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Archive for the ‘Upper Class Romantic Comedy’ Category

Quality Street

13 Aug

Quality Street – directed by George Stevens. Costume Drama. 83 minutes Black And White 1937.

★★

The Story: In 1805, a young woman hopes for a proposal from the local doctor, but instead he leaves for The Napoleonic Wars and comes back 10 years later, when, in revenge for his rebuff, she pretends to be her own 20-year-old madcap niece.

~

One wonders why Katharine Hepburn chose to drink this flagon of box office poison, after three flops in a row. Was it because George Stevens was to direct it? He had directed Alice Adams, a hit, and they had had an affair then.

It’s J.M. Barrie, and Maud Adams, Of Peter Pan fame, had starred in it on Broadway in 63 performances. It hardly offers Hepburn room for her trump suit of self-possessed, willful, smart, game women such as she would play in Stevens, Woman Of The Year.

Perhaps Hepburn thought the double roles of Phoebe and Livy would be an acting showcase. But neither female is particularly interesting or true in her hands. Hepburn’s faults as an actress are in full display with them: she puts on airs, she is arch, she is coy. She possessed the terrible trick to summon tears in a second and even control which eye would flow. Her performances all her life tend to be lachrymose, therefore, when only the audience should be.

Of course, there is still plenty in evidence of what we love her for: her remarkable face, her unflinching delivery, her ability to play an upper middle class female, and her ability to get her mouth around such lines as: ‘O, sir, this dictates of my heart enjoin me to accept your offer.’ According to her lights Hepburn snaps the script up like a macaroon. Good for her. Reluctance would have been awful.

The setting is Jane Austen land, and the genre is A Woman’s Film. The women are all in a tizzy about any man who passes who looks dashing. Eric Blore, he of the interminable grimace, as a sergeant is not dashing of course and ends up with the movie’s only authentically human character, the lusty, busty housekeeper, adeptly played by Cora Witherspoon. Estelle Winwood plays the gossip. The exquisite Fay Bainter plays Hepburn’s colluding sister. Franchot Tone plays the doctor beautifully, and looks beautiful doing it.

Maybe RKO thought the Barrie play would show class and tone. She had already played The Little Minister. But the period style stiffens into a pose. A greeting card has more weight. George Stevens, usually a master of screen treatment, films the whole thing as the stage play it is, four square, as fully lit as a cameo. Walter Plunkett’s costumes are frocks from fashion plates, women cradling shawls in the crook of their elbows when no sensible woman would have done so. Actually, Hepburn’s modern American manner is quite out of place in costume pieces, save in Little Women, which requires a hoyden in a long dress. Jo’s an A-level Hepburn character; Phoebe/Livy aint. Quality Street? A curiosity piece.

 

Mortdecai

04 Feb

Mortdecai – directed by David Keopp. Action/Farce. 107 minutes Color 2015

★★★★★

The Story: A highborn British scoundrel and his delicious wife deploy their expertise in pirating a stolen Goya.

~

Oh, oh, oh. Go, go, go!

For I shall go three times myself. For – oh, my dears – it is the funniest film you have ever seen or listened to. At least this year. At least don’t bother hoping for anything better. At least this year. Unless they make a sequel. At least this year.

The screenplay is witty beyond measure. The language positively rejoices one! If you want dandy lines, don’t despair, come here! If you want your attention alerted, don’t weep for sorrow, let your brains be restored! Here lies succor. If you want to experience the full range of comedy, high, medium, and low in one costly banquet, pray step this way.

If you enjoyed The Grand Budapest Hotel, and thought you would never meet its match again, well you were wrong! For this director knows, as Anderson knows, and I have no telling how they both doth know, how to fashion fine film farce. The speed of it! The connivance with the audience of it! The exploding of disbelief of it! The snippety snap of the editing of it! Where are you going to go for such fine fare save to this Dorchester of comedies, Mortdecai!

Now you may have lost faith in Johnny Depp by now. I know I had. I had never thought to see him do a piece of good work again. But – a-ha! – not so. For here he is in full actor fig! From the moment he wiggles that calamitous moustache I am rising from the floor from laughter to witness the next twitch.

This nasal vestment is the principal plot factor between himself and his much smarter wife, played by – oh, pray before you say those words – that church of charm, Gwyneth Paltrow. She is gorgeous, self-possessed, full of heart, and she loves our Johnny madly but not too well – for she cannot endure or overlook the moustache.

Which sits on his chops like a venomous beast from the bottom of the sea. Their escapades together and separate have to do with some masterpiece or other, for they are in the stolen-art-game. Gwyneth is there to outflank him and save the whole day, while Johnny is there to get into trouble with Those Of Overweening Greed, such as Jeff Goldblum and his nymphomaniacal daughter who want the Goya for themselves and who are willing to do mortal harm to our Johnny.

Fortunately our Johnny is a pusillanimous ninny (pusillanimous is a word which is applied never to low-born, only to high-born cowards), soooo, he is likely to oft come near mortal harm, but bound to be saved from it by his body-guard played by Paul Bettany. They are the Jeeves and Bertie of action/adventure comedy. Paul has so many notches on his belt, women tear off his britches on sight.

We have before us Depp’s best work since Jack Sparrow, and just as funny, original, and rash. Depp dares the camera to miss a single detail. The lowering of an eyelid. The raising of an eyelid. The lowering of an eyelid.

He has made a rare caricature of this plummy Englishman, a first drawing of a type now given the breath of its first public spanking, yet recognizable to us from all we dared not say or think.

The trick in it is to arrange a parity between this cartoon and Paltrow, who is not a cartoon. How do Depp and Paltrow go about – from such disparate technical poles – making the love story hold? It’s mainly Paltrow’s job, and while I don’t know how she does it, the movie does depend on her in the matter.

Oh, my dears, my darlings, my beloveds, do go and delight yourselves. What more can I tell you? What more pipe you to it? Don’t wait for Johnny and Gwyneth. Lace up your boots! Be quick! Be nimble! Be beguiled!

 

Song Of The Thin Man

15 Jun

Song Of The Thin Man – directed by Edward Buzzell. Comedy WhoDunIt. A nightclub owner elopes with an heiress, and someone is killed on a gambling boat who shouldn’t be, and a clarinetist goes nuts, and the Charles’ little boy is kidnaped, and …oh, to heck with it. Asta solves the crime as usual. 86 minutes Black and White 1947.
★★★★★
A jolly picture, indeed.

There’s a lot of forced jive talk, much of it executed by Keenan Wynn. And Gloria Graham sings a number in a gold gown that you must not deny yourself a gander at. Patricia Morrison is the lady of Leon Ames (never without a smoke in his chops), Don Taylor as the demented dypso, Ralph Morgan as a tycoon, Jayne Meadows as the society bitch, Marie Windsor as a gangster’s tomato. Connie Gilchrist is the maid once more. Esther Howard has a neat moment as a counter woman. That best of all child actors, Dean Stockwell is Nick Junior, and Asta Junior plays Asta, since this of 1947 was the last of the Thin Man Movies and the first was in 1934.

Myrna Loy said she felt the movie did not work, because their favorite director had died, but in fact it works as well as any of them, and in exactly the same way as they all do. For as Loy also said, what she felt the public liked was that they seem to be included in an amusing conversation between two smart and affectionate married people.

William Powell is all that deftness might define. And Loy assumes her position of proud and knowing spouse, never to appear in less than radiant costume, by Irene, her gorgeous hair-dos by Sydney Guilaroff. We just want to love her.

The badinage and banter is from a previous era, true but we do not mind now, and they did not mind then, because nobody ever really talked like that, but everybody wished they did.  The picture was a big hit.

And the plot when it unravels is completely incomprehensible, as usual. This was the era of Raymond Chandler and The Big Sleep where no one ever could figure out what had really happened, and, it all went by so fast, no one had the chance to. Same thing here with Dashiell Hammett. But that it is a price we rejoice to pay since that is not why we watched the movie to begin with. We watched it to partake of the highball of all highballs, as though we were sophisticates too.

We’re still that way.

 

Adam’s Rib

20 Jul

Adam’s Rib – directed by George Cukor. Comedy. Married lawyers on opposite sides of an attempted murder case. 101 minutes Black and White 1949.

★★★★

It feels as though ten years go by between this and The State Of The Union, whereas it was only 10 months. Once again Tracy and Hepburn are married, and once again Sydney Guilaroff has done Hepburn’s hair to perfectly suit her profession. But she is badly costumed once again by Walter Plunkett, who as in Sea Of Grass, can’t seem to get Hepburn right, and her hats are awful. But that’s not the trouble. The story is just fine – Ruth Gordon and Garson Kanin wrote it. It’s the execution that’s flat. Mind you, the film was a top money-maker, but if you compare it to The State Of The Union what’s clear as a bell is that Frank Capra is a lot of fun as a director and George Cukor is not much fun at all. So it is the story that carries the film, rather than the way it is told, and it is certain set pieces in the script – the scene with the hat in the middle of the bedroom on a chair, while each of them is off camera getting dressed and talking, a Lubitsch touch and a nice one. Hope Emerson picking up Tracy and waving him about like an American flag is hard to swallow and not really funny since it demeans the character. Cukor’s sense of pace is lax: the country scene on the home movies goes on too long. And David Wayne as the swain next door is a pain in the neck; that he plays the character for all it’s worth only exposes its worth. A comic force in the structure carries the picture, rather than the acting, which is convincing but wanting in eccentricity. This is particularly true of Hepburn, whose movement lacks limberness. I seem to be crabbing about a film which has its talent to please. It brings to the screen Judy Holliday in her first film role, but she was a one-note actress, the note being a whine. Tom Ewell is an unlikely bit of casting as a two-timing wife-beater, but he works out very well indeed, as does the great Jean Hagen, as his doxy. But I still have to crab. Cukor has no sense of crowd scenes, no energy for court-room drama, which is what this film is. His court scenes feel as though he were filming a postcard. What he is good at is two-scenes, and those between Tracy and Hepburn are pretty good, while the scene between Hepburn and Holliday is absolutely terrific – not because of Holliday but because of the focus Hepburn bestows on her. Cukor likes two-scenes to run long, which is one of their virtues, but he has no sense of pacing them with other sorts of scenes; although the script-writers give them to him, he doesn’t seem to know how to handle them differently or imaginatively. Of course, he became Hepburn’s house director; she did many films with him – perhaps because she fascinated him, perhaps because she guaranteed work, perhaps because he let her do as she pleased.

 

Wife vs. Secretary

08 Feb

Wife vs. Secretary — directed by Clarence Brown. Comedy. Malicious friends raise their eyebrows at a pretty secretary and nearly ruin a marriage. 88 minutes Black and White 1936.

★★★★★

To me, Clarence Brown has always seemed a clunky director. Through silents and sound, he was Garbo’s principal director and gave her the closed sets she desired but not her best films. So it is mystifying to me how beautifully made this comedy is, for he seldom directed comedies. But this film is lively and bright. This is partly due to a terrific script. (“’Have you been faithful while I was away?’ he asks. ‘Yes. Twice,’ she responds.”)”The title is crude and off-putting, but Alice Duer Miller who wrote it with John Lee Mahin and Norman Krasna has made a snappy and unusual entertainment. Brown gives Jimmy Stewart, Myrna Loy, Jean Harlow, and Clark Gable room to shine in finely detailed and energetic performances in every scene. And both the choices of what to shoot and where and the film’s editing grant it narrative success. Myrna Loy plays the wife, as she always did, as a good sport at home and a glamor girl on the town. And Gable is a model of comedic actor enterprise, playing his scenes with high-hearted zest, moving across streets and sets with a will and a way. Gable was one of the most remarkable actors ever to appear in films, for the reason that, even though his natural energy was heavy, he was great in playing comedy. He really could do it. He could be very funny. That is to say, dignified though he was and mountainously masculine, he could make a jackass of himself at will. He could stumble, fall, be outwitted, look foolish, sing and dance badly, and be the dupe of the female of the species without permanent loss of dignity. He won his Oscar for a comedy. Like all the great male stars of 1930s who went to War he made few comedies after it, but here he is the snuggling lover of Loy, all over her, kissing her whenever he can and being sweet and funny for her when he can’t, and who wouldn’t want to?. His energy for comedy playing is the driving force behind this very smart and highly watchable work. But the part of the secretary is the one that surprises, for it is played by Jean Harlow, who could be covered in an ankle length mink and yet appear to be wearing nothing but a negligee. Here the platinum hair is gone and the sexpot is also gone. What we have instead is the embodied role of a high-end executive secretary and Gal Friday. One completely believes in her competence, her efficiency, her mastery of files and steno pads and contracts and big business. One believes that if her boss died she could run the firm. I never thought she could act, until now. Her take on this character is subtle and kind, and her confrontation with Loy at the end quietly and fully renders the material with the surprise the scene naturally contains. By never attempting either to emotionalize or to steal a scene she achieves presence and a character. This was her last completed film. She and Gable and Stewart and Loy, with a marvelous script, with magnificent white telephone art deco décor, with perfect suits for Gable and dresses for the dames, and sure-handed direction make a delightful entertainment – perfect for TV screens and for family viewing, then as now.

 

 

Love Is News

29 Jul

Love Is News – Directed by Tay Garnett. Screwball Comedy. An heiress double-crosses a feisty reporter who has double-crossed her. 77 minutes Black and white. 1937.

* * * * *

What fun! What fun to see Loretta Young and Tyrone Power in their early twenties at the peak of their skills and beauty. Of the various blooms in the Hollywood bouquet, the values expressed by this sort of film are one of the most alluring still. You want to look at these two. You want to admire them. You enjoy them, and you don’t want them ever to grow old. You praise all the artifice around them because you know that such a wonderful fuss is right for them. You cannot begrudge their smashing clothes. You’re glad they get the lighting they deserve, and you wish them entirely well in all things. For you want love to be beautiful and to prevail, and never has this last want been so perfectly realized on film as it was in the comedies of the 30s. The story is a combination of Front Page and It Happened One Night, and its first class farce script offers the platform for comic relations between these two stars that are a treat to behold, and must have been a treat to perform, for they move together beautifully. As actors they free one another, they dare one another, and, most important, they argue with one another with complete conviction. The chemistry is artistic, a rarer thing in film acting than buffalos on the moon. While so young, they both had lots of experience as teen-agers, he on the stage with Cornell and she, already a big star in movies. They are Loy and Powell ten years before. They’re just simply talented as all get out. I love ‘em. You will too. So just pick up your white telephone. Dial Love Is News.

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Rumor Has It

20 Jul

Rumor Has It – Directed by Rob Reiner. Upper Class Romantic Comedy. The Graduate Part II. 97 minutes Color 2005.

* * *

We are doing fine as long as Mark Ruffalo is with us. When force of circumstances require our heroine, Jennifer Aniston, to separate him out, the story declines in all areas of its life. Kathy Bates in a white Harpo wig enters in a muumuu the size of a stadium and give a performance to match. This followed by Kevin Costner who almost escapes execution by the false premise of a script which takes Miss Aniston on a billionaire bash, a treat which impresses her nothing, since the gal is from Pasadena, where billionaires are as to flies on cheese. Even the remarkable Richard Jenkins turns in a bad performance. Now, I ask you, if he fails, can winter be far behind? It is not. It takes the form of Shirley MacLaine, in a part requiring the deftness of Myrna Loy; instead she runs the schtick she has run for the past 30 years, that of a stinker granny, turning every line she utters into the stab of a yellow jacket. Aniston alone skims across this mire unscathed, I don’t know how. For one thing her touch on a role is infinitely light. For another, she really is a master comedienne. She seems to be quite tiny, but her size gives her an appeal, which is met by her tiny features in the broad plains of her face. Inside her, as inside Mickey Rourke, is the instrument of a harpsichord, so that she is never stuffy but also never undignified, even when disdignity looms. She is probably not a physical comedienne, as were Katharine Hepburn and Carole Lombard, but is more along the lines of Jean Arthur, who had a quirky voice just as Aniston has quirky mouth, and one we love to have with us so we can watch it and wonder. She knows exactly how to register the merest ripple of difficulty. You’ve got to hand it to her, except I hope no one ever again hands her a movie so badly written and directed as this one is. Mark Ruffalo, where are you when we need you? Oh, there you are, gasp, true blue to the end!

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Second Honeymoon

18 Jul

Second Honeymoon – Directed by Walter Lang. High Comedy. An argumentative formerly married couple meets again and flirts. 84 minutes Black and White 1937

* * *

Tyrone Power is 23 when he makes this upper crust pastry. He’s so beatuiful that he is more attractive than Loretta Young. And, just as important, he has a wonderful comedic sense. He is charming, good-natured, fun, ready, and real in the quick-take wit of a comedy that might have been written by Noel Coward, and, indeed, once was written by Noel Coward under the assumed name of Private Lives. Looking at it one wonders how the Depression audiences could stand the goings-on of these spoiled folks; they indulge in a vicious deep sea fishing party at one point, which makes one’s hair curl. Anyhow, the film is a perfect example of costumes making the character, and Power and Young and Claire Trevor, who plays a funny married friend, wear their threads with a difference. The rube Stu Erwin plays a virginal nerd as Power’s valet, of all things, and introduces a lower-class invigoration as does Marjorie Weaver who is refreshing and altogether excellent as a voluble and principled cigarette girl. At one point Power asks to kiss her, is granted the privilege, and when she asks him why he wanted to, he says, “I just wanted to know what it felt like to kiss an honest woman.” So the script does have its pleasant byways. At this point in his career, which was to establish Power as the only major male star at Fox, Power was being groomed as a matinee idol, which he became. But there are two types of matinee idol. The first type, the one here, is the idol women are attracted to. That’s what he became at first, and women went to see him. The second type is the sort whom both women and men want to see, thus doubling his box office draw, and this came about when Power was put into a series of swashbuckling roles, starting with The Mark Of Zorro. Power was one of the few male Hollywood stars who could wear period clothes. Here the period is contemporary, and he looks smashing. All his films as Fox made lots of money. This one looks like it deserved it.

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