Cable and DVD


David Copperfield

The novels of Charles Dickens should be ripe for film adaptation. The plucky heroes, sentimental plots, and rich background characters would be instantly recognizable if translated to the screen properly. That’s the problem. What film could possibly live up to the novels, which often run a thousand pages or more? (Dickens was usually paid according to the number of words published.)

After decades of mixed results, three film adaptations stand out from the rest: David Copperfield (1935; directed by George Cukor), Great Expectations (1946; directed by David Lean), and Oliver Twist (1948; directed by David Lean). While the two Lean films stress the darker side of Dickens, the Cukor effort is pure Hollywood — in the good sense of the phrase. It’s impossible now to re-read the novel without imagining Edna May Oliver as the irrepressible Betsey Trotwood, Roland Young as the slimy Uriah Heep, Lennox Pawle as the off-in-a-cloud Mr. Dick, and Freddie Bartholomew as the stalwart young David Copperfield.

Most inspired of all was the casting of W.C. Fields as Mr. Micawber. Cukor recounts his impression of Fields to interviewer Gavin Lambert:

He was charming to work with, his suggestions and adlibs were always in character. There was a scene in which he had to sit at a desk writing, and he asked me if he could have a cup of tea on the desk. When he got agitated, he dipped his pen into the teacup instead of the inkwell. Another time he was sitting on a high stool and asked for a wastepaper basket so he could get his feet stuck in it. Physically he wasn’t quite right, wasn’t bald as Dickens describes Micawber — but his spirit was perfect.

Some critics have complained that Cukor’s David Copperfield is less than the sum of its parts — that the film doesn’t rise above its carefully conceived set pieces and vignettes. I disagree. While the film loses some momentum once the main character becomes a man (Frank Lawton was less than optimally cast as the adult David), that’s equally true of the novel and other film or television adaptations of the book. Dickens was better at portraying childhood hopes and fears than the mature aspirations of those same children as adults.

David Copperfield
(1935; directed by George Cukor; cable & dvd)
Warner Home Video
List Price: $19.98

Thursday, April 6 at 11:15 p.m. eastern on Turner Classic Movies

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: $21.99

Sunday, April 2 at 8:15 a.m. eastern on Turner Classic Movies

Boudu Saved from Drowning

We talk about directors who are open, either to the spontaneity of their actors (Robert Altman) or to chance events (David Lynch). No director has been as open as Jean Renoir. Boudu Saved from Drowning (1932) is not only an early sound film for Renoir, it’s an early sound film for the French cinema. Like Rene Clair, Renoir freely experiments with various sound and camera techniques. Yet Renoir’s experimentations are always firmly grounded in the story and characters.

Boudu is the story of a tramp who wants to end his life because he can’t find the dog who has befriended him. Most critics have viewed the film as an indictment of petty bourgeois behavior, but Renoir’s approach isn’t so simple. He also pokes fun at the well-intentioned left, who want to help the unprivileged — as long as they’re kept at a distance. Michel Simon turns in a masterful comic performance as Boudu. He’s simultaneously lovable and irritating, and true to form, Renoir remains impartial. Renoir’s world is large enough to encompass the good and bad aspects of contradictory sides — left versus right, instinct versus convention, self consciousness versus naiveté, and civilization versus nature.

Truffaut and the other New Wave directors were heavily influenced by Renoir’s relaxed and inventive style (Renoir was Truffaut’s favorite filmmaker). They also adopted his realistic approach to filming, which Renoir had picked up from silent director Erich von Stroheim. (Renoir’s films, particularly Toni, also strongly influenced the Italian Neo-Realists.) Not surprisingly, the New Wave was more excited by Renoir’s early free spirited films, such as Boudu and The Crime of Monsieur Lange, than by his later masterpieces, Grand Illusion and The Rules of the Game.

With Renoir and the early New Wave directors, it’s easy to fall into the trap of confusing an easy and liberated style with technical incompetence. André Bazin writes in his book, Jean Renoir:

One of the best scenes in Boudu Saved from Drowning, the suicide attempt from the Pont des Arts, was made in total defiance of the logic of the scene. The crowd of unpaid extras gathered on the bridge and the river banks was not there to witness a tragedy. They came to watch a movie being made, and they were in good humor. Far from asking them to feign the emotion which verisimilitude would demand, Renoir seems to have encouraged them in their light-hearted curiosity. . . For Renoir, what is important is not the dramatic value of a scene. Drama, action — in the theatrical or novelistic sense of the terms — are for him only pretexts for the essential, and the essential is everywhere in what is visible, everywhere in the very substance of the cinema.

By all means, see Grand Illusion and The Rules of the Game, which are truly two of the greatest films ever made. But don’t deny yourself the pleasure of watching Boudu Saved from Drowning.

Boudu Saved from Drowning
(1932; directed by Jean Renoir; dvd)
Criterion Collection
List Price $29.95

Thursday, March 30 at 4:30 a.m. eastern (late Wed. night) 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)

Friday, March 17 at 6:15 p.m. eastern on Turner Classic Movies

Ugetsu

Nobody does ghost stories like the Japanese. Just ask someone who has seen the contemporary Japanese movies, Ringu and Kairo. Ugetsu isn’t just a ghost story, though it’s the images from the ghost portion of the film that tend to linger in the mind and haunt the viewer for years to come.

Ugetsu is generally acknowledged to be director Kenji Mizoguchi’s finest film. Tastes in movies can be subjective, but it’s fairly obvious to anyone who has seen it that Ugetsu belongs in the same league as Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai and Ozu’s Tokyo Story. Set in a period of violent civil strife, a humble potter leaves his wife and young child to sell his wares in the city. He meets a mysterious woman there, who turns out to be much more than meets the eye.

One of the most beautifully photographed and fluid of the classic Japanese films, Ugetsu is given a first-class treatment by Criterion with a new high-definition digital transfer. The scenes on the water glimmer and sparkle as they did in the 35mm print, and the subtle lighting throughout is far more apparent than in the previous laserdisc release. As someone who treasured his laserdisc version of this film, I was very happy with the Criterion DVD transfer.

Eureka Entertainment offers a Blu-ray that is supposed to be very close to the theatrical experience, however that disc is Region B encoded. No word yet from Criterion on whether they plan to offer a Region A version for the U.S. market.

Criterion’s double-disc DVD set includes an informative 150-minute documentary on Mizoguchi and his films, titled Kenji Mizoguchi: The Life of a Film Director. It’s an excellent introduction to an under-appreciated director, who Jean-Luc Godard proclaimed as “quite simply one of the greatest of filmmakers.”

Ugetsu
(1953; directed by Kenji Mizoguchi; cable & dvd)
Criterion Collection
List Price: $39.95

Wednesday, March 1 at 4:30 p.m. eastern on Turner Classic Movies

A Midsummer Night's Dream

If you looked at the cast list for A Midsummer Night’s Dream (1935), you couldn’t be blamed for passing it by. How could Shakespeare’s most beloved comedy be well served by the likes of James Cagney, Joe E. Brown, Dick Powell, Olivia de Havilland, and Mickey Rooney?

What you wouldn’t know from glancing at the cast list is that this film was co-directed by Max Reinhardt, the famed Austrian theatrical producer and director. His stage production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream was considered to be without equal, and he brings a fairytale quality to this production that goes far beyond any other film rendition of the play. The lighting, special effects, costumes, and sets combine to create a magic that’s rarely seen on the screen.

As for the casting, the Warner Brothers contract players are generally competent in their roles. Mickey Rooney is surprisingly good as Puck, though the up-and-down cadences he gives to his lines can be irritating. As Titania, Anita Louise looks just as we imagine a fairy queen should look. And Victor Jory has the commanding presence we expect from an Oberon. Even so, it’s the imaginary world the actors inhabit that grabs our attention. The choreographed movements of the creatures, the light that shimmers from the forest floor, and the misty veils that separate the viewer from the spectacle that unfolds — those are the qualities that make this a must-see film.

Also notable is the accompanying music. Most of it is based on Mendelssohn’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, which was inspired by the play. There wasn’t enough of the composition to fill the 114 minutes of music needed for the film, so composer Erich Korngold supplemented it with passages from other Mendelssohn compositions. Reinhardt had worked with Korngold previously and brought him over from Vienna for this film. It was Korngold’s his first project in Hollywood. He went on to become one of the top film composers of the 1930s and 1940s. His credits include the rousing scores for The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938) and The Sea Hawk (1940).

This film was a critical and box office flop. It did so poorly, Warner Brothers canceled Reinhardt’s contract for two additional films.

A Midsummer Night’s Dream
(1935; directed by William Dieterle and Max Reinhardt; cable & dvd)
Warner Home Video
List Price: $19.95

Friday, February 17 at 8:45 a.m. eastern on Turner Classic Movies

Captain Blood

Captain Blood (1935) is the first of three exceptional swashbuckling films from an unlikely trio: director Michael Curtiz, composer Erich Wolfgang Korngold, and actor Errol Flynn. While the other two films — The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938) and The Sea Hawk (1940) — are better known, Captain Blood is in many ways the superior film because the trio hadn’t yet settled comfortably into the format.

Known to be hard working, but temperamental, Curtiz was an odd choice to direct a pirate movie. The genre hadn’t been popular since the Douglas Fairbanks films of the 1920s, though it experienced a sudden resurgence in 1935 with the release of both Captain Blood and Mutiny on the Bounty. This was Korngold’s first original film score, and it forever associated his name with classic action-adventure films. The three films just wouldn’t be the same without Korngold’s rousing scores. And 26-year-old Flynn wasn’t supposed to play the title role that propelled him to fame almost overnight. Robert Donat had been the first choice based on his success the previous year in The Count of Monte Cristo. He turned down the part because of poor health.

The studio wasn’t able to spend a lot of money on this project. If you look closely, you’ll notice the ships in the battle scenes aren’t full size. Instead, Curtiz and cinematographer Hal Mohr used miniatures, process photography, and clips from the 1924 silent version of The Sea Hawk.

Though clearly a product of Hollywood, this film has an international pedigree. Curtiz had fled his native Hungary in 1918 when the communist regime nationalized the film industry. Korngold, the son of a well-known music critic, had emigrated from Vienna earlier in 1935. Flynn grew up on the Australian island state of Tasmania. And co-star Olivia de Havilland was born in Tokyo, though her parents were British.

Captain Blood
(1935; directed by Michael Curtiz; cable & DVD)
Warner Home Video
List Price: $19.95

Sunday, February 5 at 3:45 p.m. eastern on Turner Classic Movies

The Magnificent Ambersons

Is Ambersons better than Kane? If you’re talking about the first part of the film, then the answer is yes. The problem with The Magnificent Ambersons (1942), which Orson Welles directed just a year after Citizen Kane, is it was re-edited and given a happier ending. In his book Orson Welles, Joseph McBride quotes Welles as saying:

About forty-five minutes were cut out — the whole heart of the picture really — for which the first part had been a preparation . . . The film has a silly ending . . . just ridiculous . . . It bears no relation to my script.

Welles didn’t exaggerate about the missing 45 minutes. At its sneak preview in the spring of 1942, the film ran 132 minutes. After a re-edit, second preview, second re-edit, and third preview, the studio released it at 88 minutes — on a double bill with a Lupe Velez film. Welles was filming in South America at the time, presumably unaware of the extent of the changes. Almost all of the last part of the film was scrapped, a new ending was shot, and some earlier scenes were trimmed, including what had been a long and intricately conceived dolly-shot of the party at the mansion.

Compared with Kane, Ambersons has a more seamless visual and narrative flow. Speaking of Ambersons’ fluid style, Françoise Truffaut wrote, “This film was made in violent contrast to Citizen Kane, almost as if by another filmmaker who detested the first and wanted to give him a lesson in modesty.” The two films do have a lot in common including deep-focus photography, overlapping dialogue, and a tightly integrated musical score by Bernard Herrmann.

In its present form, The Magnificent Ambersons is a flawed masterpiece. Up until the last few minutes, it holds up well. The ending is abrupt and inconsistent with the rest of the story, but on the whole, Ambersons is a very satisfying film. Look for the sleigh ride scene, which is an unparalleled mix of dialogue, movement, and music. It may be the finest piece of nostalgic fictional film ever recorded.

The Magnificent Ambersons
(1942; directed by Orson Welles; cable & dvd)
Warner Home Video
List Price: $14.96 (DVD)

Wednesday, December 28 at 6:00 a.m. eastern on Turner Classic Movies
Thursday, January 5 at 3:45 a.m. eastern (late Wed. night) on Turner Classic Movies
Thursday, February 16 at 10:30 a.m. eastern on Turner Classic Movies

Passion of Joan of Arc

If the historical figure at the center of The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928) could be said to embody uncompromised dedication, the same could be said of the film’s director, Carl Theodore Dreyer. Consisting entirely of close-ups and medium shots, with only the sparest of backgrounds, Dreyer relentlessly focuses in on the characters and conflicts. It may be the closest we’ve ever come to a pure narrative cinema. As you might expect, reactions to this pared-down style vary. Most film historians view this as one of the greatest silent films ever made. I wholeheartedly agree. Others see it as too extreme. You’ll have decide for yourself.

Much of the emotional appeal of this film can be attributed to the remarkable performance by Maria Falconetti as Jeanne d’Arc. It is often cited as the finest performance ever committed to celluloid. In a 1965 interview with Cahiers du Cinéma, Dreyer explains how he chose Falconetti for the part:

I went to see her one afternoon and we spoke together for an hour or two. I had seen her at the theatre. A little boulevard theatre whose name I have forgotten. She was playing there in a light, modern comedy and she was very elegant in it, a bit giddy, but charming. She didn’t conquer me at once and I didn’t have confidence in her immediately. I simply asked her if I could come to see her the next day. And during that visit, we talked. That is when I sensed that there was something in her to which one could make an appeal. Something that she could give; something, therefore that I could take.

For, behind the make-up, the pose, behind that modern and ravishing appearance, there was something. There was a soul behind that facade. If I could see her remove the facade it would suffice me. So I told her that I would very much like, starting the next day, to do a screen test with her. ‘But without make-up,’ I added, ‘with your face completely naked.’

She came, therefore, the next day ready and willing. She had taken off her make-up, we made the tests, and I found on her face exactly what I had been seeking for Joan of Arc: a rustic woman, very sincere, who was also a woman who had suffered. But even so, this discovery did not represent a total surprise for me, for, from our first meeting, this woman was very frank and, always, very surprising.

Dreyer based the script on the original trial transcripts from the year 1431, as well as a novel by Joseph Delteil. The film took a year and a half to complete, in part because Dreyer insisted that the costumes, church, courtyard, gestures, and other aspects of the production were as authentic as possible. The whole construction was painted pink, rather than white, to give it a gray tint against the sky.

According to Ebbe Neergaard’s book Carl Dreyer: A Film Director’s Work, Dreyer demanded absolute silence and banished anyone who wasn’t needed whenever Falconetti had an important scene. Neergaard writes, “She was, as it were, activated into expressing what Dreyer could not show her, for it was something that could only be expressed in action, not speech, and she alone could do it, so she had to help him. And she realized that this could only be done if she dropped all intellectual inhibitions and let her feelings have free access from her subconscious to her facial expression.”

The Passion of Joan of Arc
(1928; directed by Carl Theodore Dreyer; cable & dvd)
Criterion Collection
List Price: $39.95

Monday, December 12 at 12:45 a.m. eastern (late Sun. night) on Turner Classic Movies

The Shop Around the Corner

Some stories are so good, they’re worth telling over and over again. Take, for example, The Shop Around the Corner (1940), Ernst Lubitsch’s romantic comedy starring Margaret Sullavan and James Stewart. It was remade in 1949 as In the Good Old Summertime, with Judy Garland and Van Johnson. In 1963, it was converted into a Broadway musical, titled She Loves Me. And more recently, it was remade as yet another movie, You’ve Got Mail (1998) with Meg Ryan and Tom Hanks.

At its core, the story is quite simple, which is why it’s so easily adapted. A man and woman, who dislike each other intensely in person, have each found love anonymously in a correspondence with a stranger. What they don’t know – and we do – is that they’re corresponding with each other.

The plot wasn’t entirely original to Lubitsch. Screenwriter Samson Raphaelson adapted it from a Hungarian play. Even though Lubitsch isn’t credited with the screenplay, he and Raphaelson worked closely to write the dialogue on all their collaborations. Here’s an example of the dialogue from the film:

Marton: Remember the girl I was corresponding with?
Pirovitch: Ah, yes . . . about those cultural subjects.
Marton: Well, after a while, we came to the subject of love, naturally, but on a very cultural level.
Pirovitch: What else can you do in a letter?
Marton: Pirovitch, she’s the most marvelous girl in the world . . .
Pirovitch: Is she pretty?
Marton: She has such ideals, such a point of view on things . . . She’s so far above the girls you meet today, there’s simply no comparison.
Pirovitch: So she’s not so very pretty.

In a letter to Herman G. Weinberg (written on July 10, 1947 — just months before his death), Lubitsch suggested his three best films were Trouble in Paradise (1932), Ninotchka (1939), and The Shop Around the Corner. Lubitsch cited The Shop Around the Corner as his best “human comedy.” He wrote, “Never did I make a picture in which the atmosphere and the characters were truer than in this picture.” He chose Trouble in Paradise for its style and Ninotchka for its satire.

While Lubitsch is the master of the sophisticated comedy, you don’t always identify with his characters in the same way you identify with the characters in the comedies of Frank Capra and Leo McCarey. That’s certainly not the case with this film. With its sparkling dialogue, winning performances, and measured pacing, it’s one of the best comedies of the 1940s.

The Shop Around the Corner
(1940; directed by Ernst Lubitsch, cable & dvd)
Warner Home Video
List Price: $19.95

Wednesday, November 30 at 6:00 p.m. eastern on Turner Classic Movies
Thursday, December 15 at 8:00 p.m. eastern on Turner Classic Movies
Saturday, December 24 at 4:00 p.m. eastern 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

Tuesday, November 15 at 8:30 a.m. eastern on Turner Classic Movies

My Man Godfrey

While the screwball comedy is a byproduct of the Great Depression, not every screwball comedy reflects the era head-on. My Man Godfrey (1936) is both a spoof of — and a commentary on — the financial inequities at the time. The movie-going public was well aware the Depression was hitting the poor much harder than the wealthy, so poking fun at the idle rich was a staple of the genre. The prevailing attitude? We’re all in this together, so don’t get snooty or high-hat just because you’re well off.

Unlike the previous year’s Ruggles of Red Gap, where a real butler finds himself in the wild west, My Man Godfrey’s butler may not be what he appears to be. Both films poke fun at rich Americans who have plenty of dollars, but no sense. Godfrey is more direct in its satire, and like Sullivan’s Travels (1941), its message for social equality (in the midst of economic inequality) is front and center.

William Powell is perfectly cast as Godfrey the butler, who knows more about money and manners than his employers (echoing Charles Laughton’s role in Ruggles of Red Gap). Carole Lombard plays Irene, a spoiled heiress who is bored with her frivolous life — though she doesn’t know it yet. Here’s an example of the interplay between Powell and Lombard:

Godfrey: Do you mind telling me just what a scavenger hunt is?
Irene: Well, a scavenger hunt is exactly like a treasure hunt, except in a treasure hunt you try to find something you want, and in a scavenger hunt you try to find something that nobody wants.
Godfrey: Hmm, like a forgotten man?
Irene: That’s right, and the one who wins gets a prize, only there really isn’t a prize. It’s just the honor of winning, because all the money goes to charity, that is, if there is any money left over, but there never is.
Godfrey: Well, that clears the whole matter up beautifully.

This was the first film to be nominated for all four acting Oscars: Best Actor, Best Actress, Best Supporting Actor, and Best Supporting Actress. Coincidentally, it was the very first year for the two supporting awards. My Man Godfrey was also nominated for the writing and directing Oscars. To this day, it’s the only film to be nominated for all six awards and not be nominated for Best Picture. And to this day, it’s the only film to be nominated for all six awards and not win any of them.

My Man Godfrey
(1936; directed by Gregory La Cava; cable & dvd)
Criterion Collection
List Price: $29.95

Tuesday, September 6 at 1:45 a.m. eastern (late Mon. night) on Turner Classic Movies

Ball of Fire

Ask any Howard Hawks fan to name Hawks’ best comedies, and you’ll likely be stuck in a twenty-minute conversation. Almost everyone agrees Bringing Up Baby (1938) and His Girl Friday (1940) are top notch, but after that, the choices begin to differ. I would place Twentieth Century (1934) right up there, as well as Ball of Fire (1941). Far superior to Hawk’s own remake (A Song is Born), Ball of Fire sparkles with intelligent wordplay and shines with immediately likable characters.

Written by Charles Brackett, Thomas Monroe, and Billy Wilder, Ball of Fire is the story of seven encyclopedia writers who venture out into the world after nine years of cloistered research. Having just completed their entries on Saltpeter and Sex, they discover their books aren’t up-to-date enough for their entry on Slang. Led by Professor Bertram Potts (Gary Cooper), they encounter Sugarpuss’ O’Shea (Barbara Stanwyck), a fast-talking compendium of street idioms. They learn “shove in your clutch” means “get lost” and a “crabapple annie” is a stuffy, prudish person.

Sugarpuss O’Shea: Do you know what this means – ‘I’ll get you on the Ameche?’
Professor Bertram Potts: No.
Sugarpuss O’Shea: ‘Course you don’t. An Ameche is the telephone, on account of he invented it.
Professor Bertram Potts: Oh, no, he didn’t.
Sugarpuss O’Shea: Like, you know, in the movies.
Professor Bertram Potts: Well, I see what you mean. Very interesting. Make no mistake, I shall regret the absence of your keen mind; unfortunately, it is inseparable from an extremely disturbing body.

Though Wilder denies it was done consciously, the script plays out as a twisted Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. Here, Snow White isn’t so innocent, the prince is one of the seven dwarfs, and the dwarfs are called on to save the day. Much of the humor derives from how sheltered the encyclopedists have become in their quest to study life from a distance. Almost all Hawks films explore the dynamics of a closed group, and how it handles threats from the outside world. Ball of Fire fits squarely into that canon, though it’s more gentle than the other top Hawks comedies (the seven men are almost the antithesis of the reporters in His Girl Friday).

Ball of Fire
(1941; directed by Howard Hawks; cable & dvd)
MGM
List Price: $14.98

Sunday, September 4 at 6:00 p.m. eastern on Turner Classic Movies

The Importance of Being Earnest

The Importance of Being Earnest (1952) is not only the definitive Oscar Wilde adaptation, it’s the definitive comedy of manners. Often acknowledged to have the best cast ever assembled for the play — either on celluloid or on stage — this is one of the best film comedies of the 1950s. Michael Redgrave (as Jack Worthing), Joan Greenwood (as Gwendolen Fairfax), Michael Denison (as Algernon Moncrieff), and Dorothy Tutin (as Cecily Cardew) are perfectly matched as the couples who have to overcome real and imagined obstacles to attain true love. Yet it’s the performances by Edith Evans as Lady Augusta Bracknell and Margaret Rutherford as Miss Letitia Prism that steal the show. Pity the poor actress who has to play Lady Bracknell to an audience that remembers Evans’ outraged voice from this unforgettable movie.

Of course, here the play’s the thing. Wilde’s comedic farce is revisited time and time again because inspired writing never grows old. Here is some of the dialogue from the movie:

Jack: I have lost both my parents.
Lady Bracknell: To lose one parent, Mr. Worthing, may be regarded as a misfortune; to lose both looks like carelessness.

Gwendolen: Even before I met you I was far from indifferent to you. [Jack looks at her in amazement.] We live, as I hope you know, Mr. Worthing, in an age of ideals. The fact is constantly mentioned in the more expensive monthly magazines, and has reached the provincial pulpits, I am told; and my ideal has always been to love someone of the name of Ernest. There is something in that name that inspires absolute confidence. The moment Algernon first mentioned to me that he had a friend called Ernest, I knew I was destined to love you.

Algernon: I really don’t see anything romantic in proposing. It’s very romantic to be in love but there’s nothing romantic about a definite proposal. Why, one might be accepted. One usually is I believe. Then the whole excitement is over. The very essence of romance is uncertainty.

Lady Bracknell: To be born, or at any rate bred, in a hand-bag, whether it had handles or not, seems to me to display a contempt for the ordinary decencies of family life that reminds one of the worst excesses of the French Revolution. And I presume you know what that unfortunate movement led to? As for the particular locality in which the hand-bag was found, a cloak-room at a railway station might serve to conceal a social indiscretion — has probably, indeed, been used for that purpose before now — but it could hardly be regarded as an assured basis for a recognized position in good society.

The film’s director, Anthony Asquith, was fully in his element when poking fun at British upper-class manners. His father was Herbert Asquith, first Earl of Oxford and Prime Minister of England from 1908 to 1915. Ironically, it was Herbert Asquith, who as British Home Secretary had ordered Wilde’s arrest in 1895 for immoral behavior. Perhaps Anthony Asquith saw his direction of this sumptuous Technicolor production as a form of restitution. Whatever the motivation, Asquith was an excellent choice. His other films include A Cottage on Dartmoor (1929), Pygmalion (1938), The Way to the Stars (1945), The Winslow Boy (1948), and The Browning Version (1951).

The Importance of Being Earnest
(1952; directed by Anthony Asquith; cable & dvd)
Criterion Collection
List Price: $21.95

Wednesday, June 14 at 10:00 p.m. eastern on Turner Classic Movies

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