Archive for Maurice Chevalier

His Third-to-Last Breath

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , on December 7, 2019 by dcairns

It’s getting to be a tradition — watch a late Curtiz every December. Since Curtiz had such an extraordinarily long career (1912-1961!), he’s entitled to more late films than most people. This one is from 1960 — he would make three more and die in spring ’62.

A BREATH OF SCANDAL is from a play by Ferenc Molnar, frequent source for Lubitsch, Wilder, et al, so it allows Curtiz to visit Vienna, in sorta-kinda his native land (it was capital of Austria-Hungary when he was born in Budapest seventy-three years before).

Aaand the first joke is about senility, as an old geezer hears the Emperor referenced and rises, saluting. “Don’t try to get up,” says his somewhat younger wife, “We’ll only have to put you down again.”

I’ve been trying to locate the point where Curtiz’s films stop moving, become inert, dead things. The first half hour of this is relatively spritely, though there are markedly fewer of those elegant gliding tracking shots. But Sophia Loren, a nimble comedian as we all know, gets some laughs, blasting away with a rifle from the tower to which she’s been exiled for excess sexiness — no moping Rapunzel, she. At one point, the film makes it seem as if she’s shooting at a little girl, which made me chuckle.

Then John Gavin turns up in a jalopy — you expect the film is going to collapse into terminal petrification as he fixes the scenery with his gorgon’s gaze, but NO — even though there’s no Chinese white slavers on hand to shoot him full of curare, which generally brings out the best in him, he’s reasonably effective as a stuffy, repressed American interloper. Tiresomely virtuous, someone Loren can run rings around — a good, stiff foil for her moral flexibility.

But once the film decamps to Vienna, despite some terrific locations it heads rapidly into total sclerosis. Chevalier is on hand to provide some vespertine twinkle, but now the script requires both Gavin AND Loren to be priggish and petulant, and I got tired of both of them.

Look, Angela Lansbury!

So, Curtiz’s ability to keep a movie conscious arguably lasted until half an hour into this one, though there are decent moments in his HUCK FINN. I’m going to keep working my way back — I haven’t seen anything between this one and WE’RE NO ANGELS, which is so far the latest-period Curtiz I would rewatch for pleasure. But there are eight films in there, including several in b&w. Curtiz is generally best in b&w. It affects him like curare affects John Gavin — by subtracting something, it releases something else, and the result is entertainment.

The hats are very good in this one.

A BREATH OF SCANDAL stars Filumena Marturano; Prince Danilo; Sam Loomis; Mrs. Eleanor Shaw Iselin; Aunt Alicia; Detective Moletti; Lisa Bolkonskaya; Aramis; and Queequeg.

The Silver-Tongued Chevalier

Posted in FILM, literature, MUSIC with tags , , , , on June 26, 2019 by dcairns

Oh yes, and GIGI! How could I have forgotten seeing that yesterday? In a vintage Metrocolor print, no less. In fact, vintage prints of musicals should carry a health warning: the smallest splice can be a major irritation if it happens during a number. But this one was relatively free of such issues, and the colo(u)r was radiant.

How can something be simultaneously problematic and perfect? The sense of ickiness around the theme is mostly skirted artfully. Listening to any of the lyrics other than the title of “Thank Heaven For Little Girls” makes it clear that it’s NOT an ode to paedophilia. But there are plenty of other bits to worry about if you’re so inclined. And John Bailey of the Academy reassuring as that Leslie Caron was 26 doesn’t quite cut it — she’s playing a character who’s 14 in the book, and the movie is careful not to assign her a specific age…

But the Freed Unit has it covered. It’s great the way Chevalier, our guide through the story, is basically wrong about everything and his “well-meaning” advice is nearly disastrous. It’s helpful that Jourdan is so charming and looks younger than he is. I’m not sure if Leslie Caron’s extreme sensuality helps or hinders in this context, but I enjoyed it.

And my God, the songs, and Minnelli’s visual perfectionism! Quite hard to write about things that are perfect. I’ll have to try when I have more time.

Monsieur in Tights

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , on April 18, 2017 by dcairns

I’ve had my Eclipse box set of early sound Lubitsch for years without watching the films, though I always knew I would. I’d seen them all save MONTE CARLO, but only on rather fuzzy VHS off-air recordings sent across the Atlantic to me by an accountant in Baltimore (I know the right people). On DVD they’re transformed, so that what can feel like dated technique — the films were made before the microphone boom was standard kit, so they tend to favour static frames for dialogue — now seems merely like a specific stylistic approach, of its time no doubt (because everything is), but as eloquent as any other approach.

ONE HOUR WITH YOU was begun by George Cukor, working from a script prepared by producer Lubitsch will regular collaborator Samson Raphaelson, but then Lubitsch suffered the commercial failure of THE MAN I KILLED/BROKEN MELODY, and so he went running for cover and rather cruelly kicked Cuckor off the film and supervised reshoots himself. The result, a more lightweight reworking of his silent hit THE MARRIAGE CIRCLE, is indistinguishable from a full-fledged Lubitsch work.

It also gets a boost from its stars — Lubitsch had made THE LOVE PARADE with Chevalier and MacDonald previously, then made one film with MacDonald but not Chevalier and one with Chevalier and not MacDonald. When all three are reunited here, you get quite a lot of comic energy sparkling away in those locked-off frames. Also Genevieve Tobin and particularly the amazing, miraculous Roland Young, here rather surprisingly satanic as a husband who’s not so much jealous as broiling in hatred. quite KEEN for his wife to betray him so he can divorce her.

And Charles Ruggles (top), subject of my favourite joke in the film.

(Although there’s a bit where MacDonald and Tobin are whispering about Chevalier and he’s looking hilariously perturbed. It’s one of Lubitsch’s smutty false alarms — what ARE they saying? Then they become audible. “Can he really?” “Oh yes.” “He can’t, really?” “He can!” Chevalier looking VERY alarmed as this goes on. Finally, Jeanette appeals to him: “Darling. Look like an owl.” The only frustrating thing is we never get to see Maurice look like an owl. We certainly believe him capable of it. In fact, it seems to be bubbling up in him constantly, this ability to look like an owl. But he never yields to it.)

The Ruggles joke — he’s introduced late in the story, just when a schnook is required. He phones MacDonald as she’s dressing for a party (the obligatory undies scene). He’s already dressed, as Romeo. But then he learns it’s not a costume party. He calls for his valet. Why did the fool tell him it was a costume party?

“Ah monsieur, I did so want to see you in tights.”

We never see this valet again, nor is he mentioned, so we never learn more of his strange obsession. But he seems to exemplify something about the film. Lubitsch, as “the greatest writer in cinema history,” as Billy Wilder called him (though Lubitsch never took a writing credit in Hollywood), wanted to make all his characters distinctive, to impart to even the smallest bit player a measure of personality. Well, in a soufflé like this, why bother making them realistic, when what we principally need is charm and funniness? Why not make them all a bit mad?

In this idea, I propose, is the origins of screwball.