Director: Ernst Lubitsch
Writer: Samson Raphaelson and Ernest Vajda; Uncredited: Ernst Lubitsch; French dialogue: Jacques Bataille-Henri; Based On: Nux der Prinzgemahl (novel; 1905) by Hans Müller-Einigen; Operetta: Ein Walzertraum (1907) by Leopold Jacobson and Felix Dörmann
Cinematography: George J. Folsey
by Jon Cvack
Here’s a great pre-Code film from the rom com master Ernst Lubitsch, involving a Viennese Lieutenant Nikolaus “Niki” von Pryn (Maurice Chevalier) who falls in love with violinist Franzi (Claudette Colbert), after his friend and married military colleague introduces the pair, professing love at first sight. However, when King Adolf XV of Flausenthurn (George Barbier) and his daughter, Princess Anna (Miriam Hopkins), take the train into Vienna, and parade through the streets on the way to meet the King, Anna looks over at Niki, who although on duty, has a big grin on his face, winking at Franzi across the street. Anna, though, thinks that the gesture was directed at her, complains to her father, which then makes national headlines, possibly leading to a complete breakdown in relations between the two countries. Niki is called in to apologize, but unable to admit that he was flirting with his girlfriend, and not wanting to risk additional damage, he ends up going on a date with Anna, soon getting engaged to the woman.
Perhaps some might say I grabbed the pre-Code trivia from Wikipedia, but it’s when watching the film, and hearing the highly suggestive lines that you’ll understand the difference. For instance, in one musical number, Franzi mentions how she wants Niki for at least twelve hours a day, after his eight hours with Anna, which might sound innocuous enough, but with how the two are dancing, it breaths sexuality. Or how even after getting married, Niki and Franzi still meet up, with Niki having Franzi arrested during her performances every night so that the two can meet up in their quarters. Or how after King Adolf and the Queen inspect the room, in one of the most heated scenes, Anna winks to Niki and goes as far as propositioning him to take her virginity as you possibly could in a film from the 1930s. Even the final scene, after Franzi makes over Anna, Anna now has hair down, wearing a tight dress, with her cleavage out, using a chessboard as foreplay to finally lure Niki over to her.
There are other suggestion, some a bit less direct, but for anyone interested in understanding what the Code did to films, watch this movie. While there are some films such as Baby-Face (‘33) that leaves you gaping with what they suggested, the The Smiling Lieutenant's beauty is that it takes more explicit, and even by today’s standards, progressive content and places it within a very simple romantic comedy structure. For instance, Franzi has no concern that Niki’s now a married man, welcoming their late night rendezvous, and it seems as though nearly all of the characters understand the situation. Yet counter to the rom-com structure, and in a move that must have - in some way - inspired She’s All That (‘99), Franzi eventually gives in, realizing that he if she provides Anna with a makeover, that she’ll likely be - and is - more attractive than Franzi herself. Thus, although most films like this leave you expecting the traditional Hollywood Ending - where Niki someway/somehow ends up back with Franzi, Lubitsch completely flips our expectations. As said in the end, “The wrong girl gets the man”, and yet during the concluding sequence, as the chessboard is moved across the room, we kind of understand why Niki might not be too concerned with Franzi. For a popular film, I was left in awe of how far it pushed the boundaries, all while providing us with a few musical numbers to boot.
I haven’t seen Maurice Chevalier in many other films. His ability to turn on the smile and charm, using it to get whatever he wanted out of a situation is near perfect. As all the great players in these types of roles often provide, although he’s a slimeball, betraying his best friend, cheating on his wife, and then ditching his mistress because his wife’s now smoking hot - we still find ourselves rooting for him. It’s always exciting to put on a film, nervous if you can take such a colorful and pompous personality, and in the end, you’re disappointed it ended all too soon. Hopkins provides an equally deep and nuanced performance, and counter to She’s All That where Rachel Leigh Cook only had to remove her glasses, Anna never looks terrible, but is disguised enough to leave us bug eyed in the concluding scene. It’s attributed to her ability to play an uptight, privileged daughter who’s never had to worry about anything, and yet never having got to experience her own sexuality. Thus, when Niki enters her life, and although only 89 minutes, we watch as her lust overwhelms her, putting the blinders on as she soon becomes desperate for sex. Come the end, both characters are selfish - Niki with simply pursuing whatever he wants, and Anna for discovering the power her looks can provide, which when combined with the country, kind of leaves you laughing knowing that there was no way Flausenthurn could have lasted much longer. It’s a great film, leaving you wondering what else could have come about if the code was never implemented. Cause what this contains, having been made nearly 85 years ago, I can’t imagine what would have come about by today on the same trajectory.
BELOW: Bob Osbourne on the film
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Director: Jean Vigo
Writer: Jean Vigo and Albert Riera; based on an original scenario by Jean Guinee
Cinematography: Boris Kaufman
by Jon Cvack
This is one of the movies that you hear so much about - making Sight and Sound’s Top 10 Greatest Films of All Time at #10 in 1962, coming at #6 in 1992, bumped down in 2002 to #17, and moving up again in 2012, coming in at #12. Inevitably you go in with unrealistic expectations that can only reach objectivity once you watch the film again, understanding what to expect beyond sheer, cinematic brillianc, which it failed to provide upon first screening, both to me and early audiences.
The story involves a newlywed couple Jean (Jean Daste) and Juliette (Dita Parlo) who journey downriver in a barge with a hilarious and haggard first mate Pere Jules (Michael Simon). Jealousies and Murphy’s Law coincide and we get to witness the birth of the modern rom-com formula - meet, fall in love, slow falling out, complete destruction, and the run to reunite. I suppose I can respect what Jean Vigo did in this respect. I just don’t like the formula. It’s up there with the hero's journey "Supreme Ordeal" that dominates action films (you know, where they fight the second in command to the villain as seen in Die Hard, Road House, most action movies). When you consider that It Happened One Night was made only a year later, I think L’Atalante becomes far less impressive, as the former did far more for the Rom-Com than this film has. This wasn’t some grand commercial hit. It was considered a failure and didn’t really find an audience, or receive many accolades until after the war. It Happened One Night feels far more modern and did much more to usher in the genre. I can’t help seeing this as a film whose story is more exciting than the narrative - Jean Vigo essentially died due to its production, getting tuberculosis and never recovering, and in pure, artistic fashion, the film wasn’t considered a masterpiece until thirteen years later.
Yet beyond Rom-Coms of the era, there was also Frankenstein (1931), Bride of Frankenstein (1935), Snow White and the Seven Dwarves (1937), All is Quiet on the Western Front (1930), Duck Soup (1933), Scarface (1932), The Public Enemy and Little Caesar (1931), Trouble in Paradise (1933), King Kong (1933). Going to the 1920s we have The Jazz Singer (1927), The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928), Metropolis (1928), The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920), Battleship Potemkin (1925), Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans (1925), The Gold Rush (1925), and The Man With the Movie Camera (1929). Am I really to believe that these films are inferior to L’Atalante? I would welcome someone to try and argue so. I don’t think Jean Vigo did anything more for film language more than Chaplin, Griffith, Lang, Murnau, or Dreyer. I respect what L’Atalante is, I just don’t get why it’s so revered over so many other films, often placed on lists of the ten greatest films ever made. Perhaps it’s another classic example of people agreeing without really examining the context. There were some cool moments, but as I read how it’s a blend of naturalism with fantastical elements sprinkled within, I still would consider Sunrise a far greater and more cinematic romance (and deserving of its S&S Top 10 placement). It had it’s moments, but I was fairly disappointed given the reputation. I’ll give it another go another year, and likely be eating my words, as history has often demonstrates with these types of films.
BELOW: The film is actually public domain, so feel free to check it out below
Director: Rowland V. Lee
Writer: Wyllis Cooper
Cinematographer: George Robinson
by Jon Cvack
Son of Frankenstein is a beautifully shot film that captures all that Bride of Frankenstein and the original Frankenstein did well, and abandons all that the latter did poorly. I can only think of The Last Crusade, Friday the 13th Part III, and Saw III as second sequels that're superior to the first film. Son of Frankenstein might hold top slot in terms of the quality ratio from first:third.
Henry Frankenstein’s long lost son, Baron Wolf von Frankenstein (Basil Rathbone), inherits his father’s abandoned estate and demonstrates that the fervid drive for reanimating the dead is genetic. The villagers aren’t happy with the dynasty’s return to their beleaguered town and enjoin a one armed veteran, Inspector Krogh (Lionel Atwill), to help keep an on eye on the Baron. Ygor (Bela Lugosi) has also returned, now managing the laboratory's ruins, determined to bring the Creature back to life. Eventually, Baron Frankenstein succeeds, except the monster now abides by Ygor rather than the son, committing a series of murders at his command.
Contrary to the Hammer films which more or less rehash the same plot over and over again, Son of Frankenstein expands the mythology in an unique and original way, maintaining the breathtaking Expressionistic style that made Bride of Frankenstein so memorable, along with casting a great range of interesting characters: with the villagers who wish to expel Frankenstein; the Inspector who’s a unique and eccentric individual, haunted by the past war; and Baron Wolf’s son who provides a chronic sense of anxiety throughout the film with his mischievous antics. All of these elements add up into an amazing film that provides exactly what you want from a Frankenstein story.
It's interesting to note Frankenstein’s death by melting into the lava beneath the laboratory as extremely similar to the Terminator’s suicide in T2, leaving me to ponder about the other similarities between the Terminator and Frankenstein as individuals who take the form of man, living a morality that's beyond human, with no biological guidance toward what’s right or wrong. While the Terminator is redeemed and acts to protect John Connor, Frankenstein fails to kill Baron’s son after kidnapping the boy, demonstrating that perhaps empathy can be learned and acquired.
Strange to think that while the film was a massive hit and returned Universal to profitability, they bumped subsequent sequels to “B-grade” production quality. Bela Lugosi abandoned the monster, fearing that he was becoming too much of a joke, especially after Elvis and Costello parodied the series. Can you imagine a studio doing the same in today’s world; that because Tobin Bell or Donald Pleasance didn’t wish to continue their roles that they would give less to a series that just produced a wildly successful addition?
The film was followed by Ghost of Frankenstein (1942), which is such a pathetic attempt at continuing the story that I have to regard SoF as the official conclusion to the original trilogy, and any further attempts as a poor effort to capitalize on the popularity, sacrificing everything that worked in order to churn out cheap additions. Universal would have been better off by dedicating the same level of production quality and story to the series. I’m not sure what films turned out to be the hits following GoF, though it was the start of merging the different Universal monsters within the same story. I’ll have to check those out this October.
BELOW: A color test for Son of Frankenstein. Cool, but I'm glad they never adopted it
Director: Leo McCarey
Writer: Vina Delmar and Sidney Buchman (uncredited)
Cinematography: Joseph Walker
by Susan Bartley
In this great screwball, Rom-Com from Leo McCarey, married couple Lucy and Jerry Warriner (Irene Dunne and Cary Grant) agree to split up. Jealousies inevitably arise as they begin to explore other opportunities. Although I’ve seen this formula time and again, it still felt incredibly fresh. You could feel the sexual tension between Cary Grant and Irene Dunne. During the final scene, in particular, as Irene lays in bed, McCarey keeps cutting back to a cuckoo clock, waiting for it to go off. It’s one of the hottest scenes I’ve watched of all early films. You can feel Grant's adrenaline pumping as he’s tempted into bed. Of course we know where the two are going afterwards. They’ll get back together, forget about what they disagreed upon, and we learn that there are no perfect relationships. At the core of any is the ability to observe the world in ways few would understand; where you can laugh at certain situations with the comfort that your partner, and often only your partner, will understand. Irene’s new fiance is so clueless to anything that’s going on that Grant simply needs exploit this idea, to wink at Dunne, light the wick, and watch it inch toward the bomb.
It’s films like this that make me wonder when the rom-com will come floating back. It’s always a pendulum, floating between awful and uninspired, few and far between, and then back toward the deep, impacting, and profound. Indie films have been exploring the genre as of late, yet they seem to always make the mistake of treating the material so seriously, subsequently weighing down the necessary lightness in order to show it’s a Serious Movie. So many want to shoot it with that high-artistic style; a lone soul drifting through the urban landscape, desperate for a partner, that one person who'll connect to their Deep View of the world (watch this submission to 2014 Project Greenlight about soul mates and you’ll know what I mean). I don’t know what’s more pathetic - that these filmmakers either believe this is how people actually feel and willingly promote it, or that this uninspired garbage keeps returning with better photography. Rule of thumb - the greater the cinematography the more I’ll probably cringe during most indie film’s take on the Rom Com. The Awful Truth provides all the same feelings and far more.
BELOW: Although the audio has been substituted with a cheap temp score, here's the final scene between Lucy and Jerry. Watch it on mute. As with all great cinema, it's the ability for the scene to work without any audio at all that demonstrates McCarey's prowess.
Thoughts on films, old and new
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