Archive for the ‘High Comedy’ Category


18 May

Emma – written and directed by Douglas McGrath. High Comedy. A young woman tries her pretty hand at match-making, with unexpected comical results. 121 minutes Color 1996.


Yes, a timeless comedy. And in a rare version of it, the director/writer of Emma has reduced a novel of over 600 pages in which nothing happens at all, which has no plot, no story, and which all we are concerned with is who is visiting whom next – and which, once taken up, it is impossible to put down.

For here we have, in Jane Austin’s hand, the creation of a character in Emma of Shakespearean veracity.

You read along, and you cannot help but love her, because she always means well and she is always absolutely wrong. From the point of view of character creation, Emma is a masterpiece of human life, someone who simply stands apart from the novel and walks around through its pages as though she wrote them herself, foibles and all. Like Falstaff, Emma has a life of her own.

Two exceptions worth making to this highly entertaining film.

Ewan McGregor is not only badly miscast; he also, one after another, looks terrible in his costumes And he also cannot play the part. The part of Frank Churchill is the best looking male in the story: he is devastating to women; he is high-spirited, he is dark, he is slender; he is beautifully turned out, he cuts a wonderful figure; he is lots of fun. But McGregor is accoutered in a hideous blond wig, his clothes are dowdy and don’t fit through the shoulders, he is frumpy of temperament, wants joi de vivre, wants mystery, and, in short, is so clunky no woman would look twice at him nor any man envy him.

The second exception is that the story does depend upon Emma’s falling for Churchill, sign of which gives her true love long pause. This movement is omitted, and so when Jeremy Northam must question it we have no idea what he could mean.

Otherwise the film is a gem. Otherwise if there is anything to forgive it is not worth noticing. We have Phyllida Law, a study as old Mrs Bates, Polly Walker perfect as the reserved and beauteous Jane Fairfax, Juliet Stephenson hilarious as the society-bitch Mrs Elton, Sophie Thompson as the impossibly voluble Miss Bates, Greta Sacchi kindness itself as Mrs Weston (née Taylor), Alan Cumming as the worry-wart health-nut Mr, Woodhouse, Emma’s father, whom she so much resembles. And Toni Colette, an actress who probably can do no wrong, as the gullible teenager Harriet Smith.

But the jewel in this jewel, the heart of its heart, is the big-hearted Gwyneth Paltrow, perfect.

Until Gwyneth Paltrow, no true ingénue has appeared in film since Audrey Hepburn.  Until she retired, Hepburn played with the energy of it , even in dramatic roles, such as The Nun’s Story, for she was never a dramatic actress. But Gwyneth Paltrow finally, also, had the perfect collection of ingénue attributes, yet, after her two wonderful comedies – and ingénues must be introduced in comedy – Paltrow embarked on serious dramatic roles much more demanding that those which Audrey Hepburn took on after Sabrina and Roman Holiday. Paltrow’s two comedies were this and Shakespeare In Love, both high style costume pieces, and both requiring an upper class English accent.

But what are the qualities of the ingénue?

Many actresses have played ingénue roles without being true ingénues: Helena Bonham-Carter, Susannah York come to mind.  For someone has to play them. The ingénue is most often the second female lead, playing opposite the juvenile or jeune premier, both just under the leading lady and leading man. Thus: Hero in Much Ado About Nothing and Bianca in The Taming Of The Shrew.

But what does the true ingénue, Audrey Hepburn and Gwyneth Paltrow, have in common that  the others do not have?  What makes them true ingénues?

Well, both are tall, slender, and have long necks, and are elegant of mein. Both in private are clothes horses and on screen wear clothes well. That’s  nice, but they alone do not do it.

Both have charming, well-placed, cultivated speaking voices. Both are bright. Both are sexually innocent. Both are pretty in a way no one else is.

In both instances, they have radiant smiles.

And both are under or appear to be always 21.

But, most important, both are fresh.

And both have real big hearts.

They do not play second leads. They play leading roles because they are rare.

They are absolutely for some reason adorable, for, as soon as you see them, you fall in love with them as you would with an enchanting child.

This is the reason to see Emma. To see a magical young girl whom you have no will to resist being charmed by.

What a treat for you.

Gwyneth Paltrow this year was voted the most beautiful woman in the world. She is now 41. That freshness still remains. And – the most beautiful woman in the world because so endearing for having – its so obvious – the biggest heart you ever saw.


A Good Woman

08 Dec

A Good Woman – directed by Mike Barker. High Comedy. A woman of mystery turns up in Amalfi and immediately arouses gossip since it appears she is being kept by the recently married husband of a highly proper young woman. 83 minutes Color 2005.
Lady Windermere’s Fan was made famously by two famous directors, one with Ronald Coleman by Ernst Lubitsch in 1925, a silent film renowned for its mute success despite Wilde being the most verbally distinctive of writers; again in 1945 by Otto Preminger with Madeleine Carroll, George Sanders, and Jeanne Crain. The play was clearly ripe for a redo.

No, it wasn’t.

Although the play itself would be unworkable as a movie, the writers have kept Wilde’s structure, but lifted Wilde’s japes and jokes from other sources and flattened them to fit the lips of 1930’s socialites wintering on the Mediterranean, and the only actors who can get their mouths around them properly are the two old troupers who form a chorus of snipers and scandalmongers and tipplers, Roger Hammond and John Standing, and aren’t they fun!

The beautiful English actor Mark Umbers plays the now Americanized (the once Arthur and now Robert) Windermere (no longer a lord) and his wife (no longer Lady Windermere) is played by the seventeen year-old Scarlett Johansson. Johansson is a baffling presence in film, and although she comes to this one with a good deal of experience behind her, it does not show. Her voice is flat and badly placed and seems uninvested in meaning. Her heifer eyes register a wounded stupidity. She moves clumsily. She does not wear clothes well. Of course, her skin takes the camera so well, you think she must be God’s gift to the movies; I give her back unopened.

She is matched by Helen Hunt, who plays the intriguing adventuress, Mrs. Erlynne. Hunt is also American, and she too has the wrong voice for the part, oddly pitched, high, flat, and eggy. I like her face a lot, but, with its thin lips and sunken cheeks and hawk-like nose, it is likely to be miscast as that of a femme fatale. She has too much plea in her timbre. She does not have the inner puma, she’s not a wild animal in lamé, she does not have the sexual certainty to promise. She looks well in her clothes, with her beautifully proportioned, slender figure. And she is a good actress, so she makes the most of everything opposite Tom Wilkinson as Lord Augustus.

Wilkinson is the only real character we care about here. The part, a much-married playboy now in high middle age, is made much larger than in the play, in which he is presented as one of Wilde’s dear old fools. Wilkinson has several good scenes with Hunt, and with the two geezers, as they and the old trouts of leisure snipe at the scandal and inflate it by examining with vitriol eye that corpse, the institution of marriage.

But to really enjoy Lady Windermere’s Fan, one must read it. I do so in a first edition of it, old now, with its odd intestinal cover with three gold leaves, Elkin Matthew 1893: Lady Windermere’s Fan, A Play About A Good Woman. Indeed: a play about goodness of many and various stripes and kinds.


Love In The Afternoon

16 May

Love In The Afternoon — directed by Billy Wilder. Romanic Comedy. A notorious Lothario and a pretty young music student exchange blisses. 130 minutes Black and White 1957.


This is one of the creamiest Hollywood romantic comedies and it is also the most revolting. What makes it creamy is its confection by Ernst Lubitsch, here impostured by his devotee Billy Wilder, who makes anew Lubitsch’s light, deft, and magical touch with Viennese Pastry. In his heyday, everything Lubitsch did, whether comedy or musical, was operetta, and he used Maurice Chevalier as one of the consistent ingredients, here now present as Audrey Hepburn’s father, although he does appear old enough to be her grandfather. Never mind: he makes no attempt to crush you into marzipan with his charm, and he is just fine. All he has to do is love her, and, since she is Audrey Hepburn, this is not hard to do. Her gentle sense of fun leavens the dessert. What is hard to take is her antediluvian leading man. Why this actress was set opposite ancient leading men for so much of her young life is a mystery. Henry Fonda, Humphrey Bogart, William Holden, Burt Lancaster, Cary Grant, Fred Astaire, the presence of only the last of whom can be said to be justified. I suppose it was to sustain her range as an ingénue. For she was a true ingénue, and we did not have another one until Gwyneth Paltrow, so it’s a rarer flower than one might suppose. Although at the time she made this film she was 29, her quality was always 19, and it is so here. However that may be, whom we have opposite her is an actor in an advanced state of decomposition, Gary Cooper. He has lost his slim hips, so while he wears beautiful clothes he does not look good in them. His face did not age well; his visage sags with sadness; he has luggage under his eyes. He is too darned old. And he is such a bad actor. He cannot pick up his cues properly. He cannot do the simplest actor’s task with simple conviction. And we are still asked, aged 57, to swallow his fraudulent naiveté, and the phony supposition that taciturn men are more profound, more honest, and more masculine. (Have you ever known a cowboy who wasn’t a blabbermouth?) He is completely unconvincing as a wealthy internationally renowned roué, a la Porfirio Rubirosa, just as he was in Lubitsch’s Bluebeard’s Eighth Wife. In real life, Cooper was a roué, but that does not mean he will admit to the shame of so being as a character. What one senses underlying his presence is his overweening vanity, his contempt, and his stumbling deliberately to blind us to his lack of natural or even professional ability. He never would accept a movie in which he died; he had always to be the hero. The logical ending to this movie, which the entrancing Audrey Hepburn carries upon her thin Givenchy-laden shoulders, is that he jump off the train to marry her, but no, he sweeps her on the train to become his mistress. Disgusting. Otherwise, the film is charmingly conceived and written, beautifully filmed by William Mellor, who worked with George Stevens so often. The Lubitsch touches have to do with four musicians going through a door and a rolling liquor table, and a hat, and they are endearing. Lubitsch liked people a lot more than Billy Wilder did, and that cannot be taught. But the film is likable, although revolting, and a model for making a smooth confection to perfection.


Woman Of The Year

09 May

Woman Of The Year – directed by George Stevens. Romantic Comedy. A vibrant internationally renown newspaper female reporter and a writer on the sport page fall in love and sort it out. 114 minutes Black and White 1942.


Katharine Hepburn met Spencer Tracy making this comic masterpiece, the first and best of their films together. Why best? Because she is so sexy, never more so in any subsequent film with him or with anyone else, and he is in turn and at the same time is emotionally smart about her to protect his heart-on for her. They fall in love at first sight, in their editor’s office, and her face is something to behold as she grasps fully the sexual and romantic power she feels for him and wields over him. He stands back and is amazed by her sexiness, youth, and zest. He follows her from the office, she turns a corner and ambushes him on the stairs and seduces him. Tess Harding is her greatest performances. She and I corresponded briefly about this picture, which I saw when it came out and I was eight, for I understood immediately that this is the sort of marriage I would want for myself – a marriage in which the woman brought something vital from the outside into it from her professional life. This film is the greatest feminist tract ever filmed, the woman raised to the heights of competence, power, wit, kindness, sexuality, admirability, and self-awareness – and the male loving her for all of it. Sydney Guilaroff designed a perfect, sexy shoulder-length hairdo for her that does a lot for her character. That, in the press of her professional responsibilities, she falls short as a wife and mother gives us the foundation of a story which, in fact, ends stupidly. They had no ending when they started making it, and Stevens wrote an ending which proves her to be incompetent at homemaking, in which she is outwitted by three breakfast gadgets. It is a scene out of Stevens’ Laurel and Hardy days; it is a scene out of silent film, a scene based on gags. It is awful for it is a scene disconsonant with the character of Hepburn, who would have risen to the situation of the waffle iron just as she does when she catches the fourth piece of toast flying into the air. The fact is, yeast does not operate that way, toasters do not rocket launch toast, and coffee pots don’t percolate like that – and we already know from the scene in the baseball park that Hepburn was game for anything, and could have learned household chores as fast as she learned and rejoiced in, before her first game was over, the ground rules of a sport she had never witnessed before in her life. The finale is false, for the film is verbal, and their reconciliation needs to be verbal also, not a capitulation on her part, no matter how it is worked out in action. Setting this episode aside, the film depicts the triumph of the female at her best, her most characteristic and complete. She is never the victim, never the little housewife, never the doormat. And Tracy does not want her to be. He loves her even when she is brilliant and says so, and so do I, and so did I when twenty years later I married just such an accomplished female.


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.



Sherlock Holmes: The Game Of Shadows

18 Dec

Sherlock Holmes: A Game Of Shadows — Directed by Guy Ritchie. Boulevard Thriller. 129 minutes Color 2011.

* * * * *

Better than the first one by a long shot. Firstly because it is more witty, and secondly and thirdly because it is more witty. By that I mean that while it is also more spectacular, the spectacle is witty. I am not going to spoil the jests by describing them; let them come upon you unawares. Then too, the story swans around Europe with uncommon velocity and the picture simply expects you to go along for the ride, which is essentially Dr. Watson’s ride, since that is who we have to be, since none of us can ever be Holmes, can we. When a director or storyteller takes wit for granted in his audience he has done the wittiest thing he could do. And always the director lets us in on the joke, by which is meant that he expects us to finish the punch line for him, Alà Lubitsch. And it also means that the dialogue is witty, and dialogue can only be witty in a film if there is really a lot of it, so that we can sink our ears into it and live with the flavor of it as things unfold. There are mistakes, or rather one mistake, which is that, again, the fight scenes fall prey to scrambled editing so that there is no knowing what is going on or what is doing by whom to whom. But these are over early, and the story opens out into its drolleries and detours amply. The décor, the costumes, the carriages, and the protocols are all Teutonic, the jammed living rooms, the opulent restaurants, the creamy excesses of dress and manner, the expression, the repression – all are Germanic. It is 1891 and Victoria is on the throne and she was a German. Victorianism everywhere always has a German accent. And the designers have made the most of this and played off against it in the person and personality of Robert Downey Junior, who is the most romantic in appearance and affect of any Sherlock Holmes before. He never wears a high collar or a tie. His shirts are always Byronically open at the neck. He never does the prim Basil Rathbone/Jeremy Brett thing of the pinched genius with the long condescending nose. Instead he is all close-up and personal and tousled and Peck’s Bad Boy. Of course, like those others, he is dreadfully neurotic. He also speaks a lot more clearly here than in the first installment. In all this he is ably mated by Jude Law, again as Watson, who almost equals Holmes in magical prestidigitations. Stephen Fry makes an astounding appearance as Mycroft Holmes, Sherry’s brother, and a welcome presence he is indeed. Can we follow all this? We are not meant to. All we are meant is to feel privileged to tag along. I liked doing that. It is a sumptuous ride.




The History Boys

03 Nov

The History Boys — Directed by Nicholas Hytner. Comedy. A bunch of private school boys cram to get into Oxford with the help of a doughty gay professor who wants to get into their pants. 109 minutes Color 2006.

* * * * *

I had never seen the actors before, but I found them wonderful, particularly Frances de la Tour and Richard Griffiths, who are fascinating to watch perform a highly literate script in an absolutely realistic tradition freshly. I went to a school like this in England and sat for the exams these boys sit for , so you might say I know the milieu. But that’s not the question. The question is not “verisimilitude” or “meaning” or “morality”. Because those are not on offer here. What is on offer is: can one watch a play and entertain the passions in it without having to draw a conclusion or level a judgment on them? Like them, I passed the test. I enjoyed this piece immensely. If you like “The Corn is Green” with Bette Davis, or “The Browning Version,” this may speak to you — though this story has its wits about it more than either of those, and is, in the best sense of the word, more ruthless. The question is not whether something here is right or wrong or good or bad, it seems to me, but is it provocative? Has the author dealt with material proper to him? Is his tale told well? To all of this I say, Yes! I saw it in a movie house and was thoroughly satisfied. I don’t go to a movie house to be preached to, as a rule, either as a liberal, which I am, or as anything else. And I was not preached to here, but rather met with a work of high imagination with which I could dance. To me it is a joy. It does what movies do best. It was my favorite movie of 2006.






Easy Virtue

09 Sep

Easy Virtue – Directed by Stephen Elliott. High Comedy. The scion of an upper crust British family brings home his American wife. 96 minutes Color 2008.

* * * *

Noel Coward’s (aged 25) drama of class snobbery is updated in diction and tone to the present day, although still set in the 20s. All that works just fine. Colin Firth, not an actor I much admire although there is nothing not to like about him, plays the veteran of WWI who fiddles with a motorcycle and keeps mum while his highly controlling wife makes life miserable for one and all. Kristin Scott Thomas plays her brilliantly. It’s the Gladys Cooper part, you understand, and we are to learn rather late in the day that she objects to the young wife because she really wishes to keep her son home because the estate is failing and presumably he can save it. But it’s a phony excuse, for the reason she is a bitch is the same as any woman is, because she wishes to blanket all the sexual energy in her bailiwick.  Some of Thomas’ lines are lost in the rush of British, a common error of English actors when scurrying through the heady regions of contempt. But the real reason the piece doesn’t work is that the American is played by Jessica Biel who is neither attractive nor fascinating and plays the character with no sense of inner style, one way or another, whatsoever. You need a modern Claudette Colbert, Mary Astor, Loretta Young in the part, but, I guess there are none. The Extras are informative and fun. The direction is excellent. The costumes are tops. The fabulous houses in which it was shot are worth the visit, and so is a fox hunt and a great tango scene, in which Firth takes the floor. He is very fine in the dance and in the part, there and elsewhere, and I may start to warm up to him after all.







25 Jul

Café Metropole – Directed by Edward H. Griffith. High Comedy. A Paris debt-ridden restaurateur strong-arms a dead-beat young man to romance a millionaire’s daughter. 83 minutes Black and White 1937

* * * * *

When an actress complained to the photographer Lucien Andriot that he didn’t photograph her as well as he did five years ago, he said, “Well, my dear, I am five years older now.” The wit of his filming of this masterpiece of 30s comedy immensely nourishes the vigor of what passes before our delighted eyes. This is one of the funniest films I have ever seen, Its plot is mobilized by the roguish mustaches of Adolphe Menjou who forces Tyrone Power to impersonate a Russian Duke to impress the family of an American millionaire, played by Charles Winninger, and by Helen Westley, who doesn’t miss a comic trick, and by Loretta Young who is one game gal as the rich man’s daughter, delighted to be taken in by the deception. You’ve got to see how well she looks in clothes. Remember? They are the most gorgeous rigs you have ever seen. No one ever dressed like that except in the movies – which is why we went to the movies, isn’t it? Gregory Ratoff, who also stars in this, also wrote the story, which is wonderful, but more wonderful still is the dialogue, written by Jacques Deval, who gives his characters some of the most mischievous lines ever heard in a motion picture. This is an essential film, perfectly executed to dispel dyspepsia, cancer, and war. Rely on it. It will also paint your house in an ideally brighter color and put all your dear children through Yale.



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.




24 Jun

Ceremony. Directed and written by Max Winkler. Chekhovian Comedy. A young fool tries to run off with a to-be bride just before the wedding. 89 Minutes Color 2010.

* * * * *

How does Lee Pace, without stealing, steal every scene he is in? He is a master actor, but that’s not why. A young man from Oklahoma, he plays an upper class British millionaire naturalist/filmmaker/star, and the English accent comes right from his bones, but that’s not why. He is tall and beautiful and sexy and young, has a fine rich speaking voice, and remarkable eyebrows, but that’s not why. No, the reason is, is that he is inherently a star, someone gifted with an inner character of soul which is meant to be seen and basked in, the same way you would bask in that of Joan Crawford or Joel Macrea or George Clooney or Edward G. Robinson or Rita Hayworth. They must be watched. You wouldn’t want to do anything else with them. They are there to be on the screen and stared at wondrously. So what you do with a star like Lee Pace is to be gaga, a little blinded, a little dazed. A surrender like that is such a treat, and its one of the reasons we go to the movies. Another is to place ourselves in the doings of such a story as Max Winkler offers us, with its rare mad excursions into side-room scenes in the lives of its five principal characters, played with juicy finesse by Uma Thurman, Reece Thompson, Jake M. Johnson, and Michael Angarano who is the focal character around whom all the other four swirl. I found his performance vexing. His face works as though he is chewing gum all the time, but he never is. As an annoying gnome, his miniscule grimaces are particularly prevalent at the beginning of the story, but as the story develops, the obsessive, greedy liar he is playing succumbs to the constant onslaught of well-deserved cruel truth, and the character almost becomes a human being. In character, the actor is truly nonplussed. He is knocked out, but will he ever wake up? This is an interesting trial for an audience, and a worthwhile one, because it keeps the narrative in suspense – asking both what will happen to this brat and will I ever come to like him? He is driven to steal a woman who is older than he is, who is out of his league, whom he cannot support, and who would make him a terrible wife. The script by Max Winkler is superbly surprising at all turns and corners. I think he is putting the kibosh on grunge comedy once and for all (if only). He has written (Four Weddings And A Funeral keeps coming to mind) – a comedy with the wit to make people real – that is his humor – and to make them sad – that is also his humor. Sad in the sense that every one of them is a sad sack, and funny in that every one of them is bright as all get out. Don’t miss it.









Heaven Can Wait

15 Apr

Heaven Can Wait – Directed by Ernst Lubitsch. Sophisticated Comedy. Standing before Satan to see if he qualified for the flames, an old roué reviews his long love-life. 112 minutes Color 1943.

* * * * *

Watch and learn. How does a director get a laugh from an audience by a scene in which nothing is seen but a closed door? All who direct comedy, all who like to watch it and care to wonder how it is done, sit, please, at the feet of the master. This is the Lubitsch Touch at its peak of charm and engagement. The story is a continental pastry of the kind that Lubitsch specialized in, but the war was on, so it’s all transported to New York City. It doesn’t work nearly so well as Budapest would have, but never mind. It extends one man’s entire love-life-time, in periods ranging from the romantic past, whenever that was supposed to be, to more-or-less the present, whenever that was supposed to be. Here as elsewhere, Lubitsch’s collaborator, the invaluable screenwriter Samson Raphaelson, brings us into the ruthless realistic room of sophisticated comedy once again and sets the tone. (Be sure to play his priceless comments on Special Features.) We have of course Charles Coburn to begin with who is a master of the style, indeed a master of all styles, and can do no wrong. Louis Calhern brings his magnificent carriage and his magnificent everything into the role of the roue’s father, towering over Spring Byington’s superb carriage. Dickie Moore plays Ameche as a teen hottie and I’m so glad for him. Gene Tierney is, for once, really good, because she is not forced to force. She plays a character written to triumph by throwing all her lines away. Don Ameche, whose masculinity no one could question, plays it for the fool lying behind his masher, a choice which carries the film perfectly. Laird Cregar is tops as the devil sinking that splendid galleon of an actress Florence Bates. Marjorie Main and Eugene Pallette are unthinkably cast as Tierney’s parents, which is a comic spectacle in and of itself. The difficulty with the material is that the persons of the script are essentially dealing with the  jilts and joys of infidelity, a habit of Ameche’s which, this being America and not Hungary, cannot go uncondemned. However, take a deep breath and dismiss all your moral and immoral scruples and sit back and imagine it is once upon a time, and enjoy once again another of Lubitsch’s tribute to life itself.



Pushing Daisies

03 Feb

Pushing Daisies – Comedy Detective Fantasy TV series about a pie-maker who has the ability to brings dead things back to life with his touch, a talent not without its drawbacks. Color 2007 – 2009

Nominated for 57 awards and winning 18 of them, including 7 Emmys, it establishes itself brilliant in all departments at once. Set up as amusingly symmetrical as an 18th Century royal French garden it plays itself out in the form of a 16th Century English royal garden maze. The coloration of sets and costumes alone is worth a statue or at least a Red Garter; the perfection of reds vanishing into reds, and greens into greens; the idea of everyone at a cocktail party wearing the same color dress of the same material; the flabbergastering shirts of the males; the decor of the four square two dimensionality of the pie shop; the dead centering of characters on camera. Enough of that. Passing from all that rose-petal scattering of kudos on to those petals to be tossed at the writers whose skill knows no end, as they give us a feast of red herrings every time, mysteries not for the watcher to solve, but to giggle at, dialogue that demands the most fluid and rigorous of stylization of performance. The splendour of the production which looks like it cost billions in its super attention to details, such that, like Pinocchio, one could go back and discover them more and more at each viewing, and with more relish each time. The bountifully gifted Swoosie Kurtz as the swilling sister with the bling eye patch, and the inestimable Ellen Greene as her romantical sister; the stupendous Chi McBride as Cod; the superlatively gifted Kristin Chenoweth as the miniature Olive, gaga and at once pert; the appealing Anna Friel as the open-faced love interest of His Greatness Lee Pace who plays the pie maker to die for. And roses roses all the way to whomever established the style for all this. Well, let praise have no end, and so ******************************************************************************************************************************************************************************************************************************************************************************************************************************************************************************************************************************************************************************************************************************************************************************************************************************************************************************************************************************************************************************************************************************************************************************************************************************************************************



She Wouldn’t Say Yes and My Sister Eileen

02 Feb

She Wouldn’t Say Yes  — directed by Alexander Hall – Romantic Comedy. A society bitch is wooed by a GI.  97 minutes black and white 1944


My Sister Eileen – directed by Alexander Hall – Comedy. Two country girls  land in Greenwich Village. 96 minutes black and white 1942

* * * * *

With the wonderful hauteur of her hands, Rosalind Russell ruled high comedy in her era, a throne she shared with Katharine Hepburn. Kay Francis and a few others held the outlying territory, but Rosalind Russell was the dame. Watch her here negotiate a cigarette.  At one point, all the time conducting a complicated bedroom scene with Lee Bowman, without looking and by braille, she picks a cigarette out of a box and even finds the matches, and lights it. Was there ever such aplomb! Her rich inner humor brings glad tidings to us all. Her sensual mouth and huge lovely eyes and gorgeous black hair, her bearing, and her inner stance gave us a frame for wit. She Wouldn’t Say Yes is a piece written and produced by Virginia Von Epp, who did the same for Irene Dunne’s Together Again — and a skilled job she does, too. These comedies are all about the same thing; a dish of cold fish meets a master chef. Sometimes the cold fish is a female, as in Philadelphia Story and here, and sometimes it’s a male as in Bringing Up Baby and The Lady Eve. This particular version is a little masterwork. We don’t expect a comedy by Shakespeare or Congreve to look like a modern comedy and we don’t expect these black and white comedies of the Thirties and Forties to look like them either, so no one asks them to be. On the same DVD, Russell also plays the My in My Sister Eileen, a piece she did on Broadway later as a Leonard Bernstein musical, Wonderful Town with Edie Adams. As I recall, she sang in a hoarse voice, and was beloved by all who heard her ask, when the sisters are broke and reduced to eating lettuce and other roughage, “I’d like a little smoothage to help the roughage down — like a steak.”  Today we have the great Allison Janney as the only modern compeer of this peerless comedienne, but Janney is not given principal parts in movies, alas. We would all go if she were. As it is, we treat ourselves here to the incomparable Rosalind Russell.



One Hour With You

14 Jan

One Hour With You — directed by Ernst Lubitsch –– A musical in which two ladies vie for the bedroom of M. Chevalier. black and whitel [1932]

* * * * *

Lubitsch’s perpetual sense-of-humor-cigar is that sex is a jest that people inevitably loose their sense of humor over. The one who loses it here is Jeanette MacDonald. Now, I want you to listen very carefully to what I am about to say, for no matter what you may think of “old” films, especially this old, they possess a quickness of wit and heart to be found no place else. You may like or despise the hairdos and the decor. You may dismiss the frivolity, but you’d be a rash to miss any movie that begins with a line like this: “She was a brunette when I married her, and now I can’t believe a thing she says.” Again, in this piece we have the light-operetta style so suited to the non-singer. Maurice Chevalier appeared to sing. Of course he didn’t sing; he never sang his whole life long. He simply appeared to. So do we care whether he will jilt his wife and spend the night with that most forward of minxes, Genevieve Tobin? Perhaps not, but that is the entire point. Neither should his wife, Jeanette care. The world is a cocktail. Why not? If the world is not a cocktail, then how can you make a movie about the folly of sex? And what we mean by sex is sexual attraction. The act itself is best left to closed lids. You could never entertain points about that attraction unless your setting was frivolous. When the frivolous becomes the essential, you have something worth looking at. You have a way of seeing. You have a way of penetrating. You have a chance for latitude of view. You can relax. You don’t have to worry about making the rent. You can laugh. And, best of all, you can breathe like a human being once more.



Trouble In Paradise

31 Dec

Trouble In Paradise – directed by Ernst Lubitsch — High comedy involving two international con artists who meet and match.  Black and white [1932]

* * * * *

Mind you, Lubitsch’s comedies don’t bring you the steak and kidney pie of realism. But if you can endure the faint afterglow brought on by the finest hock accompanied by the most exquisite of Viennese pastry, then you are invited to the party. Lubitsch had a directorial technique that engages the audience as accomplices in the narrative itself.  Watching Lubitsch one congratulates everyone including oneself. Billy Wilder who trained himself under Lubitsch said: “The key is to make it effective, but don’t make it obvious. Make it clear to them, but don’t spell it out like the audience are just a bunch of idiots. Just aim it slightly above their station and they’re going to get it. This is what I learned from Ernst Lubitsch. He had a real touch, a gift of involving the audience into writing the script with him as it was unfolding on the screen. In other words, he was not the kind of a director who kind of hammered it down and said, ‘Now listen to me, you idiots. There now, put down the popcorn bag, I’m going to tell you something. Two and two is four.’ He said, ‘No, just give them two and two and let them add it up. They’re going to do it for you. And they’re going to have fun with it. They’re going to play the game with you.'”  Here the game is the contest between the attraction existing between society thieves Miriam Hopkins and Herbert Marshall conflicted by the moolah they separately might seize upon. Even the customarily nasty Miriam Hopkins is likable here, and Kay Francis, she of the beautiful arms and eyebrows, well, she’s elegant and generous, and perfectly matched with Marshall, who strikes just the right note as the suave amorous cat burglar. What is funny here cannot and must not be described here, since it must come upon you as a surprise. But let us say, the director masters the material by letting the audience master it too, that is by letting us in on the telling of the tale, and we dive in head first. There is no other choice. Trouble In Paradise is a seminal cinema work. It is thought of as the greatest high comedy ever put down on film. All writing and directing for the screen since its time flowers around it — if, that is to say, the comedy is humorous, the comedy of humans rather than the comedy of clowns. We are not talking about situation comedy here or cartoon. Because we are not talking about directing for broad effects. No – funny as that may be – this is tastier. It is not in the line of screen pantomime as in Chaplin or in screen acrobatics as in Keaton, either. Here’s what I mean: Lubitsch once directed a silent version of Oscar Wilde’s Lady Windermere’s Fan without using a single caption of Wilde, and yet Lubitsch created exactly the Wildean style on screen. Now I ask you. So, sit back with your better bottle of wine, and prepare to smile and, not just to be flattered but to join in the flattery yourself.




To Be Or Not To Be

31 Dec

To Be Or Not To Be — directed by Ernst Lubitsch — a Polish acting company in wartime Warsaw comes up against the Nazis. Black and white. [1942]

* * * * *

Hold onto your seats. I won’t call it the funniest farce ever filmed, for that would spoil it for you, with your supposing its laughs were all broad. From the beginning the notion of Jack Benny as Hamlet is enough to plaster one to the wall in cartoon amusement. But in fact his soliloquy is as endearing as it is unlikely. What is equally endearing is Carole Lombard, fabulously and almost unwittingly flirtatious in her gowns and Benny as her husband as vainglorious heads of a theatrical troupe trying to perform Hamlet in blithe disregard and merry dismissal of the Nazi occupiers in their midst. Benny and Lombard have never been better on film. Ernst Lubitsch was the champagne emperor of comedy directors. The impersonations he provides them with swallow the Reich whole. And they scarcely know they’ve done it. From Lubitsch all blessings flow. He has no equals, only followers. Wilder and the others sip at his goblet. If you want to know how to make a comedy stay in the belly of its audience, watch Lubitsch.



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

* * * * *

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.



The Love Parade

31 Dec

The Love Parade  — directed by Ernst Lubitsch –A musical comedy in which The Queen of Sylvania is pestered by her people to wed. She’s fed up with the idea. Suddenly in walks The Count, sent home from Paris for his shenanigans. She no sooner claps eyes on him than she marries him. Then, of course, the trouble starts. black and white sound [1929]

* * * * *

Maurice Chevalier could not say two lines together. But he could say one line together. Each time he is given a second line a pause falls between them and with that pause worlds come to an end. So every two-line speech sounds like a recitation. From the beginning to the end of his performing life, which was long, this was so. But even so, he is delightful. He really likes women as they are. He really likes himself as he is. He really is pleased how much women like him. He is full of good will and kindness towards everyone. And he is a really responsive actor. And occasionally, as here, he will even sing, and we will have to listen to it. However, what we have here, amid stupendously luxurious sets, polished floors, ceiling to floor swags, and scads of servants, is the sexuality of Jeanette MacDonald, who physically resembles no other actress so much as Geraldine Page: the same long graceful arms and hands, the same beautiful legs, the lanky torso, the shape of her head, her rich smile and lickerous eye. But the main resemblance is her sexuality. No, she was not sexy, she was something more profound and rare in women: she was visibly sexual. This is the telling quality against which her domineering behavior over her new husband comes a cropper. This is the, but never stated, visual adventure of this film for us: the comedy between MacDonald’s female sexuality on the one hand and Chevalier’s male sensuality on the other. Will they survive? Will they mesh? Will they last? Is there a plot? Does there need to be? Do you really need to know where the bucket came from in which that champagne bottle was nestled? You’d better say no.




31 Dec

Ninotchka – directed by Ernst Lubitsch – light comedy about a schoolmarmish Russian bureaucrat who come to Paris to straighten out three crooked countrymen and falls in love with a hat. I hour 50 minutes black and white 1939.

* * * * *

Garbo laughs, yes, but before that she brings onto the scene her basso profundo gloom, and it’s a smart move because of the big silly she finds herself eventually preferring to become. She said Lubitsch was the only director of talent she ever worked with, which is odd because she worked with Mamoulian and Boleslavsky and Stiller and Sjostrom. If she meant the result she was allowed to arrive at here, her remark is understandable. Garbo never did anything symmetrical with her body; she always chose to be at an angle. William Daniels who lit her understood she was better in three quarter or close up and not moving. All this works in her favor here, as she drops her famed droop and opens up into  the rich sense of humor and fun everyone who knew her said she had. If she wanted to be left alone, it was probably because she wanted to have a good time, and that is certainly what she does here in the company of Ina Claire, in a rare screen performance, which nonetheless does not make plain why she was and really must have been Broadway’s great light comedienne of her era. Melvyn Douglas brings his boulevardier humor and easy masculinity into Garbo’s view, and teaches her the inner virtues of champagne. This is Lubitsch’s home territory: gladsome Paris, Europe in a tuxedo. In fact it is his only territory. Sig Ruman, Felix Bressart, and Alexander Granach play the naughty trio, and watch Garbo’s shift into friendship with them as she treats with them. Simple. But what an actress! There is a lot to be said about Garbo in films: how she had to be imitated and could not be imitated and what she understood about film acting that nobody has ever understood so well since, but here, just sit back and take pleasure in the pleasure of another time, another genius caught in flight by another genius for us forever.



Miss Pettigrew Lives ForA Day

15 Oct

Miss Pettigrew Lives For A Day — directed by Bharat Nalluri  Period romantic comedy in which a ditzy 1930s chanteuse is rounded by up an imposter housekeeper who heads them both for romance. 92 minutes color 2008.

* * * * *

Yes, for the presence of the great Lee Pace. He seems to be unrecognizable from role to role — from the transgender Calpurnia in Soldier’s Girl, to Dick Hickock the Clutter murderer in Infamous, to this forthright male in love with a woman he will sacrifice not one iota of his lyrical being to gain. At 22 as Calpurnia, the arch-archer of feminity, to the male of males now, here at 28, and at the peak of his masculinity. Pettigrew was the first picture I noticed him in, and now I make a rewarding investigation of his contributions to the art. What a great actor! As to the picture itself, I liked it. It’s poorly directed visually and narratively, but there are wonderful actors in it, among whom is the manly Ciaran Hinds and that devious little minx Shirley Henderson, and they are tip top. Our beloved Frances McDormand as the housekeeper whacked-out on ethics, and Amy Adams as the Spring Byington-in-the-making, scatter-brained object of Pace’s perfect love. Pace and Adams play a night club duo, and both sing superbly. I saw it with an older crowd in the theatre, and they applauded, and I can understand why. I applaud here. It’s not for the puerile.



Beyond The Rocks

12 Oct

Beyond the Rocks — directed by Sam Wood — subjecting herself to the needs of her family the lady marries for money, but falls for a valiant aristocrat — oh dear!  Black and white, silent, 1922.

* * * * *

Gloria Swanson was an odd looking little person, with a big hatchet face, cruel lip rouge, and a dazzling overbite. Rudolph Valentino’s eye makeup would make a tall man topple. The oddity of their apparitions on screen matched nothing in the movie goer’s daily life. Swanson was no taller than a footstool and had no figure. True,Valentino had beautiful shoulders and looked super in suits. But what was their appeal? It was, I think, that acting was in their bodies, and their contemporaries were young when they were young. For these two acting was a matter of embodiment. Swanson was a movie star at — what? — age 14 or 15? She was never a jeune fille. Essentially she was not a leading lady either, but a star soubrette. (Jean Arthur is the type. So is Reese Witherspoon) But the point is she could act because she could respond inwardly and naturally to what was being thrown at her. She was real. Valentino, being a male, was going to be a less good actor than she, but he had the same ability to respond. In this picture, there is a moment in a garden in a dream scene from the 18th Century in which he takes her hand and kisses it and lays his cheek upon it. It is one of the great moments in all cinema. No  wonder the ladies fell for him. Such vulnerability is as rare as rubies. You’d have to go to Montgomery Clift’s dance with Anne Baxter in Hitchcock’s “I Confess” to see again how a heartthrob is created in one moment forever. I found the film fun, and I expected it to be expected and it is, so that’s all right. The accompanying material is wonderful. The story of the Collier Brothers man who owned the long-lost print is exceptional. Swanson’s voice-over on the re-run holds the key to acting for all actors: she believed! Listen to her, and never forget.



A Mighty Wind

11 Oct

A Mighty Wind — directed by Christopher Guest — a comedy in which a famous country-singer duo is wooed to come out of retirement. 94 minutes color 2003

* * * * *

Parody means “the song next to the song”, “the ode parallel to the ode.” This means that it can be situated above the original ode, in which case it called an homage, or it can be positioned below the original ode, in which case it is called a satire. In this case the original ode is American Folk Music. And, the truth is, there is no such thing as American Folk Music. It was “manufactured” from the start, so the thing itself already lies in a realm of self parody, such that this film’s parodies are so close to the originals as to be virtually indistinguishable from them. This gives the film is teeter-totter daring. How to take the already over-ripe and and take it one tiny rot further? The lyrics do that, most of them written by this troup itself, and the thing that keeps the whole enterprise from being nasty is the delicacy of the comedy-of-character with which it is played. What the players achieve is not to mock the “tradition”, but rather to play it with full conviction and all the talent they posses, which is considerable. This is not an audible breaking of wind. This is an inaudible breaking of wind. Such that it lets the “tradition” do something embarrassing without realizing it does. Excruciatingly funny.


Rss Feed Tweeter button Facebook button Technorati button Reddit button Myspace button Linkedin button Webonews button Delicious button Digg button Flickr button Stumbleupon button Newsvine button