“OTHER MEN’S WOMEN” (1931) Review

 

“OTHER MEN’S WOMEN” (1931) Review

Adultery is rarely treated with any kind of maturity in fiction – whether in novels, plays, movies and television. I am not saying that adultery has never been portrayed with any maturity. It is just that . . . well, to be honest . . . I have rarely come across a movie, television series, novel or play that dealt with adultery in a mature manner. Or perhaps I have rarely come across others willing to face fictional adultery between two decent people with some kind of maturity.

If one simply glanced at the title of the 1931 movie, “OTHER MEN’S WOMEN”, any person could assume that he or she will be facing one of those salacious tales from a Pre-Code filled with racy dialogue, scenes of women and men stripping to their underwear or morally bankrupt characters. Well, “OTHER MEN’S WOMEN” is a Pre-Code movie. But if you are expecting scenes and characters hinting sexy and outrageous sex, you are barking up the wrong tree.

“OTHER MEN’S WOMEN” is about a young railroad engineer named Bill White, who seemed to have a drinking problem. When he gets kicked out of his boarding house, after falling back on his rent, Bill is invited by fellow engineer and friend Jack Kulper to stay with him and his wife Lily. All seemed to be going well. Bill managed to fit easily into the Kulper household. He stopped drinking. And he got along very well with both Jack and Lily. In reality, his relationship with Lily seemed to be a lot more obvious than with Jack. And this spilled out one afternoon, when in the middle of one of their horseplays while Jack was out of the house, Bill and Lily exchanged a passionate kiss. Realizing that he was in love with Lily, Bill moved out and left Jack wondering what had occurred. Matters grew worse and eventually tragic, when Jack finally realized that Bill and Lily had fallen in love with each other.

From the few articles I have read, there seemed to be a low regard for this film. Leading lady Mary Astor had dismissed it as “a piece of cheese” and praised only future stars James Cagney and Joan Blondell. Come to think of it, so did a good number of other movie fans. Back in 1931, the New York Times had described the film as “an unimportant little drama of the railroad yards”. Perhaps “OTHER MEN’S WOMEN” was unimportant in compare to many other films that were released in 1931 or during that period. But I enjoyed it . . . more than I thought I would.

“OTHER MEN’S WOMEN” is not perfect. First of all, this is an early talkie. Although released in 1931, the film was originally shot and released to a limited number of theaters in 1930. And anyone can pretty much tell this is an early talkie, due to the occasional fuzzy photography. Also, director William Wellman shot a few of the action scenes – namely the fight scene between Bill and Jack, along with Bill and another engineer named Eddie Bailey – in fast motion. Or he shot the scenes and someone sped up the action during the editing process. Why, I have no idea. There were a few times when members of the cast indulge in some theatrical acting. And I mean everyone. Finally, I found the resolution to the love triangle in this film a bit disappointing. Considering that divorce was not as verboten in the early 20th century, as many seemed to assume, I do not see why that the whole matter between Bill, Lily and Jack could have been resolved with divorce, instead of tragedy. In the case of this particular story, I found the tragic aspects a bit contrived.

Otherwise, I rather enjoyed “OTHER MEN’S WOMEN”, much to my surprise. Repeating my earlier statement, I was impressed by how screenwriter Maud Fulton, with the addition of William K. Wells’ dialogue; treated the adulterous aspects of the love triangle with taste and maturity. What I found even more impressive is that the three people involved were all likeable and sympathetic. I was rather surprised that this film only lasted 70 minutes. Because Wellman did an exceptional job with the movie’s pacing. He managed to infuse a good deal of energy into this story, even when it threatened to become a bit too maudlin.

Wellman’s energy seemed to manifest in the cast’s performance. Yes, I am well aware of my complaint about the performers’ occasional penchant for theatrical acting. But overall, I thought they did a very good job. Future stars James Cagney and Joan Blondell had small supporting roles as Bill’s other friend Eddie Bailey and his girlfriend, Marie. Both did a good job and both had the opportunities to express those traits that eventually made them stars within a year or two. I was especially entertained by Blondell’s performance, for she had the opportunity to convey one of the movie’s best lines:

Marie: [taking out her compact and powdering her face] Listen, baby, I’m A.P.O.

Railroad worker at Lunch Counter: [to the other railroad worker] What does she mean, A.P.O.?

Marie: Ain’t Puttin’ Out!

I noticed that due to Cagney and Blondell’s presence in this film, many tend to dismiss the leading actors’ performances. In fact, many seemed to forget that not only was Mary Astor a star already, she was a decade away from winning an Oscar. Well, star or not, I was impressed by her portrayal of the railroad wife who finds herself falling in love with a man other than her own husband. She gave a warm, charming and energetic performance. And she portrayed her character’s guilt with great skill. I could also say the same about leading man, Grant Withers. He is basically known as Loretta Young’s first husband. Which is a shame, because he seemed like a first-rate actor, capable of handling the many emotional aspects of his character. Whether Bill was drunk and careless, fun-loving, romantic or even wracked with guilt, Withers ably portrayed Bill’s emotional journey. I also enjoyed Regis Toomey’s performance as the emotionally cuckolded husband, Jack Kulper. I mainly remember Toomey from the 1955 musical, “GUYS AND DOLLS”. However, I was impressed by how he portrayed Jack’s torn psyche regarding his best friend and wife.

I am not going to pretend that “OTHER MEN’S WOMEN” is one of the best films from the Pre-Code era . . . or one of director William Wellman’s best films. Perhaps that New York Times critic had been right, when he described the film as “an unimportant little drama of the railroad yards”. But I cannot dismiss “OTHER MEN’S WOMEN” as a mediocre or poor film. It is actually pretty decent. And more importantly, thanks to the screenplay, Wellman’s direction and the cast, I thought it portrayed a love triangle tainted by adultery with a great deal of maturity.

“LITTLE WOMEN” (1949) Review

“LITTLE WOMEN” (1949) Review

Louisa May Alcott’s 1868 novel is a bit of a conundrum for me. I have never been a fan of the novel. I have read it once, but it failed to maintain my interest. Worse, I have never had the urge to read it again. The problem is that it is that sentimental family dramas – at least in print – has never been appealing to me. And this is why I find it perplexing that I have never had any problems watching any of the film or television adaptations of her novel.

One of those adaptations proved to be Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer’s 1949 adaptation, which was produced and directed by Mervyn LeRoy. It is hard to believe that the same man who had directed such hard-biting films like “LITTLE CAESAR”, “I AM A FUGITIVE FROM A CHAIN GANG” and “THEY WON’T FORGET”, was the artistic force behind this sentimental comedy-drama. Or perhaps MGM studio boss, Louis B. Meyer, was the real force. The studio boss preferred sentimental dramas, comedies and musicals. Due to this preference, he was always in constant conflict with the new production chief, Dore Schary, who preferred more realistic and hard-biting movies. Then you had David O. Selznick, who wanted to remake his 1933 adaptation of Alcott’s novel. One can assume (or not) that in the end, Meyer had his way.

“LITTLE WOMEN”, as many know, told the experiences of the four March sisters of Concord, Massachusetts during and after the U.S. Civil War. The second daughter, Josephine (Jo) March, is the main character and the story focuses on her relationships with her three other sisters, the elders in her family – namely her mother Mrs. March (“Marmee”) and Aunt March, and the family’s next-door neighbor, Mr. Laurence. For Jo, the story becomes a “coming-of-age” story, due to her relationships with Mr. Laurence’s good-looking grandson, Theodore (“Laurie”) and a German immigrant she meets in New York City after the war, the equally good-looking and much older Professor Bhaer. Jo and her sisters deal with the anxiety of their father fighting in the Civil War, genteel poverty, scarlet fever, and the scary prospect of oldest sister Meg falling in love with Laurie’s tutor.

Despite my disinterest in Alcott’s novel, I have always liked the screen adaptations I have seen so far – including this film. Due to the casting of Margaret O’Brien as the mild-mannered Beth, her character became the youngest sister, instead of Amy. Screenwriters Sally Benson, Victor Heerman, Sarah Y. Mason and Andrew Solt made other changes. But they were so mild that in the end, the changes did not have any real impact on Alcott’s original story. Ironically, both Victor Heerman and Sarah Y. Mason wrote the screenplay for Selznick’s 1933 film. I thought Mervyn LeRoy’s direction injected a good deal of energy into a tale that could have easily bored me senseless. In fact, MGM probably should have thank its lucky stars that LeRoy had served as producer and director.

As much as I admired LeRoy’s direction of this film, I must admit there was a point in the story – especially in the third act – in which the pacing threatened to drag a bit. My only other problem with “LITTLE WOMEN” is that I never really got the impression that this film was set during the 1860s, despite its emphasis on costumes and the fact that the March patriarch was fighting the Civil War. Some might say that since “LITTLE WOMEN” was set in the North – New England, as a matter of fact – it is only natural that the movie struggled with its 1860s setting. But I have seen other Civil War era films set in the North – including the 1994 version of“LITTLE WOMEN” – that managed to project a strong emphasis of that period. And the production values for this adaptation of Alcott’s novel seemed more like a generic 19th century period drama, instead of a movie set during a particular decade. It is ironic that I would make such a complaint, considering that the set decoration team led by Cedric Gibbons won Academy Awards for Best Art Direction.

I certainly had no problems with the cast selected for this movie. Jo March seemed a far cry from the roles for which June Allyson was known – you know, the usual “sweet, girl-next-door” type. I will admit that at the age of 31 or 32, Allyson was probably too young for the role of Jo March. But she did such a phenomenon job in recapturing Jo’s extroverted nature and insecurities that I found the issue of her age irrelevant. Peter Lawford, who was her co-star in the 1947 musical, “GOOD NEWS”, gave a very charming, yet complex performance as Jo’s next door neighbor and friend, Theodore “Laurie” Laurence. Beneath the sweet charm, Lawford did an excellent job in revealing Laurie’s initial loneliness and infatuation of Jo. Margaret O’Brien gave one of her best on-screen performance as the March family’s sickly sibling, Beth. Although the literary Beth was the third of four sisters, she is portrayed as the youngest, due to O’Brien’s casting. And I feel that Le Roy and MGM made a wise choice, for O’Brien not only gave one of her best performances, I believe that she gave the best performance in the movie, overall.

Janet Leigh, who was a decade younger than Allyson, portrayed the oldest March sister, Meg. Yet, her performance made it easy for me to regard her character as older and more emotionally mature than Allyson’s Jo. I thought she gave a well done, yet delicate performance as the one sister who seemed to bear the strongest resemblance to the sisters’ mother. Elizabeth Taylor was very entertaining as the extroverted, yet shallow Amy. Actually, I have to commend Taylor for maintaining a balancing act between Amy’s shallow personality and ability to be kind. The movie also featured solid performances from supporting cast members like Mary Astor (who portrayed the warm, yet steely Mrs. March), the very charming Rossano Brazzi, Richard Stapley, Lucile Watson, Leon Ames, Harry Davenport, and the always dependable C. Aubrey Smith, who died not long after the film’s production.

Overall, “LITTLE WOMEN” is a charming, yet colorful adaptation of Louisa May Alcott’s novel. I thought Mervyn LeRoy did an excellent job in infusing energy into a movie that could have easily sink to sheer boredom for me. And he was enabled by a first-rate cast led by June Allyson and Peter Lawford. Overall, “LITTLE WOMEN” managed to rise above my usual apathy toward Alcott’s novel.

“DODSWORTH” (1936) Review

“DODSWORTH” (1936) Review

I might as well place my cards on the table. William Wyler has been one of my favorite Old Hollywood directors for as long as I can remember. One particular movie that had impressed me as a teenager and a woman in my 20s was his 1936 film, “DODSWORTH”. However, a good number of years had passed since I last saw it. Realizing this, I decided to view the movie again for a new assessment.

Based upon Sinclair Lewis’ 1929 novel and Sidney Howard’s 1934 stage adaptation, “DODSWORTH” tells the story of a Midwestern auto tycoon named Sam Dodsworth, who decides to sell his auto manufacturing plant and retire at the urging of his wife Fran. Feeling trapped by their small-town social life, Fran also convinces Sam to start off his retirement with a trip to Europe. Sam comes to regard the trip as an opportunity to see the sights. Fran has different ideas. She views the trip as an opportunity to escape her Midwestern life and enjoy the pleasures of European high society. She manages to achieve this with a succession of European Lotharios by her side. The different desires and expectations of the pair eventually fractures their marriage for good.

When all is said and done, “DODSWORTH” is basically a portrait of a failing marriage. A part of me wondered why“DODSWORTH” had never been filmed during Hollywood’s pre-Code era. Sinclair Lewis’ tale seemed aptly suited for that particular period in film history. I tried to remember how many movies I have seen or heard about a failing marriage and divorce and realized they were few in numbers. Another aspect of “DODSWORTH” I found interesting was director William Wyler and screenwriter Sidney Howard’s attempt to portray the Dodsworths’ marital breakup with as much maturity as possible. One could easily blame the Fran Dodsworth for the marriage’s eventual failure, due to the character’s vanity, infatuation with European high society and infidelity. But I read somewhere that both Wyler and Howard (especially the former) went out of their way to portray Fran with as much sympathy and complexity as possible – especially in the movie’s first half.

I do believe that Wyler, Howard and the movie’s cast did an excellent job in their attempt to create a realistic and mature film. I found scenes in the film that seemed to exemplify this attempt at mature melodrama. They include Ruth’s embarassing last conversation with Captain Clyde Lockert, the good-looking British Army officer she had flirted with aboard the ocean liner that took her and Sam to Europe; the Dodsworths’ last conversation before Sam returns to the U.S.; and their frank conversation about Fran’s affair with aging playboy Arnold Iselin upon Sam’s return to Europe. But the two best scenes – well shot by Wyler and superbly performed – featured Fran’s even more embarassing encounter with Baroness Von Obersdorf, the elderly mother of the young Baron Kurt Von Obersdorf, whom she wished to marry; and Sam and Fran’s last moment together in which the former decides to end their marriage permanently. Watching this movie, it was easy for me to see why “DODSWORTH” managed to earn seven Academy Award nominations – including a Best Director nomination for William Wyler and one for Best Picture.

Two of those nominations were for technical achievements. Richard Day not only earned a nomination for the movie’s art direction, he also won. And I could see why, especially in the images below:

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Day’s work seemed to feature a clean, yet stylish look that was evocative of the Art Deco period of the 1920s and 30s.

At least two cast members earned Oscar nominations for their performances. Walter Huston earned a well-deserved nomination for his natural and down-to-earth portrayal of the very likeable and mature retired tycoon, Sam Dodsworth. A surprising Best Supporting Actress nomination was given to Maria Ouspenskaya in a small role as Baroness Von Obersdorf, the woman whom Fran Dodsworth hoped to call “mother-in-law”. I cannot deny that Ouspenskaya was very effective as the frank and no-nonsense German aristocrat who crushed Fran’s dreams of marriage to the younger Kurt Von Obersdorf. But I rather doubt if I would have considered her for an Oscar nomination. The movie also featured competent performances from Mary Astor, Kathryn Marlowe, John Payne, Spring Byington and Gregory Gaye. The two more memorable performances – at least for me – came from a young David Niven as the well-born British Army officer, who teaches Fran a lesson about flirtation and Paul Lukas as the much older Lothario, Arnold Iselin, who seemed amused by the chaos he causes within the Dodsworth marriage. But for me, Ruth Chatterton gave the best performance in the film. Despite the negative manner in which her character was written, her portrayal of the vain Fran Dodsworth provided the film with backbone, drive and a great deal of first-rate drama. “DODSWORTH” would be nothing without the Fran Dodsworth character . . . and Chatterton’s superb performance. And yet . . . the actress did not receive an Academy Award nomination.

In the end, “DODSWORTH” is a very well made movie. Actually, it is quite superbly made. I can see why it earned those seven Oscar nominations. But despite the excellent direction, acting and writing .. . I ended up hating this film. I hated the unbalanced portrayal of the Dodsworth marriage. I hated how the story placed all of the blame for the marriage’s failure on Fran. If Wyler was trying to portray Fran in a more flexible light, he and Sidney Howard failed miserably in the end. I hated how Howard’s screenplay portrayed Fran’s flaws in a serious light, whereas Dodsworth’s flaws – namely his own penchant for self-absorption at home – was portrayed as comic relief. I hated the fact that Sam Dodsworth ended up with a younger and more beautiful woman who seemed to be portrayed as an ideal woman, despite her divorce status. I especially hated the fact that Dodsworth was portrayed as a nearly ridiculously idealized character – the self made man who still adhered to good old-fashioned American values, while Fran was portrayed as an incredibly flawed woman who had failed to live up to American society’s ideal of a married woman.

I realize there are many women moviegoers who really enjoyed this film. But this is one woman who disliked it. And “DODSWORTH” might be one of the few William Wyler films I may never have a desire to watch again.

Favorite Films Set in the 1900s

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Below is a list of my favorite movies (so far) that are set in the 1900s decade:

 

FAVORITE FILMS SET IN THE 1900s

1 - Howards End

1. “Howard’s End” (1992) – Ismail Merchant and James Ivory created this exquisite adaptation of E.M. Forster’s 1910 novel. The movie starred Oscar winner Emma Thompson, Anthony Hopkins, Helena Bonham-Carter, Samuel West and Oscar nominee Vanessa Redgrave.

2 - The Assassination Bureau

2. “The Assassination Bureau” (1969) – Oliver Reed, Diana Rigg and Telly Savalas starred in this delicious adaptation of Jack London’s unfinished novel about a woman journalist who uncovers an organization for professional assassins. Basil Dearden directed.

3 - A Room With a View

3. “A Room With a View” (1985-86) – Ismail Merchant and James Ivory created this excellent adaptation of E.M. Forster’s 1908 novel. The movie starred Helena Bonham-Carter, Julian Sands, Daniel Day-Lewis and Oscar nominees Maggie Smith and Denholm Elliot.

4 - Gigi

4. “Gigi” (1958) – Oscar winner Vincente Minelli directed this superb adaptation of Collette’s 1944 novella about a young Parisian girl being groomed to become a courtesan. Leslie Caron and Louis Jordan starred.

5 - The Illusionist

5. “The Illusionist” (2006) – Neil Burger directed this first-rate adaptation of Steven Millhauser’s short story, “Eisenheim the Illusionist”. The movie starred Edward Norton, Jessica Biel, Paul Giamatti and Rufus Sewell.

6 - The Great Race

6. “The Great Race” (1965) – Blake Edwards directed this hilarious comedy about a long-distance road race between two rival daredevils. The movie starred Jack Lemmon, Tony Curtis and Natalie Wood.

7 - Flame Over India aka North West Frontier

7. “Flame Over India aka North West Frontier” (1959) – Kenneth More and Lauren Bacall starred in this Imperial adventure about a British Army officer who serves as escort to a young Hindu prince being targeted by Muslim rebels. J. Lee Thompson directed.

8 - Meet Me in St. Louis

8. “Meet Me in St. Louis” (1944) – Judy Garland starred in this very entertaining adaptation of Sally Benson’s short stories about a St. Louis family around the time of the Louisiana Purchase Exposition World’s Fair in 1904. Vincente Minelli directed.

9 - The Golden Bowl

9. “The Golden Bowl” (2000) – Ismail Merchant and James Ivory created this interesting adaptation of Henry James’ 1904 novel about an adulterous affair in Edwardian England. The movie starred Uma Thurman, Nick Nolte, Kate Beckinsale and Jeremy Northam.

10 - North to Alaska

10. “North to Alaska” (1960) – John Wayne, Stewart Granger and Capucine starred in this surprisingly fun Western about how a mail-to-order bride nearly came between two partners during the Nome Gold Rush. Henry Hathaway directed.

“THE PRISONER OF ZENDA” (1937) Review

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“THE PRISONER OF ZENDA” (1937) Review

I realize that many film critics and fans would agree with my suspicion that the 1930s saw a great deal of action films released to theaters. In fact, I believe there were as high number of actions films released back then as they are now. Among the type of action films that flourished during that era were swashbucklers. 

One of the most famous Hollywood swashbucklers released during the 1930s was “THE PRISONER OF ZENDA”, producer David O. Selznick’s 1937 adaptation of Anthony Hope’s 1894 novel. This tale of middle European political intrigue and identity theft has been either remade or spoofed countless of times over the years. One of the most famous spoofs included George MacDonald Fraser’s 1970 Flashman novel called “Royal Flash”. But if one asked many moviegoers which adaptation comes to mind, I believe many would point out Selznick’s 1937 movie.

Directed by John Cromwell, the movie began with Englishman Rudolf Rassendyll’s arrival in the kingdom of Ruritania in time for the coronation of its new king, Rudolf V. The English visitor’s looks attract a great deal of attention from some of the country’s populace and eventually from the new king and the latter’s two aides. The reason behind this attention is due to the fact that not only are the Briton and the Ruritanian monarch are distant cousins, they can also pass for identical twins. King Rudolf invites Rassendyll to the royal hunting lodge for dinner with him and his aides – Colonel Sapt and Captain Fritz von Tarlenheim. They celebrate their acquaintance by drinking late into the night. Rudolf is particularly delighted with the bottle of wine sent to him by his half-brother, Duke Michael, and drinks it all himself. The next morning brings disastrous discoveries – the wine was drugged and King Rudolf cannot be awakened in time to attend his coronation. Fearing that Duke Michael will try to usurp the throne, Colonel Zapt convinces a reluctant Rassendyll to impersonate Rudolf for the ceremony.

While watching “THE PRISONER OF ZENDA”, it became easy for me to see why it has become regarded as one of the best swashbucklers of the 1930s. Selznick, its array of credited and uncredited screenwriters, and director John Cromwell did an excellent job of transferring Anthony Hope’s tale to the screen. This certainly seemed to be the case from a technical point-of-view. Selznick managed to gather a talented cast that more than did justice to Hope’s literary characters. The movie also benefited from Alfred Newman’s stirring score, which received a well deserved Academy Award nomination. Lyle R. Wheeler received the first of his 24 Academy Award nominations for the movie’s art designs, which exquisitely re-created Central Europe of the late 19th century. His works was enhanced by Jack Cosgrove’s special effects and the photography of both James Wong Howe and an uncredited Bert Glennon. And I was very impressed by Ernest Dryden’s re-creation of 1890s European fashion in his costume designs.

The performances featured in “THE PRISONER OF ZENDA” struck me as outstanding. Not only was Mary Astor charming as Duke Michael’s mistress, Antoinette de Mauban, she also did an excellent job in conveying Mademoiselle de Mauban’s love for Michael and her desperation to do anything to keep him safe for herself. C. Aubrey Smith gave one of his better performances as the weary and level-headed royal aide, Colonel Sapt, whose love for his country and the throne outweighed his common sense and disappointment in his new king. David Niven gave the film its funniest performance as junior royal aide, Captain Fritz von Tarlenheim. Not only did I find his comedy style memorable, but also subtle. Raymond Massey’s performance as King Rudolf’s illegitimate half-brother, Duke Michael, struck me as very interesting. On one hand, Massey smoldered with his usual air of menace. Yet, he also did an excellent job of conveying Michael’s resentment of his illegitimate status and disgust over his half-brother’s dissolute personality.

However, I feel that the best performances came from Ronald Colman, Madeleine Carroll and Douglas Fairbanks, Jr. I read that the latter originally wanted the dual roles of Rassendyll and King Rudolf . . . and was disappointed when Colman won the roles. But he received advice from C. Aubrey Smith to accept the Rupert of Hentzau role, considered the best by many. Smith proved to be right. Fairbanks gave the best performance in the movie as the charming and witty villain, who served as Duke Michael’s main henchman, while attempting to seduce the latter’s mistress. Madeleine Carroll could have easily portrayed Princess Flavia as a dull, yet virtuous beauty. Instead, the actress superbly portrayed the princess as an emotionally starved woman, who harbored resentment toward her royal cousin Rudolf for years of his contemptuous treatment toward her; and who blossomed from Rassendyll’s love. Although I believe that Fairbanks Jr. gave the movie’s best performance, I cannot deny that Ronald Colman served as the movie’s backbone in his excellent portrayals of both Englishman Rudolf Rassendyll and Ruritania King Rudolf V. Without resorting to any theatrical tricks or makeup, Colman effortlessly portrayed two distant cousins with different personalities. “THE PRISONER OF ZENDA” marked the third movie I have seen starring Colman. I believe I am finally beginning to realize what a superb actor he truly was.

Before my raptures over “THE PRISONER OF ZENDA” get the best of me, I feel I have to point out a few aspects of the movie that I found troubling. Selznick International released three movies in 1937. Two of them had been filmed in Technicolor and one, in black-and-white. I do not understand why Selznick had decided that “THE PRISONER OF ZENDA” would be the only one filmed in black-and-white. This movie practically begged for Technicolor. Surely he could have allowed either “A STAR IS BORN” or “NOTHING SACRED” in black-and-white. For a movie that is supposed to be a swashbuckler, it seemed to lack a balanced mixture of dramatic narrative and action. During my viewing of the movie, I noticed that aside from Colonel Sapt forcing the royal lodge’s cook, Frau Holf, into drinking the rest of the drugged wine; there was no real action until past the movie’s mid-point. And speaking of the action, I found it . . . somewhat tolerable. The minor sequence featuring Rupert’s first attempt at killing Rassendyll, the latter’s efforts to save King Rudolf from assassination at Duke Michael’s castle near Zenda, and the charge led by Sapt at the castle struck me as solid. But I found the sword duel between Rassendyll and Rupert rather disappointing. Both Colman and Fairbanks spent more time talking than fighting. I found myself wondering if the constant conversation was a means used by Cromwell to hide the poor choreography featured in the sword fight.

I do not think I would ever view “THE PRISONER OF ZENDA” as one of my favorite swashbucklers of all time. But despite some of the disappointing action sequences, I still believe that its drama and suspense, along with a superb cast led by Ronald Colman, made it a first-rate movie and one of the best produced by David O. Selznick.

“MIDNIGHT” (1939) Review

 

”MIDNIGHT” (1939) Review

I believe that I can say in all honesty that I have been a major fan of some of Billy Wilder’s work for years. Movies like ”SUNSET BOULEVARD””SOME LIKE IT HOT” and ”DOUBLE INDEMNITY” have been amongst my top favorite movies of all time. But all of these movies have not only been written or co-written by Wilder, but also directed by him. It is rare for me to say the same about any of the movies he had written before he had become a director. Rare, but not completely impossible. One such movie is the 1939 comedy classic, ”MIDNIGHT”

Directed by Mitchell Leisen (whom Wilder detested), ”MIDNIGHT” told the story of an American showgirl named Eve Peabody, who finds herself stranded in Paris during a rainstorm. Tibor Czerny, a Hungarian taxi driver, takes pity on her and drives her around Paris in a fruitless attempt to help her find a new job. When Tibor offers Eve refuge at his apartment, she decides to reject his offer – despite being attracted to him – and gives him the slip. Eve manages to crash a Parisian socialite’s late night party, where she meets Georges Flammarion, a wealthy industrialist who is desperate to end his wife Helene’s affair with a wealthy playboy named Jacques Picot. Georges hires Eve to pose as Baroness Czerny, an American married to a wealthy Hungarian aristocrat, in order for her to seduce and lure Jacques away from Helene’s arms. Unfortunately for Eve, one of Tibor’s taxi colleagues discover her whereabouts and appears at the Flammarions’ estate as Eve’s husband, the Baron Czerny.

Thanks to Billy Wilder and Preston Surges, Mitchell Leisen had undeservedly earned a reputation as a hack director with a penchant for set décor, due to his homosexuality. In other words, they saw him as nothing more than a window dresser. This opinion of Leisen remained fixed by film critics for years, until recent years. Perhaps these same critics had finally remembered that Leisen had directed movies such as ”EASY LIVING””HOLD BACK THE DAWN” and especially”MIDNIGHT”, which I believe is one of the funniest screwball comedies from the 1930s. How could film critics ignore this elegant and hilarious tale of love, adultery and deception in pre-World War II France? Did they believe that someone other than Leisen had directed it? I do have to give kudos to Wilder and partner Charles Brackett for concocting this sharply funny tale of love and deception.

The cast of ”MIDNIGHT” is first-rate. Claudette Colbert brought great wit and charm to the role of the stranded Eve Peabody. As her performances in both”MIDNIGHT” and 1942’s ”THE PALM BEACH STORY” attested, Colbert seemed to have a talent for portraying witty and charming golddiggers. Don Ameche portrayed Hungarian Tibor Czerny, Eve’s would-be suitor with an earnest aggressiveness that I found charming and occasionally disturbing. Ameche gave Tibor a tenacious air that struck me as slightly intense. Portraying Eve’s wealthy benefactor was the legendary John Barrymore in what was probably his last good role on film. He was very witty and effective as the manipulative, yet unhappy Georges Flammarion, who recruits Eve into a deception to win back his wife’s affections from her playboy lover. Mary Astor, who would reunite with Colbert in ”THE PALM BEACH STORY”, did a fabulous job as the jealous and acid-minded Helene Flammarion. Francis Lederer did a charming, yet competent job as Helene’s lover, but I did not find him particularly impressive. Also included in the cast was Rex O’Malley, who portrayed Helene’s faithful and witty companion, Marcel Renaud. O’Malley’s character struck me as a more comic version of a similar character he had portrayed in 1936’s”CAMILLE”, starring Greta Garbo. Last but not least, the cast included famous columnist Hedda Hopper portraying a French socialite, whose late night party that Eve crashes.

”MIDNIGHT” has a lot to offer – even for today’s viewers. It had a competent director in Mitchell Leisen (despite his past reputation with critics), a first-rate cast led by Claudette Colbert and Don Ameche and a sharp and funny screenplay written by Billy Wilder and Charles Brackett. But what I really love about this movie is its setting – Parisian high society in the late 1930s. Thanks to certain contract directors like Josef von Sternberg and Ernst Lubitsch, Paramount Studios had developed a reputation for possessing an European infliction in its house style by the 1930s. And”MIDNIGHT” possessed this infliction in droves, thanks to scenes that featured Eve crashing Madame Stephanie’s late night party, Tibor and his fellow taxi drivers’ search for Eve through the streets of Paris, Eve waking up in her new hotel suite in the nude, her meeting with Helene at a Parisian couture house and the dazzling party held by the Flammarions’ country estate, which included an entertaining Latin band. All of these scenes would strike any viewer as examples of the Lubitsch”touch”. Yet these scenes and many others were photographed by the Utah-born Charles Lang and directed by Leisen, who was born in Michigan.

For a movie that is over seventy years old, ”MIDNIGHT” has not really aged one bit. It is still a very entertaining film filled with superb comic acting and razor sharp wit. I certainly had fun watching it and I suspect that many others would feel the same.