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