Archive for Heaven Can Wait

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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“A passport to Hell is not issued on generalities.”

Posted in FILM with tags , , on November 10, 2010 by dcairns

Laird Cregar utters that immortal line in Ernst Lubitsch’s HEAVEN CAN WAIT. It’s now my new number one principle of screenwriting. Loosely translated, it means, Be Specific. Since I’m a fan of the concept of le mot juste, this is an idea I gravitate to anyway — searching for the perfect expression of the idea, however imperfect the idea may be (we won’t even be able to judge until we see it perfectly expressed)…

In more practical terms, the camera is a very specific thing, so the screenplay has to be equally crisp. A couple of examples from student scripts I’ve been reading: one opened in a police station, where a bunch of drunk kids have been rounded up. The script says that some of them are throwing up, some crying, some arguing. I decreed that the writer had to decide exactly how many were doing each activity. Because it’s unlikely that more than one would be vomiting at any given moment… And it seemed worthwhile nailing it down so that the script was an accurate plan of what we would see and hear in the finished film, or at least of what would be enacted on the set on the day of filming.

In another script, an item in a catalogue was described as being expensive, with a lot of zeros in the price. Again, I objected, saying that the camera would be unlikely to show just a row of zeros, it was more likely to show the item with a full price under it, for maximum clarity, and so I suggested that, although the line was amusing, it was no help to the production designer who would have to obtain a catalogue image with a specific price.

The need for exactitude goes the other way — sometimes, adding an unnecessary word or detail can cause confusion. When I scripted a short called BURKE AND HARE: THE MUSICAL, I included the line “They put the body in a large tea chest.” Arriving on set, I found a specially-constructed box large enough to contain two large adults. I think the production designer had thought, “Right, a large box must mean a box bigger than necessary for the job.” Now the crew had to lug this thing around all over Edinburgh, bruising their fingers squeezing it through doorways. In reality, the word “big” had just been added to try and make the sentence sound more precise…

Pin-Up of the Day: Gene Tierney

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , on October 16, 2008 by dcairns

“Without any question the most beautiful woman in the history of the silver screen,” said Darryl Zanuck, or words to that effect, and he ought to know, having slept with most of them. (He HAD to sleep with several at a time, honestly, otherwise he could never have racked up such a total. It’s not troilism, it’s just efficiency.)

Gene Tierney moved from early incompetence as an actor, through decent performances, and into really good work, aided by a truly amazing face that made her a pleasure to watch even when she sucked. Those distinctive features could suggest madness and evil in LEAVE HER TO HEAVEN, innocence and decency in HEAVEN CAN WAIT, wisdom and goodness in THE GHOST AND MRS MUIR.

I now list the features, and excuse me if I get overcome and have to go lie down:

The eyes: large, long, and very wide apart. I have a vision of walking up to Gene and putting my hand over the centre of her face, and of her looking back at me from around either side of my palm. THOSE EYES IS WIDE APART.

The big pale moonlike forehead. I am a man who likes a forehead. (Paulette Goddard, what a forehead that is! An eighthead, in fact.)

The nose, apparently hand-shaped from some soft, wonderful material — butter, perhaps — by tiny master craftsmen.

The cheekbones, beautifully defined, as if constructed especially to receive Von Sternberg’s light.

The mouth, completely redesigned by ambitious lipstick in these images, but in reality a wide, full and elaborately flared labial sculpture, balancing the eyes, and containing slightly erratic teeth which add charm to what could otherwise be chilly perfection.

In THE SHANGHAI GESTURE Tierney has moments of strange, erratic, embarrassing emoting that rival Elizabeth Berkeley’s mad flailing in SHOWGIRLS, but who’s to say what’s appropriate in a Sternberg menagerie such as this? Her perfect nose tilting under the lights, which seem to be dissolving into a dew the all-butter mannequin that is Victor Mature, she shows no trace of the control and grace that focus her best performances, but she certainly throws herself into the spirit of the thing. A gutsy, dynamic, original and deeply dreadful performance that’s never less than eye-catching. More decorous work was to come, but with the high frontal key-light shading her cheekbones, and the very hot backlight on the top of her head, Tierney showed she could be lit like Dietrich and come out just as well.