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)

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Criterion Sunday 109: The Scarlet Empress (1934)

After some genre-defining silent films (which we’ll get to much later on in the Criterion Collection), Austro-Hungarian émigré director Josef von Sternberg did a run of films with Marlene Dietrich — the first in Germany (The Blue Angel, 1930) but the rest in the United States. In some ways these defined something else in cinema, every bit as important as a narrative structure, which is a sense of the fetishisation of the actor as icon. Obviously there had been stars before Dietrich, but the quality that Sternberg gets across in his run of films with her is something else, something more profound, something almost magical. His penultimate film with her was The Scarlet Empress, and alongside the shimmering beauty of Dietrich — the burnished close-ups, the flamboyant dress — this must rank as some kind of masterpiece of set design. Every image is crammed with baroque detail, every shot framed by grotesque sculptures presiding creepily over the action. This latter largely revolves around Dietrich on her road to becoming the Empress Catherine II, “Catherine the Great”, married into Russian nobility (the mad Peter, played with wide-eyed intensity by Sam Jaffe) and learning the ways of the court and methods of extending her power. The camerawork and lighting is bravura, but it’s those stylish set touches that only heighten the film’s giddy campness and emphasise how much Sternberg has given to the cinema in the 20th century. Stars would never again shine quite as brightly.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Josef von Sternberg | Writer Manuel Komroff (based on a diary by Catherine II) | Cinematographer Bert Glennon | Starring Marlene Dietrich, John Lodge, Louise Dresser, Sam Jaffe | Length 104 minutes || Seen at a friend’s home (DVD), London, Sunday 31 July 2016 (and earlier on VHS at home, Wellington, April 2001)

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

Gabriel Over the White House (1933)

A lot of the more prominent films that Hollywood made at the outset of the sound era, before the enforcement of the Production Code, dealt with such outré topics as sexuality and violence. These are the ones that still grab the column inches, whether it’s the amoral bloodshed of Scarface (1932) or the sexual liberation of Baby Face (1933). However, Gabriel Over the White House manages to be an equally outrageous film without any of these more saleable elements, but instead uses the allure of autocracy to transform its vision of America. In his Roosevelt-like reforming zeal, the President played here by Walter Huston looks brazenly towards dictatorship to push through the necessary reforms following years of Depression. It’s the kind of plot outline that reads like satire, but presented here as divine inspiration (hence the title), the film seems totally onboard with the proposed ideas, as the President bypasses Congress to push through his bold measures. That said, it’s a patchy piece of filmmaking and modern audiences will struggle to take it as seriously as the filmmakers, but then we have the benefit of hindsight.


© Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer

SPECIAL SCREENING FILM REVIEW
Director Gregory La Cava | Writer Carey Wilson (based on the novel Rinehard by Thomas Frederic Tweed) | Cinematographer Bert Glennon | Starring Walter Huston, Karen Morley, Franchot Tone | Length 86 minutes || Seen at BFI Southbank (NFT1), London, Friday 23 May 2014

My Rating 3 stars good

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

Baby Face (1933)

This so-called ‘pre-Code’ Hollywood film, part of a retrospective taking place here in London, is renowned for being one of the films which finally ensured the enforcement of the Production Code (which ruled against general licentiousness in the pictures). For its content, it’s a fascinating film: a compelling Barbara Stanwyck plays Lilly, who starts out as a barmaid at a suburban speakasy, forced from an early age by her tyrannical father to sell herself to her customers, though she is hardly passive around these drunken oafs seen swilling their beer. When her father dies in a fire at the bar, it’s her face that is framed in close-up, reacting utterly impassively to his death. She soon moves to the city with her black co-worker, prompted in part by the words of a local cobbler, the only man she admires, who quotes Nietzsche at her, exhorting her to do whatever she can to control men and help herself. Almost immediately, having hopped illegally onto a freight train, she is seen bargaining with a furious railroad worker, using sex to get what she wants. When the pair arrive in the city, she follows this pattern by literally sleeping her way to the top of a company, a vignette on each floor between her and a hapless male manager followed by the camera moving up the outside of the building to frame her next office conquest. It’s only when she reaches the boardroom (though sadly she’s never a board member, just the mistress of the President) that she encounters resistance from the founder’s playboy son, Courtland (George Brent). Yet while he sees through her ruse, this is hardly the end of her story. It’s tempting to just recount the plot blow by blow, for that’s where a lot of the film’s power to shock (at least, relative to the other films of the period) lies. Dramatically, it does rely rather extensively on Stanwyck’s performance, as stretches of it is constructed from a number of fairly repetitive scenes of office conquests, married men succumbing to her insistent charms. That said, Stanwyck is fantastic, and it’s great to see a film that largely withholds judgement from its predatory female star, though she does eventually succumb to romantic feelings towards Courtland.


© Warner Bros.

SPECIAL SCREENING FILM REVIEW
Director Alfred E. Green | Writers Gene Markey and Kathryn Scola (based on a story by Darryl F. Zanuck [as Mark Canfield]) | Cinematographer James Van Trees | Starring Barbara Stanwyck, George Brent | Length 76 minutes || Seen at BFI Southbank (NFT1), London, Sunday 11 May 2014

My Rating 3 stars good

Night Nurse (1931)

A fascinating little pre-Code film, largely overlooked these days, but one which revels in its seedy criminal sub-plots and in which, tellingly, none of the characters ever seeks the help of the authorities to solve their problems. Lora (Barbara Stanwyck), whose only dream is to help people, manages to finagle her way into a nurse’s job by flirting with the right doctor, and her first job is to be rostered on the night shift, helping the chronically ill daughters of a wealthy family. She quickly discovers that something foul is afoot: the mother is only ever seen liquored up and partying, while the children’s doctor is a shady character with little interest in their health. Added to the mix is the black-liveried chauffeur (a clean-shaven Clark Gable), looking every bit the fascist footsoldier and with all the moral scruples that might suggest. Stanwyck gets to be a tough no-nonsense central character who is no-one’s stooge, though she falls into a wary relationship with bootlegger Mortie (Ben Lyon), who wins her heart in the end with some off-screen vigilante vengeance. The director, William Wellman, also has a propensity for showing his two nurses, Lora and Maloney (Joan Blondell), changing into their nurse’s uniforms, which would be leering if it weren’t all so tame by modern standards (though perhaps a little racier than the soon-to-be-enforced Production Code would allow for). Like many films of the period, it clocks in at a brisk running time, and is certainly worth looking out for.


© Warner Bros.

SPECIAL SCREENING FILM REVIEW
Director William A. Wellman | Writer Oliver H. P. Garrett (based on the novel by Grace Perkins [as Dora Macy]) | Cinematographer Barney McGill | Starring Barbara Stanwyck, Joan Blondell, Ben Lyon, Clark Gable | Length 72 minutes || Seen at BFI Southbank (NFT1), London, Sunday 11 May 2014

My Rating 3.5 stars very good

Gold Diggers of 1933 (1933)

I don’t profess to know too much about the so-called “pre-Code era” of Hollywood, though I have a book about it that I mean to read, especially urgent now that the BFI is doing a retrospective of many of these films. What I do know is that for a brief period between the start of the sound era and the enforcement of the Production Code in 1934 (a sort of voluntary self-censorship by the major studios), there was a brief flourishing of films with some rather darker and more adult themes and a view on life that didn’t always reinforce cultural prejudices or end happily for the ‘good guys’.

For Gold Diggers’ part, its place in this era comes not from any kind of boldly proto-feminist message — no surprise given the title, though its female leads are all strong-willed and get what they want, which certainly provides some small corrective — but in its bitterly sardonic take on its Depression-era setting. It’s big-budget escapism, sure, but it doesn’t try to efface just what tolls living in poverty sometimes took (even if the actresses’ shared apartment is rather swanky). The big closing number, “Remember My Forgotten Man”, is rousing and beautifully moving — though narratively, it feels like a quite different film — and shows First World War heroes reduced to beggars and bums. Elsewhere there are hints at prostitution being a option to make ends meet for some of the ‘gold diggers’ we see gathered around Broadway impresario Barney Hopkins, desperate for a part in his new show.

Three of those actresses are the leads here, and share an apartment. There’s Polly, the earnest one (Ruby Keeler), Carol the glamorous blonde (Joan Blondell), and Trixie the shrewdly self-interested comic actor (Aline MacMahon). The plot itself follows the putting-on-a-show narrative and throws in some love interests (or ‘gold digging’ interests, as far as Trixie is concerned at least), which all resolve themselves in comically perfunctory manner at the end, as uptight plutocrat Lawrence (Warren William) wrestles fairly snappily with his feelings towards Carol.

What really sets apart the film is of course the Busby Berkeley-choreographed musical numbers. I’ve mentioned the closing number already, while the opener (“We’re in the Money”) kicks things off in grand style, suggesting glamorous escapism from the country’s financial woes with Ginger Rogers singing directly into camera as dancing girls clad in costumes made of gold coins swirl around her, before making it clear the bitter irony when the cops show up midway through to close things down and take away all the costumes due to (what else?) lack of money. Most fascinating is “Pettin’ in the Park”, a weirdly surreal number that depicts a refreshingly broad cross-section of people in the aforesaid park, before introducing a dwarf playing a lecherous baby, and an iron corset-clad Polly having her clothes prised off with a tin opener. By comparison, the other big number (“The Shadow Waltz”) just seems like extra padding, though its chorus line wielding neon-lit violins certainly makes for an arresting image.

There’s so much going on in this film, it’s hard for me to find any particular moral coherence, but such is often the way with Hollywood’s spectacles. It offers a sardonic commentary on the tolls of the Depression and Prohibition, while keeping things amorally snapping along. Its narrative of three women triumphing by exploiting the men around them is one that would be repeated in a number of pre-Code films of the era, but then there are the musical numbers which choreograph an almost endless line of flamboyant chorines, so maybe it’s the filmmakers who are the gold diggers and we the audience their willing victims. In any case, it’s a high-water mark of the Hollywood musical and a glorious tribute to Busby Berkeley’s art.


© Warner Bros.

SPECIAL SCREENING FILM REVIEW
Director Mervyn LeRoy | Writers Erwin S. Gelsey and James Seymour (based on the play The Gold Diggers by Avery Hopwood) | Cinematographer Sol Polito | Starring Ruby Keeler, Dick Powell, Joan Blondell, Aline MacMahon, Warren William | Length 96 minutes || Seen at BFI Southbank (NFT3), London, Friday 9 May 2014

My Rating 4 stars excellent