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

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

Imitation of Life (1934): Stahl Vs. Sirk

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The opening shot of Imitation of Life is memorable for its sheer novelty and the very simplicity of the space. It’s not an establishing shot of a place or a person. Instead, it’s of a rubber duck bobbing in the bathwater as a little girl whines about wanting her “Quack Quack” off-screen.

This is how we’re introduced to single mother Bea Pullman (Claudette Colbert) and her daughter. A moment later, an African-American woman, Delilah Johnson (Louise Beavers) shows up on her doorstep having mixed up an address (in her defense I’ve mixed up some avenues too).

In a matter of minutes, they’ve decided to join forces. They both lack money and resources, but they gladly make do with what they have, happy to share one another’s company as they raise their daughters together.

Bea starts setting up a shop on the boardwalk armed by Delilah’s secret pancake recipe and her own ambition. One of the movie’s more troubling caveats is how Delilah has little ambition in life and proves herself to be perfectly content looking after Bea’s home as her friend gets all the credit for her family heirloom.

While Delilah remains content sinking into the periphery, with $19 to their names, Bea takes a risk on their venture. They have to rent out the space, get a fresh coat of paint up, and of course, you can’t have a restaurant without furnishings. She finagles her way into all sorts of deals and alliances — one of her newfound associates happens to be a typically jolly Alan Hale. However, it’s the nasal-voiced Ned Sparks who gives them the $100,000 idea: “box it.” Immediately their business takes off with a sustainable reach.

Auntie Delilah’s Pancake Shop is bustling with business. It has a certain antiquated charm to it. The image is a combination of Aunt Jemima and some of the more troubling images out of Jim Crow minstrel culture.

However, the most intriguing — and the most groundbreaking — aspect of Imitation of Life is how it grapples with questions of personal identity throughout its run. These are questions that still manage to challenge and perplex me to this day. My heart breaks for Peola. She is Delilah’s light-skinned daughter who is ashamed of both her race and her mother.

Even as Louise Beavers’s role is dubious at times, reminiscent of some of Hollywood’s worst portrayals, Fredi Washington represents the hardship for African-Americans trying to break out of the molds set out for them. There were rarely roles of strength for the likes of Josephine Baker, a Paul Robeson, a Lena Horne, or a Rex Ingram, parts that fully illuminated their talents.

As with the later adaptation, this becomes the most intriguing piece of commentary, particularly in this instance since Washington actually identified as black and was proud of her heritage never choosing to pass as white. Her real life played as the antithesis of her character even as it comments on the hallowed place being white had in American society in the 30s and beyond.

Their stake in the pancake game blows up and as the exulted mastermind, our heroine becomes the Claudette Colbert one might be more accustomed to, glamourous and good-humored as ever. Warren William makes his dashing entrance at the party, and they’re smitten at first sight. It’s a particularly amicable role for him beyond his typical hard-nosed Rockefellers, and he proves adept enough at the characterization even if it’s not too stretching.

The budding romance with the ichthyologist is amicable if the most humdrum part of the picture. As is the return of a precocious Jessie from school. She forms a crush on her mother’s beau and you can fill in the rest. More interesting still is Peola totally repudiating her mother and with it, her identity, foregoing a prestigious negro college by looking to pass as white and get work in everyday society.

These are the biggest issues on hand, and it’s all romance and family in line with much of Stahl’s melodrama. He is not Sirk after all. But what exactly does that mean? Because thanks to both Imitation of Life and then Magnificent Obsession, it feels like there’s a need to try and decipher the variations in John M. Stahl’s work compared to Douglas Sirk. If nothing else, it might help get him out of the other man’s shadow.

There are obvious distinct differences in content — Colbert’s pancakes instead of Turner’s acting — although many of the same narrative beats are present. Sirk obviously eclipses this drama through sheer decadence, color, and all manner of staging. He was the maestro of using near-trashy spectacle to subvert his material, making it burst with new ironies. However, his picture also feels updated to somehow fit so distinctly into the civil rights conversation of the ’50s and ’60s.

Stahl’s earlier version is more sedate and straight while still being imbued with its own burgeoning power. We have to take it more sincerely at face value. So in a sense, for 1934, the story certainly pushes boundaries, and Stahl is capable of drawing out the subtleties with the typically raw candor we might attribute to many of his movies from the period.

Certainly, Louise Beavers’ funeral doesn’t have the color nor a Mahalia Jackson dirge, but somehow, again, it fits into the context of the surrounding scenes. There’s still indubitable pomp and circumstance to the solemn occasion. We feel this intuitively. We witness the casket being brought out of the church and black men in uniform, armed with sabers, guiding the procession.

This image alone plays interference against all the images of Stephin Fetchit, Willie Best, Hattie McDaniel, and even Louise Beavers propagating stereotypes of mindless, weak, subservient blacks. It gives off this innate amount of dignity.

After you’ve seen Sirk’s version, of course, it’s difficult to go back — it’s true Stahl’s version pales in comparison — and yet you could say this is almost by design. It’s as if his predilection is toward anticlimax or at the very least cushioning the blows of melodrama in an arena where Sirk would lay it on thick for all its worth.

Thus, we end not on the hard-hitting tears of a daughter but gay reminisces of “Quack Quack.” It’s like we watched two completely different stories: The white family and then the black family. Maybe that’s the point.

3.5/5 Stars

The Palm Beach Story (1942): Another Screwy Sturges Freight Train

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“After you’re married… That’s a funny thing to hear your wife say!” – Joel McCrea as Tom Jeffers

All the timeless Preston Sturges pictures have the pace of a freight train barreling down the tracks in loop de loops and figure eights. The Prologue of The Palm Beach Story sets up a raucous race to make it to a wedding ceremony involving a bride and a groom…and a woman tied up… It’s gone in a blink. Hold that thought.

Cut to present. There’s Franklin Pangborn, always hustled and harried. This time as an apartment manager trying to show off the new apartments he has for lease to the grouchy, incessantly deaf Wienie King and his bubbly wife.  These two initial scenes are textbook examples of how to juxtapose people and places for comic effect. In fact, sometimes Sturges will gladly lean into the joke before giving us any indication of what his story really pertains to.

When we finally find a premise, he’s already taken us for a spin. Because the previously revealed bride and groom, Tom and Gerry Jeffers (Joel McCrea and Claudette Colbert), sunk all their money trying to get a bite — namely the $99,000 he needs to get his suspended airport project off the ground. As of right now, there are no takers, and their marriage has tanked. Strangely enough, they still love each other madly. At the very least, their constant quarreling seems to hint at their continued devotion. That’s the wrinkle.

She wants to get a divorce (sacrificially, of course) so she might hook a rich husband to pay for his pet project. He selfishly wants to stay married to her. He tries to hold onto her, racing out of their apartment, in only the bed linens, as she resolves to go to Palm Beach — to find herself a millionaire — for him.

Sturges relishes the comic situation, which verges on the risque, especially for the day and age. The script was even repeatedly balked at by the Production Codes for the very same reasons and still they manage to mention the word “sex” quite frankly (Gasp)!

What becomes most evident is this increasingly flippant disregard for the institution of marriage. The ensuing world and the situations arising make sense originating from a man who himself came out of affluent circles with a row of marriages left in his wake. He’s in a sense writing what he knows intimately while still utilizing his own idiosyncratic perspective.

It’s a glorious trip to Palm Beach as he loads the cars end to end with his stock company, comprising a traveling circus of dopey millionaires making up the Ale and Quail Club. Gerrie gratefully becomes their mascot as they pay her way to the far off land of the Florida coast.

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In typical Sturges fashion, he overwhelms the screen with the sheer force of bodies and figures from the likes of William Demarest, Al Bridge, and just about anyone else you’ve ever seen in a Sturges film before. They divert themselves with any number of dalliances including hiccups, trap shooting crackers, and nighttime serenades of “Sweet Adaline.”

What’s even more hilarious is how we never actually see these characters again. They serve their purpose and service the writer-director’s scatterbrained devices. The extended sequence functions as its own standalone vessel of amusement.

He really is the king of writing robust character parts that, while never throwaway, need not be overly important. Today it feels like every bit role must be functional. For Sturges, a character functions, first and foremost, if they add to the comic maelstrom he’s whipping up. When they serve their purpose he can zip onward toward further zaniness.

Likewise, aside from being entertaining, The Wienie King is Sturges’s great enabler within the entire picture, gladly shoveling out money as if it were nothing, for rent and plane tickets — whatever the story requires — and despite his apparent obliviousness, he has these near-surreal bouts of hyper-lucidity. In considering his character, one cannot help surmising a stopped clock is right twice a day – even a tone-deaf one.

There must be a story, but the script gladly supplies a vehicle full of hilarity to deliver the goods for the benefit of the audience. As we progress with the ever-whirling thingamajig of wackiness, there’s the introduction of Rudy Vallee. The former matinee idol shows a certain penchant for comedy in his own right, added to the Sturges hall of fame of crazy aristocrats.

His dry idiosyncrasies serve him well, from the methodical removal and placing of his specs to the ongoing accounting he does in his little black book. Even a couple rueful in-jokes to his earlier crooning days, including “Isn’t It Romantic?,” send a few knowing winks toward the perceptive viewer.

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Although she purportedly struggled with her director’s style of mile-a-minute dialogue, Mary Astor, nevertheless, does the corkscrew language a major service as the ably speedy-mouthed Princess Centimillia, who bowls one over with her mixture of glitzy upper crust exuberance and ready-made amorousness. The perfect foil for her dry brother dear “Snoodles.”

To round out the quartet (quintet if you include the single misfire Toto), Tom Jeffers arrives to reclaim his wife but finds himself being turned into a brother named Captain McGlue before he can get in a word edgewise. The quarreling goes on behind closed doors as estranged husband and wife both find themselves romantic objects — currently pursued by other people.

One can’t help to compare it to Midnight, the Billy Wilder penned film with all sorts of little white lies and shenanigans being pulled to keep the charade going for as long as possible. It’s true often the best screwball farces — including some of Sturges’s successes — involve people donning aliases with highly comic ends, of course. Even in this frenetic company, The Palm Beach Story might be more outlandish than most, on par with the rambunctious insanity of Some Like it Hot.

What a glorious wisenheimer Sturges is holding off on the one loose end we’ve been wondering about since the outset of the movie only for it to be the final payoff, setting in motion another story that we’ll never hope to see. Everything is bookended by this ultimate gag that plays as pure Sturges. He’s shoehorned the whole story just so he can swoop in from left field with the most propitious footnote.

At its best, The Palm Beach Story exudes all the zany charms of Sturges’s screwiest works between a finely wrought cast with plenty of whiz-bang patter that time and time again gladly succumbs to silliness. Preston Sturges does his secondary characters a major service, and they more than return the favor. It’s a picture totally stolen away by the supporting cast and rightfully so.

4/5 Stars

 

Drums Along The Mohawk (1939): Ford, Fonda, and Colbert

Drumsalongthemohawk.jpgRecently, it’s come to my attention there is really is a dearth of colonial America pictures between the likes of Disney’s Johnny Tremain and Mel Gibson’s The Patriot. The reasons seem somewhat obvious at least in the current day and age. Period pieces cost money and such material feels crusty unless you spice it up with ingenuity a la Hamilton.

For anyone who might want a dose of debatably historical entertainment, there’s Drums Along The Mohawk. Because what it cannot claim in the realm of accuracy, it more than makes up for with the usual shading of classic Hollywood reined in by a consummate professional directorial eye like John Ford’s.

This particular narrative begins with a newly wedded couple in Colonial America Lana (the always glamorous Claudette Colbert) and Gil (a severe-looking Henry Fonda). The ceremony takes place in a grand estate, and it’s true Lana comes from a wealthy family. In this regard, it’s easy to buy Colbert in this part given her image and even easier to comprehend her dismay when she is met with the stone-cold reality of frontier life.

Because, as it happens, Gil has sectioned off a plot of land near the Mohawk River, building a rudimentary log cabin just to get them started as they get on their feet as farmers. For his wife, it’s a shock to the system with the pelting rain and a late-night visit by the generally benevolent Native American: Blueback.

Fresh off their honeymoon, they make the acquaintance of the dubious John Carradine with allegiance to the Tories, matched by veiled threats of a potential Indian uprising. Otherwise, all the rest of the local folks are amicable, welcoming the Martins into their tight-knit community with open arms.

Like any God-fearing populous, they have church on Sundays and a ragtag militia carried away by the “Spirit of ’76.” It proves inconsequential when their homes get ravaged and razed to the ground by marauding Indians, an admittedly faceless tribe, catalyzed by a loyalist.

Until this point, Along The Mowhawk is not altogether compelling, despite our director and leads. However, it settles into its own when our protagonists have nothing; it forces them to make a crucial decision. They seek refuge on the farm of a blunt widow with enough gumption (and covert kindness) to make a new life seem feasible.

The word from the church pulpit is the most hilarious foray in comedy as the preacher takes a dig at Massachusetts men and notes the battle at hand, meaning that all men are expected to report or else be hung! He ends it with a resounding Amen. It’s old-time religion if there ever was such a thing, complete with an earsplitting “Hallelujah” from one of the good Christians.

A worthy image in the Ford catalog comes when the men march off in their column snaking down the dirt road, off into the distance, with the womenfolk watching them leave. It has the tangible sense of space — the assurance of a painting — informing the best pictorials of the director. The simplest measure of excellence is the fact it’s pleasing to the eye.

But of course, when soldiers go off to war some die and the rest come back as changed men. We recall the horror, the almost shell-shocked nature, of war.  Henry Fonda plainly detailing what they saw out in the thicket when they got ambushed is too real. You begin to remember this is right on the advent of WWII. WWI is still a heavy burden on America’s mind as the war to end all wars.

Within the context of this film, it becomes an even more complicated comparison when you place the antagonism of Americans versus The British of the colonial era with the soon-to-be conflict between Britain and The Nazis. In fact, Ford seems to make a distinction between calling the enemy “Tories” versus the British. In 200 years allegiances have changed a great deal.

However, it wouldn’t be a true Ford picture without folks kicking up their heels in a fit of merriment to fight off the dark tides with a joyful show of community. Ward Bond gets his finest moments opposite Mrs. McKlennar, calling into question her prowess in drinking and kissing. She gaily obliges. Meanwhile, in a lowly lit corner, Lana prays these good times might never end. Of course, they do.

Homes are burnt to the ground again. The townsfolk are forced to fall back to their fort to stave off the enemy onslaught in one valorous stand. It feels like a melding of apocryphal American Revolution history, “Remember The Alamo” sentiment and a moderate dose of Ford’s own mythologizing about the frontier. It’s not his very best, but there is a basic flare for the spectacle.

If we might try to encapsulate the reverberating theme to the last line, it would be fitting to evoke Revolutionary War General Nathanael Greene who is quoted as saying, “We fight, get beat, rise, and fight again.” Ford’s film reinforces this as being the American way. The only question remains who really gains the right to this way of life.

3.5/5 Stars

Boom Town (1940)

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Clark Gable was anxious to do a movie about oil — wildcatters as they call ’em — because his father had been an oil man. Of course, MGM was looking to put him in such a picture too and when a certain story was published in Cosmopolitan it would prove the inspiration for Jack Conway’s Boom Town.

The most obvious attraction to this picture then and now is the copious amount of star power. We already mentioned MGM’s beloved Gable but Boom Town has Spencer Tracy, Claudette Colbert, and Hedy Lamarr all readily available. This would be the two men’s final film together out of three outings. It’s not so much that they didn’t like each other but the fact that they were both formidable attractions and Tracy was starting to command top billing.

In an industry consumed with A-list and B-list stars, MGM didn’t quite know how to go about keeping them together and so they never appeared in the same film again. I can’t say that it leaves me heartbroken.

They meet on a plank crossing a muddy mining street. Whether it was purposeful or not you can’t help but recall the fateful meeting of Robin Hood and Little John. Except these two men share the same name. The local saloon keeper christens them Big John (Gable) and Square John (Tracy) respectively. They’re none too amicable at first but after a bar brawl that looks more like lawn bowling, they’re pals enough. Those type of things builds camaraderie in hard-bitten men like these.

Soon enough they are going halfsies on a piece of land “Shorty” has been aiming to drill on. Frank Morgan isn’t much help as the begrudging equipment salesman and so they take matters into their own hands. A lovable Chill Wills plays a drawling Sheriff with a penchant for cookbooks and a decent shot with a rifle.

The film could have been a gusher laden with drama but most of the blasts of energy are few and far between hidden under layers of good luck and hard luck, romantic interplay, and the ever-changing tides of the oil business. Some of these themes would be echoed again in works like Giant (1956) and There Will Be Blood (2007).

The most rewarding scene by far is watching Gable and Tracy brawl it out in an office. By now they’ve both been big men who have known both failure and success. But this strips everything down to the two of them and the woman caught between them.

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I must admit that Hedy Lamarr’s part is rather uninteresting — little fault of her own — though most would note that she is as alluring as ever as the ingenious socialite and serial eavesdropper who helps McMasters take over the New York market.

Claudette Colbert is compelling enough in a role that reunites here with her It Happened One Night (1934) leading man, though the role was written initially for Myrna Loy and there is an innate sense that if she could have repeated her spectacular turn in Test Pilot (1938), this picture now transplanted to the oil fields would have been better for it. As it is Gable and Tracy do seem to command most of the attention. After all, this is really their story as we watch them rise, fall, and come back clawing again and again.

The final big moment, however, goes to Tracy standing up at the witness stand and even though he and McMasters have long since parted ways, pushed each other out of business, and even come to blows, he still manages to exonerate the man of any wrongdoing.

Because if nothing else they are both oil men with ideals of what the country might be if we take care of our limited resources for our children. You might call “Hogwash” but it’s a nice sentiment anyways and as usual, Spence delivers it with his typical candor that silences any naysayers. However, one wonders what the picture might have been if Colbert and Lamarr were given a bigger stake.

3/5 Stars

So Proudly We Hail! (1943)

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There were three reasons to watch this film. Their names are Claudette Colbert, Paulette Goddard, and Veronica Lake. Yes, this picture directed by Mark Sandrich was fairly groundbreaking in its day for telling a story about nurses during WWII but there might be mixed feelings across the board about how the story unfolds.

While I still try and organize my own perceptions, a moment can be allotted to take stock of our stars. Claudette Colbert strays quite far away from her comedic sweet spot in a dramatic role as Lt. “Davy” Davison that she nevertheless conducts with a compelling fortitude.

The studio also all but got rid of the iconic peekaboo bangs of Lake and exchanged any of her many noir gals opposite Alan Ladd for a vengeful nurse, Olivia D’Arcy, traumatized by Pearl Harbor and the dirty Japs who ruined her life forever. She’s practically a different person.

Although Paulette Goddard hardly ever appears in a sweater, the boys are still enthralled by her like always but even she is given a major reality check about the hardships of war. And that’s part of what this film was meant to reflect — that it wasn’t just the brave soldiers who were putting their lives on the line — but there were legions of women too sacrificing and giving their all.

Paramount also did a very commendable thing in trying to de-glamorize their biggest stars in deference to delivering this stirring patriotic drama as a eulogy to all of those at Bataan and other South Pacific battlegrounds. But while the intentions are admirable, there’s this underlying feeling that Hollywood still creeps into the story far too often, which makes sense, since this is a Hollywood picture.

It all begins with an extended flashback as the film follows the nurses through their deployment. First, there are the tearful send-offs leaving families for the first time or gals leaving their best guys. In the case of Joan (Goddard) she gets away from two of them and by the time she’s onboard, it looks like she’s already landed a new one (Sonny Tufts).

In the wake of the hysteria following Pearl Harbor, the nurses are for the most part caught in a fog of war without any knowledge of what is going on and the Japs have all but jammed their communications. They continue floating around listlessly just waiting for some definitive plan of action.

When it comes and they are brought in as reinforcements to the Bataan peninsula. Here finally it seems we get our first look at the front lines. What reality really looked like. The mayhem that overtakes any war zone. It’s pure insanity. By the film’s midpoint, they are being pushed back and the evacuation becomes a life or death ordeal. We finally begin to see the casualties.

What follows is a single moment that comes like a kick in the gut and it’s a segment in the picture that we cannot criticize for being hammy or over-sentimental, delivering a visceral shock that’s a painful reminder of how abhorrent and horrible war truly is. Lake is allowed to let her hair down for a final instant as she leaves the picture in searing fashion. It burns but there is another inkling that suggests that this might really be emotional manipulation.

My main qualm is that the picture feels fake in a theatrical sense. If it’s true that film puts a mirror to reality, it also seems equally true that we often only care to see what we want to in that reflection. We document that and then do a little touch up afterward. James Agee harshly likened So Proudly We Hail to war through the lens of a housewife’s magazine romance.

My own feelings are perhaps more nuanced. It’s propaganda to be taken with a grain of salt. In one sense it couldn’t be more realistic as a document because it comes out of that time and place as a timely film while the war was still raging abroad. But the narrative is still so wrapped up in romance and melodrama built out of said love stories or personal torment. And yet it indubitably has its affecting moments that are difficult to brush off.

What I really appreciated was that its intentions were honorable. To give a spotlight to women and it also depicted a number of Asian allies in a positive light whether they be Chinese (Hugh Ho Chang) or Filipino children dreaming that Superman will come to save the day.

All this is to say in convoluted terms that So Proudly Hail cannot be condemned as an awful picture outright. It does some things well and others with a level of mediocrity but what do my words matter now nearly 75 years after the film came out?

Hopefully, contemporary audiences were uplifted by its intentions. I’m inclined to recommend another picture taking place during the same time. They Were Expendable (1945) directed by John Ford and starring the trio of Robert Montgomery, John Wayne, and Donna Reed is another title worth considering.

3.5/5 Stars

“I’m a Chinese madame, not an Indian.” Hugh Ho Chang as Ling Chee

Midnight (1939)

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“You’re in a fine mess! You got to get a divorce from a man you’re not even married to!”

It was only a recent revelation that Claudette Colbert at times feels far too sophisticated to be playing beautiful hitchhikers or penniless taxi passengers as she does in It Happened One Night (1934) and this film, Midnight. Though it’s easy enough to explain away.

The screwball comedy has always thrived on incongruities as much as it did on the class divides between the rich and the poor. Where the extravagance is almost laughable in its boorish decadence and the little men still have lives seemingly worth living because they are free from societal pressures. After all, making just enough money to scrape by is nothing short of paradise.

In this way, Claudette Colbert was the perfect person to tiptoe this line because she could be cosmopolitan and was glamorous with all those other snooty folks. But she’s also a comedienne like the normal folks, seeing the humor and working it for the laughs just as much as she’s willing to do things that seem normal. A walking enigma she might be but she also makes Midnight a sublime comic fairy tale as our uproarious modern-day Cinderella.

One of her cohorts and romantic partners is Don Ameche, the Parisian cab driver Tibor Czerny who begrudgingly opens up his livelihood on wheels for her as a random act of kindness. As we mentioned before the smartly dressed Eve Peabody has no penny to her name or a franc for that matter.

But what she does have is audacity and it buys her a ticket into a lavish gathering as one Madame Czerny put on by some rich somebody or other. It doesn’t much matter since it’s all only a pretense anyway. Billy Wilder and Charles Brackett’s script unwittingly created the original party crasher plot.

Eve finds herself at a snobby patronage of the arts where the impassioned man at the piano plays either Chopin’s 12th Prelude or his 11th Etude. Again, it doesn’t much matter but it’s hilarious all the same.

What happens subsequently subverts expectations nicely. Instead of getting tossed out of the proceedings she winds up the fourth in a bridge game of rebels warring against tepid entertainment.

There’s the debonair Jacques Picot (Francis Lederer), Marcel (Rex O’Malley) the man who nearly gave Eve a fright by fetching her, and Helene Flammarion (Marry Astor) a married socialite who is more than a little buddy-buddy with the dashing Monsieur Picot.

The charade becomes increasingly awkward the longer it keeps going and going and going. Every Cinderella has her midnight. The real joke comes when the fanciful game finally ends only to be replaced with a new reality as a true to life Baroness. She has no idea how it happened and that’s where our last important party comes in — her fairy godmother so to speak.

Mr. Georges Flammard (John Barrymore) witnessed Eve putting on a nervous floorshow and was intrigued. Now he watches her masquerade continue and he sees how they can help each other out. It has nothing to do with a desire to fool around. On the contrary, in an attempt to undermine his wife’s philandering he wants to bankroll Eve’s little white lie a while longer until she can win Jacques over and pull him away from Mrs. Flammard. It works quite well too.

Meanwhile, the entire cabbie population of France looks for the mysterious girl at Tibor’s behest. It proves to be equivalent to any missing persons agency in town and it comes with made to order traffic jams to boot.

Midnight turns into a magnificent floorshow as all parties collide in an immaculate perfectly timed collision. Eve and Mr. Flammard’s joint ruse looks like it might soon be ousted by Marcel and Mrs. Flammard who are intent on finding the truth about this curious baroness. But the whole fantasy is saved by a dazzling entrance by one well-tailored gentleman, Baron Czerny.

Now a new round of sparring back and forth begins. It’s full of glorious escapades, riotous telephone conversations with fictitious daughters, and Eve and Tibor trying to one-up each other with tall tale after tall tale. One thing Eve has going for her is Mr. Flammard still in her corner working his magic and John Barrymore puts on a fine showing in the film’s latter moments — his devilish eyes still gleaming as bright as ever.

Monty Wooley is introduced into the plotline in the ultimate piece of pitch-perfect casting as an opinionated but easily swayed judge. Thanks be to Classic Hollywood where pompous Americans can preside over a Parisian divorce court. But what matters is the right people get together. So screwball and fairy tales can still coexist. Wilder would prove it once more with Balls of Fire.

John Barrymore has always struck me as the tortured talent of the silver screen. One could contend that he was the most prominent member of the Barrymore dynasty except whereas his siblings Lionel and Ethel aged gracefully he burned out. Midnight came a little too soon for him.

It’s been a longheld fact that Billy Wilder and his writing partner Charles Bracket gifted two quality scripts that were ultimately directed by Mitchell Leisen. The integrity of the work was compromised to the point that Billy Wilder vowed to become a director himself so no one could mess with his material and when the material being messed with was Midnight and Hold Back the Dawn (1941) it begs the question how would the same magnificent films have ended up in Wilder’s hands?

Nevertheless, the actors are a fine gathering of talent while the script does wonders with the typical Wilder-Brackett combination that squeezes innumerable wit out of its wonky plotline. Billy Wilder must always get the last word in and his scripts always do. This one is no exception.

4/5 Stars

Sleep My Love (1948)

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It’s an alarming cold open. Allison Courtland (Claudette Colbert) wakes up on a train to Boston with a gun in her purse and no recollection of how she got there. It drives her into a fit of hysterics that riles up the whole train, though a fellow passenger (Queenie Smith) attempts to steady her nerves. We can’t blame her much since she’s been through quite the ordeal. Still, Courtland spends the entire picture trying to figure out what’s happening as does the audience.

Her concerned husband is played by Don Ameche that suave and charismatic heartthrob. It’s easy to see how he could be absolutely charming in comedy fare (ie. Midnight). Here he’s not so enjoyable. Perhaps in attempting drama, he comes off as too flat. There’s not enough definition there to be compelling. He’s just another handsome face.

Meanwhile, Allison’s evenings are haunted by a specter of a man (George Colouris) who keeps her under psychological duress with broader implications that tie him to a sultry and sulking siren and an entire plot to discredit Allison’s sanity through hypnosis and mind games. If it sounds ludicrous it is but Hollywood was mesmerized by the powers of such forces in the post-war years.

Because you see, she conveniently is the holder of a large inheritance and it seems like a lot of people want a piece of the pie and they’ve gone to great lengths to get it. Hazel Brooks continues in the same mode as Body and Soul (1947) providing the film’s femme fatale, Daphne, sizzling with avarice.

Most people are probably not accustomed to Douglas Sirk and film noir together but this movie proves it to be so, unfolding as an eery paranoia-filled drama that is very much brethren with Hitchcock thrillers like Suspicion (1941) or even Notorious (1946) along with George Cukor’s Gaslight (1944). And some of the broad aspects of psychological conspiracy are akin to I am Julia Ross (1945). However, Sleep My Love does enough to carve out its own unique path even if it’s not as prominent as these earlier titles.

Because Claudette Colbert far from going it alone finds a formidable ally in Bruce Elcott (Robert Cummings), a friend of one of Courtland’s old acquaintances the bubbly Barby (Rita Johnson). Elcott becomes quite the sleuth and a character of tremendous integrity who seems a far better fit for our leading lady than her actual husband. He’s also falling for her.

A high water mark of the film is an extended wedding sequence that is surprisingly fascinating. First off, it’s rather remarkable because it shows a wedding between a Chinese-American couple (Keye Luke and Marya Marco) and it plays it straight and true without any stereotypical sentiment. It feels like a real wedding and an authentic portrayal of this union without the necessity of needless bigotry to sully the moment.

The evening festivities prove equally joyous for our stars who form a quality bond and what feels like it could have been an unfortunate aside becomes one of the film’s most diverting sequences choosing to forego dime a dozen drama for a bit of depth.

In subsequent scenes, Keye Luke, Bruce’s “brother” from his extended time in China becomes his right-hand man as he tries to get to the bottom of Mrs. Courtland’s curious situation that turns perilous very, very quickly. It blows up in the end with a domino effect of dramatic trip wires that set off all sorts of outcomes that came hurtling to their conclusions as quickly as they began. It’s over the top certainly but no less a gripping finale if the film is given leeway in the areas of realism.

If this film is not what we would come to think of in Douglas Sirk there’s no doubt that it feels less dated than most, anthropologically speaking, coming from an intellectual man who seems to carry an open-minded and forward-thinking approach.

Likewise, the intense interest in the human psyche might have matured in the years since, but there’s little doubt that it still holds a prominent place in our modern world with its ceaseless intricacies. One could say psychological complexity is one of the reasons movies still get made today. That and a craving for romance.

3.5/5 Stars

The Smiling Lieutenant (1931)

thesmiling1One would never think that one well-placed wink would change the course of an entire life or be the basis for an entire film, but on both accounts it is true. Ernst Lubitsch’s The Smiling Lieutenant represents all that is good and right about one of his films. It’s light and airy with a dash of charm and a tune in its heart. It’s light on its feet with humor and somehow maintains its self-respect, much like the man at the center of this one (Maurice Chevalier).

In fact, this pre-code musical comedy is a lot more unassuming than it has any right to be. Lieutenant Nikki von Preyn (Chevalier) falls for the talented violinist named Franzi (Claudette Colbert) and cannot contain his excitement whenever he’s around her. Except one ill-timed smile followed by a suggestive wink lands him in some hot water with the recently arrived royalty who are making a sightseeing trip around the country.

Princess Anna (Miriam Hopkins) is appalled by such a public act of indecency, but she also happens to be quite culturally naive. In other words, she hasn’t been outside the palace grounds much. In other words, she’s never known many dashing gentlemen before. Wink. Wink. You get the picture.

Nikki is beside himself but vies to take the most obvious option out. Professing his love for the princess — that’s why he winked. But she outdoes him threatening her father that she would wed an American (GASP!) if she is not engaged to Nikki. So daddy is all but obliged to follow through with the whole thing.

Of course, now we have a love triangle of unrequited love, with the Lieutenant’s smile turned upside down and his beautiful beau grief-stricken. She does the only thing she can, confront her competition and have it out with her. What follows is a slap-filled sob fest and our two heroines become real chummy real quick.

thesmiling2But Lubitsch’s final twist is completely out of left field and a completely comic inversion of what’s supposed to happen — capping off his oeuvre of song, suavity, and sensuality in high fashion.

Chevalier is the quintessential French crooner and his touch of comedy is perfectly measured by both Colbert and Hopkins. Colbert is a typical glamour girl of the 1930s, while Hopkins is also pretty, but with more outlandish tendencies. She also gives a brilliant turn on the piano!

In truth, I have long tried to put a finger on just what the Lubitsch Touch is, but it seems that everyone who has ever said anything about it comes up with a different answer. It began as a PR stunt to sell his brand in Hollywood and from thenceforth it took on a life of its own. As a filmmaker and auteur, there is certainly no one quite like him in substance or style.

If I had to try and draw up my own definition of his Touch it would be something like this: His films convey sensuality in such a way that was palatable to the American audience, while simultaneously making romance something humorous. His sensibilities are such that he can be suggestive and still refined. The true irony here is that he’s in a sense winking at his audience by the end. The joke’s really on us.

4/5 Stars