Russia in Classic Film Blogathon, Part 2: The House on Trubnaya (1928)

a-casa-da-praca-trubnaia_t47274_png_290x478_upscale_q90Thanks to Movies, Silently and Flicker Alley for hosting the Blogathon!

Despite what Aelita: Queen of Mars (1924) might have lead you to believe, Bolshevism did not destroy the Russian sense of humor. Although the “message” of The House on Trubnaya (1928) (aka The House on Trubnaya Square aka The House on Trubnaya Street) is, predictably, that the Soviet state is just super, the film does not throw its hands up in the air, in classic Russian fatalism. The House on Trubnaya is a hoot. Yes, you read that right, Soviet comedy is not an oxymoron.

Trubnaya takes on the country-girl-in-the-city trope. Rather than following the well-worn path in which the naive girl is taken advantage of by some unscrupulous city slicker and, “falling” pregnant, is forced to return home, where, of course, no one will have anything to do with her, however, Trubnaya sets it up and then has the naive country girl triumph, all thanks to the glorious Soviet system. Luckily, Trubnaya’s director, Boris Barnet, has a much subtler touch than that summary suggests. The story is genuinely funny, the only character we hate is the actual villain, and Barnet and his cinematographer, Yevgeni Alekseyev, have a lot of fun with the camera. Trubnaya puts a lot of the Kino-Eye-Constructivist-montage techniques to much lighter effect than I’ve seen in the canonical Soviet films, like Eisenstein’s Battleship Potemkin and Dziga Vertov’s breathtaking Man with a Movie Camera.

The film opens on a lyrical set of images—a Moscow empty but for a few street sweepers. The city “looks in the mirror and begins to wash up,” the inter titles tell us. The next shot is a serene reflection of buildings in water on the street, broken the next moment by sweeper’s broom. Everything here is linked to everything else—it’s a political theory but also an aesthetic. Our focus shifts to the Trubnaya apartments and the film’s best set: a cut-away of the stairwell in a communal apartment building. It’s a great introduction to the characters’ world and the humor Barnet creates here sets the tone for the film.

trubnayaWe watch the stairwell come to life along with the rest of the city: neighbors shaking out rugs and curtains, chopping wood (yes, in the stairwell), tossing out garbage, shooing cats, and all manner of morning rituals. The beginning of the film doesn’t have much dialog, which allows us to better appreciate the images, the way they’re connected, and what they tell us about these people. The rhythmic movements of the morning rituals are a language of their own. The sequence reminded me a bit of a much more salacious one in the French film Delicatessen (1991), which moves from room to room in an apartment building, as everyone’s movements, no matter what they’re doing, fall into the rhythm of a very squeaky mattress being used by two tenants. During this sequence in Trubnaya, as the camera moves fluidly up and down, we gather that this communal space isn’t being used all that communally. We are introduced to the three tenants in particular, Fenia, the building organizer, and we later learn, a union organizer, Golikov, a hairdresser, and a driver, Semyon, who turns out to be from the same village as Parasha, the film’s country-girl heroine.

The film moves out into the streets again as we follow Semyon to work. Parasha is wandering, a bit lost, along the streets. Like all good peasant girls, she has brought with her a beloved duck in a basket. Distracted by some dolls in a shop window, she fails to notice the duck waddle off. A classic silent film chase ensues as Parasha tries to recover her duck. The two are finally reunited on the tracks of a tram, which we saw so many of in the opening shots. Naturally, there is a tram bearing down on them, and there is a wonderful montage of Parasha and duck, tram, the tram-driver’s foot, the growing crowd. Just as we expect her to be smooshed or saved, the film “stops,” and the inter titles point out that we don’t know how the duck got to Moscow. We rewind to the moment Parasha (or Paranya, depending on the translation) is getting on the train from the boonies to the big city. Unfortunately, at just the same moment, her uncle is getting off a train arriving in the village. We hurtle back to the “present” and watch the tram driver stop just short of turning them into duck-and-Parasha paté. As the crowd circles around her, Semyon discovers he knows this peculiar girl, crouching in the road, hugging a duck. He takes her back to Trubnaya.

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There, Parasha is hired by Golikov as a housemaid/drudge. Golikov is played with a weasely air of general disapproval by Vladimir Fogel, early proof that villains are usually more fun to watch. The rest of the movie is really a struggle between Golikov’s version of the world, in which he treats Parasha a slave rather than an employee, and Parasha’s expanding and much sweeter version of the world. Fortunately, Parasha has Fenia, the domestic workers’ union, and, ultimately, of course, the glorious Soviet state on her side.

Later in the film, Barnet borrows a (hilarious) scene from the second book of Don Quixote,** in which our hero(ine) watches a performance of the Storming of the Bastille at the Workers’ Theater. The odious Golikov has been drafted at the last minute, standing in for an actor too drunk to play the French army general. Watching the “general” thrashing a revolutionary on stage, Parasha is overcome with an understandable desire to protect the underdog and leaps up to intercede. She storms the stage, knocking the general on his can, and…the crowd goes wild.

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Vera Maretskaya as Parasha

This is one excellent example among many of how Barnet caters to the need for Soviet propaganda on the one hand, while on the other hand, lampoons excessive patriotic fervor. And he does it through a character who, like the knight from La Mancha, remains sympathetic. It’s quite a balancing act and a great pleasure to watch.

You can watch The House on Trubnaya with a Fandor subscription (or with their two-week free trial). There are also versions available for free on YouTube.

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Director Boris Barnet

For more Russia in Classic Film Blogathon posts on comedy, check out the following:

Two (!) posts about the short Chess Fever (1925), starring Vladimir Fogel, at Once Upon a Screen and The Moon in Gemini.

and another two posts about Miss Mend, a serial co-directed by Boris Barnet (and set in America!), one at Big V Riot Squad and Mildred’s Fatburgers.

For more Trubnaya reading:

An argument that Barnet’s film belongs on a list of “best ever” silents on BFI’s site.

The House on Trubnaya @ Fandor and an accompanying essay on Russian Silent Film

Interesting historical context on the film at Cinetext.

 

 

** “Don Quixote, however, seeing such a swarm of Moors and hearing such a din, thought it would be right to aid the fugitives, and standing up he exclaimed in a loud voice, “Never, while I live, will I permit foul play to be practised in my presence on such a famous knight and fearless lover as Don Gaiferos. Halt! ill-born rabble, follow him not nor pursue him, or ye will have to reckon with me in battle!” and suiting the action to the word, he drew his sword, and with one bound placed himself close to the show, and with unexampled rapidity and fury began to shower down blows on the puppet troop of Moors, knocking over some, decapitating others, maiming this one and demolishing that; and among many more he delivered one down stroke which, if Master Pedro had not ducked, made himself small, and got out of the way, would have sliced off his head as easily as if it had been made of almond-paste. Master Pedro kept shouting, “Hold hard! Senor Don Quixote! can’t you see they’re not real Moors you’re knocking down and killing and destroying, but only little pasteboard figures! Look—sinner that I am!—how you’re wrecking and ruining all that I’m worth!” But in spite of this, Don Quixote did not leave off discharging a continuous rain of cuts, slashes, downstrokes, and backstrokes, and at length, in less than the space of two credos, he brought the whole show to the ground, with all its fittings and figures shivered and knocked to pieces, King Marsilio badly wounded, and the Emperor Charlemagne with his crown and head split in two.”

Read the whole chapter (or better yet, the whole book—Book I first!), including Gustave Doré’s illustrations, at Project Gutenberg.

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Before

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After

 

1984: Wheels on Meals (Kuai can che)

This post is part of Forgotten Films’ 1984 Blogathon. So much 1984. So little time.

The year 1984 was not awesome in a lot of ways. But it was a great year for films – check out the other 1984 Blogathon entries – and it was a big deal specifically for Hong Kong: The Sino-British Joint Declaration (the agreement to hand HK back to China in 1997) was signed. Combine 1984, movies, and Hong Kong, and you get films like Wheels on Meals, directed by Sammo Hung, produced by Raymond Chow, and starring Jackie Chan, Sammo, and Yuen Biao, a year after their collaboration in Project A. Not too shabby.

While Wheels on Meals (more on that especially silly name below) didn’t win any Hong Kong Film Awards that year, it has hung around pretty well as a result of some fine martial artistry brought to you by Jackie, Sammo, and the less well known, but demonstrably wonderful Yuen Biao.

The story is predictably and blissfully ludicrous. Thomas (Jackie Chan) and David (Yuen Biao) are cousins running a food truck in Barcelona. Perhaps this is because David’s father (Paul Chang) is in a Barcelona loony bin. Perhaps not. Don’t ask questions—according to Wheels on Meals, there was a large HK ex-pat community in Barcelona in the 80s. There is also a fair amount of discussion about characters’ nationalities, specifically as an explanation for their various proclivities and behaviors. Hiding in their apartment after a tryst, Thomas and David’s randy neighbor insists, “Italians can’t live without love,” while his wife waits outside the door with a shotgun. The Italian also points out that “All you Chinese know is work.” When Thomas and David exit by the window to avoid the continuing fracas (and get to work), the Spaniard downstairs opening his shop exclaims, “Don’t you Chinese use stairs?!” (Well, no, you don’t take the stairs, not if you started training in the Peking Opera School at the age of six, as Jackie, Sammo, and Biao did, together.) They excuse their acrobatics by explaining that “the Italians are fighting on there.” Best of all, not five minutes later, Sammo is describing himself, out loud, to another person, as “an inscrutable Chinese.”

This weird obsessiveness with nationalities becomes relevant (insofar as anything here is) when we learn that David’s father has fallen in love with a fellow loony, the Spanish Gloria. This is how the Thomas and David meet Gloria’s daughter, the lovely Sylvia (Lola Forner), or “Princess” as the boys call her.

son-of-man-1964(1)Meanwhile, in what a viewer might be forgiven for thinking is another film altogether, Moby (Sammo), a fledgling private eye, is asked by Magritte’s “The Son of Man” (Miguel Palenzuela) to find the daughter of a woman named Gloria. Before we can go any further, you must know that something awful has happened to Sammo’s hair. Perhaps as the result of some freak Spanish weather event, he appears to have been subjected to a bad perm. Sammo’s characters are usually pretty goofy, and let me tell you, the perm does nothing for Moby’s professionalism.

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It turns out that Thomas and David’s Sylvia is the woman Moby’s client has been looking for, and, thankfully, hijinks ensue. Moby’s client is dressed like Magritte’s Son of Man at least partly because he is (or used to be) the butler for the family Gloria used to work for. At this point, the narrative is revealed to be a crazy riff on an 18th-century novel: Gloria, once a maid in the house of a rich family, was raped by the head of the household. She fell pregnant (as one did under such circumstances, narratively speaking) and was kicked out—ending up in the loony bin. The male heir of the family now wants to hunt down Gloria and Sylvia and eliminate them so they cannot make any claims on the family fortune. This turns out to be pretty stupid, since neither of them has any idea there is a fortune which they might claim…until someone kidnaps them.

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There is a lot of enjoyable silliness between Thomas and David visiting the loony bin and Moby trying to act like a professional private detective, given that he appears to believe private eyes dress like a flashier Marlon Brando in Guys and Dolls (1955).

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There are a few teaser fights here and there—a training session between Jackie Chan and Yuen Biao, the boys defending Sylvia from Mondale’s henchmen—but the real fighting starts when everyone ends up at the villain’s castle.

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The centerpiece is Jackie’s fight with Benny “the Jet” Urquidez, but this isn’t to slight Yuen Biao’s fight with Keith Vitali–an altogether more goofily choreographed and acrobatic encounter. Meanwhile, Sammo is left to face the villain alone. Once the villain dons his fencing mask, however, what you’re really watching is Yuen Biao and Sammo Hung fighting. You can see why, of the three, all of them charismatic and gifted fighters, Jackie Chan is the one pitted against Urquidez, the main event. Jackie is a ham–but not such a ham that we’re allowed to think he’s a clown like Sammo. Yuen Biao gets a lot of the sort of stunts here that Jackie made a career of–moving through furniture and riding walls to physically outwit his opponents.

Stay tuned below for some clips of the fighting. I know that’s why you’re here.

 

So, just how 80s is all this silliness?

1) Legwarmers and sweater vests

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2) Headbands

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…and a matching jacket.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

2) This:

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3) Did I mention Sammo’s Jeri-curl?

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4) Traditional Spanish music as played on a synthesizer

6) The Knight-Rider-esque screen in the cousins’ food truck

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7) Skateboards

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8) Assholes on dirt bikes ruining everybody’s good, clean fun

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Apparently, this what Hell’s Angels ride in Barcelona.

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9) A random shot of people who may or may not be the main characters riding horses on a beach at sunset

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I mean, that’s what you’d guess this guy’s name is, right? Mondale?

10) The villain’s name is Mondale, played by a guy named José Sancho. Honestly, I’m not making this up.

 

So what’s with that crazy title?

According to a post on IMDb: The film is titled “Wheels on Meals” instead of “Meals on Wheels” because of superstition. Golden Harvest had produced two flops beginning with “M,” Megaforce (1982) and a film titled Menage a Trois. The company’s executives changed the title hoping this film would avoid the same problems.

 

 

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I couldn’t find a good clip of Yuen Biao from Wheels on Meals, so instead, here’s an amazing sequence from the slightly more old-school Magnificent Butcher (1979). Yuen Biao is the guy in the white shirt fighting a dude with a knife (or two) inside (rather than outside). It’s all pretty amazing, but you can appreciate YB’s acrobatics here. Magnificent Butcher stars Sammo, who co-directed with fight choreographer Yuen Wo Ping.

[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zGQHlG9f4Fw?rel=0&w=420&h=315]

Playtime (1967)

“Life is full of homages to Tati”*

originally intended as part of the 1967 in Film Blogathon

hosted by The Rosebud Cinema and Silver Screenings

(and then I got horribly sick—children are Petri dishes of contagion

—so it’s only, uh, three weeks late)

Anyway, check out the plethora of great posts from the Blogathon!

 

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French filmmaker Jacques Tati was only able to make six feature-length films, but each film, right from the beginning with Jour de fête (1949) and Les vacances de Monsieur Hulot (1953), has the mark of comic genius. Tati’s films are immediately recognizable for their use of sound, their democracy of action (and lack of any significant plot), and exuberant Tati gags. Playtime (1967) is generally regarded as the director’s masterpiece. Originally running around 2 ½ hours, Tati eventually edited it down to just under two (and at least some of that edited footage is still missing).

Playtime is about people and their urban environment: buildings, technology, and other people. Tati was interested in people and their experience of space, and he was worried about how certain kinds of modern spaces were changing the way people interacted. The film takes pleasure in mocking our ability to thrive in the structures we’ve created and to manage the gadgets we fetishize. But there is always a gentleness to Tati’s mockery, much like Buster Keaton’s, a clear influence. And like many silent film artists, Tati turns his environment into art by manipulating how people and objects interact with each other. To make the world look and work the way he wanted it to, the director constructed his own town, dubbed “Tativille,” outside of Joinville, Haute-Marne, France. (Unfortunately, manipulation on this grand a scale bankrupted him when the picture didn’t do well at the box office.)

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Tativille looks suspiciously similar to our world, but like the obsessively constructed worlds in Vladimir Nabokov’s novels or Quentin Tarantino’s films (two much-less gentler geniuses), it is plainly not the real world. Each object, each line and curve has the potential to come to life at any moment. Everything (and everyone) is a prop in a Tati film, which may sound dehumanizing. But the overall effect of every Tati film is to humanize its setting and give its inhabitants (they don’t often rise to the level of characters) a space to be human—to socialize and experience pleasure. By the end of a Tati film, no matter how many mistakes have been made, no matter how much destruction has taken place, you are likely wishing his world were the real world. During the last 20 – 30 minutes of Playtime, the drably-colored, antiseptically-modernist environment breaks into a carnival-like chaos, with brightly colored decorations, a lot of drinking and dancing and socializing across classes and languages.

Beyond this shift, there is no plot to speak of—an American tourist named Barbara arrives in Paris with a tour group and Tati’s Monsieur Hulot has a business appointment are the closest thing to plot here—but there are recurring individuals. In addition to M. Hulot and Barbara, there  are the customer in the pharmacy-deli who turns out to be one of the jazz musicians at the Royal Garden nightclub, the man with whom Hulot has an appointment, M. Giffard, but keeps missing, an army buddy or two of Hulot’s, and so on.

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The architecture—all floor-to-ceiling glass walls and doors and endless grayish-blue cubicles (see the masthead above)—often has people on display but keeps them from interacting. Indeed, one of the film’s first gags is a worker trying to get a light from the porter of an office building, not realizing that there is a glass wall between them. Once people are outside these constructions, or they collapse, connections are made—Hulot runs into the army buddy he saw earlier but who was stuck in traffic; M. Giffard, out to walk his dog, finally sees Hulot on the sidewalk and they walk off together. Whatever they have to discuss is beside the point; the important thing is that they’ve finally gotten in touch.

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Spaces “deteriorate” in the last third of the film, creating new space more accommodating to these connections. The Royal Garden nightclub opens before it’s quite ready and the space just comes to pieces as tiles peel off the floor, waiters rip their uniforms on poorly designed chairs which are leaving marks on the backs of diners’ jackets and dresses, and finally the walls literally come down. Once the décor of the nightclub starts to come apart, the customers are able to mix with each other and with the workers, and to make their own music. The lengthy sequence is a justifiably famous set-piece. Similarly, the pharmacy-deli introduced in the last third of the film is a typical Tati mish-mash of spatial functions, resulting in sandwiches glowing green as they bask in the neon light of the pharmacy on the one hand while encouraging conversation and jollity on the other.

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From top left, the Royal Garden starts out looking pretty slick but things slide into a delightful chaos over the course of the evening.

In Playtime, there is never just one thing going on—there is a constant symphony of activity, and not just throughout the film but throughout the screen. Filmed in 70mm, “that grand epic format that covers the largest screens available with the most detail imaginable,” according to Roger Ebert, Playtime requires a big screen and rewards multiple viewings. It was filmed almost entirely in long shot; there are no closeups. A preponderance of frames are filled with activity in each field—foreground, medium ground, and background—or in every quadrant. Often the audience must decide where to look—our attention is not always directed to the unfolding of a particular event.

 

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Street lamps bloom like flowers on the road between Paris and the airport.

The soundtrack is likewise a panorama of traffic, conversations (often at a level we can’t quite hear), blips and bleeps, doors opening and closing. These noises create some of the humor and also suggest that everyday objects have developed their own personalities. Sound was always an integral part of Tati’s cinema—doors seems to have been a special favorite, starting in Vacances. Which makes sense, as so much of Tati’s narrative, in all of his films, is about collapsing boundaries. And the soundscape in Playtime does work something like its field of vision. We hear some ambient noises in the “foreground” more loudly than they’d be in real life, directing our attention to something on screen we might not otherwise notice.

playtime-curving-arrowTati loves shapes and colors, and you can tell even when he’s not using many—the interaction of shades of gray in Playtime are carefully orchestrated and make the colors that do appear in the last third of the movie especially captivating. One of the pleasures of Tativille is the constant matching of shapes and movements. When a tiny but very important man deplanes at the beginning of the film, a tag on his suitcase flaps in a nonexistent breeze inside the terminal. Later, at the Royal Garden, the maître d’s suit tails swing back and forth as though equipped with an invisible metronome. In the exhibitor gallery of a futuristic product expo, an absurdly statuesque woman demonstrates a pair of dark, thick-framed glasses whose lenses flip up separately, so that its wearer can apply makeup, one eye at a time. Shortly after that, we’re introduced to the owner of a firm that makes silent doors (more on this below), whose dark, thick-framed glasses later break in the middle, repeating the visual of the one-up, one-down lenses on the first pair of glasses. It is no accident that an accident creates the same effect that some company has mass-produced and offered for sale. Accidents frequently open an avenue between previously segregated groups of people.

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One of my favorite gags in Playtime is the “Slam Your Doors in Golden Silence” bit towards the beginning of the film. Hulot (and the American tourists) walk through the expo, booths advertising the latest in mod cons.images These are all, of course, ridiculous contraptions that no one needs. There is the garbage can shaped like an ionic column. There is the desk lamp that offers different colored light. There is the vacuum cleaner with headlamps attached (wait a minute…I have one of those—though in my defense, the lights on mine are not the size of grapefruit). All these objects make delightful burping and metallic grunting noises.

Except for the silent doors.

The doors have been made with an insulated material and whatever sound they actually made when moving or closing seems not only to have been wiped from the soundtrack but maybe replaced with a noticeable silence. (Or maybe that’s just the effectiveness of the bit.) A faux Hulot (the film is filled with them) mistakes the silent door exhibit for an extension of an adjacent exhibitor selling office desks. While the door salesman is demonstrating the silence to a potential customer, the faux Hulot rifles through the desk, empties his pipe in the ashtray, and generally helps himself in a way most offensive to the salesman—who can’t do anything because he’s distracted by a sales prospect. The owner of the silent door company turns up a few moments later, and his salesman complains about the man in a hat and raincoat carrying a pipe. The salesman trots off and Hulot appears. The owner (the one whose glasses split) mistakes him for the impolite not-Hulot. The set-up is at least as funny as the pay-off, when the owner berates the oblivious Hulot. The mistaken-identity gag perhaps suggests Tati’s impatience with the popularity of the Hulot character. But the encounter is also one of several that eventually blossom into the revelry at the collapsing Royal Garden nightclub. And like the bumbling encounters that later bear fruit, the “golden silence” of the insulated doors is later replaced by the amiable cacophony of unplanned, unprogrammed conversation and music.

Towards the end of Playtime, Hulot is attempting to leave a small and crowded magasin with a gift for the American tourist. He maneuvers around a set of pot handles sticking into the aisle, only to be told he must go back and exit through a turnstile which now looks remarkably like…a bunch of pot handles sticking out. Hulot can’t reach her in time, but the encounter is saved by an intermediary who passes the souvenir to Barbara as she boards the bus for the airport. Playtime is overflowing with little gags like these, and they are exquisite in design and the joy they take in the physical world. The greatest thing about any excursion to Tativille is that infectious joy the audience brings back with them, and how it changes the way we look at our environment.

Photograph by André Dino.

Photograph by André Dino.

 

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* This post is dedicated to my parents, whose anniversary is July 14, Bastille Day. *

* Michael Chion, Senses of Cinema

 

Other Tati essays/tidbits:

Roger Ebert on Playtime, one of his Great Movies.

Le main droite de M Hulot about Tati’s collaborator, artist Jacques Lagrange, including details about his work on Playtime, by Kristin Thompson. (She argues elsewhere, convincingly, for the title as two words.)

Jonathan Rosenbaum’s essay on Playtime from Criterion.

David Bordwell’s post on “Funny Framings” starts off with a Tati example from Playtime.

Dan North’s post on Playtime: “Modern Life is Noisy”

TCM’s essay on Playtime.

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.

Wilder-Bracketttumblr_metblisMH81qgpddwo1_1280

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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.

bluebeard.straightjacket

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.

cooper.in.tub

“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.

The Merry Widow Waltz: Lubitsch’s “Heaven Can Wait”

This post is part of the Romantic Comedy Blogathon, hosted by Backlots and Carole & Co.!

It’s hard to imagine Ernst Lubitsch, director of The Love Parade (1929), Design for Living (1933), and Ninotchka (1939), making something that isn’t a classy, urbane romantic comedy. Heaven Can Wait (1943) is an odd duck, though. For example, not many romantic comedies begin in Hell. Yet, it is here that we, and His Excellency, played by the devilish Laird Cregar, meet Henry Van Cleve (smoothie Don Ameche). Nor is the plot of most romantic comedies structured around its hero’s petition to get in to Hell. His Excellency isn’t sure Henry’s in the right place, but he’s an accommodating fellow and willing to listen.

Why is Hell so...pink?

Why is Hell so…pink? Laird Cregar as His Excellency.

So, Henry tells the story, through flashbacks, of his would-be Casanova history  with women, which, it turns out, is mostly his mostly-happy marriage to Martha Strable, played by the luminous Gene Tierney. Despite not being able to point to any outstanding crimes, Henry assures His Excellency, “I have no illusions. I know where I belong.” He adds, “I can safely say my whole life has been one continuous misdemeanor.”

Hell is not impressed with misdemeanors. “My dear Mr. Cleve,” His Excellency retorts, “a passport to Hell is not issued on generalities.”

Given this introduction, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that Henry is an odd duck of a romantic hero, as well. He’s a playboy and a loafer who loves women and

"Just give me five minutes to pull myself together." Don Ameche as Henry Van Cleve.

“Just give me five minutes to pull myself together.” Don Ameche as Henry Van Cleve.

accomplishes nothing over the course of his life, other than loving Martha. When we put Lubitsch’s world in the context of the other, not-so classy world, Henry looks even less heroic. He is a slight and mostly unredeemed character in a world beset by the tragedies of World War I, the Great Depression, and World War II. None of these so much as knocks on the door of Lubitsch’s world of grace, charm, and apparent lightness.

Or do they?

Henry believes he belongs in Hell because he ran around on Martha. It’s not totally clear what this is supposed to mean in the film—but since we’re talking about Lubitsch, and his “continental mind,” it’s probably adultery rather than shameless flirting. What we do know is that, on their tenth wedding anniversary, Martha has had enough and goes home to Kansas. When Henry tries to win her back, he employs what we learn are his usual play-acting and excuses. He starts with the classic How-could-you-do-this-to-me?. It is Henry’s description of their son Jackie’s beginner flirtations with girls, so much like his own, that eventually wins Martha over again, despite her better judgment. And they elope, for the second time.

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The story of their accidental meeting and first elopement is pure romantic comedy. Henry overhears Martha lying to her mother (!) and, already smitten, follows her to a bookshop. Henry pretends to be a clerk, and when he discovers that Martha wants to buy How to Make Your Husband Happy, he gives one of his first great speeches.

Confessing his deception, he tells Martha:

I took one look at you and followed you into the store. If you’d gone into a restaurant, I would have become a waiter. If you’d walked into a burning building, I’d have become a fireman. If you’d walked into an elevator, I would have stopped between two floors, and we’d have spent the rest of our lives there.

I took one look at you and followed you into the store. If you’d gone into a restaurant, I would have become a waiter. If you’d walked into a burning building, I’d have become a fireman. If you had walked into an elevator, I would have stopped between two floors, and we’d have spent the rest of our lives there.

 

Later that evening, they discover, to their mutual discomfort, that Martha is engaged to Henry’s goody-two-shoes cousin, Albert. The scene in which Henry literally sweeps Martha off her feet is both classic screwball comedy and classic Lubitsch. At the Van Cleves’ to celebrate Henry’s birthday and Albert’s engagement, Martha has the temerity to sneeze during Mrs. Cooper-Cooper’s aria. Albert hustles her into the study in order to avoid any further social disasters. Unbeknownst to him, he has just delivered Martha into the arms of Cousin Henry. (Henry has spent a lifetime successfully avoiding Mrs. Cooper-Cooper’s “coloratura,” he informs His Excellency.) Henry wastes no timeHeaven-Can-Wait-Technicolor2 and kisses her. That you can watch Martha move from rapture to the sense that she should be outraged to actually making an outraged face is a testament to Tierney’s ability as an actress. And it is a chiasmus of the change we watch come over Henry’s face moments before, as he realizes who Albert’s fiancée is: a move from light amusement to something between horror and grief, and then a grim determination.

It turns out that Martha is marrying Albert because he seemed the only way out of Kansas and away from her loving but endlessly bickering parents (the sublime Eugene Pallete and Marjorie Main). Fortunately, Henry has a better solution, to which Martha replies:

Get married! Oh! How can we do that? How can I marry you? I’m not even engaged to you. … Oh, I wish I were dead.

Though the next minute Henry has swooped Martha into his arms and a cab and off to the nearest justice of the peace, the reference to death (not the first) is more important than we’re likely to think when we first hear it. We know that Henry is dead when he tells this story, and the plot moves forward by leapfrogging from one birthday or anniversary to

"How can I marry you? I'm not even engaged to you!" Gene Tierney as Martha Strable.

“Albert, suppose some day in the future I have to sneeze?” Gene Tierney as Martha Strable.

another. And in between what seems like every flashback, someone we care about has died. These deaths are never discussed; we have to infer that a particular character is no longer among the living by the portrait now up on the wall, or an absence (or two) at the breakfast table. Even when Henry’s beloved Martha dies, we learn this through inference, and maybe ten minutes into the sequence, only after Henry confesses to his 60th birthday and after he is chastised by Jackie for his endearingly age-inappropriate conduct.

Despite the encumbrance of a truly appalling hairstyle in what are meant to be her later years, Gene Tierney has some wonderful moments in the film. One of them is her speech to Albert when he renews his suit.

Now, Albert, I don’t want anybody to get the impression that I’ve been the victim of ten years of misery. Nothing of the kind. On the contrary, I can say there were moments in my marriage that few women ever get to experience.

That’s not the purpose of marriage. Marriage isn’t a series of thrills. Marriage is a peaceful, well-balanced adjustment of two right-thinking people.

I’m afraid that’s only too true.

The film is much more about Henry’s love for Martha, however, than it is about Henry and Martha. Henry’s Lubitschean grace, tempered by some very human bumbling around in pursuit of Martha, is the core of the film. It is his love for Martha that redeems him, insofar as he needs redeeming; it is his Oscar Wilde-ish pursuit of pleasure for its own sake that suggests he doesn’t really need redeeming. As Martha tries to explain first to her parents and then to Albert, her marriage to Henry may not be perfect, but it has more perfect moments than most of us ever get. That is finally why Henry doesn’t belong in Hell, and why Albert is wrong about marriage.

The “Merry Widow Waltz” is a recurring theme in the film, and as I’m sure someone else has pointed out, all of Lubitsch’s films move like an elegant ballroom dance; watching them is like watching Fred and Ginger. The title of that piece of music encapsulates the challenging tone of the film—both merry and melancholy. Heaven Can Wait is a gentle but compelling argument for pleasure, pleasure not only despite the tragedies of life, but also because of them. That the melancholy doesn’t destroy the merriment and that the merriment doesn’t undermine the melancholy is an astonishing achievement, a kind of grace in itself.

 

** Heaven Can Wait is available on DVD from Netflix and on Amazon Prime for rental. **

Postscript: Heaven Can Wait was written by screenwriter Samson Raphaelson, who also wrote Lubitsch’s Trouble in Paradise (1932) and Shop Around the Corner (1940), as well as Hitchcock’s Suspicion (1941).

Clarence Muse, who plays the Strables’ butler, Jasper, deserves his own post. He gets an excellent scene in which he expertly maneuvers between the Mr. and Mrs. during a breakfast spat over the who gets to read the funny papers.

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=t6hrsg01qdk&w=420&h=315]

Bonuses: There is a lovely chat about the film between Andrew Sarris and Molly Haskell on the Criterion DVD.

“Heaven Can Wait” clips @ Turner Classic Movies

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=x5IEvc2j5uY&w=560&h=315]

John Landis (not William Bendix!) on the trailer for Heaven Can Wait.

 

 

 

“Cactus Flower” (1969)

Unexpected gem: Cactus Flower, directed by Gene Saks, viewed thanks to Turner Classic Movies. Saks, who also directed Barefoot in the Park (1967) and The Odd Couple (1968), worked a fair amount with writer/producer Neil Simon. More recently, he played Woody Allen’s father in Deconstructing Harry (1997).

Cactus.Flower.poster

I’m pretty sure I’ve never seen Walter Matthau actually stand like that.

I thought it was starting off a bit awkwardly–a 24-year-old Goldie Hawn as Toni, only one year into her tenure at “Laugh-In,” in what looked like a hippiefied The Apartment (1960). Like Shirley MacLaine’s Fran Kubelik, Toni attempts to kill herself as the result of a love affair with an older, married man. Here, this crisis is merely the opening action. Her neighbor, Igor Sullivan (Rick Lenz), breaks in and enthusiastically gives her mouth-to-mouth.  And it was actually the script that seemed a bit awkward. But I was wrong–and how. The screenplay, adapted by I. A. L. Diamond, is a delight. And wouldncha know, he wrote The Apartment, as well, so maybe it is a technicolor dream version of that film. Diamond worked a fair amount with Billy Wilder. Here, his screenplay is based on the very successful stage play (1965, starring Lauren Bacall and Brenda Vaccaro) by Abe Burrows, itself an adaptation of a French play, Fleur de cactus, natch, by Pierre Barillet and Jean-Pierre Grédy, which premiered in 1964. And it turns out, Cactus Flower is the original of the recent Adam Sandler-Jennifer Aniston vehicle, Just Go With It (2011). Good grief.

But Cactus Flower isn’t just Apartment through kaleidoscopic love-in glasses; the plot is a post-War screwball comedy, the script full of screwballesque exchanges between men and women. I couldn’t find much at all on the French play, but surely Barillet and Grédy watched a lot of American films from the 30’s and 40s, absorbing the snappy dialogue. In fact, films like His Girl Friday, The Philadelphia Story, and my favorite, The Awful Truth were themselves adapted from plays–to say nothing of Private Lives (1931) and The Women (1939).

Julian: I must say, it’s grotesque. A woman your age, throwing yourself at a kid like that!

Stephanie: And what about that eh, father-daughter thing of yours, if you don’t think that’s ridiculous…

Julian: Well, it’s different for a man. If a man is with a younger woman it looks entirely appropriate, but when it’s the other way around, it’s disg…

Stephanie: Well, you go to your church and I’ll go to mine.

Here, Walter Matthau plays dentist Julian Winston, who pretends to be married to avoid having to actually marry his mistress, Toni, with professional Classy Broad Ingrid Bergman as the prevaricating dentist’s loyal assistant, Stephanie Dickinson, who pretends to be the wife he’s divorcing when he decides he really does want to marry Toni. As in any good screwball, the lies people tell or pretenses they create to avoid romantic entanglements finally land them in the arms of their true partner.

Walter and Ingrid take five.

Walter and Ingrid take five.

What makes this film is the script and classy cast. Hawn won her only Oscar, for Supporting Actress, for Cactus Flower. (Her only other Oscar nomination was for Best Actress in Private Benjamin, eleven years later.) More trivia: Raquel Welch accepted Hawn’s Oscar for a role Tuesday Weld turned down. But it’s the amazing Bergman, in the first picture she filmed in America in about twenty years, who steals the show. Her performance here is a sort of loose relation to her Anna Kalman in 1958’s frothy Indiscreet (which was–you guessed it–adapted from a play). That film shares the bachelor-pretending-to-be-married premise.

[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=E8NNIKbhOL0&w=420&h=315]

The magic happens at about 2:25 in the clip. Ingrid Bergman learning to dance from Goldie Hawn. Priceless, with the best of connotations. The resolution leaves something to be desired; it looks like it was filmed from an LED set, thus making it look like a poor-quality live television show. (Reminded me a bit of “Three’s Company,” watching the clip.) I would never have thought of Bergman in a role like this–though Indiscreet is similar, she’s a highly-regarded actress living in what I remember as being a penthouse and dating a world reknowned economist, going to fancy parties and high-end restaurants. I thought Bergman was slumming a bit here (not in terms of company, but in material), but she is, of course, an excellent comedienne, and she pulls off the loosey-goosey late sixties silliness with her usual flair.

What is ‘IT’?

Inspired by the oracular Self-Styled Siren (can sirens be oracles?) and her post on MOMA’s 10th Edition of the “To Save and Protect” screenings, I watched Clara Bow’s classic It (dir. Clarence Badger, 1927) for, I’m ashamed to say, the first time. Bow has been hopelessly neglected, not just by me, until fairly recently. Said neglect is generally attributed to some seriously bad, indeed, abusive (and largely untrue) press about her personal life towards what became the end of her film career. You can read a spirited account of that here (also linked on the Siren’s page). Anyhoo. The film is a fantastic example of the work women were doing in Hollywood before it became such an old boys’ club. It is based on a story by “Madame” Elinor Glyn, as she’s credited here, with a screenplay co-written by Hope Loring (1894 – 1959), a writer with 63 credits to her name, and Louis. D. Lighton. Glyn wrote novels and stories and adapted them for the screen—and she is an uncredited co-producer of It, according IMDb. (She’s also played by the lush Joanna Lumley in the delightful The Cat’s Meow [Bogdanovich, 2001].)

Unsurprisingly, given the period, the plot teeters towards Pretty Woman, and mid-way through, our heroine, Betty Lou Spence (Clara Bow), is accosted by some snotty “Welfare” ladies trying to take a toddler away from his mother and into dubious-sounding “temporary” custody. Yet the film also portrays a real friendship between women whose relationship to each other isn’t mediated or determined by a man. And the romance is finally settled with the leads, sopping wet, dangling off the anchor of a yacht. This is after Betty has rescued a drowning society woman, passing her off to her erstwhile beau, Cyrus Waltham (Antonio Moreno), saying, “Take your girlfriend. I had to knock her cold—but maybe it’ll do her good.” Yes, she punches a drowning woman in the face and then saves her life. So one can’t really complain.

One of the film’s surprises for me was William Austin, a man with 89 acting credits, whom I didn’t recognize—though I should have, as he’s in The Gay Divorcee (dir. Mark Sandrich, 1934). I’d like to attribute my lapse to the fact that I spent a lot of the film distracted by how much he looked like John Waters’ gay twin.Austin, at least in this film, looks uncannily like Waters. Austin’s Monty is tall and lanky and sports a pencil moustache that’s gotten an attitude. Because of the eyeliner he’s wearing (noticeably more than Moreno, by the by), our attention is drawn to his eyes. Now, based on what I’ve seen of (and my warm fuzzies for) John Waters, he is nothing like Austin in his physicality or his character here. Whereas Waters is always composed and his affect is delightfully dry, Austin’s Monty is a bit preening and silly, a bit cowardly, and a bit googly-eyed. He can’t even be trusted to steer a boat like the manly Cyrus. So when I say Austin’s Monty is like Waters’s gay twin, I mean some kind of early film version of “gay,” not gay.

Austin’s character in the film is straight, natch, but he is given a variety of tics (though certainly not all of the contemporary ones) that suggest a stereotype of gay men in film during the 20s and 30s. Monty, Cyrus’s best friend, is the first to pursue Betty. He gets the plot rolling (and some exposition covered) when he picks up a stray copy of Cosmopolitan in Cyrus’s office and tells us what “It” is. (Cyrus Waltham runs a department store, so presumably he can be forgiven for having a copy of Cosmo…but not actually looking at it.) It’s surely no coincidence that it’s Monty who introduces us and Cyrus to the characteristic of “It,” as laid out by Madame Glyn:

“‘IT’ is that peculiar quality which some persons possess, which attracts others of the opposite sex. The possessor of ‘IT’ must be absolutely un-selfconscious, and must have that magnetic ‘sex appeal’ which is irresistible. … Mothers spoil boys with ‘IT’—women never refuse them favors!”

Later, Glyn will glide in to the dining room of the Ritz and offer another definition:

“Self-confidence and indifference as to whether you are pleasing or not—and something in you that gives the impression that you are not at all cold.” This is less sexy as definitions go, but emphasizes Betty’s own self-confidence and obvious warmth.

Monty is also a touch narcissistic—upon discovering this new thing called “It,” he assesses himself in a mirror, determining that he is full of “it.” (Was this an insult in 1927?) We are meant to likeMonty, I should hasten to add. He’s not Peter Lorre in The Maltese Falcon—but then this is a comedy, so “gay” here is played for laughs, rather than as a social threat. Monty is a sympathetic character, even if he looks a bit too…aristocratic to be a red-blooded American male. (He frequently refers to Cyrus as “old man.”) Monty is meant to be something of a playboy but doesn’t get anywhere with Betty—they could not look more wrong for each other—and in fact we never see him in the company of another woman. Ultimately, even the movie doesn’t seem to take his candidacy seriously. But he is perhaps film’s first gay best friend, helping to reconcile Cyrus and Betty at the end of the film.

Playing Cyrus Waltham, Moreno, a traditionally movie-star-handsome fellow, barely manages to look up from his business (or take his eyes off the men he’s talking to, if I remember correctly). In fact, it is Monty who notices the magnetic Betty first. Although Betty does repeatedly fling herself into Cyrus’s path, it isn’t her feminine wiles that make him fall in love with her—it’s that he finally looks up and sees her. That’s all it takes. All she had to do was get him to look at her. And her looks merely precede the fun they have together. A lot of physical fun, at an actual Funhouse. It’s okay, though, because there’s no sex. Clearly. Just because they’re flopping all over each other on bumpy slides and something called the “Social Mixer” [32:36] doesn’t imply… Okay, yes, it does. The sequence not only doubles for come combination of sexual attraction/intimacy, it also neatly visualizes their class differences and foreshadows the bumps in their relationship. But, for the moment, a good time is had by all, including the audience. Though it does seem a shame men were expected to wear such fancy suits to a Funhouse at the beach.

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UAF2g5X-P4c&w=480&h=360]

Despite Clara’s sexuality, within the first ten minutes of the film, we watch Betty play with her friend’s baby and learn that she is putting up the single mother who can’t go back to work until she is no longer sick. (And let’s face it, she probably wouldn’t have a job to go back to by then, anyway.) So, although Betty is full of “It,” she also acts to help others, consequences be damned. Her passion isn’t only sexual. She’s a good person, too, her potentially dangerous magnetism diluted by a mothering instinct.

This is reminiscent of Pretty Woman—and, as others have pointed out, is certainly a version of the “Cinderella” story. Perhaps more interestingly, it is also a riff on the “fallen woman,” since Cyrus incorrectly believes Betty’s had a child out of wedlock. She catches her man—the handsome Prince (her boss)—simply by presenting herself to him. The couple is briefly separated by a class-related misunderstanding. Cyrus is even willing to overlook “what [she’s] been,” though, thankfully, he doesn’t have to. This is a comedy, after all.

I’m not an expert by any means, but I’ve seen a few silents. What makes It so watchable for me is Clara Bow’s naturalness, particularly as a silent film actress. However true it is that by 1927 silent acting was less melodramatic than, say, at the height of Méliès’s popularity, Bow’s expressions are striking for their subtlety, rather being recognizable as mere symbols of human emotion.

When Cyrus loses a bet that he wouldn’t recognize her, Betty watches it dawn on him that he does know her, and she tries not to smile [29:50]. Trying not to make a facial expression in a silent film seems like a particular achievement in nuance in a medium where facial expressions were originally exaggerated to convey plot as well as emotion. Likewise, when Cyrus believes she has an illegitimate child she’s failed to mention but Betty doesn’t yet know this, Bow’s expressiveness is remarkable. She attempts to get Cyrus to engage with her, sliding on to his desk in a way that goes from sex kitten to the comfortable casualness of a best friend. As a whole, the scene highlights Bow’s impressive emotional range, careening, as silents often did, from one extreme to another, here, from surprised joy to inconsolable despair.

Interesting tidbit: William Austin (the Gryphon) and Gary Cooper (White Knight) are in the 1933 Alice in Wonderland (with some guy named Cary Grant as the Mock Turtle).

Best Lines:

Betty: “I’ll take the snap out of your garters!” 

Monty: “Old boy, I’m so low I could get on a ladder and walk under a dachshund!”