Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Best Director Of 1932-33 (Drama): James Whale (The Old Dark House and The Invisible Man)

Although he directed all sorts of movies, including the musical Show Boat, the name James Whale will always be linked with horror. During an age characterized by great horror films, Whale directed four of the greatest—Frankenstein, The Old Dark House, The Invisible Man and Bride Of Frankenstein. If he didn't invent the genre, Whale redefined it so thoroughly that it's difficult, even now, to make a horror film without dipping into his bag of tricks.

Born in Worcestershire, England, in 1889, the son of a factory worker and a nurse, Whale discovered an interest in the theater while putting on productions for his fellow prisoners of war in a German POW camp during World War I. After the war, he worked as an actor and director in London, with his big break coming in 1928 when he directed Journey's End, R.C. Sherriff's anti-war play about life in the trenches. Starring Colin Clive, later the star of Frankenstein, the play ran on London's West End for two years and brought Whale to the attention of Hollywood. There, he directed a film version of Journey's End as well as an adaptation of Robert E. Sherwood's Waterloo Bridge, the latter starring Mae Clarke.

Seeking to cash in on the box office phenomenon of Dracula, the classic thriller about a vampire turned loose on Victorian England starring Bela Lugosi, Whale directed one of the most famous and influential movies ever made, a screen adaptation of Mary Shelley's horror novel Frankenstein. The story of a young scientist who soon regrets cracking the secret of creation, Frankenstein contains more iconic images than any other movie of the period and it made an international star of Boris Karloff, who was both menacing and sympathetic as the monster.

Although he began his career as a theater director, Whale took full advantage of the opportunities film presented, using any number of techniques to distance Frankenstein from its literary and stage antecedents. In addition to the memorable use of sound effects, Whale abandoned the so-called proscenium arch—that is, the now long-forgotten habit of photographing a set from only one position, as if the camera had bought a ticket in the third row of a Broadway theater, that makes early sound movies feel so stagy—moving the camera around the room to get interesting angles, indeed, actually moving the camera, rather than leaving it bolted to the floor, such as for the long tracking shot of the father carrying his drowned daughter through the village square.

Frankenstein was 1931's box office champ, grossing $5 million (with an additional $7 million overseas) on a budget of $291,000.

Producer Carl Laemmle, Jr., wanted a sequel to Frankenstein, but Whale resisted. Ironically, despite helping to define the genre, he didn't much care for horror, and would have preferred to direct more movies like Waterloo Bridge—dramas and romances with literary antecedents. Business, though, was business, and after directing The Impatient Maiden, a little-seen drama starring Mae Clark and Lew Ayres, Whale turned back to the horror genre with an adaptation of J.B. Priestley's novel, Benighted, retitled The Old Dark House for the U.S. market.

The plot is a staple of the horror genre—strangers forced to spend the night in a scary house—although the threat, in this case, is not supernatural but based in the psychotic behaviors of the people who live there. Raymond Massey and Gloria Stuart play a quarrelsome couple stranded by a storm in the mountains of Wales with Melvyn Douglas, their good-natured traveling companion. The three seek shelter in a nearby farmhouse belonging to Horace and Rebecca Femm, an elderly brother-sister couple played by Ernest Thesinger (later Dr. Pretorius in Bride Of Frankenstein) and a particularly belligerent Eva Moore.

"What are they doing here? What do they want? No beds! No beds!"

Upstairs is their crazy father and an even crazier brother.

Playing the Femm's mute butler is Boris Karloff, so heavily made up the producers added a note at the beginning of the movie to say that, yes, he was the same Karloff who had portrayed the monster in Frankenstein. Soon added to the mix are two more stranded travelers, Charles Laughton in his American film debut, and his mistress, played by Lilian Bond.

The fun lies in trying to decide who's merely eccentric and who's a homicidal maniac. Whale and cinematographer Arthur Edeson (All Quiet On The Western Front, Casablanca) do a wonderful job of creating a sense of foreboding with shadows and Expressionistic camera angles. Whale was also one of the first directors to grasp the possibilities of the sound medium, and rain, wind, creaking boards, screams and howls, contribute to the mood.

TV Guide also praised Whale's ability to "emphasize an actor's entrances and exits, or to delay them as needed (as in the case of Saul). His striking flair for composition and editing works an audience over thoroughly, and he adds to the film's impact by deliberately playing with the buildup of suspense."

And Nick Pinkerton in The Village Voice noted that Whale—who was born in a working class slum and invented for himself a cool, aristocratic bearing—was particularly sensitive to class distinctions, an awareness that shows in Laughton's character, "a knighted bigmouth industrialist, still smarting from slights before his social rise."

Despite a generally warm critical reception, The Old Dark House was a box office failure in the United States (it set records in Whale's native England). The film was thought lost for decades until it's rediscovery in the 1970s and its reputation has grown over the last few years until it is now regarded as one of Whale's best.

For the subject of Universal's next "monster" movie, producer Carl Laemmle, Jr., settled on the H.G. Wells novel The Invisible Man, and following the released of a mystery starring Paul Lucas called The Kiss Before The Mirror, Whale began production in June 1933.

The Invisible Man is the story of Dr. Jack Griffin who discovers a process that will render a man invisible, a secret he initially plans to sell to the highest bidder until he realizes to his horror that there's no way to reverse the process. Its screenplay proved to be a tough nut to crack—no less a writer than Preston Sturges tried and failed, as did Garrett Fort and John Balderson, who had successfully adapted Dracula. Ultimately it was playwright R.C. Sherriff, whose Journey's End had provided Whale's break, who figured it out. He focused on the practical problems of invisibility—for example, Griffin must hide for an hour after he eats while his meal digests. In addition, Sherriff and Whale agreed that since the film's audience would believe that "only a lunatic would want to make himself invisible anyway," the story would emphasize Griffin's descent into madness.

"We'll begin with a reign of terror," Griffin says as his megalomania takes hold, "a few murders here and there, murders of great men, murders of little men, just to show we make no distinction."

To play the invisible man, Whale had initially planned on Boris Karloff, who had been such a sensation in Frankenstein, but when he proved to be unavailable, Whale opted for Claude Rains, a veteran of the stage and an instructor at the Royal Academy where he counted both Laurence Olivier and John Gielgud among his students. Although he was reluctant to begin his movie career with a horror film, Rains proved to be an inspired choice. Since the audience can't see him until the final scene, Griffin's entire character must be conveyed through his voice—and Rains had one of the richest, most melodious voices in movie history.

The other key to the success of The Invisible Man was, of course, its special effects, and those concocted by John P. Fulton and Arthur Edeson are among the best of its era. To create the illusion of invisibility, Fulton clothed Rains from head to toe in black velvet and filmed him before a black background. The footage was then optically printed over the scenes filmed on the set. In addition, to cover imperfections, Edeson retouched over four thousand frames of film by hand.

The result is startlingly effective, especially when Rains unwinds the bandages that conceal his face to reveal first empty eye sockets, then holes where his mouth and nose should be, and finally, nothing at all.

But as convincing as the special effects were, the movie would have collapsed had Whale not known how to move the story along, pull memorable performances from his actors—Una O'Connor as a terrified bar maid is unforgettable—and ratchet up the tension as the film races toward its conclusion.

The film was the critical and commercial hit Laemmle had hoped for. The New York Times named it one of the year's ten best and Whale himself won the special recognition at the Venice Film Festival for his direction. Even more important to Universal, the box office appeal of Whale's films helped keep the studio afloat during the darkest days of the Depression.

In 2008, the Library of Congress added The Invisible Man to the National Film Registry.

Despite reaching such heights, though, glory proved to be fleeting for Whale. After 1935's Bride of Frankenstein—the sequel he had resisted making for as long as he could—he never again directed a horror picture, and although credited with directing Show Boat, he was actually fired before production ended, having uncharacteristically gone over budget. Afterwards, he directed a string of commercially unsuccessful pictures and was pretty much out of movies by 1941.

In 1957, after a series of strokes, Whale committed suicide by drowning himself in his swimming pool. One of the few openly-gay directors working in Hollywood, Whale's life was the subject of the 1998 film Gods and Monsters, starring Ian McKellen.

Tuesday, June 29, 2010

The Latest Monkey Poll: Best Actress Smackdown

I've got a few posts in the works, including the award for best director of a drama (1932-33) and best actress in a comedy or a musical (also 1932-33).

In the meantime, how about a new Monkey poll? Of the previous winners of the Katie-Bar-The-Door award for best actress in a lead role, who is your favorite?

Mary Pickford

Lillian Gish

Louise Brooks

Marlene Dietrich

Norma Shearer

Remember: there are no wrong answers, just movies you haven't seen yet.

Monday, June 28, 2010

The Wavishing Kay Fwancis

Some quick facts about Kay Francis, star of the Ernst Lubitsch classic, Trouble In Paradise.

● Born in Oklahoma City to an actress mother and a father who left when Kay was four, Francis made her Broadway debut at the age of twenty in a modern-dress version of Hamlet. In 1928, she appeared in a play with future Oscar-winner Walter Huston who was so impressed with her that he arranged a screen test with Paramount Pictures. The test was a success, and Francis made her film debut the following year in the Marx Brothers' first film, The Cocoanuts, which was filmed at Paramount's Astoria Studio in New York.

● Francis had a lisp and was known around the backlots of Hollywood as "the Wavishing Kay Fwancis." Generally, dialogue was carefully tailored to conceal her speech impediment, but Ernst Lubitsch refused to rewrite key scenes of Trouble In Paradise for her and you can hear traces of her lisp if you listen closely.

● She left Paramount in 1930 for Warner Brothers. During the early sound era, she was the highest paid actress at Warners.

● At the time she was known for soap opera-style pictures about long-suffering women who wore great clothes, and much to her chagrin, these productions often focused on the clothes more than the dialogue. This eventually led to a protracted dispute with Warners she was destined to lose.

● She was married five times, divorced five times, and kept a diary that included details of numerous affairs with both men and women. George Cukor later said that all the great stars carry a secret which is revealed in their faces, and that Kay's face suggested her secret was particularly wicked.

● Along with Katharine Hepburn, Marlene Dietrich, Greta Garbo and Mae West, Francis was labeled "box office poison" in 1938 by a group of independent theater owners.

● She made her last movie in 1946. Among her best films were Jewel Robbery, One-Way Passage, Trouble In Paradise and In Name Only.

● She died of breast cancer in 1966. Her estate was valued at around $1 million, the bulk of which went to Seeing Eye, Inc., a company that trained seeing-eye dogs.

Thursday, June 24, 2010

Best Director Of 1932-33 (Comedy/Musical): Ernst Lubitsch (Trouble In Paradise and Design For Living), Part Five

[To read Part One of this essay, click here. To read Part Two, click here. For Part Three, click here, and for Part Four, click here.]

V. Later Comedies and Lubitsch's Legacy
After Trouble In Paradise and Design For Living, "comedies without music" he called them, Lubitsch returned to the comfort of the operetta form he had perfected during the first days of sound. The story of a randy army officer ordered to woo a wealthy widow in order to save the country from bankruptcy, The Merry Widow—made while on loan to MGM—was the most polished and least suggestive of his five musicals. The Hays Office, by 1934 enforcing the Production Code, objected to several scenes and required extensive cutting before it would approve the film for release. (Fortunately, this footage was saved and has been restored.)

The Merry Widow received good reviews and won an Oscar for art direction, but with production costs of $1.6 million, it was the most expensive musical made to date and wound up losing money. It was also the last pairing of stars Maurice Chevalier and Jeanette MacDonald. The former found himself relegated to smaller and smaller parts and eventually returned to France; the latter paired up with Nelson Eddy and made commercially successful movies for the next decade, though in retrospect, none are as satisfying as those she made with Lubitsch.

After the commercial failure of The Merry Widow, Lubitsch did not direct another movie for three years. In the meantime, he took a job as production manager at Paramount, becoming the only director to ever run a major studio. I'd like to say it was an inspired choice, but in fact, Lubitsch had never been able to delegate authority easily and wound up interfering in many of the sixty productions a year he oversaw without really being able to contribute anything substantive, a result that pleased no one.

"I think I am possessed only of a fascination for the work I have chosen to do," he said later. "I am so engrossed by the production of a film that I literally think of nothing else. I have no hobby, no outside interests and want none."

He was unceremoniously dismissed as head of production in early 1936.

The time away from the director's chair, though, gave Lubitsch time to consider what kind of film he really wanted to make. Whipsawed on the one hand by the enforcement of the Production Code which had effectively forbidden the racier aspects of his style; and on the other by the aggressive style of the screwball comedy which made his gentle approach passe, Lubitsch temporarily lost confidence in his ability to make a successful picture.

He eventually figured it out, though not at Paramount, moving in 1939 to MGM, where he directed Greta Garbo in Ninotchka and James Stewart in The Shop Around The Corner, two of his best comedies, both preserved in the National Film Registry. In 1942, he made what is arguably his best movie, To Be Or Not To Be, an anti-war comedy starring Jack Benny and in the last role of her career, Carole Lombard. Blasted by critics at the time as being in bad taste, To Be Or Not To Be has become a particular favorite of critics over the intervening years and was included in the National Film Registry in 1996, one of five Lubitsch movies so honored.

"None of us thought we were making anything but entertainment for the moment," John Ford said later. "Only Ernst Lubitsch knew we were making art."

"Lubitsch had the greatest sense of humor of any individual I've ever met," said director Joseph M. Newman. "The actors all loved him. He had a very human quality about him. He was the type of man that became your friend after you met him once. A great man."

His most faithful disciple was fellow German refugee Billy Wilder, who wrote the screenplay to Ninotchka and later directed such classics as Double Indemnity, Sunset Boulevard, Some Like It Hot and The Apartment. Over his desk, Wilder posted a sign "How would Lubitsch do it?" But despite winning six Oscars during his career, Wilder ultimately concluded he had never measured up to his mentor. "His art is lost," he said. "That most elegant of screen magicians took his secret with him."

In 1943, Lubitsch received an Oscar nomination for Heaven Can Wait, the third nomination of his career, but once again, he did not win. In March 1947, as it became clear that Lubitsch's health was failing, the Academy presented him with a special award "[f]or his distinguished contributions to the art of the motion picture."

"With the passing years," wrote his biographer Scott Eyman, "it became increasingly clear that Ernst Lubitsch had accomplished something only vouchsafed the greatest artists: he had created a self-contained universe with a sensibility so singular, behavioral beauties so intense, that it forever altered the world view of those lucky enough to experience it. He believed in his dreams so strongly that millions of others came to believe in them as well, and the fact that the values and style of Lubitsch's work constituted the finest examples of the discarded heritage of elegant screen comedy made his everlasting, gentle brilliance even more poignant."

Ernst Lubitsch died of a heart attack in November,1947.

"No more Lubitsch," Billy Wilder lamented at the funeral.

"Worse than that," said William Wyler. "No more Lubitsch films."

Best Director Of 1932-33 (Comedy/Musical): Ernst Lubitsch (Trouble In Paradise and Design For Living), Part Four

[To read Part One of this essay, click here. To read Part Two of this essay, click here. To read Part Three of this essay, click here.]

IV. Design For Living: Screwball Before There Was Screwball
In Trouble In Paradise, with its depictions of thieves living happily ever after, Ernst Lubitsch had pushed the limits of pre-Code permissiveness; with his next picture, Design For Living, he blew right past those limits. Design For Living was by far the naughtiest movie he made in a career filled with naughty movies.

The story of a woman who loves two men and makes them like it, Design For Living was based on Noel Coward's play about his own tangled relationship with Broadway's most famous acting couple, Alfred Lunt and Lynn Fontanne, a triangle marked by professional and romantic jealousy, and self-destructive egotism. So personal was the story, Coward refused to stage it until Lunt and Fontanne were available to appear in it, with Coward himself playing the third lead.

After acquiring the film rights to the play, Lubitsch initially asked Broadway playwright Samson Raphaelson, fresh off the success of Trouble In Paradise, to handle the screenwriting chores. Raphaelson declined, I suspect because as a Hollywood screenwriter he knew he couldn't produce a script faithful to the original play, and as a creature of Broadway, had no desire to cross a man of Coward's reputation.

So Lubitsch brought in Hollywood's foremost screenwriter, Ben Hecht, who had written the script for 1932's gangster classic Scarface (and would later pen Alfred Hitchcock's Notorious). Like Raphaelson, Hecht had had success on the stage (with The Front Page), but he'd made his name as a journalist covering Chicago's seamy, violent underworld and had no patience for the pretensions of Coward's characters.
Hecht kept the relationships, the settings and the plot, and discarded the arch dialogue and the self-pitying tone. He also re-imagined the European male leads, Otto and Leo, as the distinctly American Tom and George. More importantly, he shifted the focus of the triangle onto the female character, Gilda, which served to turn a play about the limits of a man's sexual ego into an exploration of female empowerment. (To read more about Hecht, click here.)

Coward had been pleased with Hollywood's adaptation of Private Lives, starring Norma Shearer and Robert Montgomery (read my review of it here), but he refused to even see what Lubitsch had made of Design For Living. "I'm told that there are three of my original lines left in the film—such original ones as 'Pass the mustard,'" he quipped later.

Despite criticism at the time, I think Lubitsch and Hecht were right to go off in another direction. The subject matter, with hints of bisexuality, was intensely personal and would have been daring stuff, even for a pre-Code movie. And although the play has its moments (I've read it, but never seen it performed), it is not now regarded as one of Coward's better efforts and is rarely revived. As Coward himself admitted, Design For Living "was liked and disliked, and hated and admired, but never, I think, sufficiently loved by any but its three leading actors."

It's no wonder Lubitsch and Hecht took liberties with the text.

"I offer no apologies to Coward," Lubitsch said, "who knows very well that no picture ever lives up to a play if filmed word for word."

As the movie opens, George (Gary Cooper) and Tom (Fredric March) are, respectively, an unsuccessful painter and an unsuccessful playwright—deservedly so judging by samples of their work. On a train to Paris, they meet Gilda (Miriam Hopkins), a commercial artist not the least bit embarrassed to earn a living painting advertisements of Napoleon in long underwear. She immediately recognizes the innate quality of both men and is determined to give George and Tom the pointers they need to become great artists while taking advantage of their soon-proven talents as lovers.

"A thing happened to me that usually happens to men," she says. "You see, a man can meet two, three or even four women and fall in love with all of them, and then, by a process of, uh, interesting elimination, he is able to decide which one he prefers. But a woman must decide purely on instinct, guesswork, if she wants to be considered nice. Oh, it's alright for her to try on a hundred hats before she picks one out, but—"

"That's very fine," says Tom, "but which chapeau do you want, madame?"


Ironically, a few years before, Lubitsch had before faced the same dilemma in real life—his wife Helene Kraus had an affair with his best friend, writer Hans Kraly—which resulted not in the sophisticated comedy of his movies but in a very public scene and an acrimonious divorce.

Lubitsch sought Ronald Colman and Leslie Howard for the male leads, but Colman wanted too much money and Howard didn't want to risk the comparison to Alfred Lunt, then the most respected actor on Broadway. Douglas Fairbanks, Jr. was cast opposite Oscar-winner Fredric March, but fell ill shortly before production began, and the part finally fell to Gary Cooper.

For the female lead, Gilda Farrell, Lubitsch turned again to Miriam Hopkins, who had starred in The Smiling Lieutenant and Trouble In Paradise. Hopkins is perfect in the part, never veering too far into either smug certainty or guilt-wracked introspection. Lubitsch always wrote interesting female characters, and Gilda is one of his best. We think of feminism and the sexual revolution as primarily modern movements, a product of baby boomer discontent, but in fact, many movies in the pre-Code era were about strong women insisting on sexual and economic freedom. Barbara Stanwyck's Lily Powers, who sleeps her way to the top in 1933's Baby Face, was the most ruthless incarnation of the pre-Code feminist, but Lubitsch's Gilda may well have been the strongest.

Edward Everett Horton provides his typically wonderful support as a disapproving stuffed-shirt who finds himself caught in the middle of this ménage à trois.

Design For Living doesn't hit as many notes as Trouble In Paradise, but it tackles the triangular dilemma presented by the former head on and comes up with a perfectly logical, if perfectly insane, solution. Had the pace and performances in Design For Living been a touch more manic, you could credit Lubitsch with inventing the screwball comedy, that distinctly American form of humor that features crazy situations and aggressively loony characters. As it is, you can see that a key component of the screwball style is an inherent lack of sympathy with the screwball character's plight—you're not rooting for him to solve his problem, you're waiting for him to grow up and realize he is the problem—and to the extent that he succeeds or fails determines whether he is the hero or the villain. While the distinction of creating the screwball comedy was reserved for Frank Capra's It Happened One Night and Howard Hawks's Twentieth Century, both released a year later, Design For Living fits neatly within the tradition and should be mentioned when discussing this beloved art form.

Although Mordant Hall of the New York Times praised the film as "a most entertaining and highly sophisticated subject," most critics took Lubitsch to task for departing from the text of Coward's play and panned the movie. But though it won no awards, audiences, at least, were pleased—Design For Living was one of the year's top ten grossing films.

As with its immediate predecessor, Trouble In Paradise, the Hays Office did not certify Design For Living for re-release after the Code took effect in 1934 and the film languished unseen in studio vaults for decades. Even now, it is available on DVD only as part of The Gary Cooper Collection, which also includes such titles as Beau Geste and The Lives Of A Bengal Lancer. It is well worth searching out.

[To read Part Five, click here.]

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Best Director Of 1932-33 (Comedy/Musical): Ernst Lubitsch (Trouble In Paradise and Design For Living), Part Three

[To read Part One of this essay, click here. To read Part Two of this essay, click here.]

III. Trouble In Paradise: Champagne and Moonlight
After the success of his naughty operettas, The Love Parade, Monte Carlo, The Smiling Lieutenant and One Hour With You (and the failure of a somber anti-war film, Broken Lullaby), Ernst Lubitsch turned his attention to what most critics now point to when they speak of Lubitsch's best work, Trouble In Paradise.

Trouble In Paradise is the story of a pair of sophisticated lovers, Gaston and Lily, who romance and thieve their way across Europe, only to find their happiness threatened by a beautiful young widow who also happens to be the target of their latest scam. Lubitsch based the story on the first act of Laszlo Aladar's failed stageplay, The Honest Finder—a crook finds a rich woman's handbag—and originally thought to do a spoof of the gentleman-thief stories, such as Raffles, The Saint and The Falcon, which were popular at the time. Then Lubitsch and long-time collaborator Samson Raphaelson hit upon the idea of making the thieves a man and a woman, which added both a romance angle and then when they take aim at the widow, a romantic complication.

The gentleman thief is Gaston Monescu, "the man who walked into the Bank of Constantinople and walked out with the Bank of Constantinople." The studio had suggested a young Cary Grant for the role, but as Lubitsch's biographer Scott Eyman noted, in 1932 Grant was still more the Cockney roughneck Archie Leach of his birth than the style icon of later years; and Lubitsch preferred an actor who possessed the sort of cultured aplomb that one can only acquire through experience.

Instead, he chose another English actor, Herbert Marshall, a twenty year veteran of the London stage who was as suave and sophisticated in real life as the gentleman thief he portrayed on screen here, but who, having lost a leg in World War I and then so mastered the use of a prosthetic limb the resulting limp was barely apparent, also possessed the mettle to convincingly depict a master criminal.

When the movie opens, we see the thief's escape, his silhouette leaping over the balcony of a ritzy Venetian hotel while his victim lays unconscious on the floor, an example of the indirect and innovative way Lubitsch preferred to stage action—rather than show us the crime itself, Lubitsch leaves us to fill in the blanks and instead moves us directly into the relationship that will define the rest of the movie.

We get our first good look at Gaston a short distance from the scene of his crime as he instructs a waiter on the preparation of a romantic dinner:

"It must be the most marvelous supper. We may not eat it, but it must be marvelous."
"Yes, Baron."
"And waiter?"
"Yes, Baron?"
"You see that moon?"
"Yes, Baron."
"I want to see that moon in the champagne."
"Yes, Baron." (makes note on pad) "'Moon in champagne.'"
"I want to see—um—"
"Yes, Baron."
"And as for you, waiter—"
"Yes, Baron?"
"I don't want to see you at all."

Gaston is pretending to be a baron so he can scam a countess, who ironically turns out to be Lily pretending to be a countess so she can scam a baron. As Lily, Lubitsch cast Miriam Hopkins, who had worked with the director a year earlier in the musical comedy, The Smiling Lieutenant (she would work with him again in 1933's Design For Living). As I have written before (here), "Hopkins was one of the sauciest actresses of the pre-Code age, excelling in light comedies and lurid melodramas alike," yet because her best films often proved too scandalous to be re-issued once censors began taking scissors to Hollywood's past, "even film fanatics can admit to having rarely seen her work."

It doesn't take long for Gaston and Lily to realize the truth about each other, but rather than being angry or disappointed, the two are titillated, and dinner turns into a virtual striptease of items they've stolen from each other—a wallet, a brooch, a pocket watch—climaxing with the revelation of the most audacious theft of all:

"I hope you don't mind if I keep your garter."

The film quickly jumps ahead a year—no wasted motion for Lubitsch. Gaston and Lily have been living together and thieving together through the capitals of Europe and all is well until they run across a wealthy young widow. Madame Colet is rich, generous and bored with the stiffs who court her—veteran farceurs, Charlie Ruggles and Edward Everett Horton (the latter the very man Gaston robbed in Venice). When Gaston appears at her door as part of a scheme to separate her from her fortune, she sees in him the sort of handsome, Continental man she's been longing for.

"Madame Colet, if I were your father—which fortunately I am not—and you made any attempt to handle your own business affairs, I would give you a good spanking. In a business way, of course."
"What would you do if you were my secretary?"
"The same thing."
"You're hired."

The widow, who may well know she's being taken but is still eager for the ride, is played with sympathy and sex appeal by Kay Francis. Her polished, dark beauty contrasts nicely with Hopkins's earthy blonde charms and no doubt was a factor in her casting, as was her performance earlier that year in Jewel Robbery, in which she plays a willing victim to William Powell's elegant jewel thief. Although her career would later take a nose-dive after a bitter contract dispute at Warner Brothers, in 1932, she was at the peak of her popularity.

Just the plot I've described so far would provide the makings of a good comedy (or spun in a different direction, suspense thriller), but Lubitsch ups the ante by creating genuine chemistry between Gaston and the widow. Suddenly Trouble In Paradise is no longer a simple story about the theft of money, but the theft of Gaston's affections as well, which realistically can't end well for somebody. The inevitable heartbreak adds what Andrew Sarris called "a counterpoint of poignant sadness during a film's gayest moments," and is what, I think, lifts this sparkling comedy to the level of pure genius.

And that's without even addressing the numerous examples of Lubitsch's mastery of the technical end of his craft, which not only keeps the story moving but gives this confection its airy, art Deco style. "I think I have done nothing better or as good," he wrote of the film shortly before his death.

"The plot is grown-up, funny and sad," Roger Ebert wrote in 2002, and for his review of the film for his Great Movies series, he added, "in a drawing room comedy of froth and inconsequence, you find that you believe in the characters and care about them."

The result was a hit with audiences and the film landed in the list of the year's top ten money makers despite mixed reviews from the critics. Despite its success, relatively rare for Lubitsch, the film was withdrawn from circulation once the studios began enforcing the Production Code in 1934 and was not seen again until 1968. Coupled with the fact that it was never released on videotape and didn't land on DVD until 2003, Trouble In Paradise probably ranks high on a list of least-seen essential classics.

In 1991, the Library of Congress selected Trouble In Paradise for preservation in the National Film Registry.

[To read Part Four of this essay, click here.]

Sunday, June 20, 2010

Best Director Of 1932-33 (Comedy/Musical): Ernst Lubitsch (Trouble In Paradise and Design For Living), Part Two

[To read Part One of this essay, click here]

II. The Lubitsch Touch
Ernst Lubitsch arrived at Paramount Pictures in 1928. Like Warner Brothers, Paramount gave the director complete creative control, but unlike Warners, Paramount's executives didn't care if his movies made money or not. As long as he delivered his pictures on time, stayed within his allotted budget and pleased the critics, the prestige his presence lent the studio was compensation enough.

Such latitude was virtually unheard of, then or now, and no artist could have taken wiser advantage of the opportunity. Although already established as one of the world's best directors (his silent Carmen, for example, made the New York Times top ten list in 1921), Lubitsch blossomed once he arrived at Paramount in 1928.

So productive were Lubitsch's early years at Paramount that film historian James Harvey, in his study Romantic Comedy in Hollywood, called this period in movie history (1929-33) "The Lubitsch Era." He made full use of storytelling possibilities only just becoming apparent to a handful of directors as the new sound technology took hold in Hollywood, and in the process his films came to define the early romantic comedy.

It was during this period that Lubitsch turned an advertizing slogan—"The Lubitsch Touch"—into a very real style that filmmakers have been trying to define and emulate ever since.

The phrase "The Lubitsch Touch" has been associated with the man for so long, it's easy to forget it didn't just spontaneously attach itself to him sometime after birth. In fact, Hal Wallis, who years later would produce Casablanca, coined the phrase while working in the Warner brothers publicity department in the early '20s, but while Wallis may have only dreamed up the label to sell movie tickets, the tag wouldn't have stuck if it hadn't been founded on truth.

In the silent era, what the "touch" mostly meant was that Lubitsch wasn't making D.W. Griffith pictures. Griffith, as you no doubt know, practically invented what we think of a "movie," and from 1915 to 1921, he was the most famous director in America. But while his technical expertise was sophisticated, Griffith's storytelling was not, with earnest tales of virginal heroines and cartoon villains. In lesser hands, these unfortunately are the kind of stories many people think of when they think of silent movies—Snidely Whiplash tying Penelope to the railroad tracks—and even as practiced by the talented Griffith, audiences during the Roaring Twenties were ready for something new.

Thus arrived Lubitsch to serve champagne to an audience raised on buttermilk and although some, such as author-activist Jim Tully, writing for Vanity Fair in 1926, criticized him for making "frothy films for sophisticated chambermaids and cinema critics," French director Jean Renoir later opined that by leading American tastes—or at least the studios' tastes—away from Griffith, Lubitsch had invented the modern Hollywood.

Admittedly, I'm not sure Lubitsch in the silent era was doing anything all that different from Robert Weine, F.W. Murnau, Fritz Lang, Abel Gance and other European directors, but American audiences weren't seeing those films (Nosferatu, for example, wasn't released in the United States until 1929, seven years after its German premiere). The nearest thing to European sensibilities showing in American theaters in the '20s were the films of Erich von Stroheim, whose Foolish Wives and Greed were tough sledding indeed.

Later, though, once technical breakthroughs allowed him to add dialogue, songs, sound effects and a film score, Lubitsch really was doing something different, and when we speak of the "touch," it's most often the Paramount films we're talking about. He already had a sense of how to tell a story through visuals—for example, the way he established Irene Rich's character in Lady Windermere's Fan with just a shot of a man reaching for a checkbook while she bites her thumb—but with the coming of sound, he was able to draw deeper characters, sharpen the wit, speed the pace, and in the process, pull back the curtain on human behavior, particularly human sexuality, in a way no other director had managed before.

"He could do more to show the grace and humor of sex in a nonlustful way," said Charlie Chaplin, speaking years later, "than any other director I've ever heard of." He was "a man who was amused by sex rather than frightened of it," critic Michael Wilmington wrote, "and who taught a whole culture to be amused by it as well."

After starting at Paramount with a historical drama, The Patriot, as much a part of his repertoire at the time as were his sophisticated comedies, Lubitsch commenced to make a series of "naughty operettas" (Harvey's phrase again), five of them altogether including The Merry Widow while on loan to MGM in 1934, and it was here that he mastered the art of talking about sex without talking about it at all.

"When I married her," says a cuckolded husband in One Hour With You, "she was a brunette. Now you can't believe a word she says."

"He created a style of sophisticated comedy peculiarly his own," said three-time Oscar winner William Wyler, "as well as a new style of musical, both unknown before his time. His films bore the recognizable and indelible stamp of the gay, clever, witty, mischievous master, whose delightful personality matched his work."

Although nearly everyone agrees Lubitsch brought something unique to the screen, no two people can quite agree on what we mean when we speak of "the Lubitsch touch." For Orson Welles, it was his originality. For director-historian Peter Bogdanovich, it's "sophistication." For film critic Roger Ebert, it's "dialogue [that] shimmers like poetry." For director Cameron Crowe, it's the "elegant joke" followed by "an even funnier joke, which becomes the ultimate joke you never expected."

And on and on.

For me, the touch has come to be characterized by three things: elision, invention and exuberance—and by the latter, I mean both the joy Lubitsch took in his craft and the sense of euphoria I experience when I watch the best of his movies.

More than any other director before or after, maybe more than any artist not named Ernest Hemingway telling very different kinds of stories, Lubitsch relied on elision—omitting words, scenes and action—to tell his jokes and his stories. "He realized," Billy Wilder said, "that if you say two and two, the audience does not have to be told it's four." Give the audience the conspiratorial pleasure of finding the joke themselves, "and you were rewarded by the laugh of the people who added it up."

Perhaps the most famous example of this was in The Merry Widow—a soldier (Maurice Chevalier) is guarding the door as the elderly, obese king leaves the queen's bedchamber. The camera follows the king down the hall until he realizes he's forgotten his saber. He returns, where we notice Chevalier is no longer standing. The camera lingers outside the door and a moment later, the king emerges with the forgotten sword. But as he attempts to buckle it on, the belt reaches only half way around his waist. And he and the audience arrive at a realization simultaneously.

Lubitsch was also obsessed with finding inventive ways to accomplish the otherwise mundane—"How can we do that without doing that?" was a question he was always asking of his writers. The answer was sometimes as simple as allowing the camera to linger on a vacated space when another director would have followed his actors; having a character enter the frame from an unexpected direction; editing out an actor's long walk from one part of a room to another; or, in a more complex sequence, the way he would establish a locale, eschewing the traditional long shot of a famous landmark, instead opening with something unexpected as in Trouble In Paradise where the focus is on an anonymous doorway, pulling back to reveal a garbage can, then following a trash collector until he reaches a gondola on the canals of what can only be Venice.

The effect is cheerfully buoyant rather than coldly academic, and serves to create a sense that the characters are floating on air, and that even when ostensibly set in a real place, the events were happening in what biographer Scott Eyman called "Lubitschland."

"I've been to Paris, France," Lubitsch said, "and I've been to Paris, Paramount. Paris Paramount is better."

Sometimes this genius for invention represented the difference between a classic and a misfire. In Conversations With Wilder, director Billy Wilder described to Cameron Crowe how for Ninotchka Lubitsch solved the problem of how to show the transformation of Greta Garbo's character from an ardent communist to an equally ardent capitalist without writing pages and pages of turgid, political dialogue.

"'The hat.' And we said, 'What hat?' He said, 'We build the hat into the beginning!' [Co-writer Charles] Brackett and I looked at each other—this is Lubitsch. The story of the hat has three acts. Ninotchka first sees it in a shop window as she enters the Ritz Hotel with her three Bolshevik accomplices. This absolutely crazy hat is the symbol of capitalism to her. She gives it a disgusted look and says, 'How can a civilization survive which allows women to wear this on their heads?' Then the second time she goes by the hat and makes a noise—tch-tch-tch. The third time, she is finally alone, she has gotten rid of her Bolshevik accomplices, opens a drawer and pulls it out. And now she wears it. Working with Lubitsch, ideas like that were in the air."

Working with Lubitsch, marveled Robert Stack after filming To Be Or Not To Be, was "like playing chess at ninety miles an hour."

"In an age in which machine-gun editing has replaced the cinematic equivalent of perfect pitch," Scott Eyman wrote in Laughter In Paradise, "Lubitsch might seem stodgy to a modern audience. If people lack the vocabulary to appreciate the beauty of this particular lost language, it's their loss. They'll never know the exhilaration of an impeccable artist."

Lubitsch loved to work and took great pains to create precisely the right shot; he loved life, too, both its happy and its sad sides. He was funny, charming, exuberant, and forgiving of every human foible but mediocrity and sanctimony, and these aspects of the man show up in every frame of film he shot. Sometimes he's suggestive—shots of sounding artillery spliced into scenes of a wedding night in The Love Parade—and sometimes he playfully chides you for having your mind in the gutter—for example, in The Smiling Lieutenant when Chevalier suggests waggishly to Claudette Colbert that they could make beautiful music together, and then a cut to the two of them, what else, playing a duet on the piano.

"I let the audience use their imaginations," he said. "Can I help it if they misconstrue my suggestions?"

I think more important is a reluctance on Lubitsch's part to judge others—Harvey calls it "moral grace"—that leaves us with the hope that despite all our human failings, love will ultimately win out. In the hands of another director, these stories of pleasure sought and found would curdle into something sour as the characters inevitably faced the consequences of their actions. But in Lubitschland, charm and good manners always prevail. Thus, in a tale such as Trouble In Paradise, thieves can steal and lovers can stray yet all involved can walk away unscathed if they can only conjure the appropriate elegant gesture. This is a fantasy to be sure, but one central to the human experience of longing.

That he could make Americans steeped in Puritan piety believe in the promise of guilt-free pleasure, if only for ninety minutes, is perhaps the most compelling proof of all that Lubitsch did indeed possess the "touch."

[To read Part Three of this essay, click here.]

Friday, June 18, 2010

We Interrupt This Blog To Wish Jeanette MacDonald A Happy Birthday

Next up was supposed to be Part Two of my essay on Ernst Lubitsch, which is well in hand and maybe you'll still get it today if I can squeeze it in before Katie-Bar-The-Door and I head to Nationals Park with Mister Muleboy and Michele Mishka to see Stephen Strasburg.

But it's Jeanette MacDonald's birthday today and since she and Lubitsch are inextricably linked, I just have to stop here and tell her hello.

She was a discovery of Lubitsch's, don't you know. Actor Richard Dix had seen her on the Broadway stage in 1928 and had her make a screen test for Paramount, but nothing came of it until Lubitsch happened upon it a year later and immediately saw her star potential. He flew to Chicago where she was working and signed her to star in his first sound production, The Love Parade with Maurice Chevalier. The picture was a hit, she was a hit and the rest is history.

MacDonald made four movies for Lubitsch, The Love Parade (1929), Monte Carlo (1930), One Hour With You (1932) and The Merry Widow (1934), each better than the last. For those of you who only know her through her later work with Nelson Eddy, I strongly suggest you track down these musicals, and one other, Love Me Tonight, a Rouben Mamoulian musical in the Lubitsch style. She's beautiful and sexy and is allowed to show a naughty side you never get to see again once the studios began to enforce the Production Code in late 1934.

Born in Philadelphia in 1903, MacDonald began acting at the age of six and was winning singing contests by the age of thirteen. After her successful association with Lubitsch at Paramount, Irving Thalberg lured her MGM where she became known as the Iron Butterfly thanks to her skill at negotiating favorable contracts.

She's best remembered now for her association with singer Nelson Eddy. They made eight pictures together, including Naughty Marietta, Rose-Marie and Maytime. She also made San Francisco with Clark Gable and Spencer Tracy, which includes a spectacular recreation of the 1906 earthquake.

A weak heart forced MacDonald into semi-retirement in the 1950s, although she did occasionally perform with Eddy. She died of a heart attack in 1965.

Trivia: MacDonald's sister Blossom, who performed under the name Marie Blake, played Grandmama on the television show The Addams Family.