Screened January 27 2010 on DVR downloaded from the website that dare not speak its name in Brooklyn NY
TSPDT rank #839 IMDb
As I mentioned in an earlier post, the one film on the TSPDT 1000 that I hadn't been able to locate in any form was this one, which had just been re-introduced to the list after the January update. Not long after that update, with the help of a couple of wonderful people from the French archival cinema community, I was able to track down a 35mm print of the film with the rights held by Gaumont. Unfortunately, Gaumont quoted me a ridiculous fee of several hundred Euros to rent the print, which made it pretty much impossible for me to access it. However, fortuitously at the same time, someone posted a DVR rip of the film, presumably from European television broadcast, to a site that will here remain unidentified. So I had my chance at last to watch this strangely inaccessible classic of French cinema.
The one catch was that the rip was unsubtitled, which presented me with the dilemma of whether I should proceed with watching, esp. given that reviews of the film mention the elegant script by Pierre Bost and Jean Aurenche. Fortunately, Marilyn Ferdinand provides a solid enough account of the plot on her site that I was encouraged to take the leap. All the same, I must acknowledge that my understanding of the film is by no means satisfactory. I can only hope that my opting to treat this as an experiment in watching a film without a grasping its dialogue might offer alternative insights focused more intently on its cinematic properties.
I should also mention that watching the film in this manner reminded me of many times as a child when I'd watch American comedy films and TV shows with my mother, and I'd laugh along with the punch lines only to turn to see my mom bearing an uncomprehending smile, aware that there was something to laugh about but not quite knowing what was funny. I think there were at least a couple of instances where I'd play the asshole and ask her if she got the joke. In some ways I was as confused as she was - ashamed at the wedge between us, irrationally resentful to her for making me feel alienated in my joy even as with the TV laugh track to egg me on. I dedicate this entry to her, that we may unshamefully derive our own pleasures from what we don't fully understand.
What strikes me most is how insular the film feels - it's all filmed on sets, largely interiors, with exteriors taking place in night streets and alleys taking place at night. Knowing that this was a production under German-controlled Vichy adds to this feeling of confinement. The stage-bound artifice also adds a dollhouse fairy-tale like quality. It's felt as early as the opening establishing shot, an ostentatious track across a model replica of 1880s Paris, featuring an Eiffel Tower still under construction:
For the most part the film takes place on a giant soundstage dressed as a grand aristocratic house, somewhat reminiscent of the Amberson estate in The Magnificent Ambersons. There are two levels, joined by a grand staircase as well as a newly installed elevator for the convenience of the aging matriarch that presides over the household. Some scenes make good dramatic use of the upward and downward motions of characters traversing the levels.
Graceful tracking shots help bring dynamism between these walls: they alternate in functions between scanning the interiors like a Martian probe and connecting characters' eyelines to objects. But the film repeatedly rests upon images of entrapment. From the opening scene a prison motif is introduced, as the title character (Odette Joyeux) first appears veiled an anonymous at a confessional booth rendered like prison bars:
A later scene between Douce and her governess, the scheming Irene (Madeleine Robinson) introduces another motif of fire that recurs (see title card) though less frequently. This fireplace POV shot (look carefully for the flame between them) symbolizes their respective romantic passions contained by 19th century decorum.
This shot moments later suggests the concealing of thoughts between them - unbeknownst to Douce, Irene is carrying on an affair with the man she fancies.
Mirrors are also used to create a sense of deflection in relationships - here Douce addresses Irene through a mirror at a moment where her trust of her has been broken irreparably:
Windows, doors, shadows and bars permeate the film, confining the characters throughout:
The servants in the house largely function as comic relief, with boorish dialogue and gestures:
There's even Jacques Tati as a servant, in one of his very earliest roles:
But there's room for the upper classes to be skewered visually as well. Marguerite Moreno as Madame de Bonafé is often dressed in oversized frills conveying her aristocratic excess, though her middle-class, kiss-ass estate manager Fabien (Roger Pigault) takes the cake with his ridiculous fur coat:
Yet over the course of the film the destructively selfish Fabien comes to be redeemed by Douce, a character so angelically pure that in one scene she sparkles:
While in this scene he literally has a cross of salvation cast upon him while in Douce's embrace:
There's enough going on visually to compensate for not understanding the dialogue; though in the more stagebound scenes a lot is riding on repartee. There are plenty of moments where the stagelike nature of the production gives the impression that this is largely a theater production captured on film with a modicum of tracking shots and lighting effects used to spice things up. But this is certainly worth watching again, especially if accompanied with a subtitle track.
The following citations were counted towards the placement of Douce / Love Story among the 1000 Greatest Films on the TSPDT 1000:
Bertrand Tavernier, Profil (2004)
Frederic Vitoux, Libre Journal du Cinéma (2009)
Lenny Borger, Libre Journal du Cinéma (2009)
Lindsay Anderson, Sight & Sound (1992)
Patrick Laurent, Libre Journal du Cinéma (2009)
Philippe Ariotti, Libre Journal du Cinéma (2009)
Bertrand Tavernier, 10 Overlooked French Films (2003)
Sight & Sound, 360 Film Classics (1998)
They Shoot Pictures Recommended Films
Director Claude Autant-Lara was one of the principal figures of the French “tradition of quality” that flourished during the Nazi occupation, and this 1943 masterpiece, which also introduced the writing team of Pierre Bost and Jean Aurenche, is the first of several great films he made. The radiant Odette Joyeux stars as the title heroine, a socialite who seeks to flee her lavish but suffocating environs with the handsome family caretaker, only to discover that the relationship is doomed. Autant-Lara's exquisite blend of social commentary, lush romanticism, and opulent sets and costumes—he began his career as a designer—vividly re-creates France's belle epoque and recalls Orson Welles's The Magnificent Ambersons both thematically and in its deep-focus exploration of interior space.
It was under the Occupation that director Claude Autant-Lara proved his mettle and established himself as one of the finest directors of his generation. His best film, Douce, is a magnificent blend of romance, satire and dramatic irony, beautifully filmed, with some enchanting acting performances. Although the film is set in the late 19th century, its story of forbidden love between servants and masters from two totally different social strata was relevant to 1940s France, a country that was as divided by class as it was by the war.
The character Douce is played with great force and subtlety by Odette Joyeux, undoubtedly her best screen performance. Her portrayal of the love-sick adolescent who who makes a doomed attempt to cross the barriers of class and respectability is totally captivating, giving the film the tragic dimension that makes it a masterpiece.
Another noteworthy performance comes from Marguerite Moreno, who play’s Douce’s imperious grandmother. Well into her seventies, Moreno had become the archetypal eccentric ageing tyrant and this film sees one of her most spirited and charismatic performances. Her character epitomises everything that is wrong with the bourgeois elite – patronising, dictatorial, insensitive. The casting of Moreno is a stroke of genius because the strength of her character’s position and her inability to change her viewpoint reinforces the nobility of her son and grand-daughter, who opt for love before protocol. Moreno’s la comtesse de Bonafé is a grotesque caricature but it provides an entertaining and accurate satire of the French bourgeoisie.
Douce was the first film scripted by the so-called “Tradition of Quality" team of Jean Aurenche and Pierre Bost. Tradition of Quality films were dubbed as such by the leading critics of the 1940s and 1950s for their academic production values, basis in traditional literary classics, and theatrical scripting. I might add that the work of Aurenche and Bost, frequent collaborators of Autant-Lara, is where I would place the quality. Their writing is extremely witty and subtle when they are going for social commentary. Marguerite Moreno certainly had a plum role as the Grand Dame of the house. Her lines and actions would have been buffoonish if they hadn’t been closely observed and written. When she goes through her closet to choose items to give to the poor tenants on her land for Christmas, she holds back one jacket. “That’s too good," she instructs Irène, saying (I paraphrase), “It will only depress the people because they will see the heights to which they never can aspire." When she calls on her tenants, she brings Irène and Fabien with her to carry the clothes and soup. One tenant gets up to heat a bowl of soup for herself and her husband. “No, no," says Madame, “It’s my turn to serve you. Irène, put the soup on the stove."
Some quibbles. Joyeux looked too old to still be dressing like a child, and Joyeux, Robinson, and Pigaut have a severe, mannered acting style. The love talk between Pigaut and the two women is the ultimate in purple prose, as well. The film takes a somewhat predictable turn to tragedy, but it was startling to me because up until then I had been watching a very funny comedy of manners. The overly melodramatic elements made me all too aware that there was a moral to this story. I wonder, in fact, whether the German honchos might have insisted that the story reflect a superior/inferior class ethos to suggest the depravity of “mixing." But this is mere conjecture.
It was Autant-Lara who introduced Bost to Aurenche to help with the dialogue for his film Douce , taken from Michel Davet's simple story of a devoted governess in a bourgeois family. Their screen version cleverly subverts the original text by shifting the emphasis to expose middle-class complacency. Thereafter the two writers formed a unique partnership translating for the screen an impressive array of literary classics, including works by Aymé, Colette, Feydeau, Gide, Radiguet, Stendhal, and Zola. Their initial collaboration set the pattern for their approach to adaptation; Aurenche concerning himself mainly with the screenplay and Bost with the dialogue. Frequently their shared left-wing sympathies are reflected in the inflection given to their reworked film narratives. Although they worked for several directors their most memorable achievements are found in films by Delannoy, Clément, and Autant-Lara.
Truffaut denounces these men (as well as the cinema they represent) for their irreverence toward the literary works they adapt (most of the scripts and films in question were literary adaptations), their anti-clerical and anti-militarist stances, their pessimism and negativity, their “profanity” and “blasphemy.” His concerns here show the utter conventionality and the extreme cultural and political conservatism of his views’ on art. These scriptwriters’ irreverence toward their sources, the great French literary masterpieces (in some cases at least), reveals to Truffaut their lack of concern for tradition and conventional values, Truffaut sees the cinema d'auteurs as a return to the eternal verities and the classical French values of the enlightenment and romanticism. His opposition to their insertion of anti-militarist and anti-clerical stances into the works they adapted is a defense of art’s autonomy. No social or political views, those dreaded “messages,” are to mar the purity of art. Art must be free of all outside influences, Truffaut thought.
Truffaut also objects to pessimism and negativity because he holds the opposite view of the potentiality of (at least some) human beings. And these special human beings, not the common person, are to be the fit subject of art, Here Truffaut is also opposing the deterministic view of life which often prevailed in the French cinema of the 1940’s and 1950’s, a view of life which had its origin in Zola’s Naturalism. Finally by objecting to the “profanity” and “blasphemy” in many French films, Truffaut declares his allegiance to Catholicism, the continual target of the French Left. For, as stated in Part One of this article, la politique des auteurs was a recapitulation on the level of culture of the bourgeoisie’s forceful reassertion of power in the decade after the war. Aurenche and Bost were the products and representatives of the era of the Popular Front and the Resistance, the ethos of which Truffaut opposes.
Screened November 28, 2009 on Artisan Entertainment/ Republic Pictures VHS borrowed from the New York Public Library
TSPDT rank #978 IMDbWiki
Leo McCarey's sequel to Going My Way ruled the 1945 holiday season, outgrossing every film up to that time save Gone With the Wind. Mixing gentle convent comedy, spiritual melodrama, and hints of romance between its megastar leads Bing Crosby and Ingrid Bergman, it was primed to be The All-Time Christmas classic movie. It's a Wonderful Life has since taken that title, while Bells has receded into pop culture obscurity, considered too square for contemporary tastes. Time Magazine's Richard Corliss even denounced it as the worst Christmas movie ever, for what he saw as the film's sanctimonious tone and shamelessly manipulative plot twists.
And yet there are those who consider it one of McCarey's finest among a body of work that boasts an unparalleled handling of both interpersonal ethics and the blossoming of romantic feelings. The two themes are more deeply interwoven here than perhaps any of his other films: Crosby's priest and Bergman's nun develop complex feelings as they shepherd their students, regarding each other with jealousy that shifts imperceptibly into admiration, and possibly more. McCarey's achievements are especially exquisite given that a) he's dealing with taboo feelings between a priest and a nun with the utmost below-the-surface delicacy; b) he had to mold emotional subtext into Crosby's monotonously smug countenance.
The film ambles at an incredibly relaxed pace, resting comfortably in its spaces almost to the point of stasis. I haven't come across any comparisons between postwar McCarey (An Affair to Remember) and Carl Dreyer (Ordet; Gertrud), but the two seem to have much in common in terms of how they allow complex feelings to unfold over gentle, drawn out dialogues in flat interiors, where space collapses and it's just people in communion, breathing the same air. Likewise, this is a film that invites you to breathe with it. It benefits greatly from having one of the most open actors in film history embodying its philosophy onscreen. Bergman's like a child in this film, her presence so organic and unmannered, eyes watching, reacting to lines of dialogue as if hearing them for the first time. The sequence where she teaches a student to defend himself while simultaneously figuring it out herself with a boxing manual is one of the most joyously playful pieces of acting on celluloid. It's her attentiveness and conviction, not just to who her character is, but to the moment she inhabits - a moment handled like a divine gift in which she can learn, love and grow - that combines the best of what Bergman and McCarey stood for.
WOULD YOU LIKE TO KNOW MORE?The following citations were counted towards the placement of The Bells of St. Mary's on the TSPDT 1000 Greatest Films:
Antonio Gimenez-Rico, Nickel Odeon (1997)
Luis Maria Delgado, Nickel Odeon (1997)
Manuel Summers, Nickel Odeon (1994)
Danny Peary, Guide for the Film Fanatic: Must-See Films (1987)
Jose Luis Guarner, Genre Favourites: Comedy (1993)
The Bells of St. Mary's (RKO-Radio) is Author-Director-Producer Leo McCarey's Ave-singing sequel to his highly successful and heavily Oscared Going My Way. Bells doesn't ring with quite as true a pitch. Even with Bing Crosby's lackadaisical agility, Bells somehow lacks its predecessor's style and grace. Most important missing ingredient: Barry Fitzgerald. Most important compensations: Ingrid Bergman and a five-year-old friend of McCarey's named Bobby Dolan.
None of the good things in the picture has much to do with the story. The best of them is the children's Nativity play, in which Bobby Dolan, son of the picture's musical director, doubles in the roles of St. Joseph and narrator. Bobby, catching his breath with a long wheezing intake, says, "Oh—this is Mary and I'm Joseph. And we came to Bethlehem to see if we can have some place—find some place to stay. And that's all you have to know really." In the stable, an angel sits on a ladder and wise men and shepherds stand by and wonder as the Christ Child—an 18-month-old— stands up and waves to the audience from a clothesbasket. The play's "dialogue" was made up by a group of kindergartners after Director McCarey gave them the rough idea. McCarey claims "it was one of the most difficult sequences" he ever directed. But it was worth the trouble.
Good shots: Bergman teaching a small boy to box; Crosby adding to his singing repertory of Latin with O Sanctissima, and embellishing the nuns' dingdong chorus of The Bells of St. Mary's with a low-down "Ring dem bells!"
Since I'm playing Scrooge with this list, I'd better begin with a declaration: I love Christmas, the idea of it, and Christmas movies too — the good ones. But some holiday-themed films take advantage of our better nature, and one is director Leo McCarey's officially-loved sequel to his Oscar-winning Going My Way. This time easy-going Father O'Malley is assigned to a school run by severe, skeptical Sister Mary Benedict, and they clash over the priest's liberal handling of the students. It's basically the current movie Doubt, but with Bing Crosby and Ingrid Bergman in the Philip Seymour Hoffman and Meryl Streep roles, and without the accusations of pedophilia. Bells escalates from religious sanctimoniousness to emotional blackmail — a climax at least one notable reviewer finds a litmus test for critics' humanity. "If you don't cry when Bing Crosby tells Ingrid Bergman she has tuberculosis," Joseph McBride wrote in 1973, "I never want to meet you, and that's that." I've met Joe McBride, and I respect the heck out of him; but nothing in this treacle pudding of a film makes me cry, except in despair, and that's that.
- Richard Corliss, "Top 10 Worst Christmas Movies", Time Magazine, December 23 2008
Going My Way is probably the worst of McCarey's major films—obvious, coy, fearsomely sentimental—but Bells is one of his finest, a film so subtle in its romantic exposition that it's halfway over before you realize what it's about: a priest in love with a nun. Seldom has a sequel so completely transcended its predecessor: McCarey's invisible hand, nudging the narrative more than directing it, turns looming cliches into the most refined, elusive feeling.
The Bells of St. Mary's works much better for its battle of wills between a parish priest and a head nun than the dopey musical interludes that pepper it, but Bells is still a winning, emotionally satisfying film. This sequel to Going My Way has Father O'Malley (Bing Crosby) taking over the St. Mary's parochial school and finding himself at loggerheads with Sister Benedict (Ingrid Bergman, looking gorgeous even in a habit). There's a wonderful balance to all of this: O'Malley takes a more worldly approach to administration and is wrong just as many times as the nun is when she insists on a more biblical approach. About four subplots suffuse the film, including the story of a young charge from the wrong side of the tracks, and the deteriorating state of St. Mary's in the shadow of a brand-new building (the owner is played by the avuncular Henry Travers). A dear film.
Does The Bells of St. Mary’s still work?: Not really. Watching the film again, the two words that kept springing to mind were “quaint” and “cornball.” The Bells of St. Mary’s is so committed to making the audience feel good- whether it’s through gentle laughter or easy tears- that the film never has any edge to it. At the beginning of the film, O’Malley is warned about the strong-willed nuns, but aside from a few heated discussions over how the school is run, little becomes of this. Likewise, the episodic nature of the story isn’t a problem, except that all of the subplots are resolved in the easiest and most predictable way possible.
Consider the story of Horace P. Bogardus (Henry Travers), the rich man and city bigwig who is erecting an office building next to St. Mary’s. Bogardus, like so many other rich men in movies, only seems to think about money, while the nuns pray in the hope that he’ll turn over the building to them to use as their new school. So O’Malley does a little scheming, and after Bogardus falls ill, the nuns’ prayers are answered, with Bogardus requiring surprisingly little convincing to make a gift of his not-inexpensive new property. This wouldn’t be so bad except that every subplot in the film is resolved in much the same way.
In addition, the film’s characterizations are almost distractingly thin. O’Malley doesn’t play any notes that he hadn’t already played in Going My Way, and none of the supporting characters show any real depth. Most disappointing is Sister Benedict- the film sets her up as a formidable rival to O’Malley, but none of this pans out. Instead, she becomes practically saintly, as she sticks to her principles, has Job-like patience with her students, and prays for Mr. Bogardus. Even when she does something questionable, such as teaching a picked-on boy how to box, she does so for all of the right reasons. It’s a shame, since as Bergman plays the character it’s easy to imagine how, with only a few script changes, Sister Benedict might have been interesting and multi-dimensional, rather than the sanctimonious cipher we see in The Bells of St. Mary’s.
It should come as no surprise that McCarey, the man who first teamed Laurel with Hardy, is able to find delicate humor in the most unlikely of places. O'Malley's arrival at St. Mary's is shown as a calamitous series of sight gags capped off by the original, and funniest, cat-in-the-hat. Other laughs come from a yawning dog in church and a performance of the nativity story by an all-toddler cast.
In "Going My Way", Bing is up to his big ears in a vat of sentimental goop almost on par with either visit to "Boys Town". "The Bell's of St. Mary's" is anything but cloying. It's insightful, heartfelt and in many ways more uplifting than "It's a Wonderful Life". It even features Henry Travers one film before gaining winged immortality as Capra's Clarence.
Finally, this from imdb.com to further underscore the director's intention of making his film a romantic love story. "The production was overseen by a Catholic priest who served as an advisor during the shooting. While the final farewell sequence was being filmed, Bing Crosby and Ingrid Bergman decided to play a prank on him. They asked director Leo McCarey to allow one more take, and, as 'Father O'Malley' and 'Sister Benedict' said their last goodbyes, they embraced in a passionate kiss, while the offscreen priest-advisor jumped up roaring in protest."
It's sentimental hokum shrewdly put together where songs are sung, heartstrings are tugged and everyone walks away feeling good about these caring church people. Crosby croons "Adeste Fidelis," "In the Land of Beginning Again," and the uplifting "Aren't You Glad You're You." The performances by the two stars are seamless.
Leo McCarey's aunt was the nun who was the inspiration for Sister Benedict, and the one that inspired Bergman when she met with her to research her role.
"Blending an explosive sense of humor with unabashed sentimentality, McCarey came up with such comedy gems as Ruggles of Red Gap and The Awful Truth and such maudlin pearls as Make Way for Tomorrow and Going My Way." - (The MacMillan International Film Encyclopedia, 1994)
"Leo McCarey represents a principle of improvisation in the history of the American film. Noted less for his rigorous direction than for his relaxed digressions, McCarey has distilled a unique blend of farce and sentimentality in his best efforts...McCarey's moments may outlive his movies...After enough great moments are assembled, however, a personal style must be assumed even though it is difficult to describe." - Andrew Sarris (The American Cinema, 1968)
"Jean Renoir once said that McCarey understood people better than anyone else in Hollywood. That facility enabled him to create warm, witty, sometimes zany comedies and gentle dramas." - William R. Meyer (The Film Buff's Catalog, 1978)
"I only know I like my characters to walk in clouds, I like a little bit of the fairy tale. As long as I'm there behind the camera lens, I'll let somebody else photograph the ugliness of the world." - Leo McCarey
Leo McCarey has always presented auteur criticism with one of its greatest challenges and one that has never been convincingly met. The failure to do so should be seen as casting doubt on the validity of auteurism (in its cruder and simpler forms) rather than on the value of the McCarey oeuvre. He worked consistently (and apparently quite uncomplainingly) within the dominant codes of shooting and editing that comprise the anonymous "classical Hollywood" style; the films that bear his name as director, ranging from Duck Soup to The Bells of St. Mary's , from Laurel and Hardy shorts to My Son John , from The Awful Truth to Make Way for Tomorrow (made the same year!), resist reduction to a coherent thematic interpretation. Yet his name is on some of the best—and best-loved—Hollywood films (as well as on some that embarrass many of even his most fervent defenders).
In fact, it might be argued that McCarey's work validates a more sophisticated and circumspect auteur approach: not the author as divinely inspired individual creative genius, but the author as the animating presence in a project within which multiple determinants—collaborative, generic, ideological—complexly interact. The only adequate approach to a McCarey film would involve the systematic analysis of that interaction. A few notes can be offered, however, towards defining the "animating presence."
McCarey's formative years as an artist were spent working with the great clowns of the late silent/early sound period: Harold Lloyd, Mae West, W.C. Fields, the Marx Brothers and (especially) Laurel and Hardy, for whom he was "supervising manager" for many years, personally directing two of their greatest shorts ( Liberty and Wrong Again ). His subsequent career spans (with equal success) the entire range of American comedy from screwball ( The Awful Truth ) to romantic ( An Affair to Remember ). The director's congenial characteristic seems to have been a commitment to a spontaneous, individualist anarchy which he never entirely abandoned, accompanied by a consistent skepticism about institutions and restrictive forms of social organization, a skepticism which produces friction and contradiction even within the most seemingly innocuous, conservative projects. Going My Way and The Bells of St. Mary's are usually rejected outright by the intelligentsia as merely pious and sentimental, but their presentation of Catholicism is neither simple, straightforward, nor uncritical, and it is easy to mistake for sentimentality, in contexts where you expect to find it anyway (such as Hollywood movies about singing priests), qualities such as tenderness and generosity. The celebration of individualism is of course a mainspring of American ideology, yet, pushed far enough in certain directions, it can expose contradictions within that ideology: its oppressive response to many forms of individuality, for example.
"I was a problem child, and problem children do the seemingly insane because they are trying to find out how to fit into the scheme of things," Leo McCarey once said.
The legacy of Leo McCarey has divided critics, many of whom seem to concur that he was better at creating isolated moments than crafting great movies. Still, he made important contributions to comedy and a handful of his films have retained their capacity to touch the viewer's emotions.
His films were financial and critical successes; many—like An Affair to Remember and The Bells of St. Mary's—have remained household names. McCarey worked on nearly 200 movies across 40 years, primarily comedies. He was the first director (and is one of only seven) to have won Oscars for Best Picture, Best Director, and Best Screenplay in the same year. Jean Renoir said McCarey "understands people better perhaps than anyone else in Hollywood."
As to his approach, McCarey told an interviewer, "I love when people laugh, I love when they cry, I like a story to say something, and I hope the audience feels happier leaving the theatre than when it came in."
On his success: "I don't know what my formula is. I only know I like my characters to walk in clouds. I like a little bit of the fairy tale. Let others photograph the ugliness of the world. I don't want to distress people." Many of his films center on teaching scenes—one person teaches another to sing, to box, to drum, to speak on the radio—but they always feature a teacher with compassion, who forgives his student for their gaffes, forgives them their sins, as McCarey's had been for his own many failures before learning where his place in this world was to be.
He also valued quiet moments in his films, especially at the end—such as The Awful Truth or Going My Way, comedies that end peacefully, with a still, small silence. Instead of ending with a bang, McCarey's comedies end with a whisper … and we remember them. The use of silence in his endings has been compared to that of Robert Bresson. McCarey is not in the same league, but has a similar effect on his viewers in the contrast, the chiaroscuro, between the active, sometimes raucous, musical numbers and the quiet, contemplative endings.
For a director who made a film (The Bells of St. Mary's ) seen, at one time, by more moviegoers in the USA than any other to that point in history, McCarey has, oddly enough, become something of a cult figure. Among his most perceptive and vocal supporters are David Kehr, Jonathan Rosenbaum and, especially, Robin Wood. Though Wood's essays and Kehr and Rosenbaum's reviews have championed him on multiple occasions, virtually every extended biographical or critical essay about Leo McCarey written since the advent of auteurism either questions whether he was more than a serviceable metteur-en-scène or, alternatively, discusses his neglect and defends his career as an auteur. This essay very much follows the latter approach.
One factor that has made it difficult to champion McCarey as an auteur is that he lacks a “visual style” that is as identifiable as, say, a Hitchcock, Welles, or Sirk. Some critics, like George Morris, have argued that McCarey does have one, but to my mind the case can only be made in a limited fashion. For the most part McCarey's visual style is one that is barely distinguishable from numerous other Hollywood filmmakers of the same era, especially those directors that started at the bottom of the Hollywood ladder (in McCarey's case, as a script supervisor) and apprenticed in silent shorts and early sound features. To his credit, his mise-en-scène shows sensitivity to the meaning of objects (the graduation dresses in The Bells of St. Mary's, for instance). His cinematography is restrained, and he clearly has a fondness for using off-screen space. (Sometimes McCarey places the most important moments of his films just beyond the frame – the killing of the Nazi husband in Once Upon a Honeymoon, for example, or perhaps best of all, the lovers' first kiss in An Affair to Remember.) Beyond that, I believe the questions of McCarey's visual style – whether he has one, and if so, what it is – are not easily answerable, and this is one reason why McCarey's status as an auteur is insecure. But, more to the point, why must a director have a visual style to be an auteur? Cinema is more than a visual medium, it's a medium that exists in time, and few Hollywood filmmakers had more command over rhythm and structure than Leo McCarey.
Even McCarey's most ardent supporters would have a hard time making the case that his films can be encapsulated in the way that makes defining Ford's or Hitchcock's status as an auteur a comparatively more straightforward enterprise. McCarey's career has eras defined by substantially different concerns. His career, which began in silent slapstick and ended with works that bend genres and blend spiritual and political commentary, cannot be reduced to any one genre or theme. Furthermore, his style is one that is more sonic and rhythmic than picturesque, which makes the work more difficult to identify immediately and discuss in print. (Try selecting a still image that communicates rhythm!) And, like many great directors, he made some films that are, at first (or second) glance, bad or even embarrassing. These are mere complications, however, and a sensitive approach to McCarey's career reveals a career of tremendous growth. The recurring themes and formal motifs of his mature period are largely unique in the American cinema, and the fact that he developed them over the course of his career in interesting ways makes him undeniably an auteur. The fact that many of these works are truly great ranks him, ultimately, as a great film artist.
(Both of these websites are run by Ingrid Bergman's family. The former seems to be a news and shopping site with more updates, while the latter features some multimedia.)
In temperament, Miss Bergman was different from most Hollywood superstars. She did not indulge in tantrums or engage in harangues with directors. If she had a question about a script, she asked it without fuss. She could be counted on to be letter perfect in her lines before she faced the camera. And during the intervals between scenes, her relaxing smile and hearty laugh were as unaffected as her low-heeled shoes, long walking stride and minimal makeup.
Yet this even-tempered and successful actress, who was apparently happily married, became involved in a scandal that rocked the movie industry, forced her to stay out of the United States for seven years and made her life as tempestuous as many of her roles. In a sense, she became a barometer of changing moral values in the United States.
In 1949 she fell in love with Roberto Rossellini, the Italian film director, and had a child by him before she could obtain a divorce from her husband, Dr. Peter Lindstrom, and marry the director.
Before the scandal, millions of Americans had been moved by her performances in such box-office successes as ''Intermezzo,'' ''For Whom the Bell Tolls,'' ''Gaslight,'' ''Spellbound,'' ''The Bells of St. Mary's,'' ''Notorious'' and ''Casablanca,'' roles that had made her, somewhat to her annoyance, a symbol of moral perfection.
''I cannot understand,'' she said, long before the scandal, ''why people think I'm pure and full of nobleness. Every human being has shades of bad and good.''
The complexity of Ingrid Bergman's career (with its notorious vicissitudes), and of the image that is its product, raises a number of important issues about stars: the perennial one (but here in a peculiarly acute form) of the tensions between acting and presence; the efforts of Hollywood to construct a star according to a specific prescription and the actress's rebellion against that construction; the diverse and sometimes contradictory ways in which a "star image," once constructed, can be inflected in the work of different directors.
Bergman's partial rebellion against this image-construction was motivated by a desire to prove that she could act , and was not merely a star. When in the 1941 Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde MGM cast her as Jekyll's high society fiancée and Lana Turner as Hyde's low-life mistress and victim, it was Bergman who took the initiative (enlisting Turner's cooperation) in demanding that they exchange roles. A somewhat curious accent aside, her promiscuous cockney barmaid was extremely successful (though the critics, predictably, said she was miscast).
Two of Bergman's finest performances in two of her finest films draw directly upon the natural/lady opposition: the persecuted wife of Cukor's Gaslight and the energetic and forthright nun of McCarey's The Bells of St. Mary's . The latter, too easily dismissed by embarrassed sophisticates for its alleged sentimentality, is among other things, a complex and delicate study of gender roles, allowing Bergman a wide range of expression within the apparent confines of her nun's habit. Bergman's notions of being an actress (centered on a striving after obviously big acting roles such as Maria in For Whom the Bell Tolls and, above all, Joan of Arc in the disastrous Fleming film of that name) were always somewhat naive; her richest and most complex performances arose not out of "big" roles but out of collaborations with directors such as Cukor and McCarey who were particularly sensitive and sympathetic to performers , collapsing the usual distinction between presence and acting ability. One may also note that, for all her efforts to establish a wider range, Bergman was quite incapable of playing a bad woman convincingly; the irreducible beauty of her character partly undermines the dismally reactionary project of Ingmar Bergman's Autumn Sonata , the chastisement of a great pianist for failing to be a great mother.
Ingrid remembered a really good thing about playing a nun. She could eat all the ice cream she wanted. Nobody worried about her gaining weight because nobody knew if she gained any. All that showed of her, wearing the nun's habit, was her face.
"I was like a child with money, and in the country of the greatest ice cream. Later I was to live in the land of gelati, which could be very good, but somehow Italian ice cream never caught my fancy the way the American did.
"I even dreamed about ice cream. Those were good dreams, those ice cream dreams, but they were not as enjoyable as the real thing."
Ingrid not only discovered American ice cream, but she came "to know intimately sundaes and banana splits. A hot fudge sundae was an unbelieveable delight, and you could add banana and more ice cream and hot chocolate by ordering a banana split. In New York City, where I liked ice cream the best, I could eat four ice creams in a day." She frequently ordered a second dish. Then she said she had to leave and go to another place because she was too embarrassed to order a third and even a fourth portion.
Screened November 14 2009 on DVD rip of Video Yesteryear VHS (dubbed in English), purchased on AmazonTSPDT Rank #903 IMDbWiki
Andre Bazin called it "the first and most exemplary psychologically realistic film" in French cinema. Francois Truffaut singled it out as a prime culprit of "le cinema du papa" against which he and other members of the French New Wave would rally. It was both censored and defended in France for sympathetically portraying a adulterous couple, yet reviled by the likes of Truffaut for gussying up the illicit affair with "the cinema of quality" to make it palatable to bourgeois audiences. Devil in the Flesh is a fascinating historical lightning rod, straddling both the moral and aesthetic conflicts of its time. (As of now I'd say there's more going on in this film on different levels than, say, the tasteful stiff upper lip adultery of Brief Encounter.)
Because of its contradictory significances, its best to consider the film without that largely unhelpful label "cinema of quality" (one that unfortunately is still invoked today) and consider the tensions within the film itself. It starts with French heartthrob Gerard Philipe and his strange blend of adolescent swagger and sulky introversion. Or the way the characters are seen through multiple filters. There's the extended flashbacks, summoned aurally by a strange grinding sound, as if it were the gears of a machine [a film projector?] being wound back then forth. The prominence of all sorts of frames (windows, doors, mirrors) that continually give the sense of encasement and self-consciousness. And the frequent rain that operates as more than just for typical, sentimental exclamation during emotional climaxes, but underscores the characters' physical exertion as they move through wet spaces to see each other.
The film isn't without its questionable flourishes, such as a 180 degree shot of the bed as the couple is about to consummate their affair, that ends with one of their hands turning out the light (if this is the first instance of this romantic movie cliche, then the film has a lot to answer for). It wouldn't be half as bad if a later climactic scene didn't reprise this same shot to spell out in boldface that the affair has come full circle. Such impositions speak to the complaints from the likes of Truffaut, that this is filmmaking that looks down on both the characters and the audience. But this shouldn't discount the moments of light from within, most notably in the intimacy achieved between the leads - whose fragility may actually be enhanced by Autant-Lara's insistence on boxing them in with his frames and devices.
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The following citations were counted towards the placement of Devil in the Flesh among the 1000 greatest films according to They Shoot Pictures, Don't They? Andre Cayatte, Cinematheque Belgique (1952)
Barthelemy Amengual, Positif (1991)
Claude Autant-Lara, Cinematheque Belgique (1952)
Francis Bolen, Sight & Sound (1952)
Helmut Kautner, Cinematheque Belgique (1952)
Marcel L'Herbier, Cinematheque Belgique (1952)
Marc-Gilbert Sauvajon, Cinematheque Belgique (1952)
Noel Coward, Cinematheque Belgique (1952)
Brussels Referendum: Filmmakers, The Ten Best Films (1952)
Daniel & Susan Cohen, Book - 500 Great Films (1987)
David Thomson, Have You Seen...? A Personal Introduction to 1000 Films (2008)
Georges Sadoul, Best French Films Since the Liberation (1965)
They Shoot Pictures Recommended Films
Daniel & Susan Cohen Book - 500 Great Films (1987)
David Thomson Have You Seen...? A Personal Introduction
to 1000 Films (2008)
Georges Sadoul Best French Films Since the Liberation
They Shoot Pictures Recommended Films
Devil in the Flesh, a French film which features the gifted young actors above, is a story of adolescent love that runs its course to disaster in the topsy-turvy world of a nation at war. Beautifully directed by Claude Autant Lara, it has aroused cries of jubilation from the critics and rage from the censors, who object to the film's compassionate attitude toward the sinful lovers. It is one of the two or three movies to be released in the U.S. in the past half year that are worth going to see more than once. A few years ago it would have been practically impossible to see it, or a movie like it at all, outside of New York and half a dozen other big cities. Motion picture exhibitors were generally convinced that anything which broke away from the standard Hollywood formulas was box-office poison. What they rather contemptuously referred to as "art pictures" might, they said, get rave reviews in the big-city papers, but they would never be in a class with Betty Grable when it came to reaching for the customer's pocketbook.
But since 1946 there have occurred such extraordinary phenomena as Olivier's Henry V, which has already taken in $2.5 million in the U.S.; the grim Italian picture Open City, which played in towns where no foreign language picture had been seen before and grossed a million dollars, and the even greater financial successes of the British Hamlet and The Red Shoes, and the Italian Paisan. The lesson is sinking in, and perhaps people in all 48 states wil soon be getting a chance to see Devil (although only after censor's cuts)...
An extraordinarily frank and understanding contemplation of a tragic love affair between a 17-year-old French schoolboy and the wife of a soldier during the first World War is beautifully and tenderly accomplished in a most formidable new French film, "Devil in the Flesh," which was presented at the Paris Theatre last night.
Already celebrated by the controversies it has aroused on the Continent, where it was presented under the title "Le Diable au Corps," and also by some slight embarrassment in its admission to the United States, this film is plainly one for starting impassioned discussion, pro and con. And its merits will likely be debated on other than artistic grounds. For not only does it have forebearance for the youthful principals in an adulterous romance but it lays bare the merciless irony in certain conventional attitudes...
Produced by Paul Graetz, this picture is perhaps the finest, most mature from post-war France, and its admission for exhibition by our assorted censors is a triumph to be hailed.
Devil in the Flesh (Graetz; A.F.E.), when it first appeared in France a couple of years ago, caused the devil of a row. Like the celebrated autobiographical novel on which it was based,* it was rough on French national dignity (the municipal council of Bordeaux denounced it as "shocking, painful and scabrous") but enthusiastically received by the public (it ran to packed houses for more than a year).
Devil in the Flesh is a profoundly moving film because it is profoundly honest. With an ear for dialogue as accurate and intimate as a wire recorder in a bedroom, Writers Jean Aurenche and Pierre Bost (who also collaborated on Symphonie Pastorale) have provided a script that is at once ruthless, compassionate and quietly penetrating. Working in the same low natural key, Director Claude Autant Lara has produced an extraordinary fluoroscopic effect of life-in-depth. The lovers' moments of clandestine passion (as frank as any that have recently reached the screen), their childish gaiety, their anguish and fears have an almost unbearable intimacy. Sensitively conceived and superbly acted—notably by Micheline Presle and Gérard Philipe—Devil makes most cinema explorations of the human heart appear strictly two-dimensional.
Le diable au corps was certainly the French film of 1947. Winner of several European awards, the film was also banned in communities across the Continent. While a proud tribute to the French literary tradition, it posed as the most avant-garde example of postwar cinema in that country.
There is no paradox here, for the aesthetic ideology of the "cinema of quality," of which this film serves as an outstanding example, openly mixes an interest in iconoclastic subject matter, high art tradition, and a refined studio treatment. Aurenche and Bost's careful reworking of a youthful and rebellious novel points up its key social and psychological oppositions. Claude Autant-Lara was then able to put these oppositions into play through the psychological realism of his handling of actors, and through the narrational commentary wrung out of decor, music, and cinematic figures.
Their grim intelligence and determined passion made Gérard Philipe and Micheline Presle an instantly legendary couple; he as a precocious teenage malcontent, son of an upright bourgeois, she the older woman whose husband is off at the front in World War I. Autant-Lara evinces sympathy for their questionable moral position by rendering the action through a series of flashbacks from the boy's point of view. The war is over and the town celebrates the return of its veterans, but he must hide in the room of their forbidden love and go through the anguish of recalling that love. This flashback structure, together with the doomed love of the couple, reminded critics of Le jour se lève , and made the public see Gérard Philipe as the heir of Jean Gabin. But the limpid expressiveness of the prewar realism had been complicated after the war. Philipe's gestures were calculated to display his passion and anguish, whereas Gabin had moved and spoken instinctively, without the hesitation of either good taste or intelligence, hallmarks of the postwar style. The same holds true for the direction. While Carné and Prévert had devised a number of highly charged objects, Autant-Lara multiplies effects wherever he can. The incessant play of reflections in mirrors and by the ferry insists on the significance of the drama, but does so from the outside. Similarly the famous 360-degree camera movement that circles the bed of the couple's lovemaking demands to be noticed as a figure supplied by an external narrator, especially since it begins on a crackling fire and ends on dying embers. This is more than a metaphor for passion, it is a poetic display that lifts an ordinary drama into telling significance.
Altogether Le diable au corps stuns its audience with the cockiness of its presentation as well as with the audacity of its subject matter. This is its conquest as well as its loss; for in only a few years the New Wave critics, led by Truffaut, would clamor for the downfall of psychological realism and of the paternalistic, elitist narration that preaches a liberal morality. If Radiguet, the novelist, likewise condemned a suffocating society, he did so from within, from the perceptions and language of his hero. Autant-Lara has used Radiguet's rebelliouness, has packaged it approvingly, but has made of it a mature, stylish film. Radiguet, legend has it, put everything of himself into this novel and then died. The movie pays tribute to his effort and his views, but is just another very good movie.
For (Francois Truffaut), Aurenche and Bost are essentially literary writers and he aims his ultimate reproach at them: they show contempt for the cinema and underestimate its potential. "They behave vis-a-vis the scenario, as if they thought to reeducate a delinquent by finding him a job; they always believe they've 'done the maximum' for it by embellishing it with subtleties, out of that science of nuances that make up the slender merit of modern novels." According to Truffaut, a valid adaptation can be written only by a "man of the cinema."
In Radiguet's short novel, written in the first person by the young narrator, the central character-narrator recounts how he met Marthe, the heroine, for the first time as she got off a train on the platform at a train station:
When the train drew into the station, Marthe was standing on the step of the railway carriage. "Wait till it stops!" cried her mother... The girl's recklessness delighted me. Her dress and hat, both simple, evidenced her lack of respect for the opinion of outsiders.
Aurenche and Bost transposed the action to the courtyard of a lycee, or secondary school, transformed into a military hospital. Marthe is a volunteer aid, helping the seriously wounded soldiers arriving from the front. This change in location allows the scriptwriters to introduce a very bitter indictment against educational, military, and medical authorities, on the one hand, and against the matriarchy, on the other: the professor is a guard dog, the military doctor is a sadistic brute, and Marthe's mother-in-law is a real harpy. Thus, from these few details we can readily see how the adapters introduced via transposition a number of motifs completely absent from the original novel, whose anti-militarism, while real, was signified in a totally different, and more subtle, manner. "What is the point of this equivalence? It's a decoy for the anti-militarist elements added to the work by the screenwriters, in concert with Claude Autant-Lara. Well, it is evident that Radiguet's idea was one of mise-en-scene, whereas the scene invented by Aurence and Bost is literary."
Finally, Truffaut defends the idea that it is impossible to appreciate simultaneously those directors belonging to the tradition of quality, such as Autant-Lara, Jean Delannoy, Rene Clement, Yves Allegret, and those considered auteurs, principally Jean Renoir, Max Ophuls, Jacques Becker, and Robert Bresson, because he does not believe in the "peaceful co-existence of the tradition of quality and the cinema of auteurs." The fundamental opposition established by this young critic between these two antagonistic categories rests in their directors' attitudes towards their characters: for the former, there is an all-powerful attitude in which the protagonists are only puppets manipulated by the director. "In the films of 'psychological realism' there are nothing but vile beings, but so inordinate is the authors' desire to be superior to their characters that those who, perchance, are not infamous are, at best, infinitely grotesque."
Director Claude Autant-Lara presents a faithful adaptation of the novel published originally in 1923 by Raymond Radiguet, supposedly semi-autobiographical, when the author was only 20 years old. He died of typhoid fever later that same year. The film is linked to the school of cinema known as "cinema de papa."
Sensitive performances by the stars and atmospheric footage from the period keeps the fires going, in this otherwise overcooked romantic drama.
The script feels like it was written by an eighteen-year-old. It wasn't, but it was adapted from a semi-autobiographical novel written by an eighteen-year-old, Raymond Radiguet. Radiguet died two years later of typhoid fever. The two lead characters are never more than shallow archetypes: a hormonal teenage boy and an attractive but lonely older woman. It's never evident what either one sees in the other beyond pure carnal desire. They are given no personalities.
The best thing about the film is its atmosphere. The sets are elaborate and impressive in their period detail. Michel Kleber provided lots of rainy or misty days, giving the film an ethereal quality. There're some artistic shots and interesting camera angles. The music by René Cloërec is very romantic and would have worked had the love story itself been more profound and moving. As it is, the music feels overblown. The VHS copy that I purchased is very poor quality, both for the video and the audio. The film available in America is also dubbed rather than subtitles, so the poor sound quality is a major deficit.
I sought out this film on the basis of one sourcebook rating it at 4-stars (our of 5 possible) and, most especially, from a desire to see Micheline Presle in her heyday. I had enjoyed her work at a later stage of her career in The King of Hearts (1966), one of my all-time favorite films. Presle gives a nice performance, but her character is so shallow that I had no sense of experiencing anything of her beyond her surface beauty. Although Gérard Philipe went on to be a popular romantic lead in France, until his untimely death at just thirty-nine, his casting here at age twenty-four as a seventeen-year-old destroys the credibility of the story. Although Philipe manages to convey the lack of depth and immaturity of a smitten seventeen-year-old, he never looks less than his real age. Since a significant part of the story's point was the mismatch in ages of the lovers, the casting mishap is a major deficit for the film. Philipe later appeared in La Ronde (1950). I thought the best performance in the film belonged to Jean Debucourt, in a small role as François's father. His other work included Mayerling (1936) and The Earrings of Madame de . . . (1953).
Claude Autant-Lara, whose talent was revealed during the war by Douce[Love Story, 1943] and Le Mariage de Chiffon [The Marriage of Chiffon, 1942], is an uneven filmmaker whose critical or analytical faculty is uncertain (witness Le Bon Dieu sans confession [God without Confession, 1953] and Marguerite de la nuit [Marguerite of the Night, 1956]), but whose dour and biting personality affirms itself brilliantly when his subject is well chosen (as in La Traversée de Paris[Four Bags Full, 1956]). We also owe to Autant-Lara the first and most exemplary psychologically realistic film, Le Diable au corps [Devil in the Flesh, 1947], which was adapted from the famous novel by Raymond Radiguet.
A director's highest duty is to reveal the actors to themselves; and to do that, he must know himself very well. Cinematographic failure generally occurs because there is too wide a disparity between a filmmaker's temperament and his ambitions.
From Diable au Corps (Devil in the Flesh in the United States) to Marguerite de la Nuit, and in between - in L'Auberge Rouge, Le Ble en Herbe, and Le Rouge et le Noir (The Red and the Black) - I have consistently attacked Claude Autant-Lara and I have always deplored his tendency to simplify everything, make it bland. I disliked the coarseness with which he "condensed" Stendhal, Radiguet, Colette. It seemed to me he deformed and watered down the spirit of any work he adapted. Autant-Lara seemed to be like a butcher who insists on trying to make lace.
But I admire, without any real reservations, La Traversee de Paris. I think it's a complete success because Autant-Lara has finally found the subject he's waiting for - a plot tha tis made in his own image, a story that his truculence, tendency toward exaggeration, roughness, vulgarity, and outrage, far from serving badly, elevates to an epic.
Claude Autant-Lara, the director who made his name with films like ''Devil in the Flesh'' and ''The Red and the Black'' and who made an infamous foray into far-right politics late in his life, died on Saturday in a clinic in Antibes in the south of France. He was 98.
One of France's most prolific directors, Mr. Autant-Lara made more than 30 films, many of which are classics of 1940's and 50's French cinema. His work, characterized by emphasis on plotting and dialogue and often based on literary adaptations, frequently attacked or ridiculed social institutions and made provocative jabs at bourgeois society. But in his lifetime, his politics veered 180 degrees. As a young man he was an avant-garde left-wing atheist. By the time he left politics in 1989 he was a member of France's far-right National Front party.
Mr. Autant-Lara's career as a filmmaker reached its height in the 1950's with films like ''Le Diable au Corps'' (''Devil in the Flesh''), which scandalized France with its steamy account of an adolescent's affair with a young woman whose husband was away at war. The sensation of its day, the film condemned those who glorified adultery and tacitly criticized the war. The British banned it for six years, finally releasing it with an X rating. But the movie, starring Micheline Presle and Gerard Philipe, was also seen as capturing the cynical mood of the post-war generation and won several awards.
By the 1960's, Mr. Autant-Lara and his contemporaries in the French ''tradition of quality'' films came under sharp attack, notably from Francois Truffaut, who argued that their films were ''stale'' and relied too much on adaptation of old material. Though Mr. Autant-Lara continued making films into the 1970's, he was effectively eclipsed by the more vital French New Wave filmmakers. His last film, ''Gloria'' in 1977, was largely ignored by critics.
Active in the 1950's as a spokesman for the film industry and later as the head of several film trade unions, he emerged on the national political scene in the late 80's. He was elected to the European Parliament in 1989 as a member of the National Front, though he soon resigned after the monthly magazine Globe quoted him as saying that a French politician who survived a concentration camp had been ''missed'' by the Nazis. He also cast doubt on the existence of Auschwitz and said he was glad the Israelis had a home and that he wished they would stay put there.
The so-called qualite francaise may sound abstract and overly comprehensive, but in fact it included mostly prestige productions (classic literary adaptations, costume dramas, and historical reconstitutions), whose actors, principally from dramatic schools, were adorned with elaborate attires and surrounded by magnificent studio sets. The works of the directors who emerged from the dark hours of the Occupations had become, by the middle of the next decade, quite imposing in the number of their achievements and the prestige of this so-called quality. They contributed significantly to the reputation of the French film industry throughout the world. As the years went by, however, most of these experienced filmmakers progressively lost their own idiosyncratic artistic creativity and cinematographic originality, which had been their determining trademark fifteen years before. They had simply fallen prey to their own triumph due to the constant demand from film producers for bigger budgets and an invariable need to satisfy the expectation of new spectatorship. French cinema focused less on its spiritual and moral correlation to viewers and more on its own methodology to engage a subject matter. Although the works they performed were ingenious and academically stimulating, there was little change in the concept of cinema itself. This was a scenarist cinema, the genre and rules of stagecraft seemingly fixed within an agreed perception of what constituted literature, history, or vaudeville. The films of Claude Autant Lara epitomized the literary adaptation trend of the late 1940s and mid 1950s, Many of the literary adaptations of the postwar era were inspired from realist or contemporary literature, such as Raymond Radiguet's novel Devil in the Flesh (Le diable au corps), Andre Gide's The Pastoral Symphony (La symphonie pastorale), and Jean-Paul Sartre's The Chips Are Down (Les jeux sont faits). The ringleader of the qualite francaise was Autant-Lara, with adaptations of Colette's The Game of Love (Le ble en herbe), Stendhal's The Red and the Black, Georges Simenon's Love Is My Profession (En case de mahleur), and Marcel Ayme's short novel Le vin de Paris. Honorable attempts to transfer the involvements and density or classic French novels to film were sporadically made but logically remained incapable of capturing, entirely and in depth, the full dramatic fortune of the novel. French cinema was focused too much on an imaginary past (adaptations of literary classics) and remained clearly disconnected from France's current events and its preoccupations. For film historian Roy Armes, the constant dilemma for directors was between realist venture and quality impulse:
French cinema has always been at its richest when it has direct contact with the world of the arts in general, but the major currents of thought and literature hardly find their reflection in the cinema of the 1950s, whose concerns remain, essentially, professionalism, attention to detail in setting and acting, and commercial viability. In this sense it was a cinema without risks, which could hardly attract the young aspirants who were nurtured by the growth of the cine-club movement in France after 1945, by the activities of the Cinematheque francaise, which maintained a lively and eclectic approach under Henri Langlois, and by the new generation of film critics.
The cinema des scenaraistes reached its heyday with productions such as Children of Paradise (premiered in 1945), thanks to the team of Marcel Carne and Jacques Prevert, clearly experiencing its slow decline by the beginning of the 1950s. A new team of scenarists, Jean Aurenche and Pierre Bost, marked the soaring postwar era. Their specialty was the adaptation of literary oeuvres labled de qualite. Unfortunately, although many of the works produced reached a high level of quality (such as The Pastoral Symphony and Devil in the Flesh), they generated an overly academic approach, the rigidity of which hampered the creative process that indirectly opened the door for the future New Wave of 1958-59. Representative directors Autant-Lara and Christian-Jaque removed themselves from France's current preoccupations by their impersonal works and their rejection of the ecumenical character in their films. Although assisted by expert technicians - Jacques Natteau, Robert Juillard, Oswald Morris, and Louis Page, to name a few - they were unable to capture any sense of rejuvenation within their visual style. In 1954, a young journalist named Francois Truffaut wrote what remains today a landmark in cinematographic history, an article entitled "Une certaine tendance du cinema francais" in Les cahiers du cinema, which vehemently reevaluated the cinema de qualite and all other concepts of film studies of the 1950s. Truffaut accused directors and scenarists of the qualite francaise of conforming to established standards so closely that they eventually destroyed the spirit of their original work. This devastating position would essentially give the world the New Wave. The evolution toward a new concept of filmmaking had become a necessity.
In a brilliant but sadly brief career, Gérard Philipe was celebrated as the most talented and most loved screen and stage actor of his generation. An enormously gifted, intelligent, and committed professional, he possessed a fine voice, a handsome, youthful appearance, and a charming freshness which suggested both residual innocence and emotional intensity. Encouraged by Marc Allégret, he trained under Jean Huret and later Jean Wall before making a promising stage debut at Cannes.
Philipe's film career was launched by Marc and Yves Allégret in their romantic comedies La Boîte aux rêves and Les Petites du Quai aux Fleurs , but his first leading role came in Le Pays sans étoiles as a dreaming clerk uncannily acting out a crime of passion. A more demanding part, executed with discerning subtlety, followed as the reforming, idealistic, and deranged Prince Myshkin in L'Idiot . However, in Le Diable au corps , as the adolescent passionately and perhaps irresponsibly involved with a nurse who, although engaged to a soldier, bears his child, he triumphed with a public deeply conscious of the personal moral dilemmas posed by wartime separations. The successful partnership with Micheline Presle led to a laborious romantic farce, Tous les chemins mènent à Rome and a later lesser variation on the adulterous couple relationship in Les Amants de la Villa Borghese .
In a remarkable career, Gérard Philipe worked with the leading directors and actresses of his day and was never less than accomplished. With his handsome looks, seductive voice, and engaging personality he endeared himself to audiences as the noble but often humble romantic hero. Through his dedicated craftmanship, he won the respect of his fellow professionals to become one of the legendary figures of French cinema.
Among a myriad of new talented actors, it is worth considering several heroes of the 1950s generation. One of the best known illustrations is, of course, Gerard Philipe (1922-59), who died at the age of thirty-seven (a fate similar to American actor James Dean) but whose few roles made him one of the most identifiable icons of postwar French cinema. Although many have argued that his celebrity status came from the simple fact that his image of rebel youth remained untarnished by age and universally appealing for future generations, Philipe proved on many occasions the extent of his repertoire and the depth of his acting potential. He is described by film historians Olivier Barrot and Raymond Chirat as a "hero to whom the gods o fhte arts as well as the public, have bestowed... a legendary providence." Autant-Lara's Devil in the Flesh led Philipe to become the most celebrated of all French actors following his first success, which garnered the Grand Prix for Best Actor at the Brussels International Festival in 1947. Philipe concomitantly pursued a second career in theatrical drama and was consecrated with national glory at Jean Vilar's TNP in 1951. During the 1950s, thanks to his seductive talent and panache in popular cape-and-sword productions (reminiscent of Errol Flynn's performances), he became the enchanting emblem of the cinema de qualite as well as the favorite male actor among the French female public. His most memorable roles include Roger Vadim's Dangerous Liaisons (Les liaisons dangereuses, 1959), Autant-Lara's The Red and the Black, Christian-Jaque's Fan-Fan the Tulip, and The Charterhouse of Parma (La chartreuse de Parme, 1948).
Joseph Mankiewicz' wittily scripted, innovatively structured survey of distaff marital life at the brink of the Eisenhower era pits three middle class wives against an impossible feminine ideal. Addie Ross, the omniscient, goddess-like narrator who opens the film with withering remarks about the lives of the desperate housewives she calls friends, is as much of a structuring absence as Citizen Kane's Rosebud. She's never seen, only talked about as some otherworldly feminine ideal who inspires men and terrorizes women. It's her letter to the three wives, announcing that she's run off with one of their husbands, that sets off a chain of collective flashback introspection; the wives are so awestruck that their response is to ruminate in their domestic failures rather than kick some adulterous ass. She's a gimmick, but one that aptly grounds Mankiewicz's suburban landscape as a projection screen of insecurities. Even domestic sounds like a ferry horn or a dripping faucet set loose vexing thoughts about infidelity and emptiness among the three wives.
Though they share the same anxiety of being unfit to hold a good man, the three wives each represent a different slice of the upwardly mobile post-WWII woman. Jeanne Crain is a pretty, stay-at-home type of modest background, grateful and anxious about landing the picket fence package. Ann Sothern is the career girl both proud and worried that she makes more than her man, while on the brink of compromising her values for a paycheck. Linda Darnell is the unrepentant maneater who plays the sexist cards she's dealt with masterfully, but can't get over the golddigger persona she feels saddled with.
Mankiewicz delights in poking and celebrating the pride and pretensions of each type, succeeding especially with Sothern and Darnell. Some may see their outcomes as regressing into conservative notions of marital subservience, irreconcilable with the self-sufficient superfigure of Addie Ross. But it's worth putting it out there that feminist ideals can bully women as much as galvanize them. The film, which neither completely skewers nor validates the domestic American dream, hit a nerve with viewers back in 1949; 60 years later, its visually expressive, vocally incisive inquiry into a woman's place in this world isn't as obsolete as one might think.
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The entirety of A Letter to Three Wives is available on YouTube. Part 1 here
ORIGINAL THEATRICAL TRAILER
The following citations were counted towards the placement of A Letter to Three Wives among the 1000 Greatest Films according to They Shoot Pictures, Don't They?
Adeline Weckmans, ymdb.com (2002)
Albert Valentin, Cinematheque Belgique (1952)
David Trueba, Nickel Odeon (1994)
Lorenzo Codelli, Positif (1991)
Michael Henry Wilson, Positif (1991)
Danny Peary, Guide for the Film Fanatic: Must-See Films (1987)
Jose Luis Guarner, Genre Favourites: Comedy (1993)
New York Times, The Best 1,000 Movies Ever Made (2004)
They Shoot Pictures Highly Recommended Films
Within the absorbing contents of "A Letter to Three Wives," Joseph L Mankiewicz is peddling some pretty good wisdom and advice. The wisdom, tucked off in corners of this tri-paneled comedy-romance, is that love is a volatile something which can quickly evaporate unless it is constantly guarded with understanding and care. And the advice, angled mainly to the ladies, is never to speak harsh words (or such) to their true-loving husbands who may leave them and never return.
Thus, in the reflections of these ladies, Mr. Mankiewicz cleverly evolves an interesting cross-sectioned picture of the small-town younger-married set. And as writer as well as director, he has capably brought forth a film which has humor, scepticism, satire and gratifying romance.
The fact that so many paces are put on display in this film forewarns that a certain unevenness is likely to occur. And it must be admitted frankly that the whole thing is not in perfect time. The earlier phases are draggy and just a bit obvious. And because this is so, the episodes involving Jeanne Crain as the ex-Wave and Ann Sothern as the radio-writer do less to enhance those stars.
But the final romantic remembrance—that of the hard-boiled wife—is a taut and explosive piece of satire, as funny and as poignant as it is shrewd. And it is played with coruscating vigor by Linda Darnell in the gold-digger role and by Paul Douglas as the rough-cut big-shot whom she tangles with frank and ancient wiles. Indeed, this one rough-and-tumble between Mr. Douglas and Miss Darnell is deliciously rugged entertainment, the real salvation of the film.
Joseph L. Mankiewicz first made waves with this 1949 trilogy film, about three vacationing women who receive a letter from a mutual friend, announcing that she has run away with one of their husbands--but which? Mankiewicz's writing is bright and hard--he's sharpening his teeth for All About Eve, made the next year--but his acid wit is almost too much for his fragile characters to bear. His bile seems excessive applied to this satire on suburban mores, in a way it would not when Eve poured it on backstage Broadway, where there were some genuine pretensions to puncture.
The film could have been called “Scenes from Three Marriages.” It presents, in flashbacks, each wife’s tremulous view of her domestic discord, and the crises are worthy of Bergman: there is the resentful silence of good cheer, the cultural combat of money versus art, and overtly sexual class warfare. Mankiewicz’s writing is florid and expressive, but his daring direction makes it burst into life. When Jeanne Crain, as one of the wives, utters the film’s most anguished line, she gives a defiant, dramatically unmotivated look into the camera, four years before Bergman had Harriet Andersson do the same in “Monika.” This gesture of existential complicity would become a cornerstone of the French New Wave. Despite its emotional intensity, the film is comic, buoyantly so, and the magical ending raises wit to a metaphysical dimension.
In the late 1940's and early 1950's, the American cinematic comedy of manners saw a brief Indian summer. Made possible by the studio system operating at high tide and with writers and directors nurtured in the theater and now, after decades in the sound cinema, experienced enough in the ways of film to craft a truly mature genre, directors like George Cukor, working with gifted writers like Garson Kanin and Ruth Gordon, and Joseph Mankiewicz, who directed his own scripts, the American cinema wryly commented on postwar American prosperity, the returning veteran, and the shifting landscapes of gender roles. With their ensemble casts frequently playing comic encounters in long takes and in medium shots, films like Cukor's Adam's Rib, Born Yesterday, and It Should Happen to You were "theatrical," in the very best sense, finding both joy and social criticism in the ways men and women played roles with one another, and even with themselves, in their everyday lives. Other films, such as H.C. Potter's Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House, and Walter Lang's Sitting Pretty, satirized suburbanization and "progressive" child-rearing; in their own way, the postwar comedy of manners constitutes a generous but insistent critique of the American dream, circa 1949.
A Letter to Three Wives began life as a property to be made by the master of the comedy of manners, Ernst Lubitsch, but Lubitsch's death in 1947, and problems with engineering the three stories into a coherent whole shelved the project; the story on which the film was based had five wives. (Indeed, the film's photo-finish conclusion is still confusing enough that one of the film's viewers, General Douglas MacArthur, then in Tokyo in charge of the Occupation of Japan, had an aide write to Mankiewicz asking who Addie Ross had actually run off with.) A Letter to Three Wives is unjustly known today as Mankiewicz's rehearsal for the now more well-known All About Eve the following year. In fact, A Letter to Three Wives was a surprise hit, and won for Mankiewicz his first two Oscars, for directing and writing. It is a hearty and intelligent comedy, tweaking hypocrisy at the same moment that it clearly yearns for reconciliation within and between its three couples. A Letter to Three Wives has a marvelous added attraction: this was bristly comedienne Thelma Ritter's first major film, and she runs all the way to Flatbush with every scene she's in. And for all the talk, so beloved of the urbane Mankiewicz, there is the unforced laughter of the film's several moments of physical comedy; if there's a funnier quick visual gag than the train bit in the American cinema, then I'm going looking for it.
Though Miss Crain received top billing (and this blogger is personally crazy about her), her segment is by far the weakest of the three. Still engaging in the way it captures its characterizations through scintillating dialogue and great performances, the Crain segment doesn't have the spark that the other wives' slice of celluloid provide. Jeffrey Lynn as Brad Bishop is neither here nor there.
As Rita Phipps, Ann Sothern is as charming and fun to watch as ever. Her delectable voice and confident character can deliver a line of dialogue like a fast ball over home plate. While at a country club dinner dance, the three husbands are glowingly listing the many attributes of the absentee Addie when Rita pipes in, "also fog lights, white sidewalls and a heater?" Classic Sothern. Kirk Douglas, who plays husband George Phipps, was on the brink of stardom when cast in this role. Champion, released the same year as Wives, would put him there.
As screen time goes, Linda Darnell comes out on top, appearing in all three of the wives individual segments. Her Lora Mae shows a determined calculation in order to get everything she wants, including and especially marriage from her wealthy department store tycoon boss. In order to get the disdainful look he wanted out of Darnell, when she's looking at a framed portrait of Addie ( the front of which the audience can't see), Mankiewicz put a photo of director Otto Preminger in the frame during the scene. Preminger had given Darnell a tough time during the filming of Forever Amber(1947), which they made together, and their was no love lost on him by the beauty.
Citizen Kane exeplifies a structure which does not layer the narrative but actually obscures its meaning. Joseph Mankiewicz' A Letter to Three Wives (1949) uses a similar structure. One morning, three suburban wives receive a letter from their best friend. She tells them she is going to run away with one of their husbands today. Who will it be? The structure of the film allows us to hear each of the women explore their marriage. We do see the other characters. A chronology of sorts is created. Mankiewicz uses the structure to create a meditation on suburban marriages, the roles of men and women, the roles of class, of money, and of sex. The structure of A Letter to Three Wives facilitates an ironic exploration of modern marriage without being prescriptive. In this sense this structure clarifies at least the editorial voice of the writer, more than can be said of Welles and his writer, Herman Mankiewicz, in Citizen Kane.
Flashbacks are rarer in the classical Hollywood film than we normally think. Throughout the period 1917-60, screenwriters' manuals usually recommended not using them; as one manuals put it, “Protracted or frequent flashbacks tend to slow the dramatic progr3ession’’ – a remark that reflects Hollywood’s past story events. Of the one hundred UnS films, only twenty use any flashbacks at all, and fifteen of those occur in silent films. Most of these are brief, expository flashbacks filling in information about a character’s background; this device was obviously replaced by expository dialogue in the sound cinema. In the early years of sound, when plays about trials were common film sources, flashbacks offered a way to ‘open up’ stagy trial scenes (e.g.,The Trial of Mary Dugan, Madame X, all 1929). Another vogue for flashbacks ran from the late 1930s into the 1950s. Between 1939 and 1953, four UnS films begin with a frame story and flashback to recount the bulk of the main action before returning to the frame. Yet those four flashback films still comprise less than 10 per cent of the US films of the period. What probably makes the period seem dominated by flashbacks is not the numerical frequency of the device but the intricate ways it was used: contradictory flashbacks in Crossfire (1947), parallel flashbacks in Letter to Three Wives (1948), open-ended flashbacks in How Green Was My Valley (1941) and I walked With a Zombie (1943), flashbacks within flashbacks with flashbacks in Passage to Marseille (1944) and The Locket (1946), and a flashback narrated by a dead man in Sunset Boulevard (1950).
Mankiewicz is undoubtedly the greatest flashback author. But the use he makes of it is so special that it may be contrasted with that of Carne, as two extreme poles of the recollection-image. There is no longer any question of an explanation, a causality or a linearity which ought to go beyond themselves in destiny. On the contrary it is a matter of an inexplicable secret, a fragmentation of all linearity, perpetual forks like so many breaks in causality. Time in Mankiewicz is exactly as Borges describes it in “The Garden of Forking Paths’: it is not space but time which forks, ‘ web of time which approaches, forks, is cut off or unacknowledged for centuries, embracing every possibility’. It is here that the flashback finds its justification: at each point where time forks. The multiplicity of circuits thus finds a new meaning. It is not simply several people each having a flashback, it is the flashback belonging to several people (three in The Barefoot Contessa, three in A Letter to Three Wives, two in All About Eve). And it is not just the circuits forking between themselves, it is each circuit forking within itself, like a split hair. In the three circuits in A Letter to Three Wives, each of the women wonders in her own way when and how her marriage began to go adrift, to take a forking route.
Time’s forks thus provide flashback with a necessity, and recollection-images with an authenticity, a weight of past without which they would remain conventional. But why, and how? The answer is simple: the forking points are very often so imperceptible that they cannot be revealed until after their occurrence, to an attentive memory. It is a story that can be told only in the past. This was already the constant question for Fitzgerald, to whom Mankiewicz is very close: what happened? How have we arrived at this point? This is what governs the three flashbacks of women in A Letter to Three Wives and Harry’s recollections in The Barefoot Contessa. It is perhaps the question of all questions.
The theatrical character of Mankewicz’s work has often been pointed out, but there is also a ‘novelistic’ element (or more precisely ‘a short story’ element, for it is the short story that asks: what happened?) What has not been sufficiently analysed, however, is the relation between the two, their original fusion which means that Mankiewicz re-created a complete cinematographic specificity. On one hand, the novelistic element, the story, appears in the memory. The memory in fact, following a formula of Janet’s, is story behavior. In its very essence, memory is voice, which speaks, talks to itself, or whispers, and recounts what happened. Hence the voice-off which accompanies the flashback. In Mankiewicz this spiritual role of memory often gives way to a creature more or less connected with the beyond: the phantom in Mrs Muir’s Advenure, the ghost in Whispers in the City, the automata in Bloodhound. In A Letter to Three Wives, there is the fourth girlfriend, the one that will never be seen, that is once barely glimpsed, and who has made it known to the three others that she is going off with one of their husbands (but which one?): it is her voice-off which looms over the other three flashbacks. In any event, the voice as memory frames the flashback. But, in another sense, what the latter ‘shows’, and what the former reports, are more voices: characters and decors which are of course meant to be seen, but are in essence speaking and of sound. This is the theatrical element: the dialogue between the characters who appear, and sometimes even the appearance of the character himself, produces a story (All About Eve). In one of the flashbacks in A Letter to Three Wives there is the dinner scene where the teacher-husband and the wife in advertising entertain the latter’s female boss: all the movements of characters and camera are determinded by the mounting violence of their dialogue, and the distribution of two opposed sound-sources, that of the radio programme, and that of the classical music with which the teacher challenges it. The essential point, then, is the intimacy of the relation between the novelistic element in memory as story behavior, and the theatrical element of the dialogues, words and sounds as conducts of the characters.
- Gilles Deleuze, Cinema II, Continuum International Publishing Group, 2005. Pages 47, 48,49
Through the three segments, the audience experiences both the specificity and commonality of these marriages. Up to this point, A Letter to Three Wives suggests that, for a wife in any relationship from the strongest (the Phipps) to the weakest (the Hollingsways), suspicion and ultimate distrust of one’s husband is possible.
The three women differ sharply, of course. Deborah is a true believer in the feminine mystique, wondering only if she is inadequate. Rita, however, is a rebel, and does not want to abandon writing for full-time domesticity. Lora on the other hand, is an opportunist, pragmatic exploiter of the feminine mystique. Marriage can provide a lifestyle she is unlikely to achieve herself. Though these women differ in character, they are united by both friendship and the spectre of Addie. No woman is exempt from the power of mythic femininity that Addie represents.
The conclusion of A Letter to Three Wives, however, like that of most women’s films, softens and compromises its critical character. After a more intense build-up of suspicion through some suspenseful twists and turns of the narrative, Porter reveals that he planned to elope with Addie. He considered Lora a fortunehunter who had had no longer loved him. Yet, after consideration, he realized how much he really loved his wife, and decided to stay. In a very confusing and unexpected ending, the Hollingsways “kiss and make up.”
Each woman, howver, sobered by her Saturday of suspicion, becomes determined to “work at” her marriage. A Letter to Three Wives concludes on a fairly conservative note. As the film came close to affirming fully their (or even one of their) sense of distrust, it backs off. It cannot carry through with the critique of femininity in initiates. Yet neither is the surprise ending completely reassuring. After all, the letter had not been simply a cruel joke; it did reflect reality. If it had not “touched home,” the women would have ignored it, laughed, and regarded it was a prank. Likewise, the emotions evoked throughout the film do not simply vanish in a sigh of relief. The power of the letter (and the film) lies in the fear and suspicion it evokes.
A Letter to Three Wives hit home for postwar female viewers. Infidelity was a sore subject for waiting women, so sore that Hollywood dared not portray it until peacetime (Klempner’s original story was set in a war-effort club). Joseph Goulden described a pervasive female jealousy: ”an immeasurable factor in the bring-our-boys-home sentiment was traditional feminine jealousy … the woman at home heard enough dire warnings to stimulate any imagination.” In sarcastic comedy, A Letter to Three Wives revealed gnawing doubts and long-held insecurities. In its comically chilling portrait of suburban strife, A Letter to Three Wives is ahead of its time, prefiguring the writing of authors like John Cheever and Betty Friedan. Perhaps, from its inception, the postwar suburban dream, built on forced female demobilization and domestic isolation, was riddled with fear and contradiction. If one were simply to analyze this film as counseling feminine adjustment, she or he would ignore both the deep distrust expressed toward men and the anger and envy acknowledged toward the unattainable Addie. No woman is exempt from the power of Addie, not the conformist (Deborah), the rebel (Rita), or the opportunist (Lora Mae). For Addie is both the price of the feminine mystique and a potential source of its rejection. A Letter to Three Wives prefigures the feminist critique by portraying the impact of idealized femininity on real women. This film foreshadows the words of de Beauvior written 4 years later:
"The myth of woman … substitutes a transcendental Idea, timeless, unchangeable … endowed with absolute truth. Thus, as against the dispersed, contingent and multiple experiences of actual women, mythical thought opposes the Eternal Feminine, unique and changeless."
Addie Ross is the filmic symbol of the Eternal Feminine, personification of male fantasy and female oppression.
- Andrea S. Walsh, Women's film and female experience, 1940-1950Greenwood Publishing Group, 1984. Pages 189, 190
The film's narrational perspective is extremely confused. Addie is the narrator, and she seems a very powerful one, as well as a figure of intended audience engagement. Her introductory voice-over commentary, in fact, immediately sets up a connection between her perspective and the viewer's: "To begin with, all the incidents and characters in this story might be fictitious, and any resemblance to you or me might be purely coincidental." Addie is also seemingly omniscient, omnipresent vocal presence throughout the film. She seems so far above her surroundings that she is contemptuous of them, and the spectator might be inclined at first to identify with her contempt for the wives, their small-town lives, and their unfulfilling marriages. Addie ridicules not only the provincial environment she has rejected but also the silliness of the women she feels she has defeated.
In spite of this initial attempt to cultivate audience attachment to Addie, the film moves quickly away from her perspective, encouraging instead strong spectatorial engagement with the plights of the three wives. In fact, the film's ideological project appears to be a validation of the three wives' decisions to dedicate themselves more fully to their husbands and a condemnation of Addie as a contemptible woman who not only ridicules her friends behind their backs but even tries to ruin their marriages. Yet Addie's narration casts an ironic light on the wives' renewed dedication to their men that cannot be entirely dismissed. Addie is portrayed as an independent and powerful female figure, an object of male admiration and female jealousy. The men see her as a woman of taste, class, and beauty, and the women ask themselves, "Why is it that whatever we talk about we always end up talking about Addie Ross?" Addie comments sarcastically in voice-ver, "Maybe it's because if you girls didn't talk about me, you wouldn't talk at all."
In portraying group female friendship, A Letter to Three Wives utilizes a number of negative cultural stereotypes that characterize women's relationships as involving envy, gossip, duplicity, betrayal, and deadly competition for men. The independent nonconformity of Addie's character does leave an opening for a resisting reading that sympathizes with her rejection of the devoted wives' boring provincial lifestyle, but this reading is not supported by the film's structure of spectatorial engagement as a whole. Instead, the film seems to employ possible female fascination with Addie's character as a "fantasy bribe" of sorts, to use Frederic Jameson's terminology, to draw the female spectator into the text, only to turn this fascination against her. In this way, the effect of Addie's final condemnation as an evil, manipulative woman who will stop at nothing to get a man is heightened.
A Letter to Three Wives works on several levels simultaneously. On the surface, it belongs to that genre called (sometimes contemptuously) the woman's film, placing women at the fore and focusing on the problems characteristic of women's lives—which are, as here, often romantic and domestic. Just beneath that seemingly conventional surface, however, is some often astringent commentary about middle-class America, its social snobbery, pretension, and materialism. The three wives of the title are friends who belong to the same social set, but each possesses a slightly different economic and social status—something that Addie's voiceover narration points out with quiet pleasure—and this manifests itself in some charged undercurrents in their friendship. There's also a sense in which the film seems to be satirizing the American Dream, distaff version: All three of these women have a lifestyle to which other women aspire, whether by achieving wealth or social status through marriage, like Lora Mae and Deborah, or by having a career as well as marriage and motherhood, like Rita. Yet over the course of the movie all three have to question the value of what they have and confront how easily they could lose it. That uneasy awareness of the ephemeral nature of what they have aspired to forces the women to examine the values at the core of their comparatively frivolous lives.
Mankiewicz keeps his treatment of these issues entertaining by virtue of the snappy dialogue, a compelling narrative drive, and some unusual and distinctive directorial decisions. One of these is the way Addie Ross is invisibly present right from the start of the film. Her narration gives a cynical view of her supposed friends and shows amusement at the panic she has created in them, which starts the movie off with a sense of ironic detachment—and tells us a great deal about Addie herself. One of the many clever decisions Mankiewicz makes is never to show this character who catalyzes the action. This allows us to accept that she can represent an ideal for three quite different men—and it creates a mystique that underscores the almost supernatural dread and envy she inspires in the three wives. To all three women, she is an unseen presence in their marriage, a rival they are being compared to (even if only in their own minds). Like the unseen title character in Hitchcock's Rebecca, she gains power in the audience's mind through her physical absence.
Another standout character—a visible one, this time—is George. The young Kirk Douglas brings energy, quick intelligence, and a bracing edge to this character, and the writing endows him with surprising complexity. George is much more than what we at first expect him to be: an old-fashioned husband who resents his wife's superior earning power. He is defensive about being a schoolteacher—he carries a bit of a chip on his shoulder about being an intellectual, since he assumes that makes him less of a man in the world's eyes—yet he feels a passionate sense of vocation and defends his work movingly to his wife. He admits that his "male ego" is put out of joint by the fact that his wife pays many of the bills, but he admires her independence. It's not the existence of her job that he resents so much as her slavish obedience to her boss—and the fact that he has no respect for the medium for which she writes. One of the most exhilarating parts of the film is George's blistering denouncement of radio theater as mindless pabulum. (As a friend of mine commented, just imagine what he would have thought of television.) The issues that complicate his and Rita's marriage are thus drawn not in black and white but in shades of grey, giving their conflict a more adult and realistic quality than those of most film couples whose marriage is threatened by the wife's career.
‘A Letter to Three Wives’ works on many levels, few of which have anything to do with what is in essence a flimsy melodramatic plot. Most obviously it’s a very funny social satire, but there’s also acute observations about marriage, class, and the dumbing down effect of advertising on entertainment – in the film it’s radio but the criticism can be applied equally to TV today. The upper-middle class ‘society’ setting, well-drawn characters, flashbacks, vitriolic exchanges, a breathily confessional voice-over and the odd but successful combination of high and low-brow wit mark it out as a Mankiewicz film, and ‘Three Wives’ is indeed one of his best writer-director comedy efforts, for many a close second to ‘All About Eve’.
It’s not quite in that class. ‘Eve’ is a film that still makes one want to applaud spontaneously every few minutes whilst one watches it, so immaculate are its script and performances. The wit in ‘Three Wives’ doesn’t sparkle so frequently and its barbs don’t go as deep (it was the movie that Mankiewicz made before ‘Eve’ so could be seen as a warm-up, rather than a companion piece), but it does possess those qualities of intelligence, elegance and sophistication (as opposed to pretense) that one treasures in the best movies of this period, before the process of movie-making became subject to the vagaries of the focus group and the demands of pathologically conservative media colossi desperate to recoup their investment.
20th Century Fox Home Entertainment has made A LETTER TO THREE WIVES available on DVD in a marvelous looking black and white transfer that frames the film in its proper 1.37:1 full screen aspect ratio. This film is another fine example of Hollywood glamour cinematography- beautifully lit, fairly crisp, glossy and with a silky smooth appearance. Not surprisingly, the actresses’ close-ups have a slightly diffuse appearance, which only serves to enhance their beauty. Blacks appear velvety, whites are clean, plus the picture boasts fine contrast. The film elements have been given a digital cleanup, which is free from most signs of age and wear. A grain structure is noticeable in place, but it gives the DVD a nice film like quality. Digital compression artifacts are always nicely contained.
This image is a shade soft, but is filled with film grain and has muted grays and fine shadow detail. I saw a bit of brightness flickering in the opening 10 minutes. I dislike the yellow subtitles. Overall this is another exceptional DVD package from Fox - with commentary and a decent inclusion of extra features. Original mono audio is offered as well as a stereo bump. Damn good job Fox !
Like most Fox Studio Classics DVDs, A Letter to Three Wives came with a remixed stereo soundtrack. Unlike most Fox Studio Classics DVDs, this one’s remix sounded fine. Perhaps that’s because it was virtually identical to the original monaural audio, which also appeared on the DVD. If the mix ever spread to the side channels, I didn’t hear it.
And that was fine with me. The vast majority of the stereo remixes often suffered from awkward delineation and excessive reverb, but those concerns never cropped up here. Speech showed the moderate tinniness that one expects of a movie from the Forties, but the lines stayed easily intelligible and lacked any defects. Effects played a minor role in this chatty flick, as they stayed in the background. Those elements were acceptably defined and clean; I noticed nothing special about them, but they lacked distortion or problems.
Music was also subdued. Only sporadic examples of score or source music popped up, and those pieces sounded reasonably clear and distinctive. They lacked much breadth, though, and didn’t add much. A little background popping appeared at times, but otherwise the movie didn’t suffer from any source defects. I wouldn’t call this an impressive soundtrack, but given the constraints of the era and the genre, it worked fine.
- Colin Jacobson, DVD Movie Guide
Fox has provided a very nice array of extras for this release. The feature commentary is a standout and represents one of the best commentaries I've heard from the Studio Classics series. Christopher Mankiewicz, the director's son, is joined by Cheryl Lower and Kenneth Geist, both of whom have written about Joseph Mankiewicz's life and films. Although Geist appears to be reading his comments, he makes up for a lack of apparent spontaneity with enthusiasm and vivid language. The combined comments of these three speakers produce a commentary that is filled with perceptive analysis of the film, tasty morsels about its making, and welcome background on the major players. I learned a lot from this commentary; I was particularly interested to learn about Mankiewicz's trouble with the censors and the way his screenplay mines both contemporary issues and his personal convictions (like his respect for teachers). It was also illuminating to learn more about the distinctive Mankiewicz touches in A Letter to Three Wives that make it "the first quintessential Mankiewicz film," in Lower's estimation. The commentators also discuss the ending to the film, which some have found ambiguous, and resolve this ambiguity. This is both an entertaining and informative commentary, definitely one of the highlights of the extras on this release.
The inclusion of the Biography episode on Linda Darnell is also a definite plus. Until watching this program I knew very little about this tragic beauty (and how sad it is that those two words so often appear together in the annals of Hollywood), and I found her story fascinating, if often saddening. It's particularly appropriate for her biography to accompany this particular film since (as we learn from watching it) she and Mankiewicz had a special relationship—and also since her performance here is one of her best (of the Darnell films that I've seen, I think her work in this film is equaled only by her performance in the Preston Sturges black comedy Unfaithfully Yours).
The restoration comparison is one of the most helpful I've seen in the Studio Classics line, since it is accompanied by text that describes the elements used in the transfer and points out what each state of the restoration achieves. Thanks to the text, we know fully what we're looking at in each split-screen demonstration. On the topic of restoration, it's a pity that the sound for the film's theatrical trailer doesn't seem to have received one; although the trailer is in good shape visually, the audio is poor. This is a particular shame since the trailer cleverly uses voiceovers by Addie, just as does the film. The Movietone News footage of the Oscar ceremony that honored Mankiewicz's writing and directing is of much better quality and boasts very clean picture and audio.
"People Will Talk (1951) is one of the most appropriate titles in Joseph L. Mankiewicz's filmography. The screen was mostly a vehicle for his literate, witty, and satirical screenplays. Although Mankiewicz's films are dialogue-driven, they are not filmed plays. They have an elegant visual style, and many experiment with narrative form, being told from different points of view with an effective use of flashbacks." - Ronald Bergan (Film - Eyewitness Companions, 2006)
"The cinema of Joseph L. Mankiewicz is a cinema of intelligence without inspiration. His best films - All About Eve and The Barefoot Contessa - bear the signature of a genuine auteur...Mankiewicz's cranky liberalism sometimes gets the better of him, particularly when he wrenches scenes out of their context to inveigh against the evils of farm subsidies (People Will Talk) and oil-depletion allowances (The Barefoot Contessa)." - Andrew Sarris (The American Cinema, 1968)
"Conflicts between the psychologically strong and powerful interest Mankiewicz. The inevitable downfall of at least one of those is usually caused by an ironic flaw in that individual's makeup or strategy." - William R. Meyer (The Film Buff's Catalog, 1978)
"The difference between life and the movies is that a script has to make sense, and life doesn't." - Joseph L. Mankiewicz
The recent release in Paris of The Ghost and Mrs Muir, A Letter to Three Wives and House of Strangers suffices to to establish Joseph Mankiewicz as one of the most brilliant of American directors. I have no hesitation in placing him on the same level of importance as that held by Alberto Moravia in European literature.
- Jean-Luc Godard, from his first published review, on Mankiewicz's Dragonwyck, in the June 1950 Gazette du Cinema published by Eric Rohmer
Few of Joseph Mankiewicz's contemporaries experimented so radically with narrative form. In The Barefoot Contessa, Mankiewicz (who wrote most of the films he directed) let a half-dozen voice-over narrators tell the Contessa's story, included flashbacks within flashbacks, and even showed one event twice (the slapping scene in the restaurant) from two different points of view. Multiple narrators tell the story in All about Eve, too, and in the non-narrated framing story for that film, Mankiewicz uses slow motion to make it seem as if the elapsed time between the beginning of the film and the end is only a few seconds. For much of the film, The Quiet American also has a narrator, and he seems almost totally omniscient. Apparently, he looks back at events with a firm understanding of their development and of the motivation of the people involved. But in the end, we find out that the narrator was wrong about practically everything, and so gave us an inaccurate account of things. A Letter to Three Wives is made up, primarily, of several lengthy flashbacks, and hallucinogenic flashback sequences provide the payoff to the story in Mankiewicz's adaption of the Tennessee Williams play Suddenly Last Summer. Mankiewicz's films, then, stand out in part because of the way they tell their stories.
Perhaps because he began as a screenwriter, Mankiewicz has often been thought of as a scenarist first and a director only second. But not only was he an eloquent scriptwriter, he was also an elegant visual stylist whose talents as a director far exceeded his reputation. He is one of the few major American directors who was more appreciated during the early years of his career than during the later stages. He won consecutive Best Director Academy Awards in 1949 and 1950 (for A Letter to Three Wives and All about Eve), but after the 1963 disaster Cleopatra, Mankiewicz's standing as a filmmaker declined rapidly.
Théatre du filmé was the genre he created and perfected in order to “approach human beings analytically…in depth.” This genre pays equal attention to the verbal, the visual, and the human, carefully crafting and interweaving all three elements in order to achieve maximum effect – both expressively and analytically. Most importantly, théatre du filmé is a self-conscious genre populated by self-conscious characters. Mankiewicz overlaid this personal genre on top of conventional genres popular at the time of filming. In this fashion, he arrived at his unique style of filmmaking: Mankiewicz movies do not look, sound, or speak like those of any other director.
Mankiewicz's invention of this new genre has not always met with critical approval. In an article in Senses of Cinema in 2003, Tag Gallagher wrote:
Mankiewicz's ideal film, whether as director or producer, was something I shall call a “photoplay” – a type of cinema that was less a “movie” than a filmed play, less a storyworld with characters than a document of actors acting the sort of acting for which self-conscious dialogue…and self-conscious mime are inevitable and endless.(2)
Mistaking Mankiewicz's théatre du filmé movies for filmed plays is the most common error critics make. Mankiewicz needed to invent the genre of théatre du filmé in order for his type of storytelling to work. Movies emphasising characters' autonomy require reflexive, self-aware performances from actors. Mankiewicz wants the audience to focus on the choices his characters make, and how these decisions determine everything that follows.
This concept of pivot moments underlies the structure of all Mankiewicz films. He builds his movies out of scenes that foreground characters making those decisions that will determine the actions that follow, where more choices will be presented and new decisions made. Autonomy is a paramount virtue in Mankiewicz's world, and he investigates both its possibilities and its limitations. As a result, his films contain an abundance of dialogue as characters face up to, wrestle with, and finally choose among the options confronting them.
Since the first movies were made, filmmakers have taken advantage of the medium's ability to capture the beauty of landscapes, and used the outdoors as both backdrop and character in their work. Mankiewicz with his théatre du filmé style, however, approaches film differently. While he may not have been interested in composing lyrical landscape shots, Mankiewicz did create sharply delineated, multilayered interior shots. It was serendipitous that he began his directing career at Twentieth Century-Fox where the house style – crisp, hard-edged photography – was well suited to his approach and intentions.
This autobiographically intoned life account of America's most genteel philanderer amounts to a series of paradoxes: a World War II production touting an unheroic, passive cad; the director who practically invented Hollywood urbane sophistication and suavity applying his trade on quaintly mannered, occasionally rustic Americana; and the famous "Lubitsch Touch" applied so gently here as to be almost touchless. The three paradoxes are linked by Lubitsch's desire to make a film both celebrating and sending up the moral absurdities of his beloved adopted country while having to toe the puritanical line of the Hays Code. It amounts to a celebration of obliqueness, where the offscreen shenanigans of Don Ameche are perpetually alluded to but never shown, leaving the portrait of this Gilded Age Casanova vaguely sketched. We can't tell to what degree he's successful at his romantic pursuits, or how much of it is a vain attempt to inflate his ego. Of course Lubitsch is all about reading between the lines, but almost too much here needs to be inferred by verbal references and the reactions of characters to unseen events. In other words, it's the first Hong Sang-soo movie ever made.
All the same, there's plenty of fun to be hand in the innuendo of Samson Raphaelson's screenplay ("Here was a girl lying to her mother. Naturally that girl interested me at once"). And they find a priceless visual counterpart in two moments where Lubitsch lets his actors' eyes do the describing of what they're seeing, and the spectator watches through them with heightened emotion. There's also a pleasant musical incorporation of sneezes, coughs and hiccups that convey the inner states of characters where words can't. Generally Lubitsch moves the proceedings in an ambling, almost plodding style that saps the film of forward momentum; on the other hand seems to anticipate the static, almost non-narrative tableaux of late Carl Dreyer and some Terence Davies. It's a rhythm that seems to resist moving forward, which fits a film that's about a man gently coming to terms with his advancing age, the futility of his sexual exploits, and the eternal embrace of family love.
WOULD YOU LIKE TO KNOW MORE?
The following citations were counted towards the placement of Heaven Can Wait among The Shoot Pictures Don't They's 1000 Greatest Films:
Guillermo Altares, Nickel Odeon (1994)
Lorenzo Codelli, Positif (1991)
? Bertrand Tavernier, Most Important American Films (1977)
? Cahiers du Cinema, Best American Films of the Sound Era (1963)
? Daniel & Susan Cohen, Book - 500 Great Films (1987)
? Danny Peary, Guide for the Film Fanatic: Must-See Films
? Francois Truffaut, Most Important American Films (1977)
? Gavin Lambert, Most Misappreciated American Films (1977)
? Halliwell's Top 1000 Films (2005)
? Jonathan Rosenbaum, 100 Favourite Films (2004)
? Jonathan Rosenbaum, Essential Cinema: Favourite 1,000 Films (2004)
? Jose Luis Guarner, Genre Favourites: Comedy (1993)
? Leslie Halliwell, A Further Choice of Entertainment Movies From the Golden Age (1986)
? Luc Moullet, Most Important American Films (1977)
? Marcel Ophuls, Most Important American Films (1977)
? Peter Bogdanovich, 52 Classic Films for One Full Year (1999)
? Taschen, Books Movies of the 20s-90s (2003-2007)
?? They Shoot Pictures Highly Recommended Films
It is an amusing anomaly that Twentieth Century-Fox displays a particular fondness for the nineteenth century and wolves. Never is the studio quite so profligate as when it has a film in which the background is fin-de-siècle and the hero is a lady-killing blade. The settings then ooze a horse-hair flavor and Technicolor rainbows the screen. And the hero has a patent-leather polish that would have dazzled Delmonico's.
No wonder, then, that the studio has been chortling with so much advance glee over its latest package of entertainment, "Heaven Can Wait," which came to the Roxy yesterday. For here is a shined and scented chromo which Ernst Lubitsch has produced for it with all the ornamental excess of the period so dear to the heart of the studio. Here is a nostalgic nosegay in which the hero is quite a wolf, indeed. And here is a comedy of manners, edged with satire, in the slickest Lubitsch style. The Twentieth Century-Fox has got a picture about fin-de-siècle conduct which rings a bell.
For this time Mr. Lubitsch (and his playwright, Sam Raphaelson) is not concerned with the present, as he was so embarrasingly in "To Be or Not To Be," but is poking very sly and sentimental fun at Eighteen Nineties naughtiness. He—and Mr. Raphaelson, who based the script on a Lazlo Bus-Fekete play—are laughing with gentle affection at the pruderies of yesterday. Their picture has utterly no significance. Indeed, it has very little point, except to afford entertainment. And that it does quite well
Heaven Can Wait was praised by a large cross-section of critics, but the most sensitive notice was from James Agee, who wrote that, while it was not up to Lubitsch's best (he preferred the silent Lubitsch, "It has a good deal of the dry sparkle, the shrewd business, and the exquisite timing... It brought back a time when people really made good movies... the sets, costumes and props are something for history... [and] the period work, in these respects -as in Lubitsch's modulations in styles ofposture and movement - was about the prettiest and most quietly witty I had ever seen." Even D.W. Griffith put aside his old jealousy to pay tribute when he told Ezra Goodman that "I liked the way Lubitsch used color in Heaven Can Wait. And the way he used sound, too."
As Andrew Sarris has observed of Heaven Can Wait, "the timing of every shot, every gesture, every movement was so impeccably precise and economically expressive that an entire classical tradition unfolded... Contemporary sloppiness of construction brought on by the blind worship of 'energy' as an end to itself make it almost too easy to appreciate Lubitsch's uncanny sense of the stylized limits of a civilized taste. Almost any old movie looks classical today: Lubitsch's movies are nothing short of sublime."
- Scott Eyman, Ernst Lubitsch. Published by JHU Press, 2000. Page 319.
WONDERFUL TRAILER PRODUCED BY FILMBUFF2000 ON YOUTUBE
Ernst Lubitsch's only completed film in Technicolor (1943), the greatest of his late films, offers a rosy, meditative, and often very funny view of an irrepressible ladies' man (Don Ameche in his prime) presenting his life in retrospect to the devil (Laird Cregar). Like a good deal of Lubitsch from The Merry Widow on, it's about death as well as personal style, but rarely has the subject been treated with such affection for the human condition. Samson Raphaelson's script is very close to perfection, the sumptuous period sets are a delight, and the secondary cast--Gene Tierney, Charles Coburn, Marjorie Main, Eugene Pallette, and Spring Byington--is wonderful. In many respects, this is Lubitsch's testament, full of grace, wisdom, and romance.
Centered in a Fifth Avenue mansion left over from 19th-century New York, the film is Lubitsch and writing partner Samson Raphaelson's valentine to "an age that has vanished, when it was possible to live for the charm of living." Spanning more than half a century, it chronicles the high points of Henry's life so delicately that--in a variation on the strategies of Lubitsch-Raphaelson's risque '30s classics--it leaves some of them entirely offscreen, their emotional impact measured by what the characters feel and say about them afterward. We'll leave it to you to find out what they are. Suffice it to say that Ameche and Gene Tierney--as Martha, the love of Henry's life--give performances far subtler than anything else in their Fox contract-player careers, and there are sublime opportunities for those peerless character actors Charles Coburn, Eugene Pallette, and Marjorie Main.
For once, it seems that Lubitsch - who prided himself on never having vulgar run-ins with the censors and on outsmarting them more consistently than almost anyone else - had outsmarted himself. He set out to make a case for a kind of life that everything in the climate of American piety around him seemed to be discounting. But Heaven Can Wait is the story of a philanderer in which no philandering ever occurs, at least so far as we can tell. If it had, the hero would have been required to be punished in some way (the Production Code) - which was not the kind of movie or moral that Lubitsch had in mind. Since he means to forgive, even to eulogize, this amiably lecherous hero, he has to seem at least to deny the lechery. And so a pattern is set up. From the French maid to the Follies girl, Henry always turns out to be innocent, in spite of initial appearances. The only one he seems to make any real headway with is his wife. And he seems indeed a very contented sort of husband. And yet the implication of adultery - of even a habit of adultery - is clear, if carefully handled. Martha discovers a bill for a diamond bracelet and leaves him. And we discover in the scene that follows that there have been many such quarrels before this. But when? And over what exactly? We know even less about Henry's infidenlities than he contrives to let his wife know. But since this is a problem the film is importantly about, the effect is of a peculiar smarminess: as if there were things you never discussed, no matter how insistent or obtrusive they became. Lubitsch and Raphaelson undoubtedly felt that their techniques of eloquent reticence would carry the day. But never before had these techniques been required to carry so much - so much necessary meaning and information left out. The film gives less a feeling of double entendre than of massive denial.
Amazing what Lubitsch could get from actors who seldom shone as bright elsewhere. Kay Francis gave the performance of her career in Troublein Paradise; Jack Benny, so great in radio and TV, never equalled To Be Or Not to Be on screen. The immensely likable Don Ameche was a second-string star all his life, but in Heaven Can Wait you could swear you were watching one of the greatest light comic actors of all time. Gene Tierney, young and a bit tremulous as Ameche's great love, still manages to show her character's gathering strength.
There is Laird Cregar, the sinister detective in I Wake Up Screaming, here playing a Satan so sophisticated and well-dressed that the Siren's host asked, "is that Anton Walbrook?" Henry Van Cleve (Ameche) goes to Hell (and a very elegant Hell it is, too, decorated in what appears to be Deco's Last Gasp) and attempts to explain to His Excellency why he deserves eternal damnation. His Excellency, for his part, sits down to vet Henry, since he doesn't want the place getting all touristy. "Sometimes it seems as though the whole world is coming to Hell," he laments.
Charles Coburn plays Hugo Van Cleve, living vicariously through his grandson's peccadillos; and Allyn Joslyn is Cousin Albert, in looks and demeanor rather reminiscent of Ralph Reed. Excellent exchange, mid-movie:
Albert: The family understands your humor, but it's a typical kind of New York humor.
Hugo: In other words, it's not for yokels.
We have Eugene Pallette as Tierney's Kansas City pa. The Siren hereby issues a big mea culpa for not mentioning Pallette in her post about voices. There is no one, absolutely no one with a voice like this actor's any more. If you put a double bass through a cement mixer, you might get the voice of Eugene Pallette. He and Marjorie Main have the Siren's favorite scene in the movie, a fierce dispute at the marital breakfast table over who gets to read the Katzenjammer Kids. The butler, forced to mediate between the warring funny-paper fans, was played by pioneering actor Clarence Muse. Mercifully, he has no "humorous" dialect tics or cutesy gestures.
Films like Heaven Can Wait make us think about our own lives and legacies. The introspective viewer sees the life of Henry Van Cleve and starts to wonder how his own would measure up if such a devilish meeting ever took place. Van Cleve’s ultimate fate in Heaven Can Wait makes us feel better about ourselves and our lives. If you believe in an afterlife as a reward for the life lived on Earth, it’s nice to have movies such as this one to reassure us that no one’s perfect and we’re not expected to be either.
Lubitsch manages to wedge in a few funny scenes among the supporting players, including one about Eugene Pallette and the Sunday funnies. But his famous "touch" seems to have dulled here while dealing with the stagy material, and while patiently filming Ameche in various layers of makeup representing the passing years. As beautiful and colorful as it is, Heaven Can Wait has an overwhelming despondency, dealing as directly as it does with old age and death. Those things, it seems to me, would make a crackerjack comedy, but this time Lubitsch merely wallows in them.
Don Ameche is nothing short of wonderful, and it's a shame that postwar fashion would push him aside in favor of a diet of he-man types and younger blood. That makes his late-career return almost forty years later all the more pleasing. Gene Tierney is appropriately ravishing and handles her comedy well. Her incredible looks got her through a few ordinary pix until a couple of positive hits like this one led to Laura and mainstream stardom. Coburn is a hit as the randy granddad and Spring Byington cute as Henry's mom. Allyn Joslyn makes a perfect dullsville cousin, the kind who can be cruelly cheated and we don't care a bit. He has a nice scene where he re-proposes to Martha by describing himself as an old suit of clothes. Martha smiles, but cousin hasn't a prayer.
The film itself is nimble, spry, and as effervescent as an Alka Seltzer thrown into a champagne cocktail. But I don't want to mislead you into thinking it doesn't pack some powerful emotional punches. Henry Van Cleve is a man who is railing against time, and trying hard to bury his pain inside the women he comes across in his time. The love affair between him and Martha is compelling, probably because the Gene Tierney character is allowed to see her husband's faults. She knows exactly what he is, and loves him regardless of it. If the movie were made today it would probably fall apart, because it would show sordid details of an over-sexed man cheating on his beautiful wife. Luckily, because of the extreme censors of the '40s, the story is made more palatable. We never get the impression that anything sordid is happening—but here's where Lubitsch is sly and crafty. He insinuates more with a look or a closed door than most modern filmmakers can with an outright fleshy orgy of sweaty close-ups made up of select body parts. It's a thinking man's comedy; an exemplary personification of the "Lubitsch touch." He finds a way for us to root for the callow man, and even root for Martha and him to find happiness any way they can. He's tricking America into opening its peculiar Midwestern morality and trading it for a more permissive European sensibility. It's a deep, beautiful film masked in a light, airy comedy, and it's wonderfully subversive.
Ernst Lubitsch's comic fantasy begins with a cheery conceit, but underneath lingers a fear of loss. Guilt-ridden Henry Van Cleve (Don Ameche), newly deceased, bypasses heaven for hell, where he finds a skeptical Satan. In lusciously restored Technicolor, Henry recounts his mottled life from the 1870s to the 1940s, as he woos and betrays his wife, Martha (a radiant Gene Tierney), and wins her again. Lubitsch nimbly conveys the passage of time (whiskers change; elderly characters disappear and children arrive), but the chuckling humor is sometimes too genteel for its own good. Although Henry is referred to as a ''Casanova,'' the light ''Lubitsch touch'' and period censorship never let his lechery register as a serious blot on his character.
Being made in 1943, Heaven Can Wait lacks some of the naughty innuendo of Lubitsch's pre-Code films such as Trouble in Paradise (1932), but it moves far beyond that Art Deco fantasy world to sketch out a gently mocking, yet complex character portrait. In its warmth and humaneness it recalls The Shop Around the Corner (1940), which is to say it's one of Lubitsch's richest and most moving films. I would argue that these two films, together with To Be Or Not To Be (1942), represent the true peak of Lubitsch's career, as much as I love his films from the silent era up to the early Thirties.
Putting his lead foot first, director Ernst Lubitsch saddles his story with a script that never properly uses its complete potential. Henry feels that as part of his interview process, he must go through the story of his life, which would have generally been a decent idea, except that he led a pretty uninspiring one.
This 1943 production from director Ernst Lubitsch's long partnership with playwright Samson Raphaelson has accrued fame for being one of the pair's most enduring collaborations, even though the "Lubitsch touch" is more subdued here than in the pair's Trouble in Paradise and Shop Around the Corner, and barely recognizable from the director's silent works. From the opening scene, where Henry Van Cleve (Don Ameche) arrives in Satan's executive suite in Hell, this is a decidedly restrained picture for the duo. Besides providing film history with one of its most memorable interpretations of Hell, the scene sets the bar for the movie: witty dialogue is exchanged for witty circumstances; the overt Lubitsch opulence, for discrete indicators of social class; biting sexual humor is given over to a decidedly chaste rendering of pleasure; and homespun Americana, instead of Continental sophistication.
Even the movie's structure is more drawn out and nuanced than the partners' previous pictures. Assuming his wandering eye and lies has warranted eternal suffering, Henry insists to a confused and comically conversational Lucifer he deserves a spot in Hell. He relays his life's story and all its damning events, which provides a fairly original narrative framework. Of course, in each segment he, instead, displays a good-natured and earnest quality that shows why he belongs in Heaven, providing Lubitsch and Raphaelson with a platform to discuss sexuality and morality in subtle and subversive detail.
Much has been written over the years about the "Lubitsch Touch." For a solid example of that touch, look no further than the setup. By beginning his story in Hell, Lubitsch is both endorsing and mocking the idea of Henry's paying for his sins. Then, for the next hour and a half, Lubitsch sets out to prove that no sin was really committed. In Lubitsch and screenwriter Samson Raphaelson's eyes, Henry brought no shame to others while also providing a lot of good clean fun to the many women in his life. In examining this point, the writer and director play with the notion held in society at the time that women may have needed to be chaste within the confines of a relationship but that philandering was merely a part of man's nature. In Heaven Can Wait, such an idea is reduced to what it really is: An excuse for men who've never grown up to do whatever they want and with whomever they please. Here, women represent the maturity of fidelity while men, though charming, wouldn't know maturity if it kicked them out of bed.
On the surface, everything sparkles: Heaven was the first film Lubitsch shot in Technicolor, and cleaned up for DVD, its rich colors and ornate backdrops shimmer like Champagne in crystal; set in the upper class fin de siècle milieu of ball gowns and cocktail parties, the film is beautifully shot and elegantly designed. But, buried somewhere underneath all those portieres and chandeliers a spirited idea was suffocated, and what could have been one of the era's great black comedies, with a premise begging for the acid tongue of a George S. Kaufman or Billy Wilder, settles instead for being a parlor jaunt: badinage in topcoats and tails, jokes about yokels and showgirls. Potentially one of the cinema's immortal comic creations, Henry Van Cleve – a philandering post-mortem playboy so enamored of his own dissipation and amorality he angles to convince the devil to let him into Hell – is reduced to a low-grade rake by the somnolent Don Ameche and the sentimental dialogue of writer Samson Raphaelson.
On an extra feature on the DVD, critic Andrew Sarris notes that light comedies such as "Heaven Can Wait" tend to be underrated. I have to agree with him, but I also must plead guilty as charged. I admire the extraordinary craft involved in making such a film: it requires a lot of hard work to make comedy seem so easy. Raphaelson´s script is tightly structured, snappy and clever; admirable craft, but also part of the problem for me. As in many modern sitcoms, the characters always seem to know how a scene is going to end before it begins, and mug their way through it as they lead up to that oh-so-meticulously timed punch line. There is little attempt to create plausible characters here: it is never Henry or Martha speaking, but always Don Ameche or Gene Tierney winking at the camera as they deliver perfectly written, perfectly-rehearsed lines. I can´t help but see the whole affair as pleasant but rather slight entertainment; in Douglas Adams´ words, the movie is "mostly harmless."
Few of us get to write our own epitaph. HEAVEN CAN WAIT masquerades lightly as the beyond-the-grave recollections of the aged roué Henry Van Cleve, but the film is in fact Ernst Lubitsch's own death foretold, his own life summed up.
It was wartime, and Lubitsch despaired over a Europe in flames. His heart was failing, partially the fault of the gigantic cigars he chain-smoked, partially (his friends believed) the result of his long good fight against studio tyranny and hypocrisy. He realized, he told Samson Raphaelson, his friend and collaborator on nine films including HEAVEN CAN WAIT, that he had made many films about Americans, but none about America, a place he loved even more dearly for all its peccadilloes and false prudery. As the two set about to make Lubitsch's first film in color, Lubitsch suffered a series of heart attacks. Raphaelson was told that Lubitsch could not survive, and so began composing a eulogy. As he dictated, his hardboiled secretary wept. As Raphaelson contemplated the homely German in the ill-fitting clothes whose lacework wit had transformed Hollywood from a provincial town on the edge of a desert into a (at least occasionally) civilized and creative place, the phrases poured like Rhine wine:
"I never saw, even in this territory of egotists, anyone who didn't light up with pleasure in Lubitsch's company. We got that pleasure, not from his brilliancy or his rightness. . . but from the purity and childlike delight of his lifelong love affair with ideas. . . He had no time for manners, but the grace within him was unmistakable, and everyone kindled to it, errand boy and mogul, mechanic and artist. Garbo smiled, indeed, in his presence, and so did Sinclair Lewis and Thomas Mann. He was born with the happy gift of revealing himself instantly to all."
But Lubitsch survived to shoot HEAVEN CAN WAIT, and Raphaelson happily put away his tribute, swearing his secretary to secrecy about his flood of sentiment. For Lubitsch, the film that resulted from this dire period is surely one of his most lovely, an unassuming, casual announcement that death held no fear for him. The amiable, emphatically American Don Ameche as Henry van Cleve stands in for Lubitsch quite nicely, and the ridiculous world over which he presides is a fantasy of provincialism outraged (the preposterous Mr. and Mrs. Strabel, nouveauboors just in from, hopelessly, Kansas), and European sexual matter-of-factness (the worldly Mademoiselle, every adolescent boy's French maid). In Lubitsch's version of the afterlife, everyone is as civilized and expansive as he is; even the devil (His Excellency), as played by Laird Cregar, is a patient sophisticate. The screen directions tell us that Henry van Cleve speaks of death "as if talking about a charming social affair," a typical Lubitsch combination of naiveté and élan.
In the end, heaven could not wait, and the death forestalled during the making of the film arrived to claim Lubitsch in 1947, after his sixth heart attack. Sadly, Raphaelson had reason to bring his eulogy for Lubitsch out of his file cabinet. Only then did he discover that his secretary had broken her vow of secrecy; Lubitsch had read the loving obituary when he had recovered from those first heart attacks, and had been deeply touched. By then he must have known that Raphaelson's feelings for him had already found a lighter but equally powerful voice in the screenplay for HEAVEN CAN WAIT.
To Ameche he was "dedicated"; to Tierney he was "a tyrant." Tierney was seraphically beautiful but deeply closeted emotionally, and invariably seemed to be acting in a glazed trance. Around the Fox lot, she had a reputation for responding to any emotional scenes by going slightly over the top in a cloying, sentimental way. In trying to spark some emotional immediacy out of her, Lubitsch had terrified the actress. The day after their contretemps, Tierney sought him out and explained that "I'm willing to do my best, but I can't go on working on this picture if you're going to keep shouting at me."
"I'm paid to shout at you," he retorted.
"Yes, and I'm paid to take it - but not enough." They laughed and Lubitsch modulated his approach for the rest of the shooting.
- Scott Eyman, Ernst Lubitsch. Published by JHU Press, 2000. Page 319.
EXCERPTS FROM THE ESSAY BY WILLIAM PAUL FOR THE CRITERION DVD
Lubitsch’s comedy had been sufficiently idiosyncratic for him to become a model for other directors, such as Billy Wilder and Preston Sturges. Nevertheless, he was not immune to stylistic currents, clearly responding to the ascendancy of screwball comedy with two works that appeared toward the end of that subgenre’s efflorescence: Bluebeard’s Eighth Wife (1938) andThat Uncertain Feeling (1941). But screwball was not an agreeable style for Lubitsch, whose work was becoming more contemplative, quieter. It is that thoughtful quality that pervades HeavenCan Wait, inscribed in the flashback structure of its narrative. And this shift was in keeping with other changes in Hollywood movies of the time: with the Depression and the impending political catastrophe in Europe, American high comedy was becoming more realistic in manner, more middle-class in milieu, and more political in its concerns. Lubitsch was deeply affected by these changes.
In this light, then, Lubitsch’s move to Twentieth Century Fox—a studio specializing in historical films and nostalgic evocations of small-town America—is not as surprising as it might at first appear. Lubitsch could never embrace the small town, but he could reasonably make New York the focus of his venture into Americana. And with his very American ordinariness, Don Ameche, then one of Fox’s leading male stars, could help move Lubitsch in this direction.
While eschewing specific historical events, the film finds its own distinctive way of defining how the outside world is developing and how characters are developing in relation to it. Lubitsch’s first film in Technicolor, Heaven Can Wait uses color to record historical change: color grows increasingly muted in the ever-transforming settings and costumes as the film progresses up to the present day of its audience, with bright reds and deep blues, both fairly saturated and vibrant in their contrast of hot and cold tones, yielding to ivories and finally pale whites. The elliptical structure of the film’s narrative never permits us to see characters effecting these changes, and the characters themselves never remark on them. As a consequence, every change seems to happen mysteriously, as if of its own accord. Just as a child may view changes in his universe as miraculously self-generating because he does not have the knowledge or experience to know how they come about, change is presented in this film as self-generating because it is a view that belongs to the narrator, Henry himself.
Like the unacknowledged changes in set design and fashions, the ellipse in Heaven Can Wait take on a mysterious quality, mysterious in the profoundest sense of something great and unknowable. Where the ultrasophisticated characters in Lubitsch’s earlier films have a firm grasp on the world, in the elusive world of Heaven Can Wait, a world beyond absolute understanding, Henry is most blessed by his innocence. Because the individual exists within this larger, impenetrable order, the examination of any individual life, however restricted in focus—and Heaven Can Wait’s is very restricted—must also be an examination of the world in which the individual lives. Henry might be an innocent, but he tells his story to an urbane devil who would be right at home in the world of Lubitsch’s thirties comedies, and, from his knowing perspective, the devil can finally make something different of Henry’s life story than Henry himself. Henry’s innocence, then, is cast within a sophisticated worldview that both echoes and enriches Lubitsch’s earlier work. While the individual life of Henry is unimportant to the course of history, by the simple act of living he takes in the whole world and the history in which he lives. Heaven Can Wait might be nothing more than the life story of a man who did not amount to much, as Lubitsch claimed, but it is also nothing less. Heaven Can Wait brilliantly maintains the exquisite balance between tragic and comic impulses, between shifting views of man as an individual and man as an element of society, that marks Lubitsch’s best work.
ABOUT THE CRITERION DVD
Video *** ½
Heaven Can Wait is presented in its original full-frame, color format.The transfer was created from a 35mm interpositive and encoded on a dual-layer DVD-9 disc.The video bit transfer rate averages 6 Mbps.As with all Technicolor films, the visuals are bright, with vibrant hues that almost leap from the screen.There are some minor emulsion fluctuations and a slight softness of the picture quality, but otherwise, there is nary a dust speck in sight and this film looks quite good for its age.
Heaven Can Wait is presented in English monaural.Dialogue is clear and never muddled without intrusive background noise.The score is by noted composer Alfred Newman and utilizes a plethora of old-time tunes.
Extras Review: A surprising amount of supplemental material rounds out this release. In typical Criterion fashion, an insert containing information about the DVD's transfers and credits starts things off. Featuring an essay by William Paul, the insert is a welcomed addition as the essay gives a good introduction to the film for those who may not be familiar with Ernst Lubitsch's work. On the disc itself, there are a variety of features showcasing 20th Century Fox's publicity campaign for the movie. The theatrical trailer is presented with its original narration by Robert Benchley, who delivers some very clever taglines for the film. Additionally, the Press Book and a Publicity Gallery are included, with still images that are selected via remote control. Neither gallery is particularly engaging, but both are fairly brief and easy enough to navigate through.
A much better supplemental feature is the conversation, Molly Haskell and Andrew Sarris (24m:41s). Videotaped for this DVD, the two critics offer many insights into the film and Lubitsch's entire career. Sarris is particularly interesting to listen to, since he attended a screening of Heaven Can Wait during its original release. Practically every element of the film is touched upon here, from Raphaelson's script to censorship to its themes, and both people are very articulate. Following that is a presentation of the PBS broadcast Creativity with Bill Moyers: A Portrait of Samson Raphaelson (29m:07s). Featuring an interview with Raphaelson, as well as clips of him teaching scriptwriting, this is a brief but informative look into the man's life. It chronicles his major career achievements and offers many of his ideas about how to write a script. If you are interesting in screenwriting, make sure to take a look at this feature.
Continuing with Raphaelson, the audio recordings of him and Richard Corliss at the Museum of Modern Art in 1977 are included as well. Corliss gives an introductory lecture (07m:44s) prior to the screening of Heaven Can Wait, but it is the conversation between Corliss and Raphaelson after the screening that is so interesting. Running just over 26 minutes, the conversation covers lots of new information on the script not repeated elsewhere. Raphaelson is full of humor as he recalls his experience with Hitchcock and others. There is also a question and answer session with the audience (18m:12s) that gives more information, although it is difficult to hear what the audience member is asking.
Rounding out the supplemental features is a tribute to Ernst Lubitsch's musical skills. Ernst Lubitsch: A Musical Collage (04m:31s) contains pictures of the man from the set and in his office as a recording of him playing different piano tunes occupies the front sound stage. It's nothing extraordinary, but the introduction to it by his daughter, Nicola, (03m:57s) is a touching addition worthy of a listen.
"As Hollywood recedes, Lubitsch's role as a creative entrepreneur and as the germ of European sophistication becomes more fascinating. Considering the way he was rebuffed by Mary Pickford on his first American film, Rosita, and so wittily mocked for his Teutonic stubbornness, it is remarkable that he achieved such eminence in Hollywood and that his reputation rested on the supposed delicacy of "touch"." - David Thomson (The New Biographical Dictionary of Film, 2002)
"After joining Warner Brothers, he directed five films that firmly established his thematic interests. The films were small in scale, dealt openly with sexual and psychological relationships in and out of marriage, refrained from offering conventional moral judgments, and demystified women. As Molly Haskell and Marjorie Rosen point out, Lubitsch created complex female characters who were aggressive, unsentimental, and able to express their sexual desires without suffering the usual pains of banishment or death." - Greg S. Faller (The St. James Film Directors Encyclopedia, 1998)
"Lubitsch was always the least Germanic of German directors, as Lang was the most Germanic. The critics were always so obsessed with what Lubitsch naughtily left off the screen that they never fully evaluated what was left on... Lubitsch was the last of the genuine continentals let loose on the American continent, and we shall never see his like again because the world he celebrated had died - even before he did - everywhere except in his own memory." - Andrew Sarris (The American Cinema, 1968)
"The man with the cynical, delightful touch created an aristocratic world of yesteryear, then poked fun at it. Lubitsch could say volumes by implication and innuendo." - William R. Meyer (The Film Buff's Catalog, 1978)
"I sometimes make pictures which are not up to my standard, but then it can only be said of a mediocrity that all his work is up to his standard." - Ernst Lubitsch
"I let the audience use their imaginations. Can I help it if they misconstrue my suggestions?" - Ernst Lubitsch
The most widely imitated comic filmmaker of the sound era, Ernst Lubitsch perfected an urbane, graceful directorial style so original and so distinctive that the phrase "Lubitsch Touch" was coined simply to describe it. Combining elegance and wit to bring a tremendous warmth and humanity to even the thinnest of screenplays, he set a new standard of achievement for the light romantic comedy, largely defining the genre while also helping to revolutionize the movie musical as well as various recording techniques.
In Hollywood’s “golden era,” most directors were considered mere worker bees, not artistes. It was the producer who took primary attribution for a movie, impresarios like Thomas Ince and Adolf Zukor, and of course the stars who claimed primary fan-mag space. Nobody went to a movie because it was directed by so-and-so … because they would be hard-pressed to name one more specifically than, er, “so-and-so.”Ernst Lubitsch was a shining early exception, and stayed one to the end of his career. The famed “Lubitsch Touch” was a catchphrase filmgoers came to associate with “Continental” wit, sophistication and sauciness unique to the director himself. He was imitated but never matched.
In 1932 Lubitsch directed his first non-musical sound comedy, Trouble in Paradise. Most critics consider this film to be, if not his best, then at least the complete embodiment of everything that has been associated with Lubitsch: sparkling dialogue, interesting plots, witty and sophisticated characters, and an air of urbanity—all part of the well-known "Lubitsch Touch." What constitutes the "Lubitsch Touch" is open to continual debate, the majority of the definitions being couched in poetic terms of idolization. Andrew Sarris comments that the "Lubitsch Touch" is a counterpoint of poignant sadness during a film's gayest moments. Leland A. Poague sees Lubitsch's style as being gracefully charming and fluid, with an "ingenious ability to suggest more than he showed. . . ." Observations like this last one earned Lubitsch the unfortunate moniker of "director of doors," since a number of his jokes relied on what unseen activity was being implied behind a closed door.
Regardless of which romantic description one chooses, the "Lubitsch Touch" can be most concretely seen as deriving from a standard narrative device of the silent film: interrupting the dramatic interchange by focusing on objects or small details that make a witty comment on or surprising revelation about the main action. Whatever the explanation, Lubitsch's style was exceptionally popular with critics and audiences alike. Ten years after arriving in the United States he had directed eighteen features, parts of two anthologies, and was recognized as one of Hollywood's top directors.
"The Lubitsch Touch" – it was as famous a monicker as Hitchcock's "Master of Suspense" – but perhaps not as superficial. The phrase does connote something light, strangely indefinable, yet nonetheless tangible, and seeing Lubitsch films – more than in almost any other director's work – one can feel this spirit; not only in the tactful and impeccably appropriate placement of camera, the subtle economy of his plotting, the oblique dialogue which had a way of saying everything through indirection, but also – and particularly – in the performance of every single player, no matter how small the role. Jack Benny told me that Lubitsch would act out in detail exactly how he wanted something done – often broadly but always succinctly – knowing, the comedian said, that he would translate the direction into his own manner and make it work. Clearly, this must have been Lubitsch's method with all his actors because everyone in a Lubitsch movie – whether it's Benny or Gary Cooper, Lombard or Kay Francis, Maurice Chevalier or Don Ameche, Jeanette MacDonald or Claudette Colbert – performs in the same unmistakable style. Despite their individual personalities – and Lubitsch never stifled these – they are imbued with the director's private view of the world, which made them behave very differently than they did in other films.
This was, in its own way, inimitable – though Lubitsch has had many imitators through the years – yet none has succeeded in capturing the soul of that attitude, which is as difficult to describe as only the best styles are, because they come from some fine inner workings of the heart and mind and not from something as apparent as, for instance, a tendency to dwell on inanimate objects as counterpoint to his characters' machinations. Certainly Lubitsch was famous for holding on a closed door while some silent or barely overheard crisis played out within, or for observing his people in dumb show through closed windows. This was surely as much a part of his style as it was an indication of his sense of delicacy and good taste, the boundless affection and respect he had for the often flighty and frivolous men and women who played out their charades for us in his glorious comedies and musicals.
Lubitsch had a terrific impact on American movies. Jean Renoir was exaggerating only slightly when he told me recently, "Lubitsch invented the modern Hollywood," for his influence was felt, and continues to be, in the work of many of even the most individualistic directors. Hitchcock has admitted as much to me and a look at Lubitsch's Trouble in Paradise and Hitchcock's To Catch A Thief (both plots deal with jewel thieves so the comparisons are easy) will reveal how well he learned, though each is distinctly the work of the man who signed it. Billy Wilder, who was a writer on a couple of Lubitsch films – including the marvelous Ninotchka – has madeseveral respectful forays into the world of Lubitsch, as have many others with less noteworthy results. Even two such distinctive film makers as Frank Borzage and Otto Preminger, directing pictures which Lubitsch only produced – Desire (Borzage), A Royal Scandal and That Lady in Ermine (Preminger) – found themselves almost entirely in the service of his unique attitudes, and these movies are certainly far more memorable for those qualities than for ones usually associated with their credited directors. (Actually, Lubitsch is credited for That Lady in Ermine, but this was a sentimental gesture since he suffered a fatal heart attack and only shot eight days of it before Preminger took over.)
Lubitsch brought a maturity to the handling of sex in pictures that was not dimmed by the dimness of the censors that took over in the early Thirties, because his method was so circuitous and light that he could get away with almost anything. And that was true in everything he did. No other director, for example, has managed to let a character talk directly to the audience (as Chevalier did in The Love Parade and One Hour with You) and pull it off. There is always something coy and studied in it, but Lubitsch managed just the right balance between reality and theatricality – making the most outrageous device seem natural and easy; his movies flowed effortlessly and though his hand was felt, even seen, it was never intrusive.
After Lubitsch's funeral in 1947, his friends Billy Wilder and William Wyler were walking sadly to their car. Finally, to break the silence, Wilder said, "No more Lubitsch," and Wyler answered, "Worse than that – no more Lubitsch films." The following year, the French director?critic, Jean-Georges Auriol, wrote a loving tribute that made the same point; titled "Chez Ernst," it can be found in Herman Weinberg's affectionate collection, The Lubitsch Touch (Dutton). After comparing the director's world to an especially fine restaurant where the food was perfect and the service meticulous, the piece ends this way: "How can a child who cries at the end of the summer holidays be comforted? He can be told that another summer will come, which will be equally wonderful. But he cries even more at this, not knowing how to explain that he won't be the same child again. Certainly Lubitsch's public is as sentimental as this child; and it knows quite well that 'Ernst's' is closed on account of death. This particular restaurant will never be open again."
Even on brief acquaintance with Ernst Lubitsch’s films, one observes that his actors come to a dead stop after every line, and that a beat of silence separates each bit of dialogue from the next. The actors further emphasize the artifice by using a rise-and-fall delivery that makes every line a set-up or a summation, stylizing any hints of psychology into elements of rhythm. By contrast, directors like McCarey, LaCava or Capra try to preserve psychology, and create rhythm more between lines than within them. Compare, say, the scene in LaCava’s Bed ofRoses (1933) in which Constance Bennett impersonates a journalist in order to seduce wealthy John Halliday, and the scene in Lubitsch’s Trouble in Paradise (1932) in which Miriam Hopkins impersonates a secretary to gain access to the house of wealthy Kay Francis. In addition to the startling resemblance of Bennett and Hopkins in their mousy working-girl disguises--was LaCava “quoting” the Lubitsch film?--the dialogue in both scenes snaps back and forth in similar ping-pong style. But the scenes play quite differently: Bennett embroiders her charade with little bits of characterization that take her speech patterns in many directions, whereas Hopkins’ moments of concealment and unwitting revelation are confined within a narrow tonal range that emphasizes the musical aspect of the repartee.
This acting style, which occurs throughout Lubitsch’s sound films (and, in spirit at least, in the silent films as well, where actions and gestures are similarly discrete), reminds us that Lubitsch had his start in the theater. Though Lubitsch the actor eventually ascended to Max Reinhardt's theater company, the acting in his films evokes “lower” forms of comic theater: operetta of course, but also farce and vaudeville skit humor. The resemblance between the measured, often exaggerated acting style found in these comic traditions and in Lubitsch’s films points to a more interesting correspondence: Lubitsch's actors, like their theatrical counterparts, tend to establish a direct relationship with the audience, an understanding based on a shared knowing perspective on the fiction. In the most pronounced instances (such as Maurice Chevalier's characters in the thirties musicals), Lubitsch characters feel free to address the audience directly, and walk through the plot with the smiling detachment of vaudeville entertainers; they are as much narrators of as participants in the drama. One can see the same tendency, in a more restrained form, in other Lubitsch characters--like Herbert Marshall in Trouble in Paradise or Charles Boyer in Cluny Brown (1946)--who remain more or less within the boundaries of the fiction but express the same amused overview on the action that Lubitsch encourages in the audience.
Another example, from a later period of Lubitsch's career: in Heaven Can Wait (1943), Gene Tierney breaks down crying over her imminent marriage to Allyn Joslyn, and tells Don Ameche the story of her engagement. Though she goes out of her way to express her affection for her parents and her home state in the course of this story, she lets slip one phrase after another that shows her true dislike of each.
Tierney: Well, you see, I always wanted to live in New York. I don’t want to say anything against Kansas, but--life on my father’s estate...Don’t misunderstand me, we have all the modern conveniences and luxuries, but...oh, and you don’t know Father and Mother.
Ameche: Well, I’ve only just met them.
Tierney: Don’t you think they’re sweet?
Ameche: Well, yes, very sweet.
Tierney: Yes, they are. But it’s not very easy to live with them. You see, most of the time they don’t talk to one another. And whenever a young man--and there were some very nice ones...
Ameche: Oh, I’m sure of it.
Tierney: ...if one of them asked for my hand, and my mother said yes, my father said no. And when my father said yes, my mother said no. But Albert came at one of those rare moments when they were both on speaking terms. And if I hadn’t said yes, who knows when my parents might have been talking to each other again. I might have spent the rest of my life in Kansas. Don’t misunderstand me--I love Kansas. It’s just that I don’t feel like living there. Besides, I don’t want to be an old maid. Not in Kansas!
As with the scene from The Smiling Lieutenant, there are two usual approaches to such material: Tierney's hostile feelings toward family and home could slip out without her meaning to reveal them; or she could show an awareness of her emotional contradictions by acknowledging them. Instead of either approach, Tierney delivers both positive and negative feelings in identical tones of tearful confiding; she is completely untroubled at moving from one extreme to the other without transition. Tierney the actor realizes the contradictions of which Tierney's character is plainly unaware, demonstrating this by leveling her affect to heighten the contrast between content and delivery. If we look at the scenes discussed above and the three alternative acting approaches that I've suggested--the poles of unawareness and awareness, and Lubitsch's actor-aware/character-unaware strategy--it's interesting to note that, in the context of the scriptwriting, only Lubitsch's approach is obviously comic. Both the other approaches tend to illuminate the character's psychology; if we try to apply them to the scenes in question, the tone moves a notch toward drama, mitigating against big laughs. This is not to say that psychologically oriented acting can't be funny--there are almost as many counterexamples as there are comic directors--but it does suggest that Lubitsch's comic style is built into his material, and that his acting strategies work only because they are set up at the writing stage.
Perhaps Lubitsch’s only reason for drawing on the conventions of theater is the opportunity they provide him to insert his overseeing viewpoint into the fiction. His actors acquire an all-knowing aura which is nonetheless curiously life-sized: they sit in the privileged seat of the film spectator.
Samson Raphaelson's great talent was in making true love seem so much more than a boy-meets-girl plot device, while at the same time cherishing the delicate patterns and structures of that device. Music and camerawork celebrate the artifice in One Hour with You and are elaborate in design; the revelation of an affair is given in soliloquy.
They worked most often with a Hungarian play as a springboard and finished with something entirely different, save for the bare bones of the original plot. Raphaelson himself tended to dismiss "writing in the Lubitsch vein," as his theatrical and literary concerns were most important to him, but the two of them (and let us not exclude Ernest Vajda) inspired one another "past all sanity."
Exotically beautiful debutante whose Broadway and then film career was fueled and promoted through a company owned by her insurance-broker father. (He sued his daughter for breach of the family corporation in the early 1940s.) Tierney's best roles include the hauntingly beautiful faux-murder victim in the noir classic "Laura" (1944); the neurotically possessive bride in John M. Stahl's 1945 melodrama "Leave Her to Heaven" (for which she received her only Oscar nomination); Vincent Price's young bride in Joseph L. Mankiewicz's period thriller "Dragonwyck" (1946), and the serene widow in Mankiewicz's lovely romantic fantasy "The Ghost and Mrs. Muir" (1947).
Divorced from designer Oleg Cassini in 1952, Tierney fell in love with Aly Khan but suffered a nervous breakdown when he left her during the filming of "The Left Hand of God" (1955). She was promptly suspended by Fox and did not return to acting until "Advise and Consent" in 1962. In 1960 Tierney had married Texas oilman W. Howard Lee, former husband of Hedy Lamarr. She penned a candid autobiography, "Self Portrait", in 1979.
screened March 30 2009 on .avi in Weehawken NJ
TSPDT #829 IMDb
Made as an escapist comedy during the death throes of Nazi Germany, Under the Bridges feels like a throwback to a more innocent cinema that never knew the war, reveling in the French romanticism that thrived in the preceding decade: L'Atalante (TSPDT #16); A Day in the Country (TSPDT #153); as well as Boris Barnet's practically-French By the Bluest of Seas (TSPDT #875). Two boatmen are tired of a shared love life that amounts to shore leave flings and glances at girls who watch like angels from bridges as their vessel passes beneath their skirts. Masterful camera movements sweep the top deck of a barge, scanning the activity on and around it, or swirl around the racetrack layout of a restaurant in which a flirtatious waitress makes her rounds, sizing up proposals from rivaling suitors. There's a constant bustle of comings, goings, small heartbreaks and sighs, but like the river barge upon which it is mostly set, the film chugs along with a cheerful stoicism, neither oblivious to life's endless disappointments nor prone to succumbing to them. It's a pragmatic strain of romanticism that belongs uniquely to this film.
When the boatmen pick up a troubled girl with a mysterious past and take turns pitching woo to her, the outcome of this romantic rivalry is less important than how this triangle strains the film's no-nonsense take on the usefulness of love. A tension emerges between the boatmen's tacit vow to treat work and mating as affairs of pertinence, and a temptation to succumb to swooning romantic impulse, expressed in moments and images of exquisitely subtle beauty: a man and a woman washing each other's hands or laughing while flipping potato pancakes; the riverside sensuality of listening to frogs ribbitting rhythmically under velvet sheets of night; the emotional upheaval contained in a falling lock of hair. Charged by this clash between practicality and impulse, the film doesn't move so much as oscillate: its camera swings around a room from corner to corner, face to face, caught between conflicting protocols of courtship. One moment you're using your pet goose to flirt with the girl you've picked up, the next moment you're serving that same goose to the same girl for dinner, and she's mortified. One moment you're charging her 10 marks to ride your barge; the next you're both calculating how much of a refund to give and receive because things didn't work out.
Eventually this tension gives way to the gentlest of fights that expresses little more than a desire shared by all three characters: to nurture and be nurtured as friends and lovers. It's a strangely wise film whose camera traces the daunting eddies of amorous desire, steadied by an undercurrent of calm acceptance at everything that life presents: heartbreak, hardships, even, perhaps, the war raging around the film's production. It's all worth it just for the way the girl says "yeah" and puts her head on her man's chest near the end.
The following citations were counted towards the placement of Under the Bridges in the TSPDT 1000 Greatest Films:
Christian Petzold, BPB Filmkanon (2003)
Claudius Seidl, Steadycam (2007)
Dominik Graf, Steadycam (2007)
Hans Helmut Prinzler, Steadycam (2007)
Michael Althen, Steadycam (2007)
Rainer Gansera, Steadycam (2007)
Wolfgang Hobel, Steadycam (2007)
Moving Pictures: A Century of European Filmography
100 Films Illustrating the Quality of European Cinematography (2003)
Taschen Books Movies of the 20s-90s (2003-2007)
They Shoot Pictures Recommended Films
Shot in the final months of World War II, Unter den Brücken feels like a movie out of time. If no one told you, there'd be no way of knowing that Allied forces were already occupying Aachen and flying nightly raids over Berlin, that the Red Army was advancing through Eastern Prussia. In the relaxed world of Unter den Brücken, there's no war and no Final Solution, just a Havel barge named Liselotte and its joint owners, Hendrik (Carl Raddatz) and Willy (Gustav Knuth). Tired of the lonely river life, the two bargees both fall for the same displaced Schlesian girl trying to make a living in Berlin, given wonderful life by Hannelore Schrott. The worst danger these characters face is heartbreak.
Marcel Carné and Jean Vigo are frequently cited as influences on Käutner's poetic touch, and rightfully so. Unter den Brücken sparkles with loveable throwaway gestures, richly textured cinematography, and sound design that's so evocative that Käutner dedicates an entire scene to the plop of frogs in the water, the crunch of rope against the hull, and the wind in the reeds. The film's good-natured spirit never leaves it even during the saddest third-act reversals, and the big-hearted resolution suggests a stubborn capacity for peace and hope in the face of the global conflagration raging just out of sight.
The film–atypically shot largely on location–offers a relaxed, languid atmosphere and subtle performances that amazingly belie little of the chaos and mounting devastation in the final days of the war. Käutner understands that the film’s romanticism will only work if it takes its time, and he allows the drama to unfold with unruffled ease. Scenes involving characters sitting on a deck at night, listening to the diversity of natural sounds, or sharing a moment while playing an accordion in the dwindling twilight typify the plot. Käutner applies a great deal of visual sophistication with moody chiaroscuro lighting and unexpectedly graceful camera movements that intensify the emotions with Ophülsian relish.
Under the Bridges is actually my favorite film. Anyone who sees it today would not be able to understand that at the time, when there was no future any more and Germany's final collapse was a question of days, it was possible to film such a simple, almost idyllic story... When I really think about it, what we did arose from the film makers' stubbornness to allow any of the horror which surrounded us to seep into our work.
"Helmut Käutner has made 36 films for the big screen. Those you will have to watch for yourself." The dry wit and subliminal challenge of this assessment at the beginning of Marcel Neudeck’s fine half-hour portrait Wer Ist Helmut Käutner? (Who Is Helmut Käutner, 2008)—itself the work of a waning filmkritik tradition, the scholarly television documentary—might have pleased the master himself. Käutner, who (like his peer David Lean) would have turned 100 on March 25, liked his comedy double-edged, whether elegant and understated or raucous and sharp. His tragedies are no less ambivalent. A humanist intellectual, whose layered studies of conflicting social forces and individual fates may have been too subtle for the culture surrounding them, Käutner qualifies as one of the pantheon directors of German cinema, possibly even the nation’s finest major filmmaker of the sound era save, perhaps, Fassbinder.
Kautner is counted among the directors who produced high quality, unpolitical entertainment films in the second half of the Third Reich. He is claimed to be one of the few representatives of "film art" in German fascism. Others detect in his filmmaking a sign of political opposition in the resistance to the aesthetics of the fascist narrative. From this perspective the absence of violence, heroic themes, and visual monumentality opens a space for playfulness and formal concerns which were otherwise considered suspect if not decadent by the film censors. Common to both of these positions is, first, an appreciation of the filmmaker's technical competence and, second, the wish to vindicate that quality as something beyond fascism. Yet the film industry was a priority interest for Goebbel's propaganda ministry, one of the most highly scrutinized and carefully controlled branches of an administered culture and subject to intervention at every step. Hence, to recognize artistic or creative achievements as exceptions to the rule does not obviate the need to understand how these films too produce illusions of escapism within the fascist system.
Helmut Kautner is particularly interesting in this respect because the nine films he completed during The Third Reich have been recognized as his most successful, despite a long career as director extending into the seventies. He is often singled out as the most brilliant film talent to have emerged during the National-Socialist regime, a director whose early films evoke an atmosphere identified with the tradition of Ernst Lubitsch and Max Ophuls and whose style reflects the influence of the French cinema identified with names like Rene Clair, Jean Renoir, and Marcel Carne. His most striking achievement within the norms of Goebbels' film industry, however, was the ability to combine the talents of scriptwriter and director, for Kautner was unique among Third Reich filmmakers for having written or coauthored the scripts for all his films. This enabled him to exercise a rigor few other directors enjoyed, especially those involved in the production of entertainment features. Kautner's witty dialogues, the careful dramaturgy with its superb sense of timing and rhythm, the mobile camera, the varied editing techniques, and the meticulous handling of light and shadow reveal a high degree of subtlety and a sensitivity for visual detail while highlighting the utter impoverishment of aesthetic understanding among the majority of film directors.
We shall speak of the gratitude that the young art of film has to express to the old art of the theater independently of any current event.
This gratitude is almost never expressed, for between the two, film and theater, there gapes the rift between the generations, the age-old contrast between parents and children. If film and theater move apart in debate over the theory or practice of art, then they simply move apart. Unfortunately, they never get together. Were they to do so, they would realize that they have more in common than they have in opposition.
A look at the lineage and the development of the theater marks out the path for film. It provides film with the artistic goal of achieving a total artwork appropriate to its form. Through its centuries-long struggle for expression and appearance, the theater has smoothed the artistic paths for film to such an extent that film was able to succeed in reaching the vicinity of absolute art in the short time of its existence. It, too, needs the poet in order to raise itself, as the theater did in its time, from entertainment to an art form. It, too, need uniquely creative personalities, as, for example, Neuberin and Lessing were for the theater, in order to find the laws unique to it. It thanks the eloquent example of the theater for being able to walk these paths with a clear goal before its eyes.
- Helmut Kautner (translated by Lance W. Garmer). From "Gratitude toward the Theater" (1945). Published in German essays on film, by Richard W. McCormick, Alison Guenther-Pal. Published by Continuum International Publishing Group, 2004. Pages 167, 168.
screened August 3 2008 on .avi
TSPDT rank #945 IMDbWiki
Frank Borzage's greatest films celebrate and investigate the miracle of romantic love; but perhaps the greatest miracle of his career was in generating a film of darkly stunning compassion upon one of the most wretched characters conceived in cinema. Danny Hawkins (Dane Clark, in a proto-Method performance of inspired contempt for everything around him) is tortured throughout his young life by his father's legacy of murder, which he fully inherits within the first 10 minutes of the film, setting off a downward spiral of guilt, rage and violent self-destruction. (The blueprints to Raging Bull are all over this film; a couple of shots seem practically plagiarized).
Borzage's men have typically been roughewn jars of clay shaped and refined by feminine light, but Danny Hawkins is a festering pool of mud oozing from the film's swampy environs. He's saved by Borzage's ultimate faith in redemptive grace, embodied by the fiancee of the man Danny kills, who unfathomably falls in love with Danny despite nearly being killed by him in a stunning car accident. Her unlikely attraction to him is made credible through our own, an empathy accomplished through Borzage's ability to plant the viewer squarely in the passionate, angst-ridden hell of Danny's worldview.
Starting with a wildly expressive flashback opening on through a series of terrifying crisis moments shot and cut with dizzying intensity (a swamp killing; a rainstorm car crash; a bedroom strangulation; a suicidal leap from a ferris wheel), it's a world cloaked in perpetual night, virile in its violence, seductive in its shadows. The civic-minded sobriety of the daylight scenes, where everyone from the local sheriff to a self-exiled, swamp-dwelling Negro (a powerfully melancholy Rex Ingram) espouse liberal compassion for poor Danny, can't compete with the allure of destructive darkness that pervades this film. Even the sentimental strings in the soundtrack, employed heavily during interludes of romantic redemption, stir reserves of disconsolate ache. If the redemptive, sober climax that resolves the narrative feels less than fully earned, it's because Borzage has perhaps succeeded too well at mining the bottomless chasm of a man's affliction. But such a degree of achievement in suffering wrought into art embodies its own salvation.
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Frank Borzage's last masterpiece (1948) and one of his best-known films, although in many ways it's atypical of his work. Made on a middling budget for Republic Pictures--the studio of serials and cowboys--the film adopts a rich and elaborate expressionist style; with its shadows and tension-racked frames, it resembles no other film in the Borzage canon. The social conflicts that plagued Borzage's spiritually attuned lovers in earlier films here become psychological ones, as a young man (Dane Clark) fights to overcome his "bad blood"--his father was a convicted killer. Still, the Borzagian principle of transcendence applies, expressed through a complex mise-en-scene centered on circular camera movements. The earlier, disappointing Smiling Through (1941)--with its image of a blocking, ever-present past--seems a rough draft for this final achievement.
Many of Borzage’s projects, particularly toward the end of his career, were indisputably trivial in conception, but the director’s personality never faltered, and when the glorious opportunity of Moonrise presented itself, Borzage was not stale or jaded. This, if anything, is the moral of the auteur theory.
In many ways, it is unlike any of [Borzage’s] earlier works. Its plot, dealing with murder and guilt, departs dramatically from the simple love stories the director usually tells [...] Stylistically, Moonrise marks a visual revolution of sorts for Borzage, with its tremendously dynamic compositions, tight framing and low-key lighting. […] Yet even though Moonrise looks different from Borzage’s other work, it reveals as deep a commitment as ever to the concerns that occupy his other films.
- John Belton, Hollywood Professionals, Vol. 3: Howard Hawks, Frank Borzage, Edgar G. Ulmer, (New York: A. S. Barnes & Co.; London: The Tantivy Press, 1974), p. 112
Moonrise is Frank Borzage's sensual scrutiny of a man's free will. In the film's striking opening moments, a dazzling spectacle of black-and-white chiaroscuro conveys a throbbing sense of madness cattle-branded into the imagination of a young Danny Hawkins, who is terrorized by bullies from childhood to adulthood because of his father's execution. When Danny (Dane Clark) kills one of his tormentors, he must struggle with the terrible push-pull effect of the past and the memory of his father on his psyche. Borzage magnificently frames the film along very severe, richly layered diagonal angles, catching nervous hands and faces from odd positions and giving startling visual expression to Danny's loose grip on his moral compass. A shot might begin with Danny towering above a character, only to end with him cowering beneath the same person, and in a tour-de-force sequence at a town fair, Borzage's camera moves in heady and terrifying tandem with the stop-go movements of a Ferris wheel. The director plays with shifting perspectives to convey the disorientation of a man struggling to stay on top even as he is drowning.
Moonrise snaps on-screen with a shadowplay execution-by-hanging, shot with expressionistic verve, that cuts, on the snap of the neck, to the dead man’s newly fatherless child squalling in his crib over the nightmare image of cold court-ordered death—Borzage is still frequently written off as a better-than-average concoctor of shadows n’ muslin confections, but just try to find anything equivalent to the gutty social outrage of this stark edit in contemporary Hollywood fare. From this point the film rolls into a montage of schoolyard degradation—always the same punk, our fatherless child, always the same bully—that grounds the film in a smotheringly small town where reputation is inherited and it brands like the mark of Cain (the on looking kids mocking chant: “Danny Hawkins' dad was hanged”), and where grudges have a lifetime to percolate.
Hawkins, played without a hint of petitioning for sympathy by Fifties and Sixties television standby Dane Clark, understandably grows up into a furtive, crabbed, hate-encysted young man. Danny’s introduced full-grown in the thickets behind a local dancehall, at the receiving end of one-beating-too-many from his tireless victimizer—something snaps, a jagged rock gets into the mix, the bully is finally hushed up, dead. He goes back, throws some water on his face, and cuts in for a stiff dance with the corpse’s clueless fiancée, prim schoolteacher Gilly (Gail Russell). Driving her and some friends home, boozy, he buries the gas pedal, buzzing with rage, and flips the car. Wailing, soaked to the skin, pulling his co-opted date from the wreck through the side door, Danny’s a wreck of inchoate emotion—he wails as if in the trauma of being born.
From this literal and figurative breakdown, the film proceeds as the redemptive chronicle of Danny’s emotional education, his gradual indoctrination into humanity, and his acceptance of guilt for his crime. Gilly is the primary instrument that pries him open, operating through the breach opened by the somewhat baffling romance that’s ignited between them; the two spend plenty of runtime with their faces smooshed together in close-up, scenes that should gain plenty when writ large on the screen, as Borzage was an infamously attentive orchestrator of the minutest tremors of expression. Also crucial in Danny’s rehab is his sole friend, the aforementioned Mose, a retired brakeman-turned-recluse richly played by the great Rex Ingram; it’s a too-rare specimen of a black actor’s performance being allowed to flourish amid an all-white cast without the taint of awkward tokenism, Stepin Fetchit clowning, or phony-worshipful messianic Negritude. Ingram can handle thesis lines and common-sense morality with unpretentious thoughtfulness (“How does he know what’s good and what’s bad?” “Someone told him.”), but he’s best when singing a dolorous back-porch blues—the film’s title may come from the syrupy tune that’s warbled over Danny and Gilly’s first, death-infected dance, but Mose provides this dark-as-pitch picture’s true theme: “Rope hanging from the gallows/ Pit waiting for my bones...”
Moonrise immerses us in swamp country for a meditation on ‘nature’ of all kinds - including human. The thing about Southern noir is that nature is not only everywhere but a player in the drama. Contrast this with your typical urban thrillers where, amongst all the built structures and machinery we narrow our focus onto the one unpredictable element in the mix – the protagonist. In Moonrise we see, and quickly come to feel , the swamp as metaphor for this small town setting, subtly reinforcing our view of its human inhabitants.
Director Borzage’s clever tactic of showing us all the action from the point of view of Danny, Dane Clark’s central character, is one reason for this sense of immersion, but even more subtle is this native Southern boy’s near-complete lack of an accent, let alone any ‘aw-shucks’ yokelisms. He’s a universal character, his very neutrality earning him center stage in this sphere of fetid growth where the great noir standbys - buried guilts and past secrets – bubble to the surface.
The film’s struggle, which Dane Clark portrays economically and brilliantly, is between society’s labelling of Danny as a ‘criminal type’ versus his belief of his own inner goodness. This is established from the outset through the stunning opening montage limning the story’s background (the execution by hanging of Danny’s father while the boy is in infancy and the ensuing torment and harassment by other children– especially rich preppie brat Lloyd Bridges) which makes it clear you are in the hands of a cinematic master. The brutal linkage this montage climaxes with – cutting from the father’s noose in shadowed profile to a ‘mobile’ hanging over the infant child’s cot – still packs a jolt, especially on the big screen. Clark, an unassuming, 1940s prole-looking leatherneck who often picked up John Garfield comparisons, plays Danny (not surprisingly) as a pent-up ball of resentment who seethes with internalised anger.
If the love story in Moonrise is a classic Borzagian scenario, the film's visual style is decidedly less typical of the director's oeuvre. From the extraordinary opening scenes, with truncated framings, the forceful play of light and shadow and dynamic cross-cutting, Moonrise represents a departure from the more measured visual style of earlier Borzage works.
With the services of cinematographer John L. Russell (who went on to shoot Hitchcock's Psycho  amongst others), Borzage employs tight framings and consistent close-ups, (particularly of the beleaguered Danny), off kilter angles, and an odd but effective focus on the hands and feet of the central protagonists. Even the lovers' romantic clinches are presented from unconventional angles, often obscuring facial expressions, and thereby making the emotional tenor of these scenes more difficult to read.
Borzage's stylistic innovations in Moonrise, while uncharacteristic of the director's work, align the film with the classic film noir canon. In Moonrise, as with many a noir work, the expressive visual style makes a significant contribution to the films' atmosphere of escalating tension and its pervasive sense of unease.
Borzage's predilection for shooting on studio sets, regardless of the storyline locale, gave the backgrounds of his films, as one reviewer describes, “an unreal fairytale quality”. This is very much in evidence in Moonrise. Despite its rural small town setting with adjoining swamplands, Borzage forgoes any suggestion of bucolic expansiveness. Rendering the town streets and surrounding countryside claustrophobic and oppressive, he creates a subtle feeling of disquiet and vague unreality entirely appropriate to the central protagonist's troubled state of mind.
Borzage once remarked that “Every good story is based on a struggle”. Haas' adaptation of Strauss' novel gave Borzage just such a good story. With powerful performances from his lead actors, particularly Dane Clark in arguably the best role of his career, Moonrise was a romance after Borzage's heart, with an additional layer of psychological intensity. It remains, justifiably, a critically acclaimed high point in his career.
Both the script and the performances were evocative of the mood that Frank Borzage strove to create. Lyrically, Borzage eschewed Sleepy Time Down South for the Sidewalks of New York in the casting of Dane Clark as Danny Hawkins. Clark gives it his all and brings off a difficult part exceedingly well. I didn’t notice that Clark (or any of the other actors for that matter) lacked southern accents until he was obliged to occasionally let loose with a “I reckon” or “Yankee” that momentarily punctured my suspension of reality. Clark succinctly projected the internal moral dilemma faced by Hawkins without resorting posturing or overacting. Moonrise may well be his finest screen performance.
Gail Russell plays the schoolmarm with the right mixture of initial primness, concern, and genuine affection with a dash of lust. Russell’s well-chronicled slide down the Hollywood Babylon oblivion chute awash in a sea of booze ended tragically at age 36 in 1961. Allyn Joslyn scored as one of film noirs most unusual John Lawmen. Imagine a southern sheriff without a drawl who speaks gently, waxes philosophical (“Murder is like love, it requires two people”) and never threatens or brandishes a weapon! At the final denouement, he even prevents a deputy from handcuffing the surrendering Clark, remonstrating with him to “let him walk in like a man”. Perhaps Borzage just didn’t have it in him to cast another heavy other than Lloyd Bridges in this picture. Ethel Barrymore lends credibility as only she could in a brief, but pivotal scene as Grandma Hawkins. Both Harry Morgan and Rex Ingram add additional heft in interesting supporting parts. Ingram’s character, in a surprising display of late 1940’s racial tokenism, is refreshingly absent any stereotypes or similar stupidities.
Moonrise, marking the end of Borzage's unhappy tenure at Republic, may be a throwback, but to what? That film's neo-primitive expressionism anticipates The Night of the Hunter in some ways, but it also seems designed to pay lip service to the paranoia that had crept into modern cinema (something that Borzage later professed to despise). Although Moonrise is finally just as romantic as the rest of his work, the disembodied visual scheme of its first half, designed as an illustration of psychological trauma, is a singular event in Borzage --an interesting choice of material that probably marked a sly compromise between the director's own concerns and the more fashionable notions of the day.
In the end, what is Borzagean remains at the core of every project, overpowering all pictorial and topical considerations with a rapture that goes far beyond the idea of a mere touch or set of preoccupations. His is a body of work that remains vital less for its visual sublimity than for its twin pillars of physical dynamism and philosophical extremity. For about twenty years, Borzage's distinctly American brand of spirituality was in perfect accord with the sensibility of the country at large, a brief loss of faith during the late silent era notwithstanding. By the beginning of the Forties, he had become "outmoded" and, by the time he worked at Republic in the latter part of the decade, when many of his contemporaries were moving into the most glorious phases of their careers, he had already become an exotic remnant of an earlier era. But he never wavered in his own belief in himself and in paradise on earth through love and art.
Borzage has his protagonist turn his back to others and avert his gaze during... dialogue scenes... He also regularly positions two characters at an angle of 90 degrees to each other, further stressing their avoidance of eye contact by framing one character in profile. While such a mise en scène contributes to a particularly pictorial storytelling, Borzage repeatedly forgoes any dialogue during the first third of the movie. Instead, he has gestures speak in close-ups. During the opening sequence, words only function to identify Danny and Jerry at young age.
Danny reveals his greatest secret, when he affirms Mose’s suspicion. Yet, Borzage stresses the scene’s quite sadness by contrasting the silent accord between both men with a dynamic tension between foreground and background. In a medium long-shot, we see Danny in the background lying at the edge of the swamp, while Mose in the foreground sits on the porch of his cabin. By alternating close-ups of each men, Borzage emphasizes the distance between them – the more so, as Mose apparently does not have the heart to look his friend in the eye. Framed in close-up, slightly from below and almost in profile, Mose stares off-screen, without ever turning his head to Danny.
The beauty of this mise en scène, which accentuates the emotional charge of the situation, can certainly be attributed to the director, even if it is strikingly different from the style he is mainly associated with. But apart from the mise en scène, this scene has been transposed virtually unchanged form the literary source [by Theodore Strauss]. The same applies to almost every single of the film’s dialogues, while the slight changes to the plot have resulted primarily in tightening it.
While Borzage’s work has lately been the object of a modest revival, Strauss has been completely forgotten.That is a pity, because his earnestness in dealing with a poor man’s Crime-and-Punishment-theme is, like Borzage’s, totally disarming, even if his tone tends to be as grave as one might assume from Mose’s and the sheriff’s dialogues. Strauss’ book featured prominently in the publicity campaign for the film, and was displayed on posters and lobby cards. Film reviewers regularly referred to Moonrise’s literary source and The New York Times even opened its review of the film stating, “The ancient argument as to which medium tells the story best, written words or pictorial images, is again brought into focus by Moonrise.” And the reviewer actually thought that “the book towers above the picture”. However, the novel – as well as the film – had apparently been already forgotten, when in 1951 it was published as a paperback, since Bantam re-titled it Dark Hunger.
Moonrise’s thoroughgoing fidelity to its literary source poses the question: Did Borzage adopt the book’s philosophical quintessence as well? His films after Seventh Heaven have often been interpreted as endorsing the renunciation of all worldly matters. “[A] world destroying dignity is but a sordid deserted place not worth returning to, but of going beyond. [...] Borzage's heroes do not aspire to reenter into society”, concludes Dumont. Moonrise, however, suggests a different interpretation: “Man ought to live in a world with other folks” is what Strauss and Borzage have Mose say. “What I did was resign from the human race – and I guess that’s about the worst crime there is.”
When Joe McElhaney applies the quintessence of these words – obviously unaware of their origin with Strauss’ novel – onto Borzage’s whole œuvre, he acts overhasty, to say the least. But this particular outlook on the human condition and the world is not only affirmed by the narrative of Moonrise, it is also underscored by Mose’s last words. Addressing one of his dogs as “Mister Dog”, Mose states: “If a man knows how to rejoin the human race, once he’s resigned, it helps, Mr. Dog, it helps.” Tellingly, these are among the few words in this movie which do not originate with Strauss. That Borzage’s film thus, paradoxically, attests to Strauss’ outlook on the human condition by a rare divergence from his book, might offer an ironic moral of sorts for auteurists, too.
- Holger Römers, “The Moral of the Auteur Theory”: Frank Borzage’s Moonrise (and Theodore Strauss’ Source Novel). Senses of Cinema
Perhaps Borzage's greatest film, Moonrise, a brooding tale of a murderer's son (Clark) driven to violence by others harping on his past, is the perfect answer to those critics who have derided Borzage as a 'mere' romantic, a mere celebrator of the magic of love. Deeply melancholic, the film (from a novel by Theodore Strauss) creates a sense of physical reality with its low key lighting and harsh compositions that Borzage's lovers on the run cannot defeat: their 'Seventh Heaven' in an abandoned mansion is only temporary.
It's a grim melodrama that feels tragically realistic, touching on the raw nerves of the brooding accused murderer who has been forced into violence and going on-the-run because his tormentors have rattled him. The film's beauty lies in Borzage's overpowering visual mise-en-scene, making the film a character study as the protagonist wrestles with his inner conflicts between the peaceful and wrathful deities. The conflicted young man eventually overcomes his past bad karma because he finds someone to love, support from his betters and values to believe in. Spiritual ideals such as transformational love are the very things the director, himself, finds very dear in his real life.
This outstanding movie has been dubbed a "melodrama," and it's easy to see why. But unlike most melodramas, there's a deeply serious social message pulsing through; and, while many people, then and now, might have found this too earnest, I'm just grateful work like this exists as a point of moral and artistic reference. Borzage makes a visual homage of his own, this one to silent movies, and along with that he works in a couple of important themes too complex (and too intelligently discussed) to go on the back of a t-shirt; but I'll risk reducing them anyway. The first is that, when it comes to crime, we should be careful before we start talking about "fate" or "bad blood." As a child, Danny Crane (Dane Clark, above, second from left) was mercilessly teased about his father's execution for murder. As an adult, he is again confronted by his chief tormentor from childhood and, in self-defence, kills him. The main body of the film takes us through what happens next. Can he live with the guilt? Will his community discover the truth? If so, will they turn on him? Or will a consensus conclude that Danny, far from being "born that way" or doomed by fate, succumbed to social forces that must also bear some responsibility? As the film actually plays it, what I notice today is that here's one small-town society capable of making restrained, evidence-based judgments about its own people — and not because of huge amounts of book-learning either!
The titles of Borzage’s sublime (no other word will do) MOONRISE play out over strange, rippling pools of liquid fog.
This eventually resolves, post-titles, into the shadowsof liquid fog, pooling eerily in an inexplicable fashion, as we enter a peculiarly abstract landscape of rain, where an execution is about to take place. I will say no more.
But that same year, 1948, Orson Welles was making MACBETH, at the same studio as Borzage, Republic. And when Welles’ weird women peer into their cauldron in Act 1, Scene 1, amid the murk and mist and bubble bubble, we get this liquid fogagain:
Welles has double-exposed it with a shot of fas-motion billowing clouds, oddly enough. All playing the contents of an enchanted cauldron. You maybe have to see it moving in good definition to see that it’s exactly the same effect as Borzage’s liquid fog. So, either both men made use of a piece of kit in stock at Republic, which I’m going to call Professor Strickfaden’s Liquid Fog Vortex Projector, or, more likely in my opinion, Welles simply borrowed a few seconds of Borzage’s movie to enhance his own. It’s the sort of thing he’d do more wholeheartedly in F FOR FAKE, and which he’d already done in CITIZEN KANE, which uses footage, and animated bats, from SON OF KONG.
As John Huston says in Welles’ THE OTHER SIDE OF THE WIND, “It’s quite alright to steal from each other. What we must never do is steal from ourselves.”
Frank Borzage: master of the shadows.
This, the opening of MOONRISE, is what turned me on to F.B. The beauty and boldness of the visual storytelling, the combination of a powerful story idea (a boy is persecuted because his father was hanged — then he himself becomes a killer: all this in the first five minutes!) put over with flamboyant but never inappropriate use of film technique.
Also, in the above image, the little kid is meant to be crying, but he obviously isn’t. Some crying sounds have been dubbed on, while the youngster tries to make a “sad face”. I realised that Borzage was too nice to make a baby cry for his film, even though the lack of tears slightly mars the film. That puts him in a different ethical class from practically all his peers. Can we imagine William Wyler hesitating?
I love that the entire set for this shot is the studio floor, doubling as an implausibly shiny playground. MOONRISE was shot on entirely in a tiny array of tightly packed sets in a single studio, with a very short schedule. Republic seem to have been experimenting with artistically ambitious films on low budgets in 1948: hence Welles’ MACBETH. Of course they were John Ford’s refuge where he could make less overtly commercial projects at lower cost.
The tree-shadow totally MAKES the shot, transforming it from an obvious interior to a poetic, unreal exterior. Shades of Sternberg, who was particularly fond of tree-shadows in the late ’20s and early ’30s.
“By the mid-1920s, Borzage was one of the most successful Hollywood directors - as witness the fact that he won the newly created Oscar for direction twice in its first five years - for Seventh Heaven and Bad Girl. War, and the consequent taste for realism, destroyed the world he had created and after The Mortal Storm, only one other film - Moonrise - properly revealed his talent. As a result, he is now badly neglected.” - David Thomson (The New Biographical Dictionary of Film, 2002)
“Frank Borzage was that rarity of rarities, an uncompromising romanticist…Borzage never needed dream worlds for his suspension of disbelief. He plunged into the real worlds of poverty and oppression, the world of Roosevelt and Hitler, the New Deal and the New Order, to impart an aura to his characters, not merely through soft focus and a fluid camera, but through a genuine concern with the wondrous inner life of lovers in the midst of adversity.” - Andrew Sarris (The American Cinema, 1968)
“Crucial to his films’ incandescent romanticism were his fluid use of the camera, floating through unoccupied spaces to suggest mysterious invisible forces existing beyond the material realm, and a focus on luminous faces; his attention to actresses, especially Janet Gaynor and Margaret Sullavan, made unusually palpable the strength of their undying love.” - Geoff Andrew (The Director’s Vision, 1999)
“Borzage’s top films are laden with romance and expressive camera work and lighting.” - William R. Meyer (The Film Buff’s Catalog, 1978)
Frank Borzage had a rare gift of taking characters, even those who were children of violence, and fashioning a treatment of them abundant with lyrical romanticism and tenderness, even a spirituality that reformed them and their story.
There's a director I know who's fond of saying that he's more interested in what current filmmakers are doing (even the mediocre ones) than in studying "classic cinema," older films touching him only to the degree that they illuminate modern experience. It's a brutal approach to film history, perhaps a bit too brutal for me, but it has a certain validity as an alternative to the ahistorical side of film culture. Perhaps Borzage really is nothing more than the cinema's Great Romantic --a compliment that has the stale aftertaste of day-old beer since, in contemporary terms, it places him so far outside of the strange jumble of neurosis, solitude, and disillusionment we currently refer to as reality.
He was a Hollywood melodramatist with absolutely no interest in the workings of everyday life --the world around Borzage's lovers and believers is a procession of interchangeable amorphous abstractions. An arch-symbolist with a deep belief in the communion of souls, he woefully lacks any of the credentials necessary for worship by modern audiences (precious little in the way of irony, no cynicism to speak of, never made a film noir). Nor can it be denied that Borzage's oeuvre sports a generous helping of mediocre-to-bad actors (Douglass Montgomery, Robert Taylor, Phillip Dorn, and John Howard --the only actor wooden enough to take the air out of Borzage's billowing romanticism, in Disputed Passage), as well as a high percentage of filler (endless Dick Powell musicals at Warners, topical melodramas for Fox, a biography of Dolly Madison). On top of that, his films don't even work as satisfyingly snotty postmodern experiences, probably due to the fact that they are almost all structurally identical.
In his lovingly researched Frank Borzage --Sarastro à Hollywood (an act of true literary devotion that provides all of the biographical information for this article), Hervé Dumont cites Borzage's development of intimate scenes "to the detriment of the action" as the basis of contemporary objections to The River, the director's fearsome 1929 masterpiece that was caught in the mad crossfire between silence and sound. It's the same kind of complaint that you hear about "foreign films" today. And the charge of artistry is more than justified. Besides Nick Ray, with whom he has often been compared, Borzage was one of Hollywood's only truly obsessive artists of the sound era (Welles, who made most of his films outside of Hollywood, doesn't count), which is what truly made him a favorite of the Surrealists. Borzage's artistic vision was not a loose conglomeration of tics, talents, and obsessions to be tallied up at the end of his career. He had something rare in Hollywood: a philosophical formulation of life that, at a certain point in his career, took precedence over the delivery of a satisfying piece of entertainment. It may have been a naïve one, nourished by Masonic teachings and quite possibly by his early exposure to the Mormons when he was growing up in Salt Lake City, but he believed it and sometimes bent plots inside out to accommodate it. It also informed his unique way of arranging space. When a character looks in a film by Hawks or Hitchcock, he or she is usually looking at something concrete. When a character looks in a film by Ford, it's often into the past. When a character looks in a film by Borzage, it's usually a matter of looking through objective reality into an ultimate reality of celestial harmony, around which time tends to dilate and space tends to become elastic to the point of transparency.
For Borzage, love means certainty (which may account for another aspect of his current neglect: his films never partake of the crisis of belief at the core of modern experience). And like all philosophies, Borzage's is completely without interest outside of the physical act of its own creation. The human evidence of Borzage's superhuman idea of existence --to be found in Charles Farrell's and Janet Gaynor's rapturous walk up the stairs and into paradise in Seventh Heaven (27), in the beautifully elongated flowering of their love in Lucky Star (29), in Dane Clark and Gail Russell's moonlit idyll in an abandoned mansion in Moonrise (48), in Margaret Sullavan sleeping in her shimmering evening dress on Robert Taylor's doorstep in Three Comrades, in James Dunne and Sally Eilers's touchingly naïve attempt at marriage in Bad Girl (32), in James Stewart and Margaret Sullavan taking the family marriage cup from Maria Ouspenskaya before their potentially fatal trek over the Austrian border in The Mortal Storm --is one of the great glories of the cinema.
Can a body of work consisting of a hundred films and three television shows, which begins in 1915 and ends in 1959 and passes through almost every major studio in Hollywood, be reduced to such a singleminded preoccupation? In one sense, no. It's an auteurist tradition to identify something singular in a director's work and then leave it at that, chucking the quirks, oddities, momentary fashions, and comminglings with commerce and studio style that make up a big part of any Hollywood oeuvre. Such selectivity has probably outlived its usefulness. In Borzage's case, one can see a whole panorama of momentary influences stretched across his career.