luminary talents of Marlene Dietrich and Jean Arthur no matter how different they might be.

As the Americans make the rounds on their carefully curated sightseeing tour, the representative from Iowa is positively scandalized by all the soldiers with their German gals. She makes a brazen decision, going undercover and winding up at a Hofbrau with a couple of lug head G.I.s,, posing as a reticent German fraulein named Gezeuinheidt.

In the process, she gets the poop on the sultry songstress formerly purported to be in cahoots with Goebbels or Gohring — one or the other. Her gabby companions surmise she still has big brass running interference for her. They’re not too far off and her Phoebe’s detective work brings her even higher up on the totem pole. The very top actually. The Fuhrer himself.

In danger of being ousted in his little arrangement, Captain Pringle starts romancing the congresswoman to keep her off the trail. If the dilemma’s not already obvious, it becomes even clearer in time.

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Unfortunately, A Foreign Affair drags a bit in the middle, and the plot doesn’t always maintain the usual self-assured zip of a typical Wilder picture. There are lulls and distractions, which can be enjoyable in their own right, though hardly bolstering the drama. The core issue is a lack of emotional investment in the characters. I love Jean Arthur to death, but her role flip flops too easily on its axle. Dietrich is striking as she ever was, but, again, she is larger-than-life, while the contours of the role itself feel ill-defined and uninteresting. At the very least, the stars the one making it worth it.

There was some talk that Dietrich got all the attention and the favoritism of from her director. And it’s true that she is beguiling even in this latter portion of her career. Arthur felt undercut. It starts with how the script is laid out. However, as she becomes more daring and uninhibited, one could argue Arthur gets the most out of her performance, even down to her always hilarious facial expressions.

Certainly, the camera loves Marlene Dietrich, her sleepy eyes, the husky yet sensual quality to her singing voice. That was her persona. Still, she’s the one playing mistress to an ex-Nazi so that’s not exactly the most flattering part.

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Consequently, the denouement doesn’t quite sit right with me. It feels like a muddled conclusion where events just happen, winding up in a manner that tacks on a convenient rom-com ending, instead of leaving us with something that feels truly cynical in the vein you grow accustomed to with the director.

What’s most compelling is the intersection of Billy Wilder and the world of post-war Berlin. Others could have told this story, but he seems uniquely positioned to offer a very personal perspective. The curious clashing of his typical tone of trenchant comedy somehow matched with the war-torn panorama. And there are intermittent moments where this is the case.

Namely, how he’s not squeamish about showing the aftermath, nor poking the beehive of Nazism with his stick. In one scene a heel-clacking father is having trouble with his little tyke who can’t stop habitually chalking swastikas on everything. For a brief moment, we are given a reprieve and license to laugh at such a horrible ideology. It’s almost cathartically hilarious.

In another scene, Colonel Plummer notes in passing how there is rubble of all kinds, be it mineral, vegetable, or animal. We know it to be true, but what an opportunity it would have been to see more of it. I’m reminded of the scenes in the Hofbrau with song and dance and cigarette smoke or the bombed-out streets crowded with black marketeering types. I recognize these are spliced together scenes between Berlin and a Hollywood backdrop.

But this is the exact reality that feels like such a ripe birthing ground for Wilder’s comedy. I never thought I’d be the one to say this; the roots of his romantic comedy all but got in the way of what could have been.

3.5/5 Stars