Cesar et Rosalie (1972)

It occurs to me that the title Cesar et Rosalie is a rather peculiar choice for this movie. However, it’s also very pointed. If Jules et Jim was about two friends caught in a ceaselessly complicated love affair with one woman (Jeanne Moreau), then here is a story shifting the focus just slightly. This time it is Romy Schneider caught between two suitors.

It opens with two men who both were coupled with the unseen woman named Rosalie. Formerly she was with a handsome comic book artist, but before they could ever get around to marriage (what would have been her second), she ended up with a middle-aged scrap metal man (Yves Montand). He’s quite successful in his trade while maintaining a penchant for gambling.

Whether it’s solely because they are represented by creative types, it feels like there’s a kind of vacuity about the younger generation. Yves Montand, now there is a man with something interesting about him. After doing some digging, I found out he was actually Italian by birth though thanks to his music and acting, he became synonymous with French cinema. Films like Wages of Fear and Le Cercle Rouge work in a pinch. He’s one of France’s indelible faces, and here he is another character with a lumbering larger-than-life posture.

Both a bit of an overgrown baby and a gregarious teddy bear. He can be found smoking his cigars and establishing himself as the life of the party. He loves to vocalize, and in contrast to his rivals, there’s something refreshing about his blustering style. You know what you’re getting.

In comparison, I’m less inclined to be infatuated with any semblance of the bourgeoise milieu as embodied by David (Sami Frey). This might be a poor descriptor because he’s only a comic book artist, albeit a very successful one. But there’s a detached, casual air about him that feels far more refined. It lacks all of the volatile personality exhibited by Cesar. If I speak for myself, Cesar seems like one of the common men.

However, right about now it’s worthwhile to acknowledge a handful of his shortcomings. He’s quite petty and jealous for the affection of Rosalie. In one instance, his childish antics and brazen show of bravado leave them idling in the underbrush at the side of the road. In the aftermath of a convivial wedding party, a game of chicken ensues between him and David becoming a portent for future drama.

Although he and Rosalie have been together for some time, and they have a contentment between them, there is still this lingering sense of individuality. Rosalie is a mother. She has been married before and maintains her own independence. She remains with Cesar mostly because she wants to be, at least for now. That could easily change, and, eventually, it does. Her whims make her alight once more for David because his quiet charms have not atrophied with time. She feels the electricity between them still.

At the midpoint, the picture hits the skids. Cesar’s ugly underbelly comes alive as his transgressions and jealousy take over. He acts as if he owns Rosalie and in one harrowing scene practically throws her out the front door. He’s a wounded brute prone to violence. There’s no way to condone his behavior even as it reflects the toxic social mores of the era (or many eras).

But of course, he can never forget her. He feels lost without her and so he resolves to find her with David. He tracks them out to their beach getaway but instead of coming to have it out once and for all, Cesar returns sheepishly with his tails between his legs. He’s paid for the damages he inflicted, and Rosalie looks over his sorry figure and can hardly contain her amusement.

It’s moments such as these where it becomes apparent how the movie is mostly able to coast on the goodwill of its stars and their various romantic dalliances. Initially, it feels like Romy Schneider spends a great deal of time in the kitchen grabbing drinks and making coffee for her man. However, she’s also a keen observer of male anthropology.

Like Moreau before her, she really does play the deciding part in this film. As much as it seems framed by the male perspective, though our title subjects have shifted slightly, Rosalie does hold a great deal of sway in the story. It does feel like these men need her more than she needs them or, at the very least, she is not willing to settle into this kind of relaxed equilibrium where they exist in a menage a trois without the intimacy.

Is it wrong to consider this the most French of romantic setups? It becomes plainly apparent that this is never just a film about Cesar and Rosalie. There must be parentheses or ampersand including David tacked on the end (or any other love interest for that matter). The film is far more crowded and complicated than a mere romance actuated by two solitary human beings with Sautet crowding the canvas and relational networks of the film with so many ancillary swatches of life.

Although it feels like it’s not about very much, Sautet is able to hone in on this core relationship and tease out both the comedic eccentricities found therein while still leaving us with this kind of wistful resolution. It’s not a tragedy in the same way Truffaut managed when he detonated Jules et Jim, but it leaves us with that sense of regret that love often conjures up in the human heart.

All these characters could have done things differently to patch things up, to stay together, and earn the Hollywoodesque ending. However, what leaves an impression is this kind of pensive anticlimax. It’s a lighter touch than The Things of Life or Max and The Junkman, even as it might owe something to Lubitsch.

3.5/5 Stars

Les Choses de la Vie (1970)

I’m not sure if director Claude Sautet was just never esteemed enough by the cineastes of his day to receive his due, but the string of pictures he made with the likes of Michel Piccoli and Romy Schneider feel worthy of further, more stringent consideration.

What becomes evident is this kind of prevailing melancholy about his films with fated lovers or destined tragedies all but ready to be searched out. Les Choses de la Vie opens with a scenario that would be quick to tap into the minds of any filmgoer wary of the Nouvelle Vague’s most prominent iconoclast. By that, I mean the living legend, Jean-Luc Godard.

Here a rolling tire sets the stage for a Weekend-like pileup. This one was caused by a collision: a man blazing down the country road doing everything in his power to miss a stalling truck. While this event might provide what feels like an excuse for a dramatic movie, the core of The Things of Life is far more intimate. Some might say it’s stereotypically French: a movie concerned with amour. So be it.

We get a sense of Pierre’s life, past and present, without everything being conveniently spelled out for us. It’s made plain by how people look at one another — how they fill up the space with a shared familiarity. He is now with Helene Haltig (Romy Schneider). You can see the affection with which he gazes at her as she taps away at her typewriter after getting out of bed.

All the allure of Schneider is right there on her face, tucked behind her glasses, as if an instant reminder of why she’s remained such a lasting icon in cinema the world over. A premature end often has a way of canonizing people for posterity, but we cannot sell her short. This has little relevance here. Her vibrance is undeniable on its own merit.

Pierre loves Helene even as he maintains an amicable, if aloof, relationship with Catherine, his former wife. Over a lifetime, they have shared and shared alike in business, with their kids, and through a vacation getaway on Re Island. There’s still a sense that they are fond of one another. Perhaps time has moved on or maybe they regret their choices. For now, it is what it is.

If Pierre is the protagonist, one would be remiss not to mention the palpable distances between father and sons, be it real or imagined. He grapples with his own father, a spirited fellow who hardly seems like the paternal type, and then there’s his own boy who’s growing up fast into a man with his own ambitions. As much as he wants to rekindle their relationship, it does feel like he hardly knows him now.

It’s this very same inkling, a longing for connection that causes him to agree to a trip to the family isle. Of course, it conflicts with his business arrangements in Tunis and the future plans he already worked out with Helene. Their romantic dinner together becomes deflated having lost all the life that was there before. The wine is spilled.

What’s next can only be a wordless car ride. He rolls down the window to toss out his latest cigarette and to keep from suffocating in the silence. Then, he clicks on the radio to fill the void between them. That too gets thwarted. They look to be doomed.

If it’s not evident already, time is allowed a level of fluidity rather reminiscent of Stanley Donen’s Two For The Road even as we motor toward the inevitable — a car wreck and what feels like romantic dissolution. Like its predecessor, the musical accents accentuate the mood. This time it’s not Henry Mancini but Philippe Sarde’s languishing score that is always available, softly plinking away in the background

In fact, it has its own wedding scene — Piccoli observes the giddy guests as they scramble toward a white banquet table set for a feast. He’s a man who’s been all but consigned to his car, smoking cigarettes, and this one exuberant display, far from earning his contempt, provides a seedling of hope…

Then it happens. I need not systematically go through all the gory details. However, in the end, there Pierre is lying on the ground thrown from his decimated automobile at the side of the road in the grass somewhere. It’s an almost out-of-body experience as the world swirls by him, and he exists in his thoughts and his memories.

The motion of the world around him carries on, whether it’s onlookers coming to see the wreckage or the body, then an ambulance comes to rush him to the hospital as the rain starts pouring down. Catherine gets the news and Helene comes rushing to his side too…

The Things of Life is constructed in such an inevitable way, but somehow it’s still entrancing, this sense of moroseness and the elasticity of time in the service of one man’s romantic memories. It’s built around melodrama, yes, but with a very specific bent, totally mechanized, and stylized in such a way as to supply the desired effect. And rather than the Sirkian school of high camp, it seems to hewn closer to the path of John Stahl.

In other words, Sautet, in some ways sucks much of the typical theatrics out of the storyline, or at least they do not seem to be his primary concern. What we are left with is this pervasive sense of lasting melancholy, and it’s a powerful emotive force that would hold over to his next picture together with the same primary players: Max and The Junkmen.

4/5 Stars

Scaramouche (1952)

Like many of the archetypal tales of literature or film, Scaramouche is a story of the aristocrats warring against the common man or closer still the common man throwing off the shackles placed upon him by his oppressor.

The dynamic is spelled out in an early scene as that ill-fated debutante (Nina Foch) enlists the help from behind parlor room doors of her dear cousin, the Marquis de Maynes (Mel Ferrer), to find the infernal insubordinate “Marcus Brutus.” The vagrant had the unthinkable gall to litter her very own palace with his pamphlets.

It’s easy to get distracted by the period elegance leftover from the MGM of the late 30s and 40s. The movie wears its opulence well and thankfully there’s a worthy story to prop it up and give it the heartbeat of humor and substance. Although we are on the eve of The French Revolution, this acts as merely a backdrop. As is usually the case, the story is made far more personal.

This could very easily be the story of a rebellious pamphleteer and his loyal compatriot sticking it to the bourgeoisie. However, the young upstart Philippe (Richard Anderson) is killed by the sword at the hands of the lethal Marquis, and now his companion Andre Moreau (Stewart Granger) vows to seek revenge. In fact, his story from thenceforward is driven by an all-consuming personal vendetta.

Janet Leigh, on her part, is a virginal beauty brimming with a poised elegance. She’s crucial to this story as the queen’s ward and a chosen companion for the Marquis. However, kismet means she also shares a fondness for Andre after a chance encounter by the roadside. Suddenly our two men are tied perilously close together.  Still, there must be time for amusement.

Stewart Granger takes to the part with ease, and it plays to his finest attributes as a leading man. But he’s also able to have a bit of fun donning the visage of Scaramouche the masked jester, a perfect disguise and also a way to cast himself in the likeness of all the great vagabond heroes of Hollywood lore, whether they be Robin Hood or Francois Villon.

Eleanor Parker is vivid and fierce with fiery red hair and passionate jealousies befitting a person of her ilk. She bursts on the screen with an untameable beauty trampling after her love on stage, with all manner of blunt instruments, and malice in her heart. However, he’s the one who plucks her out of the arms of matrimony only to receive her continual ire and consternation in return. It’s only one of the fires lit under the movie.

The bursting palette of the picture and its sense of comic pageantry onstage cannot help but elicit comparisons to Kiss Me Kate. The adaptation of Taming of the Shrew was a musical, yes, but also directed by the very same George Sidney.

Sidney himself felt this material was ready-made for musical treatment. I’m not too familiar with Granger’s singing prowess, but I’m rather partial to how the story develops and part of that might be the dearth of modern swashbucklers. There’s something so invigorating about them even to this day, and the spectacle of the film fails to disappoint. And if Sidney was at all disappointed by the results, he only had to wait a year to get his musical.

What becomes apparent about Scaramouche is how it ably fluctuates between two tones to fit its two divergent worlds. At one time, Andre finds himself dabbling in the royal courts as a traitor and wanted man, sharing covert rendezvous with the pure-hearted Aline de Gavrillac (Leigh). Then, in subsequent moments, he’s the larger-than-life theater vagabond caught up in a perpetual game of stagebound slapstick and ferocious cat and mouse with his most favored acting partner.

However, he also has time to take on a new hobby as he endeavors to become a master swordsman, man enough to take on the Marquis. When the time comes, he takes the troupe to the big stage and bright lights of Paris though he maintains his ulterior motives.

In the name of his good friend, he takes up the mantle of the common man in the national assembly. He handily whittles down the list of deputies who all insult his character for the chance at a duel. Of course, there’s only one name he waits to cross swords against — and it’s the one name he has yet to face.

You see, the two women in his life conspire to keep them apart and, for the time being, keep Andre safe. Alas, they cannot stave off the confrontation forever; it’s an inevitable development. They meet at the theater of all places.

The final rousing show of swordplay has to be one of the finest displays I’ve witnessed in some time. Between Granger’s moderate background and Ferrer’s grace as a dancer, they make the choreography pulse-pounding and totally enthralling while their venue brings in a novel element.

All the spectators rush around as haphazard collateral damage as they thrust and parry their way across the balcony, down the steps, into the first-floor theater seats, and then finally up on the stage. It’s not just a sword fight; it feels like a whole movement with a beginning, middle, and end that plays out in front of us.

It ends with almost an anticlimax and a twist that initially seems to take away from the story, although it just might add one more feather in the movie’s cap. The only matter left to parse through is probably the most important or at least the most troubling. Which leading lady shall our leading man choose? Although they come from two different strata of society, they both boast an embarrassment of riches. In the end, he takes Janet Leigh.

It’s easily forgivable and Eleanor Parker gets the last laugh on him, not to mention a new man on her arm, all but waiting in the wings to tear France a new one. Who needs a strapping vagabond swordsman, when she winds up with one of the greatest military minds of all time? This touch of conclusive irony summarizes Scaramouche at its very best. It manages to harness the drama while never losing its romantic sense of adventure and unadulterated good humor.

4/5 Stars

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

4/5 Stars

Ladies They Talk About (1933): Starring Barbara Stanwyck

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

3.5/5 Stars

What Price Hollywood? (1932): Starring Constance Bennett

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

4/5 Stars

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

3.5/5 Stars

Of Human Bondage (1934): Bette Davis Ascends

“There’s usually one who loves and one who is loved.”

Philip Carey (Leslie Howard) is a sympathetic man who made a go at an artist’s life in Paris. However, a mentor tells him to move on; worse than a failure, he’s a mediocre talent. Although he has the industry, he lacks the genius, so he resolves to devote himself to something else: pursuing medicine like his father before him. It also constitutes a move back to his native London in the process.

Although it has nothing to do with his individual strength of character, wherever he goes in society at large, he is forever marked by his club foot. His history of rejection sets the stage for the story at hand. Of Human Bondage is based on W. Somerset Maugham’s partially autobiographical novel from 1915. I know little about its source material, but the film obviously does condense the narrative and hone in on one relationship in particular.

On the behest of a medical school colleague, they strike up a conversation with an “anemic” waitress (Bette Davis) at a local tea room. There’s a shrill, hard edge to her — denoting the lower classes — and she wears a tough exterior. Howard’s corners are rounded and refined in comparison.

Davis uses certain ticks to her advantage, for instance, how she always tilts her head from side to side. She’s proud and aloof in spite of her upbringing. Philip gives her a playful going over, and yet can’t stop thinking about her. She holds a power over him.

After only one encounter he’s completely smitten, asking her out to the theater, then dinner, while she barely gives him the time of day. Her ploy is to keep him at arm’s length accepting his requests for companionship, even as she keeps company with other men (including Alan Hale).

For those who have been in love, it’s the greatest disappointment when feelings are not reciprocated. She becomes his mind’s primary obsession during medical examinations, totally commandeering his life. He is only a passing fancy for her. Nothing more. Given the circumstances, his hopeless devotion toward her can only end in one way: heartbreak. What’s worse than having it happen once, is the cycle continuing over and over again.

Because she tells him more than once, that she’ll never love him; they have no future together. She goes off and marries something else, only to get thrown back out on the street. Philip finds himself taking her in out of pity because her husband dumps her, and she has an infant child to care for.

Although he’s not well-off, he still extends his hospitality to her even as it scourges him to have her in his space. He knows he cannot give himself over to her again. It would only torment him more.

Even as his medical career progresses and he finds another woman, a decent woman, and one who genuinely loves him, the pull of Mildred is too great. Not that he loves her, but she is in need of someone, someone to have mercy and give her shelter to provide for her child. As there is no one else, it falls on Philip.

Thankfully, there are a few bright spots in his life. One of his patients (Reginald Owen) is a particularly jovial chap who welcomes him into his home after he’s received a good bill of health and even introduces his beautiful daughter (Frances Dee) to the eligible bachelor.

Mildred continues to be the noose slowly tightening around Philip’s neck. Despite all the generosity he’s shown her, she ultimately lashes out at him with a vindictive fury, trashing his apartment and desecrating the paintings he has cherished for so long. But he is a changed man and as Mildred sinks back into the gutter, he continues to rise out of it.

We have a budding love story on our hands and in the company of Thorpe Athelny (Owen) and his daughter Sally, Philip cultivates a life-giving bond with the makings of a happy ending. Suddenly, all the former heartaches and woes have passed away, and Philip is blessed with a new life. Mildred is not so lucky…

Leslie Howard is an able performer and his talents probably get overshadowed a bit today due to playing a supporting role in Gone With the Wind and dying so tragically during WWII. But in a picture such as Of Human Bondage, he exemplifies both a sensitivity of spirit and a capacity for love. Frances Dee holds what might be considered a token role, but she’s teeming with beauty opposite him as one of the unsung starlets of the decade.

However, as you might have guessed, there is no considering this picture in its full breadth without considering Bette Davis’s performance. In hindsight, it’s fascinating to think about how some of the greatest stars made their ascensions. If the role of Mildred acts as an inflection point for Davis, then it’s quite an extraordinary anomaly for the era, but also a stunning showcase.

In some way, Mildred runs very radically against the tide of the times — not the victim but the aggressor — and a femme fatale before they were thoroughly popularized by noir in forthcoming decades

We must marvel at the courage and foresight of Davis to fight for the part, to go at it wholeheartedly, and willingly play a so-called undesirable, unglamorous character. Because she realized in all the mess, all the vulnerability, there is a character worth considering. Frankly, she feels human and honest though we do see her most petty and debased inclinations. This is precisely the point. The actress’s own words do much to color her appreciation of the characterization:

“My understanding of Mildred’s vileness – not compassion but empathy – gave me pause … I was still an innocent. And yet Mildred’s machinations I miraculously understood when it came to playing her. I was often ashamed of this … I suppose no amount of rationalization can change the fact that we are all made up of good and evil.”

Davis seems supremely perceptive, and she touches on one of the keys to creating indelible performances. Great actors are able to empathize with all characters and find their core truth — the wounds and hurts and realities — making them into genuine, broken people. There are a handful of Bette Davis characters that are easy for me to dismiss; I usually look down on them because I don’t like them as people.

Only as I grow older do I realize their flaws momentarily look like my own. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t see myself in Mildred Rogers or Margo Channing, but I’d be remiss to say I’m better than them or totally impervious to similar sins. Bette Davis is such a legendary talent because she forces me to have empathy with wretches such as these. Because on my worst days (and some of my better ones), I am one too.

3.5/5 Stars

Dishonored (1931): Marlena Dietrich, The Sultry Spy

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

4.5/5 Stars

Angel (1937): A Mature Lubitsch Love Triangle

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

3.5/5 Stars