Diary of a Chambermaid (1946)

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If Bunuel’s well-remembered adaptation of this material is considerably darker and biting as his pictures always seem to be, then Jean Renoir’s version is fittingly consistent with his own sentiments and oeuvre.

Celestine, as played by the ever precocious Paulette Goddard, looks to be one to tear asunder the stately tranquility of the estate she has been hired to serve at. But in fact what we are met with over time is quite the opposite and that’s one of the great ironies of this film.

Another is the fact that Renoir was called upon to make such a satire under the Hollywood production codes. He is no Bunuel and still, there is a certain anarchy and irreverence that can be taken from many of his native works.

You have only to look at Boudu Saved from Drowning (1932) or is acclaimed masterpiece Rules of the Game (1939) to see the social commentary at work. There is the same upstairs, downstairs dynamic and the pronounced divide between those with means and those who serve those with means.

Paulette Goddard gives a fine showing in the title role that puts her plucky and radiant chambermaid front and center. Whereas she often played opposite a romantic lead like a Chaplin or even Bob Hope, this is her picture and that’s a refreshing change of pace.

What she provides is her usual brand of bodacious energy that carries along her cohort Rose (Irene Ryan) and stands up to the severe and misogynistic valet Joseph (Francis Lederer) who has been in faithful service to the Lanlaire family for 10 years. It sets the tone for the entire picture but it also subsequently reveals that everyone in her vicinity has their own agenda.

There’s Joseph who much like her would love to leave behind his current life for a life of privilege and good fortune. Meanwhile, the controlling Madame Lanlaire (Judith Anderson) wants to use Celestine’s services and certain attributes to help keep her grown son (Hurd Hatfield) at home. She’s suffocated him for an entire lifetime.

The demure, bearded Mr. Lanlaire feels more at ease with Celestine than with his own wife and his feuding next door neighbor the idiosyncratic Captain Mauger (Goddard’s husband and the film’s screenwriter Burgess Meredith) wants to steal Celestine away and hire her on to work at his own estate. He’s even ready to propose marriage and give her nice things if only she’d accept.

So in a sense, if you want to look at the film in very basic terms, Celestine has numerous suitors. One who shares her personal aspirations. One who shares her romantic love. One who makes life a great deal more fun for her and so on. Though only one can end up with her in the end.

It is an admittedly strange circumstance to have a French director of such repute as Renoir directing an English language film from French source material no less. How we ended up with such a project is befuddling. But rather than get caught up in the incongruities it’s suitable to enjoy them for what they are. It could have been a shambles.

I am reminded of Vittorio De Sica’s Terminal Station (1953) that fell under Selznick’s control and was recut and reissued as Indiscretions of An American Wife. The conflicting visions proved to be a disaster.

Here it works to a satisfactory degree. It’s shot and feels like a Renoir film even if the actors themselves or the system they are working in does not. But a Hollywood exterior does not make this film impervious to improprieties. While in some respects it relieves the picture of its claws, there’s nevertheless yet another irony found therein, though the facade must be first pulled away.

It’s so eccentric and giddy with all the flourishes of classical Hollywood and quality supporting actors that it makes us almost forget the strange even indecent behavior that comes to pass. That’s because it’s a Hollywood picture and not a French one.

Furthermore, just because the action is set in France and orchestrated by a French director does not instantly mean that this is a satire of that society alone. Are we so blind as to see the conflicts and relational quibbles that dissect this film as being so far removed from our own?

Surely we don’t have any stratospheres like this or any people with these kinds of behavior in the United States? Charming and unrepressed chambermaids. Brooding men who are bent on vengeance. Mothers willing to use the allure of other women to manipulate their children into still loving them. I can’t speak to any of these things directly but only know we’re often more alike than we would care to admit.

So enjoy Renoir’s Chambermaid on the perfunctory level if you wish. It’s a quirky backroom comedy-drama bolstered by winsome Paulette Goddard. But if you want to see it for something more you may — a satire, a veiled look at risque themes, and anything else you can discern within its frames.

3.5/5 Stars

So Proudly We Hail! (1943)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

3.5/5 Stars

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

Hold Back the Dawn (1941)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

4/5 Stars

The Ghost Breakers (1940)

9c09c-the_ghost_breakersYou have two great leads in Bob Hope and Paulette Goddard for this horror comedy film. It is not the best film of either of them by a long shot and it is not much to write home about but if you like the stars you will probably get some laughs out of this one.

It is a dark and stormy night in Manhattan when Mary (Goddard) learns that she is the new owner of a supposedly haunted island. Larry (Hope) on his part is a radio man who is soon on the run from mobsters after a comment he made on air. After a shooting Larry finds himself face to face with Mary and she helps him out of a pickle. Soon she boards her ship heading for her island and he has no choice but to tag along. There everything comes to fruition and the Ghost Breaksers take on the haunts and the dangers of Castillo Maldito. This is a good example of the horror comedies of the 1930s and 40s. Hope was better with Crosby and Goddard was better with Chaplin, but this film certainly has some hilarity.

3.5/5 Stars

The Women (1939)

 6d603-womenHere is a film full of personalities. In fact there is so much personality that it nearly bowls you over with its impact and frenetic force.

In the center of it all is Norma Shearer who is the respectable socialite who is losing her husband to another woman. Joan Crawford is the gold digging woman who is as detestable as ever. Rounding it out is the equally repulsive gossip played to a tee by Rosalind Russell. There is the ever innocent Joan Fontaine and a spunky divorcee played by Paulette Goddard. Throw in numerous other memorable women and you have a cast that completely overwhelms, but in a good way.

Husbands and lovers seem to being switching hands so easily and the whole film is focused on the women who are swapping them. It begins with Mary Haines’ husband only to continually get more complicated as more gossip is divulged and mud is thrown. Not to mention a few angry fists and slaps to go with the caustic words.

There is a lot to admire about this film, because it does what it set out to do very well. It creates some empathy, some laughs, and yes, a whole lot of loathing.

However, as I contemplated the film I realized although the Women is from 1939 and the clothes often seem laughable, the people and issues in the film often seem all too real. Divorce hits close to many homes literally and gossip certainly has not gone instinct. Thus, despite the passage of time, in many ways this film still feels fresh and relevant today.

4/5 Stars

The Women (1939)

6cabb-poster_-_women_the_01Starring a cast including Norma Shearer, Joan Crawford, Rosalind Russell, Paulette Goddard, and Joan Fontaine, this film is all about the lives of these women. Mary is a member of New York high society who is happy with her marriage. However, when her gossipy friends begin to talk about her husband with another women she is hurt. She eventually  files for divorce and while waiting for the conformation in Reno she meets some new friends and is finally able to find a way to get her husband back. Needless to say the ending is happy and a few women get what they deserve. This film had an enjoyable introduction, a sequence in Technicolor, and an all female cast. Most of all it characterizes the various women in this walk of life. Some are kindly, others foolish, and still others are treacherous.

4/5 Stars

Review: Modern Times (1936)

6b168-chaplin_-_modern_timesModern Times: A story of industry, individual enterprise, humanity crusading in the pursuit of happiness

With those words, Charlie Chaplin’s Modern Times opens with the final installment of The Little Tramp. Clocking in at a little under 90 minutes, Chaplin is still able to do so much, because he does not waste a single segment of film. This is one of the most wonderful pieces of social commentary that Chaplin was able to dream up to reflect the life and times of his audience — to reflect these modern times.

As was his style with The Great Dictator as well, he pokes fun and critiques his targets all under the guise of comedy. He sets the stage at the industrial factory that the Tramp works in. In a precursor to the famed I Love Lucy conveyor belt episode, it is the Tramp who must fight against the constant stream of nuts and bolts. Breaks and lunch become a thing of the past, and the little man suffers a nervous breakdown that leads to mayhem involving a wild ride through the cogs of the machinery as well as some oily madness.

Right off the bat, Chaplin poked fun at this mechanized system that is overseen by a Big Brother-type figure who spends his idle moments at his desk working on puzzles and reading Tarzan serials.

After the Tramp is forced to leave his job following the series of mishaps, he is confronted by numerous issues that Chaplin gleefully exploits. These include communism, the police force, prison, and even drugs (smuggled nose-powder).

Through the Tramp character, Chaplin comments that with the state of the nation during the Depression it was better to be in jail than out in the world. At least you got a bed and food. It was better than unemployment or starving to death with the police constantly on your backs ready to quell any riots.

These sorts of issues are explored through the character of the Gamin (Paulette Goddard). She becomes the Tramp’s love interest for the rest of the film, but the circumstances of their meeting are important. She was attempting to steal a loaf a bread from a bakery truck. It was not out of malice but desperation to feed her family.

The antics are often funny throughout these sequences, but the reality is, she and her sisters lose their father, and they are already motherless. The future is bleak and there is no help to be found with the Depression at its peak.

Here is where possibly my favorite part of the film begins. The two vagrants imagine themselves living in a middle-class household with fruit they can pick from outside their window and a cow that comes up to their door to be milked. They have a fully furnished home with furniture, ottomans, drapes and a fully stocked kitchen. This is their American Dream and that is where their hope lies. One could say that this was the consumerism culture of the post-war 1950s in a nutshell.

Next, the Tramp becomes a night watchman in a department store and for the evening he and the Gamin have the place all to themselves: To roller skate, eat, and use the beds and furs as they please. It is a moment of relaxing diversion from their normally grungy, monotonous lives.

Finally, they find a home as well. It is a real fixer-upper, but it’s home and that’s all that matters. They have each other, and they seem happy enough making do. The Tramp goes back to his 9 to 5 at the factory only to get kicked out once more. The pair of them land work at a local restaurant only to have juvenile officers come after the fugitive Gamin after an uproarious floor show from the Tramp.

Thus, they are once more on the road again. But that never stopped them before, and with his inexhaustible spirit the little man cheers on his love, “Buck up, never say die. We’ll get along!”

They walk off down the highway with new resolve but more importantly they have each other. If they ever do find that elusive lifestyle I am not sure it would be all that it is cracked up to be. The life of a Depression Era vagabond was no picnic, but I think the gift of the Tramp is he is able to make the best of all circumstances. He may look to a better lifestyle in the future with hope, but he does not need it to bring him happiness. Because the reality is, it never could completely satiate. I tip my hat to you for once little man, because for someone so humble you teach us a great deal about ourselves.

Chaplin did it again bringing us a near silent picture in the age of talkies. Although I admit it might seem awkward at times, this film uses sound and the score wonderfully to accentuate the images onscreen. Chaplin did not need the needless babble of dialogue unless it was for comic effect. After all, he and Paulette Goddard had enough chemistry beforehand, they didn’t need words.

5/5 Stars