Niece by marriage, barely out of her teens, secretly marries her aging great-uncle, legless from the war, in order to continue receiving his pension after his death. Village gossip has it that this economic arrangement ruined any future chance at happiness, as previous marriage would have to be revealed before marrying any subsequent suitor.
Neighbourhood children rescue abandoned donkey, feed him and tenderly nurture him back to health. Donkey disappears. Many years later town taxidermist dies and family donates same donkey, now stuffed, so that the village can perform its annual tableau of Mary and Joseph heading towards Bethlehem and remind everyone of the true meaning of Christmas (I wish someone would make a movie of this as ironies abound)
Gabriel Garcia Marquez couldn’t make these up…. And many more to come
I saw Elena et les hommes last night but I couldn’t tell you what it was about, not really. It’s an elegant farce about a Polish Princess down to her last pearl who goes on a roundelay of possible husbands including Jean Marais and Mel Ferrer, all madly in love with her. She in turn is in love with making them live up to what she sees as their potential, helping to make them be the men she thinks they ought to be, which in the case of Jean Marais means becoming President of the Republic. It’s a charming film, funny, endearing; lots of people chase after each other in a small house whilst Ingrid Bergman, at her scattiest and blondest, looks impossibly beautiful in tight Belle Epoque corsets, figure-hugging skirts and hats large enough to hold a small meadow or a large aviary.
What prompted me to write a note here is that from the very beginning of the film one is dazzled by the beauty of the colour. The opening title seems encased in bright little bombons or be-ribboned jewels of glistening red, blue and yellow. Jean is Auguste Renoir’s son of course but the cinematographer here is the equally great Claude Renoir, newphew of the director, grandson of the painter. Uncle and newphew both knew something about colour, composition, perspective and this film is their evocation, their particular articulation of what they learned from Auguste.
I saw Elena et les hommes at the Cine Doré in what I thought was a 35 mm print and this is what I wrote when I returned to my hotel:
‘The only reason I’m writing a note on the film here is that from the first shot one is dazzled by the beauty of the colours. Claude Renoir did the cinematography. I saw it on a gorgeous 35 mm print where the brightness, density, luminosity, the texture, the fine grain of the celluloid brought out every delicate variation of light and texture in hats and feathers and gave one the impression of partaking in breathtaking beauty’.
I understand that this type of work with light and colour is now possible in digital, but if so, why don’t we see it? It saddens me that such beauty, simply in the hue, brightness and luminosity of the colours not to speak of their masterly arrangement as in this film may be lost to us.’
Needless to say, I’m an idiot, and upon looking at the program I realized that what I had in fact been seeing was not a 35mm print but a restored print digitally projected, one which hopefully will be with us for many generations to come.
The program also included a thought-provoking quote from Jean-Luc Godard: ‘If Elena et les hommes is ‘the’ French film par excellence, it’s because it’s the most intelligent film in the world: Art simultaneous with a theory of art; beauty simultaneously with the secret of beauty; Cinema simultaneous with an explanation of cinema’.
And here I was simply mourning, erroneoulsly, that future generations wouldn’t be able to see the glorious gradations of texture and colour in a hat.
I only made it to the movies once whilst in Burgos, to see Miele, the recent Italian film by Valeria Goliano on assisted suicides. What struck me first of all was the name of the cinema, Cine Golem, with all its connotations of dreams and nightmares, of magic and the other-worldly, of the like-human-yet-not-quite-human, of the inanimate, animated by magic; all of this without even considering the cinephiliac associations to the classic German Expressionist film directed by Paul Wegener and Carl Boese. What a wonderful name for a cinema, infinitely preferable to Cine-vue or Cineworld or even ‘electric’. Why isn’t it a more fashionable name for cinemas?
It turns out that the Golem is a regional chain with cinemas in the north of Spain: Pamplona, Estella, Logroño and Burgos. I wanted to write a little something on it here because the day I went to see Miele, along with Dawn of the Planet of the Apes and Sex Tape, the Jason Segel-Cameran Diaz film, posters for which one is bomarded with throughout Burgos, one is also able to see Corazón de León, an Argentinian-Brazilian co-production, Barbecue, the French comedy with Lambert Wilson, and The Hundred-Year-Old Man Who Climbed Out the Window and Disappeared, the wonderful dead-pan Swedish comedy directed by Felix Herngren. Provincial little Burgos with half the population of Coventry is being treated to a menu of European cinema that much bigger and more ‘cosmopolitan’ cities like Birmingham could only dream of. Why? I’d be curious to know.
Miele is a fine movie, not exceptional in its treatment of its admittedly difficult topic but intelligent and interesting. Valeria Goliano, probably best known to English-speaking audiences for her performances in Rain Man and other Hollywood films from two decades ago is perhaps overly symbolic in her direction but she’s wonderful with actors. Miele stars Jasmine Trinca as a young woman trafficking barbituates from Mexico so she can assist terminal cases in an easy death. The plot revolves around her messy personal life with the main conflict in the plot occurring when she provides the drugs to a person who is not suffering from a terminal disease. But all of that is almost beside the point.
What struck me was two things, first how the use of George Brassens, and other European songs in the sound-track made the film seem Italian but also European. I know I’m not being clear and that one needs to define what one means by those terms; and I don’t have the time to do so now; but if one thinks how, say, there’s a Welsh Identity and a British one each which has something in common and helps shape the other but which are nonetheless distinct you’ll get at what I’m trying to express here. The film is distinctly Italian AND distinctly European. The audience I was seeing it with was in tune with both of those aspects of the film.
When I was coming out of the theatre two elderly ladies speaking to each other about how much they’d appreciated the film commented on the beauty of Jasmine Trinca who plays Irene, the film’s protagonist. And it struck me that Jasmine Trinca can be seen as the idealization of the Burgos typical woman; dark, short, thin, wiry; not at all the blonde bombshell of Hollywood ‘It’ girls or even dark-haired stars such Sondra Bullock or Julia Roberts. A lack of variety in something as simple as a culture’s offer of projected ideal selves is one of the many things that our film diet of mostly American movies with the odd Brit film quickly thrown in for a short run at our local cinemas is depriving us of.
I had an exhilarating moment last night; no, not one of those; a movie moment, one cinephiles will recognise. I went to the Cine Doré my first evening in Madrid. It’s an iconic cinema that people who’ve never been there might nonetheless recognise from the movies; it’s where Javier Cámara goes to see ‘The Shrinking Lover’ in Talk to Her/ Hable con ella. I like going there because they take great care in what they show and how they show it and I don’t really care what’s on: I’m either discovering something new or seeing something again but often in a better condition than I’ve ever seen it before. It’s a neighbourhood repertory cinema. They charge two euros and you get to see treasures by the likes of Renoir, Kurosawa, Erice and many others. The cinema functions both institutionally as part of the Filmoteca in Madrid but it is also a local cinema, and because of the prices it means anyone can afford to be there. There’s a very mixed audience, young and old, couples out on a date, cinephiles eager to see La règle du jeu projected on 35mm or just people wanting to be out of the house.
The cinema itself is beautiful. A 1912 art nouveau fantasy of dark Arabian nights, gold gilt stars on a dark blue sky, public dreams next to private alcoves as in theatres of old where you can sit around a table with your loved one or guests to see the movie in front and be seen by the hoi polloi below. The cinema I suppose had its own class divisions, ones which no longer apply because of the fixed price but which were interesting to observe nonetheless because the display of such class divisions are at the core of what the film we were all watching was about.
The thrill of seeing La règle du jeu in such a place and with such an audience was to experience a film from another era and from another culture enthrall and captivate an audience as if it had just been made now, about the world we live in and especially for us. The audience responded to everything in the film and one moment in particular that simply rocked the house: it’s where, upon finding that his childhood friend, the Marquise de la Chenyest (Nora Grégor) is crushed that her husband has a mistress and has been lying to her for the past three years, Jean Renoir himself as Octave tells her ‘But Christine, we’re in an era where everybody lies, pharmacist’s prospectus, governments, radio, cinema, newspapers; so how could you possibly expect for us simple and ordinary people not to lie?” The sense that we expect so little of our rulers and our institutions and forgive so little in each other when really we should expect so much more of our governments and be so much kinder and forgiving about each other. It’s a moment with particular resonance in a Madrid still in the grip of an economic crisis and it felt like the film as a whole was carrying the audience on its wings. It felt like magic about what was real and true. At the end, there was wild and grateful applause, maybe for members of the audience to communicate joy and appreciation to each other, more like a needed release after a kind of exaltation. It was thrilling to be there, to experience, to share in that experience.
Worth noting that we saw a scratched, slightly muddy print, one where the clarity seemed to change from reel to reel and the projection ground to a halt three quarters of the way through, presumably for a change of reels. One could get too hung up on technical perfection. Here it really did not mater. Again, magical.
I’m trying to figure out why I’m so disheartened with the movies this Summer. It’s true that the Season began badly. Marc Webb’s The Amazing Spider-Man 2 was a disappointment. The areal sequences at the beginning were thrilling. Andrew Garfield and Emma Stone have undeniable chemistry and seem on the surface perfectly cast. But as the film unfolded, Garfield’s neediness, couched in virtue, and spoken slowly, with each emotion separated from another by a pause in the dialogue and a shake of the head, ended up seeming rather twee and more than a bit tiresome. It was kind of enjoyable but a bit underwhelming and made one ask at what point special effects detract rather than enhance a production? Whatever that point is The Amazing Spider-Man 2 has reached it.
I didn’t expect much from Pompeii, which was lucky as seeing it did make me wonder whether there was a worse director than Paul W. S. Anderson currently in work making big-budget action spectacle. It was so bad that it was an endless source of good jokes, all of them at the film’s expense. Trying to find good things to say about it, all one can dredge up is ‘Kit Hartington has the best abs of the season and is very beautiful’. But one can stay home, watch Game of Thrones, and get all of that plus so much more.
I thought Gareth Edwards’ Godzilla the dullest blockbuster of the season but then, after yawning for an hour and a half, the monsters finally arrived and woke me up. It’s a movie where everyone seems to have done an amazing job except director, writers and actors (Juliette Binoche excepted). Some of the shots are jaw-droppingly good – the vfx truly astonishing, with the scene on the bridge where the monster rises behind the hero and Godzilla’s arrival at the airport being particular delights. But ultimately, Godzilla illustrates how empty and unsatisfying spectacle on its own can be; that there’s a story-telling dimension to spectacle itself; and that a monster movie that doesn’t scare, doesn’t thrill and doesn’t allegorise with intelligence is not much of a monster movie at all.
Which of the Summer blockbusters have been good? Captain America: Winter Soldier (d: Anthony and Joe Russo) was better than the original but was released in March so probably shouldn’t figure in this account. X-Men: Days of Future Past was fun but all I can remember about it now is the sexual abuse lawsuit against director Bryan Singer that preceded the film’s release and the marvelous scenes of Quicksilver in motion. I loved the glossiness of Robert Stromberg’s Maleficent, the gorgeous design and look of the film as well as Anjelina Jolie’s magnificent performance in the title role. I also loved that it was a Summer blockbuster aimed at young girls and clearly succeeded in engaging them in the story. I was glad to also see that it was a hit. But good as they are, none of these movies have been good enough to get a general audience to line up to see them again.
The best of the Summer blockbusters so far has been Doug Liman’s Edge of Tomorrow and that in itself has proved depressing. Cruise is terrific in it; he and Emily Blunt have great chemistry together; the premise is excellent: like Bill Murray in Harold Ramis’ Groundhog Day, Tom Cruise re-lives the same day over and over but the catch is that he’s got to be shot first. Thus, the audience gets to see Cruise save the world but not before enjoying the pleasure of seeing him killed over and over again as he tries to figure out how to do so. It’s intelligent, critical, imaginative and very handsome to look at. What depresses me about Edge of Tomorrow is that its American marketers haven’t been able to sell it in the States. Seeing Cruise giving a great performance whilst he dies over and over again has not proved sufficient to redeem him with audiences there, though clearly world-wide audiences have been much more forgiving of America’s biggest and most iconic star (the film grossed ‘only’ 95,000,000 in the States in contrast to 350,000,000 it made world-wide).
The most hateful blockbuster of the Summer so far has been Transformers: Age of Extinction: crude, ugly in spirit, a kind of barbarism in culture. It seemed to me an illustration of Adorno and Horkheimer’s argument regarding The Dialectic of Enlightenment: all that science, all that knowledge, all that artistry, dazzling shots; all now directed at destruction, and of ideals too not just of things. It’s a cynical exercise: the chasing of the Chinese market, product placement trying to sell things, sexism, all the crash and bang and explosions and metal twisting, a militarist gun-loving display on destruction: thousands of buildings get destroyed, loads of people die, nobody cares.
The Summer has not been without pleasures at the movies, pleasures often found around the edges of, but in the same cinemas as, the blockbusters. 22 Jump Street is very intelligent about the way it makes dumb funny – Channing Tatum dances and speaks up for gay rights and he an Jonah Hill bounce jokes off each other like seasoned music-hall stars of old. I also loved seeing Hayao Miyazaki’s The Wind Rises which is slow-paced, meditative, poetic, romantic, bittersweet — it had me on the verge of welling up for most of its length. I was also very intrigued by Amini Hossein’s The Two Faces of January, a glamorous, stylish, star-driven murder mystery set in the early sixties with Vigo Mortensen at his very best as Kirsten Dunst’s deceitful, dissolute, and murderous husband.
Even the best of these films however, did not provide the pleasures one usually expect from blockbusters at their best; which is that they dazzle your senses, give you the impression of being lifted from your seat by images and sounds; that the visual effects result in emotional affect; that the visceral kick in the body leave an afterglow in the heart and head; and, that you respond to all of this both individually and as part of a collective that is bigger than yourself; and that this results in such a satisfying experience that you’re willing to repeat it over and over again as the Summer unfolds. No blockbuster has succeeded in doing this so far. Richard Linklater’s Boyhood, an indie just out, does in fact seem to be doing this at the moment but it is not big budget, it is not a blockbuster and will have to wait to be discussed in the next column.
I have now seen Transformers: Age of Extinction which I find crude, ugly in spirit, a kind of barbarism in culture. In keeping with the rest, the ‘girl’ screamed a lot. The only thing barely human is Mark Wahlberg. The rests seem like an illustration of The Dialectic of Enlightenment: all that science, all that knowledge, all that artistry, marvellous shots; all now directed at destruction, and of ideals too not just of things
I went to see it hoping to understand why the franchise remains so popular. I do see that not all expensive movies that make a great big noise and that have shooting flames as a background to people leaping over things are alike; and some of them can be quite beautiful (though of this type of film, I’ve only liked Edge of Darkness so far this year). This is neither beautiful nor did I get any insight into what audiences are getting from it. Plus I mistrust criticism in the press to such an extent (and with excellent reasons) that I think I should check these things for myself and have my own views, which I now do. That’s what I expected and got from seeing the latest Transformers I suppose.
Another reason I go is because when I was young I remember critics saying those Schwarzenegger and other action/spectacle films of the 80s were the way I now see the Transformer films and I think some of the Schwarzenegger films are some of the great masterpieces of the cinema so I keep thinking maybe I’m missing something:
Terminator, Total Recall etc. are now recognised as classics of the genre (and this applies to the Robocop, Aliens, Batman etc. as well); so I’m just curious to see if younger people have reasons for loving these films that I’m not getting (I think most people would now agree with me about the aforementioned Schwarzenegger and so on; and I think the older people who dismissed them in the 80s just didn’t bother to look, or look carefully, it was partly not seeing, partly not knowing how to see). So I go to these to find out if I need to learn a new or different way of seeing or whether there’s simply not much to see beyond what I already do.
What I do see is a chasing of the Chinese market, product placement trying to sell us things, sexism, all the crash and bang and explosions and metal twisting, a militarist, gun-loving play on destruction: thousand of buildings get destroyed, loads of people die, nobody cares. I thought this of a show the Black Eyed peas did in the middle of the Super Bowl a few years ago: all military outfits, regimented movement, thousands of dancers, like soulless robots out for the kill; and one begins to see that these are signs of empire in decline; all the filmmakers cannibalise Arthurian legends without understanding what was at stake in them. The Transfomers talk of freedom without taking into account everything they’re destroying to achieve it. It’s like the collective, the common good, a sense of common humanity and individual rights have no place in this vision of the world.
The movie is making money and that is receiving substantial coverage. But there are more important things than money. If what movies say and how they make us feel don’t matter, then movies don’t matter; and if movies do matter, we should care more; and if movies matter as much as I think they do, the filmmakers should be ashamed to put such shit out into the universe. Hardened whores have more of a conscience than is evident in this type of cynical filmmaking.
Early ‘30s drivel. Tallulah Bankhead is Carlotta, a loose woman getting by singing badly and blowing on dice in cheap Panamanian dives. Fredric March is Dick Grady, an alkie bum crawling through the same low joints begging for a chance to kiss the bottle. We’re told he’s beyond redemption but we know it’s not true because we’re also told he’s got a law degree. When Tallu accidentally kills a man who’s trying to kill her, he gets her off even though everyone thinks she’s guilty. The trial wins him a new job and a new lease on life. She in turn changes her identity to Ann Trevor (she lets him choose the name), returns to America and becomes a famous interior decorator. One can see the rest of the plot coming a mile away; in fact, if one cared, one could have figured it out in the first two minutes.
Tallulah’s entrance, false through and through and not un-camp.
This is a lazy treatment of trite material, clearly derivative of Somerset Maugham’s Rain, visually uninteresting and worth seeing only for Tallulah Bankhead, whose career in Hollywood this film helped to ruin. It’s not that she’s good. In fact, she’s rather awful, not for one moment believable as either of the characters she plays in the film, and she’s not even believable in the emotions she’s meant to be feeling. She makes big theatrical gestures, or raises the pitch of her voice for emphasis like she’s batting the point over to the last row, vividly outlining an emotion so that the audience knows exactly what she’s meant to be feeling , doing and why; but the gestures are so broad and sketchy, the line readings so over-emphatic; she’s like vivid cartoon sketch indicating the outlines but burlesquing the interior and performing the dialogue as if it were variety for radio. She’s a star doing a caricature of a person, a High Definition simulation sparking an idea, false through and through and yet riveting to watch. I can’t remember who said of Cagney that he seemed to displace air but Bankhead does it here. Mind you Cagney was honest and true and he incited identification and feeling; Bankhead is completely unbelievable, fake to her last eyelash, but nonetheless inciting admiration and applause. They both have presence and they both have energy.
A star entrance, finely acted
Fredric March is an interesting contrast to Tallulah. He’s given a real star entrance, appearing through swinging saloon doors whilst characters talk about him: ‘what would you say he was?’ asks an onlooker. The camera glances at him once more: ‘oh a beggar, a tramp; ‘a beggar, a tramp and a university graduate’. After we’re told who he is, after the build-up where the supporting actors get to do the thankless work of conveying plot, the scene is set for the star to be this new person we’re told about and to shine, to dazzle us with his being and performing. It’s classic build-up to a star entrance and March gives a lovely performance: restrained, worked-through; there are so many things to admire: the way he raises his voice on ‘just one little scotch’, the way he pushes shoulders back and chest out whilst giving the ‘Oh Mr. James Bradford’ line enough irony make the very name a put-down; or the croak he gives to the Met in Metcalfe; or the way he lifts himself on his toes as he stops himself from saying ‘Hell’. It’s the work of a really intelligent actor with gifts to match. And yet….his eyes never really catch the light. As becomes clear later in the film, he’s a performer who needs to act to be great; he can’t simply satisfy an audience with his being
Freddy disappears from view in a dull scene
When Fredric March isn’t given something to do, he becomes dull, fades from the screen. A good example of this is the scene where, after he’s saved her and after she’s built a new identity and career in New York, they meet by chance at a pool party (see clip above). The dialogue is trite. It’s shot by a stage director who clearly doesn’t know how to stage a scene for the camera so we end up with most of it in a static medium shot. Once again, you never see his eyes, and I do think it’s partly do with their being deep-set and partly to do with him maybe not knowing enough about the camera to move them in the direction of the light; but worse actors than he are more watchable when they have nothing to do (think not only of stars like Cooper but even ‘charm’ actors like Robert Wagner). Then look at Tallulah, who is better here than she is when she’s given lines and situations of greater importance but still not good: her speaking wobbles between her rich native Alabaman Southern and the 1920s English upper-class miaul we now associate with the Mitfords, she over-emphasises her speech and her gestures yet…she looks lovely in profile, her eyes catch the light and she keeps the audience’s eyes constantly on her; and if the film is worth watching at all, it’s because of her though she never once matches the fineness, the trueness or even arguably the beauty of March’s first entrance — something to think about.
George Abbott directed one more film, The Cheat, once again with Tallulah Bankhead, before returning back to Broadway, where he belonged, to resume his legendary stage career; he would yet find a way to delight film audiences, a way that involve the services of Stanley Donen as co-director, in the much under-valued The Pajama Gama (1957).
Post Script: some of you might find this, which suggests how the film should be marketed, of interest:
Laughter is a sophisticated comedy that is also a serious work dramatising the conflict between the pursuit of money and the pursuit of happiness. It’s a vehicle for Nancy Carroll, one of the biggest stars of the 1930s, now somewhat forgotten.
It’s a film that offers many pleasures: the gruff and scatty teddy-bearishness of Frank Morgan; gorgeous Art Deco settings; magnificent Cartier jewels; the kewpie-doll loveliness of Nancy Carrol herself, most beautifully dressed in late ’20s/early ’30s chic; a young and handsome Fredric March ably conveying the weightier aspects of the drama; a soundtrack by the great Vernon Duke that features jazz and classical music, placing both on an equal footing; and even a brief appearance by that film buff’s delight, Eric Blore, here bubbly and lovely, wearing an angel costume and exuding all kinds of gayness. If it weren’t for an undertow of sadness that seeps right through all levels of the film, Laughter could almost be a screwball. Certainly it’s of historical interest as at least an early precursor to the genre.
The received wisdom regarding early talkies is that sound recording was then so cumbersome and primitive that it restricted camera movement and diminished cinema, rendering films static and stagey. This is patently untrue of Laughter.
The first shot (see below) is a long take that begins with a fade-in on a man inside a phone booth filmed from the outside so that he’s framed by the window, saying bitterly, ‘so I can call back tomorrow, eh?’, then the camera tracks to the right following his movements but from outside a corner-shop – he’s inside, the camera is outside, the shop window is the barrier that allows us to see in. The camera then goes past a lamppost to create a sense of perspective on the New York street, keeps the character in the centre of the frame as passersby walk around him and tracks in almost imperceptibly as the character goes into the door of a building door.
In the meantime, St. James Infirmary one of the great jazz songs of the period starts playing extra-diegetically and the camera tilts up to a window as the shot dissolves into the next one and we see the same man entering his apartment and unwrapping a gun. It’s a great shot and a great opening to the film: dramatic, visually arresting, dynamic in movement, exciting to hear. The first shot was enough to make me sit up, pay attention and ask ‘who directed this?’
The answer is Harry D’Abbadie d’Arrast. I’d come across the name before and remembered it for its effrontery but I knew nothing of the man or the artist. A little research reveals that he was a French aristocrat born in Argentina – thus the name — who served in WWI, was introduced to the movies by George Fitzmaurice (director of Lilac Time and Son of the Sheik), went to work for Chaplin, first as a researcher (Women of Paris) then as assistant director (Gold Rush), before directing his own highly acclaimed films, of which Laughter is the best remembered. James Harvey calls his early comedie like Dry Martini and A Gentleman of Paris ‘Lubitsch-like’ (p. 78). D’Abbadie d’Arrast married Silent Film Star Eleanor Bordman, stopped directing films in Hollywood in 1933 (Topaze, with John Barrymore and Myrna Loy, is the last Hollywood film credited to him) and died in Monte Carlo where he’d been working as a croupier. There’s an interesting biography to be written about him and I hope someday someone does.
Like with Lubitsch’s The Marriage Circle, Laughter is structured around five central characters: ex Ziegfield chorus girl Peggy gave up pennyless musician Paul Lockridge (Fredric March) for rich industrialist C. Mortimer Gibson (Frank Morgan) but is finding the marriage so unsatisfying she’s having an affair with a sculptor, Ralph Le Sainte (Glenn Anders), who’s so crazy for Peggy he first threatens suicide over her and later tries to emulate her by also marrying for money with Mortimer Gibson’s daughter, Marjorie (Diane Ellis). Five characters, six potential couples, one dilemma: to choose laughter and love or to go for the cash and all that goes with it?
I was surprised to see how much Pauline Kael loved Laughter, calling it ‘an ode to impracticality.’ She didn’t usually have much patience for the type of movie that starts with a poor artist in a garrett speaking poetically to a statue of his beloved about the depth of his love for her and the hopelessness of life whilst feeding us all the background we need to follow the story that unfolds, even if it is as beautifully shot as it is here. Glen Anders is almost as expressive as the piece of marble he’s speaking to and luckily for us the picture doesn’t stay on him for very long.
From the beginning we know Peggy and the poor sap of a Saint are having an affair. Clearly the Cartier jewelery her husband is giving her is not enough to keep her happy. C. Mortimer Gibson can’t give Peggy what she wants; and Peggy can’t give Ralph La Sainte what he wants either — everyone’s unhappy. It’s at that moment that Paul Lockridge arrives from Paris to turn everything upside down; he’s the catalyst for change and he’s given an entrance worthy of the conflict he’ll cause.
Paul is Peggy’s ex, a musician, and only recently returned from Paris. The pace at which March makes his first appearance, walking briskly through the New York penthouse, is a pace then much admired by Europeans who found its energy unusual and energizing. Noel Coward returned to England from New York in the early 20s insisting that his plays be spoken faster and that the actors move more briskly, at a New York pace, at the pace of the jazz era if not of jazz itself. Speed, energy, New York as a metonym for America, modernity, democracy, potentiality: there’s something in March’s walk, the sunny transparency of his face and the intensity with which he speaks in his first entrance in that early scene that evokes all of that.
When Peggy’s butler insists on a calling card, Paul writes his name on the Butler’s starched shirtfront. When the butler presents this greeting to Peggy, she writes that she’s out on the same same shirtfront, letting Paul know that she’s in but doesn’t want to see him. Whilst she goes for her assignation with Le Sap, I mean Le Sainte, Fredric March shows he’s a democrat and oblivious to her wealth by going into the kitchen, speaking on familiar terms with Pearl, Peggy’s maid, who he clearly knows from before, grabbing a chicken leg and going to play classical music duets with the butler whilst having a beer, which is where Peggy’s husband finds him.
Paul’s breezyness is visualised for us by the nonchalant yet well-aimed throw of his hat onto a deco sculpture of frolicking nymphs, an image that recurs often in the Laughter. Much is made too of C. Mortimer Gibson trying to remove the hat from such placements, of his awareness of appearances, surfaces, place and position and his sensitivity to the restrictions imposed by correct adherence to convention.
The film rather exhibits a rich person’s idealization of the pleasures of third class travel and all that it connotes. Laughter is a film for the ‘common man’ but is not against the rich. And perhaps the latter has something to do with the film’s conceptualisation of average people as ‘poor’ artists who can afford to live in Paris working at their love, art and drinking without having to be stuck washing dishes at the Ritz like Orwell’s down and outers.
There are two scenes that are meant to evoke the price Peggy is paying for the penthouse and the Cartier bracelets. The famous one is the scene where Peggy and Paul break into someone’s house, frolic under bearskins and get arrested for breaking and entering.
Before that, however, there’s the marvelous scene after Peggy’s picked up her step-daughter Marjorie from the Ocean liner after returning from her Paris sojourn and we see the customs people confiscating all the liquor Marjorie’s tried to smuggle in. Marjorie and Peggy are both the same age, two jazz babies with cropped hair who like to smoke, drink and dance. One of them still can.
When they return to the penthouse, they find Paul at the piano and Marjorie asks him, ‘do you know “Raring to Go”’? He sure does. As the stuffy millionaire looks on bewildered, the three young ones let themselves go to the beat and the rhythm of the jazz, Paul playing, Peggy and Marjorie dancing with abandon, letting go of place and position in a moment that Pauline Kael has called ‘one of the loveliest, happiest moments in the movies of this period (see clip below).’ It’s a moment of joy, a moment of sensuality and of youth, the likes of which Peggy doesn’t get to experience much anymore.
These two moments of escape can be interestingly considered alongside the two speeches that put across the film’s meaning. In the first of those, after the bear-skin frolic, as they are taken home via police escort, sirens blaring, March says, ‘You can’t go on with this, with everything that it stands for, that noise, that, money that power….I want to tell you that you’re dying…You’re having a ghastly time, you’re whole life is false. Nothing you do is really you. God didn’t want you to live like this. You’re dying from want of nourishment, from want of laughter. You were born for laughter. Nothing in your life is as important as that. Laughter could take that whole life of yours — that house, those jewels — and blow them to pieces. You’re rich. You’re dirty rich. Nothing but laughter can make you clean.’
Fredric March is magnificent saying this. He doesn’t make a meal of it. In fact he underplays it. It’s a long soliloquy but filmed as a two-shot with Nancy Carroll as Peggy listening in so we’re permitted to see her reaction to what he’s saying. But March is the one who has to deliver, sustain and holds the quite long shot, and stay in character whilst giving meaning to the lines and putting across all the metaphors and symbolism whilst conveying the sense of a person speaking rather than an author dramatising the play’s central theme (and I use the word ‘play’ advisedly) in a speech rather weighted down by poetry, .
March is rather brilliant with it. As he’s had to be in the film as a whole because what he represents, and what he’s convincingly conveyed, is a combined alternative to both a man who can make $8,450,000 in one afternoon AND another artist at least as talented as he who, on top of that, is willing to top himself for love of Peggy. But this moment, this speech on how the lack of laughter is causing Peggy to die inside, is also the moment the film loses its audience. Can you imagine audiences in 1930, a year after the crash, pre-New Deal, no social security to speak of, Hoovervilles sprouting everywhere, apple-sellers appearing out of the wood-work, trains full of vagrants criss-crossing the country in search of work…and here are these rich people living in Art Deco penthouses above the clouds and wearing Cartier jewels moaning about how terrible their life is because they don’t have laughter?
Later, when Carroll is given a similar speech to say to her husband as reasons for leaving him, ‘laughter’ has been replaced with ‘love’. The film treats them as two sides of the same coin, different but inseparable. By then love has become a matter of life and death. St. Sculptor who speaks to statures and can’t quite bring himself to marry for money, has killed himself for love of Peggy, removing him from the picture, removing the threat to the Gibson name his marriage to Mortimer’s daughter would have represented, and removing the only other obstacle, aside from her husband, to Peggy’s getting together with Paul.
It’s worth mentioning that the film was written by Donald Ogden Stewart, an East Coast Main Liner, a liberal later to be blacklisted in the McCarthy era for his politics, a writer famous for the breezy elegance he brought to Philip Barry film adaptations such as Holiday, The Philadephia Story, andWithout Love but also famous in his own right as a writer of sophisticated comedy prized by collaborators such as Lubitsch (That Uncertain Feeling), Leo McCarey (Love Affair) and especially Cukor (Dinner at Eight, Keeper of the Flame plus all the Barry adaptations). It’s worth mentioning because some of themes seen here rhyme with those of Holiday especially but also those in Without Love and one even finds an echo of March’s ‘Laughter’ speech in the ‘Fires Banked Down’ speech that James Stewart speaks to Katharine Hepburn in The Philadephia Story. The writers involved may be one reason why Kael saw a connection to later screwballs.
There’s a wonderful coda at the end of Laughter: Paul and Peggy are snuggling in a sidewalk café in Paris and basking in the glow of being called ‘les amoreux’ . In fact they’re now married, blissfully planning on making love and music together, when Nancy’s eyes suddenly alight on a woman’s wrist. We see what she sees in a close-up: row upon row of glistening diamond bracelets. She can’t keep her eyes off of them until she notices Paul looking at her, ‘I didn’t say anything’ she says giggles before they laugh and kiss. But love and laughter aside, the audience senses that Paul better find a way of getting her a penthouse and some bracelets pronto. It’s no surprise that Herman Mankiewicz, co-writer of Citizen Kane and producer of this one, late in his life remembered Laughter as his favourite film. It’s a pretty dazzling one.
The film got good reviews but was not a popular success. According to James Harvey in Romantic Comedy in Hollywood, ‘Six years later, during the heyday of screwball comedy, Herman Maniewicz recalled Laughter to an interviewer – ruefully. Reflecting on the success of such later films as It Happened One Night and My Man Godfrey, Maniewicz told the press: “we” did it firs, Laughter was “the original of this madcap type of screen story (pp.78-79).”‘
The Fault in Our Stars is not as retchingly bad as I expected it to be. Beautiful young people do die of cancer of course; and not before they LOVE and suffer tremblingly to an exquisite soundtrack full of the very saddest songs. However, Wilhelm Defoe appears as the emotionally closed-off, selfish artist who listens to Swedish rap and represents everything that’s horrible, which is to to go such lengths to avoid pain that one ends up not feeling at all. He hasn’t quite lost his Green Goblin attitude and is great fun to watch. Shailene Woodley is brave yet vulnerable, all through a constant trickle of tears. Luckily she also manages to be spiky enough to avoid being cloying; it’s a difficult part and she’s wonderful in it. Laura Dern and Sam Trammell are perfect parents and thus annoying but much less so than they could have been. My eyes did well up a little and I did find it manipulative but that’s what goes to one of these movies for – to cry; which is not to say that the filmmakers couldn’t have earned those tears more honestly and more imaginatively. What I liked best was the witty visualizing and pacing of the text and e-mail messages – a delight. As for the rest … Seeing it as a treatise on the true meaning of life will result in inevitable disappointment. However, as emotion porn for the stony-hearted, it offers its share of interest and pleasures. Going to see this type of movie does require a ‘love-means-never-to-have-to-say-you’re-sorry’ attitude. I didn’t love it. But I’m not sorry I saw it either.
A legendary film, difficult to see until now, and worth watching for many reasons: it’s adapted from the Kaufman and Ferber Broadway hit from 1927 and is based on the Barrymores; it makes one understand why Ina Claire was a Broadway superstar and then considered without equal in light comedy, something heretofore hard for me to grasp having seen her only in supporting parts, even when she’s been very good in them, like in Ninotchka; it’s one of the films directed by George Cukor in his first year as a film director, was a hit, and paved the way for the type of brilliant career he would go on to have, often mining a similar vein of sophisticated comedy — themes of the relation between theatre and life, women’s struggles with being and doing; it’s a pre-code film with quite daring moments (March undressing, March playful with sexual orientation, March patting a man in the bum); the film skews the traditional placement of gender in film where men do and women are there to be looked at — here women do and feel; March in the Barrymore role is put on all kinds of display, including sexually; the film is enveloped in an oblique but nonetheless evident haze of aspects of gay culture — camp, innuendo, the theatrical, the performative, the excessive (and this includes the male flesh on display)
The most famous scene in the film is March’s entrance (see clip below), which begins as a coup-de-théâtre, where everyone’s looking in his direction. We see someone swathed in fur and then March-as-Barrymore is revealed, and is revealed to be as theatrical as the famous profile he is impersonating. It’s the entrance usually afforded stars, and the role, a handsome bigger-than-life rake of a film star, attracted all kinds of theatre actors who looked down on cinema, weren’t afraid to be theatrical and weren’t yet top-ranking stars themselves (Laurence Olivier played the part in the West End). March’s success in it won him a Paramount contract.
The scene is also famous because of the crane shot that follows March after his entrance from the stairs and into the bathroom as he undresses. According to Arthur Jacobson, ‘We didn’t have such things as camera cranes in 1930, so we had to figure out how to do it’ (loc 1020). They did it with a forklift and moved the camera backward and forward by having about twenty men pushing it. It’s worth it. The scene dazzles technically — appealing to those interested in the development of film as an art form in the era of sound – and for rather more base motives, as March does a little strip-tease throughout the scene, including a little flash of bum, and then quite a tease of the opening and closing of the shower door, a tease at the audience with perhaps an attempt to mask the suggestiveness of the scene, whilst having the peekaboo take place during a conversation with his mother and his sister, which of course is also motivated via the representation of the particular, and particularly titillating, mores of theatre and bohemia. Very much worth a look.
Charles Tranberg, Fredric March: A Consummate Actor Duncan, Oklahoma: BearManor Media, loc. 1020 in Kindle.