Red-Headed Woman (1932)

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Ironically Harlow as a Red-Head feels more representative of her projected image than Harlow as a Platinum Blonde (1931). Lil is a malevolent seductress. A homewrecker. The queen of meretricious relations. Simultaneously frisky and fun.

But she’s got one specific man (Chester Morris) on her radar and she makes it her goal to bring him down. Of course, he’s married and he has means. Everything she could want in a man. Perhaps there’s a tinge of actual romance in the air too. She kisses him enough for it to be so.

She continually ambushes him to begin with and he’s not particularly averse to her. He’s not as strong as he would like to think. First, in his office. Then, in a telephone booth and so on and so forth. As strong as he is and as much as he glares at her, there’s only so much he can take. “Red” goes back to her boarding house to regale her roommate (Una Merkel) about her daily victories. It seems she enjoys the hunt, mechanizing her feminine wiles to serve her. But she’s not above knocking back a few drinks slowly sinking into a stupor on the floor with the lively strains of “Frankie and Johnny.” That about sums up the woman we have before us.

Finally, she locks her prey in a room with her and throws away the key as it were. In the end, it works. Soon Bill’s marriage with his sensible childhood sweetheart “Rene” (Leila Hyams) is utterly trashed. Lil has got him where she wants him and he resigns himself to this new lifestyle. Divorce follows. She’s got him tied down.

Their life together isn’t perfect as “Red” wants more of a society life with parties and notoriety. And of course, little surprise, there are other men she’s openly involved with. Still, she exploits her charms fishing for compliments, flirting, throwing out typical Harlow baby talk. All the works.

Baby Face (1933) with Barbara Stanwyck seems like an obvious answer to this picture’s themes. And it must be said that while there’s the inkling of an idea here, what the latter film has is a greater resonance because it’s not just a trashy romance propelled by a leading performance. But Stanwyck beyond being a siren also has a depth to her that while not fully fleshed out leads to some amount of conflict.

Here Harlow’s no good and that’s most of the novelty. There’s not a speck of true integrity in her and we are given few cues to why she’s the way she is. Maybe if we were provided more it would be easier to empathize even a little.

Baby Face makes me dismayed because Stanwyck is a tragic figure. Red-Headed Woman gets to me for a different reason. There is no remorse in Harlow’s “Red.” She’s just a sleaze and there’s little interest in anything else. It feels exploitive.

Everything is summed up perfectly by an uncomfortably comical ending. After taking a shot at her former husband and nearly killing him, she finds a life for herself in France with her chauffeur (a dashing Charles Boyer) no less.

F. Scott Fitzgerald purportedly got taken off the picture in favor of Anita Loos because he took the material too seriously. However, I’m inclined to want to see how his rendition would have panned out. For some reason, I cannot find it within myself to laugh at these characters. That’s undoubtedly a tribute to Jean Harlow but it’s still ribald entertainment any way you slice it.

3.5/5 Stars

History is Made at Night (1937)

history-is-made-at-night-1937History is Made at Night molds love into the grandest of pursuits and it wouldn’t be altogether wrong in that assertion because for humanity it is one of the most euphoric, confounding, beautiful entities known to mankind. I have no qualms with saying that whatsoever.

And if there was ever a movie title to act as the quintessential summation of director Frank Borzage’s work this might well be it. This is not his greatest effort but within those aforementioned words lies the essence of his filmography. This overarching idea that romance is this unassailable force that is ethereal and grandiose — capable of combatting anything that the world might throw its way  — wielded by a man and a woman when they both become so enraptured in the throes of passion. The antagonistic force might be human, ideological, or environmental. It makes no difference. As the pithy saying goes, love conquerors all. But it’s unfair to strip Borzage down completely with any attempts at generalization and there’s the necessity to look at this film specifically.

History Begins at Night revolves around an age-old device: The love triangle. A rich man named Bruce Vail (Collin Clive) prone to jealousy is looking to catch his wife Irene (Jean Arthur) in infidelity even if he fabricates it on his own. Because he’s not about to let her divorce him. Except in her time of need, the head waiter (Charles Boyer) at a highly reputed local establishment happens to be in the next room and comes to her aid masquerading as a burglar looking to purloin her jewels. Except he soon lets her go free and that might be the end of it. But Vail is not about to let his wife off scotch free and blackmails her into staying with him. He’s a real snake in the grass and this makes Irene long for Paul even more. That’s really all you need to know to get the general idea and the particulars are not what is paramount anyways. It’s enjoyable taking them as they come and watching how Boyer and Arthur react.

Charles Boyer, just coming off his American debut, was entering into the peak of his career as the token Frenchman in Hollywood and he and Jean Arthur make a charming pair. For her part, she will always be an archetype of the screwball comedienne but with this film, she’s a little different. She plays the comedic moments but right along side the melodrama — working through entire scenes with the simple inflections of the word “Oh.” And while Boyer seems suited to drama, more than his predecessor Maurice Chevalier, he does still prove he can be quite funny.

By the end, there is hardly any need to pay attention to the plot. It is enough watching these two individuals come to together into something quite spectacular with a brilliant climax as their backdrop — a stunning culmination of their relationship. It’s a titanic ending to be sure with sinking ocean liner included but that’s not all that unusual. It conjured up some similarities to Leo McCarey’s romantic drama Love Affair (also starring Boyer) and then Barbara Stanwyck’s own extraordinarily moving Titanic-vehicle.  Each storyline utilizes an ocean liner as the perfect locale for a tragic love story but it’s the individuals involved who actually create the intrigue.

What struck me about this film was the fact that it does not fall into your usual categorizations. There’s comedy but not the outlandish scatteredness of 1930s screwballs and there’s melodrama but most of the time the plotting seems inconsequential. Again and again, the story falls back on the fact that this is a love story pure and simple. Indeed, history is made at night. That is what Borzage hammers home. But he wields his hammer with a deft touch.

4/5 Stars

The Earrings of Madame De… (1953)

MadamedeposterThe Earrings of Madame De…, in essence, feels like the perfect incarnation of an Ophuls’ film. In fact, sometimes I forget that Ophuls is actually German because his films are full of French sentiment. I mean that not because of their cast, although we do have Charles Boyer and Danielle Darieux, but more so due to the fact that his films are about elegant, melodramatic romances that fit the decadence of Parisian high society. For instance, in Madame De… Danielle Darrieux is positively swimming in luxury, whether it means dresses, furnishings, or especially jewelry. Materially her husband Andre (Boyer), a French general, has lavished all the worldly possessions upon her. Except that’s not what she wants. At least that’s not what will make her happy. She may be obsessed with the material, but even the material which she so desires is ultimately poisoned over time. Over time Andre cannot even win her over with trinkets and gifts. She cares little for the eponymous earrings until they come from her true love Baron Donati (Vittorio De Sica).

These are the same earrings that she sold to pay off a debt. The same earrings that Andre reacquired from the jeweler and then made the rounds once more. Ophuls said himself that he was drawn to this narrative because “there is always the same axis around which the action continually turns like a carousel. A tiny, scarcely visible axis: a pair of earrings.” And really it is a fascinating plot device that ties the entire narrative together, while also seeming to reflect the utter frivolity and triviality of it all. How can these earrings hold so much weight to one person? And yet that’s only the face value, because, to begin with, they are only an object to be coveted and maybe cherished. Over time they become a token, a symbol of true love and Louise gives them away to the parish because she no longer needs them. She has some notion now of what true love actually feels like.

For the majority of the film, Andre is forever civil with her. He knows that she does not really love him, and he even has time for a mistress on the side. He handles her opportune fainting spells and little charades with grace and at times amusement. But when he gets a hint at Donati’s relationship with his wife, he does what any honorable gentlemen would do. He’s indignant of his rival and builds a huge feud out of nothing. What follows is a duel and the rest is history.

Madame De… probably does not get as much acknowledgment as it should, because Ophuls was a champion of so-called “Women Pictures,” which actually take on the point of view of women, in an industry that’s so male-dominant even to this day. Thus, Madame De… is a little different in perspective, and it tries to hide all of its tragedy behind superficiality. It makes for an interesting lesson in romance and the female psyche. Yet again the director shows his immense affinity for staircases turning them into the personal playground for his camera. He loves to twirl, pirouette, and glide just as much as Louise and Donati do as they dance the night away at the ball. De Sica is a champion director in his own right, but it was especially fun to see him in front of the camera and he seemed an apt player opposite his costars. The worthy equal of Boyer and a suave love interest on top of that. There’s nothing more romantic than Danielle Darreux dreamily repeating to him, “I don’t love you, I don’t love you, I don’t love you.” The sad irony is that those words ring true with her actual husband as reflected by a pair of earrings.

4.5/5 Stars

Hold Back the Dawn (1941)

holdback5Hold Back the Dawn was written by the winning combination of Billy Wilder and Charles Brackett, but the director was actually Mitchell Leisen. That was the last time Wilder would let someone else take hold of his work. It’s actually rather meta, a film within a film. We see our director and a film being made (Complete with Veronica Lake), but that is only a pretense for this story to be told.

Georges Iscoveu (Charles Boyer) wanders into the studio hoping to tell his story to somebody who might help him. The tale goes something like this. Much like many other hopeful emigrants, he heads to Mexico in an attempt to try and get into the states, but he’s told that he’ll have to wait and so Iscoveu holes up at the Esperanza Hotel with all the other masses. Time passes and he is getting nowhere fast, but he does bump into an old partner in crime named Anita (Paulette Goddard). Undoubtedly using her feminine charms, she wrangled herself a husband in order to secure herself citizenship. Then she swiftly got a divorce to close the deal. She’s a real peach and she plants the idea in Georges because he is desperate after all.

The gears are turning and he sets his sights on the pretty young schoolteacher, who is in Mexico with some of her students. Their car is in the shop, and after swiping a sprocket, Georges goes into action.

With soaring rhetoric, he wins Miss Emmy Brown over and he puts a ring on it, a borrowed ring from Anita to be exact. He’s a real cad, but it is a Charles Boyer leading man.

To her credit, Olivia De Havilland plays this ingenue and small-town teacher with bright eyes and idealism. We cannot help but feel for her because this is a woman who is swept off her feet and she exhibits true affection. She’s naive, but as Georges acknowledges, she’s swell. Anita has plans for them to meet up once the marriage is terminated because she thinks that she and Georges can run in the same circles once more. But all the time he has spent with Emmy has not left him unchanged. Car rides and travels through Mexico becomes intimate and sweet. So somewhere there is a turning point in the psyche of Iscoveu. It no longer becomes a con game with Anita, but a true romance with Emmy.

However, the trouble comes when the inspector named Hammock (Walter Abel) comes sniffing around because the marriage of Emmy and Georges seems obviously fishy to him. But Ms. Brown does the noble thing and defends Georges not out of ignorance, but charity. She knows she was living a dream and is about to go back to reality, making the drive back to her home in Azusa, California.

Georgholdback6es has what he had initially set out to get, but the story cannot be over. When he hears of a deadly car accident, he rushes across the border without heed of the law so that he can be with the love of his life. It’s a gushy conclusion that looks like it might end badly. After all, Iscoveu broke some major laws, but Hammock gives him some grace showing he’s a softy at heart. Even Anita gets what she’s always wanted.

The film is a treat because we not only get an A-grade performance from De Havilland, there’s a conniving Paulette Goddard, and even a brief cameo by everybody’s favorite Peekaboo girl Veronica Lake. Curt Bois (the pickpocket from Casablanca) also makes a spirited performance in one of the minor plots.

Hold Back the Dawn certainly begs the question whether Wilder’s own experiences are infused into this story since he often told anecdotes about his emigration into the U.S. which ultimately led him to success in Hollywood. Also, this film suggests that Mitchell Leisen is not so much a great director or a maker of masterpieces, but he is in his element with romances. However, I wonder if part of his success was having the likes of Billy Wilder and Preston Sturges writing scripts for some of his most prominent films (including Easy Living, Midnight, and Remember the Night).

4/5 Stars

An Affair to Remember (1956)

anaffairto2An Affair to Remember (1956) has always been noted as a great American romance as far as I can ever remember, and I figured out that part of that was because it gets a mention in Sleepless in Seattle (1993). Whatever the reason, I finally got around to watching it and it is certainly an enjoyable weepy. Any film with Cary Grant as a romantic lead is usually, at the very least, charming and this one is too. He is a famed man on an ocean liner who has finally gone and gotten himself hitched. It’s big news and as soon as the ship touches down he is going to meet his love.

Quite by chance, he meets Deborah Kerr’s character and they are immediately taken with each other. Soon their friendship grows into an affectionate romance, and yet they feel uncomfortable in front of the other passengers who seem to be watching their every move with interest. They both know that once the boat reaches New York things will not be the same between them for some time.

anaffairto4And so it is, but they had made one last plan to meet each other at the top of the Empire State Building. Grant makes it, but Kerr is detained for a very good reason. After seeing her in an awkward situation at the theater, Grant resolves to go see her and get to the bottom of what happened. It’s a tearful, albeit happy, reunion as they come back together.

If any of this feels familiar, like a rerun, that’s because it is. Leo McCarey actually made An Affair to Remember (1956) as a scene for scene remake of his earlier film Love Affair (1939). I never thought I’d say that I like a film with Charles Boyer more than a comparable one with Cary Grant, but it’s the truth. I’m not sure if it’s because I saw it first or that the film feels more intimate, but I really enjoyed Love Affair. An Affair to Remember is certainly elegant in color and Deborah Kerr gives a fine performance, but I was personally blown away by Irene Dunne as an actress. In fact, back in the day, Dunne worked quite a bit with Cary Grant (The Awful Truth, My Favorite Wife, and Penny Serenade).

So my advice is, go back and give Love Affair a watch. It’s still by McCarey with much of the same story so it’s really a personal preference what film you like more.

3.5/5 Stars

Love Affair (1939)

Love Affair (1939)Imagine meeting someone through a porthole, that’s what happens in this film when a gust of wind sends Michel Marnet’s letter flying. The lady who is kind enough to return it is the friendly Terry McKay. The two acquaintances enjoy each others company and strike up a friendship in the few days before they dock in New York. Both of them have fiancees waiting for them. They begin seeing a lot of each other, but they also start to notice that the other passengers are looking on.

One day they make a stop and Michel pays a quick visit to his grandmother. Terry agrees to come along and strikes up a fast friendship with the elderly woman who really likes her. As they get close to New York Michel and Terry agree to meet in 6 months at the top of the Empire State Building. By then he will know if he can carry a job to support her. So it goes.

The 6 months finally passes and the time of the meeting arrives. An excited Terry rushes off to “get married” but tragedy strikes. Michel waits all alone and she never shows. For a long while they lose all contact as Terry recuperates and Michel continues to paint while nursing a broken heart. When he finally tracks her down, they share a slightly awkward introduction. In a marvelous sequence, Michel tells her about how “he” missed the meeting and apologizes for what “she” must have gone through. She knows what happened now, but Terry still will not tell him what happened to her, because she did not want to be a burden. In a eureka moment, Michel figures it out and goes to embrace his love. As she did the whole film, Terry accepts the hardship and meets it with a joyful heart.

Love Affair is just that, but it fails to lower itself to uninhibited passion and romance without any substance of character. Its leads are not that superficial. They are better than that and certainly more complex. In all honesty, I never have been a big fan of Charles Boyer. I see his appeal as a suave, debonair Frenchmen with an accent, but he never did anything for me. Here I saw him as more than a playboy. He filled that expectation at first, but the scenes with his kindly grandmother and then when he thinks Terry have forgotten him, show a softer, more vulnerable side.

I do not quite know why, but Irene Dunne is especially enjoyable to watch. Whether it is her skill as a comedienne with comic timing or the expressions on her face, I find her endearing every moment on the screen. She makes me smile just as she smiles. In many ways, she reminds me of another actress of the 1930s, Jean Arthur. However, Arthur I know far better because of films like Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. With Dunne, I have seen very little and yet I have been so impressed by her. Love Affair was another film that proved her genial appeal.

Furthermore, Leo McCarey does not get enough credit, because he is a great director with some great films to his name like The Awful Truth. He would later remake Love Affair as An Affair to Remember, which was a success in itself.

4/5 Stars

Gaslight (1944)

eb609-gaslight-1944Directed by George Cukor and starring Ingrid Bergman, Charles Boyer, and Josesph Cotten, with Angela Lansbury, this film begins rather abruptly with a young girl in England who witnessed the aftermath of her aunt’s murder. Then in a whirl wind she has become married to a nice young pianist and they move back to her old home in England to settle down to together. From that point on everything begins to change gradually. Gregory has a violent outburst over a letter, Paula loses her brooch mysteriously, a picture is misplaced, there are seemingly footsteps from above, and the gaslights change for no apparent reason. Gregory continues to manipulate and isolate his wife telling her it is for her own girl. A traumatic night at the opera and the new maid only worsen Paula’s mental state. She soon believes she is sinking deeper and deeper into hysteria thanks to Gregory. However, a former admirer of her aunt becomes curious of Paula and tries in earnest to meet her as he reopens her aunt’s case. Finally, they meet and together they piece together what is really going on. In the final climatic moments the inspector comes to Paula’s aid and she turns the tables on her husband. All the main players do a wonderful job, especially Bergman, and this film was built up nicely. My only qualms would have to be Joseph Cotten playing an Englishman and I found it hard to follow in the very beginning.

4.5/5 Stars