Archive for Cluny Brown

The White Russians Are Coming

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on October 22, 2020 by dcairns

Litvak hit Hollywood, via RKO, with a remake of his recent L’EQUIPAGE, with Miriam Hopkins, Paul Muni, Louis Hayward (replacing Annabella, Vanel, Aumont) and Colin Clive. We get a big-budget studio Paris 1917, with an air-raid interrupting a big musical — an excuse to show fishnet-stockinged girls running for the shelters. It’s a great big glitzy, vulgar spectacle, as Litvak films are even when he’s peddling “quality,” but I can never associate Litvak with “white elephant art” because his films all have a compulsive, jittery dynamism to them — the zip pan is his signature move, but the camera will be dollying or booming rapidly on either end of the zip, to add force to the nervousness.

The theatre scene isn’t in L’EQUIPAGE but the hero’s departure by train plays out line for line the same. Litvak has even been allowed to import his editor and his composer — and all the expensive wide shots, making this one of the most literal remakes ever.

But the same year, Litvak made his first Hollywood original, and it’s much more worthy of note, but it, too, is laid in Paris.

I don’t know why we hadn’t sought out TOVARICH before. Of course, I’d made no systematic attempt to see all Litvak’s films, and of course he’s not really known as a comedy director. But his early French and German films are mostly light comedies. TOVARICH, however, is much better and funnier.

Charles “Bwa-yay” Boyer is also not massively associated with comedy, except as the inspiration for Pepe le Pew’s voice. But CLUNY BROWN is one of my very favourite films, and he’s amazing in it. He’s an ideal screwball actor because he can do silly things with the utmost seriousness and precision. Hollywood really missed a trick by not letting him do more funny films.

Boyer plays a penniless Russian with forty billion in the bank: money entrusted to him by the Tsar when the Revolution struck. Now he and his wife Claudette Colbert (really good, avoiding her occasional lapses into mannerism) are starving in a Parisian garret, unable for ethical reasons to touch a single sous of the vast fortune. This absurd situation starts things off on a light note which is maintained for so much of the film that you never expect things to get serious at all, and then Basil Rathbone walks in and they do, very. It makes for a real surprise.

Since the couple’s privation is essentially self-willed, we don’t worry about it too much, and then they get a job as servants to Melville Cooper (THE LADY EVE) and Isabel Jeans (GIGI) and start to really enjoy life. Their master and mistress are besotted with them, they’re winning a fortune at cards with the son and daughter of the house… enter Rathbone.

We sensed the film might need some shaking up — you can’t have a film just be fun and games forever, generally, though this manages it for two acts — we weren’t expecting to meet a man who as actually subjected our light comedy leading man and lady to physical torture. For a while it seems that Rathbone may be disposed of in the manner he would later enjoy in WE’RE NO ANGELS — the rat poison is to hand, after all. But the ending is stranger and more surprising.

This is based on a play by Jacques Deval, translated by Robert E Sherwood, adapted by Casey Robinson — all good people. Not too much opening-out has been performed, and the end of act curtains are still visible, in the form of fade-outs. Which is fine — the film is still a film, photographed from inside the action, using movement and music and cutting to create cinematic beauty. As in MAYERLING, Litvak exults in people having an out-of-control good time. In the previous film, Boyer’s debauchery had a tragic undertone, but here it’s just Lubitschian joi de vivre. Russians are mad, the film tells us, and they like it.

Depending on your sympathies, this is either a dry run for ANASTASIA (and in Yul Brynner, we may think, Litvak found his new Boyer, commanding yet crisply amusing), or its the original from which ANASTASIA is merely an off-cut. I actually like this one better, but fortunately we don’t have to choose.

Note: unlike most of the European influx, Litvak seems to have had no trouble starting at the top in Hollywood, perhaps because MAYERLING had been a big hit — it came out in time to capture the interest of a public recently wowed by Edward VIII’s abdication. Given that Litvak seems now to be mostly regarded as a minor figure, it’s worth noting what a big deal they thought him back then. And when he eventually returned to Europe, of all the emigres who went back, he alone kept Hollywood’s interest, backing him in big-budget US productions films in France to the end of his days.

THE WOMAN I LOVE stars Emile Zola; Becky Sharp; Louis XIV; Henry Frankenstein; Moose Lawson; Mrs. Raskolnikov; Frau Berndle; Bunker Bean; Red Ryder; Salty Sam; Scottish Farmer Without Mustache; Winnie the Pooh; Charleston; and Sylvanian Agitator.

TOVARICH stars Gerry Jeffers; Pepe le Moko; Sir Guy of Gisbourne; Marie Antoinette; High Sheriff of Nottingham; Aunt Alicia; Morris Gershwin; ‘Pap’ Finn; Tailspin Tommy Tompkins; Count Alexis Rakonin; Colonel Weed; Maggie Jiggs; Mrs. Wellenmellon’s Hairdresser; Anna Dora, an Actress as Actresses Go; Mud Mask; Mrs. Watchett; Homer; Lord Henry Delves; Madame Napaloni; Norman Bissonette; and Dr. Kluck.

She doesn’t go everywhere

Posted in FILM with tags , , , on July 30, 2019 by dcairns

That’s what they say about Helen Walker’s character, the Honourable Betty Cream, in CLUNY BROWN, one of just a few films containing really outstanding Walker characterisations. I wrote a profile/history of this neglected favourite.

At The Chiseler.

Lubitsch’s Final Touch

Posted in FILM, MUSIC with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on December 7, 2017 by dcairns

Ernst Lubitsch had a sensational end run, with TO BE OR NOT TO BE, HEAVEN CAN WAIT and the less celebrated but easily equal CLUNY BROWN. Before those three is the less stellar THAT UNCERTAIN FEELING, but then you have THE SHOP AROUND THE CORNER and NINOTCHKA. The only blots on this celluloid landscape are the Preminger intrusions, A ROYAL SCANDAL, produced and heavily supervised by Lubitsch, and THAT LADY IN ERMINE which Lubitsch began but died before finishing, with Otto Preminger stepping in to complete, uncredited.

A ROYAL SCANDAL isn’t all that bad, and it does have a wonderful moment where William Eythe (of Who the hell is William Eythe? fame) steps out of a tight two-shot with Tallulah Bankhead, paces the room, distracted, and is then surprised to have himself wind up back in a tight two-shot with Tallulah Bankhead, who has nipped round the back of the camera, unseen, and positioned herself in his path. A witty, self-conscious and wonderfully silly use of screen space.

THAT LADY IN ERMINE doesn’t have the benefit of a live Lubitsch to watch over its late production and post-production, and so it’s a lot more uneven. Still, it’s not exactly terrible. Preminger’s broad, ham-fisted approach to comedy (see SKIDOO and Vincent Price’s delicious line, “Otto had the sense of humour of a guillotine,”) pushes through the smooth understatement of Samson Rafaelson’s script, to create a giddy sense of goofiness that doesn’t feel under anybody’s control.

Hard to know if that script would have played markedly better under Lubitsch’s baton, because there’s a prevailing sense of derangement. The movie is a kind of operetta, with a few songs (by Frederick Hollander, so not bad, but not his best) and a Ruritanian setting. So it’s harkening back to Ernst’s early 30s Chevalier productions at Paramount. But, as they say, something new has been added, or several somethings.

First, Technicolor™! While it’s true that the colour in HEAVEN CAN WAIT is a little ugly and adds an unwanted heaviness to the proceedings (20th Century Fox tended to pump up the chroma to almost Goldwynesque levels of vulgar intensity), it really can’t harm such a surefooted and charming work, any more than the sexism and the contortions to get around the censor can. Here, with less ideal circumstances, the colour does hurt, even though it’s cinematographer Leon Shamroy’s trademark golden honey light and cobalt blue shadows, which I usually like. ladled over fairytale kingdoms and dream sequences and Hungarians, it gets a tad gooey.

Then there’s the cast. Lubistch had a genius for getting adept light comedy perfs out of unlikely thesps. Preminger didn’t. Lubitsch knew he could coast along on the sheer surprise of Gary Cooper being funny, and Jack Benny being dramatic (and funny). Here we have Betty Grable, who’s sometimes funny, and Douglas Fairbanks Jr. who can play anything, but can’t BE a husky Hungarian warlord. Preminger has good fun with his fatuousness, which Lubitsch might have tamped down. Further down the list, Reginald Gardner returns from CLUNY BROWN as milquetoast cuckold #1, and Cesar Romero plays milquetoast cuckold #2 a little uncertainly, as if he’s not quite sure why his character’s meant to be funny. His presence along with Grable’s recalls Preston Sturges’ THE BEAUTIFUL BLONDE FROM BASHFUL BEND, another late film, the following year, where “Butch” is even more miscast. Fox films had this problem a lot, it seems to me — the contract players got shoehorned into movies they weren’t suited to. Walter Abel is a skilled farceur, and some of the weird innuendo is pleasing — there’s a sense of a sado-masochistic thing going on between Abel and Fairbanks, his superior officer, which is amusing. Plus, gratuitous Harry Davenport.

Betty sings, several times, a song with the lyric “What I’ll do to that wild Hungarian,” and Lubitsch seems very pleased indeed with his double entendre and with his use of the word “Hungarian” as a kind of all-purpose punchline. Or maybe it’s Preminger’s cackles we seem to hear.

A few gruesome cartoony sound effects showcase Otto’s leering comedy style, but mostly the problem is a subtler one of feeling, a sense that nothing is quite right. The story involves not only the fantasy of musical numbers and mythical realms, but paintings coming to life at midnight and a long flashback and a couple of long dream sequences. Double voodoo, and triple voodoo. And the feeling, as with yet another, but far better Sturges late film, UNFAITHFULY YOURS, that if so much of the movie is dream sequences, what’s left for us to take away rom it? (I never felt this really answered the question of what’s wrong with the often-brilliant UNFAITHFULLY, but it was Sturges’ own pet theory.)

Still, as a vaguely Christmassy (at the end) romance about marriage and dreams and fidelity, maybe you could double-bill it with EYES WIDE SHUT (also completed after it’s auteur’s demise, though at least shooting was finished) for a nice festive Fever-Dream Double Feature?