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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

5/5 Stars

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

Bluebeard’s Eighth Wife (1938): Coop and Colbert

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The whole glorious entangled mess of the story feels like an obvious antecedent to Billy Wilder’s Love in the Afternoon (1957), which is one of his lesser films (even with the redeeming presence of both Hepburn and Chevalier). It seems like a fairly obvious observation to make because Wilder deeply admired  Ernst Lubitsch. Love in The Afternoon was an ode to his hero. Although it didn’t quite come off.

I have similar feelings about the screwball comedy Bluebeard’s Eighth Wife (1938). It doesn’t quite gel. But first let’s turn our attention to the illustrious opening gambit which, like many of the great Lubitsch beginnings, is too exquisite to pass up as the dramatic situation is brought to the fore.

Gary Cooper staves off the sales floor spiel of the pertinacious shopkeeper with a touch of Parisian charm. All he wants are pajama tops. No bottoms. But in France, this simply is not done. It’s unheard of. The chain reaction is set off from clerk to head clerk — rushing up the stairs to the manager, regional manager…all the way up the president! In a moment of incredulity, the disgruntled fellow rushes out of bed at the words. He yells, “Communism!” only to reveal he has no bottoms. And we’re hoodwinked from the outset as only Lubitsch could do.

It all amounts to a national calamity. You can just imagine the papers printing up a nice spread on the scandal. But none of this happens thanks to a most propitious solution in the form of a woman; she only requires bottoms for her man. If it’s not apparent already, Billy Wilder and Charles Brackett’s script might as well have written the book on the rom-com meet-cute.

They’ve piqued our interest and pricked up our ears. If nothing else, thanks to some talk of “Czechoslovakia” in the dark. Far from being risque, it’s supposed to be a handy antidote to insomnia.  The man is obliged to the woman, and they go their separate ways.

The story too moves on from a department store to a hotel hallway where Gary Cooper is still being hustled and harried, this time by none other than the perennial Classic Hollywood hotel clerk Franklin Pangborn.

Better still is Edward Everett Horton, the Marquis de Loiselle, a man squatting in the hotel with rent backdated for months. He’s trying to pawn off anything he can to anyone who will bite including Mr. Brandon (Cooper). He’s also connected with the same pair of PJs in another winking Lubitsch touch before the conversation suddenly switches to bathtubs.

If you want to get technical, the pajamas spell it out for him. It’s the reason why he’ll buy the man’s bathtub, already preemptively planning a honeymoon in Czechoslovakia. It’s Lubitsch shorthand for wedding bells. You see, Coop is intent with getting together with Claudette if at all possible, and it is. She’s the marquis’s daughter.

These elements are wonderfully conceived and textbook Lubitsch execution making the most of the script. However, I failed to feel the same way about the entire movie. If you’ll permit me a digression, I recently saw Paris When it Sizzles and there’s no doubt Lubitsch’s film is head and shoulders above the later picture — more lithe and clever at any rate — but there is the same problem at its core.

It ‘s almost counterintuitive to acknowledge this. The premise in each case feels almost too inventive for the story’s own good. However, it’s rather like we are following the mechanisms of a clever bit of story structure instead of really getting to enjoy the out-and-out thrills of romance, be they comedic or overly dramatic.

We never get past the stage of logline, hook, or gimmick into truly uncharted territory where the two characters are allowed space to breathe and do things that feel, well, natural.

The remaining elements are intriguing enough. She finds out he’s been married so often. Thus, Nicole’s ready to call the whole thing off. Instead, she decides to make him suffer. No divorce, just prolonged separation. It galls him to be so close to his wife and yet so far. He mounts an offensive inspired by Shakespeare.

What follows is a barrage of slaps, spankings, and iodine for bite marks. Colbert is able to out duel him with her onion breath — his fatal flaw is that he positively abhors the miserable vegetable. It’s all potentially brilliant stuff and a lot of it truly diverting with David Niven and a private investigator thrown into the mix. However, the pieces somehow don’t fit together in a manner constituting a decisive story, beyond some hilarious premises and snappy dialogue. Rest assured the film has both.

If we’re able to consider where it goes wrong, we can look to Gary Cooper and Claudette Colbert sharing the screen together. There’s no clear antagonism between them per se. Instead of antipathy, they have a kind of anti-chemistry. That is, they’re meant to be opposites. But there must be a sneaking suspicion on the part of the audience that they do really have feelings for one another. At least, this is what all the great screwball comedies of remarriage banked on.

Coop and Colbert never manage the same kind of underlying inertia. I never feel like I’m sitting back and having a grand ol’ time gallivanting through escapades with them. In other words, it’s not quite screwball. That was never the Lubitsch calling card. That’s not what his Touch is about.

Admittedly, I had a similar issue with Design for Living (1933) a film that was quite good on paper (and even in technical conception. The acting talents are to die for. The director one of the greats of visually intuitive comedy. Here we even have a script from Billy Wilder and Charles Brackett.  It all comes to naught if the parts don’t completely mesh.

One idea I would like to court has to do with the point of view of the story. Obviously, Gary Cooper’s our lead, and he’s far from a virtuoso comedic wit. He is a movie star. Still, what is the essence of the story?

Is it about a woman winning her man over under the most absurd circumstances? The Lady Eve did that quite well: Barbara Stanwyck taking in Henry Fonda. But that will never do with Coop (Then, again there is Ball of Fire). He began as our focal point, and he’s the main focus until the end. Even with a straitjacket gag, he gets the final kiss.

Really this should be Colbert’s movie to win over, where we get to cheer her on and relish her amorous conniving. Heaven forbid our leading man be upstaged (Then, again there is Midnight). Instead, Claudette felt like the enemy, a bit annoying, and because Gary’s strung out a laundry list of wives and meets everyone with a scowl and a brusque dismissal, there’s not much to like about him either.

Maybe the film’s take is too modern or my sensibilities not modern enough, but I couldn’t help feeling letdown. I’m not sure if doing a more thorough anatomy of the screenplay will change this, and I’m okay with that. It’s only a shame I don’t like this movie more. I wanted to. At least I know Gary and Claudette won’t hold it against me.

3/5 Stars

Hands Across The Table (1935): MacMurray and Lombard

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Regi Allen (the inimitable Carole Lombard) is a manicurist schlubbing along, working away at people’s cuticles, and jamming away on the subway two times a day. She’s looking for a major catch to grab hold of. Ralph Bellamy is a charming man with money, albeit resigned to a wheelchair.

This could be the perfect start of a rom-com right here. However, in the year 1935, the thought of such a romantic “couple” might have been too startling for conventional Hollywood hegemony. There must be another, and he’s soon introduced.

They meet as he plays indoor hopscotch like a weirdo right outside Mr. Macklyn’s apartment. The face belongs to the most boyish-looking Fred MacMurray I have ever seen. Because again, if you’re doing the math it’s 1935; Disney professorship and My Three Sons fatherhood would be decades in the making.

For the sake of this story, it’s fortuitous he too is another affluent moneybags or at the very least his family name has enough numerals after it to suggest he is a long-time member of the “vieux riche.”

Being an unabashed gold digger, she looks to seek him out even if he is a bit on the odd side. What matters to her is the bottom line. Namely, money. Of course, the perceptive viewer might have already guessed something is amiss here somewhere. There must be a catch or a gag or a complication of some sort.

To put it bluntly, he’s as much of a high roller as she is. Because The Crash conveniently took all his family’s fortunes in its wake. He now might as well be a member of the “new poor” though he still spends money like it grows on trees. To put a positive spin on it, he is radically generous with his capital.

They have a formal dinner date with an entree of the hiccups and onion soup. And their shenanigans continue even as she begrudgingly allows her new confidante to crash on her couch.

Fred is game now because they are actually quite alike — birds of a feather you might say. He does his most uncomfortable impression of a Japanese manservant as he becomes Ms. Allen’s live-in cook trying rather unsuccessfully to whip up dinner.

Imagine my surprise when William Demarest shows up behind the door as a new suitor for Regi. Ted has a ball of a time masquerading as her demonstrative husband scaring off the hapless chap from the adjoining room. Surely neither knew they would be reunited one day on the small screen. It’s a coincidental piece of happenstance only available in hindsight.

In turn, he tells Regi he’s supposed to be in Bermuda by now with his fiancee — an heiress of a pineapple empire — so they pay her a giggly prank call long distance. The way Lombard and MacMurray warm to one another is in one sense lovely but also a bit of a disappointment.

The best sorts of screwball, are the fall apart come back together passionately type of rom-coms involving red hot tension. All the elements are here, even the romantic foils, but for whatever reason, because the characters are so charming — no fault of their own I might add — it winds up being a lightweight iteration of the genre.

It’s funny in starts and spurts but never to the point of fever pitch or raucous absurdity. It’s never really prepared to go the extra mile off the deep end beyond hopscotch, hiccups, and heat lamps. Again, it’s a minor shame, but you also can’t take away from Lombard and MacMurray.

If you’re already a fan, it’s a delightful trifle courtesy of Mitchell Leisen who’s skill with this kind of material is often underrated. For their part, the Lombard-MacMurray partnership birthed three more pictures in rapid succession to meet the public demand.

If you’re like me, you pity Ralph Bellamy as he graciously contents himself playing the matchmaker for the two lovebirds running off into the street looking for the coin they flipped. Heads means they’ll get married. Tails they go out to lunch. The giddy couple instigates a traffic jam just to find out and wouldn’t you know it, the coin stands on end in a manhole cover. Ah, love. How sweet it is.

3.5/5 Stars

Theodora Goes Wild (1936): Irene Dunne The Comedienne

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The Lynfield Bugle, led by their fearless leader Jed Waterbury (Thomas Mitchell), keeps their nose to the proverbial grindstone printing the news as it happens in “The Biggest Little Town in Connecticut.”

Their latest act of rebellion constitutes printing a spread from the latest lurid bestseller from author Caroline Adams. It causes quite the to-do in such a proper, God-fearing community.

Because it’s true Lynfield has all the customary facets of a town its size, including emblematic moral watchdogs such as Rebecca Perry (Spring Byington), a key member in the Lynfield Literary Circle, the key force in swaying public opinion and consequently, keeping the town’s gossip in a state of constant flux. Rebecca just happens to be the most insufferable of them all.

With their mouths, they openly condemn Adam’s latest piece of titillating prose as they secretly relish its vivid detailings of passionate romance. One of their younger members, who sits zealously by, next to her two austere aunties (Elisabeth Risdon & Margaret McWade), is Theodora Lynn (Irene Dunne). She’s a devoted Sunday School teacher and plays the organ at church on a weekly basis.

Theodora also has a secret in the form of a pen name and a mendacious life as a writer, although that is rather harsh because this is Irene Dunne we’re talking about in a generally raucous screwball comedy. You see, she is the one and only Caroline Adams!

Her Uncle John is the so-called black sheep of the family (Robert Grieg) because he escaped the puritanical lives of his sisters for a much more “worldly” life in the city. He’s a jolly fellow and with a twinkle in his eye, he believes Theodora to be different. There’s still hope for her yet.

In fact, she has a streak in her that old Uncle John might just be downright proud of. It’s a decent streak mind you — helping a young woman be with her husband and setting her up with her job — but it’s the kind of activity people back home might turn their nose at. This all happens as she makes a meeting with her publisher incognito to talk business as part of her double life.

Although he does his best to keep her under wraps, that miracle elixir: whiskey has a habit of loosening the tongue. Their prying dinner companions are fascinated by the very contradictory nature of her character. Among them is a wry ne-er-do-well, Michael Grant (Melvyn Douglas). Soon the small-town gal finds herself in a fairly big city situation, in Grant’s bachelor pad, with deeply comic underpinnings.

Of course, nothing happens at first. That is until Theodora, that is Caroline Adams, has her cover blown — an old friend wanders through town quite by chance, with a furry companion Jake. He railroads his way into the aunties’ shed as a gardener and quickly sets up shop. As he sees it, he’s her deliverance from the clutches of her town, and he gleefully whistles his way into her life, tearing up their gardens backward and forwards.

She has very little in the form of a rebuttal aside from retaliating through a song of her own, “Be Still My Heart” through gritted teeth. This could be the end of the movie right there or else it wouldn’t have enough gas to wheeze its way to the finish. In this specific moment, it’s not what I would term a screwball in the strictest sense though, it does have a feel of some of the Loy and Powell comedies of the same vintage. Be it Libeled Lady, Love Crazy, or I Loved You Again.

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Mervyn Douglas often feels like a version of Powell I don’t take a shining too quite as much. He has a similar playful banter at his disposal, even mustachioed good looks, but it doesn’t tickle the fancy in the same way — at least for me.

Irene Dunne, of course, in her first foray into out-and-out comedy is exquisite, although she would continue to up the ante with the likes of The Awful Truth, arguably her best film and the finest pairing she ever had with Cary Grant (or anyone for that matter).

But we must attend to this story because it doesn’t end right off, instead, it turns the tale on its head and once Theodora has been handily liberated of her small-town’s repressiveness, it gives her the freedom to have a go at Michael. Because it turns out they’re not all that different. He needs his own push of encouragement.

Instead of church choirs, temperance, and women’s book clubs, it involves high society, governorships, and public appearances. His father expects him to keep out of the newspapers and remain married to his estranged wife — at least until the public office is secured. Meanwhile, Michael becomes unhappier by the hour.

Dunne takes the movie by the horns now and truly kicks it into overdrive right when it could use a good jolt. The way she trollops and sashays around, first through her lover’s bachelor pad, and then making her way up the totem pool on the dance floor, with her new pal the governor, is the picture of jovial inhibition. She redefines our perceptions and the underlining dynamics of the movie shift wildly — and humorously — as a result of her antics.

She goes back to her publisher in fancy new duds absolutely gobsmacking him as she proceeds to drum up all the publicity she possibly can. Theodora Lynn is going to become a household name. Accordingly, she gets the newsboys in her corner, and they go to great lengths to help her (and themselves).

Soon she’s plastered over the front pages, and the ever-fastidious Bugle gets the scoop out. Like clockwork, the town is shaken into an uproar, and it even reaches the upper echelons too as Michael gets dragged into it. What a beautiful mess; just what the movie required to spruce it up. Theodora’s making waves like never before.

The key is how Dunne always has a firm handle on everything — turning the sass on and off as needed — she knows what she’s doing. Whereas other heroines are often dizzy and ditzy, like frantic hurricanes of passion and emotion, she’s probably the most controlled of all of them even as she does bring her own “wildness” to the party.

What’s even more hilarious is watching public opinion rise up like wildfire and turn in her favor. She gets as good a homecoming as the war heroes in Hail The Conquering Hero a few years down the line. All her decency and newfound transparency are met with affection.

By now, she’s harnessed the power of her neighborhood and finds a way to be a beacon of change in an uproarious manner with a romance to complement the major strides in her personal life.

As such, Theodora Goes Wild becomes a surprisingly pointed (and poignant) portrait of a young woman casting off the shackles of religious hypocrisy, societal repression, and general small-mindedness, all conveniently wrapped up in a quasi-screwball, rom-com format.

3.5/5 Stars

La Visita (1963): Commedia all’italiana and The Human Heart

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The premise of The Visitor is born in a rapid succession of images and shots. It’s a meet-cute correspondence so-to-speak as an attractive young woman venturing into her 30s looks to find an eligible man to invite into her home on some kind of ill-defined get-to-know-you basis.

It would not be possible without an advert in a newspaper fishing for a husband who meets certain basic qualifications. It’s not quite a blind date, but it might as well be. It somehow feels akin to the hook-up, internet, online dating culture we are awash in during the 21st century. At least, this is the 1960s alternative.

But lest one gets the wrong impression, it also feels a bit like 84 Charing Cross Road, except there is no pretense of books. They’re two lonely people looking to get together with someone for the sake of companionship. If they’ve read the Good Book, they know it’s not good for man (or woman) to be alone.

The pretty single woman, Pina, waits for the train from Rome bringing her mystery man. Sandra Milo though still her beautiful self all but transforms into a different woman than most are normally accustomed from her in anything from the director’s earlier Andua or Fellini’s 8 1/2.

If you’ve seen anything from Divorce Italian Style to Two Women, you might not be totally surprised (or scandalized) by the misogyny, but somehow it never feels right because it reflects the lustful intent in the collective hearts of men. It’s not the actions that are most troubling; it is what they suggest about society-at-large. When the colloquial name for someone is “Miss Booty,” you realize the seat of the issue.

Because as Pina brings this bookish-looking fellow named Adolfo (Francois Perier) back to her humble abode, the cringe-worthy gaze of the camera — his gaze — continues to dictate the picture. What we have before us is obviously in the mode of so-called “Commedia all’italianaor “comedy the Italian way.”

It’s the Italian spin on the sex comedy, which in Hollywood would look a bit more like Pillow Talk or at the very least Buona Sera Mrs. Campbell. And yet unlike Hollywood, there seems to be little narrative drive. The picture is contented to amble along, which can be both its greatest blessing and a defining curse.

At its best, it casts a sardonic eye at the fragilities and flaws running deep within Italian culture and certainly all its romantic dalliances. But there is a fine line between reveling in the passionate desires and simultaneously trivializing this pervasive trend in society.  There’s an effort to try and smooth it over with humor.

The quirks are present in full force. A parrot sounding unmistakably like Donald Duck and a turtle named Consuelo. Local weirdos abound including an oafish peasant ready to throw jealous temper tantrums and get any sort of rise out of the visiting Roman that he can.

Throughout their courtship, recollections coming stream back whether it’s work — the purportedly well-off bookkeeper is actually hated by his boss. They’ve also maintained relationships in a laundromat and with an itinerant truck driver, respectively, never quite finding time to talk about their former lovers. Perhaps it just slips their minds…

Dinner provides another telling arena. As the man gets more comfortable with himself, we begin to see a bit more of who he is, especially piggish, gobbling away at her dinner and relishing in all the gluttony before him to satiate his appetite. Likewise, there’s the youthful siren (Angela Minervini) tugging at him, reminiscent of Marcello’s desires for Stefania Sandrelli in Divorce Italian Style.

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Except there’s no lacquered pretense of suavity or manners —  not really. The pudgy face, bespectacled lout is precisely that and his interactions with the flaunting girl prove painful to watch. This relationship with Chiaretta comes to a head at a gathering outdoors where all the teens and adults mingle over dance. The wheels fall off the cart. Pina is hurt and feels betrayed by her now uninhibited man. It doesn’t come out immediately. Still, it’s there.

Eventually, she lashes out at him, for his arrogance, his treatment of animals, and of people, including herself. She has a point, and don’t get me wrong; he’s completely deserving of her wrath. But if he gets berated, I might be deserving of a few choice words along with most everyone else. He woefully admits that this is what happens to one living alone. We cannot condone his behavior. It’s a sorry excuse and yet…the harrowing thing is how mundane he is in his substandard treatment of others.

Can we conveniently write them off as lonely, insignificant people trying to get by in the world? I’m not sure. Will we enter the insidious gray area of writing off his behavior or condoning it? It’s possible. I didn’t enjoy being subjected to the utter pitifulness of it all and I’m not sure if I’m ready to admit seeing some of their qualities reflected right back at me. We are not immune to the loneliness they feel. We see all their defects.  Can we acknowledge our own?

This final question remains: Will they find their happiness or live a life weighed down by this sense of miserable drudgery? Redemption begins with not simply a change of actions but a change in heart. It always strikes me Italian-style comedy rarely seems possible without some manifestation of human tragedy. There’s no more human way to grapple with our own boorishness, our own misapprehensions, and our own inadequacies.

3/5 Stars

Go West (1925): Keaton & His Cow

320px-Keaton_Go_West_1925“Go West Young Man. Go West.” – Horace Greeley

I had to refresh my memory on Horace Greeley because he’s as much a mythic figure — supreme champion of manifest destiny — as he is a mere historical figure. During the mid-19th century, he was a sometime political statesman and most famous as the founder of The New York Tribune, a purveyor of public consciousness in its day.

Thus, it’s not too big of a hop, skip, and jump into Buster Keaton’s latest feature indebted to Greeley, if only for these very few words. Because the opening image gives a summation of our hero’s lot in life, tugging his heap of personal belongings into The General Store in order to hock them for all they’re worth.

A hunk of bread and a stick of salami are all he has to show for his possessions and armed with such measly goods, he hitches aboard a train to seek his fortune. The Big City isn’t much good to him, where he’s literally trampled by the sheer mass of humanity or almost being run over by automobiles.

So he pulls himself back into his train car with his meager morsel of bread, this time buried in barrels of potatoes all but taunting his cravings for further sustenance. But the cinema fates take control and send him flying down the hillside so he might come face-to-face with The West, no doubt fashioned more by nascent Hollywood than any orations of Horace Greeley.

The juxtaposition of the typically diminutive Keaton as a cowhand is a hilarious image in itself, both mentally and in the flesh. He takes the most hands-off approach to milking a cow, waiting for the gal to do her business only to sit idly by, perplexed by the lack of results.

I couldn’t help thinking of Keaton as the first city slicker, and yet what sets him apart is the fact he’s not quite adjusted in the city either. He’s just universally out of place because every place has new obstacles to handily trip him up. And he makes sure to play them up so we comprehend exactly how inadequate and outmatched he seems compared to his contemporaries.

The greatest piece of inspiration found within the usual western tropes is Buster’s dearest friend, “Brown Eyes,” the lady cow. In actuality, the actor trained with the bovine extensively to build an authentic rapport, and it’s true his love has easily attributed anthropomorphic qualities. After all, as human beings, we are able to do it with almost anything.

She waits outside for him like a trained puppy dog and even wanders into the bunkhouse to look around. The film might even be prefaced as a love story between a man and his cow. Still, it’s not merely a comic point of departure. Is it corny to admit Keaton does honestly and resolutely love that cow? I think not.

He’s dwarfed by everyone, be it man or beast, but he’s got his typical fortitude and surprisingly plucky ingenuity. The little pipsqueak with a pea shooter, perpetually tripping over his chaps, brings his unorthodox form to all facets of livestock and farming. Meanwhile Go West gladly takes on all manner of tropes. You have elements of The Virginian (originally a book from 1902 and a film in 1929), The Great Train Robbery, and undoubtedly a host of other passable references I’m unaware of.

Likewise, the trail of cattle following him into the town’s center predates the brides from Seven Chances. It turns out he’s more of a cow whisperer than a cow wrangler, and the little man takes it upon himself to herd the stock to get them to his boss’s appointment on the other side of town.

The crowning moment occurs when he dresses up in a devil’s suit, even forsaking his beloved pork pie hat, knowing the red will lead the cattle away from the terrified humanity toward their final destination. It’s his final act of sacrificial bravery for his best gal. Staying true to its own internal logic as opposed to genre convention, Buster winds up with his true love — two peas in a pod, driving off into the sunset, as it were.

It’s common to consider the big three of silent comedy in tandem because it provides some litmus for differentiating their individual personalities. Chaplin makes us sympathetic to his poverty, Lloyd to his nerdish looks, but Keaton just might be the most fundamental in many ways. He’s always the slightly-built, mess-up, and outsider. He gains our sympathy by always being physically (and visually) outmatched. To evoke a biblical allusion, he is carved out of the small-but-mighty David archetype.

I won’t say the film is totally without its visual innovations — as per usual — but it probably dips more into the pathos trough than we are accustomed to with “The Great Stone Face.” There’s no confusing Robert Bresson and Buster. Still, I couldn’t help but be reminded of Au Hasard Balthazar. For those who recollect, it’s about the life of a donkey in the French countryside, who almost becomes a Christ-like sacrificial lamb even as he strikes up a meaningful human friendship.

In fact, I’m inclined to think in this case that Buster Keaton never had a better costar. With Chaplin, it’s easy to recall the likes of Paulette Goddard, Edna Purviance, even Eric Campbell, but Keaton always strikes me as a solitary figure. Certainly, there are girls and female companionship (take Our Hospitality or Seven Chances, etc.), but he never feels tied to someone else. Even in these aforementioned offerings, the romance feels more like a function of the plot than actual bona fide romantic drama. Because that is his lot in life.

Thus, when he gets to ride off happily with someone who might intuitively understand him better than any human companion, it’s a surprisingly resonate happy ending, going beyond perceived comic value. Somehow, with Buster Keaton’s conception of comedic narrative space, it makes perfect sense that Greeley’s entreaty to “go west” would manifest itself in a romance with a cow, but in the most sincere manner. This is the key.

4/5 Stars

Steamboat Bill Jr. (1928): Buster Keaton The Human Tumbleweed

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Whatever your thoughts on silent movies, be it based on misinformation, overt loathing, or verging on utter veneration, one has to admit there’s something to the simplicity of these films. And by simplicity, I’m referring to the construction of their stories. They rarely seem to get bogged down by detail. In fact, one could argue they’re at their best on this relatively basic plane. If you’re skeptical, you can call them tropes, maybe archetypes. Regardless, they tap into something universal, even primal.

Steamboat Bill Jr. is a prime case study for what I’m considering. It’s a riverboat tale setting up a conflict between two families overlaid by a Romeo & Juliet romance and spiced up all together by its secret weapon and the main attraction: Buster Keaton.

The shoddy but well-loved Stonewall Jackson is another relic of the Confederacy, not unlike Keaton’s prized train in The General. In this case, it’s run by a grizzled veteran of the waters who is about to be pushed out by steep competition. His rival, too, is symbolic as the industrial-era magnate taking over the waterways to go with his hotels and other ancillary attractions. There’s also nothing subtle about his name: King.

The next development is about as absurd as you can get. The steamboat’s captain gets word his son is arriving from boarding school to assist him. He hasn’t seen the lad since infancy and expects a big strapping fellow — not unlike himself. Set up by a prolonged “white carnation gag” full of misidentification, he winds up with timid, squat Buster Keaton to call son. This shrinking schoolboy is a far cry from what he hoped for, and he’s a bit begrudging.

Their ensuing trip to a hat store not only records the contemporary culture’s affinity for a different brand of headwear but also manages to sneak in a nod to Keaton’s ubiquitous pork pie. He slips it off quickly as if afraid someone might recognize him and cause him to break character.

The paces to follow are not surprising. His beautiful and vivacious school chum is the daughter of King. They hold a puppy-like love for one another even as their fathers continue to feud. Just to make ourselves clear, none of this matters all that much.

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The secret to Keaton is his innate understanding of the visual gag that could make his brand of comedy funny and, as a result, his stoic everyman too. Stretched out on a plank between two boats — trying to cloak himself in darkness — there’s a shot of King’s boat, and we know they will be lurching forward as they tug at the ropes. He’s going to end up in the drink.

But of course, that doesn’t happen. At least not immediately — his weight perfectly balanced so he juts out on the board like a cantilever, seemingly oblivious of how close he came. So unaware in fact, he tumbles in seconds later. It plays with our perceptions in the most fundamental ways. With irony at his disposal, he milks the laugh and makes it something more compelling and lasting, even to the point of its foregone conclusion.

Later, he raids the rival riverboat in pursuit of his love as his father’s own pride and joy is subsequently decommissioned. His feud with King is exacerbated, and he gets slammed with time in the clink for defying the law.

All these beats are again mundane. They don’t tell us much nor surprise our expectations. Fortuitously, inclement weather comes and Keaton is once more provided a whirling dervish of natural disasters to carry him away in the throes of comedy. Again, this all continues functioning in spite of the story.

Because I’ve dealt with typhoons before first hand — umbrellas upturned in an instant — but this is ridiculous. It defies logic, mass, and normal feats of human ingenuity, but those are the riches of the moviemaking industry and Keaton’s comedy, as facades of entire buildings topple around the human tumbleweed.

He’s whisked away on hovering beds, which might as well be a transplanted flying carpet from Arabian Nights, leading into one of his most iconic and death-defying setups. Again, the visual has primacy, and it works on principles as old as time. We crave security. We fear harm and dismemberment. In all his pluckiness, Keaton takes them on and somehow prevails.

There are a couple moments where it’s like he’s literally suspended in air, fighting against the wind to stand upright, until he’s forced to split the difference. Also, true to form, he uses what feels like a few vaudevillian sleights of hand, supplied by curtains, trapped doors, and a nack for all things physical.

What I admire about Keaton is how he manages to do things that still take the breath away even if only for an instant. He is a bit of a magician and yet he lets us in on the tricks, and he lets the audience take part in them with him — to think we know more than him — and then he proceeds to still pull one over on us.

Even if his character is unwitting, somehow his body and he, as an entity, always seem to know just the right step or movement; it’s just idiosyncratic enough to work in the scenario so he comes out on the other side all in one piece.

When he finally takes command of the ship hopping to and fro, scurrying there, yanking this cord here, it feels like Buster Keaton at the height of his powers, and it shows how this scrawny little guy could be so resourceful on his feet.

Mind you, it’s not just a matter of our story’s hero coming into his own, but it’s a practical expression of the actor’s own prowess — he is an unswerving force of nature packed into what might seem to be a slight frame. He really and truly is a marvel. Because “The Great (Wet) Stone Face” transcends Steamboat Bill Jr. In fact, he is Steamboat Bill Jr. The movie as well as the man.

4.5/5 Stars