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

Meet John Doe (1941) and The Woman Who Made Him

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“You don’t have to die to keep the John Doe ideal alive. Someone already died for that once. The first John Doe. And he’s kept that ideal alive for nearly 2,000 years.” – Barbara Stanwyck as Ann Mitchell

In their final collaboration, Capra and Riskin draw on the same cisterns with their usual success. Even the opening images matched with music, summons strains of unmistakable Americana from “Take Me Out to The Ballgame” and “Oh Susanna” mixed with “Roll Out The Barrel.”

It taps into the precise sentiment all but embodied and propagated by all their pictures together. There’s always a point of inception. In this case, it begins with something bad. The Free Press gets axed for a new and improved streamlined paper and with the changes, some of the faithful employees get knocked off too. Among them is feisty newspaperwoman Ann Mitchell (Barbara Stanwyck) supporting her family on her measly paycheck. Now the new regime wants to take that away from her too.

I must open with this. I love Barbara Stanwyck to death. There’s something so energetic and alive about her, even the tonalities of her voice feel fresh and appealing. 1941, without a doubt, was a bumper crop of a year for her — the finest of her career — and she churned out three classics. The Lady Eve, Meet John Doe, and Ball of Fire all capitalized on her ready-made brand of wit, strength, and innate beauty.

Twice she plays Gary Cooper, once it’s Henry Fonda, and yet in all cases, she falls in love with the man. So much so she’ll fight to get them back. And they can be fiery in other movies, but when she shares the screen with them, they don’t have to be. She can supply enough verve and vivacity to cover both of them. It’s phenomenal to watch how she effortlessly commandeers scenes.

But this is jumping the gun. For the time being, she hasn’t met her man yet. She’s too busy being miffed, trying desperately to dream up one final hair-brained idea to reclaim her job. It comes with dreaming up an idealized man — the man she will come to fall in love with.

The origins are innocent. She wants to get back at the brusque editor (James Gleason) trimming the fat like there’s no tomorrow. Her Lavender and Old Lace column is too blase for what they’re looking for. They want fireworks. Well, she’s prepared to give them absolute dynamite. Because in a Capra-Riskin picture, ideas can flip the world upside down.

This one involves a universal “John Doe,” who has sent a letter to the editor to protest the state of the world and the lack of brotherly love. As an act of protest, the mystery man asserts he will commit suicide by jumping off a government building on Christmas Eve merely on principle. While it’s one last feisty stab at keeping her light burning, the John Doe column starts a wildfire across the country.

It’s a national phenomenon. People are clamoring for action to stop this preventable tragedy. They want John Doe to be reinstated into society, even bending over backward to offer charity. The idea is almost too big. The paper is forced to back up the lie by instigating a national search for the one and only John Doe.

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Wouldn’t you know it, among all the bums and vagabonds is Gary Cooper, tall and self-effacing as ever, accompanied by his buddy, The Colonel (Walter Brenan), a man continually suspicious of the helots. Moments later, Stanwyck beams up into Coops big brown eyes forming an instant connection. He’s the one.

With their substantial public support and the silent backing of a perfidious magnate D.B. Morton (Edward Arnold), Meet John Doe fits easily on the same plane with Mr. Smith Goes to Washington and A Face in The Crowd.

Long John Willougby (Cooper) looks to be propped up as a spineless ‘yes man’ and yet even with his national sway, he’s hesitant to use it. This makes him the utter antithesis of Lonesome Rhodes. He has his own choices to make because as it goes, indecision is a decision in its own right.

Thankfully, the flimsy gimmick deepens as Stanwyck humanizes it with her deceased father’s words. It’s no longer a totally phony-baloney stunt. She legitimizes it and falls for the ideal she’s created in its wake. The man standing in for her vision is the washed-up big-league pitcher who is simultaneously falling for her.

It’s pure Capra, pure Riskin, even as a rival newspaper tries to bribe him with 5,000 clams to read an alternate speech, effectively ousting himself as a phoney. He’s can’t help but be smitten so he goes forward as planned, and there’s arguably no better man to orate the words than Gary Cooper. He calmly calls on his fellow countrymen to tear the fences down between neighbors because the trouble with the world is people being sore at each other.

A grassroots populism shoots up across the country in response to his amicable radio rally. John Doe clubs dotting the country are almost a kind of humanistic church meeting ground, altogether apolitical and not overtly religious.

Regis Toomey represents the masses as one of the many folks taken up by Doe’s words. Ann Doran is all but uncredited as his doting wife and the guiding light behind his resolve. His candid soliloquy speaks to the same messages of brotherly love. It’s Williloby’s first realization that he’s a part of something far larger than himself. He has some sort of concrete responsibility to these people, whether real or imagined. 

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The story could end here on this most saccharine note if not for the customary sinister twists alluded to by the foreboding closeup on Mr. Morton as he eavesdrops on his help. He knows he’s in on something that he can use for his personal ends. The greedy are capable of taking something pure and twisting it with their duplicitous intentions.

He proves just how Machiavellian he is willing to stoop, ready to kill an idea when it gets in the way of his political ambitions. Prepared to ground Doe into the dirt and turn the whole nation against him with his amble sway in the media. The man who once promoted him, calls John out as a fake, a man paid off with 30 pieces of silver like Judas Iscariot — the most ignominious traitor the world has ever known.

Stanwyck can’t save him in the moment and she cries out, “They’re crucifying him!” The same people who loved him. A fickle generation fed on lies. Now with the biblical imagery increasingly clear, John Doe is prepared to be the sacrificial figure they don’t deserve.

The following Christmas Eve is understated and dismally captured. Instead of a bridge in Bedford Falls, it’s the top floor of City Hall where our man bides his time, resolved to jump to his death as not only an act of silent protest but sacrificial love.

Capra famously shot about four or five different endings to the picture trying to figure out how to resolve the story in a satisfactory manner. Whether you agree with the choice or not, one must admit he kept with the unifying thematics of his oeuvre. For me, Stanwyck is the standout MVP to the very last scene.

4/5 Stars

Classic Hollywood Baseball Movies

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Given its hallowed place as American’s original national pastime, I thought it would be worthwhile to share some of the best baseball movies classic Hollywood ever offered during its heyday.

I’m not sure if the industry ever made a baseball masterpiece during the Golden Age, but it did highlight some of the great talents of the era both on the field and in front of the camera.

If nothing else, they play a bit like comfort food, between fairy tale romances and warm humor, highlighting men who overcame obstacles to become world-class talents in the Major Leagues.

Pride of the Yankees (1942)

Here is, arguably, the standard-bearer of all baseball movies of a similar ilk. Gary Cooper stars as another famed All-American superstar, Lou Gehrig. Teresa Wright costars as his loving wife Eleanor. The Iron Horse became one of the most formidable ballplayers ever, despite being overshadowed by Babe Ruth. His final days, stricken with ALS, remain a stirring tragedy to this day. There’s hardly a dry eye as he “considers himself the luckiest man on the face of the earth” only to walk off the field for good.

It Happens Every Spring (1949)

This unabashed comedy relies on a crackling premise: a university professor comes upon a curious new formula in his laboratory. No, it’s not flubber but methylethylpropylbutyl. It’s most noteworthy trait is its repellence of wood! Soon the bookish baseball fan is touting his pitching abilities and goes from a nobody to carrying his ball club toward the pennant. Ray Milland stars alongside Jean Peters and Paul Douglas.

The Stratton Story (1949)

Here is a picture certainly in the mold of Pride of The Yankees. This time it’s James Stewart playing Monty Stratton with June Alyson as his crush and future wife. Although Stratton is hardly as well-remembered today, the heart of the romantic drama involves his rehabilitation after he undergoes an amputation. Through grit and determination (and the support of his wife), he made a comeback from his injury to pitch another day.

Take Me Out to the Ballgame (1949)

Although it has much more in common with the other MGM musicals of the day, between Gene Kelly and Frank Sinatra on the ball field (making up a Tinker to Evers to Chance combo with Jules Munshin), and Esther Williams, it’s hard not to enjoy this bright and cheery Technicolor singalong. The shakeup of new female ownership is a good excuse for sparks to fly and quality entertainment to abound courtesy of Busby Berkeley and Arthur Freed.

The Jackie Robinson Story (1950)

There are not necessarily a lot of dramatic thrills to this feature adaptation of Jackie Robinson’s life, but unlike all these other movies, there’s something distinctly special about Jackie portraying himself. With Ruby Dee as his steadfast wife Rachael, we watch Jackie as he is signed by Branch Rickey and rises up the ranks to break the color barrier in baseball, becoming a stalwart of the Brooklyn Dodgers’ team even as he faces an onslaught of prejudice and intimidation. He’s the definition of a sports hero.

Angels in the Outfield (1951)

It plays as a slight and fluffy fantasy story with a demonstrative big league manager (Paul Douglas) receiving some angelic intervention only if he agrees straightens up his act. He goes from being universally reviled by the world to a newsworthy curio. As he starts to change, the team’s fortunes pick up, and romance flowers between him and Janet Leigh. There’s not too much more to it. Donna Corcoran gives an adorable portrayal of a young girl who can see the angels.

The Pride of St. Louis (1953)

The arguments for making a movie about the life of Dizzy Dean seem somewhat slim. Granted, he was a thoroughly colorful figure, born in the backwoods of the Ozarks only to become one of the big leagues preeminent pitchers along with his brother Paul. Dan Dailey and Joanne Dru form a chemistry of contrasts, as Dizzy learns what it is to love someone else and have his will crossed. It’s hardly on par with Gehrig’s or even Stratton’s career trajectory, at least in purely Hollywood terms, but it’s an agreeable story from top to bottom.

Fear Strikes Out (1957)

Here is a baseball biopic that takes the conventional formula while slotting in a younger star in Anthony Perkins to portray up-and-coming outfielder Jimmy Piersall. Far from having his career behind him, it was very much a current event highlighting the ballplayer’s battle with mental health problems, in this case, bipolar disorder (although it was not described as such initially). The two crucial relationships in his life are with his overbearing father (Karl Malden) and his wife (Norma Moore).

Bonus: That Touch of Mink (1962)

While it’s not explicitly a baseball movie, this New York Rom-Com has one of the great baseball cameos with Cary Grant and Doris Day joining the Yankees’ dugout only to see their famed trifecta of Mickey Mantle, Roger Maris, and Yogi Berra all unceremoniously tossed from the game by the agitated umpire. Although it’s hardly as enjoyable, Jerry Lewis’s Geisha Boy similarly features cameos from some of the LA Dodgers’ ballplayers from 1958 for the west coast aficionados.

Vera Cruz (1954): Gary Cooper and Burt Lancaster

Below the Mexican border, during Antebellum days, a diverse array of Americans find themselves in the middle of the fight against Maximillian of France. Vera Cruz is far from a history lesson, however. It need not be. Still, it plays as an important footnote in a different type of history altogether, that of the classic western genre in a current state of evolution, jutting ahead into the 60s.

The script is not always phenomenal, but what it does have is an Aldrich-like penchant for the cynicism of noir. It starts to make even more sense when you consider Borden Chase’s pedigree: a fine row of Anthony Mann westerns. And yet the good sense of amusement overshadows everything else. This is how it still manages to remain a product of the 50s (which isn’t necessarily bad).

Its other readily available and beneficial assets are star power: the pairing of Gary Cooper and Burt Lancaster fits the bill. Then, the on-location shooting does so much to elevate the environmental credibility. There is no other way to make this picture feel truly robust aside from actually finding your way down to Mexico. It’s not that it’s a wholly authentic experience, but at least something in these locales breathes of some form of reality.

Lancaster has the beefier, more intriguing part as Joe Erin, but Gary Cooper (Ben Trane) is able to bring his even-keeled strength to a new generation of westerns, and it serves the picture splendidly. It’s paramount that the two stars act as the utter antitheses of one another while still managing to be opposite sides of the same archetype.

Their garbs still plant them squarely in the traditions of olds, Cooper in the light colors of an undisputed hero and Lancaster game to wear the pitch-black clothes of a two-bit bandit, who would shoot a man in the back and hold children hostage.

Due to Coop’s presence, I couldn’t help but feel Vera Cruz is somehow reminiscent of the adventure films of old like Lives of a Bengal Lancer. There is a similar sense of camaraderie here and our main characters are able to blow through their mission on their own personal valor, even as the locals only purpose seems to be that of collateral damage.

As hinted at before, Vera Cruz is also an early forerunner to a future generation of westerns, all but losing the luster of the mythologized west for something grittier, more graphic, and in some ways, more stylized.

This is the lineage that will lead us to The Magnificent Seven, Sergio Leone, and The Wild Bunch Et al. The presence of Charles Bronson and Ernest Borgnine in a pair of minor thuggish roles are a convenient nod to their future counterparts. For that matter, even Jack Elam would get into Once Upon a Time in the West.

The picture can generally be characterized by two distinct tones: giddy in one moment and equally tense and unsentimental in the next. If you mentally draw up any partnerships or rivalries in the picture, you’re probably apt to see it. It’s incredibly fluid. This precedent is effectively established when Erin growls at his pack of thugs that they aren’t even his friends. Instead of ganging up on Trane, he welcomes him aboard into their merry company.

In other words, he doesn’t show favoritism, nor does he harbor any kind of sentimentality. It’s both an asset and a curse. Always game for a new gun to come around, but equally intent upon looking after number one. His sole allegiance is to himself.

In their attempts to sell themselves out as mercenaries in the Franco-Mexican War — potentially to Marquis Henri de Labordere (Cesar Romero) — they find themselves trapped. Rebels poke their heads over the side of mission walls, guns pointed menacingly down on them.

One must only dip back into the memory bank to remember a similar visual in Butch Cassidy. But of course, in this picture Coop is still infallible and by most accounts, indestructible. Talking his way out of predicament with casual diplomacy and whipping out his six-shooter only upon provocation. He’s entered the grimy, blood-spattered world full of its ambiguous tones, and yet he still remains stalwart. One of the last remaining bastions of the archetypal western hero.

If anything, Vera Cruz signals the decline of his reign over the West, even as it manages to have a wagon full of fun. They show their prowess with a Winchester rifle in the courts of Emperor Maximillian, only to be entrusted with a tenuous mission to escort a Countess (Denise Darcel) to Veracruz. Their valuable cargo winds up being more precious than they first envisioned when they discover it’s loaded up with gold bullion.

The gold becomes the driving force worthy of all sorts of double-crosses and easily rearranged allegiances. There are those driven by greed, others who want the kingdom, and still others, the most noble of all, who want to return the nation to its rightful rulers.

In this last act, the patriotic Juarista and the French forces face off with all the fervor you can imagine. The editing feels surprisingly quick for a day and age when breaking 10 seconds on an individual shot was not altogether uncommon.

Aldrich, in his first big production, fused with the talents of cinematographer Ernest Laszlo, boasts a picture with a lot of frenetic energy to offer. It is an imperfect, at times, disjointed effort, but it willingly takes hold of the bridle and rides the story to a worthwhile conclusion.

There are ample visually striking moments to reference, from a column of men on horseback fleeing across the plains and then, in the climactic moments, gattling guns rattling the terrain with bullets. Cannon volleys follow in earnest as a charging onslaught of men look to take the Bastille, as it were. Clouds of gunpowder and smoke hang in the already dusty air.

This is purely on the macro level. Overlaid with Erin’s relentless ambitions to acquire the gold for his own, and Trane looking to do anything in his power to keep him at bay. It comes down to the fated face-off, all but bubbling under the surface from the first time they ever laid eyes on one another. Do you really need to guess the outcome? See it for yourself.

The final emblematic images are of a ravaged battleground strewn with dead bodies. Widows and orphans scurrying to find loved ones and survey the damage. Who ends up with the gold at this point feels inconsequential. The conclusions drawn might as well be the cataclysmic effects of avarice and war. Though Vera Cruz has enough wherewithal to manage a decently good time going about it. This might be an unfeeling observation to make but, once again, it also remains a fitting portent for the future.

3.5/5 Stars

Garden of Evil (1954): Starring Gary Cooper and Richard Widmark

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It does feel like one of the grand old westerns we left behind in more recent years. It’s a big picture in the horizontal majesty of widescreen, Glorious Technicolor, backed by the only score Bernard Hermann would ever arrange for the West. There’s little doubt we are in for a spectacle of the highest order.

Maybe Richard Widmark doesn’t look as good in color as the shrouds of noir, but he can act. Here he’s a poker player who fancies himself a poet on the side. As he gets off at an isolated Mexican outpost, he’s yakking away to the typically taciturn Gary Cooper. The taller fellow plods by his side quietly amused by everything coming out of the Widmark’s mouth.

They are joined by a third man (Cameron Mitchell) biding their time en route to the goldfields of California by listening to the floor show (Rita Moreno) at the local cantina. I do relish films that take place in multiple languages; perhaps it humbles me. Because as I’m no longer living near a Latino community and I haven’t studied in a long time, my Spanish is rusty, so I can only pick up bits and pieces. I am at the mercy of others.

But it also means Gary Cooper can pay a major service to the audience. He translates for us and with that comes an added depth to his character. He’s knowledgeable and must have been around. How does he know the language? We don’t know right off so it teases us to stick around in order to find out.

It’s quite relaxing until Susan Hayward bursts in on the men, effectively dropping the whole reason for the picture right in their laps. An adventure is afoot, and they take it up with few reservations. It doesn’t seem to cross their minds to question any of it; the compensation waved in front of them is high enough. Maybe they maintain their own private reasons. Soon they’re journeying through a mountain pass in order to help save the woman’s stranded husband (Hugh Marlowe).

A perfect moment on the road — making sure we’re aware of the stakes — features a dislodged frying pan clattering down below, ricocheting off the rock faces, and echoing through the canyon as it makes its descent.

As things progress, it becomes apparent the fine line between brooding and dull is a difficult one. It certainly is, more often than not, a slow burn with Widmark waxing philosophical and Cooper projecting an air of constant clear-sightedness about the world. He never loses his head. The rest of the time we’re waiting for something.

The confrontation between Hooker (Cooper) and the hothead Daly (Mitchell) is a particular sequence to relish as the young gun not once, but twice, is sent somersaulting on his back — his butt nearly putting out the fire and getting singed as a result. By the end of his drubbing, he’s practically rolling in it, and he’s been made to look terribly foolish.

But like Way of The Gaucho, the on-location shooting is what the movie can boast about the most. The action is middling and dull at best, because it’s a long haul to get a payoff.  We are waiting for things to come to a head and while Indians are said to be brewing up in the hills, they only show themselves briefly.

Oddly, Susan Hayward is thanklessly cast as the villain-turned-hero. Maybe it has to do with the time the picture came out since she hardly gets the delicious part of a femme fatale. More often than not, she feels like a scapegoat, that is until everyone realizes how faithful she is. It’s too little too late.

By the end of the story, the emotions lack resonance, because they haven’t built up into anything truly believable with continuity we can easily trace. It does feel a bit like running through the paces just to get to the marks, and it’s difficult to say given the talent on hand. They are a fine host of actors.

It’s possible to cast a bit of the blame on Frank Fenton’s script, which has fun with some dialogue — getting a bit profound about male avarice and passion — while supplying the actual plot little meat.

Gary Cooper and Richard Widmark too were always men of action, but there’s not enough here for them to accomplish. By the time they have chances to do what is purportedly brave and heroic, the deep recesses of meaning looking to be excavated are hollow — even strangely so, because we truly want there to be more, and there isn’t.

3/5 Stars

Love in The Afternoon (1957): The Wilder Touch

220px-Love_in_the_afternoon_(1957)_-_movie_poster.jpgBilly Wilder, more than any screenwriter I’ve ever known, has a knack for voiceover narration. What other novices consider a crutch to feed us information, he uses as an asset to set tone, story, and location, while offsetting the image with the spoken word.

Take the beginning of Love in The Afternoon, for instance. The voice is unmistakable. The place too. The tone, typical Wilder. We are given a tour of the Left Bank, The Right Bank, and in the in-between, where men and women can be seen in the throes of “amour,” as it were.

The presence of Maurice Chevalier is unquestionably a nod to Wilder’s hero Ernst Lubitsch who utilized the dashing Frenchmen in many of his most successful operettas. Now, although graduating to a more mature part, he nevertheless maintains a similar persona. He is suave, charming, and still embroiled in romantic trysts, albeit on the outside looking in, literally — as a highly adept private investigator.

Already in the opening sequence, although this might be the closest Wilder ever got to his idol in content, it becomes obvious their definitive styles could not be more diametrically opposed. “The Lubitsch Touch” was very much trying to put a name to an impeccable sense of visualizing comic situations with a kind of shorthand, provided the audience is in on the joke as well. Not that Lubitsch’s work with screenwriter Samson Raphaelson lacked verbal wit or that the younger filmmaker’s oeuvre lacked visual flair. Far from it.

However, Wilder’s style is predominantly devoted to the written word, imbuing the comic situations with a bite and wittiness, which under other circumstances might be stale. The beauty is one approach is not inherently better than the other and as time has been fairly good to both men, it’s needless to pick favorites (though I do love Wilder).

John McGiver, by all accounts, is in his debut, but he’s got the flustered British husband down, fully intent on finishing off his rival who has stolen away his wife from him. He called on the services of Claude Chavasse (Chevalier), and the man’s almost too successful.

Legendary international playboy extraordinaire Frank Flannagan (Gary Cooper) almost ends up shot to bits, if not for Chavasse’s own daughter. His pride and joy, Arianne (Audrey Hepburn), is currently attending a music conservatory, and her father has kept her shielded from his sordid work life. This has hardly kept her from sneaking into his files and being enraptured by the romantic trysts and fairytale romances found within his records.

The cream of the crop is Flannagan who is experienced in the ways of the world and romancing — an attractive existence she can only dream of. It tickles her fancy and so she goes to save him. It’s her good deed, to allow his life to continue as is.

One invaluable component of his seduction is the four-piece ensemble “The Gypsies” and their tune “Fascination” becomes a bit of a code word for the certain je ne sais quoi that happens between two people caught up in passion.

Billy Wilder has an equally astute ability in using music to punctuate his comedy through frenzied strings, featured in everything from Love in The Afternoon to Some Like it Hot and One, Two, Three. If those tactics don’t quite pan out, he inserts a handy bit of Americana like Mickey Mantle’s batting average.

The greatest development in this rom-com occurs when Flannagan finds himself enthralled by the peculiar girl who wound up on his balcony and saved his neck. She is so sensitive, a wisp of a girl, so different than the women he has known before. He also knows very little about her but desires to entertain her along with his other conquests.

Not to be outdone, Ariane strives to play a part worthy of his reputation. She takes on the facade of a femme fatale with rows of lovers of her own to rattle off in her dictaphone for his bemusement — completely turning the tables on him. Truthfully, she couldn’t be more in love with him, but she suspects a man of his reputation is not quick to change his womanizing ways.

Before getting to the goods, it seems necessary to mention the elephant in the room. Gary Cooper was about 56 years old when this picture came out, and Audrey Hepburn was 28. Just looking at the numbers makes one cringe a bit, and the most uncomfortable thing is how it shows up onscreen.

I do adore Audrey Hepburn. She’s so innocently sweet with the same demure eloquence and pristine diction exhibited in every one of her pictures. Crawling around in her elegant attire looking for her lost shoe is as endearing as any moment she has. It makes us appreciate her all the more. Because she is so very lovable.  And Gary Cooper is usually fine — everyone knows him as the 20th-century representation of All-American manhood — but together it does feel a bit stiff and uninspired.

Our star does his best but he was never a romantic comedy lead in the manner Cary Grant was. There you have part of his problem. Because even the two Lubitsch comedies he appeared in — Design for Living and Bluebeard’s Eighth Wife — were hardly the preeminent offerings from either man.

In some cases, one plus one does not always add up sufficiently. Although it’s the greats who often transcend such equations to give us something of exponential worth. Unfortunately, Cooper plus Hepburn is fine but never enters any purely magical, uncharted territory. Like she did with Gregory Peck or maybe even Cary Grant. It’s not simply a matter of the uncomfortable age discrepancies. It has to do with out and out compatibility.

There is another major qualm too. Namely the mammoth length of the narrative seemingly dragging leaden in the middle. Because it relies on the chemistry of our leads more than any other element or supporting character, the subsequent weaknesses become all the more evident.

However, you might remember a few years after starring with Audrey Hepburn, Cary Grant had one of his first non-romantic rolls playing matchmaker in Walk, Don’t Run. Maybe it’s a thankless job, but without the piece (seen also from Charles Coburn on occasion) you would not have the glue to hold the movie together. Here Maurice Chevalier swoops in lithely again to bring the story to its closure.

He puts the ball in Cooper’s court, to evoke an American sporting metaphor, giving the man his daughter is in love with the license to play with the dramatic irony. Their relationship is only resolved in the last possible moment. In the nick of time, Frank Flannagan saves his reputation — maybe he’s not a bad sort after all — though the final kiss is still a bit disconcerting. (What I wouldn’t give for Jack Lemmon right about now.)

We can concede Love in The Afternoon comes in for a final landing tying everything together along those two lines, with the Parisian passion shrouded by the Wilder malaise and yet supplied a touch of tearful sentimentality. In the end, Ariane and Frank spend a life sentence together of the best sort. If you’ve been in love you know what it’s like. You don’t need this movie to show you.

3.5/5 Stars

Friendly Persuasion (1956): Gary Cooper’s Quaker Clan

220px-Poster_-_Friendly_Persuasion_01The when is 1862. The where is Southern Indiana. We find ourselves in the throes of Quaker country as envisioned by novelist Jessamyn West and brought to the screen by his eminence, William Wyler.

What follows is a lovely opening gambit with a goose about as anthropomorphic as they come without completely shattering the sense of movie realism. He nips our little narrator, a Quaker lad named Jess (Richard Eyer) in the seat of the pants to punctuate our mellow tale on a comical note.

Authenticity, historical, religious, or otherwise, is not what Friendly Persuasion is concerned with. We might call it into question on any number of accounts. Still, it is packed full with enough tweeness for every “thee” uttered by the kindly Quakers who exist within the frames.

The gentle satire is of a certain warmth and unassuming candor, we cannot help but smile at because unadulterated goodness leaves behind a luster. Indeed, it is one of the finest attributes of the picture. Their matriarch (Dorothy McGuire) is zealously religious and abhors violence, but we can hardly label her unkind. Meanwhile, the man of the house (Gary Cooper) is about as genial as they come.

As with most small-town communities, about the most exciting experience you can possibly partake in is a traveling carnival. Imagine you’re a Quaker and then every stray stimulus and forthcoming attraction becomes 10 times more novel.

The ascetic folks pushing the boundaries of their normal sensibilities is played for a bit of humor. It might be dancing a jig gaily with a handsome beau, trying a hand at a musical instrument a salesman is trying to peddle, or a young boy getting the itch for gambling in the form of the ever-dubious shell game.

Cooper winds up winning a pair of sleeve holders, which look eerily similar to a pair of garters, while a stocky Quaker boy gets caught up in a wrestling match only to back down as it begins to impinge on his beliefs. He has vowed like all his brethren never to hurt anyone. From an outsider’s perspective, it is perceived as weakness and worse yet a dereliction of duty when it comes to fighting for your country. Because the Civil War is on everyone’s mind.

Friendly Persuasion becomes a diluted effort due to its length, which, while giving adequate time for many asides and quaint observations, takes away from the import of the material. It’s not quite capable of navigating the straights between social issues and jocularity — it’s never quite assured — settling for a rocky path.

The young soldier, Gard (Peter Mark Richman), is the force tying the family to the war directly as he has eyes for their daughter, while still maintaining his duty toward the Union Army. It stays in the periphery for a time. However, it’s inevitable, with the extent the war is spreading, they must make decisions of their own. This is what is being set up for each individual character, and they must react accordingly.

However, this is not solely about a message of pacifism, but in a society split up of many religious sects and political factions, it is a film with some sense of continued relevance. It even dabbles with the same dichotomy as Sergeant York (1941), having to do with the commandment entreating the adherents not to murder. The question remains: is there a semantic difference between murder and killing? More important still, is there a difference in the hearts of men. The film has to forge its own path.

Separately, Gary Cooper and Dorothy McGuire appear suited for the material as they both bring a certain sensibility and ingrained honesty to nearly every part. Side by side, the chemistry between the two of them seems relatively absent and not simply because of their mundane temperaments. It could do with the fact Coop never wanted the actress to play opposite him, to begin with. Ingrid Bergman was his choice, but she passed on it.

Anthony Perkins’ role is slight in the way all his performances seem to be, and yet their unassuming skittishness somehow imbues them with their own brand of resonance. It’s true, after only his second film, the writing on the wall said he was destined to be a great star. They weren’t wrong; his career just didn’t end up quite as people might have expected. Of course, Norman Bates was a jarring subversion of his image, simultaneously redefining (and typecasting) it for all posterity.

While it’s easy enough to think of them as being on different strata, Perkins feels like he could easily be an earlier version of Tommy Kirk from Old Yeller (1957). Where a boy is put through the gauntlet and must come to terms with harsh realities of life. Of course, McGuire would again play the maternal figure in the latter Disney production.

In this picture, she gets her moment with the homestead being overrun with Rebs. Doing her best to keep her composure through hospitality, she nevertheless lets one of them have it over the head with a broom for going after the family goose. Cooper’s own confrontation with a Rebel soldier occurs in an open clearing, serving as his final test and a bit of a case study the film puts in front of us.

He passes, and it’s not what we usually expect from Cooper. Not only were audience expectations undone, but Cooper himself seemed to think the hero he was, and played on-screen, would have normally acted differently. We can make a judgment call on whether or not he was right.

One is reminded High Noon (1952) succeeded in its storytelling with a lean running time featuring a very concrete progression of scenes. Coop was an archetypal hero, even one of the western greats in Will Kane, but we also know where we will be going when the clock strikes 12. There is not the same urgency to Friendly Persuasion — it’s much looser  — ultimately too good-natured to hammer home its themes with any amount of authority. There’s no fault in a lighter tone per se, but it could have amounted to a whole lot more providing there was tauter plotting.

3/5 Stars

Classic Movie Beginner’s Guide: Teresa Wright

We continue our series chronicling the career of classic Hollywood stars with 4 films. This week our subject is Teresa Wright a genial actress with a high degree of success throughout the 1940s at MGM.

If memory serves, she remains the only performer to have received Oscar nominations for her first three roles. Her later career stalled mostly impart to her willingness to challenge the rigid structures of the studio system.

Without further ado, let’s take a closer look at the often unsung talent of Teresa Wright!

The Little Foxes (1941)

What an auspicious way to begin a film career not only playing opposite Bette Davis but being directed by William Wyler in a spectacular ensemble including Herbert Marshall and Dan Duryea. Wright more than substantiates her reputation as a wholesome ingenue amid an otherwise treacherous menagerie. Mrs. Miniver would do much the same to uphold her image.

The Pride of The Yankees (1942)

There’s not a better choice to play Eleanor the wife of the Iron Horse, Yankee legend, and ALS casualty Lou Gehrig. The chemistry between Wright and Gary Cooper is genial and playful from the beginning. This is what makes the hardship even more devastating. In her lady years, I heard Wright was quite the avid Yankees fan, and after this film you can see why.

The Shadow of a Doubt (1943)

This is arguably the pinnacle of Teresa Wright’s career pairing her with Alfred Hitchcock and giving her top billing across from Joseph Cotten as her treacherous uncle and namesake Charlie. It’s the height of rural noir where the darkness of the outside world seeps into idyllic Santa Rosa as the wanted widow murderer seeks refuge. Her own is quickly thrown into jeopardy when he begins to suspect she knows…

The Best Years of Our Lives (1946)

If I’m correct, this is the film that first introduced me to Teresa Wright, and I was immediately smitten with her charms as the grown daughter of Myrna Loy and Frederic March. She finds herself caught up in a romance with a returning G.I. stuck in a loveless marriage (Dana Andrews). What makes it so powerful is the fact this is only one relationship in the patchwork William Wyler creates out of the Boone City community.

Worth Watching:

Mrs. Miniver, Pursued, The Men

The Westerner (1940): Made by Walter Brenna and Gary Cooper

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I do appreciate older films running their credits at the beginning, and I make a habit of perusing them for familiar names. More often than not, I’m rewarded in some small regard. However, The Westerner features a rather unusual notice:  “This story is legend founded on fact and, with the exception of “Judge” Roy Bean and Lily Langtry, all the characters are fictional.”

It seems a curious statement to make, but upon actually viewing this western, it makes complete sense. Not simply because the genre thrives off of myths, legends, and larger-than-life heroes, but the story is as much a testament to its characters than the offbeat movements of its plot. To a varying degree, it precedes thematic elements found in pictures like Shane (1953), The Far Country (1954), and Day of The Outlaw (1959).

Judge Roy Bean is one of the eccentric and notorious “hanging” judges of the Old West who supposedly lorded over the Texas territories. It’s difficult to think of a better man to play the ornery son of a gun than Walter Brennan. It’s even harder to think of a better part for Brennan. He’s got his name all over it.

Because he’s part of the local crowd of cattlers who are ready to do everything in their power to get the miserable sodbusters off the land they deem to be rightfully theirs. After all, they got to the land “first” so dibs should obviously go to them, no matter how much land is available.

The animosity is already fierce when the film opens with the cattle ranchers looking to scare off and gun down any of the opposition. Meanwhile, the homesteaders are intent on protecting their own with guns if they have to, continuing to grow their crops and fence off their territory.

But one brazen individual isn’t so lucky as he’s tracked down and brought before the “Judge” who holds court in his own bar and sentences the man be “hung.” It’s one of the grimmer moments in a western offering otherwise ripe with jocular even humorous interludes.

Because the inevitable occurs and the prototypical saddle tramp, Cole Harden (Gary Cooper) is drifting his way to California. It wouldn’t mean much except for the fact he’s accused of riding a stolen horse belonging to one of the cattlemen.

As is typical in the territory, he’s about to be tried and strung up right there in the bar. The Judge is all ready to throw the book at him. But Gary Cooper is not your typical man. Normally we would say he’s a stellar gunfighter or a fierce personality, but what he’s armed with, in this picture, is a quick wit.

We see his eyes gazing up at the wall above him as his mind works coolly to make up a story to save his own skin. It’s quite obvious that Bean has a special admiration for one dancehall performer Lilly Langtry and so, of course, Cole’s story goes something like this…

He once met Ms. Langtry while she was touring the states and struck up a friendship with her. Why he even asked for a lock of hair to hold onto as a keepsake. And of course, he doesn’t have it on his person. He would have to call for it. By this point, Bean is licking his lips with relish; the jury concurrently convening on whether or not the out-of-towner should be strung up.

We see Harden has gained a very influential admirer and he and the Judge strike up an uneasy partnership that we might tentatively call friendship. Conveniently, another horse thief — the real one — is found to take his place. Thereafter, the story is injected with subsequent comic undertones following a real bender, leading into a chase on horseback as Brennan tries to catch up to Cooper. He really wants that lock of hair for himself!

They both end up rolling around in the dirt conducting a meeting of the minds to decide if he will stay. In a perfect follow-up, the camera switches angles with Brennan’s back to the camera as they continue to converse and Cooper nonchalantly slips the other man’s gun into his boot.

It’s interludes like these that continually assert the film as a wholly idiosyncratic take on the western genre, which, by all accounts, wasn’t much to Gary Cooper’s liking. Because The Westerner lacks the classical elements we’ve come to expect, and there you have part of what makes it a good-humored time.

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But this blissful note strikes too soon. There is an inferno of drama ready to envelop the film leaving behind charred remains and pained relationships. One of the most integral people is plucky Jane Ellen Matthews (Doris Davenport) who spoke up on behalf of Cole and subsequently castigated the judge for his corruption.

In the end, she feels betrayed by Harden in his attempts to play mediator between both sides. One questions whether or not this is the last straw. Surely he will ride on to leave behind all the trouble at hand.

Still, with any Gary Cooper hero, there must be an inherent decency to be abided by. It’s little surprise he sticks around to cross wills with Bean one last time. They meet indoors waiting for Ms. Langtry’s stunning debut at a local theater. For some reason, it feels like we are sitting in on Ford’s Theater with some unnamed tragedy about to occur.

What goes down thereafter feels a bit like an anti-payoff after all we have gone through. Although it does come with a wide array of bullet holes. There must be more to this story. Then again, maybe it is just the right resolution for a rare oater such as this. At any rate, the film is at its best not as a wide-ranging epic but on a micro-scale. This is a story owned first and foremost by our two leading men.

Taken as it is, the story is uneven even subpar, but it gives us enough that is unorthodox and set alongside the incandescent performances of Cooper and Brennan with Gregg Toland’s ever superb compositions, there’s too much to like here to disregard it outrightly.

While William Wyler was never synonymous with the West like a John Ford, he nevertheless delivered on several occasions. The Westerner was one and The Big Country another. It comes from stellar character dynamics and cinematography more than anything else. However, when put together compellingly, they do make a sterling combination. For this one, we could not envision the West without the likes of Gary Cooper and Walter Brennan.

Walter Brennan leverages his role to become one of the most endearing of antagonists. And if it’s pushing it to say he’s lovable, then at least there’s something tragically inane about him so agog over a lady, even to the point of renaming his town after her. Since actors like Chill Wills and Dana Andrews are mere blips on the screen, Cooper is the only character coming close to his equal.

There’s only one final thought left. It really is a shame Gregg Toland never shot more westerns, especially with John Ford (his collaborator on two contemporary pictures). Some of the most captivating images in The Westerner come from sunlight glistening through the cornfields as the homesteaders thank the Lord for their bounty. What could he have done with Monument Valley as his playground?

4/5 Stars

Beau Geste (1939): Brotherly Love in The French Legion

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“The love of a man for a woman waxes and wanes like the moon…but the love of brother for brother is steadfast as the stars, and endures like the word of the prophet.” ~ Arabian Proverb

No matter what Joseph Von Sternberg thought of such a proclamation, we can concede his Morrocco was a film concerned with the former. Von Sternberg’s dalliances with Marlene Dietrich behind the scenes and then Dietrich and Cooper in front of the camera are a living testament.

Beau Geste stakes its claim early to being a film of undying brotherly love. It brings to mind the words of scholar and author C.S. Lewis when talking about philia as a “side by side, shoulder to shoulder” appreciative love. It comes not by looking at each other but having a vision of something in front of us.

“Every step of the common journey tests his metal; and the tests are tests we fully understand because we are undergoing them ourselves. Hence, as rings true time after time, our reliance, our respect and our admiration blossom into an Appreciative love of a singularly robust and well-informed kind.”

I think this is a perfect illustration to begin to understand why Beau Geste is an initially compelling hero’s journey because it relies on a joint adventure to bring out expressions of deep-rooted love.

Admittedly, William A Wellman’s film is a close remake of the 1926 silent Ronald Colman vehicle. One element this film borrows from its predecessor are intertitles, and they’re too many of them for a talking picture.

But soon enough a cold open places us within the ranks of some French Legionnaires who come upon a fortress only to find the stronghold littered with the bodies of their comrades propped up against the walls. Something dreadful must have happened to them. For now, we get no more explanation as the story quickly fades back into the past, 15 years prior.

There we meet five children, three of them named Geste, one of them named Isobel, and the fifth a bespectacled killjoy named Augustus. You see, the others are still enraptured with adolescent imaginations that find them gallivanting around on the most glorious adventures as soldiers or possibly members of King Arthur’s court.

Their exploits are to be remembered with a Viking’s funeral with a dog lying at their feet. The beauty of their temperaments is the fact they hold on to a bit of their youthful exuberance when they grow into young men.

It always is a bit of a start when you jump from child actors to their corresponding adult selves. In the picture, I couldn’t quite make the jump seamlessly but no matter. All I know is I do have an appreciation for our leads — that is the three Geste brothers. They really are rather like the three Musketeers with Gary Cooper, Ray Milland, and Robert Preston making a jocund company.

Also, on a side note, this is too perturbing for me not to mention. I double-checked records multiple times and our three stars were born in 1901, 1907, and 1918 respectively. I’m still trying to figure out why Robert Preston hardly looks any younger than his costars or at least Milland. Maybe it’s his mustache. At any rate, age differences aside, the chemistry is present.

What is not present is the priceless jewel “The Blue Water” that was stolen one evening from the home of their adopted aunt Lady Patricia. The same evening Beau runs off to the Foreign Legion followed soon thereafter by Digby (Preston) and finally John (Milland) who gives one parting embrace to Isobel (Susan Hayward) before leaving on the grand adventure. Hayward is exquisitely beautiful and though her ingenue role is in no way groundbreaking, we have the solace of many meaty performances to come.

The film’s true standout is Brian Donlevy as an unscrupulous tyrant in charge of new recruits. He eventually finds himself commanding the entire outpost with the whole outfit threatening insubordination. His hunger for power verges on the deranged.

My expectations were more of the rip-roaring adventure variety but as the previous commander’s remarks on his deathbed, “Soldiers die as much from fevers as they do battles.” Meanwhile, Digby is unceremoniously pulled away from his brothers on a work detail and subsequently, misses out on most of the final act.

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I would say wholeheartedly the film is salvaged in its last push as we are granted the spectacle we have been waiting for as the remaining men hold down the fort against incoming marauders. It makes one nearly cry out “Remember The Alamo!” The sentiment is there anyway.

It seems a horrible thing to say, but Cooper affected me more when he was on the verge of death than when he was alive. The all but wordless finale plays particularly cryptically as Digby sneaks around the compound to carry out his oldest brother’s wishes.

I must admit to dismissing Beau Geste‘s storytelling prematurely as it evoked greater complexities than I would have expected. The mechanisms of the opening and overlapping moments are more intricate than I might have given them credit for. The mysterious words spoken once upon a time, while Beau was hiding in the suit of armor, come to fruition as do the opening moments, neatly folding back into the tale.

The reunion of John with Isobel and his Aunt arrives in the nick of time to satiate audience wish-fulfillment. It almost elevates the film wholeheartedly, but the pacing and where the story chooses to focus its efforts feel scattered. Had they come together more succinctly we might be hailing Beau Geste one of the great actioners.

While Gary Cooper in a foreign legion kepi is nonetheless iconic, I am apt to remember him more so for Morocco (even if that picture belonged to Dietrich). Although if one is sentimental enough to forgive the faults, it’s painless enough to say Beau Geste belongs to three devoted brothers. Coop, Milland, and Preston maintain a spirited solidarity throughout.

3.5/5 Stars