What I’ll Remember About the Films of 1930: A Love Letter


My What I’ll Remember posts are an ongoing tradition in the Top Ten By Year Project. A logbook of sorts, they pay tribute to all the year-specific viewing I’ve done over the past however many months. It also stresses that, while the Top Ten list is the crux of this whole project, it’s really a means to an end. It goes without saying, but the process and journey of watching and re-watching these films is most important. I’ve recently looked back on previous What I’ll Remember posts and they evoke the feeling of a photo album, flipping through filmic memories of all shapes and sizes. Top Ten By Year: 1930 will be up by the end of the month.

Posts in the What I’ll Remember tag: 1925, 1943, 1958, 1965, 1978, 1992, 2012, 2013, 2014

Top Ten By Year: 1930 Coverage
Top Ten By Year: 1930 – Poll Results 
Movie Poster Highlights: 1930 
100 Images from the Films of 1930 
Favorite Fashion in 1930 Film

1930 aka The Year Garbo Spoke and The Year Lon Chaney Died

The oh-so-brief but oh-so-magical forerunners of the widescreen format, the too ambitious for its time 70mm Fox Grandeur film (The Big Trail, Song o’ My Heart) and MAGNAFILM (The Bat Whispers)

As much as anything else, for me 1930 is The Year of Lillian Roth. She is one of my favorite screen presences and esoteric pop culture figures of all time, a gifted comedienne with a crinkly nose and a practiced yet untouched vivacity. Her initial film career only lasted from 1929-1930, and 1933. She only appeared in 13 feature length films across her lifetime. Five of those were in 1930 when she was 20 years old.  They were The Vagabond King, Honey, Paramount on Parade, Madam Satan, Animal Crackers, and Sea Legs.

The bedroom farce that is Madam Satan, the disaster film that is Madam Satan, the awkward musical that is Madam Satan, the outrageous and doomed masquerade party on a zeppelin that is Madam Satan, the rekindled love story that is Madam Satan. In short; Madam Satan

LetUsBeGay11May I Present The Dull As Fuck Leading Man Brigade of 1930: 
Rod la Rocque (Let Us Be Gay), Douglass Montgomery (Paid), Chester Morris (The Divorcee), Clive Brook (Anybody’s Woman), Charles Starrett (Fast and Loose), Gavin Gordon (Romance), Jack Buchanan (Monte Carlo), Ralph Graves (Ladies of Leisure), John Garrick (Just Imagine), Ben Lyon (Hell’s Angels)

Spotting Ann Dvorak, another all-time favorite of mine, as a chorus girl in Free and Easy

Introducing!
(actors in their feature film debut in something more substantial than extra/bit part):
Spencer Tracy (Up the River), James Cagney (Sinners Holiday, The Doorway to Hell), Miriam Hopkins (Fast and Loose), Jean Harlow (Hell’s Angels), Laurence Olivier (The Temporary Widow), Irene Dunne (Leathernecking), Bing Crosby (King of Jazz), Herbert Marshall (Murder!), Una O’Connor (Murder!), Rose Hobart (Liliom), Una Merkel (The Bat Whispers, Abraham Lincoln, etc.)

the big trail 7The American West in The Big Trail 

MGM starlets playing characters named Jerry/Gerry – can we please bring back this trend? (Norma Shearer in The Divorcee, Joan Crawford in Our Blushing Brides)

The sing-song jury meeting scene in Murder!

Failed Bids for Sustained or Successful Hollywood Fame
(mostly musical-based careers, not exhaustive):
Marilyn Miller, Lawrence Tibbett, Vivienne Segal, John McCormack, Fanny Brice, Dennis King, Winnie Lightner, Paul Gregory, Zelma O’Neal, Helen Kane, Betty Boyd, Bernice Clare, Sharon Lynn, Jeanette Loff, Alice White, James Hall, The Sisters G, Ona Munson (later character actress), Claudia Dell, Charlotte Greenwood, Norma Terris, Ethelind Terry

The sequence in Follow Thru when Jack Haley and Eugene Pallette sneak into the girls locker room to steal a ring. They come up with hand signals. They pretend to be plumbers. The girls are in various stages of undress. It all builds to a moment of perfect anarchy

The Rise Of:
Marlene Dietrich, Robert Montgomery, Marie Dressler, Wallace Beery, William Powell, Barbara Stanwyck, John Wayne, Kay Francis, Helen Twelvetrees, Ann Harding, Jean Harlow

Two-Strip Technicolor! (Follow Thru, King of Jazz, portion of Hell’s Angels)

The sheer existence of King of Jazz, the most elaborate and audaciously overproduced spectacle film I’ve ever seen from the Golden Age of Hollywood

HellsAngels11

hell's angels
The privilege of seeing Jean Harlow in color and with natural eyebrows (Hell’s Angels). Also realizing that tomboy Jean Harlow is the most attractive Jean Harlow

The last year before the modern movie genre begins to get in formation, allowing for a final round of bizarre and unrepeatable genre hybrids (Madam Satan, Liliom, The Bat Whispers, King of Jazz, Just Imagine)

Knowingly playing with artificiality (Murder!, Liliom, The Blue Angel)

The unintentional meta symbolism of Louise Brooks’s onscreen death in Prix de BeautĂ©

the big trail 3The eye candy that is John Wayne in The Big Trail 

Movies Interacting with Other Movies:
Joan Crawford in MGM’s Paid going to see MGM’s Let Us Be Gay in the theater, Fast and Loose playing Follow Thru’s “Peach of a Pear” in the background during a scene, King of Jazz giving a shout-out to Universal’s upcoming All Quiet on the Western Front

♫♫”Look out, look out the dumb police are on your trail”♫♫ (Liliom)

♫♫ We’re going somewhere
We’re going nowhere
We’re going everyyyyywhere ♫♫
(Madam Satan)

CaY_X48WEAALkhh
Meta Moments:
(Murder!, Die drei von der Tankstelle, The Bat Whispers, Free and Easy)

Alfred Hitchcock using Murder! as a platform to blatantly experiment with sound from all conceivable angles

Jean Grémillon using La petite Lise as a platform to inconspicuously experiment with integrating sound as tapestry

Loaded glaring and ample cowardice in The Big House 

Howard Hawks using sound in The Dawn Patrol as a platform for more natural dialogue and an immersion into the communal and isolated male experience of wartime

Realizing I’d much rather see an all-male story over a film that clearly wants to be an all-male story but throws a woman in the mix that it has zero time or respect for
(The Dawn Patrol and All Quiet on the Western Front vs. Hell’s Angels and The Big House) 

scary
Scary Images of 1930 Cinema:
Chester Morris’s shadowy confrontational glare (The Bat Whispers), Paul Whiteman as a winking moon (King of Jazz), Jack Haley’s spastic eyebrows (Follow Thru), the creepy man-baby (King of Jazz), Emil Jannings: The Humiliated Clown (The Blue Angel), Buster Keaton: The Humiliated Clown (Free and Easy)

Electric fans as plot point! (Anybody’s Woman)

My first wholly depressing experience with Buster Keaton’s trademark bassoon baboon talkie moron in Free and Easy. The humiliations endured by Keaton here are a special level of cruel, not to mention that he’s forced to act in an MGM film within an MGM film

Learning to appreciate Chester Morris when his characters operate outside the confines of the typical romantic lead (The Bat Whispers, The Big House as opposed to The Divorcee)

People on Sunday 2
The four central day-trippers in People on Sunday are great and all but I’m all about Annie (Annie Schreyer), the beautiful lazy loafer who sleeps all weekend

The Dawn Patrol > All Quiet on the Western Front > Hell’s Angels 

Finding eroticism and profundity in rain and simple gestures (Ladies of Leisure)

American sound films that feel refreshingly free from the pressures of plot
(Laughter, The Dawn Patrol, King of Jazz, Animal Crackers)

Ahh Golden Dawn, a movie with bottomless racism and a song (“A Tiger”) that features a woman singing about explicitly wanting a man to straight-up beat her

Getting to watch one of my favorite men, Robert Montgomery, in his early career mode of sexy cad (Our Blushing Brides, The Divorcee, Free and Easy)

That damn car horn in Die drei von der Tankstelle 

One of my favorite niche genres in film: Department Store Gals (Our Blushing Brides, Au bonheur des dames)

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That kiss in Morocco

The unforgettable schizophrenic feeling of Borderline 

Uncle hits a breaking point in one of the most unsettling and feverish sequences in silent cinema (Au bonheur des dames)

The Fall Of:
(once major stars declining in popularity or quality of work, either momentarily or permanently)
Clara Bow, John Gilbert, Al Jolson, Corrine Griffith, Norma Talmadge, Charles Farrell, Mary Pickford, Dolores Costello, Buster Keaton, Douglas Fairbanks

the dawn patrol 8Douglas Fairbanks Jr’s adorably playful drunken interaction with the German officer who shot him down in The Dawn Patrol 

The way Kent (Robert Montgomery) is used to subvert audience expectations in The Big House

The radical modernity and spontaneity of Barbara Stanwyck’s performance in Ladies of Leisure

herbertmarshall
Herbert Marshall looking like a straight-laced Jack Lemmon in Murder!

Everywhere, Everywhere, Miniatures Everywhere:
(including but not limited to Ladies of Leisure, Liliom, Madam Satan, Murder!, The Bat Whispers, Under the Roofs of Paris, Outward Bound)

Haunting child deaths (L’age d’Or, The Doorway to Hell, Blood of a Poet)

Doorway to Hell 6My favorite moment in The Doorway to Hell: Doris (Dorothy Mathews) is talking on the phone to Mileaway (James Cagney) about how lame Louie (Lew Ayres) has become now that he’s removed himself from gangster life. Then Louie comes in wearing the above outfit and says “I’m a fine golfer”

The rigorous tailoring of Marlene Dietrich’s image is born in the short time between filming The Blue Angel and Morocco (though American audiences saw Morocco first)

Marjorie Rambeau playing a kindly pitiful drunk (Her Man) and a wretched pitiful drunk (Min and Bill)

Hells_Angels107
Watching the incredible aerial footage of Hell’s Angels knowing that several pilots died because of Howard Hughes’s unstoppable ambition

The tiresome trend of introducing unrelated low comedy subplots to lighten things up (Min and Bill, The Big Trail, Her Man, Golden Dawn)

The formal rule-breaking of the prison sequence in La Petite Lise

Running through the wheat fields in City Girl

Tale of the Fox (2)
The staggering stop-motion animation of Le Roman de Renard (The Tale of the Fox). Figures, flow, range of expression. Like watching Fantastic Mr. Fox eighty years before the fact

The Claire Denis-esque way that Tilly Losch’s dance and body movements are shot in the short Dance of the Hands 

Great Character Names:
Tripod McMasters (Wallace Beery; Way for a Sailor) Mrs. Bouccy Bouccicault (Marie Dressler; Let Us Be Gay), Amy Jolly (Marlene Dietrich; Morocco), Mileaway (James Cagney; The Doorway to Hell) Pansy Gray (Ruth Chatterton; Anybody’s Woman), Arabella Rittenhouse (Lillian Roth; Animal Crackers), Dulcinea Parker (Marion Davies; Not So Dumb) Countess Olga Balakireff (Kay Francis; A Notorious Affair), Lem Tustine (Charles Farrell; City Girl)

Being hypnotized by the close-up movement of gears in the avant-garde short Mechanical Principles 

fane
Esme Percy’s ‘half-caste’ homosexual drag performer killer in Murder!

The messy but unshakable loyal friendship between Morgan and Butch (Chester Morris and Wallace Beery) in The Big House

Wanting to live in the proto-French New Wave romantic bloom of People on Sunday and its immaculate footage of 1930 Berlin

three good friends 3

The angle of this shot, which takes place during a song, should give you a sense of how sophisticated and ahead of its time Die drei von der Tankstelle is within the context of ‘1930 musical’

Mops/Mopsi; Lilian Harvey’s nickname for her father in Die drei von der Tankstelle

Jean Cocteau’s trademark surrealist special effects, showing us a portal to another world and a statue that clings to its maker in Blood of a Poet 

Being reminded that The Blue Angel disturbs me more than most films

norma9Norma Shearer going full dowdy (Let Us Be Gay)

The bleak ending of Street of Chance, with an unseen level of implied violence that makes way for the much more famous ending of 1931’s The Public Enemy 

Films with a leftover from silents; intertitles
(including Anybody’s Woman, The Big Trail, Liliom, Follow Thru, A Notorious Affair, Not So Dumb)

A Notorious Affair 2Kay Francis giving interior life to her intoxicating Countess vamp in one of the worst films I’ve ever seen (A Notorious Affair). Her work, and the above image, deserve so much better

Sound films that don’t capitalize on dialogue, instead using sound as an extension of silent film (Prix de beaute, L’age d’Or, La petite Lise, The Blue Angel, Blood of a Poet. Basically; the non-American films)

The confirmation that I don’t much care for the two most canonized films of 1930, L’age d’Or and The Blue Angel

nutshellThe Nutshell Pictures Corporation logo, which features an animated dog pissing into a plant (Dance of Her Hands)

Busby Berkeley choreography appears on film for the first time ever in Whoopee!

Discovering the sassy greatness that is Marie Prevost. Once a leading lady, by 1930 (because of weight gain and alcohol abuse) she was relegated to the goofy “best friend” roles which she used to steal every film she appeared in (Paid, Ladies of Leisure, War Nurse) 

Only in an MGM film would a character have an art deco loft hidden in a tree (Our Blushing Brides)

Josef von Sternberg’s trademark absolute submission to love and desire in The Blue Angel and Morocco. The former filled with despair, the latter with triumph and a dash of hope.

Speaking of, the incredible final scene and shot of Morocco. The radical act of linking up with a group of women following their men into the desert and the unknown

Rooting with all my heart for Lem and Kate (Charles Farrell and Mary Duncan) in City Girl 

Doorway to Hell 51930’s James Cagney is as sexy as sexy gets in case you needed to be reminded (The Doorway to Hell)

Frances Marion dominating the early world of talkie screenwriting with credits for Min and Bill, Anna Christie (adapted by), The Rogue Song, Let Us Be Gay (continuity and dialogue), Good News (scenario), and for being the first woman to win a non-acting Oscar for her work on The Big House.

The use of interior space in Laughter

monte carlo 10Jeanette MacDonald going bonkers and rustling up her precious hair in Monte Carlo

Favorite Characters: Kate (Mary Duncan; City Girl), Douglas Scott (Douglas Fairbanks Jr.; The Dawn Patrol), Lola Lola (Marlene Dietrich; The Blue Angel), Annie (Annie Schreyer; People on Sunday), Paul Lockridge (Fredric March; Laughter), Countess Olga Balakireff (Kay Francis; A Notorious Affair), Trixie (Lillian Roth; Madam Satan), Jimmy Wade (Roland Young; Madam Satan), Dot Lamar (Marie Prevost; Ladies of Leisure)

Least Favorite Characters: Jack Martin (Jack Haley; Follow Thru), Professor Emmanuel Rath (Emil Jannings; The Blue Angel), Andre (Georges Charlia; Prix de beaute), Mr. Tustine (David Torrence; City Girl), Paul Gherardi (Basil Rathbone; A Notorious Affair), everyone in Golden Dawn, Count Rudolph Falliere (Jack Buchanan; Monte Carlo)

Laughter 11Fredric March suddenly kissing Nancy Carroll behind the neck while driving in Laughter, one of the sexiest gestures ever committed to film

The sketchy but catchy “Trimmin’ the Women” song in Monte Carlo 

Proto-screwball comedies (Not So Dumb, Fast and Loose)

The mock-up symbolic hallucinatory carnival in Liliom

The most unintentionally hilarious bit from any 1930 film (Golden Dawn)

The forgotten and incomprehensible mega-fame of El Brendel (Just Imagine, The Big Trail, Her Golden Calf, New Movietone Follies of 1930).

Orgasm from hair treatment in Monte Carlo  

Based on a Play (Paid, Romance, Fast and Loose, The Bat Whispers, Liliom, Ladies of Leisure, Follow Thru, Murder!, A Notorious Affair, Animal Crackers, Her Man (well, kind of), Not So Dumb, Let Us Be Gay, Outward Bound)

paid 4The revelation that Joan Crawford is, at least in Paid, a dead ringer for Sigourney Weaver

The onscreen persona of Wallace Beery amounts to a real-life Baloo the Bear (The Big House, Way for a Sailor, Min and Bill). He manages the impossible by remaining lovable even when talking about his murder rap or domestic abuse. A rare gift that.

 The distinct hilarity Miriam Hopkins wrings out of “I’m sorry” is the epitome of what makes her so great (Fast and Loose)

♫♫ She wanted to take it further
So she arranged a place to go
To see if he
Would fall for her incognito  ♫♫
(Madam Satan & “Babooshka” by Kate Bush)

The wholesome sex comedy is born with Follow Thru 

Marie Dressler beating the piss out of Wallace Beery and tearing apart his room in Min and Bill 

Laughter 16Fredric March casually drinking coffee in a polar bearskin rug in Laughter 

The wordless sequence in which Jerry (Norma Shearer) allows herself to be illicitly seduced by playboy Don (Robert Montgomery) in The Divorcee

The names of the party guests in Madam Satan (Miss Conning Tower! Mr. and Mrs. Hot & Tot! Mr. & Mrs. High Hat! Miss Victory! Miss Movie Fan! Fish Girl!)

The “I Want to Be Bad” number in Follow Thru

QUOTES:

“I’ve balanced our accounts”
(Norma Shearer in The Divorcee, talking to her husband about her promiscuity)

“I know now how a man feels about these things”
(Norma Shearer in Let Us Be Gay, talking to her husband about her promiscuity)

“It’s that coin that makes them so sassy Cassidy”
(Paid)

“I’m an orchid and he wants to change me into a lily” (Barbara Stanwyck in Ladies of Leisure)

“I never knew you had pale blue eyes. I hate pale blue eyes. Funny, I never noticed it before” (Kay Francis in A Notorious Affair)

Ted: “Who’s the man?”
Jerry: “Oh, Ted, don’t be conventional!”
(Chester Morris and Norma Shearer in The Divorcee)

“The memory of you makes them much happier than you ever could”
(The Magistrate in Liliom)

“What are you doing with those fingers?”
“Nothing. Yet.”
(Marlene Dietrich and Gary Cooper in Morocco)

“Wise as a tree full of owls, that’s me”
(Paid)

“Oh, and a cup of coffee”
“Large or small?”
“Do I look like a small cup of coffee?”
(Marie Prevost and a waiter in Ladies of Leisure)

“Well, do you see my flowers here?”
“You’re crushing them”
“Oh, what does it matter? They were born to die”
(yes, this is actual dialogue in Romance)

“Oh baby. Don’t think I’m such a heel just because I am!” (John Gilbert in Way for a Sailor)

Groucho: “Go away. Go away. I’ll be all right in a minute. Left-handed moths ate the painting, eh?”
Chico: “Yeah, it’s a-my own solution.”
Groucho: “I wish you were in it. Left-handed moths ate the painting. You know, I’d buy you a parachute if I thought it wouldn’t open.” (Animal Crackers)

“Press the flesh. Who’d you croak?” (The Big House)

“If you don’t watch your step you’re gonna find a way to treat yourself to a handful of clouds” (The Doorway to Hell)

“When a man begins to talk about inhibitions, it’s time to look at the view.” (Joan Crawford in Our Blushing Brides)

“It already has proved dangerous to wipe yourself off on the furniture”
(Blood of a Poet)

Groucho’s Strange Interlude bit in Animal Crackers, particularly:
“This would be a better world for children, if the parents had to eat the spinach.”

“Oh Mary, don’t be so 1890”
(Paid)

“When does she dunk her body?” (of course this is Eugene Pallette’s way of asking when a woman takes a bath in Follow Thru)

“Four years ago you took my name and replaced with with a number. Now I’ve taken that number and replaced it with your name”
(Joan Crawford in Paid)

Angela: “Here’s the newspaper”
Bob: “Anything new?”
Angela: “Not much. Only that you’re a bigamist” (Madam Satan)

animalMargaret Dumont and Lillian Roth in Animal Crackers (I forget whose tumblr this comes from; I’m very sorry!)

 

 

 

Capsule Reviews: 1930 Watchlist (Films #9-12)


In my first capsule review post for 1930, I covered Let Us Be Gay, Ladies of Leisure, Murder!, and Anybody’s Woman.
In my second capsule review post for 1930, I covered Liliom, King of Jazz, The Bat Whispers, and Paid.

follow thru

Follow Thru (US, Schwab) 
I just finished reading Richard Barrios’s A Song in the Dark: The Birth of the Musical Film, and am steadily working through the musical subseries of my 1930 watchlist. The majority of the book details the initial explosive–>burnout wave of the movie musical, from 1928-1930. The ubiquitous popularity of musicals in 1928-1929 quickly gave way to oversaturation. By 1930, audiences and critics were outright disdainful of any musicals coming their way, their success and subsequent failure so instantaneous it left all studios in the lurch. Countless productions, both meager and grand, were destined to collect dust, be reworked, or suffer forgettable fates. There are a myriad of reasons for the early sound musical-as-poison revolt, both obvious and delicate. The clash of the national mood, severe oversaturation, lack of rural appeal, block-booking fatigue, copycat tactics of backstage tropes (the same movie was being made ad infinitum), quantity over quality, etc.

This drop-off also left swaths of performers (not to mention songwriters), whose careers were being built and cultivated within the once surefire cushion of the musical, hopelessly adrift (I’ll list some of those folks in my What I’ll Remember post). Often hailing from vaudeville and theater, their Hollywood fame came and fell in the spurt of a year or so. Baritone Lawrence Tibbett is a major example from 1930. Marilyn Miller is another. Follow Thru’s stars, Charles ‘Buddy’ Rogers and Nancy Carroll, don’t quite fall into that category. These were major stars of their time (Carroll was arguably the most-loved star of the early 1930’s); stars who weren’t defined by appearing in musicals (Rogers’s most famous role was in 1927’s Wings), but both were invariably hurt by the sudden expiration date of film musical’s first wave.

All of this preamble is to say that Paramount released Follow Thru, like so many others, at the wrong time (in September 1930). It fared better than some others of its kind; reviews were fine, box office was fine; fine, fine, fine. It certainly had the well-established pull of its stars going for it. There was no revival of interest over the decades, and it was long believed to be a lost film. But a print was found in the 1990’s and restored by UCLA.

I’m going to try to explain the particulars of my immense like for Follow Thru. There’s that overused phrase ‘pure cinema’, and Follow Thru made me think of an entirely different and less dramatically applied use of the term. Follow Thru presents a bygone gateway into the early musicals potentiality for simple delights. There’s no sobriety here, but there’s also no extravagance. In Two-strip Technicolor, this is bright, effervescent, aggressively young stuff. Tons of films epitomize Hollywood’s specialization in escapism, but there’s something a little different about Follow Thru. It hits a hard-to-describe sweet spot. It’s the particular success of its commonplace nature. Here is a musical about girl golfers, a film of modest scale with gentle charms, filled with lots of striped sweaters and dimples. Its core strength is that it operates under the guise of crushing sweetness, while underneath its got all the naughtiness of a sex comedy.

Charles ‘Buddy’ Rogers has All-American boyishness to spare. Nancy Carroll has a Kewpie doll face, all rosy cheeks and headbands. These aren’t great actors, but they are exactly what this film needs, and it’s easy to see why they were so major in their time.

Zelma O’Neal and Jack Haley are the sidekicks, reprising their roles from the Broadway show. O’Neal belongs to the aforementioned group of blink-and-you’ll-miss-it Hollywood stints. She had a very successful Broadway career before and after her time in Hollywood. She’s such fun. Zippy with a no-bullshit hunch. And she gets the only major production number of the film, “I Want to Be Bad”. Jack Haley on the other hand, is death itself. When’s the last time I’ve hated someone onscreen this much? His defining character trait is that his eyebrows go nuts when he’s around girls. So basically, he gets a boner on his face. It’s Woody Woodpecker’s laugh as a facial tick. And it’s horrifying. He is horrifying.

The out-of-place nature of the wonderful “I Want to Be Bad” number aside, the songs are integrated quite smoothly throughout. They don’t advance plot or character, but most musicals didn’t at this time, and they’re more directly woven into the story than you’re likely to see in 1930. It’s all kept very simple, starting with a two shot and widening out at the end for some broad movements or dance step.

It’s the Little Things:
That naughtiness! Characters talk of going “where the bushes are thickest”. Carroll says to Rogers “Talk rough to me Jerry. I love it”. There is a whole sequence with Jack Haley and Eugene Pallette sneaking into the girls locker room to steal back a ring. They come up with hand signals. They pretend to be plumbers. The girls are all in various stages of undress. It reaches a perfect note of anarchy so inspired I had to pause so I could work through my laughter.
– So, Thelma Todd’s rival character who happens to be a widow. How did her husband die? I want her backstory!
– This is the second film from 1930 that has featured a Vibrating Belt Machine. The first was Ladies of Leisure.

fast and loose
Fast and Loose
(US, Newmeyer)

Fast and Loose is an early practice run for what would soon become the screwball comedy (thank you Miriam Bale for bringing this film to my attention!) (also note that Preston Sturges is given credit for dialogue). Its got spoiled characters, flirtatious spats and clashing courtship, a ruse, and class consciousness. In fact, it’s got a class-as-obstacle reversal. By the end it’s the working class romantic partners (Charles Starrett and Carole Lombard respectively) of the wealthy Lenox siblings Marion and Bertie (Miriam Hopkins and Henry Wadsworth) that can’t imagine lowering themselves to a lifetime with their spoiled mates. They are the ones with the objection, and furthermore, Rich Father Lenox (Frank Morgan) completely agrees that his children don’t deserve spouses this decent! This situation only comes up in the final ten minutes, but it’s a fun spin on the normal ‘my family doesn’t approve’ conflict (a la Ladies of Leisure).

Though we get the luxury of seeing Marion’s love interest in a bathing suit on multiple occasions (so much thigh), 75% of Henry Morgan’s (Starrett) dialogue is about how women are the absolute worst. Marion says she hates him, many times, many ways, but of course she’s falling hard for his misogynistic charms. Miriam Hopkins, and the film’s moderate pizzazz, makes this courtship undeniably fun. Fast and Loose is, among other things, the feature film debut of Miriam Hopkins. She already has an impressive handle on her particular screen persona. The best I can do to describe it is a clipped flightiness combined with a spoiled and fiery capricious nature. She sells her reluctant but overboard infatuation with Henry with a handful of amazing line deliveries. “I’m sorry”. Two simple words, but the distinct hilarity she wrings out of them represents the epitome of Vintage Hopkins.

Carole Lombard shows up in an early role but she’s suffocated by the propriety of the part. The first half, in which Marion and Henry flirt over stuck cars and nighttime swims, is considerably more enjoyable than the second half. All major players eventually merge at a nightclub under a potentially anarchic set of circumstances, but Fast and Loose doesn’t have the panache, or really the ambition, to make much of it.

It’s the Little Things:
– Paramount made Fast and Loose. Paramount also made Follow Thru. YOu can hear the latter film’s “We’d Make a Peach of a Pear” in the background of one scene.

Screen Shot 2015-08-06 at 11.31.30 PM

Romance (US, Brown) 
My least favorite of the 1930 films I’ve written about so far. In it, a bishop (Gavin Gordon) looks back on an early experience with love that goes nowhere. It isn’t tragic (though it’s treated as such), and it doesn’t even have the weight of feeling individually formative for the character. Gavin Gordon is downright laughable as a romantic co-lead for a woman as inscrutable as Garbo. Romance is the doldrums, folks. It’s a quintessential example of an early sound film that is all posturing, all talk. Oh, the talk. Its melodrama plays out through proclamations made with creaky archaic dialogue. Greta Garbo (who, with nothing to work with, is actually quite wooden here) spends all her time philosophizing about love. If you’re wondering what watching this movie feels like, take this piece of exchange and stretch it over ninety minutes:
“Well, do you see my flowers here?”
“You’re crushing them”
“Oh, what does it matter? They were born to die”

big trail

The Big Trail (US, Walsh)
This is going to sound really hyperbolic and dramatic, but I’ve honestly never seen a film that looks quite like this. There’s a reason for this; it was the first major on-location outdoor sound film (the first sound film shot outside a studio was Walsh’s previous In Old Arizona) and was shot on a short-lived 70mm format developed by the Fox Film Corporation called Grandeur (aka Fox Grandeur). Films would have to wait over two decades for the promise of widescreen to come to fruition. The world wasn’t yet ready for Fox Grandeur. Theaters had just been converted for sound, and yet another conversion investment was nowhere near feasible nor desirable. So you see, the reason I’ve never seen anything quite like this is because, from this era of filmmaking, there is nothing else quite like this.

Nothing that survives anyways. The Big Trail stands alone. The Grandeur prints of Song O’ My Heart and Happy Days are lost. Other competing widescreen formats like MAGNAFILM and VITASCOPE existed for the same blink-and-you’ll-miss-it period of 1929-1930, but, again, almost all widescreen prints for these few films are gone (The Bat Whispers is the rare example of a 1929-1930 widescreen film that survives in both its 35mm and 65mm versions). Not only is The Big Trail an outlier in its format and survival, but it’s easily the most ambitious widescreen project of the time. The production was a costly behemoth; shot all over the American west (primarily Montana, California, Wyoming, Arizona, and Utah), with countless extras and animals, and for an inordinate length of time.

The overwhelming scale is constantly present. For one thing, the extras are everywhere at all times. Extras in the foreground. Extras in the background. In support of the film’s core, they are everywhere, in every scene. The Big Trail may be populated by stories of revenge, romance, and comedy, but none of them matter. They’re just the needle. But the thread, the thing that does matter, is the collective journey. The building of community doesn’t start when the settlers reach their destination; it starts en route. The omnipresence of the extras never lets you forget that. everyone you see walking in and out of the frame, everyone onscreen, character or not, has put everything on the line with this endeavor. They are traversing the Oregon Trail’s all-too-real hardships, and they are doing it together.

The photography by Arthur Edeson is decades ahead of its time. I sat and watched in a constant state of awe. The scope of the image is all-encompassing. You get a rare sense of the West’s staggering vastness. Most impressive is the painterly quality of the thoughtful framing, groundbreaking early use of deep focus, and the complex compositions which so often incorporate multiple planes of staging and movement.  The Big Trail looks far into the future with its frontier tale of the past.

On a final note, I remember Karina Longworth mentioning how drop-dead gorgeous John Wayne is in The Big Trail during an episode of her “You Must Remember This” podcast. I even googled it after listening and thought “damn“. But actually watching him in this? It was his first starring role, and he isn’t exactly good, but that wooden charm makes him rather endearing. And good or not, you cannot take your eyes off of him. Give it a try. You’ll fail.

Films Seen in 2013 Round-up: #153-163


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#153. The Ghost Goes West (1935, Clair)
A gentle fantastical comedy with satiric lacing in which Americans crassly gobble up cultural identity for their own amusement. Donat plays both the Scottish ghost doomed to an eternity of castle entrapment for dying a cowards death, and his down-on-his-luck descendant. This is Rene Clair’s first film outside of France, and it’s a slight but moderately enjoyable feature with some nice moments. You feel the tethered bond between the ghost and the castle, a bond set forth through Murdoch’s inability to focus on fierce Scottish clan loyalty because he’s too busy with the ladies. Speaking of ladies, Jean Parker is cute if lacking oomph as the female lead.

The film never quite comes together the way it wants to, with half-formed conflicts and a spotty focus that hinders emotional response. Donat is delightful as always.

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#154. The Good Fairy (1935, Wyler)
Certain Hollywood films have a singular ability to instill a magical thrill, the thrill of long-existing but new-found discovery. I can’t quite say I felt this about all of The Good Fairy, but I certainly had this feeling during large chunks of it, unreachable aloofness and do-gooder sainthood aside.

A fractured fairy tale of sorts, built around the well-meaning naivete of an orphanage-bred young woman, The Good Fairy gets away with being a wistful but surprisingly lecherous romantic comedy by lifting the raunchy material to the clouds, overlaying what’s implicit with the innocent mindset of its protagonist. Margaret Sullavan is ethereally soft and sensual, newly sprung but bursting with life. Her romance with Herbert Marshall doesn’t come until late in the story and its one of the most wonderful sections of any film I’ve seen in ages. Both players are unconventional romancers in their way; their interaction, which starts with the sexually suggestive and impossibly enthusiastic testing of a pencil sharpener, is impossible not to get lost in.

The devil is in the details here and the screenplay (an adaptation of a 1930 play) by Preston Sturges ensures that laughs come in the most unexpected and jovial of places with underlying purpose laid beneath. The film-within-a-film, played for parodic laughs, doubles as an insight into the childishness of Luisa’s worldview.

The Good Fairy ceases to work when it loses itself in the shuffle of redundant interplay or when it is unable to distinguish Luisa’s outlook from its own presentation. Frank Morgan, a character actor I usually love, gets to be too much when he threatens to take over the film with his reach-around stuttering through dialogue that refuses to move forward. He pulls a bit of a Charles Ruggles. The screenplay also becomes a problem in this regard. The scenes with Luisa and Konrad show two characters operating on different wavelengths. When they are onscreen together it is either magically entertaining in how far away it gets from anything resembling logic, or frustratingly static.
And as much as I love Luisa and Dr. Sporum, it is upsetting to see plain old marriage be the endpoint for a character who just left the orphanage for the first time, with a whole world out there for her to discover.

These things detract from the experience but do not stamp out the immediate connection and the unchecked joy I felt during much of The Good Fairy. It’s a glorious film that uses its outlandish screwball story for spontaneous charm and refreshing energy all around.

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#155. Mud (2013, Nichols) 
Review: https://cinenthusiast.wordpress.com/2013/09/03/review-mud-2013-nichols/

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#156. Passion (2013, De Palma)
When you get to the point in a prolific director’s career where he starts referencing himself, you know you are in for a good time. The reception for this film is been predictably divisive, the De Palma apologists vs. the rest. I for one enjoyed the hell out of Passion. It may be missing the titular emotion, but the way it constantly veers between satirical and fetishistic tendencies means there is always something interesting up on the screen.

It’s a remake of Love Crime, Alain Corneau’s final film, which I happen to be quite keen on. Passion is about what we see and the inherent distrust that goes along with it. De Palma says that Godard’s famous “film is truth at 24 frames a second” is nonsense and, well, frankly it is. It’s romanticized to the max. Here, he has the unreliability of the camera and the ever-watchful eye of new technologies playing ping-pong with each other, resulting in a film that feels pristine and hollow in an effective way.

Where Love Crime spends the final half meticulously deconstructing itself to the point of banality, De Palma veers into outlandish rabbit holes, letting his freak flag fly. De Palma generally seems to view women as otherworldly things, either to be worshiped, exposed or exploited. Here, he is fascinated with exploring what he would imagine to be the way competitive women in a heightened corporate world might power play each other. This specimen-like way of writing his characters means there is a distance with which we view everything. Isabelle and Cristine feel somewhat robotic, borne out of the playful masculine mind, and are defined very narrowly by their working relationship. That distance both hinders and helps, and it makes for a film that fetishizes them somehow un-erotically. We can see the surface of eroticism in the focus on material things, but Passion is interested the way glossy surface gives way to the unknowable world of complex mind-games between women. There’s a Louis C.K quote that of course has the kind of generalization necessary for stand-up, but it’s funny because it contains a kernel of truth: “A man will rip off your arm and throw it in the river, but he will leave you as a human being intact. He won’t mess with who you are. Women are non-violent but they will shit inside your heart”. Even though he generalizes, is talking about a straight man’s relationship with other men and women, and taking into account that ‘non-violent’ is not relevant to Passion, it’s funny because there is truth there. And so Passion has a man trying to imagine this other world where two highly competitive, highly intelligent, cutthroat women go head-to-head in corporate Berlin. His imagined vision is absurd yet truthful, unreachable but highly entertaining in its mystique.

A.O Scott says in his review: “Passion is a swirl of bright color and arresting compositions, many of them involving red lipstick, high-heeled shoes, fancy lingerie, expensive Champagne and other venerable tenets of the Playboy Philosophy. Which is not to accuse the film of old-fashioned sexism, exactly. Its misogyny is the kind that can plausibly masquerade as feminism, and Passion is interesting precisely insofar as it succeeds in scrambling the distinction.” This sums up how I felt about a lot of Passion.

But most of all Passion is funny and don’t let anyone tell you it isn’t on some level supposed to be. There is a satirical edge to the corporate world portrayed and I was highly entertained by the color pops, the transparent bubble of the offices, the self-satisfaction of the ad campaigns, the over-the-top tone and De Palma’s stylistic tricks of the trade which give the film a delightfully strange unreachable tone. Passion is a strange beast, wildly uneven and slippery to grasp, deliriously hollow yet potent.

For my comparative look at Passion and Love Crime: https://cinenthusiast.wordpress.com/2013/09/13/potential-double-feature-3-love-crime-2011-passion-2013/

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#157. Anna Karenina (1935, Brown)
Greta Garbo is almost too perfectly cast as Anna, the result feeling obvious and predictable instead of iconic. Then again, I find I have a difficult time fully engaging with Garbo as a presence outside of her work in silent films. Even so, between the forever-miscast Vronsky and the fact that there is no feeling of relentless passion to take our lovers to their doom, we are left with an adaptation that stuffily if dutifully goes by the numbers. Only the first five minutes and the infamous train leap step into a place of genuinely felt storytelling. Everything else, and that particularly includes the grating Freddie Batholomew, I can live without.

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#158. Peter Ibbetson (1935, Hathaway)
I normally don’t go in for metaphysical love or anything resembling these sentimental ideas in film. But Peter Ibbetson is so relentlessly ethereal, so unique within its era in filmmaking that I was swooning from the first. It helps immensely that I felt wholly invested in Gary Cooper and Ann Harding thanks to a tear-inducing first act depicting the pair’s inseparable connection as children. This is vastly underrated film that I’d like to write about more someday. I implore you to see it if you ever get a chance. The final act loses itself a bit but the fact that it even dares to depict two people who live out their time with each other in a mutually shared dream space is commendable. Did I mention Peter Ibbetson is also gorgeous to look at?

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#159. The East (2013, Batmanglij)
Brit Marling is rising artistically with each passing effort even though I still find her a stilted and largely ineffective presence onscreen. Like Sound of My Voice, The East puts a fresh spin on the familiarity of an undercover story, this time by setting it within an Eco-terrorist unit. This and the pared down micro-scale show Marling and Batmanglij’s preoccupation with taking genre and scaling it back while staying true to broader convention. It’s a formidable mix and it could have equally added up to a recyclable film, but there is enough going for The East to make it more than worth watching, from the writers’ eye for ritualistic detail to a problematic but intriguing loyalty the extremist characters. The structure rises and falls in quality, taking a while to thrust out an identity and then maxing out on itself in the last third. It also has a difficult time marrying thriller conventions and a preoccupation with depicting the Freegan lifestyle. All in all The East is a step in the right direction as Marling comes closer to constructing a story that succeeds in its entirety rather than nailing down the disparate parts.

Alexander SkarsgÄrd is ridiculously convincing as a cult leader who you would follow to the ends of the Earth in a millisecond flat.

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#160. The Informer (1935, Ford)
This is John Ford doing German Expressionism on a budget. It’s a simple story of Irish guilt and redemption using the visual mechanisms of silent storytelling. The fog-covered Dublin sets feeling like some kind of existential hell. It’s compelling in spots but also exhausting and not in the best way. You are essentially watching Victor McLaglen drown for ninety minutes and it is clear from the word ‘go’ that his lumbering oafish self doesn’t have a chance. Watching him self-destruct feels alternately raw and monotonous. It hasn’t aged too well but I will say that there’s nothing else like it and is unique amongst other films of its time.

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#161. Gold Diggers of 1935 (1935, Berkeley)
The put-on-a-show Berkeley musicals of the 30s invariably lose something when most of the core Warner Brothers regulars are absent. When you’re left only with Dick Powell and (reliable but let’s face it, they aren’t Guy Kibbee) character actors like Hugh Herbert and Glenda Farrell there’s only so much to be done. The weak script really brings this film down. It’s understood that the story is ultimately a means to an end here but usually there’s a verve and a spice to the writing and the way it’s performed, that allows them to get away with barely justifying plot developments and romances. In Gold Diggers of 1935 there’s nothing to care about when it comes to story or character. Alice Brady is used too heavily and Gloria Stuart is not engaging as the female lead. This is Busby Berkeley’s first solo directorial effort and it’s interesting to see the way he incorporates his style from start to finish. But he also introduces the setting in a musical fashion that misleads the nature of the musical he creates. It’s jarring and doesn’t come off. The numbers are spectacular with synchronous pianos and the chaotic consequences of the bacchanal lifestyle. It’s a blessing when Wini Shaw saves the day with her sultry head in a sea of black. That incomparable first shot of the “Lullaby of Broadway” number makes it even harder to process the fact that what surrounds this number (which pushes the structure of a Berkeley number even further from stage to cinematic space to cinematic headspace to cinematic space to stage) is inescapably dull.

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#162. Beau Travail (1999, Denis)
Claire Denis has a way of stripping down narrative, boiling it down to its bare essentials, to fragments of memory with almost no dialogue. Here you have the male body, repetition and ritual, repression, colonialism, the starkness of blue sky and ragged stone. The film feels ethnographic but not of the people of Djibouti; of the soldiers. It’s a film that hypnotizes, contemplating its tale in ways that are fresh and challenging. And who better to represent the primal than Denis Lavant? The coda is as good as cinema gets and it might be my favorite end to any film.

More coming soon

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163. Roberta (1935, Seiter)
When you have Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers in your arsenal but instead decide to focus on Irene Dunne and an idiotic non-entity of a football player trying to run a fashion empire, you have taken a major misstep. And that’s what Roberta is. The Astaire/Rogers numbers are fabulous, just fabulous, but there’s only a handful of them. The rest of the film, which is the bulk, is a story so bland I almost shut the film off (something I never do). It isn’t even that Randolph Scott is boring to watch; his character is ham-fisted to the point of active annoyance. Rogers and Astaire are onscreen a lot but often as bystanders; this is criminal.

One highlight is Lucille Ball as a model during the climactic fashion show. She is an extra with no dialogue, simply modeling the gown to get her fifteen seconds of screentime. This is two years before Stage Door; she is blonde and disgustingly gorgeous.

List: Top 30 Favorite Classic Actresses


To recap from the Classic Actors post, I’ve been doing lists like this nearly my whole life or at least as far back as I can remember. I redo my ‘Classic’ and ‘Modern’ Actors and Actresses lists every couple of years and I felt like posting my latest versions of them. They vary a lot throughout the years; I found the Actors in this case to be more difficult. While there were certainly actresses who regrettably did not make the list because there wasn’t room (Myrna Loy, Claudette Colbert, Rosalind Russell, Paulette Goddard, Rita Hayworth, Ingrid Bergman and Olivia De Havilland to name a few) or because there were actresses who gave one single performance I cannot get enough of but could not justify picking them over others (Anna Massey, Kathleen Byron, Sue Lyon). Like I said in the ‘Classic Actors’ post, I will not be posting reasons; simply a picture and a list of films I have seen with them. This list is a lot less varied than the previous one; it is almost entirely focused on the studio era in Hollywood.


30. Joan Fontaine
Seen in 5 Films: The Women, Gunga Din, Rebecca, Suspicion, Letter from an Unknown Woman


29. Celeste Holm
Seen in 4 films: Gentleman’s Agreement, A Letter to Three Wives (narrator), All About Eve, Three Men and a Baby


28. Tippi Hedren
Seen in 3 films: The Birds, Marnie, I Heart Huckabees


27. Jean Harlow
Seen in 8 Films: The Public Enemy, Platinum Blonde, Red-Headed Woman, Red Dust, Dinner at Eight, Bombshell, Wife vs. Secretary, Libeled Lady


26. Olga Baclanova
Seen in 4 films: The Docks of New York, The Man Who Laughs, Freaks, Downstairs


25. Lauren Bacall
Seen in 12 films: To Have and Have Not, The Big Sleep, Key Largo, Dark Passage, How to Marry a Millionaire, Written on the Wind, Murder on the Orient Express, Misery, All I Want for Christmas, Dogville, Howl’s Moving Castle (voice), Birth

24. Judy Garland
Seen in 11 films: Love Finds Andy Hardy, The Wizard of Oz, Babes in Arms, Ziegfeld Girl, Girl Crazy, Meet Me in St. Louis, Ziegfeld Follies, The Pirate, A Star is Born, Judgment at Nuremberg, I Could Go On Singing


23. Audrey Hepburn
Seen in 8 films: Roman Holiday, Sabrina, Funny Face, The Nun’s Story, Breakfast at Tiffany’s, The Children’s Hour, My Fair Lady, Wait Until Dark


22. Miriam Hopkins
Seen in 7 films: Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, The Smiling Lieutenant, Trouble in Paradise, The Story of Temple Drake, Design for Living, The Heiress, The Children’s Hour


21. Greer Garson
Seen in 3 films: Goodbye Mr. Chips, Mrs. Miniver, Random Harvest


20. Norma Shearer
Seen in 4 films: He Who Gets Slapped, The Divorcee, A Free Soul, The Women


19. Lillian Gish
Seen in 10 Films: The Musketeers of Pig Alley, The Birth of a Nation, Intolerance, Broken Blossoms, Way Down East, Orphans of the Storm, La Boheme, The Wind, Portrait of Jennie, The Night of the Hunter


18. Greta Garbo
Seen in 8 films: Flesh and the Devil, Anna Christie, Mata Hari, Grand Hotel, Queen Christina, Camille, Ninotchka, Two-Faced Woman


17. Joan Crawford
Seen in 10 films: The Unknown, Grand Hotel, Dancing Lady, The Last of Mrs. Cheyney, The Women, Mildred Pierce, Possessed, Johnny Guitar, Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?, I Saw What You Did


16. Simone Simon
Seen in 4 films: La Bete Humaine, The Devil and Daniel Webster, Cat People, La Ronde


15. Shelley Winters
Seen in 10 films: A Place in the Sun, The Big Knife, The Night of the Hunter, The Diary of Anne Frank, Lolita, A Patch of Blue, Alfie, The Poseidon Adventure, The Tenant, Pete’s Dragon


14. Ginger Rogers
Seen in 9 Films: 42nd Street, The Gold Diggers of 1933, Finishing School, The Gay Divorcee, Top Hat, Swing Time, Stage Door, Kitty Foyle, Tales of Manhattan


13. Joan Blondell
Seen in 8 Films: The Public Enemy, Night Nurse, Three on a Match, Gold Diggers of 1933, Footlight Parade, Nightmare Alley, Opening Night, Grease


12. Marilyn Monroe
Seen in 9 films: The Asphalt Jungle, All About Eve, Clash by Night, Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, How to Marry a Millionaire, The Seven Year Itch, Some Like it Hot, Let’s Make Love, The Misfits


11. Vivian Vance
Seen in: “I Love Lucy”, 180 episodes and “The Lucy-Desi Comedy Hour”


10. Jeanne Moreau
Seen in 7 films: La Notte, Jules and Jim, The Fire Within, Diary of a Chambermaid, Mademoiselle, The Bride Wore Black, Ever After


9. Anna Karina
Seen in 5 films: A Woman is a Woman, Cleo from 5 to 7, Vivre se vie, Band of Outsiders, Alphaville


8. Marlene Dietrich
Seen in 10 films: The Blue Angel, Morocco, Shanghai Express, Blonde Venus, The Scarlet Empress, The Devil is a Woman, Destry Rides Again, Witness for the Prosecution, Touch of Evil, Judgment at Nuremberg


7. Katherine Hepburn
Seen in 13 films: Little Women, Mary of Scotland, Stage Door, Bringing Up Baby, Holiday, The Philadelphia Story, Woman of the Year, Without Love, Adam’s Rib, The African Queen, Suddenly Last Summer, The Lion in Winter, Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner


6. Barbara Stanwyck
Seen in 12 films: Night Nurse, Baby Face, Ladies They Talk About, The Bitter Tea of General Yen, Stella Dallas, The Lady Eve, Ball of Fire, Double Indemnity,  The Strange Love of Martha Ivers, The Two Mrs. Carrolls, Sorry, Wrong Number, Clash by Night


5. Monica Vitti
Seen in 3 films: L’Avventura, La Notte, L’Eclisse

4. Ann Dvorak
Seen in 4 films: Scarface, Three on a Match, ‘G’ Men, Girls of the Road


3. Bette Davis
Seen in 14 films: Three on a Match, The Petrified Forest, Jezebel, Dark Victory, The Letter, The Little Foxes, Now, Voyager, Mr. Skeffington, A Stolen Life, Deception, All About Eve, Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?, Hush…Hush Sweet Charlotte, Return to Witch Mountain


2. Lucille Ball
Seen in 9 films, 2 TV shows: Stage Door, Five Came Back, Dance, Girl, Dance, Du Barry was a Lady, Without Love, The Dark Corner, The Long Long Trailer, “I Love Lucy”, 180 episodes, “The Lucy-Desi Comedy Hour”, Yours, Mine and Ours, Forever Darling


1. Louise Brooks
Seen in 7 films: The Show Off, Pandora’s Box, Diary of a Lost Girl, Beggars of Life, A Girl in Every Port, Prix de Beaute, Windy Riley Goes Hollywood

Film Review: Two-Faced Woman (1941)


Originally posted to Criterion Cast on February 25th, 2011
criterioncast.com

“Garbo Laughs”: one of the most famous movie taglines of all time. In 1939, MGM paired up screen legend Greta Garbo, Melvyn Douglas and director Ernst Lubitsch for the comedy Ninotchka. It would be Garbo’s first attempt in the genre after a career of playing smoldering temptresses and tragic figures in romance films. Ninotchka’s success impelled MGM to place her in another comedy in what was perhaps an attempt at shaping a new era of her career. The result is Two-Faced Woman, a weak and ill-advised screwball comedy recently released on DVD by the Warner Archive Collection. Critically it sank; furthermore, the film’s failure prompted Garbo to leave acting forever. Her career may have survived the transition to sound, unlike so many others, but it would not survive an attempted transition into something she was not; a comedienne.

Two–Faced Woman is an attempt at the screwball comedy complete with a contrast in rural and urban life, a bickering couple, disguises, misunderstandings and an unearned happy ending. The story concerns magazine editor Larry (Melvyn Douglas) who meets ski instructor Karin (Greta Garbo) on vacation. He falls for her immediately but she is uninterested. Soon, after being snowed in at a cabin together, they are married. Karin lives to ski and abhors the urban lifestyle. Larry misleads Karin into thinking they will spend their life at the lodge and he soon announces his trip back to New York. They argue for a while and he ends up leaving without her. Weeks pass and Larry has not visited Karin. She decides go to New York to surprise him. Once there, she sees him flirting with playwright Griselda Vaughn (Constance Bennett). She decides to play a trick on Larry in order to test his loyalty to her. She makes up an imaginary twin sister named Katherine, a sophisticated “indoor” loving, man hungry socialite. It does not take long for Larry to figure out that Katherine is really Karin and the rest of the film has each spouse playing a trick on the other.

One of the main problems with the film is that there is no reason to be invested in Larry and Karin as a couple. Their early scenes together show no signs of romance between the two. It then skips to them being married without the audience being able to see any transition in their feelings for each other. They know nothing about each other. After a few minutes of bliss, they begin arguing because neither wants to live where the other resides. Their arguing continues and repeats. He spends his time flirting with other women and neglecting his new bride. Finally, when he finds out about her deceit, he plays hurtful tricks on her even though her motives are out of desperation and not malice. These two clearly should not be together in the first place and Douglas’ character is a cad and outright unlikable. To see someone like Garbo going this far to win someone like Douglas’ Larry is almost embarrassing. Are we supposed to root for them? I certainly did not.

Douglas and Garbo are lacking in chemistry. There is no connection between them and the audience is never really allowed to buy them as a couple in the first place. Garbo’s performance is probably the most interesting aspect of the film, but not for the right reasons. She is woefully miscast and it is a very difficult performance to assess overall. There are times she is not even making eye contact with Douglas when she should be. There are other times where her heart does not seem to be in it. In other instances when she tries something out, it fails. In another scene she might try something out and it works. There are times when she seems to be going through the motions. She just does not know what to do with this role and by far the most engaging aspect of the film is trying to figure out if Garbo completely flounders in the role or has achieved a bizarre and unlikely level of success that nobody.

Cukor is always dependable for a sleek production and he does what he can. Regardless, he is unable to get a consistent performance from Garbo, who he also directed in 1936’s Camille. He does give us a charming treat with a sequence in the middle of the film which has Garbo’s Karin inadvertently inventing a new dance; this easily serves as the film’s highlight. The film’s only actively positive component is Constance Bennett who deserves better material as Grizelda. She contributes little to the story but she is excellent and amusing here as the hopeful man stealer; it helps that she gets the film’s best dialogue.

Two-Faced Woman is topped off with a ludicrous finale which has Larry endlessly falling down skiing mountains for five minutes. This is followed by a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it unearned reconciliation between the two spouses. That this is the way the film resolves its conflicts should be evidence enough that it has no idea how to function as a screwball comedy. With uninvolving characters and an even less involving romance at its center, Two-Faced Woman wants to be mischievous fun but makes missteps at every turn. This DVD should only be seen by Garbo enthusiasts and those who are interested in seeing her attempt to navigate through the realm of comedy.