The Lubitsch Touch

Miriam Hopkins, Herbert Marshall, and Kay Francis in Trouble in Paradise (1932)

In the last few days, I have been watching three pre-Code films that Ernst Lubitsch directed for Paramount in three successive years. They all starred Miriam Hopkins and were a delight to watch. In his book The American Cinema: Directors and Directions 1929-1968, film critic Andrew Sarris writes about the director’s attention to manners:

What are manners, after all, but the limits to man’s presumption, a recognition that we all eventually lose the game of life but that we should still play the game according to the rules. A poignant sadness infiltrates the director’s gayest moments, and it is this counterpoint between sadness and gaiety that represents the Lubitsch touch, and not the leering humor of closed doors.

My favorite of the three films is Trouble in Paradise, about two con artists/thieves/pickpockets played by Miriam Hopkins and Herbert Marshall. They prey upon the wealthy Kay Francis—except that Marshall begins to fall for her to Hopkins’s disgust. How Marshall leaves both women happy is utterly delightful.

Poster for Design for Living (1933)

The subject of Design for Living is a ménage à quatre between Miriam Hopkins, Fredric March, Gary Cooper, and Edward Everett Horton. This being a pre-Code picture made before July 1934, Design for Living gets away with salacious sexual suggestiveness that wasn’t seen again in Hollywood until the 1970s. What gets me is how a film with so much envy and yearning was made with such a light touch.

Lobby Card for The Smiling Lieutenant (1931)

Finally, I saw (for the first time) The Smiling Lieutenant, in which Maurice Chevalier gets away with several capital crimes, including stepping out on his wife who is a royal princess. The princess, played by Hopkins, finally gets a talking-to by Claudette Colbert, who plays the leader of a beer garden all-girl band. Again, the result is a satisfying but highly unusual happy ending of a story which more frequently leads to depression and even suicide.

The three films all played on Turner Classic Movies (TCM) this month. It turns out that Miriam Hopkins is TCM’s Star of the Month. As far as I am concerned, Ernst Lubitsch is the director of the month.

Other Lubitsch films worth seeing include:

  • The Marriage Circle (1924)
  • Lady Windermere’s Fan (1925)
  • The Love Parade (1929)
  • Ninotchka (1939) with Greta Garbo
  • The Shop Around the Corner (1940)
  • To Be or Not To Be (1942)

The last film on the list is an unlikely comedy about the Nazi invasion of Poland starring Jack Benny, Robert Stack, and Carole Lombard. It is one of the funniest films ever made. (“So, they call me Concentration Camp Erhard!”) Only Lubitsch could carry that off.

Pre-Code Hollywood

Man and Woman in Same Bed: Verboten After 1934 (Madam Satan)

Hollywood films released after July 1, 1934 were heavily censored by the Breen Office of the MPAA for adherence to community morality standards, especially with regard to S-E-X. That is partly because between the onset of the Great Depression and that date, Hollywood released numerous pictures that violated the prevailing morality.

Pictures like Cecil B. DeMille’s Madam Satan (1930) for MGM with its Art Deco orgy aboard a Zeppelin. Or Warner Brothers’ Baby Face (1933) with a social-climbing Barbara Stanwyck intent on avenging past slights on the entire male gender. According to film scholar Eddie Muller, the straw that broke the camel’s back was Paramount’s The Story of Temple Drake (1933), starring Miriam Hopkins based on a lurid William Faulkner novel in which her character murders her rapist.

I recall a scene excised from many prints of Josef Von Sternberg’s Morocco (1930) of a bare-breasted native girl smiling at the camera as a column of French Foreign Legionnaires marches past. (In all honesty, however, there are numerous glimpses of breast in many of the silent Jesus pix of the period. Thank you, Mr. DeMille.)

This Film Was Dynamite with Its Immoral Heroine

Several weeks ago, Turner Classic Movies (TCM) showed a program of four pre-code Warner Brothers films that are a good place to start if you want to see what the era was all about:

  • Two Seconds (1932) with Edward G. Robinson
  • Employees’ Entrance (1933) with Warren William and a hot Loretta Young
  • Blessed Event (1932) with Lee Tracy and Mary Brian
  • Baby Face (1933) with Barbara Stanwyck

Lee Tracy and Ruth Donnelly in Blessed Event

The prints that TCM showed looked pristine. That is because the originals were stored at the Library of Congress, which took good care of them.

Pre-code stars included, in addition to the above mentioned, actors like Clark Gable, Ruth Chatterton, James Cagney, Mae West, Jean Harlowe, Joan Blondell, Paul Muni, and Mae Clarke.

I regard the Hollywood films of the early 1930s as a happy hunting ground for interesting films that dared to do what no film until the modern day did. In this era of free porn on demand, that might not seem like much, but it does provide a more realistic glimpse of an interesting era in America.

Phillip Marlowe in Hollywood

Lobby Card for The Big Sleep: Best of the Chandler Adaptations

To date, I have seen most of the Hollywood films based on Raymond Chandler’s Phillip Marlowe private investigator novels; and I suspect that these are the best of the bunch. Several of them I have seen multiple times. They are listed below in alphabetical order:

  1. The Big Sleep (1946) from Warner Brothers, starring Humphrey Bogart as Marlowe. Directed by Howard Hawks based on the novel of the same name. ***
  2. The Brasher Doubloon (1947) from 20th Century Fox, starring George Montgomery as Marlowe. Directed by John Brahm based on The High Window.
  3. Lady in the Lake (1947) from 20th Century Fox, starring Robert Montgomery as Marlowe. Directed by Robert Montgomery (who played Marlowe) based on the novel of the same name. *
  4. The Long Goodbye (1973) from United Artists, starring Elliott Gould as Marlowe. Directed by Robert Altman based on the novel of the same name.
  5. Marlowe (1969) from MGM, starring James Garner as Marlowe. Directed by Paul Bogart based on The Little Sister.
  6. Murder, My Sweet (1944) from RKO, starring Dick Powell as Marlowe. Directed by Edward Dmytryk based on Farewell, My Lovely.

There are several other films, including two starring Robert Mitchum as Marlowe; but they are of more recent vintage and directed by nonentities. I hope to see them anyway.

Lobby Card for Lady in the Lake, with Robert Montgomery and Audrey Totter

The asterisks denote my favorites: The Big Sleep; Murder, My Sweet; and Lady in the Lake. I also liked The Brasher Doubloon. Essentially, my favorites were all made in the 1940s. By the 1960s, I think that we were too far away from the atmosphere of the original novels.

Lobby Card for Murder, My Sweet with Former Crooner Dick Powell as a Convincing Marlowe

Who was my favorite Marlowe? I guess I would have to go with Humphrey Bogart. My other favorites—Dick Powell, George Montgomery, and Robert Montgomery—also turned in creditable performances. Lady in the Lake was a particularly bravura performance by Robert Montgomery, who also directed. In fact, the camera was in most scenes shot from the point of view of Marlowe—with the exception of some mirror shots and a brief prologue and epilogue.

Favorite Films: Winter Light (1963)

The Middle Film of Ingmar Bergman’s Trilogy on the Silence of God

The film is almost impossibly bleak. At the very beginning, a parishioner comes to the Lutheran pastor played by Gunnar Björnstrand and confesses that he is depressed because the Red Chinese have the atomic bomb, and they have no respect for human life. Because of the stresses of his own life, Björnstrand admits his own depression (he is a widower who has recently lost his beloved wife) and winds up sending him away even more depressed. Within minutes, we discover that he has committed suicide next to a roaring river by sending a rifle shell at his head.

It gets even worse. Björnstrand is being pursued by the local schoolteacher, played by Ingrid Thulin (in above photo). But the pastor remains stubbornly alone as, coming down with a cold, he must conduct a service at nearby Frostnäs. He goes there, with Thulin in tow, only to find that none of the parishioners have shown up. He gives the service anyhow, beginning with the words “Holy Holy Holy, Lord God Almighty; Heaven and Earth are full of Thy glory.”

Swedish Film Director Ingmar Bergman (1918-2007)

Bergman’s trilogy includes Through a Glass Darkly (1961), Winter Light and The Silence (both 1963). These are, in no sense of the word, cheery films, as they deal primarily with God’s silence or even absence in the light of an increasingly disjointed world.

So why would anyone want to see such depressing films? For the same reason that they would see a performance of King Lear or read Dostoyevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov. It doesn’t take long before one realizes that there is no laugh track in our lives. I keep thinking about what the Philosopher Karl Jaspers wrote regarding the study of Kierkegaard and Nietzsche:

We live, so to speak, in a seething cauldron of possibilities, continually threatened by confusion, but always ready in spite of everything to rise up again. In philosophizing, we must always be ready, out of the present questioning, to elicit those ideas which bring forth what is real to us: that is, our humanity.

Although I do not consider myself to be an atheist, I do believe that no one can accurately describe God or God’s relationship to mankind. The Christians have this book which is several thousand years old and written by a number of authors. Some religions, such as Buddhism and Taoism, do not even have a God in the Christian sense of the word.

So when a great artist like Ingmar Bergman is honest about his own doubt, I am refreshed by his honesty. The problem, to me, is not how to worship God, but how to make one’s way in this bewildering world without benefit of Providence or God’s love.

I used to be a devout Catholic. Then, in September 1966, I survived major brain surgery and moved to Los Angeles to begin graduate school in film history and criticism at UCLA. For a brief while, I felt grateful to God for my survival; then, I thought: Why did He try to destroy me with twelve years of excruciating pain? The only masses I have attended since then have been funerals and nostalgic visits to beautiful old South American churches.

Am I Still an Auteurist?

This Is the Magazine That Started It All

The Politique des Auteurs started in France with the writers of Cahiers du Cinema. André Bazin and a young cadre of rising filmmakers and critics felt that the French cinema was becoming too literary and that much was to be learned from the vitality of the American film industry. With almost every issue, they were discovering scores of new film artists such as John Ford, Howard Hawks, Nicholas Ray, and even such downmarket geniuses as Edgar G. Ulmer.

By 1962, the auteurists found an American disciple in Andrew Sarris, film critic for The Village Voice in New York. For the Winter 1962-1963 issue of Film Culture, Sarris created a whole issue dedicated to the auteur theory. As a student at Dartmouth College, I paid to photocopy the entire issue and used it religiously as a guide until Sarris came out a few years later with the greatly expanded American Cinema: Directors and Directions 1929-1968.

The Notorious Auteur Issue of 1962-1963

Circles and Squares: In the interim, Pauline Kael published a blistering attack in Film Quarterly called “Circles and Squares: Joys and Sarris.” Many of her attacks hit home, and they certainly exposed Sarris’s weaknesses as a film theoretician. I had met Pauline Kael and liked her work, but as a young man I was a budding auteurist.

Now, half a century and thousands of films later, I still see myself as having been influenced by the Cahiers crowd and Sarris, but I think there is a lot more to film than an a priori theory imposed from above. On the plus side, the auteurists opened me to the incredible riches of the American film—but I started liking films by such card-carrying non-auteurs as Felix Feist, Edward L. Cahn, Robert Florey, and Charles Vidor.

I give the credit to the auteur theory for introducing me to the idea that American films can also be great. I started my love of film by watching such foreign productions as Carl Dreyer’s Day of Wrath (1948) and Wojciech Has’s The Saragossa Manuscript (1962); but by the late 1960s I was beginning to give Hollywood its due and loosened up considerably.

In Search of the Twonky

Tony Randall as Merlin in 7 Faces of Dr. Lao (1964)

There is a category of things which one loves even if one knows they are not objectively good. This is particularly true of films, food, people, articles of clothing, and any number of things. For some reason, there is no single word in the English language that conveys the unreasoning attraction for certain things that one loves unreasoningly. (“Campy” is in the ballpark, but not close enough.)

I had been using the word twonky, though I find that my use of the term is common to no one but me. What the hell, I’ll use it anyhow.

One of my favorite twonky films is 7 Faces of Dr. Lao, directed by George Pal, better known for his sci-fi films like Destination Moon (1950) and When Worlds Collide (1951).

It is the tale of a small town in Arizona called Abalone (an odd name for a desert burg.) A little old Chinese fakir called Dr. Lao (pronounced LOW) comes to town advertising a circus. All the characters in the circus are played by Tony Randall (except for the Abominable Snowman, a nonspeaking part played by George Pal’s son Peter). The circus takes place in the desert in a small tent which, on the inside, is miraculously roomy.

Tony Randall as Dr. Lao

The odd thing about Dr. Lao’s circus is that the townspeople learn about themselves, especially Barbara Eden (Angela Benedict) and Arthur O’Connell (Clint Stark, who is trying to buy up the town for profit). Merlin, the Medusa, Pan, Apollonius of Tyana, and the serpent—all act in strange offbeat ways to bring self-knowledge to the people of Abalone. And, in the process, the circus leaves Abalone a happier town.

The Tent Where the Circus Takes Place

I will not go to my grave insisting that 7 Faces of Dr. Lao is a great film, but I will see it again if I can. It always leaves me with a warm feeling. Other films that are among my twonky favorites are:

  • Most classical old sci-fi films
  • James Bond films
  • Earth Girls Are Easy (1984)
  • Danny Elfman’s The Forbidden Zone (1980)
  • Robin Williams’s Popeye (1980) directed by Robert Altman
  • David Lynch’s Dune (1984)

Creeping Marienbadism

Famous Shot from Last Year at Marienbad (1961)

I met Pauline Kael during my last year at Dartmouth. At the time, I was Assistant Director of the Dartmouth Film Society and involved in meeting and greeting visiting film dignitaries. We had dinner across the river in Norwich, Vermont, followed by an interesting conversation.

Pauline had just published her first book, entitled I Lost It at the Movies (1965), which I read and loved.

Although she went on to be film reviewer for the New Yorker between 1968 and 1991, Pauline had a strong streak of the old fashioned, with a strong preference for straight narrative and a disdain for art house films and Hollywood blockbusters. (She called The Sound of Music with the moniker The Sound of Money, which made her no new friends in Hollywood)

Film Critic Pauline Kael (1919-2001)

I am slowly re-reading I Lost It at the Movies, where I found some interesting ideas. She hated the Alain Resnais film Last Year at Marienbad and complained that “we can’t even leave Marienbad behind because, although it memorable (it isn’t even particularly offensive), a kind of creeping Marienbadism is is the new aesthetics of ‘poetic cinema.’”

She recalls:

In Los Angeles, among the independent filmmakers at their midnight screenings I was told that I belonged to the older generation, that Agee-alcohol generation they called it, who could not respond to the new films because I didn’t take pot or LSD and so couldn’t learn to accept everything. This narcotic approach of torpid acceptance, which is much like the lethargy of the undead in those failure-of-communication movies, may explain why these films have seemed so “true” to some people….

At the time, I was at the cusp of the whole postmodern movement myself. I remember being agonized by Ingmar Bergman’s Persona (1966) because it so challenged my own way of thinking … at the time. (No longer: I now love the film.)

Liv Ullmanm and Bibi Andersson in Persona

I guess I have become thoroughly postmodern. A strong narrative line is no longer necessary for me to enjoy a film. I could just be drawn by a series of beautiful images, startling epiphanies, powerful acting, or something as wonky as my love of Geena Davis in Earth Girls Are Easy (1988).

The Death of Boris Vian

Writer and Jazz Musician Boris Vian (1920-1959)

This is a reprint of a blog I posted on October 1, 2018—with some minor changes. Vian was not only a member of the Oulipo literary movement, but he was a renowned jazz musician.

There is a myth that the French are contemptuous of everything that the United States stands for. They might be now, seeing how how our country has sunk to Stygian depths since November 2016. But there have been many exceptions, consisting of key figures in the arts who have paid homage to American art forms. In the case of Boris Vian (1920-1959), the contributions have been in the form of music (he was a jazz trumpeter who knew Duke Ellington, Hoagie Carmichael, and Miles Davis), literature (detective and Oulipo), and translation (Raymond Chandler and sci-fi writer A. E. Van Vogt). In addition, he was a friend to the existentialist writers of the 1950s.

I have just finished [in 2018] reading Vian’s Mood Indigo, the English title of L’écume des jours. It is an inventive work of the Oulipo school of literature. It starts out as a manic love story and becomes ever more somber and even tragic as the characters come to sad ends. It is reminiscent of works by Raymond Queneau and Georges Perec.

Boris Vian at the Trumpet

Vian died at the age of thirty-nine of a heart attack while watching the credits of a French film adaptation of his novel I Spit On Your Graves [not to be confused with the various rape revenge films released under the name of I Spit on Your Grave without the “s”]. You can see the credit sequence by clicking here. Reportedly, Vian cried out “These guys are supposed to be American? My ass!” and collapsed in his seat. He died en route to the hospital.

He had a point, it looks a lot more French than American. It’s a pity we lost him, because he was a real friend to American literature and music.

Discoveries: Nikkatsu

Nikkatsu Studios Logo

During this hyperextended quarantine, I continue to make interesting discoveries. Late one night, Turner Classic Movies (TCM) put on a double bill of noir films from Nikkatsu Studios.

Nikkatsu? I had heard of Toho, Shochiku, Diaei, and Tohei … but never Nikkatsu. After a quick look at Google, I found that Nikkatsu was actually the oldest studio in Japan, founded all the way back in 1912, three years before D.W. Griffith filmed Birth of a Nation.

I began to look at I Am Waiting (1957), but as the hour was late and I was tired, I reluctantly prepared for sleep.

But then, I discovered that the TCM website has a Watch Now option. When you select Watch Movies, you have available to you virtually all the recently shown films on the channel, including cartoons and shorts. The only requirement is that you subscribe to a service on your TV that carries the TCM channel: There is a login required.

A Scene from A Colt Is My Passport (1967)

I was delighted to find that both I Am Waiting and A Colt Is My Passport were available through the website. Thereupon I watched both films and was delighted that I persevered in searching them out. Not only that, but I bought the Criterion Collection’s Nikkatsu Noir series of five films, which included the above titles but three others that I plan to watch in the weeks to come.

Film noir has traveled from the United States to France (the films of Jean-Pierre Melville), England (the original Get Carter with Michael Caine), and Japan.

The Halloween 2020 Book List

A Canadian Adaptation of LeFanu’s Carmilla (2017)

Every October, I usually read several novels and short stories in the horror genre. I do not care that much for the current stuff, like Stephen King or Dean Koontz. My preference is for the classics, and those tend to be concentrated in the late 19th century.

The books I read this month were:

  • Shirley Jackson’s Dark Tales
  • Joseph Sheridan LeFanu’s In a Glass Darkly, which included the short novels Carmilla and The Room in the Dragon Volant
  • Arthur Machen’s The Great God Pan and Other Horror Stories, a new collection edited by Aaron Worthy

Shirley Jackson is most famous for her short story “The Lottery,” but she also wrote such novels as We Have Always Lived in the Castle and The Haunting of Hill House.

Sheridan LeFanu (1814-1873) was an Irish author who wrote some classic tales of horror, especially Carmilla, a tale of a lesbian vampire who predated Bram Stoker’s Dracula by some twenty years. In 1960, it was made into a film by Roger Vadim entitled Blood and Roses (in France: Et mourir de plaisir). At the time I attended college, it was the most popular film showed by the Dartmouth Film Society.

Welsh Horror Tale Author Arthur Machen

Finally, there was a delightful collection of novellas and tales by Arthur Machen (1863-1947). Most of Machen’s best work was composed up to the late 1920s and included the classic The Great God Pan (1894), which tells of what happened when a young woman who, upon being exposed to the Greek god Pan, created a trail of destruction that spanned several continents.