Mayerling (1936)

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  • directed by Anatole Litvak
  • starring Charles Boyer, Danielle Darrieux, Jean Dax, Gabrielle Dorziat, Andre Dubosc
  • Rebelling against his overbearing father, Austria’s crown prince, Rudolph, slips away and begins a passionate tryst with young baroness Marie Vetsera.

 “Nanny, do you think a prince can be unhappy?”

The story of Archduke Rudolph and his mistress Marie Vetsera has been a point of historical fascination for a century and a quarter by now. Over the years there have been dozens of theories put forth about what exactly transpired at Mayerling on the night of January 30, 1889. Was it a murder-suicide? A botched abortion? An ambush by Vetsera’s family? Was Maria complicit in or even aware of the plan? Questions remain mostly due to evidence tampering and suppression by the House of Habsburg at the time. All we know is that after a refusal by the Pope to annul Rudolph’s existing marriage and a period of hushed courtship between the two as a result of family objections on both sides, they entered into their chambers at the quiet royal manor for one last night together and were found dead the next morning.

For better or worse it is Claude Anet’s book Idyll’s End as adapted in two Mayerling films, in 1936 and 1968, which paints the largest picture available of the doomed affair between the would-be Emperor of Austria and the young baroness. And so the story that is most often told, not surprisingly, is the one that we the ever salacious-leaning public would like to be told as we munch our popcorn, stifle our tears, and consider the many injustices this world of ours has seen through the centuries. Combining the elegance of European royalty, the façade of a classic forbidden romance, and true crime-levels of evidence and theories as to how it ended for the pair, the story of Rudolph and Marie Vetsera was tailor-made to inspire, depress, and make the world wonder for generations.

Anatole Litvak was in no way interested in telling a straight, star-crossed love story with Mayerling. There was an ominous mood that accumulated throughout and any shred of positive emotion or romance was immediately stifled by a symbolic prop or line of dialogue that pointed toward the grave, such as the skull on Rudolph’s desk, him firing a gun at his reflection in the mirror, his growing paranoia and mental anguish, a puppet show in which a character is punished for feelings of true love, and Maria wishing on her wedding ring that she dies before he does. Litvak created perfectly refined environments and the stuffy atmosphere of European pomp and circumstance. There was also on the surface somewhat of a traditional love story narrative, though cleverly seasoned with dread at every turn. For all the efforts to tamp down the sunshine and rainbows, this was still to its detriment a version of the story that had the strong-burning love between the two as the sole motivating factor to rid themselves of this world. In reality there were a lot of other factors involved.

Another problem that I had with Mayerling can be boiled down quite simply to the story of the two Vetseras. First there is the real life Mary Vetsera, who I read was every bit as melancholy and trapped as the crown prince. She was a mistress after all, one of many in fact, and on a much smaller scale she could bring on just as much public shame to her family as Rudolph. If death was a way for her and Rudolph to continue on together, than I buy the fact that Mary Vetsera, ignorant to the fact that her true love had been searching for a death partner previously, was a knowing accomplice to that plan.

A different character in the film altogether, Anet and Litvak’s Marie, as played by the lovely Danielle Darrieux, was the unassuming young woman that caught the eye of everyone as she kept to herself at various galas and receptions. She was radiant and beautiful with an aura that competed with even the most esteemed members of the crowd. My issue arises when she says of herself in an early scene that she was happy and satisfied with life. As the relationship with Rudolph developed and the cards quickly stacked against them she maintained that emotion and there were never steps made to darken her demeanor suggesting she would go along with a joined suicide attempt.

As complex as her experience and motivations were, Rudolph by comparison is an easy case. Charles Boyer played the character completely drenched with grief throughout, leading to that out of control party scene that played more like a horror movie in that we do not know what deprave acts his depression will make possible. He is a shamed playboy cursed by his father and lashing out at the formal, conservative trappings of being the heir apparent. Death was always going to be his escape hatch. He just had to find the right person with which to share that.

It is important to note the severe implications that night at Mayerling potentially had on the world at large. The line of succession was foggy to say the least upon Rudolph’s death, leading his father to appoint his nephew, Rudolph’s cousin, Archduke Franz Ferdinand. This was already a time when tensions in Europe were escalating and Austria-Hungary influence was waning considerably. This all highlights a very clear alternate timeline, in which there is no assassination of the heir to the throne in 1914, no escalation of tensions and July crisis, and just maybe no World War I. About 16 million people died  during World War I and it very well could have been because of the two that did themselves in 25 years earlier.

 

Twentieth Century (1934)

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  • directed by Howard Hawks
  • starring John Barrymore, Carole Lombard, Walter Connolly, Roscoe Karns, Ralph Forbes, Charles Lane, Etienne Girardot, Dale Fuller
  • A Broadway producer who has fallen on hard times tries to get his former lover, now a Hollywood diva, to return and resurrect his failing career.

“We don’t know anything about love unless it’s written and rehearsed.”

The elements of the screwball comedy genre were floating around as early as the development of sound, primarily in the work of Ernst Lubitsch at the turn of the 1930s. By 1934, a romantic angle was no stranger to comedy, nor were endless strings of misunderstandings and farcical narrative choices, all building blocks of screwball. What completed the puzzle though, something that arose partly in response to amped up production codes as the decade unfolded, was the breakneck pacing, as if censors wouldn’t be able to catch every little detail, and the quick, witty verbal sparring between the sexes, an easy-to-miss stand-in to non-physically suggest sexual tension and frustration.

In early 1934, ready or not, audiences would witness two of the first screwball comedies and ones that would go on to influence a large portion of Hollywood’s business for nearly an entire decade. Everybody except perhaps its difficult star Claudette Colbert was ready for It Happened One Night, which was received as well as can be by America and the Academy. Twentieth Century, though, needed a lot more time for its value to be acknowledged. As John Barrymore’s immensely memorable Oscar Jaffe remarks in the movie, “the gold is all there, but we must mine it.” So let’s do that.

That Howard Hawks’ Twentieth Century has graduated from the depths of box office hell to such classic and beloved levels is a testament to the film’s writing, the performances, and–what audiences could not have known at the time–one of the more fascinating examples of film mirroring real life.

First the casting of Carole Lombard, an actress just getting started without yet a breakout hit, proved to be as contentious a choice as it was on screen for Oscar Jaffe to transform Mildred Plotka into his muse, Lily Garland. Lombard had a few mid-level roles, but there was still no evidence that she could command the screen, let alone sell comedic material. Hawks, like Jaffe, saw a potential in her that she didn’t even know was there and he stuck by her loyally throughout. There was no rolling of the dice with the casting of John Barrymore, already a more than capable talent with a familiar face. Long before people like Peter Sellers and Gene Wilder created similar brands of seething and intimidating characters who bullied their way into hilarity, there was this particular portrayal of Oscar Jaffe. Twentieth Century was Barrymore’s high point, creating an indelible character through sheer force, and it also marked the beginning of the end for his stature as a leading man.

The exact dynamic of Garland surpassing Jaffe is the story of Barrymore and Lombard’s careers at this point in time. On screen you have the god-like Oscar Jaffe going from toast of the town to an in-debt, babbling vagrant. Same ego from beginning to end but the perception changes from intimidating to pathetic. Lily Garland starts the movie unable to act her way through a scene, is coached by Jaffe, and ultimately blossoms into Broadway’s and then Hollywood’s leading diva, leaving the headache that is her former lover and mentor behind. “The sorrows of life are the joys of art.”

What I loved most about Twentieth Century was that it changes on a dime over and over between being much smarter and dumber than is any typical romantic comedy audience. There was no even plane of existence for these characters. They were either bloviating with high-minded references to D’Artagnan and Sappho or wallowing in the silliness of physical comedy. There was also great poetry to be found in the array of insults they hurled at each other, such as old fainting Bertha, Anathema, scorpion, fishwife, and my favorite, Hairpin Annie, the pride of the gashouse.

Twentieth Century came very close to achieving perfection in my mind but the formula of a screwball is laden with traps, especially as the brisk and charismatic foundation established starts to move into absurdist territory. The religious Matthew Clark subplot, which worked in parts once it was brought into the fold of the main story, went through a few too many forced moments in order to get there. The ending too was dangerously close to falling apart at the seams and had little of the charm displayed up to that point.

Much has always been made about the so-called “invisible style’ of Howard Hawks. There will always be efforts to brand directors in order to find the common current surging through their films—one of my favorite hobbies. Nobody in their right mind would question his greatness but the visual and narrative details of what makes Hawks Hawks is a trickier proposition, especially with him jumping between the comedy, drama, science fiction, crime, noir, and western genres so seamlessly. Of the Hawks films that I have seen there is a distinct lack of noise or sentimentality. What one may call no nonsense. More importantly, and this runs counter to Oscar Jaffe in many ways, is that he builds a production with high quality scripts and dominant players and shies away from loudly advertising his own role. “A good director is someone who doesn’t annoy you,” he once said. Hawks is not above behind the scenes manipulation to get it right, but with a smart script like Charles MacArthur and Ben Hecht’s, two incredible supporting performances by Walter Connolly and Roscoe Karns, and the monstrous comedic performances at the center, it’s probably easier than ever to step aside.

Asphalt (1929)

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  • directed by Joe May
  • starring Betty Amann, Gustav Frohlich, Albert Steinruck, Else Heller
  • A Berlin policeman is caught between his desires and his duties when he allows himself to be seduced by a woman accused of robbing a jewelry store.

“Do you really think I became a thief out of need?”

From the opening scene of a bustling, kaleidoscopic Berlin cityscape to the bits of noir and Expressionist imagery featured throughout, it was clear that director Joe May aimed to heighten this simple story as much as possible with style. On first glance, the cold, hard title of Asphalt seems counter to that mission and to have nothing to do with Albert Holk’s increasing mania brought upon by the cunning criminal Else Kramer. How Berlin was captured by May, though, and that exhilarating opening sequence in general, tethered all that followed to the seedy, illicit aura of the city at night. The streets of Berlin, where the traffic cop once did right by the city, were now suggestively held responsible for chewing him up and spitting him out.

Of course in the story-world it was Else Kramer, one of silent film’s great characters thanks to the beautiful and dominant Betty Amann, who did all the heavy lifting to send him spiraling down. Else can hysterically cry, feign sickness, or effortlessly seduce a man at the drop of a hat, deploying whichever is necessary in any situation to escape trouble, something she finds herself in often. Albert falls hard for this when trying something as simple as bringing her in for an arraignment yet somehow, after trick after trick, is borderline molested by Else at her apartment. There is no actual hypnosis involved, although it is teased, but an uninhibited sexual display by Else is enough to render all the Berlin men that we see completely powerless.

The pair separate after that first encounter and both seemed consumed by the experience. It plays on one hand like a typical love story but with one participant’s intentions being completely unreliable. Everything about their scenes together is just a little off. Else is mostly shown towering above him in the traditional couple scenes. Their first kiss features her forcefully jumping, climbing, and looking down on him. When they meet later and he confesses his love, he is on the floor holding her in bed. When she gets up, he clings to her legs like a desperate child. She struck me as a female Von Stroheim creation at some points, equally as depraved and predatory, and not something one would expect from a Flapper-looking 1920s leading lady.

Gustav Frohlich, well-known from Metropolis, is terrific in Asphalt though his role is little more than tortured meat for most of it. Any semblance of Albert as a masculine, by-the-book officer of the law is quickly gone as he’s lowered himself to a mere subject of Else’s will and she is never quite as in love with him as he is her. It was hard for anybody else to shine in the film because there is hardly any screen to share aside Betty Amann’s tour de force. In terms of appearance and how she was presented, there was very little separating Amann from Louise Brooks, Clara Bow, or other prolific talents of that era. It was all dark features, knowing eyes, and soft lighting in close-up. The ruthless character of Else and how naturally Amann shifted between femme fatale and damsel in distress was one part of a tide-turning in 1929 toward complex and dominant female characters.

There might never be full agreement amongst fans and film scholars on where film noir began, when it began, or what it even is, but the many narrative and visual aspects of the genre are loose and hazy enough that you can track its inception and influence far before the standout American titles of the 1940s and 50s. German Expressionism in particular, with its ability to create tension and darkness through distorted or askew visual choices is a great point of influence for the later noir movement.

The brand of Expressionism found in Asphalt is practical as opposed to theatrical, achieved through editing, framing, and lighting. Albert’s world becomes ruled by passion and lust with his moral grounding completely twisted by the end, a very noir-like arc for the character, and May keeps up with this dive by creating a frenzied and ominous Berlin. In these ways it is easy to point to Asphalt, as well as countless other titles from this era, from von Sternberg, Lang, and others, as a visual template for the noir movement for others to Americanize and expand upon.

Tokyo Chorus (1931)

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  • directed by Yasujirō Ozu
  • starring Tokihiko Okada, Emiko Yagumo, Hideo Sugawara, Hideko Takamine, Tatsuo Saitō
  • A married Tokyo man faces unemployment after standing up for an older colleague.

“A drowning man will clutch at straws.”

The great, influential Yasujirō Ozu was a man who grew up dazzled and obsessed with the films of Hollywood, but did not follow their language when it came time to make his own. I’m quite torn with using the word influential in Ozu’s case, though it’s a longstanding badge on his legacy, because that implies that his many tricks and trademarks may have been adopted and personalized by several that followed. For such a minutely cultivated style, that is unlikely or impossible. Instead he seems most influential in terms of his mission statement that a film need not conform to the longstanding structure that by 1931 had already been established.

Conventions are for the conventional.

It turns out, we all discovered from the films of Ozu, that action can indeed be shot literally from the ground up, dialogue remains strong and continuity intact even though characters sometimes appear to be not looking at each other, scenes can transition from one to the next in different ways than what audiences are accustomed to, a narrative does hold up even when a script’s “big” moments are not shown but referenced in the words or actions of a character, and, perhaps most revolutionary of all, a film’s tone and pace can be slowed down to contemplative, almost serene levels. These are all techniques that turn his traditionally small and insulated stories into something much larger.

The results, so frequently with Ozu, are complex and life-affirming scenes like the one in Tokyo Chorus, in which two parents playing a silly hand clapping game with their kids start out despondent over their marriage and impoverished and unlucky lot in life—two adults appearing playful and foolish yet emoting devastation—before succumbing to the bittersweet-for-them celebratory spirit in the air. Scenes like this, along with frequent cuts to scenery, props, or body parts, causes me to feel that Ozu always seems to be searching for the soul of each individual frame that only he knows is there.

We meet Shinji Okajima as a young man being disciplined during drills at his school, a scene which features the first of a few tracking shots captured of men lined up. There would be more down the road with men lining up at work  and lining up to find work, among others. Years later, Okajima leads a modest life, now married with two children, working at an insurance company, and awaiting a promised bonus needed to fund gifts for his children and a comfortable standard of living that somehow continues to be elusive. On bonus day when he learns that a senior coworker has been unfairly fired, Shinji takes up his cause with management, hence departing for the day fired himself. So begins the downward trajectory of a man who has lost his livelihood, the respect in his household, and any sense of purpose. He now must lower himself considerably to get it back.

In Tokyo Chorus, as elsewhere in Ozu’s filmography, character’s faces are sometimes cut in half or completely out of the frame during conversation. Legs, feet, and the lower halves of bodies are often given equal billing to the active elements in a scene. This was due to one of his many innovations, the famed tatami shot, named after the straw, composite, or wood mats traditional to Japanese culture. For centuries and still in many regions today sitting in the traditional seiza position on treated mats or floors was proper. There are no chairs in the film’s Okajima household so it is only natural that more often than not, Ozu would bring us right down with his characters, not even rising as the characters get up themselves.

Ozu had already made 20+ silent films by 1931 but barely any of it has survived. Tokyo Chorus, with its autobiographical flourishes and flashes of style, is for all intents and purposes the debut on record for the director and it’s a wonderful precursor to all that will follow as his career escalates in quality. The tiny family story with questions of honor and responsibility, along with almost-impossibly low camera angles, were two quintessential Ozu signatures that are on display here. But at the end of the day, it features a confident director in the early stages of developing his creative muscle, perhaps with a priority of mastering the format of silent film instead of the bold yet restrained works of art that would come as color and sound enter the fold.

The Lost World (1925)

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  • directed by Harry Hoyt
  • starring Lloyd Hughes, Wallace Beery, Bessie Love, Lewis Stone, Arthur Hoyt, Alma Bennett
  • Maverick scientist Prof. Challenger claims that dinosaurs still exist on a remote Brazilian plateau, and to prove his assertion he leads an expedition up the Amazon. 

“My elephant gun might as well be a bean-shooter! We’d need a cannon for that baby.”

The star of The Lost World and the man most responsible for the film’s enduring, iconic status is not billed in the credits above, nor does his name appear in those of the movie itself. The cast was just fine, effectively conveying all of the adventure-by-numbers beats and individual plot threads. Sure, sure. Harry Hoyt for his part is probably a better writer and thinker than director, but he did oversee a great thrill ride of a movie. OK. The only reason a lot of the roads of cinema lead back to The Lost World, though, is the stop-motion and model animation work of special effects innovator Willis O’Brien.

Before WETA, ILM, Cameron, and Trumbull could advance the ball in the modern era, there was the work of Willis O’Brien in The Lost World. Well, technically not, because in this movie he merely established the work that would be polished and perfected eight years later in his true masterwork, King Kong, but still. If an extra boost to his legacy is needed, his stop-motion techniques and principles were carried into the 50s and 60s by a protege, the highly influential Ray Harryhausen.

I would contend that, aside from Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, it wasn’t until four decades after O’Brien’s work in The Lost World and King Kong that the next bullet point on the timeline of technological breakthroughs in film, was placed with 2001: A Space Odyssey. There were countless narrative, structural, genre, and stylistic leaps in those passing decades, and cinematography and acting went through enormous evolutions. Yet special effects and films that planted a flag in the sand signaling a bold new way took only gradual steps forward. Only a few movies in history seemingly came out of nowhere, technologically speaking. 2001 did thanks to the marriage of Douglas Trumbull’s one of a kind effects and the thoughtful and meticulous direction of Stanley Kubrick. Similarly, the borderline insane scope of James Cameron’s ambition mixed with ILM’s ingenuity helped usher in the age of the modern blockbuster with Terminator 2: Judgment Day. We’re still playing on Cameron’s field two decades later believe it or not. Cases can be made for Star Wars, a good chunk of Spielberg, Toy Story, or The Lord of the Rings, but I see them as standing on the shoulders of the giants before them rather than untethered revolutionary works.

Back to the forefather, The Lost World, something very interesting happens along the way as you watch. The production itself acts as a bridge between two eras of possibilities. In one half you have the team of adventurers reaching the plateau confirming the presence of the dinosaurs. These scenes, I cannot imagine how dazzling to witness in 1925, act more as a showcase of O’Brien’s work than a part of the narrative. There is very little integration between the dinosaurs and the human characters, so instead we see the creatures being observed from afar, grazing, flying solo, or fighting each other to the death as the human characters carry out their human side stories—Paula’s quest to rescue her father, Challenger’s for vindication, and Malone’s to achieve true heroism. The danger of being so close to the beasts is implied but really the biggest threat to the group, as long as they remain semi-intelligent and keep their distance, is a pesky carnivorous ape—a person in an ape costume with an actual chimpanzee sidekick—that is actively trying to kill and eat them.

Somewhere along the course of production, leading to a major shift in the movie, O’Brien develops a way for his animated models to share the same frame as the actual film footage, as opposed to being split side by side. And so we are afforded a great, but more crude version of a Kong-New York City-like rampage of a Brontosaurus let loose onto the streets of London, ruining buildings, crashing his head into a window and interrupting a poker game, and demolishing Tower Bridge, before casually making his way out of the city via the River Thames.

Witnessing the destruction of some of London followed by the quiet path of “the monster” down-river, our human characters, having satisfied all of their romantic and professional pursuits over the course of the journey into and out of the Amazon, are borderline serene and content about such an unexpected end. It was personal fulfillment they were after all along; it just took conquering treacherous elements and a bizarre ape-man, and transporting one of the dinosaurs halfway across the world to realize that.

In the case of The Lost World, the distinct split between narrative and technology makes it easy to attribute who was responsible for what. It was an Arthur Conan Doyle novel changed rather dramatically by screenwriter Marion Fairfax, directed and acted not quite remarkably by Hoyt and his cast, with mesmerizing animation work by Willis O’Brien. It’s all easily compartmentalized on screen and slightly disjointed because of that. For all of its modest strengths outside of the dinosaurs, nobody would talk about it after 1925 without those monsters living, breathing, and inhabiting natural space on the screen.

Number Seventeen (1932)

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  • directed by Alfred Hitchcock
  • starring Leon M. Lion, Anne Grey, John Stuart, Donald Calthrop, Barry Jones, Ann Casson, Henry Caine, Garry Marsh
  • A gang of thieves gather at a safe house following a robbery, but a detective is on their trail.

“Ya don’t have to do nothin’ in this ‘ere house—ya stand still and things happen!”

Several factors, chief among them an incredibly boomy audio track on my DVD and no available subtitles, reduced my experience with this early Hitchcock film to essentially sitting back and looking at it for its 65-minute runtime. I then read about its subpar legacy, the fact that Hitchcock hated the film looking back on it and never wanted to make it in the first place, and I realize that absorbing the atmosphere and taking note of some of the experimentation and craft involved is really the best one can do with Number Seventeen. Hitchcock once said, “if it’s a good movie, the sound could go off and the audience would still have a perfectly clear idea of what was going on.” With this film that logic sadly does hold up.

It became clear that actually hearing the dialogue wouldn’t have aided in my comprehension of such a nonsensical story. Even further, there would be no difference if a few of the missing links in the plot had been better connected, or at all. There was no foundation for emotional investment. It was an exercise in lighting and editing full of people, not characters, and a messy pile of moments standing in for a narrative. In that way it reminds me of another blemish on Hitchcock’s early years, Jamaica Inn, but at least that one had Charles Laughton memorably and ruthlessly devouring the scenery. I am astonished to find that of the 62 films of the 1930s that I’ve watched for the blog to date, two Hitchcock films are neck and neck for dead last.

I won’t attempt to go over the story in great detail. There are two sections to the film, that much I know. We begin in a very dark and shadow-laden house where a band of thieves and a detective kind of circle in and out with concerns about a missing necklace. Eventually a latch is opened which reveals an expressionistic staircase that leads to a train yard. Maybe it was an intentional choice, but because of darkness and unintelligible visual storytelling, the nature of this house as it pertains to physical space is something that never becomes clear. The second half of the film is a frantic, near-chaotic chase between bus and runaway train. Anyway, I am barely more capable of summing this up than someone who’s never heard of it before.

As I sat there passively looking, though, a few things did stand out. There were some truly funny moments particularly from Leon M. Lion as Ben. Thankfully Hitchcock wasn’t taking any of this too seriously. Additionally it was interesting to see shadows so prominent that at times they completely swallowed a scene’s main action. Hitchcock’s camera was always close, acting as a member of a group as opposed to pulling back to capture everything, and the house scenes were DARK, with any sources of light pulsing and shadows dancing across the background begging for attention. This would have been good atmosphere in a better film, but instead it all added to the confusion.

I’m happy to sit works like this and Jamaica Inn because it makes me think about the nature of genius in regards to filmmaking. The highs of Hitchcock are so well known that it is somewhat startling to realize that he also made truly abysmal films. There are countless “legendary” directors that made it through an entire career without an undebatably terrible film, albeit not with 60 credits to their name. Maybe it was just Hitchcock being young and green. When he achieves great success, his pacing and audience manipulation strikes me more than anything as resembling a virtuosic performance of music; to pay just as much attention to the whole journey as the smaller moments, to know precisely when to turn it up or not at all. A skill in that sense would certainly require years of practice, something which we may have seen in bits and pieces on screen through the 1920s and 30s. Maybe the missteps get chalked up to unproductive studio relationships or him not caring about the material. As we now know of his later work, the very best tend to feature a director that cares so deeply that he terrorizes everyone involved, including himself and loved ones.

On the upside, things greatly improved in Hitchcock’s career soon after his next film, the musical Waltzes From Vienna, which he would later look back on as something of a rock bottom. He would finish the decade with the Gaumont British Picture Corporation and gather momentum with films like The Man Who Knew Too Much, The 39 Steps, and The Lady Vanishes, then take a step back again with Jamaica Inn before achieving decades of brilliance in Hollywood.

I Met Him in Paris (1937)

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  • directed by Wesley Ruggles
  • starring Claudette Colbert, Melvyn Douglas, Robert Young, Lee Bowman, Mona Barrie
  • Kay Denham is off for a fling in Paris, where she meets two new suitors, Gene and George.

“You know sometimes I wish I was crazy, too.”

There’s a decent movie trapped somewhere inside of I Met Him in Paris. Along the way, it tries its hand at several different styles of comedy—slapstick, screwball, romantic—but ends up earning few if any of the laughs due to a deeply flawed script.

Exhibit A: Claudette Colbert’s Kay Denham leads a conservative and unsophisticated lifestyle in America. She is not a modern woman. One of the men she meets when arriving in Paris, George Potter (Melvyn Douglas), is a placid, perpetually passed-over novelist who keeps an air of superiority to him even when in the throes of crushing defeat. We know these character traits not through backstory or actions that inform. Instead each of the adjectives above is directly spoken to the characters by each other or by the characters about themselves. On the nose dialogue is in charge of uncovering depth of character. It is a prime example of how a script can torpedo the delight in watching agreeable stars in beautiful scenery take part in unique-to-film activities, such as bobsledding, all while trying to arrive at the love of one’s life. The pieces are there. I was primed to love a romantic comedy with Claudette Colbert and Melvyn Douglas, two favorites. But to my horror, unfortunately it wasn’t even a script that underserved its players, it was one that tried its best to suck the life force right out of them

We meet Kay aboard a Europe-bound ocean liner as she attempts to shake suitor number one, the puppy-like Berk. She is literally and figuratively struggling to push away her old boring life and satisfy a craving for adventure. Berk, god bless him I really did enjoy Lee Bowman’s pathetic portrayal most of all, will resurface later.

Shortly after arriving in Paris she meets numbers two and three, George Potter and Gene Anders. The two men are…friends, I think? They say they are but were acting more like two people who stay near each other and comment on what the other person is doing wrong in life. Anyway, life is a competition for them and it’s all very unclear. After a few intentional misdirections, Anders gets out to quick lead in the Kay-courting game, which leads to probably the biggest flaw of the movie, turning George Potter into an ineffectual curmudgeon.

They all head to Switzerland by train and around this point there might as well have been a flashing, neon arrow over Potter’s head reading “this is the hero, root for him.” But at that same point he was completely neutered beyond any possible romantic possibilities; just a grouch that realizes he’s lost the game and can do nothing but be a wet blanket at all times. Just look at this abomination of a come-on he delivers to Kay at the end of his rope: “I love you. Don’t let it bother you, ‘cause I’ve loved other women and nothing’s ever happened. And don’t feel sorry for me because I also love beautiful pictures and good books, and they don’t love me.” Get out your hand fans, ladies, this is your leading man. Further draining the romance on the screen is Gene Anders, a married playboy who, if you can parse through the thick decorum of 1930’s Hollywood, at the end of the day only wanted a one night stand with Kay. For most of the movie, though, he is presented, and presents himself against his true desires, as a viable candidate for marriage.

After all the death-defying attempts at skiing, bobsledding, and ice skating, the constant one-upmanship of Gene and George, and ultimately the arrival of Gene’s wife, Kay has seen enough and retreats back to the simple life. All three extremely unappealing men, including a dumbstruck Berk fresh from travel, flock to her side to plead their extremely unappealing cases. George has the best case and so that’s your big Hollywood finish.

My complaints have been filed accordingly, but there were a few enjoyable things happening. A romantic comedy, however imperfect, decorated by risky winter sports was a novelty that worked for me. And shooting as much as possible in actual open-air mountain locations went a long way. But spending a bit more time enhancing the characters and propping up the love story than figuring out the logistics of slapstick stunts in the snow would have served I Met Him in Paris immeasurably.

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