Bluebeard’s Eighth Wife (1938)

a contribution to the Billy Wilder Blogathon, hosted by Once upon a screen… and Outspoken & Freckled

Dir. Ernst Lubitsch

Written by Charles Brackett & Billy Wilder

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Brackett, reclining, and Wilder hard at work on something awesome.

Ernst Lubitsch’s 1938 comedy Bluebeard’s Eighth Wife, starring Claudette Colbert and Gary Cooper, was the beginning of a beautiful relationship between writers Charles Brackett and Billy Wilder (later producer and director, respectively). Well, maybe not a beautiful relationship, but certainly a very productive one, and one for which classic film fans, and writers of any stripe, are (or should be) eternally grateful.

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Brackett, left, and Wilder not having an argument.

Bluebeard’s Eighth Wife was the first collaboration between the pair who wrote Midnight (1939, another film starring Colbert), Nintochka, (1939, another Lubtisch production), Ball of Fire, (1941, also starring Cooper), The Lost Weekend, (1945), and ended their working relationship with Sunset Boulevard (1950). This first film has all the ingredients of their later films, but they don’t have the recipe quite right yet. Wilder himself allegedly commented, “It was not a very good picture, but it was kind of all right.” But who cares? A lesser Lubitsch written by Brackett and Wilder is still light-years better than…well, anything you’re likely to encounter in the course of an average day.

Brackett and Wilder have all the parts of a perfect screwball comedy in Bluebeard—formal wear, cocktails, witty wordplay, and a married couple slapping, spanking, and biting each other. Nicole De Loisel (Colbert), daughter of Edward Everett Horton’s penniless Marquis, and Michael Brandon (Cooper), capitalist extraordinaire, are meant to be together, like all screwball couples. And like the couples in The Awful Truth (1937), The Palm Beach Story (1942, another Colbert picture), and His Girl Friday (1940), Mr. and Mrs. Brandon are already married for much of the film, during which time at least one of them is trying to obtain a divorce. Unlike the couples in The Awful Truth and His Girl Friday, however, the Brandons are not an evenly matched couple. Nicole has the upper hand here, as Colbert’s Gerry does with her hapless inventor-husband in Palm Beach. Bluebeard’s Michael may be a millionaire investor and a big shot, but—despite seven previous marriages—he doesn’t know much about women. He is about to get an education.

The setups are fantastic even if not all of them pay off the way they should. The meet-cute at the beginning is classic Wilder and works like a dream. A 1948 New York Times profile of the writing team mentions its origin:

They were trying to bring together the boy and girl involved in “Bluebeard’s Eighth Wife.” Wilder suggested they meet in a department store.

“The boy is buying pajamas,” Wilder continued, “but he sleeps only in the top. The clerk is sorry, he cannot sell only the top. It looks like a catastrophe. Then the girl comes into the store. She buys only the pants because she sleeps only in the pants.”

Brackett and Lubitsch were entranced, it was not until weeks later that they learned Wilder was a tops-only sleeper and had been awaiting a chance to use the idea.

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“If ever there was a stripey type, it’s you.”

The film is filled with exchanges and business deals, starting with this first pajama-buying arrangement (a deal which also allows for lots of naughty speculation about whom the bottoms are for, exactly). To lower the price on the bottoms, Nicole throws in a tip to help Michael, an insomniac, fall asleep: spell Czechoslovakia backwards. Nicole may turn out to have a better head for business than her multi-millionaire husband-to-be.

On the verge of marriage, Nicole discovers that Michael has seven previous wives. She is shocked, but is quite rightly less disturbed by the fact that he’s been married before than by the fact that he seems to go through women like hankies he hasn’t even bothered to mongram. Michael believes in acting on impulse—he doesn’t want to get to know her better before taking the big leap (which apparently isn’t much of a leap at all for him). Marriage, like business, is a gambling proposition for him. Nicole has no reason to suspect that her fate will be any different than Michael’s previous conquests. She agrees to marry him anyway, provided that he will pay her $100,000 a year in alimony if they get divorced. And she spends the rest of the film working diligently to goad him into one.

2014-05-11Shortly after their disastrous honeymoon (to Czechoslovakia, naturally), Michael is told by his doctor to buy some books to help quiet his nerves. (“Oh, what you want is the classics,” the bookseller informs him.) Running into Nicole in the bookshop, he says, “You know, if you’d be a litter nicer to me, I wouldn’t have to buy all these books. What do you say?” Thoroughly unimpressed with this ham-fisted flirting, she suggests that Michael is likely to end up with a library. Forced into reading by his uncooperative wife, he discovers one of the books he’s brought home is The Taming of the Shrew. Ah-ha! he thinks. And so, to the beat of martial drums, he marches over to his wife’s rooms and slaps her across the face. She slaps him back. He retreats, and consults Shakespeare again. He marches back, (drums again) smiles and tickles her under the chin. And then yanks her down over his knees for a good spanking. Shockingly, neither of these approaches melts Nicole’s heart. He returns to his room, disheveled and bitten. Desperate for the divorce, Nicole hires a boxer to pretend he is having an affair with her. Michael will burst into her room and the boxer will knock him out so there’s no trouble (Coop was 6’ 3” and apparently ate like three or four horses at every meal). Michael will capitulate and give her a divorce and everyone will live happily ever after. Especially Nicole, who will have the satisfaction of having humiliated Michael.

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The film is a showcase of the verbal anarchy of screwball comedies. But Bluebeard suffers from leaning too heavily on the wordplay and not finessing the characters quite enough. The quips are flying so fast that it’s never as clear as it needs to be how these two actually fell in love with each other—or what makes Nicole return to Michael after she gets her divorce. Michael is, well, Gary Cooper, but his character is grumpy and gruff and often condescending to Nicole. When he tries to seduce his wife during a dinner date, Michael plays a goofy tune on the piano, a mischievous gleam in his eye. It’s impossible not to sympathize when Nicole drunkenly exclaims, “Why, Michael, you look so different. You don’t look like a multi-millionaire anymore. You look like a man with a $100,000—or even less!” There’s something almost irresistible about Gary Cooper being a goofball.

Almost.

Michael kisses his wife, who has, unbeknownst to him, eaten a bunch of raw scallions, later insisting, “I will fight you with every vegetable at my disposal!”

As screwball comedies go, in which the husband (or ex-husband) is often humbled into behaving reasonably, Bluebeard’s Eighth Wife has a pretty biting reconciliation. Michael is completely at Nicole’s mercy—trussed up in a straightjacket, which is where this story has been headed from the first scene.

Nicole exclaims, “Why do you think a woman puts a man into a straitjacket? Because she loves him!”

Michael remains (temporarily) unmoved. “Love! You’re a fine one to be talking about love. You wouldn’t be my wife when you should’ve been. The only kiss I ever got out of that marriage was smothered in onions!”

And you really can’t complain much about  a film with such wonderful writing.

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It has become clear in the years since that 1948 profile of their collaboration that Brackett and Wilder were not “the Happiest Couple in Hollywood,” as someone suggested way back when. Wilder apparently used to ride Brackett until Brackett began throwing things—heavy things—at Wilder’s head. So the snappy dialogue and (not so) latent violence of the screwball comedy was probably always a good match, not only for their gifts as writers, but their partnership as well.

[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vz74bn-xCtU&w=420&h=315]

Postscript

In lieu of any clips from the film, which I couldn’t find, I present the dialogue of one of the finest scenes. Here, Kid Mulligan (Warren Hymer), the boxer, and Nicole negotiate at some length about precisely how much damage Mulligan will do to hopefully-enraged Michael.

MULLIGAN: [I’ve been knocked out] plenty. And believe me there’s nothing like it. Aw, what a sensation. Once I hit the canvas with a bang and the next minute there I was in a Japanese garden, with them pink cherry blossoms. Another time I was floating over Constantinople. I tell you, you get to see countries you otherwise couldn’t afford to visit.

NICOLE: It sounds perfectly wonderful!

MULLIGAN: That time I fought Battleship McCarthy, boy, I’ll never forget that second round. Now I ask you Mrs. Brandon, where is there another racket where a man of my weight can feel like a flying fish?

NICOLE: Alright, then do it. —No, don’t do it! It’s too good for him.

MULLIGAN: Aw, come on, Mrs. Bradon, don’t be so hardboiled.

NICOLE: No, no, no, no, no. He doesn’t deserve it! Why should he dream he’s in a Japanese garden? After what he’s done to me? I should pay 5,000 francs so he can feel like a flying fish? Noooo, no. Never.

MULLIGAN: But, Mrs. Brandon, he’s your husband. You must have loved him once.

NICOLE: Let’s not talk about it.

MULLIGAN: Aw, come on, give him a break. Have a heart.

NICOLE: Alright, knock him out.

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“Whether [Louis the XIV’s bathtub] is too short or I am too long is a matter I would like to discuss with you over dinner.” This is the sort of thing that only happens in a Brackett-Wilder picture.

“L’armée des ombres” (“Army of Shadows”) Snoopathon Part 2

In which I explain why Simone Signoret is amazing (and some other stuff).

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Director Jean-Pierre Melville is famous for his lack of female characters, and the few women who do populate his universe frankly don’t have much character. Women are generally superfluous in Melville’s films; he is fascinated by (and makes fascinating) relationships among men. So the fact that Simone Signoret’s Mathilde is crucial to “Army of Shadows” is itself an interesting aspect of the film. As much as Lino Ventura’s Gerbier grounds “Army of Shadows,” Signoret is its heart, insofar as anyone is allowed a heart in the underground world of the French Resistance. She is, as her colleagues remark, a magnificent woman—among other things, she engineers two extraordinary escapes for her comrades. She doesn’t tart herself up (or out)…but unlike Gerbier, she has an exploitable weakness: her daughter, of whom she carries a picture. She knows she shouldn’t carry it, but she does anyway. Is it sentiment? Or is it a refusal to allow the Nazis to make her act like her daughter—who knows nothing of her mother’s Resistance work—doesn’t exist? It is this photograph that dooms her when she is (inevitably) caught by the Nazis. (True to form, the Nazis threaten not to kill Mathilde’s daughter but rather to ship her off to the front as a prostitute.) Mathilde is released, but it is never clear whether she is buying her allies time so that they can kill her to prevent her informing on them, or if she is simply a human being protecting her child. She is somehow the steeliest and most vulnerable of the Resistance fighters.

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Ebert claimed in his review that Mathilde’s greatest moment of deception is during a mission at the Kommandantura to rescue the group’s comrade Félix (Paul Crauchet). Disguised as German nurse there to transport him to the Paris Gestapo, she sees on a poster that Gerbier is wanted by the police. We watch her eyes widen and then go blank, obscuring her emotion from the Germans. And it is pretty amazing. A few minutes later, after waiting inside the compound for the Germans to release Félix to her, a Nazi doctor informs her that it is impossible, that Félix is too close to death to travel. She simply nods, saying, “I’ll file a report.”

Most of the murders, like the torture, are offscreen. The murders of the informant Dounat (Alain Libolt) and of Mathilde are not. I wrote a bit about about Dounat’s murder in Part 1. Mathilde’s murder is its mirror image. Both victims have become dangerous to the Resistance—an informant and a future informant they can stop. Yet no one wants to kill either of them. Dounat’s murder is appallingly intimate, as Félix has to strangle him. Mathilde is shot from a short distance. They can both see what’s coming. Dounat, a terrified young man, breaks down; Mathilde doesn’t quite have time to fully react. Her expression when “le Bison” (Christian Barbier) points his gun at her from a car window is heartbreaking, but equally unfathomable. Is she shocked? Angry? Or simply afraid of dying? Mathilde is simultaneously a cipher and utterly sympathetic. This is, if not Signoret’s greatest moment in the film, close to it.

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Mathilde and Gerbier make an interesting pair. They are the two strongest fighters; they admire and care for each other. But they are quite different. Gerbier, stoical and dogged, never quite loses the aura of a man who has resigned himself to actions he can’t quite believe he’s taking, and that he suspects might be beyond his abilities.

Visually, “Army of Shadows” is a film of hallways and doorways. Hardly a scene goes by without a conspicuous doorway—open or shut, opaque or glass. Being a member of the Resistance means going through one doorway after another—usually without knowing what will happen next, whether or not this will be the room in which you are betrayed, in which you will die, or in which you will betray others. When Gerbier is running from the police, he ducks into a barber’s. The barber appears and sets about shaving him. As he lathers Gerbier, we both see the barber’s pro-Pétain poster. In a moment borrowed from Melville’s namesake, the barber holds Gerbier’s life in his hands as he shaves him.** We have no way of knowing if the barber is a Nazi sympathizer or if he has the poster up to avoid trouble. The barber insists on trading overcoats with Gerbier, to help him.

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Clockwise from top left, Gerbier during his second imprisonment; being escorted by the police to an interrogation; Luc Jardie (Paul Meurisse) visiting Gerbier; and Jean-François returning to his apartment.

One of my favorite moments in the film is when Jean-François Jardie (Jean-Pierre Cassel) puts his hand on Félix’s shoulder in a bar filled with Nazi officers. We see Félix order a drink (straight rum? really?) at the bar. The camera is carefully placed so that the man sitting next to him at the bar is completely obscured by Félix himself. So, when we see a man’s hand slowly placed on Félix’s shoulder, we, and surely he, feel our stomach drop. Félix gingerly reaches into his pocket for a weapon? cyanide pills? And we realize that this is what it must be like all the time—this constant, almost subconscious waiting to be singled out and taken to your death. The brilliance of the scene is not only in the staging, but in the fact that the hand belongs not to one of the innumerable Nazis enjoying themselves, but to a friend, someone Félix trusts. Félix looks at Jean-François for a long moment before recognizing that he isn’t a threat, and relaxing. They are so genuinely fond of each other, it is for Félix that Jean-François eventually dies, having convinced the other fighters that he has run away.

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There are moments that seem unreal, and then there are details like the tape affixing Gerbier’s glasses to his face for his parachute drop back into France and the white bobby socks and loafers Mathilde wears during a meeting with Gerbier. These contradictions between sets that seem unreal and scenes filmed in real locations, between unconvincing special effects and that tape or those glasses, play a large part in creating an aura of surreality and the estrangement Resistance fighters must have felt from places and people that once seemed utterly unremarkable.

 

** From Herman Melville’s Benito Cereno, in which a character who has led a slave revolt on a ship shaves his “master,” Benito, the putative captain of the ship, in front of someone (Captain Delano) who doesn’t know what’s going on. Benito is terrified.

“Setting down his basin, the Negro searched among the razors, as for the sharpest, and having found it, gave it an additional edge by expertly stropping it on the firm, smooth, oily skin of his open palm; he then made a gesture as if to begin, but midway stood suspended for an instant, one hand elevating the razor, the other professionally dabbling among the bubbling suds on the Spaniard’s lank neck. Not unaffected by the close sight of the gleaming steel, Don Benito nervously shuddered, his usual ghastliness was heightened by the lather, which lather, again, was intensified in its hue by the sootiness of the Negro’s body. Altogether the scene was somewhat peculiar, at least to Captain Delano, nor, as he saw the two thus postured, could he resist the vagary, that in the black he saw a headsman, and in the white, a man at the block. But this was one of those antic conceits, appearing and vanishing in a breath, from which, perhaps, the best regulated mind is not free.

Meantime the agitation of the Spaniard had a little loosened the bunting from around him, so that one broad fold swept curtain-like over the chair-arm to the floor, revealing, amid a profusion of armorial bars and ground-colours- black, blue and yellow- a closed castle in a blood-red field diagonal with a lion rampant in a white.

‘The castle and the lion,’ exclaimed Captain Delano- ‘why, Don Benito, this is the flag of Spain you use here. It’s well it’s only I, and not the King, that sees this,’ he added with a smile, ‘but’- turning toward the black,- ‘it’s all one, I suppose, so the colours be gay,’ which playful remark did not fail somewhat to tickle the Negro.

‘Now, master,’ he said, readjusting the flag, and pressing the head gently further back into the crotch of the chair; ‘now master,’ and the steel glanced nigh the throat.

Again Don Benito faintly shuddered.”

Snoopathon: L’armée des ombres (1969) Part 1

Once again, I seem to have chosen the one of the least typical examples of the genre for a genre-based blogathon. “L’armée des ombres” (“Army of Shadows”), Jean-Pierre Melville’s 1969 film about a small group of French Resistance fighters during World War II, is undeniably a spy film. And yet it is strikingly unlike other examples of the genre.

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Jean-Pierre Melville’s “Army of Shadows”

Bursts of action happen only between long stretches of mostly silent waiting. The heroes make no perceptible progress against the enemy, managing little more than survival before the betrayal and death they each know is inevitable. As Roger Ebert said in his “Great Movies” review of the film, “This is not a war film. It is about a state of mind.”

As others have remarked, Melville’s film is both obviously artificial (particularly in its sets) and deeply intimate. The coexistence of what ought to be mutually exclusive characteristics is a consistent feature of Melville’s style, a feat critics have described as “difficult to explain” and “miraculous.” It gives his gangster films a kind of lived-in mythic quality, and it is an uncannily appropriate tone for a film about underground spies during an occupation. The résistants are estranged from their surroundings, and to a great extent from each other, though what they do couldn’t be more personal.

Philippe Gerbier (Lino Ventura), center

Philippe Gerbier (Lino Ventura), center, at the internment camp.

“Army of Shadows” is unmistakably Melville, but it is just as much Lino Ventura’s film (which is particularly interesting given that Melville and Ventura were not on speaking terms during filming). Ventura plays Philippe Gerbier, an electrical engineer operating as a chief of sorts in the Resistance. The film opens as Gerbier is being transported to the most painfully ironic internment camp in France, having been designed by the French for the Germans. The gendarme assures Gerbier he will be “all right” there, as it is “the best in France.” Gerbier gets the most screen time, and he is also the most solid, both physically and mentally, the most reliable spy.

When Gerbier arrives at the internment camp, it seems deserted. The camp director places him in an area originally reserved for German officials—a privilege not lost on Gerbier, who tells the director he is honored. But the following morning, the camp that appeared desolate the night before is teeming with many of the groups the Nazis rounded up—Jews of all nationalities, of course, but also anti-Fascists, Communists, gypsies, and black marketers, among others. (Unsurprisingly there is no mention of, say, gay or disabled prisoners.) When someone in Gerbier’s barracks dies, Kabyle prisoners, members of a Berber ethnic group in Algeria, come to take the corpse.

Jean-Francois Jardie (Jean-Pierre Cassel) at the Kommandantur.

Jean-Francois Jardie (Jean-Pierre Cassel) at the Kommandantur.

Taken to the Kommandantur, Gerbier manages an unlikely escape. From then on, the spies work mostly in the dark, literally as well as figuratively. And though the title refers to the spies themselves, it might as well refer to their environment. The rooms they voluntarily inhabit are shadowy, classic Melvillian palettes of blues and greys. The sound in the film is equally narrowed and heightened. As Gerbier waits for the right moment to distract a guard at the Kommandantur, for example, we suddenly hear the relentless ticking of a clock (and little else).

A common Melvillian motif is his male characters’ chapeaux. In “Army of Shadows,” these become subtle signs that the audience learns to read with the paranoid attention of a spy. Félix (Paul Crauchet), one of Gerbier’s soldiers, wears a bowler at important moments, first when he picks up Dounat (Alain Libolt), a member of the Resistance who betrayed Gerbier to the Germans. In order to avoid further betrayals, they of course will have to murder him. Félix hustles the doomed young man into the car and says to Gerbier, “Dirty job.” Gerbier replies, “You may dislike the hat, but you still have to wear it.” When Félix is later nabbed by the police, his bowler is knocked to the ground and left there. Gerbier, in London for a meeting with de Gaulle, hears of Félix’s arrest. He immediately leaves for France, abandoning his own hat in the London hotel room. Wearing the hat may be the right thing to do, but it is a dirty job, and, furthermore, one that will almost certainly kill you.

FélixEverything ordinary about these previously ordinary people has been circumscribed, calling to mind Yeats’s “Easter 1916.”

All changed, changed utterly:
A terrible beauty is born.

Smiles have been reduced to nearly imperceptible facial tics. There are few safe places; their circle of friends has dwindled to a few fellow resistance fighters, who they know may betray them under Nazi torture. (This is a film that rewards multiple viewings, especially so that you can focus on the actors rather than the subtitles.) Indeed, sometimes even action is built around what the spies don’t know. A pair of brothers, one of whom is a Resistance leader (Paul Meurisse, astonishingly sly and completely open at the same time), never know they are working together. The younger brother, Jean-Francois (Jean-Pierre Cassel, Vincent Cassel’s father), ultimately sacrifices himself—futilely and anonymously—for a comrade, having deceived his fellow fighters in order to help them. This combination of loyalty and fatalism will be familiar to anyone who’s watched “Bob le flambeur” (1956), “Le deuxième souffle” (1966), or “Le cercle rouge” (1970). Perhaps Melville’s own Resistance work is where some of this code comes from.

The most telling moment, in a film that seems full of them, might be the scene of the informant’s murder. Like many uncomfortable scenes, this one is drawn out, as the men must decide how to kill the terrified Dounat. Neighbors have moved in next door, so they can’t use their guns. (“The British should have sent the silencers,” one complains.) Dounat, barely more than a boy, must then listen as the men discuss possible methods. When a knife is suggested, a new member of the group, “Le masque,” protests, “Not like that!” confessing, “It’s my first time.” Gerbier wheels on him, horrified. “It’s our first time, too; isn’t that obvious?” One of the tragedies is that it isn’t at all obvious.

Too long a sacrifice
Can make a stone of the heart.
O when may it suffice?

The Resistance fighters have become so used to confronting such situations that, even though no one wants Dounat to die, discussing his death appears rote, emotionless. The Mask (Claude Mann) is our stand-in at this moment, our way in to understanding, as far as we can, an impossible context.

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Coming up: Part 2, in which I explain why Simone Signoret is amazing in “Army in Shadows,” and some other stuff, like this:

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