In the 1930s, even stars who couldn’t sing gave musical numbers a go. Here it’s Jean Harlow singing the lovely Jerome Kern title tune to a splendiferous Art Deco background. You might note from the beginning that Harlow can’t sing. But she is charming and ebullient and when she sings ‘ I want to live, love, learn a lot. I’ll light my candle and I’ll burn a lot/ I’m on my my own if I bruise, I can take it on the chin if I lose,’ you believe her. You might also note the precise moment when the dubber’s voice takes over – it’s when the camera pans down to the cruise-ship set — all deadly technical perfection, a subtraction from the pleasures previously on display. The camera then pans up to a seedier Mexican/Spanish set, where Harlow is marvellously re-introduced by Fleming via a gun-shot – so appropriate a musical accompaniment to his particular star. But then, that damned dubbed voice dampens everything again. And though she’s also meant to be dancing, it’s clearly a stand-in in the long shots and she is recognisable only when filmed above the waist. In the tradition of musicals, where what we see is meant to take place on-stage but the world’s largest stadium wouldn’t hold all that we see — this is meant to be a stage rehearsal with Franchot Tone and William Powell looking on at Harlow. Needless to say, post-code, recklessness has a price: the number ends with her corpse artfully displayed as a chorus sings ‘I waste no weeping, I just keep hoping for one who’s hoping for me.’ It’s a great song in a not-so-great number. But worth it just for those few minutes where Harlow — all smarts and sex-appeal and energy — promises to be Reckless.
Delighted that Mediatico has published excerpts from a diary I kept whilst teaching in Cuba. It can be accessed here: http://reframe.sussex.ac.uk/mediatico/2015/04/20/letter-from-san-antonio-de-los-banos-eictv/
Heaven Can Wait has faults: Don Ameche’s relative lack of charisma, the hideous make-up on Gene Tierney in the scenes where she’s meant to be middle-aged, the garishness of the colour. But they’re relatively minor ones in this great, generous, kind-hearted, loving and forgiving film. Henry Van Cleve (Don Ameche) is naughty but nice and good. Upon his death, he heads to hell, where he believes he belongs. But as he goes over the events of his life with His Excellency (Laird Cregar), it’s suggested that in spite of all his naughtiness, a place upstairs might in fact be more suitable. The same roundelay of women whom he thinks has brought him to hell end up being what might bring him to heaven, or at least it’s waiting room: he was charming and generous to them all and left them with memories so sweet as to be akin to love. It’s a film without villains. What causes pain are desires one can’t control even when it means hurting others, though one tries to shield them from the pain one knows one’s causing. Parents love their children, grandparents are adoring and sometimes even like as well as love their grandchildren. Husbands and wives love each other though there are limits to be set, limits one tries to uphold but sometimes transgresses, which is where forgiveness comes in. People have called this Lubitsch’s ‘testament’ film, not as in the sense of a will but as a testament to his view of life, what he believed was important; and one can’t help but see it that way. It’s certainly a film full of humour, tenderness and wisdom. When I grow up I too, like Lubitsch, want see life in its fullness, including its frailties, its cruelties, and its horrors, but through a loving lens and with a chuckle.
The scene with Eugene Palette and Marjorie Main back in Mabel’s Manse in Kansas, spatting over the funnies, and speaking to each other only through their highly diplomatic butler, is a comic masterpiece. The scene included below, is more typical of the charm, cinematic inventiveness and comic ingeniousness of the film as a whole.
The Merry Widow is a shallow masterpiece. Sonia (Jeanette MacDonald), the richest woman in Warshovia has been widowed, might be hooked by a foreigner and send the country’s economy into a tailspin. Danilo (Maurice Chevalier) gets caught by the King (George Barbier) making love to his wife and the Queen (Una Merkel) is so complimentary that he is chosen to be the one to woo and win The Merry Widow back to Marshovia. It’s a film full of delights; the magnifying glass over the map that introduces us to Marshovia (figure 1), the first meeting between Danilo and the Widow which begins by her reading the letter saying he’s terrific and ends with him following her to the palace and saying ‘I tried to bring a little moonlight into your life…..Forget me – if you can!…and Don’t include me, even in your dreams!’; The montage of black veils, shoes, corsets and dogs that signify her life and whose change in colour symbolises a decision to change that life; How the King discovers his wife is cheating on him — a scene that Billy Wilder used as an exercise with students at UCLA asking them how would they stage it and then showing how Lubitsch did it; the fabulous waltz sequence, with hundreds of dancers waltzing through a palatial hall of mirrors, a still from which illustrated countless early film books (see fig. 1); the charming prison sequence at the end; Sam Raphaelson’s witty dialogue. The film is a delight, a joy, a mini-masterpiece of cinematic inventiveness. Barbier and Edward Everett Horton, as the Marshovian Ambassador to France, are particularly enchanting. It’s only of Lubitsch that one dares ask for more.
The film was based on Franz Léhar’s operetta and was remade by Curtis Bernhardt in 1952. I quite like the Bernhardt version with Lana Turner and Fernando Lamas but to see the two films side by side is to be convinced of Lubitsch’s genius. Both films were for MGM, the Lubitsch version, the most expensive film made to that point and, though a considerable hit, it still lost money.
N. T. Binh and Christian Viviani have called The Merry Widow the quintessential Lubitsch film (Lubitsch, T. &B Editores: Madrid 1991, 2005, p. 160). It contains the elements of spectacle evident in his early silent (from Carmen onwards), the operetta form of his early thirties musicals (e.g. The Smiling Lieutenant) — hugely popular then and unjustly marginalised in historical accounts of the musical genre now — the rhythmic elements evident in all of his great works (note the dance number in the silent The Oyster Princess from as early as 1919), the use of doors, the indirect way of showing, the ingeniousness and comedy that infuses the whole film, the sophisticated comedy of manners of his greatest films (Trouble in Paradise), the great dialogue of most of his great talkies (Ninotchka), the controlled, precise, and poetic imagery of is late masterpieces (the letterbox sequence from The Shop Around The Corner say). One can’t help but agree. The Merry Widow might not be the best Lubitsch – it doesn’t quite touch our hearts – but it is the quintessential Lubitsch in that it delights the eye, the ear and the mind.
It’s so extraordinary to see a contemporary film where one is absolutely convinced at first viewing that it’s a masterpiece, comparable to the very greatest, and a critique of contemporary Russia I urge Americans to see because the US is not producing its like, however much they go on about Democracy. Here, a man who’s built his own house with his own hands on land his family’s lived in for generations is being kicked out of it by a local government politician who acts like a medieval baron. As the film unfolds, one gets a sense of the 99 per cent, not only in Russia but world-wide. Ordinary people, flawed but decent, with modest dreams of a house and children and some dignity, shunted around in a sea of bureaucracy that evokes Tsars and Stalin and Kafka and that not only has not been defeated but has successfully been exported to the west. We see a culture that drinks too much, waives guns too freely, whose external roughness does not negate the depths of feeling these characters have; the bonds they share with each other are complex, the rationale for their betrayals understandable if frightful. It’s a world where the individual is always sacrificed to political interests, generations of lives destroyed on a whim, because someone got ‘uppity’ and fought back. Poetic, with beautiful chosen images, the deadening bureaucracy sometimes evoked by the reading of dull and complex courtroom decisions quickly in a monotone voice, beautifully structured so it builds and unfolds to its inevitable conclusion. It’s a great film; one can’t shake it off; critical, poetic, real, true. Watching Leviathan, understanding and sorrow and beauty all seem to converge in one’s mind and make one want to weep.
Seen at the Glauber Rocha in EICTV
San Antonio de los Baños, Cuba
I recently saw Singin’ in the Rain with friends for the umpteenth time and had a great discussion on how, great as it is, there are things not quite up to the heights of the very greatest musicals much less to the very greatest of films, claims for the film repeated in practically every Sight and Sound list of top films since the 60s. As Peter Wollen writes in his BFI classic on the film, ‘In the 1962 Sight and Sound poll, only one critic named Singin’ in the Rain on his ‘Top Ten’ list. In 1972, there were five. In 1982, seventeen listed Singin’ in the Rain and it now came fourth overall, running immediately ahead of Fellini’s 8 1/2., Eisenstein’s Battleship Potemkin and Hitchcock’s Vertigo (p.52). It’s now a familiar resident of top ten lists, often the only musical to figure.
Someone once said comparing Singing in the Rain to Meet Me in St. Louis was like comparing Kurosawa to Ozu ,suggesting that it was like comparing apples and oranges and yet people do keep insisting on how Ozu is a superior type of…well, director. I do wonder, if the film wasn’t so obviously a loving mythologizing of cinema whether film fans would hold it in such high esteem. The film’s movie love is a driver for their own; one which they eagerly take to.
Singing’ in the Rain has its obvious delights; the opening sequence right up to the ‘dignity, always dignity’ montage is wonderful. Jean Hagen’s Lina Lamont is a treasure above rubies and endlessly quotable ( I am the most brilliant star in the fih-mah-mehnt; I ca-iiint stahhnd it’); Donald O’Connor in general but his ‘Make ‘Em Laugh’ number in particular is a joy; the play on sound and image; the jokes about the mike; the dazzling ending camera movement in the ‘Broadway Ballet’ with Kelly riding the crane and the camera then moving in to his close-up; and of course, the ‘Singin’ in the Rain’ number, now become an iconic metaphor for Hollywood Cinema itself; all are wonderful.
The film is undoubtedly great. But is it as great as all that? When I scare my friends by insisting on showing them the very greatest of musical numbers, I never include any from this film. Moreover, isn’t Kelly just a teensy weensy bit hammy; aren’t the songs a bit derivative and unexceptional?; should the theft of Cole Porter’s ‘Be A Clown’ for ‘Make ‘Em Laugh’ be forgiven?; isn’t Debbie Reynolds a bit too bland to be the new ‘most brilliant star in the fih-mah-mehnt’? isn’t it a problem that the only bits one remembers of that endless ‘Broadway Ballet’ aside from its ending are the few minutes Cyd Charisse is in it? Doesn’t the film’s relentless kidding of Lina Lamont finally turn into outright and unpleasant meanness in the final revelation? I think so.