The Merry Widow

Ernst Lubitsch had no equal when it came to crafting sophisticated comedies. One of the first sound-era Hollywood directors known and revered by the public, his “Lubitsch touch” represented the pinnacle of intelligent humor. His version of The Merry Widow (1934) still towers over other comedies.

As Herman G. Weinberg pointed out in his book The Lubitsch Touch, “This time the first ‘Lubitsch touch’ came right under the credit titles as a magnifying glass sought in vain to find the tiny mythical kingdom where the action takes place.”

Ostensibly based on the operetta of the same name (which Erich von Stroheim used as the basis for his 1925 silent film), Lubitsch and screenwriters Ernest Vajda and Samson Raphaelson essentially threw out the plot and started from scratch.

Jeanette MacDonald is the wealthy widow who owns 52 percent of every cow in the small country of Marshovia. Maurice Chevalier is the playboy prince who is given the task of wooing her back from Paris, so her riches will remain in the kingdom.

Supported by an outstanding cast of character actors — including Edward Everett Horton, Una Merkel, Sterling Holloway, and Hermann Bing — The Merry Widow is guaranteed to bring a smile to your face and a feeling of nostalgia for a golden age of screen comedy.

I’m happy to report that this movie is finally available on DVD, though it’s available only as a Manufactured on Demand (MOD) disc. That’s a DVD-R format. As a result, it may not play properly on some PC-based DVD drives or DVD recorders. I had no problems playing it on my PC-based DVD and Blu-ray drives, though your results may vary. This MOD disc should be issue-free with most standalone DVD and Blu-ray players (the kind you connect to a home TV).

The video and audio quality on this disc is first rate. Warner has done an excellent job of transferring this film at a suitably high bit rate (8000 kbps for the video and 192 kbps for the audio). The image had plenty of contrast and detail, and the sound (especially important for the musical numbers) was clear and never shrill. It looked great projected onto a 100-inch screen. Highly recommended.

The Merry Widow
(1934; directed by Ernst Lubitsch; cable & dvd)
Warner Archive Collection
List Price: $18.95 (available as a Manufactured on Demand disc from WarnerArchive and WBshop)

Wednesday, October 1 at 9:15 a.m. eastern on Turner Classic Movies

The Informer

You wouldn’t normally think of John Ford as directing a low-budget art film, but that’s the best way to think of The Informer (1935). According to Joseph McBride’s excellent book Searching for John Ford, the project was rejected by Columbia, Fox, MGM, Paramount, and Warner Bros. before RKO agreed to let Ford make it on a shoestring budget (the final production costs were $242,756). That meant almost no money for sets and only 18 days for shooting.

Rather than fret about the restrictions, Ford, screenwriter Dudley Nichols, and cinematographer Joseph August crafted a visual story that’s defined primarily through shadows, fog, and backlighting. The style is reminiscent of the great silent German expressionist films, especially those of F. W. Murnau, whose work Ford admired.

In his 1943 essay “The Writer and the Film,” Nichols explained how this approach was an excellent match for the storyline:

I had an able mentor as well as a collaborator in the person of John Ford and I had begun to catch his instinctive feeling about the film. I can see now that I sought and found a series of symbols to make visual the tragic psychology of the informer, in this case a primitive man of powerful hungers. The whole action was to be played out in one foggy night, for the fog was symbolic of the groping primitive mind; it really is a mental fog in which he moves. . . .

Though often shy and reserved in real life, Ford could be a hard taskmaster when directing. He had to fight RKO to cast former boxer Victor McLaglen as Gypo, the central character. As McBride explains in his book:

Ford directed McLaglen with cunning calculation, bullying and tricking him into giving a great performance. Since he wanted McLaglen to grope for his lines to convey Gypo’s slow-witted, half-drunken condition, Ford continually changed the schedule to keep McLaglen unfamiliar with his scenes and surreptitiously filmed what the actor thought were rehearsals. He would send McLaglen off to run his lines with cast member J. M. Kerrigan at the nearby Melrose Grotto bar, and then would abruptly call a tipsy McLaglen back to the set to shoot his scenes.

The result is paradoxically realistic and expressionistic. The Informer was a popular success and widely praised by the critics. Though it came in second to Mutiny on the Bounty for the Oscar for Best Picture, Ford took home the Best Director award. In addition, McLaglen won Best Actor, Nichols won Best Screenplay, and Max Steiner won Best Musical Score. Though some of the symbolism may seem heavy handed, and the ending a bit forced, everything else works terrifically. And it doesn’t appear to be made under severe financial restraints. All the choices seem to be natural extensions of the plot.

The Informer
(1935; directed by John Ford; cable & dvd)
Warner Home Video
List Price: $59.95 (as part of The John Ford Film Collection)

Tuesday, September 30 at 2:00 a.m. eastern (late Mon. night) on Turner Classic Movies

It Happened One Night

Can one film save a failing movie studio? If the film is It Happened One Night (1934), it can. Columbia Pictures needed a hit in order to survive, and it was a gamble for the studio to spend $325,000 on this project, especially since several bus-related movies had recently failed at the box office. Fortunately, everything clicked, and It Happened One Night became the sleeper hit of 1934. It went on to become the first film to sweep all five major Academy Awards: Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor, Best Actress, and Best Screenplay. Yet immediately after she had completed filming her scenes, Claudette Colbert had told her friends, “I’ve just finished the worst picture in the world.”

If you know director Frank Capra’s later comedies, such as Mr. Deeds Goes to Town (1936), Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939), and It’s a Wonderful Life (1946), you may be surprised by the restrained sentimentality in this one. Part of what makes this comedy so enduring is its in-your-face banter that doesn’t take itself too seriously. Robert Riskin wrote the screenplay, based on the short story “Night Bus” by Samuel Hopkins Adams. The script moves at a quick pace, and its self-deprecating humor resonated with depression-era audiences who were trying to cope with financial pressures.

Here’s a scene between Peter Warne (played by Clark Gable) and Alexander Andrews (played by Walter Connolly):

Alexander Andrews: Oh, er, do you mind if I ask you a question, frankly? Do you love my daughter?
Peter Warne: Any guy that’d fall in love with your daughter ought to have his head examined.
Alexander Andrews: Now that’s an evasion!
Peter Warne: She picked herself a perfect running mate – King Westley – the pill of the century! What she needs is a guy that’d take a sock at her once a day, whether it’s coming to her or not. If you had half the brains you’re supposed to have, you’d done it yourself, long ago.
Alexander Andrews: Do you love her?
Peter Warne: A normal human being couldn’t live under the same roof with her without going nutty! She’s my idea of nothing!
Alexander Andrews: I asked you a simple question! Do you love her?
Peter Warne: YES! But don’t hold that against me, I’m a little screwy myself!

Some film historians cite It Happened One Night as the first screwball comedy. Whether that’s the case depends on how you define a screwball comedy. It opened earlier in the year than Twentieth Century (1934) and The Merry Widow (1934), yet it was released one year after Duck Soup (1933) and two years after Trouble in Paradise (1932). It’s certainly one of the first screwball comedies and easily one of the best.

It Happened One Night
(1934; directed by Frank Capra; cable & dvd)
Sony Pictures
List Price: $24.95

Sunday, September 28 at 6:00 p.m. eastern on Turner Classic Movies

North By Northwest

Roger Thornhill should have known he was in trouble when he walked through the lobby, and the hotel’s music system played “It’s a Most Unusual Day.” Of rather, we should have known. He may not know it, but we do — he lives inside a Hitchcock film, so we can expect a healthy dose of sly humor and calculated thrills. If you’ve never seen it, don’t miss this one. I would pick North by Northwest (1959) as the third best Hitchcock film (after Vertigo and Psycho).

As an advertising executive, Thornhill (Cary Grant) deals in public perceptions and appearances. His job is to make real life seem more than it really is. It’s a fitting profession for someone who is less than he seems. Thornhill is bored with life and his predictable role in it. That’s about to change when he becomes entangled in a case of mistaken identity. He will be steadily stripped of his identity and forced to assume the role of another man. Along the way, he’ll encounter a mysterious woman (Eva Marie Saint), a suave-but-sinister villain (James Mason), and a larger-than-life monument (Mount Rushmore). And once again, we have a terrific musical score from Bernard Herrmann.

The most famous part of the movie is the stark sequence in which Cary Grant is chased by a crop duster. In a 1962 interview with Françoise Truffaut, Hitchcock explained how he got the idea:

I found I was faced with the old cliché situation: the man who is put on the spot, probably to be shot. Now, how is this usually done? A dark night at a narrow intersection of the city. The waiting victim standing in a pool of light under the street lamp. The cobbles are ‘washed with the recent rains.’ A close-up of a black cat slinking along against the wall of a house. A shot of a window, with a furtive face pulling back the curtain to look out. The slow approach of a black limousine, et cetera, et cetera. Now, what was the antithesis of a scene like this? No darkness, no pool of light, no mysterious figures in windows. Just nothing. Just bright sunshine and a blank, open countryside with barely a house or tree in which any lurking menaces could hide.

Here’s an interesting bit of trivia. Jessie Royce Landis, who portrays Grant’s mother in the film, was either 10 months younger or seven years older than Grant (she may have lied about her age).

North by Northwest
(1959; directed by Alfred Hitchcock; cable, dvd, and blu-ray)
Warner Home Video
List Price: $34.99 (Blu-ray), $19.95 (DVD)

Saturday, September 27 at 5:30 p.m. eastern on Turner Classic Movies
Saturday, November 1 at 10:45 p.m. eastern on Turner Classic Movies

Scarface

Howard Hawks is the least appreciated of the great American directors. It took the critics from the Parisian magazine Cahiers du Cinema in the 1950s to recognize the consistent style and world view behind such dissimilar films as Scarface (1932), Bringing Up Baby (1938), Air Force (1943), The Big Sleep (1946), Red River (1948), The Thing from Another World (1951), and Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (1953). Of Hawks’ many best-of-breed genre films, Scarface is the most underrated. Producer Howard Hughes withheld the film from circulation in the U.S. after its initial release, so it was almost impossible to see until the 1970s. You had a better chance of seeing the film if you lived in Paris than if you lived in New York or Los Angeles.

Scarface is far more complex thematically and visually than Little Caesar (1930) or The Public Enemy (1931), and much more satisfying. Tony and his henchmen attend a theatrical performance of Rain, another cautionary tale about a man who tries to impose his will on others. Tony has to leave the theater early, missing the downfall of the play’s tragic figure, in order to set in motion the events that will lead to his own downfall. Like the men in Hawks’ Only Angels Have Wings and Air Force, Tony and his gang react to life-threatening situations by creating their own rules of conduct and honor. The group is fiercely loyal until someone deliberately crosses the line to threaten the cohesiveness of the group. In virtually all his films, Hawks explores the interplay between individual initiative and group co-operation. It’s the dynamic push-pull between these two forces that drives the characters’ actions and moves the story forward to its logical conclusion. With the Hawks comedies, that universe is turned completely upside down.

Hawks and scriptwriter Ben Hecht populate the sets in Scarface with symbolic Xs and crosses. Look closely, and you’ll see them throughout the film, particularly at critical junctures in the plot. During the production of the film, Hawks ran afoul of the studio censors, who were repelled by the large number of murders and cold-hearted glee with which the gangsters carry out their revenge. Hawks was forced to insert a high-minded introduction and clumsy moral-indignation scene to soften what was thought to be a dangerously immoral film. Hawks also had to tone down the ending. He had wanted Tony (played by Paul Muni) to end face down in a pile of horse manure.

This isn’t just the best gangster movie ever made. It’s a landmark film of the early 1930s, and the first mature work by one of Hollywood’s preeminent directors.

Scarface
(1932; directed by Howard Hawks; cable & dvd)
United Artists
List Price: $14.98

Friday, September 26 at 8:00 p.m. eastern on Turner Classic Movies
Sunday, October 5 at 10:00 a.m. eastern on Turner Classic Movies

Dr. Strangelove

It’s hard to write about Stanley Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (1964) without resorting to superlatives. It’s the best comedy of the 1960s. It’s the best black comedy ever. It has the longest title of any Oscar-nominated film. Just as Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) redefined optimism about the future possibilities of technology, Dr. Strangelove redefined pessimism about the current limitations of technology. In both films, technology is seen as an extension of human nature.

Kubrick started out to make a thriller about an accidental nuclear attack. But as he adapted Peter George’s novel Red Alert for the screen, he saw the comic potential in many of the scenes. He brought in Terry Southern to help turn the project into a dark satire bordering on farce. Kubrick and Southern conceived a very different ending. The story was to conclude with a giant food fight in the war room (look for a large food table in the background near the end of the movie). The characters would have thrown pies at each other in a visual reductio ad absurdum (Latin for “reduction to the absurd”). Kubrick went so far as to actually shoot that ending, though only stills from it survive today.

Peter Sellers plays three parts in the movie: Group Captain Lionel Mandrake, President Merkin Muffley, and Dr. Strangelove. Sellers was originally slated to play a fourth part, that of Major T. J. ‘King’ Kong. Kubrick wanted to show the same personality was present at every stage of the process, from the President ordering a bombing to an airman personally delivering the bomb. Sellers was finding it hard to get the Texas accent right for the Major, so when he broke his leg about the same time, Kubrick decided to cast Slim Pickens for the role.

Kubrick had planned to premiere the film in December 1963, but delayed the opening because of the November 22 assassination of President Kennedy. Following his list of the contents in the survival pack, Major Kong says, “a fella could have a pretty good weekend in Vegas with all that stuff.” Pickens had originally mentioned “Dallas” as the city, but Kubrick had him dub in “Vegas” so as not to remind the audience of the assassination.

If you’re thinking about buying the DVD, check out the two-disc 40th anniversary special edition which includes the 2004 remastered version of the film, as well as a new documentary titled No Fighting in the War Room or: Dr. Strangelove and the Nuclear Threat.

Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb
(1964; directed by Stanley Kubrick; cable, dvd, and blu-ray)
Sony Pictures
List Price: $19.95 (40th Anniversary Special Edition DVD), $38.96 (Blu-ray)

Friday, September 26 at 1:15 p.m. eastern (late Thu. night) on Turner Classic Movies

His Girl Friday

Want to see the true genius of Howard Hawks? You only have to look as far as His Girl Friday (1940). As good as Ben Hecht’s play The Front Page was, it took Hawks (with Hecht’s assistance) to take it to the next level. Hawks talked about the origin of the film in an interview with Peter Bogdanovich:

I was going to prove to somebody one night that The Front Page had the finest modern dialogue that had been written, and I asked a girl to read Hildy’s part and I read the editor and I stopped and I said, ‘Hell, it’s better between a girl and a man than between two men,’ and I called Ben Hecht and I said, ‘What would you think of changing it so that Hildy is a girl?’ And he said, I think it’s a great idea,’ and he came out and we did it.

Much has been written about the Hawksian woman, who can hold her own against a group of rowdy and insular males, but is no less feminine for being able to do so. For Hawks to convert a best-friend role to a best-gal role was almost second nature. Hawks did more than just change the gender of one of the characters. He kept most of the drama involving Earl Williams, the convicted murdered, but he also built up what would become the main concerns of the film — will Hildy walk out on Walter Burns, quit the Morning Post, and marry her fiancée? If the film has a flaw, it’s the wide swings between its dramatic and comedic threads. Fortunately, Hawks and Hecht interweave the two at such a frantic pace, we barely have time to consider the incongruities.

In a 1956 interview with Jacques Becker, Jacques Rivette, and Françoise Truffaut, Hawks spoke about the benefits of a fast pace:

I generally work with a faster than usual tempo than that of most of my colleagues. It seems more natural to me, less forced. I personally speak slowly, but people generally talk, talk, talk without even waiting for other people to finish. Also, if a scene is a bit weak, the more rapidly you shoot it, the better it will be on the screen. Moreover, if the tempo is fast you can emphasize a point by slowing the rhythm.

This film is often praised for its overlapping dialogue. Delivered in rapid-fire fashion — yet never seeming unnatural or forced — the script is a textbook example of how to engage the viewer with wit and style. The one-liners, causal asides, and occasional in-jokes make the first twenty minutes about as good as it gets. Cary Grant, Rosalind Russell, Ralph Bellamy, and a fine supporting cast round out the talent for one of the finest comedies ever.

His Girl Friday
(1940; directed by Howard Hawks; cable & dvd)
Sony Pictures
List Price: $24.95

Saturday, September 20 at 8:00 p.m. eastern on Turner Classic Movies

2001: A Space Odyssey

If the measure of a classic film is its ability to withstand the erosions of time, 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) would have to be regarded as the best science fiction film of all time. Though we have moved beyond it chronologically, its predictive value still seems valid.

The decades-old special effects also hold up well. By comparison, George Lukas felt the need to repeatedly update the special effects and storyline in Star Wars (1977), despite the fact it was released nine years later. Science fiction films are especially prone to becoming dated. Both Woman on the Moon (1929) and Things to Come (1936) boldly depict a future that now seems forever bound to a distant past.

One of the reasons 2001 endures is Kubrick’s obsession with getting it right. When there’s an explosion in space, you don’t hear the sound of the explosion. That’s less dramatic, but completely accurate — there’s no air in space to carry the sound. Kubrick and writer Arthur C. Clarke even poke fun at their quest for authenticity. One scene shows the lengthy instructions needed to successfully operate a zero-gravity toilet.

Kubrick did find a technical flaw just before the film was released. It would have been too costly to correct, so the mistake remains. During the flight to the moon, Dr. Floyd drinks food through a straw, in what we understand to be a weightless environment. If you look closely, you can see the food drop when he stops sucking on the straw. Since there’s no gravity, the food shouldn’t be falling back.

Another reason this movie seems contemporary is the remarkably detailed spacecraft and docking facilities. This is the first modern science fiction film in terms of the care and expense devoted to making space travel appear as lifelike as possible. It also didn’t hurt that the movie was shot in 65mm (Super Panavision 70), which provides nearly four times the resolution of a standard 35mm film.

A third contributing factor is the open-ended plot. The conclusion of the film is open to so many different interpretations, you’ll find a variety of websites claiming to “explain 2001.” Even if you accept the most plausible plotline (aliens monitor our technological advances and then help mankind to take the next evolutionary step), there is still a strong element of mystery.

The film combines an obsessive attention to detail with a poetic sense of greater possibilities. That the two can coexist is a testament to Kubrick and Clarke’s creative talents and their willingness to take a great leap of faith in the power of this extraordinary medium.

2001: A Space Odyssey
(1968; directed by Stanley Kubrick; cable, dvd, and blu-ray)
Warner Home Video
List Price: $19.95 (DVD), $29.99 (Blu-ray)

Saturday, September 20 at 5:15 p.m. eastern on Turner Classic Movies

The Big Sleep

What if someone created a murder mystery so entertaining you didn’t care who did the murder? That’s the case with The Big Sleep (1946). Based on Raymond Chandler’s first novel, the story draws private detective Philip Marlowe (Humphrey Bogart) into an ever expanding circle of corruption and conspiracy. Eight deaths are woven throughout the book and film, making it unusually hard to keep up with the various murderers and victims. Director Howard Hawks phoned Chandler long distance during the film’s production because he couldn’t figure out who murdered the man who was dumped in the ocean along with his car. According to Hawks, Chandler was unable to provide an adequate solution.

William Faulkner worked on the script, along with Jules Furthman and Leigh Brackett. Faulkner had teamed with Hawks, Bogart, and Lauren Bacall the previous year on To Have and Have Not (1944). If you’re familiar with Faulkner’s novels, it’s an interesting game to try to spot the Faulkner dialogue throughout the two films.

Here are a few examples from The Big Sleep that Faulkner may have had a hand in crafting:

Vivian: Speaking of horses, I like to play them myself. But I like to see them workout a little first, see if they’re front runners or come from behind, find out what their whole card is, what makes them run.
Marlowe: Find out mine?
Vivian: I think so.
Marlowe: Go ahead.
Vivian: I’d say you don’t like to be rated. You like to get out in front, open up a little lead, take a little breather in the backstretch, and then come home free.
Marlowe: You don’t like to be rated yourself.
Vivian: I haven’t met anyone yet that can do it. Any suggestions?
Marlowe: Well, I can’t tell till I’ve seen you over a distance of ground. You’ve got a touch of class, but I don’t know how, how far you can go.
Vivian: A lot depends on who’s in the saddle.

Mars: Convenient, the door being open when you didn’t have a key, eh?
Marlowe: Yeah, wasn’t it. By the way, how’d you happen to have one?
Mars: Is that any of your business?
Marlowe: I could make it my business.
Mars: I could make your business mine.
Marlowe: Oh, you wouldn’t like it. The pay’s too small.

Marlowe: Hmm.
Sternwood: What does that mean?
Marlowe: It means, hmm.

Based on the running time of 114 minutes, it looks like TCM will be showing the 1946 theatrical release of The Big Sleep. The DVD includes the theatrical release, as well as the less-familiar 116-minute prerelease version from 1945. The earlier version has an easier-to-follow, more linear plot. The release version moves along faster, sustains the film noir mood better, and is an overall superior film.

The Big Sleep
(1946; directed by Howard Hawks; cable & dvd)
Warner Home Video
List Price: $19.95

Monday, September 15 at 11:00 p.m. eastern on Turner Classic Movies
Sunday, November 23 at 2:00 p.m. eastern on Turner Classic Movies

The Awful Truth

The Awful Truth (1937) is one of the least appreciated of the top screwball comedies, in part because director Leo McCarey isn’t as well known as directors Frank Capra, George Cukor, Ernst Lubitsch, Preston Sturges, or even Howard Hawks. His best comedies include Let’s Go Native (1930), Duck Soup (1933), Six of a Kind (1934), Ruggles of Red Gap (1935), and The Awful Truth. These comedies share a relaxed feel, seamless construction, and almost unequaled comic timing. McCarey was quite willing to improvise on the set, yet his films stay focused, which isn’t always the case with directors who improvise. Of course, it helps if you’re working with top talent. McCarey directed some of the best work of The Marx Brothers, Laurel and Hardy, Harold Lloyd, Mae West, and Eddie Cantor.

McCarey shifted away from comedy in the 1940s. During the war years and into the 1950s, he specialized in competently made, often sentimental dramas, such as Love Affair (1939), Going My Way (1944), The Bells of St. Mary’s (1945), and An Affair to Remember (1957). Throughout his career, McCarey brought a human touch to his films that was both sincere and discerning. According to Andrew Sarris’ book The American Cinema, “Jean Renoir once remarked that Leo McCarey understood people better than any other Hollywood director.”

The Awful Truth is based on Arthur Richman’s 1921 Broadway play of the same name, which was also the basis for a 1925 silent film and a 1929 sound film. The same story was remade as a musical in 1953 with the oddly appropriate title, Let’s Do It Again.

Because McCarey could make the characters so believable and likeable, almost from the start, he and screenwriter Viña Delmar were able to infuse the dialogue with an intelligence and grace you rarely see this side of Lubitsch. Here’s an example of the lines given to the main actors, Cary Grant (Jerry Warriner) and Irene Dunne (Lucy Warriner):

Lucy: You’re all confused, aren’t you?
Jerry: Aren’t you?
Lucy: No.
Jerry: Well you should be, because you’re wrong about things being different because they’re not the same. Things are different except in a different way. You’re still the same, only I’ve been a fool… but I’m not now.
Lucy: Oh.
Jerry: So long as I’m different, don’t you think that… well, maybe things could be the same again… only a little different, huh?

If you like comedies such as Bringing Up Baby (1938), The Philadelphia Story (1940), His Girl Friday (1940), and The Lady Eve (1941), you’re almost sure to like this one. It’s a rare treat.

The Awful Truth
(1937; directed by Leo McCarey; cable & dvd)
Sony Pictures
List Price: $19.95

Sunday, September 14 at 12:15 p.m. eastern on Turner Classic Movies

Freaks

One of the more unusual Hollywood studio films from the 1930s is Tod Browning’s Freaks (1932). It’s often dismissed as an exploitation film or a cheap attempt at sensationalism. In fact, it’s neither. Browning, best known for having directed Dracula the year before, had run away to join the circus when he was 16 years old. He worked as a talker (popularly, though incorrectly, known as a circus “barker”). He also worked as “The Living Corpse” and performed as a clown with Ringling Brothers.

Browning chose real-life circus freaks for many of the roles in the film, not so much to exploit or sensationalize their presence, but to portray them as he had experienced them — as ordinary people with mostly ordinary lives. By contrast, the other characters in the film are portrayed as greedy, arrogant, and intolerant. They’re the real freaks. From this point of view, Freaks is the opposite of an exploitation film. Andrew Sarris has argued it’s “one of the most compassionate films ever made.”

As entertainment, Freaks has its ups and downs. The circus freaks aren’t always convincing. They’re amateur actors, after all. Unfortunately, some of the professional actors aren’t much better. Former silent star Olga Baclanova has a heavy Russian accent that tends to get in the way.

On the plus side is Browning’s skill in weaving suspense and horror elements into the narrative. He does this without undercutting his central thesis that the freaks are better adjusted and more tightly bonded in friendship than the outsiders. As a former circus talker, Browning knows audiences want to stare at the freaks, even as they want to turn away in disgust. He uses these contradictory emotions to build to an exciting finish. A scene where the freaks sincerely accept an outsider as “one of us” evokes similar mixed emotions, both for the character in the film and vicariously for the audience.

This film isn’t for everyone. If you can move beyond the sub-par acting and shock-horror overlay, you’ll find a serious exploration of what it means to be a kind and generous person, no matter which cards life has dealt for you.

Freaks
(1932; directed by Tod Browning; cable & dvd)
Warner Home Video
List Price: $19.95

Saturday, September 13 at 3:45 a.m. eastern (late Fri. night) on Turner Classic Movies

Ninotchka

In a letter to film historian Herman G. Weinberg, director Ernst Lubitsch cited Ninotchka (1939) as one of his three best films. Lubitsch wrote, “As to satire, I believe I probably was never sharper than in Ninotchka, and I feel that I succeeded in the very difficult task of blending a political satire with a romantic story.” The letter was written on July 10, 1947 — just months before Lubitsch’s death.

Greta Garbo plays the part of Ninotchka, a stern, no-nonsense Russian envoy sent to Paris to check up on three representatives of the Soviet Board of Trade. She believes they are unduly influenced by capitalistic luxuries. Melvyn Douglas plays the part of Leon, a sophisticated bachelor who seems to have little more to do than experience the sights and sounds of Paris.

This time around, Lubitsch teamed with writers Charles Brackett, Billy Wilder, and Walter Reisch to adapt a story by Melchior Lengyel. As you might expect from the talent involved, the script is full of comic gems. Here are some examples:

Buljanoff: How are things in Moscow?
Ninotchka: Very good. The last mass trials were a great success. There are going to be fewer but better Russians.

Iranoff: Can you imagine what the beds would be in a hotel like that?
Kopalski: They tell me when you ring once the valet comes in; when you ring twice you get the waiter; and do you know what happens when you ring three times? A maid comes in — a French maid
Iranoff (with a gleam in his eye): Comrades, if we ring nine times . . .

Ninotchka: I am interested only in the shortest distance between these two points. Must you flirt?
Leon: I don’t have to but I find it natural.
Ninotchka: Suppress it.
Leon: I’ll try.

MGM publicized the film with the tagline, “Garbo laughs,” ignoring the fact that Garbo had laughed in a previous MGM film, Queen Christina (1933). Ninotchka was a box office success and was later remade into the musical Silk Stockings (1957). After she retired from her film career, Garbo acknowledged that Lubitsch was the only truly great film director she had worked with.

Ninotchka
(1939; directed by Ernst Lubitsch; cable & dvd)
MGM Home Entertainment
List Price: $19.95

Wednesday, September 10 at 8:00 p.m. eastern on Turner Classic Movies

Footlight Parade

How do you top the untoppable? That was the problem facing Busby Berkeley and the Warner Bros. Studio back in 1933. Following the success that same year of 42nd Street and Gold Diggers of 1933, how could they make the script funnier, the pacing faster, and — most importantly — the spectacular musical numbers even more spectacular? The answer was Footlight Parade (1933), which is funnier, faster, and more spectacular than its two predecessors.

Footlight Parade may surprise you if you haven’t seen many classic films. You may be aware of Busby Berkeley’s campy musical numbers, but you may not realize how strong the comedic elements are in the earlier (and superior) Berkeley films. Just as Top Hat (1935) is just as good a romantic comedy as it is showcase for great dancing, the first two-thirds of Footlight Parade holds its own against most comedies. The last third of the movie consists almost entirely of the three musical numbers — each one bigger (and more improbable) than the last.

If you haven’t watched Yankee Doodle Dandy (1942), you may also be surprised to see James Cagney dance in this film. In fact, he started out as a dancer and was cast as a gangster in The Public Enemy (1931) only after switching roles.

And if you haven’t seen many pre-code Hollywood films from the early 1930s, you may be amazed by how modern they feel, especially in their verbal and sexual frankness. It isn’t anything you couldn’t hear on network television today, but it may be a shock to hear this coming from your grandmother’s or great-grandmother’s generation. One of the musical numbers revolves around a honeymoon hotel where all the guests go by the name of Mr. and Mrs. Smith.

Here are a few highlights from the movie’s dialogue, which have a refreshing depression-era we’re all in this together attitude:

Chester Kent: Hello, Vivian. This is Miss Rich. My secretary, Miss Prescott.
Nan Prescott: I know Miss Bi… Rich, if you remember.

Nan Prescott: [to Vivian] As long as there are sidewalks, you’ve got a job.

Charlie Bowers: Is there anything I can do?
Chester Kent: Yeah. See that window over there?
Charlie Bowers: Yeah.
Chester Kent: Take a running jump and I think you can make it.

In my college days, we used to run Footlight Parade regularly during final exams. Just as depression-era audiences craved an escape from their daily trials and tribulations, the exam-weary students responded positively to the film’s snappy comebacks, flawless comic timing, and — yes — glorious excesses contained in the musical numbers. Granted, it’s all a bit silly, but who doesn’t need a bit of silly every now and then?

Footlight Parade
(1933; directed by Lloyd Bacon, musical numbers by Busby Berkeley; cable & dvd)
Warner Home Video
List Price : $19.95

Friday, September 5 at 11:00 p.m. eastern on Turner Classic Movies

La Jetée

When I think of classic short films, I usually recall the silent comedies of Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton, or Harold Lloyd. Or I might remember my favorite cartoons from Walt Disney, Dave Fleischer, or Chuck Jones. Of course, there are many other fine short films that span the decades.

One of the best shorts from the 1960s is Chris Marker’s La Jetée (1962). It’s remarkable for several reasons. First, it tells an absorbing story that builds to a never-to-be-forgotten climax. Second, it’s technically innovative in a way that’s perfectly in keeping with the subject matter. And third, it shows you don’t have to spend a lot of money on a film production — if you have the imagination to transform the technical deficiencies into creative assets.

I’ve never encountered anyone who wasn’t impressed by this superb 26-minute film, yet strictly speaking, it may not quality as a motion picture. With the exception of a few seconds in the middle, the story is told entirely through still images. That had to save a ton of money, yet Marker was able to create the illusion of movement by panning, fading, cross-fading, and sequencing the images to match the narration, emotionally charged music, and occasional sound effects.

The story, which involves time travel and the persistence of memory, is an ideal fit for this approach. The protagonist is selected for the time travel experiments because he retains fragmentary images from the past and may be able to fill in the gaps (similar to the audience having to mentally fill in the missing film frames).

This short will appeal to a broader audience than just science fiction fans. It has a wistful romanticism that’s as vital to the story as any of the more fantastic elements. Though Marker is an American, he filmed La Jetée in France. As a result, it’s much closer in tone to Françoise Truffaut than to Hollywood sci-fi.

A newer version of this short replaces the French narrator — and English subtitles — with an American narrator, who I assume is Chris Marker. The out-of-print DVD titled Short 2: Dreams had this version, which was Marker’s “preferred cut.” I prefer the original version, though either would qualify as one of the best shorts made during the second half of the twentieth century. The Criterion DVD and Blu-ray have what are essentially both versions. You can run it with either a French or English narrator, and add in English subtitles to supplement the French narration.

You may have read about La Jetée because of its connection with Terry Gilliam’s 12 Monkeys (1995). Gilliam explains in his La Jetée DVD commentary that 12 Monkeys was “inspired by” rather than “based on” the short. The screenwriters used it to generate ideas for their script. Gilliam, however, chose not to see it until 12 Monkeys was completed. After finally viewing La Jetée, Gilliam proclaimed Marker to be a genius.

La Jetée
(1962; directed by Chris Marker; cable, dvd, and blu-ray)
Criterion Collection
List Price: $39.95 (Blu-ray), $39.95 (DVD) [both discs includes Marker's Sans Soleil]

Monday, September 1 at 7:15 p.m. eastern on Turner Classic Movies

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