Archive for Cluny Brown

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?

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The Empty Bride

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , on April 10, 2017 by dcairns

“An eerie image,” I observed of this shot in Lubitsch’s MONTE CARLO (1930).

“Yeah, an empty bride,” said Fiona.

Bring on the empty brides!

This is one of Lubitsch’s early operetta films and it has a lot to commend it. The empty bride is discovered by extruded turtle/shaved deerhound Claud Allister, who’s expecting to marry Jeanette MacDonald, not a wraith. We then cut to Jeanette catching a train in just a coat and her undies. When the ticket collector expresses surprise, she says “I’ve just come from a wedding,” by way of explanation. To my delight, the ticket man is former silent comic Billy Bevan, Uncle Arn from CLUNY BROWN (my favourite Lubitsch).

It takes a while for an explanation to emerge. Jeanette was on the verge of marrying Allister for his money, except that the dress didn’t fit, which suddenly gave her pause, and caused her to run away (for the third time, in fact) while she had the chance. (Lubitsch’s films with JM nearly always begin with her in undies.)

This is really good writing — the image of the abandoned dress — the image of the fugitive in scanties — the jokes with the discombobulated ticket man — finally, once we’re properly interested, but so entertained we hardly require an explanation, the explanation. Which element came first?

Here Comes Mr. Lucky Jordan

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , on June 7, 2016 by dcairns

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LUCKY JORDAN is an entertaining wartime comedy-thriller starring Alan Ladd and directed by the sometimes-excellent Frank Tuttle. It’s on a similar pattern to the later MR. LUCKY, which starred Cary Grant, a considerably more charming rogue than Laddie. But it has a nice, indirect approach to its propaganda message — Ladd plays Jordan, a gangster who wants to avoid the draft (War is Bad for Business) and, having failed to do so, goes AWOL and becomes involved in a plot to sell military secrets to the enemy. It becomes apparent to anyone who’s seen a few movies that Jordan is due for a Damascene conversion after which he will do his patriotic duty, but the movie makes us wait, and wait, well aware that a character doing all the WRONG things is more entertaining than some noble paragon. It just about overcomes the central difficulty, which is that Jordan is a bit TOO loathsome, and Ladd doesn’t have the right kind of charisma to make us enjoy this.

Amusingly, even at the end of the story, supposedly reformed, Jordan is still all in favour of flat-out murdering all his opponents.

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The script is persistently witty, in ways that are often surprising, and the more Ladd plays it straight the more effective it is. There’s also one extremely striking set, Jordan’s office, courtesy of Hans Dreier and Ernst Fegté, and strong support. Mabel Paige plays an old souse roped in to masquerade as Jordan’s mother, who gets caught up in the role, method-style, and pleasing villainy is supplied by Miles Mander, dastardly rake-thin fifth columnist (no column that slender could provide reliable structural support), and John Wengraf, distinguished Nazi creep.

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Fiona and I were mainly drawn by the presence of baby-faced Helen Walker, supporting attraction of Shadowplay favourite CLUNY BROWN (“the Honorable Betty Cream” who “sits a horse well” and “doesn’t go everywhere”). Her career — and life — suffered a terrible blow in 1946 when she picked up three hitchhiking soldiers and then crashed her car, killing one of them. The surviving veterans accused her of having been drunk, and speeding. It’s kind of miraculous that she had any kind of career at all after that — she lost one major role she’d been set to play, and took on darker material (NIGHTMARE ALLEY, THE BIG COMBO, both memorable) since her bright and cheerful image had been irrevocably tainted.

LUCKY JORDAN was her debut, and she’s delightful in it, but the scenes riding in a car with a uniformed Ladd are a little uncomfortable, foreboding, in the light of what was to happen to her.