For the woman, the kiss! For the man, the sword!

THE AFFAIRS OF CELLINI is a very odd affair. It’s a Gregory La Cava pre-code, or thereabouts (1934, so on the cusp). The opening titles give us the sense it’s going to be a rip-roaring historical melodrama, but it’s much stranger than that — it’s a broad farce whose main jokes are about torture, murder and mutilation or the threat thereof. It stars two actors who worked well for La Cava in more conducive material, arch-ditherer Frank Morgan (THE HALF-NAKED TRUTH) and Constance Bennett (BED OF ROSES) plus a third, Fredric March, who one doesn’t associate with this sort of material at all. Wait, WHAT sort of material? The murder, torture and mutilation farce genre?

It’s a Fox picture, under Zanuck, and it makes sense to consider it as a similar kind of thing to that indefensible, stomach-turning “romp” THE BOWERY, only projected further back into the past. Portraying terrible historical events “light-heartedly” — with no moral attitude whatsoever, no matter how ghastly things get. As when Morgan, wooing artist’s model Fay Wray, tells her not to worry about the servants overhearing as he’s had them all deafened so he can enjoy privacy and service at the same time.

La Cava certainly had a dark sense of humour and willingness to disquieten his audience — the horrible ending of THE HALF-NAKED TRUTH proves that (Lee Tracy slowly makes a fist at a terrified Lupe Velez as the Wedding March plays us out). But Zanuck may be more relevant here, his output at Warners having shown a similarly carnivalesque attitude to social horrors. We can attribute the rambunctious tone of THE BOWERY to director Raoul Walsh (“Walsh’s idea of light comedy is to burn down a whorehouse”) but Zanuck oversaw that one too (and Fay Wray was in both, come to think of it).

Jessie Ralph (DOUBLE WEDDING) plays Wray’s mother, mocked for having whiskers. Louis “the walking fontanelle” Calhern looks suave and saturnine in whiskers of his own. The only sense of the Code coming into effect, amid all the talk of men having hot eggs placed in their armpits, is that nobody ever actually gets laid, not even during the darkened lull betwixt fade-out and fade-in: March and Morgan both chase Wray, Bennett chases March, nobody is sympathetic and there’s no reason to care. But Morgan gets laughs just by breaking off his sentences, and it’s amusing to see Fay play dumb (and brunette!).

Also: ugly at heart, it’s bee-yoo-tee-ful on the surface.

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4 Responses to “For the woman, the kiss! For the man, the sword!”

  1. bensondonald Says:

    One that bugged me was “Thoroughly Modern Millie”. Beatrice Lillie and her sidekicks (Jack Soo and Pat Morita, who were both destined for much better things) are Chinese white slavers, and we periodically see their warehouse of wailing and crying girls being shipped out in counterpoint to light G-rated silliness. In the end Mary Tyler Moore is kidnapped and rescued from intended rape, and the remaining girls are freed to run half-naked into backlot Chinatown. It’s presented as burlesque melodrama, but it’s still creepy and casts a pall over the whole movie. Made in the 1960s, starring Julie Andrews. And it was a friggin’ hit!

    Another weird one: Benny Hill did a half-hour no-dialogue piece called “The Waiters”. The setup was a middle-class couple having dinner for the parents of their daughter’s boyfriend; Hill is one of the two unpleasant waiters / cooks hired for the occasion. There are familiar Benny gags, but the tone is bitter; by the end the boy’s parents have angrily vetoed the romance, the girl and her parents are left viewing the ashes of their home, and the dimmer waiter has been removed in an ambulance. The film presents the victims as nice, inoffensive people having their lives ruined, and Hill plays mean-spirited instead of naughty. Did audiences laugh when it was new?

  2. One wonders. Hill was a pretty strange individual, and even his most popular stuff is a little hard to fathom now.

  3. […] this and THE AFFAIRS OF CELLINI, I really must reconnect with some GOOD La Cava, but I’m also morbidly drawn towards LIVING […]

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