Wednesday, September 15, 2010

MIDNIGHT | 1939 | New York Times Review | April 6, 1939

The New York Times:  April 6, 1939:  Frank S. Nugent
'Midnight,' With Don Ameche and Claudette Colbert, Strikes a Seasonal High in Comedy at the Paramount

The ice went out of the river at the Paramount yesterday, and Spring came laughing in with "Midnight," one of the liveliest, gayest, wittiest and naughtiest comedies of a long hard season. Its direction, by Mitchell Leisen, is strikingly reminiscent of that of the old Lubitsch. Its cast, led by Claudette Colbert, Don Ameche, John Barrymore and Francis Lederer, is in the best of spirits. Its script, by too many authors to mention, is a model of deft phrasing and glib narrative joinery; and its production, while handsome, never has been permitted to bulk larger than its players. The call is for three cheers and a tiger: the Paramount is back on Broadway again.

The "Midnight" of the title is the fatal hour that strikes for every Cinderella, the moment when the coach will change back into a pumpkin, the ballroom dress will fall into rags and the prince charming discover the smudge of soot, or fried egg, on the changeling's cheek. But the clock doesn't strike when the film's midnight comes; out, instead, pops a cuckoo with a clarion call to humor. Things go hilariously to smash, but not Cinderella. Even the fairy godmother--in this case, John Barrymore--blinks amazedly at his protege's carryings-on. When Miss Colbert plays Cinderella she doesn't depend on a magic wand; a slapstick and a bludgeon are handier, and funnier.

It begins with the arrival in Paris on a rainy night of a young woman with one evening gown to her back, and not too much of it to it. In a matter of moments she has met a cab- driver named Czerny, crashed a society musicale and has been "set up"--to use the Park Avenue phrase--in the Ritz by a prankish, yet practical, millionaire with instructions to break up, by intervention, the affair between his wife and an irrepressibly romantic man about town. Miss Colbert's "Baroness Czerny"--a title by courtesy of the cabby--is beautiful bait, and everything goes smoothly until midnight and even more smoothly, in a comic sense, thereafter. Usually these thing fall apart of their own complications; this one has the marvelous air of being bolstered by them. There is the business of the cab-drivers' posse; there is the business of Cinderella being baffled by the godmother's magic wand; there is the business of Cabby Czerny's heroic attempts to expose the fraud and being considered a lunatic; there is the bit in which Mr. Barrymore impersonates a 3-year-old; there is the complication attending the discovery that the non-wed Czernys will have to be divorced.

We could mention other zany bits, but it wouldn't help. It is really too daffy to be synopsized. You'll have to take our word for it that it's fun. Most of the credit, of course, belongs to Miss Colbert. She has superb command of the comic style, can turn a line or toss a vase with equal precision. Mr. Barrymore, the Gehrig of eye-brow batting, rolls his phrases with his usual richly humorous effect, and Mr. Ameche and Mr. Lederer were quite as helpful. All of them have made it a happy occasion. Pictures like "Midnight" should strike more often.

Monday, September 13, 2010

TWENTIETH CENTURY | 1934 | "I love (to work with) you."

Broadway writer, director and producer Oscar Jaffe (John Barrymore) turns awkward lingerie model Mildred Plotka (Carole Lombard) into Lily Garland, famous stage actress.  

When we meet them, he's continuing to attempt to manipulate every aspect of her life, because so far it's made both of their careers.  On the flip-side, she is tired of his tyranny over every aspect of her life, and so she makes an impulsive departure for Hollywood.  

Later, their paths cross again on a cross-country train, the 20th Century.  By this time she is a huge movie star while he is a broken man.  Once he learns she's aboard the train, Oscar schemes to get Lily’s current boyfriend out of the way, and get her to sign onto his next production.

“Twentieth Century” is different from modern comedies because it is cerebral, and yet thoroughly wackadoodle. The level of melodrama that John Barrymore and Carole Lombard maintain is so consistent that I wonder if, at the time, anyone was concerned that audiences would think they were playing straight.  Once I watched this while my brain was a bit flatlined, and I found myself slipping and taking it at face value.  It’s like they’re in a satire of a telenovela, and they manage to keep it fresh (and consistent) for 90 minutes.

The tumultuous relationship between Oscar “OJ” Jaffe (John Barrymore) and Lily Garland (Carole Lombard) creates hugely successful Broadway plays.  And while most Screwballs are also rom-coms, and frequently employ the "verbal sparring as courtship" way of bringing two people together ("I hate you so much that I love you!"), this film is different because it utilizes the love/hate dynamic to get the guy and the gal together, as professionals.

This means there is no need for the heartfelt scene when each proclaims their love. This also means there’s no need for us to see evidence of their feelings throughout the film so that we buy into the soppy climax.  Without all of that, there is a lot more room for silliness.

And this film is silly.  Crazy silly.

Released: 1934
Director/Producer:  Howard Hawks
Leads:  John Barrymore, Carole Lombard
Writer: Charles Bruce Millholland (play "Napoleon of Broadway"), Charles MacArthur and Ben Hecht (screenplay), Gene Fowler (uncredited), Preston Sturges (uncredited)

Saturday, September 4, 2010

Screwball Spotlight | Roscoe Karns

TWENTIETH CENTURY is the next film up for this project, and I just saw that Roscoe Karns plays a role and I'm becoming very fond of him.

I did some quick research into Roscoe and discovered that his son, Todd Karns, played Harry Bailey in IT'S A WONDERFUL LIFE.  After at least a kajillion viewings of George Bailey, et. al., I'm pretty sure that film has become fused into my DNA, which means that Todd Karns is there too. Obviously, Todd and Roscoe share the same DNA, and so, in a way, Roscoe and I do too. So it makes sense that Roscoe stood out to me - we’re related by way of Capra.

Also, Mr. Karns' character in IT HAPPENED ONE NIGHT is part of the foundation for Bugs Bunny - scheming, fast talking, called Clark Gable "Doc".  (Clark Gable's character in the film was also an inspiration for Bugs, because at one point he's chomping on carrots while excitedly telling Claudette Colbert how to hitchhike).

Anyway, this isn't about Clark Gable, or Bugs Bunny...  here's to Roscoe Karns!

Roscoe Karns & Claudette Colbert in IN HAPPENED ONE NIGHT

Friday, September 3, 2010

I MET HIM IN PARIS | 1937 | Kitten, your dad's a cad.

In I MET HIM IN PARIS, Kay Denham (Claudette Colbert) leaves her long-time beau in the States while she takes a "bachelorette party for one" trip to Paris. In Europe she meets up with playwright George Potter (Melvyn Douglas) and smooth-talking Gene Anders (Robert Young).

After arriving in Paris, Kaye loses a bit of her independent spirit and slinks into the comfort of the "American Bar." Here, she meets Gene and George. Almost instantly, Gene professes his love to Kay and asks her to travel to Switzerland with him. She turns him down because he's too quick and slick. After he calls her a "'fraidy cat," she agrees to the trip. (Just think how far he'd have gotten if he'd double-dog-dared her). George invites himself on their trip because he knows Gene is up to no good, and because he's slowly falling for Kay. In the end Kay's beau from home shows up, and she has three men fighting for her... by sitting together at the bar, drinking martinis, talking trash about each other, and waiting on her. (Awesome).

This film ticks a lot of the Screwball Comedy boxes: An independent woman, travel, cocktails, everyone has a whole lot of time on their hands, urbanites go to the country, and adults who should know better fumble their way through romantic relationships. Yet it never gains that loose caboose momentum that is found in more inspired screwball films. Don't get me wrong, the dialog is pretty smart, the plot is rock solid, the pacing is just about right and the characters are fun to hang out with (especially George). It's just not a Classic Screwball, just Screwball. But sometimes that's more than enough.

Released: 1937
Director: Wesley Ruggles
Producer: Adolph Zukor
Leads: Claudette Colbert, Robert Young, Melvyn Douglas
Writer: Claude Binyon, Helen Meinardi (story)

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

BLUEBEARD'S EIGHTH WIFE | 1938 | Quintessential Meet Cute, Young David Niven Plus Some Lesser Stuff

At their engagement party, wealthy businessman Michael Brandon (Gary Cooper) tells his fiance Nicole de Loiselle (Claudette Colbert) that he had been married before, seven times. He explains that he thinks divorce is better than taking a mistress, and points out that all of his ex-wives are far better off than when they met him because he paid each a settlement of $50,000 per year. Nicole negotiates a marriage if he promises to pay her $100,000 per year if they divorce. She then proceeds to make his life miserable so he'll divorce her.

Bluebeard was directed by Ernst Lubitsch, and written by Billy Wilder and Charles Brackett, a sort of rom-com trifecta.  And yet, it’s not great.  It feels like it has a destination it wants to reach, but rather than looping it's way there, the way a screwball comedy would, it feels like it's struggling and reaching and...  trying.

Which I think might be the only reason I am categorizing it as rom-com and not screwball.  Screwball is much more effortless.  The situations can be wacky and farcical, but everything feels organic to the story - once you’re in the film, it never occurs to you that things are spinning out of control.

There are far more arguments in favor of calling this one a rom-com.  It even opens with the prototypical "meet cute".  A guy, Michael (Gary Cooper) tries to purchase only the pajama tops, not the bottoms.  The salesman takes the request upstairs to his manager, and then those two take the request upstairs to the Vice-President, and than all three call the President at home.  There is no dialog until the President gets on the phone, standing in only pajama tops he denies the request.  Enter Nicole (Claudette Colbert), who saves the situation by offering to buy the pajama bottoms.  

Classic meet cute.

And then the complications...

After she leaves the store, the salesman insinuates that she bought the pajama bottoms for a lover, and so when Michael sees her on the street, he simply tips his hat at her and keeps walking.  She’s indignant at the snub.  He learns she doesn't have a lover, and so he seeks her out, but now she seems to hate the guy.  Then he sends her a written invitation to dinner, and then she’s suddenly madly in love with him.

One of the first lines of the film is, “In these days of greater equality of the sexes, perfume should not be the privilege of ladies only.”  I get that this is the theme and that everything has to support it.  I get that we need to see that she's independent and outspoken.  I get that the courtship needs to be dispensed with quickly so that the marriage can start.  My trouble is that how it is done leaves me unsure of how Nicole really feels about him.

It was never really clear what the baseline emotional connection was between the two, it was difficult to follow the evolution, and then nearly impossible to care about the resolution.  In “It Happened One Night,” it’s clear that throughout the trip there is a slow melt between Peter (Clark Gable) and Ellen (Claudette Colbert).  Though they continue to speak fighting words, it’s pretty clear they’re growing fond of each other.  The question/concern is whether they’ll get out of their way enough to have a “happily ever after” ending.  Bluebeard is different, though, it’s about something bigger than courtship.  Maybe that’s why it stumbles, for me.  It feels like it started with a “statement” it wanted to make, and then worked backward toward the relationships, instead of the other way.  Not that I care how a story gets made.  I just want to feel like I came up with the “statement” on my own, and feel a little bit pleased with myself for coming up with it.

And, what makes this movie so frustrating is - Wilder and Lubitsch know this!

Wilder has been quoted repeating advice he received from Lubitsch that he thought was important:  “Let the audience add up two plus two. They'll love you forever.”  In Bluebeard, until Nicole tells Michael why she did what she did, until she tells me the answer is four, it's not quite clear.    

Regardless, the film is worth watching.  The pajama scene is the prototypical “meet cute,” so you can tick off a box on your film nerd checklist.  Also, David Niven is funny and super-adorable throughout this film.  As a bonus, his character makes sense throughout, without losing any complexity of emotion, so there's that too.

Released: 1938
Writer: Alfred Savoir (play), Charles Brackett & Billy Wilder (screenplay)
Director/Producer: Ernst Lubitsch
Leads: Gary Cooper, Claudette Colbert, David Niven
Plot summary and reviews of BLUEBEARD'S EIGHTH WIFE @ Rotten Tomatoes

Monday, August 23, 2010

It Happened One Night | 1934 | Pack a sandwich, this post is a long one.

Heiress Ellen Andrews (Claudet Colbert) has escaped her father and is trying to get to her new husband, King Westley (Jameson Thomas), before her father can intercept and force her to annul the marriage. With detectives on her tail, and her face on the front page of all the major newspapers, she travels by bus to keep a low profile. Sharing the ride with her from Miami to New York is Peter Warne (Clark Gabel), a recently fired reporter desperate for a big scoop to save his career.

We were so much more collegial back then.  Not campus-based collegiate, and not office-style colleagues, those words sound brotherly but actually separate educated from not, and white collar from blue collar from no collar.  Nope, not the right words for us.  We were all different, and we knew it, but we never forgot that we were in all of this together.  

It wasn’t all hunky-dory, but that’s what made it great.  Like in “It Happened One Night,” Peter Warne (Clark Gable) insults his boss, has a toe-to-toe argument with a bus driver, and meets Ellen (Claudette Colbert) because he is bickering with her over a bus seat.  Peter’s boss yells back.  The bus driver confronts the unruly passenger.  Ellen keeps the seat, and Peter calls her on it.  (With not subtle and not unfunny foreshadowing he says, “That upon which you sit is mine.”)  After a bit of back and forth, he sits down forcing her to share the not-quite-two-person seat.  That was back then, now the boss wouldn’t yell back for fear his employee would respond with a harassment lawsuit, corporate rules would dictate the bus driver call for his supervisor, and Peter would let the lady have the seat but would stand near-by and glower at her. 

Sunday, August 1, 2010

The Allure of Messy Lives | Katie Roiphe | The New York Times | July 30, 2010

In "The Allure of Messy Lives," an article exploring why Mad Men is so popular, Katie Roiphe thinks it has much to do with the fact that we can look back and feel smug at how far we've evolved (at least in terms of things like not letting kids walk around with dry cleaning bags on their heads).  Then she asks:  But is there also the tiniest bit of wistfulness, the slight but unmistakable hint of longing toward all that stylish chaos, all that selfish, retrograde abandon?

Tiny? Hint? For me it is full on longing, desire, jealousy, and inspiration. If I weren't living like a recent escapee from the dust bowl, I'd not be very well behaved at all. And containing myself is driving me a bit batty.

Roiphe continues, "Of course people still have hangovers and affairs, but what dominates the wholesome vista is a sense that everything we do should be productive, should be moving toward a sane and balanced end. The idea that you would do something just for the momentary blissful escape of it, for intensity, for strong feeling, is out of fashion."

It seems more than out of fashion, I'm sure that it was probably recently listed in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders.

I just wish I had the ability to be unfashionably indulgent.  Not materially indulgent, but life-experience indulgent.

Though materially indulgent would be pretty fun now and again too.  I do miss nice clothes.

More soon...