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Thursday, February 9, 2012

BLUEBEARD’S EIGHTH WIFE (1938)

On his first collaboration with Ernst Lubitsch, his filmmaking idol, Billy Wilder came up with the ‘meet-cute’ of a lifetime: Gary Cooper is shopping for pajamas . . . but he only wears the tops. Cue Claudette Colbert: she only wants the bottoms! If only the rest of this tale of sexual frustration were equally inspired. Coop plays a rich American who finds a bartered bride in Colbert’s sou-less French aristo, and she’s happy to get her dad (Edward Everett Horton) back on his feet. But when she learns how quickly Coop goes thru wives, she holds off on any lovemaking until he’s thoroughly broken. The first half gets by on lux production values, the stars' swank looks and enough funny bits to carry you along. But the film grows increasingly off-key (too mean-spirited by half) and out of touch with the times (more early ‘30s than late ‘30s), and Lubitsch seemed to know it. (This may stem from the source material, a lost Gloria Swanson silent from ‘23.) It was the end of the line for Lubitsch @ Paramount and his next two (self-produced @ M-G-M, of all places) were highly personal masterpieces, NINOTCHKA/’38 (again with Wilder) and THE SHOP AROUND THE CORNER/’40 (with fave scripter Samson Raphelson.) In fact, of the six films he’d make before his tragic early death in ‘47, five were typically unmatchable. Maybe we’d value this one more highly if Lubitsch hadn't raised the bar so high on himself.

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY/DOUBLE-BILL: (Actually, a Screwy Thought from Lubitsch.) As a gag, someone @ Paramount stuck a shot of a sleeping Gary Cooper in with the dailies. But to Lubitsch, who had yet to work with Coop, the shot was a revelation. ‘That man should play Hamlet.’ This from the man who also thought Coop & Greta Garbo were quite possibly the same person. ‘Did you ever see them together?’ Coop was no hayseed Westerner for Lubitsch, check out the sophisticated swell rattling off French in the Lubitsch/Ben Hecht DESIGN FOR LIVING/’33, or making an honest woman out of Marlene Dietrich’s jewel thief in the Lubitsch/Borzage DESIRE/’36. They never did get to HAMLET.

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