Archive for the ‘Claudette Colbert’ Category

Imitations Of Lives

30 Sep

Imitations Of Lives, 1934, 1959. directors John. M. Stall and Douglas Sirk. 108 minutes Black And White 1934. 124 minutes Color 1959.
The Story: A black woman and a white woman raise their daughters together, but one daughter wants to pass as white and the other wants her mother’s boyfriend.
The difficulty with the films’ material lies in that the attention given to the white story is greater than the attention given to its greater, unique, deeper title story, the story that actually would carry the film if it were handled honorably – that of the black business-partner/housekeeper and her daughter who wishes to pass as white.

The prosperity-story of the white woman’s rise to professional security is never in doubt because each lady is played by superstars Claudette Colbert and Lana Turner. When each has her success, each becomes a fashion plate. Even when poor, we never see them messy. We never see them seriously depressed. These things are touched on, but we are spared. Each ascends into fox furs by the hot air balloon of Hollywood narrative bunk.

Colbert has an advantage over Turner in that Colbert’s leading man, Warren William, is a more ambiguous charmer than Turner’s and possesses a masterful wit in lovemaking and dialogue, whereas Turner’s fella’s sense of humor is nowhere evident.

Colbert also has more natural presence and give as an actor than Lana Turner, is more humanly appealing, just as pretty, more instinctual, just the right age, and a lot of fun. She can also play on several levels. That is, she has the advantage of being more diverting. Being diverting was enormously important for a film actor of her era, for presence, charm, humor, and sheer character was necessary to divert us from the improbable routines of the stories.

Lana Turner is diverting, yes, for as long as you find an artificial flower to be diverting. For Turner has a hard time holding your attention surrounded, as she is, by her accoutrements of makeup, dress, and a hairdo as stiff as a mummy’s beard. In the 1959 remake, instead of rising to fortune on pancakes she rises to it as a Broadway actress, if you will. Saddled with a young daughter, a widowhood, and a cold-water flat, her costly, peroxide perm stretches our credulity way past Lana Turner’s girdle. For Turner is already a woman of a certain age, and what encumbers her even more is that her leading man, John Gavin, is younger and far more beautiful than she.

Jean-Louis coifs Lana Turner with his costumes. They stun and they are no more to be believed than her hairdos. Turner knows how to entice. And she has a moment or two as an actor, but she is left to her own devices by the director, and since she lacks taste and sensibility as an artist, her moments get lost in her performance decorations, one of which is her refuge to easy tears. We also come to understand why she never played in comedy, for she has no sense of humor.

And then enter My Lady Squeal, Sandra Dee – immediately at one with the vulgarity of the Ross Hunter/Douglas Sirk treatment. For the screen smears us with the candy of technicolor general lighting – that favored Hollywood illumination of the ‘50s which cursed us with American Dream pastels and avocado kitchen appliances. It fattens the film as it fattened the age. The film is swinish.

In both versions their false-eyelash direction, acting, writing, lighting, sets forbid the black women’s story from being played authentically. Juanita Hall and Louise Beavers, actors of quality, cannot play the parts because they cannot play the parts realistically but only as written in the false styles of each film, styles dead to any human relationship that is not narrative in motivation.

The issue of the story is not that of wanting to pass, but why. We never see it.

So, neither Beavers nor Hall can play their parts of the mothers beyond a general expression of sweetness, forbearance, and pain – sometimes all at once. The writing allows them no particularity, idiosyncrasy, or detail. We have to swallow an indigestible self-sacrifice from each. To these actresses of this race no other choice is provided. It’s really a form of racial bigotry passing.

Both films do have grand black funerals — the Beavers’ one being particularly characteristic — the pallbearers’ itching their rears, the horses caparisoned with net. The Juanita Hall cortege imitates it, but, of course, it is less impressive in color. Mahalia Jackson sings the elegy, and even Lana Turner is allowed to show a line on her face.

Turner’s version is an imitation of the life of An Imitation Life which wasn’t even an imitation of life to begin with. It makes no sense to think of these films as Black Flicks That Matter, but does make sense to think how, for a long time, black flicks, even when they appeared to exist, didn’t matter because they really didn’t exist at all, except as tokens still content to shove blacks into the rear of the human bus.


The Smiling Lieutenant

31 Dec

The Smiling Lieutenant — directed by Ernst Lubitsch — a musical triangle with M. Chevalier at the center, set in some Grausarkian mitteleuropean utopia where such a thing is conceivable. A candy box plot of who shall eat the bonbon. Black and white [1931

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What a madness! There stands Maurice Chevalier desired by Claudette Colbert on the one side and Miriam Hopkins on the other. It’s the same plot situation in One Hour With You — a Chevalier standard. He was touted as having irresistible charm, I expect, because there was so much in it to resist. That chimpanzee mouth. Those rollicking eyes. Those giddy shoulders. What he does have is a beautifully shaped patent leather head, broad shoulders, physical speed. What he has is accessibility to the scene and to the other actors, and this makes him flexible and responsive. He also had an insuperable confidence in his sexual attractability. Like everybody else, he adored working with Lubitsch — Garbo said Lubitsch was the only director of talent she ever worked with. The performance here is Colbert’s. She was French but did not speak with Chevalier’s gruesome French accent. But I shouldn’t say that, for it was part of his Gallic allure, supposedly, for indeed he spoke perfect unaccented English in everyday life, and his accent was purely for performances purposes. Anyhow, Colbert is so loving, so susceptible, so much fun, so kind, so pretty that one roots for her over and against the poisonous and spoiled Hopkins. During a parade, Chevalier has smiled across the street to his girlfriend, Colbert, but Hopkins, a princess passing in a barouche, believes him to be smiling at her. Trouble, my friends, ensues. The songs are minor and easy and work well with Chevalier’s song-speak style. The production is stupendous, the lighting velvety. Old George Barbier is marvelous as the king. Lubitsch is ruthless about the ruthlessness of sex. That is his great joke. That was God’s great joke upon us. That is why all actors thought Lubitsch was God — and maybe he was.



BlueBeard’s Eight Wife — I Met Him In Paris

31 Dec

Bluebeard’s Seventh Wife — directed by Ernst Lubitsch —  I Met Him In Paris — directed by Charlie Ruggles — black and white — 1937

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Charlie Ruggles directs Paris and Ernst Lubitsch directs Bluebeard, and the difference is startling. Both directors have amusingly improbable scripts, both have big stars talents, but Ruggle’s film isn’t funny where it ought to be, and Lubitsch’s film is funny even where it ought not to be. Lubitsch is a realm unto itself. Somehow he could create a context where comedy — or rather humor — could flourish. The long astonishing opening sequence of Bluebeard is a case in point. You must remember that Gary Cooper was one of the world’s best-dressed men, tutored in it by the much older woman who kept him, the Countess De Frassio. So Gary Cooper enters a posh Riviera haberdashery and is accosted by a silly salesman to whom he pays no attention. What we notice is that Cooper, the least responsive of actors, is on the uptake right from the start and through the whole long sequence, which includes more parts that I have space to tell you of here, and ends with Cooper meeting Claudette Colbert and both of them throwing one another away. But my question is: how can Lubitsch get this usually unfocussed and self-indulgent actor Gary Cooper to bowl in the money alley? (He even used Cooper in, of all things, Design For Living!) Lubitsch was a kind of soufflé in which comedy could take place, and anyone who appeared in a film of his found comic grace awaiting them. Colbert is an expert high comedienne but even she, in the second feature, I Met Him In Paris, even Melvyn Douglas who is a deft comedian, and even Robert Young who has his own neat gifts in the craft, cannot make anything but a dull dish out of Paris. In it, though, we have a charming scene of Douglas and Colbert ice-skating, and I want your opinion: does Douglas look ridiculous in knickers, or am I mistaken and does he really bring it off? Lubitsch on the other hand somehow makes one complicit in the fun. He credits your intelligence and willingness to participate in the story as he tells it, so you become part of the telling. He lets you do your job as an audience. How satisfying! How rewarding! How hand-rubbingly droll!



Three Came Home

13 Dec

Three Came Home – directed by Jean Negulesco – docu-drama about a woman in a Japanese prison camp in WWII. 106 minutes black and white 1950

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Sessue Hayakawa gives a fine performance as a Japanese officer overseeing a prison camp in WWII. The doubt and strain of his situation are well worked out in honest scenes between himself and the star Claudette Colbert, who is a model of screen acting at its best. Inherently game, like so many actresses of her era —  Paulette Goddard, Rosalind Russell, Carol Lombard —  she gives all her scenes full value. We never feel cheated by this actress. The story is both true and convincing, as are the settings and the tensions. The ending is a relief of a difficult and gripping situation. The title gives it away, but never mind. It’s exciting nonetheless.


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