Criterion Sunday 170: Trouble in Paradise (1932)

On second viewing, this still impresses as Ernst Lubitsch’s masterpiece. It’s not just in the characters — whose love affairs are delightful, particularly that between gentleman thief Gaston (Herbert Marshall) and elegant pickpocket Lily (Miriam Hopkins), handled with the ‘touch’ Lubitsch was known for, a sort of playful understanding of sex before that was a subject you were ‘allowed’ to address directly in cinema — nor the fabulous actors (oh, Kay Francis!) but in the subtler artistry. The camerawork for example, just little pans across to catch a detail (especially in that almost avant-garde sequence of clock faces dissolving into yet more clocks). Or the way a fade to black can suggest so much. It’s the way that every actor gets little tics that make them into real people, or that a famous city like Venice can be introduced by a garbage gondola in the night, undercutting with great economy the usual conventions. There are so many fine choices, articulated as part of a whole that moves towards a romantic comic resolution, and all of it in well under 90 minutes.

Criterion Extras: There’s a 45-minute long film from early in Lubitsch’s career included as an extra, Das fidele Gefängnis (The Merry Jail) (1917). Lubitsch likes the genteel contours of the sex comedy, though his famous ‘touch’ wasn’t perhaps so refined in 1917 as it would be a mere fifteen years later. Indeed, this is primarily a stagy (three act) farce, in which a frivolous dissolute womanising husband has one put over him by his wife, using the time-honoured (even 100 years ago) device of putting on a mask to fool him. There’s a side-plot about the wife’s maid and… I’m not exactly sure what’s going on with the jail, such is the economy/speed with which this 45 minute film just speeds by, but suffice to say there’s a lot of kissing — whether cheating men with other women, or jailed men with their drunken captors. Isn’t life a merry jail?


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Ernst Lubitsch | Writer Samson Raphaelson (based on the play A Becsületes Megtaláló by Aladár László) | Cinematographer Victor Milner | Starring Miriam Hopkins, Herbert Marshall, Kay Francis, Edward Everett Horton, Charles Ruggles | Length 83 minutes || Seen at BFI Southbank (NFT1), London, Friday 23 May 2014 (and most recently on DVD at a friend’s home, London, Sunday 13 August 2017)

Advertisements

Criterion Sunday 79: “W.C. Fields: 6 Short Films” (1915-33)

Having released his 1940 film The Bank Dick, Criterion followed it up with six of W.C. Fields’ short films, largely spanning the beginning of the sound era (1930-1933) though with one from 1915. He may be younger in 1915’s Pool Sharks, but he still has his comic persona largely intact, albeit with the inclusion of a particularly ridiculous moustache halfway up his nose. The film is also enlivened by stop-motion animated pool table sequences which present some of the most incredulous pool playing one could hope for, making it at least passably amusing. Less successful for me are The Golf Specialist (1930) and The Barber Shop (1933), which largely coast by on very slight comic premises — the former involving a con artist who tries at length to show a lady how to play golf but is constantly interrupted, and the latter involving an inept barber in a small town with a shrewish wife — though the former does at least feature a comedically delightful list of charges upon which the character is arrested. Appearing to have largely the same set as The Barber Shop is the same year’s The Pharmacist, with Fields this time playing a small town pharmacist, who again has a difficult wife and family, but is trying his best to keep his shop going. The Dentist (1932) also features a straightforwardly descriptive title for Field’s character, but here he exhibits even more rancour than usual in dealing with his various customers’ complaints, leading to a prolonged tooth-pulling scene which at least is as funny as it is difficult to watch. The pick of the bunch for me, though, is The Fatal Glass of Beer (1933, directed by Clyde Bruckman, a veteran of a number of Buster Keaton films). It’s a very odd little film with a period wilderness setting, in which all the actors’ performances seem pushed to the edge of deadpan blankness that seems strange initially but which sticks in my mind afterwards, giving the whole enterprise an oddly oneiric quality. For fans of W.C. Fields’s comic persona, there’s plenty in all the films to like, with annoying kids and some slightly off-colour jokes, but also lots of knockabout physical comedy. There’s also a consistent line in abrupt endings, one presumes for comic effect, though some are more satisfying than others.

Criterion Extras: Like the earlier Fields release, this is an absolutely bare-bones package, with nary even a trailer.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection || Seen at a friend’s home (DVD), London, Sunday 7 February 2016

Pool Sharks (1915)
Director Edwin Middleton | Writer W. C. Fields | Starring W. C. Fields | Length 15 minutes

The Golf Specialist (1930)
Director Monte Brice | Writer W. C. Fields | Cinematographer Frank Zucker | Starring W. C. Fields | Length 20 minutes

The Dentist (1932)
Director Leslie Pearce | Writer W. C. Fields | Cinematographer John W. Boyle | Starring W. C. Fields | Length 22 minutes

The Fatal Glass of Beer (1933)
Director Clyde Bruckman | Writer W. C. Fields | Starring W. C. Fields | Length 21 minutes

The Pharmacist (1933)
Director Arthur Ripley | Writer W. C. Fields | Cinematographers Frank B. Good and George Unholz | Starring W. C. Fields | Length 20 minutes

The Barber Shop (1933)
Director Arthur Ripley | Writer W. C. Fields | Cinematographer John W. Boyle | Starring W. C. Fields | Length 21 minutes

Criterion Sunday 67: Le Sang d’un poète (The Blood of a Poet, 1932)

© The Criterion Collection

Looking back, it feels like there was a real moment in the late-1920s and early-1930s when cinema was the new and exciting form which artists in France wanted to explore, and so we see a number of films by people like Fernand Léger, Man Ray, Marcel Duchamp and of course Salvador Dalí (whose 1928 film Un chien andalou was directed by Luis Buñuel), all better known for their non-film work. Into this fray entered Jean Cocteau, himself at this point better known as a poet, novelist, playwright and librettist, to which he later added designer and artist. As one of his earliest film works (completed in 1930 but not screened to the public until 1932), The Blood of a Poet has a lot of similarities with the other avant-garde work being done around this time, trading largely in the symbolic in its four part structure. There’s the poet (one of many self-portraits throughout Cocteau’s career) and the statue in the first half of the film, boys having a lethal snowball fight, and finally a card player and the dead boy, in which death seems to be returned to the world of art, as the statue makes its reappearance. It’s a film filled with inventive use of sets and staging (favourites include plunging into the mirror/pool, looping images backwards, and having characters move through corridors as if resisted by some unseen force, a trick apparently done by attaching the scenery to the floor and shooting from above). If it never quite coheres in a straightforward narrative way, that’s hardly any discredit to the film, which works far more effectively at an oneiric level, looking towards Cocteau’s later films in this ‘Orphic trilogy’ as well as his fairytale masterpiece Beauty and the Beast (1946).

Criterion Extras: The most substantial extra here is a 66 minute documentary Jean Cocteau: Autoportrait d’un inconnu (Jean Cocteau: Autobiography of an Unknown, 1985, dir. Edgardo Cozarinsky), which largely uses clips from Cocteau’s films in conjunction with a filmed interview to give an overview of his life, although it sticks largely to his artistic career, which was long and varied after all. The film retains an element of Cocteau’s customary opacity, but is engaging all the same. In addition, there are some behind the scenes images of Cocteau at work with his actors, as well as a transcript of a lecture he gave at a screening of the film.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director/Writer Jean Cocteau | Cinematographer Georges Périnal | Length 55 minutes || Seen at National Library, Wellington, Wednesday 25 April 2001; and NFT, London, Thursday 4 March 2004 (and more recently on DVD at home, London, Sunday 13 December 2015)

Merrily We Go to Hell (1932)

Hollywood films of the early-1930s, before the instigation of the Production Code, quite often have a loose and freewheeling quality that still delights so many decades on. Plenty of that is in evidence here, with the sparky Sylvia Sidney playing heiress Joan, who begins dating alcoholic reporter Jerry (Fredric March) after meeting him at a high society party. Indeed, the title of the film comes from his signature toast. In terms of the pre-Code elements, the frank portrayal of alcoholism and adultery — as Joan and Jerry start to feud and break apart — is forthright and unapologetic, and there’s a lot to enjoy in the spirited performances. It’s a pity, then, that the denouement glosses over the preceding events with a moralistic hue, but for the most part director Dorothy Arzner keeps things moving along nicely, and it even briefly features a young Cary Grant as one of Joan’s paramours.


FILM REVIEW
Director Dorothy Arzner | Writer Edwin Justus Mayer (based on the novel by Cleo Lucas) | Cinematographer David Abel | Starring Sylvia Sidney, Fredric March | Length 88 minutes || Seen at home (streaming), London, Sunday 31 January 2016

Criterion Sunday 46: The Most Dangerous Game (1932)

© The Criterion Collection

It’s an underwhelming cover this one, but though the film is short, it’s not without its pleasures. It’s from the directors and some of the stars of King Kong (1933), and even uses some of its jungle sets, to create a sort of proto-Hunger Games story in which the game of the title has a double meaning of both a sport and a hunted animal. Our heroes are the clean-cut Bob (Joel McCrea) and Eve (Fay Wray), the former a famous big game hunter on a luxury cruise who in the opening scenes gets into a (very clearly foreshadowing) conversation about what it must be like to be the animal being hunted, leading him to make a statement about how he’d never have to worry about being in this position. Hmm. However, the most interesting character is the creepy Count Zaroff (Leslie Banks), who owns a tropical island and lures people to it by causing ships to run aground on his shoals. Eve has already done so and is living in Zaroff’s mansion when Bob arrives, the only survivor from his ship. As you can tell from the hour-long running time, there’s not a lot of slack in the storytelling, but there’s still plenty of stylishness to the black-and-white lensing, and though the setting doesn’t have the verisimilitude of Lord of the Flies (1963), also in the Criterion Collection and reviewed a few weeks back, it’s still got plenty of good setpieces. But it’s Banks who steals the show, which is probably why it was retitled the Hounds of Zaroff on its initial UK release.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Directors Irving Pichel and Ernest B. Schoedsack | Writer James Ashmore Creelman (based on the short story by Richard Connell) | Cinematographer Henry W. Gerrard | Starring Joel McCrea, Fay Wray, Leslie Banks | Length 63 minutes || Seen at a friend’s home (DVD), London, Sunday 2 August 2015

Jewel Robbery (1932)

1932 saw two witty, urbane films featuring jewel thieves and the acting talents of Kay Francis, and this concise Warner Bros. film is not the one that has gone down in history, not least because Trouble in Paradise is one of cinema’s great achievements, directed by Ernst Lubitsch whose style Jewel Robbery is brazenly trying to command. That said, it’s certainly not without its own pleasures. For a start, there’s Kay Francis, of whose work I had hitherto been unaware, but who strikes me as a great talent (not to mention a great beauty). As Baroness Teri, her snappy repartee with William Powell’s unnamed jewel thief anchors the film. She also has a forthrightness to her manner that would make for a fine animated GIF set if I were inclined to that sort of thing and this were Tumblr. There are other actors, sure, but in truth it’s hard to remember any but the pair of them, the robber and his prey, first in the shop, then at her home, their relationship developing just as his seemingly effortless heist appears to be unravelling. It’s like an elaborate dance that the two of them undertake, such that the jewel heist plot seems an unwanted detail imposed for merely metaphorical purposes, and this is precisely how the two characters seem to treat it. It’s a film about falling in love, whether Baroness Teri with her robber, or — for me at least — the audience with Kay Francis.


© Warner Bros.

SPECIAL SCREENING FILM REVIEW
Director William Dieterle | Writer Erwin S. Gelsey (based on the play Ekszerrablás a Váci-uccában by Ladislas Fodor) | Cinematographer Robert Kurrle | Starring Kay Francis, William Powell | Length 68 minutes || Seen at BFI Southbank (NFT1), London, Friday 23 May 2014

My Rating 3.5 stars very good

Red-Headed Woman (1932)

Like Baby Face of the following year, this is a story of a woman using sex to advance in the world, though I’m given to understand from what I’ve read that the MGM house style (as opposed to Warner Brothers’) preferred to downplay the role of social class. Here, then, we have Jean Harlow as a young secretary looking to do better, who latches onto her wealthy boss Bill (Chester Morris), splitting him from his wife before setting her sights on the even richer tycoon Charles (Henry Stephenson). What’s particularly delightful here is that Harlow keeps the viewer on her side, and the screenplay by Anita Loos allows itself to set aside her questionable morals as she pursues her goals of wealth and happiness, never really punishing her as we might expect. That’s perhaps because Jean Harlow makes for such a transfixing presence in the title character of Lil, whose capricious whims are leavened by a streak of aggressively optimistic single-mindedness in her flirting, exemplified by her pinning a photo of her boss to her stockings when seducing him near the film’s outset. By the time she arrives in Paris near the end, she maintains her lavish lifestyle in pursuit of wealthy marks while retaining the services of her chauffeur boyfriend, Albert (Charles Boyer). Certainly not a boring film, then.


© Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer

SPECIAL SCREENING FILM REVIEW
Director Jack Conway | Writer Anita Loos (based on the novel by Katherine Brush) | Cinematographer Harold Rosson | Starring Jean Harlow, Chester Morris, Henry Stephenson, Charles Boyer | Length 79 minutes || Seen at BFI Southbank (NFT1), London, Thursday 15 May 2014

My Rating 3 stars good

Three on a Match (1932)

The odd title of this concise pre-Code film is a reference to a popular superstition that the third person to light their cigarette from a match would be cursed with bad luck, and indeed such turns out to be the case in this scenario as three friends from childhood grow up to lead quite different lives. There’s the bad girl Mary (played as an adult by Joan Blondell), the school swot Ruth (Bette Davis), and the most popular girl Vivian (Ann Dvorak), though part of the film’s appeal is that these youthful roles don’t define their adult lives. Then again, the film does offer moral judgement of a sort on Vivian, whose downfall is at the heart of the film; playing her, Dvorak shows a wonderful range, moving from loving mother to addled addict, and she even lends pathos to the rather strained crisis-of-conscience near the end that brings the film to its melodramatic conclusion. The narrative is structured in an episodic way that can be a little perfunctory at times, transitioning through the years with brief snatches of archival footage and some newspaper headlines to give context. However, at the heart of the film is the story of the three women and how they relate to each other across the years, and at this level it remains fresh and appealing.


© Warner Bros.

SPECIAL SCREENING FILM REVIEW
Director Mervyn LeRoy | Writer Lucien Hubbard | Cinematographer Sol Polito | Starring Joan Blondell, Bette Davis, Ann Dvorak, Warren William | Length 63 minutes || Seen at BFI Southbank (NFT1), London, Thursday 15 May 2014

My Rating 3.5 stars very good