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Monday, April 2, 2012

THEY MET IN BOMBAY (1941)

Before Pearl Harbor redefined the political landscape, Hollywood tended to tiptoe into the troubled international scene by bending the formulas of genre pics, twisting tropes like pretzels to serve new purposes. It helped give protective ‘cover’ against non-neutrality charges, but also made for odd bedfellows, as in this pic where near-schizophrenic plot-turns become both dramatically ridiculous & politically fascinating. Act One, finds Clark Gable & Rosalind Russell meeting-cute & ‘scoping-out’ the Bombay scene as rival jewel thieves. By Act Two, they’re joined at the hip and on the run in unchartered political waters. Act Three lands them in China where Gable, disguised as a British officer, winds up fighting in the real war & taking real casualties while Roz frets for her soldier boy. Vet helmer Clarence Brown can’t pull the separate pieces together (who could?), but he seems happiest in the middle section, upping the level of romantic fatalism between Gable & Russell with atmospheric lensing from William Daniels. Check out the composition & lighting in a cramped ship cabin scene where an open port window keeps catching a bit of Russell’s face as she & Gable fall in love. It’s the sort of visual movie-making magic Brown & Daniels once gave Garbo. (On a less happy note, the film uses full Yellow-Face make-up for Peter Lorre’s venal ship’s captain. He did better in the MR. MOTO pics with just a pair of glasses.) Once it gets going, this likable film does manage to show off the famed M-G-M polish, the faked Eastern locations are particularly impressive, just don’t expect to find much substance (or even structure) under the hard shiny gloss.

DOUBLE-BILL: Leo McCarey had Cary Grant & Ginger Rogers goose-step thru equally strange hoops in ONCE UPON A HONEYMOON/’42.

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: You really can see the making of George Clooney at times in Gable on this one. And fans of John Huston’s THE MAN WHO WOULD BE KING/’75 can get a good idea of what Gable might have been like in the Sean Connery role by watching this. (Gable & Bogart were Huston’s original casting ideas when he first dreamed of making the Kipling story.)

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