Cluny Brown (1946): Nuts to The Squirrels

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

3.5/5 Stars

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

4.5/5 Stars

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

3/5 Stars

The Love Parade (1929): Ernst Lubitsch’s First Talkie

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Looking over it now, The Love Parade just might be one of the finest pre-1930s musicals, capitalizing on the rising trend thanks to the success of The Jazz Singer and Broadway Melody. Whereas many of its contemporaries are mainly interesting as historical relics, this Lubitsch comedy still has some inspiration to offer, riding on its own merits alone.

The acclaimed German director’s first sound project shows no signs of a needed learning curve all but translating his command of the medium into the sound era with ease. Yes, the set-ups appear choppy due to the editing of sequences.  True, the action is often static because the camera was yet to be truly mobile. But this is also part of Lubitsch’s deceptive skill in incisively drawing our eye to whatever will give us the clearest visual cue to the jokes that he’s staging.

It’s rarely a cluttered experience though Chevalier adds to it by breaking the fourth wall, even intermittently speaking in French and English. In fact, a separate cut of the picture was made in the French-language. Also, much of the sound design was synced afterward. Both are realities of the changing times and what talkies meant for the evolution of a global industry.

But what is most striking of all is, again, Lubitsch’s impeccable handle of the visually comic because that’s something that translates from the silent days exquisitely and far from using dialogue as a mere crutch or idle chatter, in its very best applications, it’s used to punctuate the scenes with a gag.

The same goes for noises and sounds. Far from oversaturating our ears, Lubitsch almost uses them strategically giving each more import whether a whistle, a song, or erupting cannon fire. There’s a cadence in the use of noise to underscore scenes, and it feels succinct and genuinely artful.

It’s true that it’s difficult to go backward, but sometimes you wonder if filmmakers should.  Allow me to explain. The likes of Lubitsch and Hitchcock had substantial success in the modern era of filmmaking and yet they never lost their early sensibilities. It goes allow with this innate principle suggesting moviemaking was a visual medium above all else. Of course, for Hitch that meant he was the master of staging thrillers. Lubitsch will always be remembered as the king of sophisticated comedies of manners. The Love Parade is little different.

Sylvania is a country with marriage on the mind. It seems like everyone from subjects to royal courtesans are constantly obsessing over who is to be married and when. Most important of all is their Queen Louise (Jeanette MacDonald) who has yet to tie the knot. It’s very much an unfortunate circumstance for the honor of the kingdom.

However, their savior just might come in the form of Count Alfred Renard who resides as the military attache in the Sylvanian embassy in France. But he also happens to be quite the lady’s man. It is true that the somehow deeply-rooted stereotype of Frenchmen as witty, suave romantics must at least, cinematically, start with Maurice Chevalier, before making its way through Charles Boyer and later generations.

He and the Queen gladly trade repartee in the winking song “Anything to Please the Queen” and the comic conundrum proceeds from there. He is sent before her to be reprimanded for his indiscretions, and she finds she rather likes him.

Their first dinner together carries the rapt attention of many invested onlookers from all walks of life and any number of perches, from ladies in waiting to cabinet members, and then lowly servants played uproariously by Lupino Lane and the ill-fated Lillian Roth.

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However, an onslaught of bad luck comes in full force on the wedding day including whistling, mirrors, and the piece de resistance: a cross-eyed man. Chevalier shudders at the thought until his worst nightmares come true in the form of a palace guard (Ben Turpin). The vows are spoken with a twist as the minister confirms, “I pronounce you wife and man.”

It’s summed up succinctly by one of the portly advisers (Eugene Pallette) as such, “Man is man and woman is woman. No man can be a wife.”

Perhaps it seems a silly bit of conflict and yet even now, it feels cutting-edge for the day because men still feel emasculated for such a thing. We are still so used to being the breadwinners and in positions of power almost a century later. Yes, it’s played for a certain comic effect, but the fact is MacDonald has the position of true influence as ruler of the kingdom, while Chevalier is brought up to her station in life by the title bestowed upon him when he becomes her husband.

Jacques and Lulu revel in the fact that they can get married without the complications of class in “Let’s Be Common,” backed by some stellar physical acrobatics verging on vaudeville-style slapstick. And still, marital discord exerts itself behind the palace doors. Renard is unhappy with his pointless life. Meanwhile, downstairs the male and female servants quarrel over whether or not “The Queen is Always Right.”

Is it a spoiler to admit that some concession is arrived at in the end, for the sake of love? I don’t think so, and Chevalier and MacDonald shine in the first of several pairings together. What we are left with is that unprecedented blending of sauciness and sophistication afforded to Lubitsch, particularly at this time in history, without the harsh enforcement of production codes for a few more years. What is more, the films arguably only became richer over time from The Smiling Lieutenant (1931) to Rouben Marmoulian’s Love Me Tonight (1932) and finally The Merry Widow (1934).

3.5/5 Stars

Design For Living (1933): An Atypical Lubitsch Comedy

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“Immorality may be fun but it’s not fun enough to take the place of virtue and three square meals a day.” 

All director Ernst Lubitsch has at his disposal is a train compartment and three actors. Yet the opening scene of Design for Living positions itself as one of the most delightful moments in this entire picture. It’s a pure testament to bold visual filmmaking with nary a word spoken for at least 4 or 5 minutes. Few modern filmmakers would have the gumption to attempt it.

Lubitsch knows exactly what to do with such situations, and he was bred not only in sophistication but silent comedy. Because you see, the ultimate joke is when they actually start conversing with one another these three very familiar faces open their mouths and French comes out (Gary Cooper apparently was fluent).

Simultaneously, the director has also set up the relational dynamic of the film without a peep of dialogue. It really is a superb opener. However, this opening scene is almost too delectable for its own good. The film cannot possibly sustain such a  level of perfection. But more on that later.

When the three expatriates finally switch over to their native tongue, we have an uproarious discussion on art versus commercialism, Napoleon wearing a coat, and Lady Godiva riding a bicycle. Don’t ask for any explanation. In the parry and thrust of their conversation, we find out one is a painter (Cooper), the other is a playwright (Fredric March), and both are failures for the time being.

We are instantly reminded by a certain level of sauciness this is the Pre-Code era, though we are on the cusp of harsher censoring to come. For now, the picture is able to nonchalantly hang its hat on a central plot point involving our leading lady (Miriam Hopkins) and her two men embroiled in a menage a trois — a so-called “Gentlemen’s Agreement.” Her conundrum is very male and libertine in nature. She has different men to try and she likens them to hats she wants to put on.

Yes, there is innuendo and some contemporary audiences might have shuddered at the admission they mention the word “sex” out loud on multiple occasions. And yet none of this titillating attraction speaks to much of the underlying allure of this picture.

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Look at who we have assembled on top of the acting talent. It sounds too good to be true. If the name Noel Coward doesn’t carry emphatic weight in your life, you might as well cross it out and consider this a Ben Hecht picture. He was, of course, one of the great purveyors of Americana through aphorisms and pervasive wit.

He famously scrapped all of Coward’s play aside from a single line of dialogue. Leaving a mark on the material in a way that was far more suitable to not only Lubitsch but an American audience.

All the gloriously tantalizing pieces are in place but the question remains, Is comedic cohesion possible? Understandably, Hopkins and Edward Everett Horton take up their allotted positions with ease invariably suiting them. Though their own personas aren’t on par with Chevalier or Herbert Marshall, the two American lads do their darnedest. The fact Cooper always feels so awkward in comedy somehow even plays a bit to his favor.

Unfortunately, it just doesn’t take. Again, we are putting it up rather unfairly against the likes of Trouble in Paradise or even The Smiling Lieutenant. Those are high benchmarks indeed. Put simply, the buoyancy is not there frequently enough.

Instead, we have a residual wistful melancholy that feels atypical for your usual Lubitsch drawing-room comedy. Cooper and March become a pair of “Gloomy Gusses” as Hopkins winds up marrying Horton to save them all grief. Even before that, the trio has their share of disagreements simply sorting out their inevitably complicated relationship.

If anything, it suggests in more rational terms that such an existence, as bohemian and open-minded as it may be, also becomes one of the most emotionally taxing. Not to mention relationally murky. In real life that is.

But when you expect something effervescent and gay, Design for Living is a bit of a letdown as a movie. After such a strong charge out of the starting gates, the storyline feels wanting in the middle, sluggishly rolling into the final act. One could wager whether or not plucking more out of Coward’s play might have been the most prudent choice. It’s possible it might have made the setup even droller. I can’t say.

Then again, maybe my own comic proclivities range toward screwball and the overtly visual far too much. It is true it often takes finer sensibilities to appreciate ironies and an astute sense of perception to read between the lines. An appreciation for wit and not solely physical comedy is key.

At least in my estimation, the movie is aided by a final party crashing in an attempt to get their girl. These bookends at the front and back half of the picture are vitalized by our stars being brought together. In such close quarters, there’s this inherent possibility for inspiration.

Lubitsch or not, if you have Gary Cooper, Miriam Hopkins, Fredric March, and Edward Everett Horton together in a room, it’s infinitely better than watching grass grow. The same might be said of Design for Living because if it speaks to anything, the final notes impart a lightness of camaraderie and lithe romance rather than any morose confusions. As it should be. Though it winds up being too little too late.

3.5/5 Stars

Trouble in Paradise (1932): The Grift of Love

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Ernst Lubitsch made a name for himself and his “touch” in silents as well as leaving an indelible mark on the 1940s with the likes of Shop Around The Corner (1940), To Be or Not to Be (1942), Heaven Can Wait (1943), and Cluny Brown (1946). But for me, no film better personifies his wit and sensibilities than Trouble in Paradise. It proves to be the most impeccable distillation of his directorial style.

The script is courtesy of Samson Raphaelson who would become a longtime collaborator with the director on future projects. Aided by uncredited edits by Lubitsch, the story is imbued with class in the guise of light comedy.

There’s a certain cadence to the cutting and the music. A constant winking that seems to be going on. And it’s simultaneously the height of refined elegance while being undercut with constant nudges and proddings of comic verve. What is noticeable is the economical sophistication of the filmmaking and a seasoned eye for how to tell a story by the best means possible. It’s not always what you would expect.

Consider the film in its early moments as a case and point. It could have started so many ways and yet Lubitsch chose something different. A trash heap, a shadowy fugitive, then a man knocked out on his floor and an almost incomprehensibly daring shot that moves us to another building entirely where we meet our protagonist. It’s all so very enigmatic and almost wordless aside from the bellowing of the gondolier. The man on the balcony rightfully asserts to the waiter attentively standing in the wings, “Beginnings are never easy.” So right he is.

Nevertheless, the film continues to put on a lovely charade concealing its finest secret until the perfect instant to milk the quarries of its humorous intentions for all they are worth. We are introduced to a tryst featuring two great romantics caught up in the rapturous trills of amour.

They sit down to a divine dinner that plays as an intimate tete-a-tete. But soon the curtain drops and they don’t skip a beat as she ousts him as the famed burglar Gaston Monescu and he comes back perfectly charming to accuse her of being a pickpocket herself. She tickled him when she nicked his spoils but her embrace was so sweet. He couldn’t help being touched.

In even these early interludes it becomes obvious that the talent couldn’t be better with Herbert Marshall and Miriam Hopkins falling into their roles seamlessly with a certain amount of relish. Playing a romantic pair of thieves is a fine proposition after all. The world is their oyster and they’re in love. What could be better?

Meanwhile, Edward Everett Horton has an exchange with the police that I can’t but help compare with I Love Lucy’s famous language transfer. So much is lost amid the words and Horton always was an oblivious sort, God bless him.

However, the character who will prove to be the third in our triangle of cultured passion is Colet (Kay Francis) a glamorous heiress in control of a cosmetic empire. Francis embodies the ravishing role flawlessly even despite her well-documented speech impediment. It’s nearly imperceptible if you’re not looking for it.

Far from detracting from her performance it simply increases our sympathy for her. She may be rich — even out of touch with the world at large — but she’s hardly arrogant. She’s easily taken in and a bit cavalier with her money while two men are vying for her affection.

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Edward Everett Horton and Charles Ruggles are both exemplary. I realized perhaps it was something moving deep within me telling me those voices were meant to go together. How right I was. Years later Rocky & Bullwinkle serials would have been a great deal less without them. Just as they make this picture that much better. Horton’s pitch-perfect quizzical look (tonsils, positively tonsils) is wonderfully matched by Ruggles own befuddled mannerisms. Still, I digress.

Of course, we see it already. It is Colet’s vast array of jewels that are of particular interest to a third man: Gaston. Except he’s a clever fellow. Instead of just stealing them at the theater he snatches them so he can give them back to her and in turn gain her confidence with his delicate preening of her ego and artful debonair flattery. He’s skilled and she’s a fairly easy mark.

Soon, he’s hired on as her secretary and it has little to do with his current resume, based on probably one of the films most remembered exchanges that pretty much sums up the tone:

“Madame Colet, if I were your father, which fortunately I am not, and you made any attempt to handle your own business affairs, I would give you a good spanking – in a business way, of course.”

“What would you do if you were my secretary?”

“The same thing.”

“You’re hired.”

His wife AKA his Secretary is getting antsy and a little jealous providing one of the film’s other perfectly inflected quips (If you’re a gentleman, I’ll kill you!). Still, her hubby reassures her all of Colet’s sex appeal is in her safe, 1,000s of francs worth of it. But he’s not as impervious as he would like to believe.

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Lubitsch has the finesse to film an entire extended sequence of only a clock with the dialogue playing over it. The romantic interplay is understood without visual cues. We nod in acknowledgment. They’re also almost more romantic when they don’t kiss than when they do, floating inches from each other’s faces, eyes closed in a reverie.  Gliding on air. We begin to suspect whether this is still a put on or if it is, in fact, becoming real. Gaston is good but his wife is getting anxious and she has every right to be.

The family bookkeeper (C. Aubrey Smith) is skeptical of his qualifications and his identity. But the kicker is that Gaston is finally remembered by Monsieur Filiba and only time will tell when his cover is blown.

It’s time to get out of there and yet something keeps him back. He feels compelled to fess up to Colet and yet there’s no calling of the authorities or any of that. She’s far too wealthy to care. It’s what could have been that she will miss and he knows it too. In the end, he still goes out the door and she lets him. No consequences. No real drama.

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There’s no need because that’s not what the film hinges on. It’s the love story and not just the love but how it plays out in this theater of refinement which Lubitsch has incubated to perfection. Undubitably there is trouble in paradise, even wistfulness sometimes, but that doesn’t mean things cannot be resolved.

Husband and wife go out much as they came in — not able to keep their hands off each other — or out of each other’s pockets. Try and put a name to it if you must. It’s the “grift of love.” How sweet it is.

4.5/5 Stars

Love Me Tonight (1932)

lovemeto1This is unequivocally the age of sound! That’s what this film proclaims from the rooftops with its symphony of syncopation as the world of Paris awakens from its slumber. Its opening rhythms are pure ingenuity and the glorious unfoldings never cease for the rest of the cheery production.

In its efforts to tip a hat to Lubitsch, Rouben Mamoulian’s film manages to eclipse him or rather make a name for itself completely removed from the previous Maurice Chevalier musicals. In fact, Love Me Tonight feels like the obvious precursor to later classics like An American in Paris and the works of Jacques Demy. Whereas Lubitsch’s films almost always function as a comedy and social commentary, Love Me Tonight is first and foremost a musical and it rides on its melodies even while simultaneously driving forward its plot line.

When our humble but nevertheless jovial tailor winds up chasing after one of his notorious spendthrift customers to his relative’s aristocratic residence, things are in motion. Maurice is certainly out of his element, but his charm wins him many an admirer in the household including the Duke (C. Aubrey Smith) and his man-hungry niece (Myrna Loy). In fact, there are only two people who seem wary of this new arrival, the Duke’s skeptical daughter, Princess Jeanette (Jeanette MacDonald) and her feeble suitor.

Everybody else persuades The Baron — as he is called — to stay because his is such a magnetic and disarming personality. Of course, when the real news about him gets out following an incriminating wager for his honor, it dooms his romance. But every story needs a final epiphany of realization and, in this case, Princess Jeanette comes to her senses. She throws the utter absurdity of family rank and status out the window.

True, this is a love story, but while that could be the focal point there are wonderful sequences that fill all the nooks and crannies. Fine gentlemen walking around a tailor’s shop without their pants on or a trio of aunts who come right out of the pages of Hamlet. As a Pre-Code film, it certainly has a few risque moments including a Doctor’s visit and one or two mentions of a nymphomaniac — all played for comedic effect of course.

Meanwhile, tunes like “How are you?” and “Isn’t it Romantic” literally takes the country by storm manifesting themselves in all forms imaginable. “Mimi” is a particularly saucy number that pays homage to our main female heroine and it’s opening refrains boast some wonderful point of view shots of our fated lovers. Love Me Tonight winds up being an operetta of repeatedly and ingeniously inventive rhyme and melody all the way through. It also has brilliant sound design from head to toe.

Maurice Chevalier is as charming as ever, still melding his song with a magnetism that flows right into his role, ironically enough, as a character named Maurice. Although Myrna Loy might have become a bigger name arguably, this is Jeanette MacDonald’s film and she plays her part with the necessary aloofness that nevertheless gives way to amorousness. By the end, we like them both and we can’t help but be won over by their songs. For being lesser known on the generally accepted spectrum of classic musicals, this one is a gem.

4.5/5 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

Review: Shop Around the Corner (1940)

Shop-Around-the-CornerA quaint, unassuming film, especially up against other more lavish Ernst Lubitsch works like Trouble in Paradise and Heaven can WaitShop Around the Corner still manages to be in the upper crust of romantic comedies — even to this day.

The story revolves around a little shop in Budapest run by the often curmudgeon and excitable owner Mr. Matuchek (Frank Morgan). Every morning he comes to open up shop and nearly every day he has something to complain about whether it’s his workers or the lack of business. His right-hand man is Alfred Kralik (James Stewart) who has been a diligent clerk in the store for well nigh nine years now.

He confides in his older colleague and friend Mr. Pirovich (Felix Bressart) that he has begun correspondence with a mysterious lady friend who was looking for a partner with whom to discuss culture and all the higher forms of art. Kralik is intrigued as he wants to expand his mind and he seems to have found his perfect match.

Meanwhile, the status quo gets shook up a bit when a Ms. Novak comes into the shop. At first, she gives off the sense of a flustered shopper, but in a matter of moments, she proves herself as a shop girl, acquiring a position even without a vacancy.

Over time, his relationship with Ms. Novak becomes increasingly more antagonistic, to begin with, because she wears a blouse unsuitable for the workplace. The prospect of his first meeting with his secret correspondent has Kralik on edge in expectation, but when he cannot sneak a peak, Pirovich looks for him and delivers a stunning revelation. It is, of course, Ms. Novak.

In such a way the dramatic irony begins as Kralik understands just who this girl is, and she continues to brush him off as the stiff, bowlegged man from the shop around the corner. Mr. Matuchek has unspoken problems of his own that cause him to abruptly fire Kralik, his most faithful counterpart. But their relationship is patched up and the crackerjack clerk gets his position back and then some.

There’s still the matter of Ms. Novak because he truly does feel something for her, even showing up at her home to see how she is getting on after calling in sick. It’s in this moment that she reads one of the letters in front of him. One of his letters.

Then, right before Christmas everything his bustling and busy in the little shop. All seems right as Mr. Matuchek is in good spirits with a Scrooge-like transformation for the holidays. He even winds up with someone to share a festive holiday meal with. It seems that Kralik has a fiancee and so does Ms. Novak. As it is Christmas they both try to leave the other on a positive note, and Klara goes so far as to mention her initial crush on her colleague. This then becomes the critical moment for Kralik as he still knows something she doesn’t. He frightens her stiff about her mystery man and then reveals him to be her pen pal. All it takes is a carnation in the lapel. She gets it right then. They embrace and share a kiss.

Although Stewart is far from a Hungarian clerk, he does exude a pleasant commonness, better than any other actor of his era. As such, he has the perfect demeanor and presence to portray Kralik, a man who seems altogether ordinary, although he certainly is more than meets the eye. Margaret Sullavan seems a generally forgotten leading lady, but there is an airy, almost ethereal quality to her. In real life, she proved to be difficult at times, but here she somehow fits rather remarkably with Stewart. The two leads prove to be adept sparring partners in Lubitsch’s altogether effortless romantic comedy.  It truly reconciles the lines between ideals and reality which allow two people, such as these, to fall in love for real.

4.5/5 Stars

Klara Novak: All my knowledge came from books, and I’d just finished a novel about a glamorous French actress from the Comedie Francaise. That’s the theater in France. When she wanted to arouse a man’s interest, she treated him like a dog.

Kralik: Yes, well, you treated me like a dog.

Klara Novak: Yes, but intead of licking my hand you barked.

 

The Shop Around the Corner (1940)

cc994-the_shop_around_the_corner_-_1940-_posterStarring James Stewart and Margaret Sullavan with direction by Ernst Lubitsch, the film follows the events in a little shop in Budapest Hungary. Alfred Kralik (Stewart) is the most respected employee in the shop and when Ms. Novak (Sullivan) comes in he advises her no jobs are open. However, she does land one and thus begins their rocky relationship. They are constantly at each others throats arguing. Both of them want to end the conflict on a good note as they go their separate ways to marry people that they were corresponding with by letter. When Stewart is to finally meet his unknown lover, he is shocked to look in and see Ms. Novak. Through a series of events she finally figures out he was the writer of all her letters and the two former enemies fall in love. This unorthodox romance has good characters and comedic moments that make it enjoyable to watch.

4.5/5 Stars