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Sunday, January 31, 2010

THE MIKADO (1939)

A plush version of the Gilbert & Sullivan perennial that comes with the imprimatur of the D’Oyly Carte Company & the lux of 3-strip Technicolor. The topsy-turvy story still delights and Gilbert’s sheer craft & impeccably funny lyric writing join perfectly with the tuneful loveliness of Sullivan’s music. Helmer Victor Schertzinger cut his teeth making early Hollywood Talkie musicals and that’s largely what he brings to the glorious job at hand; halfheartedly rearranging song & plot elements while largely holding to proscenium stage shots of the action. It’s a hybrid that delivers only modified rapture, probably better suited for G&S afficionados than for non-initiates. Yet, in preserving what it does of mid-century G&S performance tradition, it’s indispensable. (In the Image DVD edition you can really appreciate the stunningly pretty physical production.*) Of the two great G&S comics on display, Sydney Granville’s Pooh-Bah makes a smoother transition to celluloid than Martyn Green’s over-active Koko*, but with its exceptionally strong cast, it’s the trios & quartets that come off best. And if the soundtrack turns rather harsh on the sopranos, the one American ‘ringer’ in the cast, Hollywood’s Kenny Baker, is a sweet toned improvement on the usual G&S tenor.

*Even those who know what a G&S hound Groucho Marx was may not know that he played Koko in an abridged tv production. They might also be surprised at just how much his capers follow strict G&S tradition. Sadly, when he finally got around to playing the role (under Martyn Green’s direction), he was pushing 70 and no longer up to his Captain Spaulding shenanigans.

NOTE: Joining this traditional presentation in 1939 were two (count 'em, 2) jazzed up versions of the show playing in theaters across the street from each other on B'way, THE HOT MIKADO and THE SWING MIKADO.**That's a lot of Mikados!

**And on a fine new Criterion DVD of this title, you can hear excerpts from them. along with other excellent EXTRAs and a slightly airier picture.

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

THE YOUNG PHILADELPHIANS (1959)


This ‘daringly adult’ meller from the late-‘50s hopes to shock us by blowing the scandalous lid off the hypocrisies of the ‘haves’ and airing the dirty linen of the ‘have-nots.’ But it really just wants to tantalize mainstream audiences by testing the outer limits of the newly besieged Hollywood Production Code. Paul Newman is all lean & hungry ambition as a striving lawyer with one foot on each side of Philly’s Main Line and Barbara Rush is the rich society princess he woos. They each have their moments, but the script crams so much thudding exposition, incident & innuendo into every scene that the film quickly devolves into parody. While modern audiences tend to find risible elements in even the greatest examples of these films (i.e. WRITTEN ON THE WIND/Sirk/’56; SOME CAME RUNNING/Minnelli/’‘58 & the surprisingly strong PEYTON PLACE/Robson/’57), megger Vincent Sherman hasn’t the taste or technique to make this work either as Bildungsroman or as societal critique. It just lurches along until the decidedly goofy courtroom dramatics turn farcical. Richard Deacon, a fine sit-com comedian, is unintentionally hilarious as a supercilious butler with a nose for fine liquor; he should have switched roles with John Williams who’s equally miscast as Rush’s manipulative dad. It’s fun to see Adam West as a gynephobic groom & Robert Vaughan as a one-armed dipsomaniac in their salad days, and there’s a delightful late turn from dear Billie Burke, but it’s small recompense for sitting thru this clunker.

Monday, January 25, 2010

MARK OF THE VAMPIRE (1935)


This Tod Browning production (a remake of his legendary lost silent LONDON AFTER MIDNIGHT/’27) helped close out the early Talkie wave of comic horror mystery pics like THE BAT WHISPERERS/’30; THE OLD DARK HOUSE/’32; and the silent THE CAT AND THE CANARY/’27.* The cast sounds tempting (Lionel Barrymore, Bela Lugosi, Jean Hersholt, Lionel Atwill, Donald Meek), but Browning seems unwilling to make any adjustments in pace or staging to his stiffening technique. The film is even more arthritic and stage-bound than his DRACULA was back in ‘31. Thanks to lenser James Wong Howe it’s all handsomely lit, but the whole vampire set up is played out in such an absurdly hammy manner that the trick ending hasn’t a chance of coming off. It’s the sort of moviemaking that makes you wonder if anyone working on it has ever seen let alone made a film before. Browning's next, THE DEVIL-DOLL/'36, is infinitely better.


*The next wave emphasized comedy with stars like Bob Hope & Abbott & Costello in the leading roles.

INDIANA JONES AND THE KINGDOM OF THE CRYSTAL SKULL (2008)

Twenty years after their last go-round, producer George Lucas, helmer Steven Spielberg & star Harrison Ford returned with this new Indy adventure. Now in their 60s, they’re so determined to prove they still can deliver the goods that they overcompensate; the film is more exhausting than entertaining. (Heck, even the title is exhausting.) The nonsensical doings involve a skull with metaphysical powers; a squadron of Communist rivals (led by an overqualified Cate Blanchett), dogged F.B.I. agents in white shirts & skinny ties; and a family Indy never knew he had. Shia LaBeouf is a rather faceless sidekick (especially if you recall the effortless star wattage the late River Phoenix brought to Young Indy in the last outing), but it’s a treat to reencounter Karen Allen (Botox-free & fabulous) as Indy’s original gal pal. Too bad the script has them playing The Bickersons. Spielberg couldn't have been happy with the ridiculously overextended action set piece or with the puerile extraterrestrial finale. And how we miss Douglas Slocombe, the original INDY lenser. Janusz Kaminski brings back the hideous orange-glow Dean Cundey used in Spielberg projects like HOOK/’91 and JURASSIC PARK/’93. Yuck. Yet, even though the film is piffle, the end result is largely good fun. The production is almost impossibly luxe (all those ‘50s vehicles) and there are throwaway gags all the way thru that keep things from bogging down. Plus, film mavens will have fun spotting riffs on iconic scenes from the likes of C. B. De Mille (UNCONQUERED/’47); Howard Hawks (THE LAND OF THE PHARAOHS/’55); and even Spielberg’s own CLOSE ENCOUNTERS/’77.

Friday, January 22, 2010

THE MASK OF FU MANCHU (1932)

There’s stupendous fun in this Mysterious East adventure that poshly prefigures all those INDIANA JONES pics. And now, with restored Pre-Code sexual perversity & Politically Incorrect racial slurs, it even holds a certain didactic value. Lewis Stone & Jean Hersholt lead a group of archaeologists on a race to beat Boris Karloff’s Fu Manchu to the lost tomb of Genghis Khan. There’s a death trap lurking at every plot turn and if that doesn’t stop you, there’s Myrna Loy, Manchu’s wicked off-spring, squinting her Oriental eyes your way. Either way, you haven’t a chance, heathen white man! Don’t be put off by the slow opening scene, the pace immediately picks up* and the photography (Tony Gaudio) & sets are quite astounding. Note how art director Cedric Gibbons & costumer Adrian dress up the black slaves to look like living Oscar statuettes. (It was Gibbons who designed the little man.) And what’s with all the homoeroticism? The golden guards of Khan’s tomb have unmissable phallic scabbards (placed right where they should be, too!!), and the torture sequence for hunky Charles Starrett looks like S&M porn as Karloff fondles his diapered victim before administering his ‘serum.’ Yikes!

*Lots o’ directors & writers had a hand on this one with M-G-M’s production head Irving Thalberg reshooting even more footage than usual. On this silly business, it worked like a charm.

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

CRISS-CROSS (1949)


While the line-up of talent in front and (especially) behind the camera promise more than this crime caper can deliver, the fabulously polished noir elements make it a pleasure to watch. As the fatalistic inside man for a planned armored car robbery, Burt Lancaster works successfully against his towering presence to play moth to Yvonne De Carlo’s wayward flame (no actress she), and Dan Duryea gets every drop of venom out of his role as her swinish husband. But this pic largely lives by its production elements, the expected ultra-dark atmosphere & those juicy one-note supporting characters. Robert Siodmak really knew how to stage & pace noir thrillers and he’s working with masters of the form like lenser Franz Planer & composer Miklos Rozsa. So, even if some of the plotting feels a bit shopworn, the twists in the third act retain their punch and everything wraps up with all the nihilistic trimmings the genre can offer.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

THE ADVENTURES OF DON JUAN (1948)


After a series of Westerns & WWII yarns, Warners anted-up for Errol Flynn’s first big swashbuckler since THE SEA HAWK back in 1940. Now pushing 40 and no longer the agile beau idéal of yore, Flynn wisely plays the bemused campaigner as a world-weary adventurer who’s grown a bit tired of his own romantic legend. Back in Spain after one misalliance too many, he falls in love with the Queen and stumbles upon a dastardly plot to take down the Royals. It supplies just the motivation Flynn needs to rouse his better instincts and his moral regeneration is both charming & emotionally touching. But little else rises to the occasion. The physical look of the film is too darn bright, often garish & unattractive. Sure, it all looks expensive, but overdressed and unimaginative, like an M-G-M production. From the very first cut (a misjudged close-up on a Juan inamorata) you know megger Vincent Sherman will prove to be no Michael Curtiz. He tends to sit on his stiffly composed set ups and shows none of the sweep, dash & brio of the still underestimated Curtiz. Equally missed are the handsomely designed less-is-more sets Anton Grot once brought to the party and Sol Polito’s chiaroscuro TechniColor lensing. Co-star Viveca Lindfors has none of the chemistry Flynn once shared with Olivia de Havilland while the large supporting cast only makes you long for the tasty players of the old Warners stock company. Why even Max Steiner runs out of variations for his jolly main theme. A missed opportunity.

CONTEST: The Max Steiner score was re-purposed decades later for yet another adventure romp. Name that unlikely film and win our usual prize, a MAKSQUIBS Write-Up on the NetFlix DVD of your choice. (And remember, no internet research allowed on the Contests. That’d just be too easy.)

Monday, January 18, 2010

WHITE DOG (1982)

Sam Fuller’s final Hollywood pic was unfairly tagged as ‘race bait’ material and never got a proper Stateside release. The charge was ridiculous, but the studio may simply have used the controversy as ‘cover’ for commercial considerations. If anything, the story of a white German Shepard trained to attack Blacks plays out an anti-racist scenario that’s too didactic. At least, in the script as put together by Fuller and a deferential Curtis Hanson. Kristy McNichol plays the young actress who rescues the traumatized dog and Paul Winfield is the trainer who thinks he can ‘cure’ the beast. But Fuller’s anxiety-ridden dramatics can’t register when all the characters have to play dense just to keep the plot moving. At his best, Fuller was defiantly blunt, but now his filmmaking instincts have calcified so that his effects don’t quite come into focus. Even the great Ennio Morricone can’t figure out what sort of a musical score he’s supposed to deliver. The film is neither fish nor fowl . . . maybe it’s a dog?

APOKRIF / APOCRYPHA (2005)

This richly photographed tv bio-pic about Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky is a fictitious, if plausible, look at a visit the composer made to his sister’s country home not long after his disastrous marriage. (Antonina, the hysterical bride, remains in hot pursuit.) At first, Pyotr is richly welcomed by the town and his relatives, but before long his psychological discomfort infects all who enter his orbit. The normal routine of life detonates into a series of personal crises and miscommunication that play out like early Chekhov. (You’ll need some forbearance to deal with the enthusiastic brand of Russian acting Adel Al-Khadad lets his cast get away with.) The conceit works about half of the time, but there’s a lot of chaff amongst the wheat. At least, it’s not the usual portrait of a great man.

Saturday, January 16, 2010

THAT WONDERFUL URGE (1948)

An all but pointless remake of LOVE IS NEWS/’37, a lackluster screwball comedy about a press-weary heiress who claims that one of those pesky reporters is her latest fiancé. Let’s see how he likes all that unwanted attention. Tyrone Power repeats as the reporter and Gene Tierney gets stuck in the Loretta Young role as the poor little rich girl. The only reason to watch this one is to see just how deadly dull standard studio product got in the late-‘40s. While the original was nothing to crow about, at least Power & Young had their youthful beauty & some of that Golden Age Hollywood swank. Solid supporting types like Chill Wills, Lucille Watson & Reginald Gardiner are given nothing to chew on, but if you make it all the way thru, you’ll see Gene Lockhart’s trial judge nod off on the bench. He’s got a point.

Friday, January 15, 2010

THE HIT (1984)

Helmer Stephen Frears moved from tv to features with this typically fine pic which is modest in scale, but develops remarkable intellectual & emotional depth. Ten years after flipping on his old crime buddies, Terence Stamp is living a comfortable life in Spain when he’s grabbed by a couple of hitman; seasoned pro (John Hurt) and high-strung kid (Tim Roth). As they drive toward the French/Spanish border, unforeseen circumstances bring a young local woman into the mix, and the delicate balance between hostages & kidnappers collapses. Bodies begin to pile up every time they need to stop, and something approaching psychological madness takes hold. Except for Stamp, who retains an unnerving Zen-like calm in the face of his imminent mortality. Something’s gotta give. Frears hasn’t quite mastered the technique to get the most out of the brief, but fierce action sequences, but he already shows an easy mastery dealing with character, shot placement and pacing. (There are some key shared elements between this film and Don Siegel’s version of THE KILLERS/’64, especially in the role of the hot-headed punk killer. But where Clu Gulager poses, Tim Roth acts.) The climax is a short, sharp, shock, built on what you don’t see coming, and if the tag doesn’t quite convince, it’s comes close enough. With films as wide ranging as MY BEAUTIFUL LAUNDRETTE/’85, THE GRIFTERS/’90, THE SNAPPER/’93, HIGH FIDELITY/’00 and THE QUEEN/’‘06 on his C.V., Frears seems unfazed by any genre. And untouchable at pulling the best out of his actors.

Thursday, January 14, 2010

LOVE IS NEWS (1937)

The usual screwball mix (half THE FRONT PAGE/’31; half IT HAPPENED ONE NIGHT/’34) doesn’t help this by-the-numbers effort. Tyrone Power is the slick, young reporter; Don Ameche is his hard-driving/fast-talking editor; and Loretta Young is a spoiled heiress with a chip on her shoulder & a foreign-born fiancé. The sole twist in the formula has Loretta claiming Tyrone as her latest beau; cue the hordes of unwanted press attention! There’s nothing inherently wrong with the set-up*, but the pic never recovers from it’s painfully unfunny opening, an extended bit of forced laughter between Ameche & Power. Everything that follows feels too loud and/or over-baked, especially Ameche who tries to make up for his third-wheel part by hoarsely screaming all his lines. Tay Garnett helmed and his sheer professionalism sparks a few solid laughs. He’s great at keeping the supporting players in line while helping them land their comic bits and he even manages to wrap things up with a jaw-dropping tracking shot thru most of the Fox New York studio set (with help from lensman Ernest Palmer). But there’s only so much he can do on this one.

*Darryl Zanuck trotted it out two more times @ Fox; as a musical for Betty Grable (SWEET ROSIE O‘GRADY/’43) and as another Power vehicle (THAT WONDERFUL URGE/’48).

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

THE KILLERS (1964)


It's still got that Ernest Hemingway title, but there’s not a bit of Hemingway left in this loose adaptation of Robert Siodmak’s noir classic from 1946. So, naturally, the official title on this one is ERNEST HEMINGWAY’S THE KILLERS. It does follow the general outline of the non-Hemingway parts of Siodmak's film with John Cassavetes’ car jockey taking over for Burt Lancaster’s doomed boxer and Angie Dickinson trying out a blonde variation on Ava Gardner’s smoldering brunette femme fatale. The comparison does them no favors. At least, Lee Marvin has a bit of fun in a role that merges elements of Edmund O’Brien’s investigator and William Conrad’s hitman. A ridiculous combo, but it’s the only way for the largely retained plot structure to function with the reconfigured cast line-up. Ronald Reagan, in his last big screen appearance, gets the old Albert Dekker role as the head villain & gang leader and . . . he’s great! Amazingly convincing, especially when he socks Angie. Pow! Ron, we hardly knew ye. Physically, the film is imposingly hideous with wall-to-wall fluorescent lighting (it was shot for tv release, but turned down for excessive violence) and that cheap looking Universal ‘house style’ imposed by Lew Wasserman, Hollywood über-agent turned penny-pinching studio chief. Four years on, MADIGAN/’68 would finally get helmer Don Siegel the assignments he had so long deserved and start up his amazing late career run. Be sure to listen to the excerpt from his auto-bio included on the Criterion DVD. Very entertaining inside stuff.

TWO ENGLISH GIRLS (1972)


Henri-Pierre Roché wrote only two novels, this and JULES ET JIM/’61, and François Truffaut filmed them both. It’s a similar story, with a gender reversal, as the two titular English sisters play a lovers’ roundelay with a passionate young Frenchman. But the tone has been altered, damp rather than celebratory, and the casting hasn’t the magical ‘rightness’ of the earlier Truffaut classic. The director narrates (at a record clip), with his usual alter-ego, Jean-Pierre Léaud, on screen as the emerging young writer who stumbles between friendship with the sensible older girl and love with her neurasthenic kid sister. Physically, the film projects a pleasing spontaneity in its handling of the turn-of-the-last-century period details (sort of an anti-Kubrick/BARRY LYNDON aesthetic), but the characters never quite measure up to all the angst and swooning romantic fatalism. Léaud, in particular, has barely enough mass for one love affair, let alone multiple trysts. Philippe Léotard, who stands out in a nice supporting role as Léaud’s romantic rival, might have been better suited. The film ends with the publication of a novel that might well be JULES ET JIM, but this seems an inadequate payoff for a life of missed opportunities.

Monday, January 11, 2010

THE KILLERS (1946)


Ernest Hemingway’s short story about a marked man who won’t run away from his fate supplied only enough material for the opening reel of this classic film noir. The rest is a nicey handled Hollywood embellishment as an insurance investigator tracks down the backstory (in a series of flashbacks) and then wraps everything up in a classic police sting operation. It sounds pretty standard, but the film was something of a game-changer in the post-WWII Hollywood landscape. Moving from house producer @ Warners to an indie deal @ Universal, gave Mark Hellinger the leeway to make something darker & grittier*, plus the casting freedom that created new stars out of Burt Lancaster (in a stunning debut) and Ava Gardner in her first legit role. Helmer Robert Siodmak took full advantage of the opportunity to lift himself out of the ranks of low-budget over-achievers, while the great Miklos Rozsa discovered a whole new genre to put his musical stamp on. And if the wraparound story involving Edmund O’Brien’s investigator, Sam Levene’s detective and Albert Dekker’s gang of crooks doesn’t hold up nearly as well as that succinct, eye-popping opening reel, it’s strong enough to maintain our rooting interest. Be sure to check out the student short Andrei Tarkovsky made of the Hemingway story included on the Criterion edition. The pace is very measured, but the talent is already obvious. Plus, Hemingway sounds great in Russian.


*And, like Hal Wallis now over @ Paramount, to get away from the loathsome Jack Warner.

Thursday, January 7, 2010

THE WRESTLER (2008)

The title tells you all you need to know in this Mickey Rourke comeback vehicle from chastened helmer Darren Aronofsky, who’s traded in his flashy technique for Super-16mm none-too-steady cams. Rourke, that real-life faded movie star, plays a fast fading pro-wrestler whose damaged heart is forcing him to retire. A friendly stripper (Marisa Tomei) and an estranged daughter (Evan Rachel Wood) offer glances at a new life, as does a memorably brief stint at a deli counter*, but he winds up back in the ring for one last match. Fortunately, in the midst of this tour de force of bludgeoning masochism, Rourke gets a few shots at summoning his old, oddly charming mix of delicacy & brutishness. (It’s what Sylvester Stallone thinks he’s doing in those endless ROCKY sequels.) But gosh, this is awfully tired dramatic territory. And not just in antiques like THE CHAMP/’31. Jeff Bridges, who played the Kid to Stacy Keach’s fading boxer in John Huston’s FAT CITY/’72, is now in a musical variant on the theme in CRAZY HEART/’09. And no doubt, dozens more are in the pipeline to join the hundreds that have gone before.

*If only the filmmakers had let his surprise success at the job continue instead of opting for the expected blow-up.

Tuesday, January 5, 2010

IN BRUGES (2008)

The feature debut of acclaimed British playwright Martin McDonagh is just the sort of film to raise cheers @ Sundance and indifference in the general public. It’s a buddy-buddy story about Mutt & Jeff hitmen (Colin Farrell & Brendan Gleeson) forced to hide out in the Grimm-like fairy-tale town of Bruges, Brussels after a job goes terribly wrong. The dialogue-heavy script is spiked with bouts of nihilistic violence & mordant, black comedy riffs not so far removed from Quentin Tarantino Land. But McDonagh’s voice has its own alarmingly funny cadence, keyed more to the theatrical sound of Beckett, Pinter & Mamet than to ‘B’ movie fare. When the boys’ new job also goes awry, their apoplectic boss (Ralph Fiennes) shows up to fix things, and Fiennes & Gleeson make such a great tag-team that Farrell simply looks out-classed. His face ‘reads’ so loudly, he could be playing a Dick Tracy villain. (Flattop?) Equally troublesome is the confused staging (the editor must have had fits) and McDonagh’s inability to get much dramatic energy out of this fascinating city. A fine piece of dialogue between Gleeson & Fiennes is cut into your standard medium close-up reverse angles with the background out of focus. Then, for a moment, a brief two-shot includes the town, the tower, the men, all clearly in focus; suddenly, its not just good dialogue, but a real movie scene, fully alive to all the variables. McDonagh’s smart, he’ll note the difference.

Monday, January 4, 2010

THE LIVES OF A BENGAL LANCER (1935)

Irresistible adventure yarn for anyone with a taste for the glory days of the British Empire, Kipling and all that; THE MAN WHO WOULD BE KING sans irony. Politically correct, it ain’t; although in today’s unsettled political climate, perhaps a bit of ideological slack is in order. Under Henry Hathaway’s vigorous helming, Gary Cooper moved smoothly into the straight action genre as a seasoned officer plying the Paki/Indian border. His routine is upset when two junior officers are assigned to him; a scamp from a rival unit (Franchot Tone) and a young pup who’s the commander’s estranged son (Richard Cromwell). The male bonding is as spectacular as the desert vistas & the hordes of battling extras. Honor, loyalty, torture, cowardice & sacrifice are all taken in stride; the Raj’s standard shall ever fly. Well, until that Gandhi fellow comes along. Till then, Akim Tamiroff gets to play an Emir and Douglas Dumbrille a Khan while C. Aubrey Smith does his usual bit to help Hollywood show those true British colors. But then, the whole cast seems to be having a whale of a time, particularly Tone who more than holds his own against Coop. He had a lot of practice in ‘35, co-starring in films with Bette Davis, Robert Montgomery, Joan Crawford, Jean Harlow, Clark Gable, Charles Laughton & Una Merkel! She’s the only one who bests him.

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: Now in his mid-60s, Tom Selleck seems to be morphing into C. Aubrey Smith. Sounds goofy, but check out C. Aubrey in profile. Yikes!

Sunday, January 3, 2010

APPLAUSE (1929)


Helmer Rouben Mamoulian was determined that his debut movie would really move. No small thing for an early Talkie made at Paramount’s East Coast studios. Helen Morgan, SHOW BOAT’s original Julie*, stars as a fading burlesque performer whose unsavory new partner forces her almost grown kid to leave convent school and join the act . . . and God knows what else. Mother-love wins out in the end, but at a tragic price. You can still feel the excitement from some of Mamoulian’s visual daring, especially in a few precious scenes shot on real NYC locations, and the tawdry backstage atmosphere is both fascinating & repellent. But the story and perfs are all too one-note all thru the story, it’s wearisome even at a bare 80 minutes. Only Henry Wadsworth, as a charmingly romantic sailor-boy, seems willing to moderate his delivery for the new medium. Technically snazzy as this was for its time, it hardly has the dramatic pull of something like THE LETTER made the same year at the same studio. An unusually fine stage transfer for its time, it's cinematically inert, but dramatically compelling with an eye-popping, unforgettable perf from the tragic Jeanne Eagles. It still has real theatrical power and it holds you. Mamoulian would get things into better balance soon enough.

*Morgan filmed the part in James Whale’s priceless 1936 production which was largely cast with original or touring cast members.

Saturday, January 2, 2010

HOBSON’S CHOICE (1954)


David Lean left the cozy comforts (and limited budgets) of the British film world with an unlikely and still underappreciated masterpiece; a quirky capitalist comedy that plays like a determinist burlesque of KING LEAR. Charles Laughton is Hobson, a widowed shopkeeper with three grown daughters he uses as free labor to run his house & store. The younger two are now engaged, but surely his eldest (a spinster-in-waiting) will stay on to run things. Not if she can help it. The attention to detail in William Shingleton’s art design as captured in Jack Hildyard’s lensing brings Lean’s British house-style to a sumptuous climax. And the whole cast is a marvel. Brenda de Banzie, in triumphant form, makes the sharp, ambitious eldest daughter a paragon of no-nonsense womanhood. When she takes her situation in hand and establishes her own bootery with Papa’s best cobbler (John Mills in a matchless turn), the entrepreneurial instinct acquires a becoming proto-feminist slant. The expectations of class privilege are no match for the rise of small business meritocracy. And Lean doesn’t back off from showing the incipient dangers in the new order. Laughton’s drunken ‘moon walk’ is often excerpted as a comic highlight, while an unwanted slice of wedding cake is just as exceptional, but this perf is too rich for a highlights reels. The entire production is a highlight.

Friday, January 1, 2010

DESIGN FOR LIVING (1933)


The passing years have only improved this once-knocked reworking of Noel Coward’s (in)famous play. Helmer Ernst Lubitsch made unrivaled romantic-comedies, seasoning them with a tart dose of irony, and his sole collaboration with Ben Hecht (of the rat-a-tat dialogue & bracing sarcastic wit) shouldn’t work, but does. Like the broken typewriter in the story, ‘it rings, it rings!’ The story has Miriam Hopkins turning muse to Coop’s painter (very André Derain) and March’s playwright (veddy Coward), but with no sex allowed. But tumble she does . . . twice. And since she loves them equally, she runs off to marry a stolid fellow with zero sex appeal . . . enter Edward Everett Horton. Can this man be dumped? Can this illicit triangle be saved? And should a girl have to choose between such riches?* Extra points for the opening scene, a ‘meet-cute’ in untranslated French. Coop boasts respectable tourist French, Hopkins rattles away, March keeps quiet. And watch for a particularly hilarious Lubitsch ‘touch’ which plays out over a honeymoon night and reveals an unexpected sexual urge from Everett Horton.

*March was certainly a handsome fellow in ‘33, but when Coop shows up in formal gear with his hair slicked down, it’s as if an entire era of manliness & ravishment has been personified. Devastating.

READ ALL ABOUT IT: Ben Hecht wrote a charmingly funny, if suspect, sketch of working with Lubitsch that was included in Herman Weinberg's THE LUBITSCH TOUCH. The book itself is well-meaning, but its scholarship and opinions have dated badly.