Archive for Tovarich

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.

Litvakuation

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on October 21, 2020 by dcairns

Litvak hops from country to country, sometimes making the same film in multiple languages. I’m grateful to Shadowplayer Everett Jones for directing me to SLEEPING CAR at the Internet Archive, not least for its historical import, its service to my Litvak completism, and the novelty of seeing Litvak make a British film, for Michael Balcon no less — but also because it’s really pretty damn fine. The best Ivor Novello film I’ve seen that’s not THE LODGER.

When I saw THE GHOST GOES WEST I felt that Rene Clair’s sense of lively movement had been somewhat flattened by his collision with the British way of doing things. No such conditions prevail here — from the first shots, Litvak is sweeping about with his camera in the bold, propulsive and grandiose style we see in his Hollywood features. I particularly liked the way the camera pushes onto the railway platform, tracking along the approaching locomotive in a reverse direction, stopping just as it does, with its title plaque reading Orient Express perfectly framed.

There’s great funny kid and funny dog action, and there’s Madeleine Carroll, though I don’t like her hair in this.

The story is a little disjointed — a plot point about La Carroll having to marry to stay in France comes in at the halfway point, when it seems to me a necessary Act One curtain kind of thing, at the very latest.

But it’s fun, and bee-yoo-tifully made — even the view from Novello’s mistress’s window seems more convincing, dimensional and interesting than is typical in films of the time, from any nation (designer is Alfred Junge, of Powell-Pressburger fame).

COEUR DE LILAS is a major one but I haven’t revisited it lately. It’s major early Gabin (he dominates) and has beautiful location filming. For reasons of celluloid fetishism it showed in Lyons as a dupey, underexposed mess, but can be seen in a gorgeous digital restoration. Phoebe Green delivered a great piece on in for Shadowplay’s Late Show Blogathon a few years back.

I saw L’EQUIPAGE even further back, when researching NATAN, the feature doc I made with Paul Duane. This was the last Pathe-Natan production, 100% French, and a remake of a Maurice Tourneur silent which is now at least partly lost. I suspect they recycled flying sequences from the original film. Why not? Easy to do, and the different frame rate is unlikely to show. You might avoid killing some aviators.

I remember the film was good, and concentrates on a conflict between two French fliers in WWI, competing over Annabella (do you want to tell them, or shall I?) with the war as a dramatic backgrop. But I don’t remember much more, particularly about it’s visual style. I should rewatch it, but I thought it better to catch up on something I’ve never seen, so Fiona and I ran MAYERLING. David Wingrove had described it as an aboslute masterpiece, and Fiona is now speaking of Litvak as a favourite director, so it wasn’t a hard sell.

It’s very, very good — Litvak remade it, at huge expense, for TV in 1957 with Audrey Hepburn and Mel Ferrer, which seems to have been a mistake. Then Terrence Young did it in 1968 with Omar Sharif and Catherine Deneuve and bits of it, I’m told, are shot-for-shot identical except in colour and widescreen and a leading man in whiteface.

Fiona went in not actually knowing the historical storyline — which is disputed, but Litvak goes, understandably, with the most famous and romantic version. Not that the film wholly romanticises suicide — I think a case can be built that the film not only finds it tragic in a Romeo & Juliet way, but rather blames Charles Boyer’s melancholy Archduke for getting Danielle Darrieux’s innocent baroness into the idea.

It’s very Ophulsian indeed — Vienna, a tragic romance ending in death, dueling officers, sumptuous sets — Ophuls, graduating from being Litvak’s AD, had already used all these elements in LIEBELEI, but there’s reason to suspect he may have looked at this one and felt a little envy — he later made DE MAYERLING A SARAJEVO, a quasi-sequel about that other unfortunate Archduke, Franz Ferdinand, which may be Ophuls’ least interesting or successful film. Certainly the dive into WWII propaganda at the end doesn’t help it, though one appreciates the desire to do one’s bit (Ophuls anti-Nazi radio broadcasts marked him for execution and he had to flee to Switzerland, smuggled out by Louis Jouvet, when France fell).

It’s useless to speculate on why Ophuls is revered by critics who despise Litvak — and it’s always tempting to invent preposterous reasons to denigrate such opinions. (I’ll grant that Ophuls best films are better than Litvak’s — but I would deny that Ophuls’ genius makes Litvak look like trash.) My best example of such a reason would be that Ophuls made “womens’ pictures” — usually despised, but in rare cases such as Ophuls and Sirk, embraced by the Cahiers critics. But Litvak, like Wyler, made guy films too, and that seems to be harder to swallow. The idea of a filmmaker making all kinds of pictures, unless there’s some kind of very clear superimposed personality as with Hawks, seems to be troubling to some. But as I say, I’m kind of imputing reasons where reasons are not exactly clear: I’ve never seen a Litvak takedown that seemed to me to relate to the qualities of the films he actually made.

Oh yes, MAYERLING. Well, Litvak enjoys hell out of his huge budget, as he always did. The lovers-to-be meet for the second time at the ballet and Litvak keeps pushing in one them, evoking their magnetic attraction with his camera. It’s epic.

Arguably Litvak enjoys the scenes of debauchery a bit too much, they become frantic musical numbers. Even with a glimpse of bosom as the Archduke runs amok on rum and rips a floozy’s dress open. But everything in this film is an aesthetic feast, feeding Litvak’s voracious eye. It’s why it can’t help but glamorize the lovers’ pact a bit. But the grim little scene after Boyer shoots Darrieux in her sleep — because she’s said she doesn’t want to know when it’s going to happen — where he explains away the gunshot to his faithful servant, before going back into the bedroom to kill himself, isn’t a necessary scene if you’re intent on making an exotic spectacle of suicide-murder. It complicates our feelings and adds greater disquiet to the drama.

The build-up to the fatal night — well, that’s what the whole film is. And it’s sort of accurate to the psychology of suicide. Someone is under competing pressures that can’t be reconciled and which keep intensifying. Eventually a Gordian-knot style solution suddenly offers complete relief. Those around the tortured individual, by trying to push in one direction or another for the individual’s perceived own good, are just adding to the strain pushing them towards the exit. Kids commit suicide over exams because the pressure is unrelenting and its made to seem the most important thing in the world by well-meaning people.

It’s really hard to make a good story about suicide — you can’t, I think, use suicide as a solution to a plot. But that’s not what this is. Everything is driving the protagonists to this ending, including all the glamour and majesty of an empire in decline.

Uncomfortable side-note: Boyer, who is fantastic here and who would reconnect and collaborate with Litvak again in Hollywood (including on another masterpiece, TOVARICH), committed suicide himself at age 78, two days after his wife’s death from cancer. I don’t admire suicide, I think it’s always damaging to those left behind, but it’s hard to hold it against him under the circumstances.

Music is by Arthur Honegger (LES MISERABLES) and it’s hauntingly beautiful, as is the film.