• Poster of the Month

  • My Momentary Celebrity Obsession

    Click to find out why Marlene has me mesmerized.

  • What I’m Reading

  • What You’re Reading

The Pink Panther

Wowza!

The Pink Panther (1964)

The Pink Panther (1964)

It is not my favorite of the franchise, but The Pink Panther is a treasure all on it’s own. This first in the series brought to everyone’s attention Peter Sellers‘ brilliant character Inspector Jacques Clouseau. But the part of the bumbling French detective almost belonged to someone else. Peter Ustinov turned down the part at the last minute, making way for Sellers. The production crew was so impressed with Sellers’ work that the movie was retooled to involve more screen time for the character and paved the way for the actor to steal the show from the movie’s intended leading man: David Niven.

Niven is Sir Charles who happens to also be a mysterious jewel thief known only as The Phantom. The criminal changes his M.O. with every theft but always leaves behind a white glove with a P embroidered on it. Sir Charles is in the Swiss Alps at the same time as middle eastern Princess Dala, played by the ever-captivating Claudia Cardinale. She owns the most glorious diamond in the world, known as the pink panther because of a cat-shaped flaw in the rosy stone. The Phantom thus plots to get his hands on the gem.

Knowing that where the pink panther is the Phantom is surely near, Inspector Clouseau has taken up residence at the same hotel as the thief and the princess. Little does he know, however, his wife Simone (Capucine) is having an affair with Sir Charles and is helping in the criminal plot.

After gaining an in with the princess by failing to rescue her kidnapped dog, Sir Charles attempts a romantic relationship. Meanwhile, Charles’ nephew, the equally deceptive George (Robert Wagner), arrives at the hotel and stays in his uncle’s suite, unaware of his guardian’s secret identity or his affair with Simone.

The plot to secure the diamond climaxes at a Rome-based costume party hosted by Princess Dala. Two gorilla-dressed men –at one time being Sir Charles and George– attempt to empty the princess’ safe, but she steals the diamond first. The men are nevertheless arrested for the crime and must find someone else on which to pin the robbery. A certain bumbling inspector makes the perfect mark.

The Pink Panther lacks some of the mainstay characters that would come to occupy the later films, such as Kato and Chief Inspector Dreyfus. But the movie succeeds in preempting them with a wife for the clutz. As we see in the later films, no woman is really interested in Clouseau despite his best efforts. With Simone, Jacques repeatedly tries to make love to her only to have his every effort foiled. Her feet are too cold, she needs warm milk, she accidentally uncorks a bottle of champaign beneath the blankets, etc. Capucine plays the role so straight-faced, showing just how patient a relationship with Clouseau has made her.

In one particularly enjoyable sequence, Simone has let Sir Charles into her room via a door adjoining their suites. Clouseau unexpectedly returns and the door between the rooms now being locked, Charles ducks under the bed. Entering under the ruse of a bell boy is George, who has been kept unaware of the affair his uncle is having. Simone hides him in the bathroom, which is sufficient only until Clousseau opts to bathe. Simone takes a bath first, hiding George under the suds. Once Charles as moved to a spot behind the window curtains, George ducks under the bed. This is where Jacques attempts to get frisky, driving Charles onto the balcony from which he ultimately falls into roughly 10 feet of snow. George slips out through the room’s front door once that champaign bottle goes off.

It was not until the second movie, A Shot in the Dark –my favorite– that Sellers amped up the French accent to make Clouseau’s dialogue all the more ridiculous. So some might view his performance in The Pink Panther as much more subtle than the later films. He still stumbles about with the greatest of ease (one cannot forget the spinning globe gag) and dryly accents his every fumble. For instance, when retrieving a sleeping pill from the bathroom for his wife, we hear off screen the spilling of a multitude of pills on the floor. This is followed by crunching footsteps as Clousseau returns to the bedroom. He then walks back to replace the glass of water, again crunching on those pills. Lastly, he steps on his violin on the floor.

Much credit for the comedy belongs with Director and Co-Author Blake Edwards. An expert of comedy in the 60s and beyond, Edwards shows us just how masterful he is in this spot-on comedy. As usual with the director, the opening credits for The Pink Panther are just as humorous as the rest of the film. Done in the cartoon form he would become known for, we feel we are watching an animated episode of the Pink Panther. And no review of a Pink Panther film would be complete without mention of Henry Mancini’s awesome score. Seeing the film’s only Oscar nomination, Mancini creates that unforgettable Pink Panther theme tune and composes with Johnny Mercer the equally infections “Meglio Stasera” song performed throughout the film.

  • The Pink Panther is set for midnight ET March 27 on TCM.

High Voltage

Gasser

High Voltage (1929)

High Voltage (1929)

In one of her first talking roles, Carole Lombard steals the show as a sassy convict in High Voltage. Not quite in tune with the comedienne she would be known as, Lombard uses her looks and attitude to create a character desired by two men: her police escort and another criminal.

Lombard’s Billie with Detective Dan Egan (Owen Moore) are two of four passengers on a bus traversing the snowy wilderness. The jolly yet overly confident stage driver Gus (Billy Bevan) gets the vehicle stuck in several feet of snow just ahead of a storm. Seeing no other option, the party trudges through the white terrain to a small church house spotted in the distance.

The travellers discover upon arrival that they are not alone. Another man, Bill (William Boyd) has been hiding out in the building as he avoids a warrant for arrest. To the new arrivals, however, he is merely some hobo. Bill has a stash of food he is reluctant to share with the new tenants, but agrees to ration the food out for them over what is presumed to be at least a 10-day stint.

It does not take long for Billie to become friendly with Bill, much to the chagrin of Egan, who not only wants to ensure he can deliver the escaped prisoner but seems to have romantic ideas of his own. Billie also takes a liking to the other woman in the group, Diane (Diane Ellis). Also in the church is a banker, Milton (Phillips Smalley). Cabin fever often gets the best of the male characters, some of whose brash personalities are an existing obstacle to harmony.

As the days go on and the food and firewood becomes scarce, Billie and Bill decide to make a run for a ranger station while the others sleep, thus allowing both to escape their raps and be together. Diane falls ill, however, and Billie struggles with her sense of loyalty to the young woman. As the couple steps outside to make their escape –which Detective Egan has noticed– they spot a plane circling overhead attempting to find the lost bus party. The criminals return to their companions to help flag down the plane. The aircraft drops a food parcel and a note saying tractors are on their way to free the group from the snow.

The lovers realize their doomed fate, but Detective Egan attempts to throw away Billie’s warrant and Bill’s “wanted” poster. Bill retrieves the papers and returns them to the officer, thus securing the duo’s imprisonment but with the intention of a future reunion.

High Voltage is not a bad movie. The DVD quality on sound and picture was a low, but the story and both Boyd and Lombard’s performances were worth watching. The poor picture makes it difficult at times to discern the difference among the male actors at times, but one only needs to keep Egan and Bill straight to be able to follow the plot. Unlike the male actors, Lombard pops from the screen with her white blonde hair and dark makeup. She’s sexy and sassy and relatively likeable in the low-class role.

One disappointing story element involves both Diane and Gus falling through the ice while the group is outside getting some fresh air and exercise. The individuals are retrieved and act as though they have endured nothing more than a cold swim. As we know today, the circumstances were likely to spell death given the lack of dry clothes or adequate heating.

The Broadway Melody

Gasser

The Broadway Melody (1929)

The Broadway Melody (1929)

Looking again to a movie that earned Hollywood’s top award but fails to shine against most flicks given that prestige, I bring you The Broadway Melody. Taking one of the early Oscars for Best Picture, the musical contended with a handful of movies that for the most part have failed to maintain their place in history. Had 1929 been a year with a better stock of movies to choose from, The Broadway Melody would not have stood a chance to win.

The movie tells a story that became too common a plot in the years that followed. We meet a performing team who come to New York hoping to make it big on Broadway. One of the set does make a splash but more so with wealthy members of the audience than with general stardom. Falling into the role of a showgirl mistress drives concern and conflict with the remaining member(s) of the troop.

So goes The Broadway Melody. Queenie (Anita Page) is the prettier, bustier and blonder of the sister duo, the remainder of which is occupied by the talented “Hank” (Bessie Love). The sisters have been travelling the country with their song-and-dance show and have landed in New York where Hank’s boyfriend Eddie (Charles King) is prepared to help them make it big with the use of a song he has written: “The Broadway Melody”.

Eddie is immediately spellbound with Queenie even though he is fairly devoted to Hank. He helps the girls get into a show produced by big shot Zanfield (Eddie Zane). As the show opens to audiences, Queenie garners the attention of one of Zanfield’s backers, Jacques Warraner (Kenneth Thomson), who takes her to fancy dinners and gives her expensive gifts. Queenie is moderately resistant to his advances but enjoys the lavish lifestyle. Meanwhile, Hank cannot stand to see the life her sister is leading.

Once Jacques sets Queenie up in her own apartment, the tensions get high among the players and both Hank and Eddie argue to keep the blonde from running off to such an unsavory lifestyle. During these arguments, Hank notices how Eddie feels about Queenie and casts him aside so that he feels free to run after the sister. The two wed, leaving Hank glad she has saved her sister but solemn for her own romantic prospects.

Bessie Love gives one hell of a performance, but nothing so kind can be said for the rest of the cast. Although Love gives appropriately dramatic and heartfelt displays, Anita Page leaves us wondering if she is acting at all, or just delivering lines. Charles King make a decent, friendly man to root for, but he offers nothing special. None can be commended for his or her singing talent.

The Broadway Melody really fails to produce a satisfactory conclusion. Love’s performance has us rooting for her to have a happy ending with her man, and her dramatic display upon giving him up makes us think that any other coupling would be cruel. Page equally fails to convince us Queenie deserves Eddie or that she has anything to offer besides her supposedly good looks. She has an upleasant personality and nearly no talent, so it is a wonder why Eddie want to be with her in the first place. Queenie is such a brat throughout the story that one almost wishes she would get what she deserves from her unsavory relationship with Jacques.

Although some of the costuming is splendid in terms of Hank and Queenie’s stage attire, the production crew really dropped the ball on Queenie’s other aesthetic appeal. She is meant to be shades more beautiful than her sister, but she is nothing special. Her hair often looks more like bed head than an attempt at a fashionable finger wave, and her whole character comes off as sloppy.

The future certainly held much better incarnations of the corrupted-then-redeemed Broadway star story, so there is no sense wasting time on The Broadway Melody even if it is a Best Picture winner.

Cimarron

Gasser

Cimarron (1931)

Cimarron (1931)

This week I will review two Best Picture winners that had they been released in another year would not have stood a chance for the Academy’s top award. First is the 1931 winner Cimarron. This western about settling the Oklahoma territory is also the saga of a family confounded by the husband’s need to roam.

At the picture’s opening we meet Yancey Cravat (Richard Dix) who joins thousands of other settlers in making a run to claim portions of the Cherokee land that would become Oklahoma. He knows precisely where he wants to make his claim and nearly makes it there when a woman –Dixie Lee (Estelle Taylor)– falls with her horse into a ditch. Yancey stops to help her and loses the claim to Ms. Lee.

Yancey returns home to his son and wife and her family in Wichita, where he convinces his clan to move to a boom town in the newly settled land. There the man –already well known to many in the settlement of Osage– sets up a newspaper. He also helps to establish a church by holding a service in the only building big enough to hold all the townsfolk: the gambling hall. Trouble from an outlaw band leads to a standoff at the service, but Yancey manages to shoot the leader dead before he can make a similar move.

Yancey’s wife Sabra (Irene Dunne) has a second child while living in their now very nice home attached to the newspaper office. The girl Donna joins son “Cim”, whose name is short for Cimarron, meaning wild one. It also happens to be a rarely used nickname for Yancey.

Dixie Lee takes up residence in the town, having been driven off the land she stole from Yancey. The man has no hard feelings, however, and readily accepts a friendship with the woman of ill repute, who seems to lead a horde of prostitutes. Sabra is naturally offended by any association between the two.

Yancey next leaves home to settle a new strip of government-released land from the Cherokee without much consideration to his home responsibilities. During the multiple years he is away, Sabra maintains the newspaper with the help of the loyal printing assistant. The children grow while Yancey remains away with no word of his whereabouts. He returns at last, having served in the Spanish-American War, just in time to find Sabra preparing to print a story about the conviction of Dixie Lee as a public nuisance. Being a lawyer, Yancey immediately heads to court to defend the prostitute, winning the case for her.

Next in the history of the Cravat family is Yancey’s controversial editorial supporting citizenship for American Indians who have gained wealth as a result of the oil boom. Sabra opposes the opinion piece and Yancey disappears after its issuance.

Fast forward to the newspaper’s 40th anniversary when the town of Osage is a steel city and Sabra a newly elected Congresswoman for the region. She is given a congratulatory dinner where she talks about the paper and her family, saying her husband is out of town. In truth he has been missing for decades. Later, while visiting an oil drilling site, Sabra learns a man is badly injured only to find it is her long-lost husband.

Probably the largest problem with Cimarron is the unlikeability of the main character. Yancey might be kind to the down-and-out prostitute or American Indian, but he treats his wife atrociously through his repeated abandonment of her and his children. We come to like Sabra quite a bit through Dunne’s wonderful-as-usual performance, but even her tearful reunion with her husband at the close could draw no sympathy from me because the movie did a poor job with their romance. This was no case of lovers who just can’t seem to get their timing right. This was a story of a man too restless to stay in one place regardless of his responsibility to people or business.

Cimarron might hold interest as a story of the settling of a new town and the impact of oil developments in the Oklahoma region, but it fails as a story capable of drawing any emotion.

The Saint’s Double Trouble

Gasser

The Saint's Double Trouble (1940)

The Saint’s Double Trouble (1940)

RKO had three films based on Leslie Charteris’ The Saint books by 1940 and had found a great leading man for the role of Simon Templar in George Sanders. Charteris had come to Hollywood to help make the movies about the rogue detective, former crook and although he would contribute to the story of The Saint’s Double Trouble it was the first movie to not be based on one of the novels.

Perhaps for that reason, the story seems a bit out of joint with the other eight movies RKO ultimately made about Simon Templar. To its credit, however, the story starts out seeming straight forward, becomes confusing, and then reveals its plot ploy: a Saint look-alike.

Templar is in Philadelphia to pick up an item smuggled to recipient and long-time friend Professor Bitts (Thomas Ross). A pouch of jewels were hidden in a mummy delivered to the scientist that the reformed thief pockets easily enough. While at his friend’s home, he encounters the host’s lovely daughter Anne (Helene Whitney), who returns to Simon a ring he once gave her with his initials: S.T.

Also coincidentally in Philadelphia at the same time is New York’s Inspector Fernak, played by Jonathan Hale who repeatedly reprised this role in the RKO pictures. So when Professor Bitts ends up dead outside his home with the Saint’s ring on his finger and a note with Templar’s caricature on it, Fernack’s resistance to intervene is easily whittled away.

Meanwhile, Simon enters the basement room of a bar that is the secret hangout of a gang of jewel thieves/smugglers. The Saint informs his men he will go meet their guest –The Partner, played by Bela Lugosi— at the airport. Not too much later, the Saint returns and inquires of his mugs about the Partner’s arrival, causing great confusion for the men. It is at this point that we start to realize there is more than one Saint in this picture.

The remainder of the plot is an action-packed back and forth battle of wits and fists between Simon and his double, Boss Duke Bates. Anne naturally comes within harm’s way and is saved by our hero, who is captured and escapes from the gang multiple times.

Putting two George Sanderses on the screen at the same time was not accomplished with the same ease technology allows today. Only a few scenes feature the doubles together and are confined to the basement office of Boss Duke Bates. While Bates sits in the background at his desk, Templar is able to stand in front of it with the other two hoodlums. The latter three actors are performing in front of a screen on which the Boss’s image has been back projected. The trick is an obvious one as the background looks fainter and grainier than the real-life actors in front of it. In other instances, a body double is used to duplicate Sanders’ from behind.

The best part of the The Saint’s Double Trouble is the story’s main element, which frankly I did not see coming (despite having watched this movie years ago). Once it hits the viewer that there is more than one Sanders character in the scenario, it forces him to look back at the preceding scenes and try to determine whether the hero or the villain was in play. Perhaps the story is a silly one. The Boss does not realize the Saint is in town even though he is pinning a murder on the man, so it falls to coincidence that Simon is in town at the same time. But there is no coincidence in the stories of the Saint, so we must conclude that Simon has been aware of the smuggling and been following the case all along; however, this story point is not made evident.

Although The Saint’s Double Trouble has no source material in Charteris’ novels, it does tip its hat to one of the books via a newspaper headline reading: The Saint Wanted for Murder. It might not be the best in the Saint cannon of movies, but it is still full of fun with Sanders’ ever astute delivery of the witty dialogue for which Simon Templar is so famous.

The World, the Flesh & the Devil

Dullsville

The World, the Flesh and the Devil (1959)

The World, the Flesh and the Devil (1959)

I stumbled upon The World, the Flesh and the Devil several years ago on TCM in the middle of the airing. What I saw was a man arguing with a mannequin named Snotgrass. You can imagine I was intrigued and endured the remainder of a movie that eventually boils down to which of two men gets to mate with the one remaining woman on the earth, whether she likes it or not.

The story is a post-apocalyptic one. We start the picture with Ralph Burton (Harry Belafonte) who is in a mine when a rumble causes a cave in and traps him underground. For five days he is trapped, communicating with the surface using a radio that transmits his messages but fails to send any back. Eventually, the digging sounds he has been hearing die away. The man escapes on his own means and reaches the surface to find the town utterly deserted. A newspaper indicates a nuclear attack from the United Nations has wiped out the entire world’s population.

Ralph travels to New York City where he sets up a lonely life in a posh high rise and uses his engineering know-how to set up generators. He installs a couple mannequins as his companions. When he gets fed up with Snotgrass, he launches the inanimate man over his balcony. The fake man’s impact with the ground launches a scream from a young woman who has been watching Ralph for weeks. She is glad to find Ralph has not killed himself but is still leery of him.

The two become fast friends and set up an apartment for the woman, Sarah (Inger Stevens), in a separate building. Over time, Sarah grows fond of Ralph, but he is all to aware of the difference in their skin color and his lingering concerns with propriety prevent him from acting on his own feelings.

But when a man arrives via a boat on the East River, the dynamics of the last men on earth’s relationship changes. Benson’s (Mel Ferrer) health is poor on arrival and Sarah nurses him back to health. He is instantly keen on the lovely young woman, but she doesn’t really want anything to do with him romantically, given her feelings for Ralph. The black man nevertheless pushes the two together and avoids them until Benson confronts him about a desire to get with Sarah.

The conflict between the men grows and becomes a shootout around the city. Benson hunts Ralph until the latter gives up the fight. In the end, all three walk arm in arm off into the sunset.

The World, the Flesh and the Devil might be an adequate inquiry into racial issues in the late 50s when contrasted with a brave new world, but as a last-man-on-earth-type story, it is quite absurd. Ralph takes many opportunities to remind us he is black, which is a plot line that fails to hold up today. We cannot help but think him utterly stupid for pushing the issue, especially when Sarah clearly is not concerned with the racial divide. It is rather disappointing to think that when all other humans are deceased that the remaining races will still fail to mingle.

Ferrer makes a wonderful ass and totally hateable character. It is also disappointing that the plot drives our characters to try to kill one another rather than realize the value of another helping hand in a world gone to hell.

Perhaps because of the year it was released, the movie depicts no dead bodies. Although the human race was allegedly wiped out by the radiation cloud that crawled across the earth –think On the Beach– all of humanity had apparently fled the city as a means of escape, leaving the viewer no corpses to view. Cars are left crashed into posts or clogged on bridges and highways, but no one apparently opted to stay put.

Stories about bleak futures have always intrigued me, but The World, the Flesh and the Devil is far from the best of them. The characters are difficult to relate to because of their racial hangups and ugly motives. The plot takes us nowhere profound and offers quite an absurd ending. Oh, and I should note on that point that as our characters walk off into an unknown future, the screen fills with the words “The Beginning”. Too bad all the story has taught us is that another duel is likely around the corner.

The Unknown

Ring a Ding Ding

The Unknown (1927)

The Unknown (1927)

Despite how harsh I came down on circus movies in my last post, I recently enjoyed a very old but very good flick that falls in the sometimes successful circus-as-horror category. The Unknown pairs silent screen great Lon Chaney with a woman with a couple dozen silent movies to her credit: Joan Crawford.

The plot is a great one that scares and upsets the viewer with what is ultimately a very sad story. Chaney is Alonzo, the armless man at the circus. His lack of arms does not hinder him, however, because his feet have become substitutes adroit with such everyday activities as lighting a cigarette.

Also working for the circus is Crawford’s Nanon, who is the pretty girl who has knives hurled at her by thrower Malabar (Norman Kerry). The beautiful Nanon, whose father owns the circus, has had a past filled with the groping hands of men. The occurrences were so disturbing to her that she now fears the hands of all men. Although Malabar is in love with the girl, he sends her running in horror every time he touches her.

It’s no wonder then that Nanon is so fond of Alonzo. There is clearly a stark age difference, but the man has been in love with the girl for years. She seems to cling to him as a sort of fatherly figure, however. One night after Malabar has put his hands on Nanon to her dismay, Alonzo leaves his trailer to teach the man a lesson. We have seen him free his hidden arms from a corset device and now is fully equipped to take on any man. But the person who actually discovers his secret is Nanon’s father Zanzi (Nick de Ruiz). Alonzo strangles him to death, revealing to us why he hides his arms–a genetic defect that has given him a double thumb and can tie him to a variety of thefts.

With the circus disbanded, Alonzo takes Nanon away from the life she has known and tries to start his progression towards a relationship. He ultimately learns, however, she will care for no man with hands. This sparks the idea to have his arms surgically removed. In a very creepy, dramatic scene, Alonzo instructs a surgeon –whom he has coerced into the deed– as to where to remove the limbs. Once he has healed, Alonzo returns to find Nanon has warmed to Malabar and no longer fears his hands. The intertitled dialogue only further drives a stake into Alonzo’s heart as he realizes his grave mistake.

The costuming for The Unknown is magnificent and expertly hides Chaney’s arms from sight while the man is clothed. Chaney plays the part wonderfully, making us feel his anger, his dark side and his anguish. The close of the picture features the actor laughing maniacally as he realizes he has removed his arms for nothing and still has been rejected by the girl he loves. His face is so full of emotion that we can understand without hearing it that his laughter is not driven by joy. Chaney accomplished all of the feet-as-hands action with the help of an actual armless man, who lent his legs for the scenes. Chaney nevertheless is perfectly in synch with the movements so that they do not appear to be coming from two separate bodies.

Crawford really proves herself to be a talented actress in this silent flick. You might not recognize her if you weren’t looking for her, but she makes for a very lovely young woman. Crawford’s character is a sympathetic one, so we hold no malice against her when she opts for the other man.

Source: Lon Chaney: A Thousand Faces documentary

Side Show

Dullsville side show

It seems rare that a really good movie comes out of a story about a travelling circus. The Greatest Show on Earth did it with aplomb, but monstrosities such as Berserk and I’m No Angel leave much to be desired. Then there are the horror movies, such as Freaks,  that achieved their aim well but certainly strayed from the joy we are supposed to associate with circuses. Add to the list of disappointments today’s review: Side Show.

Starring Winnie Lightner as Pat, the jack of all trades at the circus, the story follows the lives of circus sideshow employees as they travel among several towns. The movie only depicts the sideshows –those acts happening outside the big top in the open air and smaller tents of their own. Pat, who resembles a female Karl Malden, displays her important role among the cast of characters when she talks down the drunken owner of the circus, Pop Gowdy (Guy Kibbee). Finances are tight for the circus and some members of the crew aren’t being paid on time.

Pat is in love with Joe (Donald Cook), the “barker” who goes around shouting at patrons to view this or that act. It is clear, however, that Joe does not care as intensely for Pat, despite his promise of love. When Pat’s younger and more beautiful sister Irene (Evalyn Knapp) visits, Joe gropes her while “guessing” her weight before knowing who she is. The attraction is imminent, and Irene wants to stay on with the circus despite Pat’s wishes.

Pat is pretty naive of the budding romance –having hidden her relationship with Joe from her sister– and inadvertently advances it. She sends Irene off alone with Joe to distract him while she arranges a big birthday event. When the duo fail to return in time to see any of the festivities, she is sorely disappointed. It looks like Joe might end up marrying Irene, but he returns to Pat in the end.

The central plot of Side Show is the recounting of a troubled romance with a happy ending. The problem is at no point do we think Joe truly loves Pat enough to marry her. Nor can we picture Lightner as a very good romantic object. She is masculine both in look and in personality –basically running the circus. I found all of the characters difficult to sympathize with.

Adding some light to the cast is Charles Buttersworth who is just another hand at the circus. He is full of one liners, that although they get old, at least add some entertainment value to the movie. His character continually professes his love and desire to marry Pat, and frankly, I would have been happier seeing the woman choose him in the end –if that tells you anything about Cook.

Feature: 31 Days of Oscar

Each February I look forward to Turner Classic Movies’ 31 Days of Oscar and the opportunity it affords me in terms of completing my viewing of all Best Picture-winning movies. But TCM does not make its schedule around Best Picture winners, instead showing nominees and winners in other, sometimes obscure, categories.

I’m not opposing the channel’s approach; however, this year’s lineup provides only three of the handful of movies on my list that need checking off: The Life of Emile Zola, Cimarron, and The Deer Hunter.

I regrettably realized that as many as four of the other movies unchecked on my list are in DVD form on my shelf at home, having been long-ago purchases of my fiance’s. Perhaps this will be the year I tackle those. One can hope!

In the meantime, if you are looking for some insight into winners in the top Academy Award category, consult my list and follow the links to the variety of them that have been already reviewed here. Happy Oscar Season!

Grand Hotel

Gasser

Grand Hotel (1932)

Grand Hotel (1932)

Grand Hotel has the distinction of being the only movie to win the Best Picture Oscar and be nominated for nothing else. The fact that it drew no acting nominations is notable given the star-studded cast, but it is true that none of the actors really stands out. Perhaps they were all too evenly matched.

Grand Hotel endeavors to be a story about the comings and goings in a high-end Berlin hotel, but it belies its own motto –“Grand Hotel… always the same. People come, people go. Nothing ever happens.”– in the events depicted for us. We are first introduced to the handful of characters the story follows via a series of edits between their respective phone calls in the hotel lobby. We learn Otto Kringelein (Lionel Barrymore) has only a few weeks to live and is blowing his life savings enjoying them in an expensive hotel. The Baron (John Barrymore) telephones an accomplice explaining a need for more funds and referencing a theft he intends to commit. General Director Preysing (Wallace Beery) is working to close a merger that will be lucrative for him by relies on his company’s partnership with a French firm. And famed Russian dancer Grusinskaya’s maid telephones to say the ballerina is ill.

The hotel acts as a catalyst to allow the overlapping of these various lives, who infinitely influence one another but then part as they do the hotel. Also entering into the scene is Flaemmchen (Joan Crawford), a stenographer sent for by Preysing. Before he is ready for her to begin working on the merger documents, however, Flemm waits in the hall where she is approached by the Baron with amorous intent. They agree to meet the following evening for dinner and dancing. The Baron has previously met Kringelein and decided him a fine chap, creating a fast friendship. Kringelein approaches the couple in the hall and makes friends of Flemm as well. Also caught by Flemm’s looks is Preysing, once he’s ready for her to begin work.

Before the Baron can meet up with Flemm for a romantic evening, however, he will enter the room of dancer Grusinskaya (Greta Garbo) to abscond with her pearls. He sneaks in through a balcony window –two rooms down from his– but finds himself trapped when the depressed ballerina abruptly returns. In the dark room he sees her contemplating suicide and opts to intervene. In the ensuing hours, the two fall in love.

Flemm has by this time fallen in love with the Baron and finds herself disappointed in his new mood. Grusinskaya is leaving for Italy in a day and in order to accompany her, he must come up with money for train fare, a subject making him rather depressed. Flemm occupies herself in looking after the ailing Kringelein and in resisting the advances of Preysing. This businessman happens to own the factory in which Kringelein once worked and proves himself a royal ass by mistreating him in the hotel. Flemm will nevertheless consider leaving town on the arm of Preysing, but ultimately walks out the doors of the Grand Hotel with another man.

Grand Hotel, which was based on a play, is a great film from a technical standpoint as well as the somewhat esoteric relevance of its story. To the average viewer, the movie comes off as rather boring with seemingly no moral or sense of satisfaction at the close. But the point of the plot is about the random meeting of people and the indelible effect they have on one another. Flemm enters the hotel a stenographer and leaves as a mistress of sorts. Grusinskaya enters horribly depressed with her career faltering and leaves on cloud nine after a fantastic performence the night before. Preysing enters on the verge of a profitable deal and leaves in worse than ruin. Only Kringelein enters and exits with equal levels of joy; although, he departs with more money and company than he arrived. If there is any moral center to the story, it is Kringelein.

As I mentioned, the acting is fine, but you could have guessed that by the cast. This is often thought of as a great Garbo movie, but she does not appear in at least half of the action. Her line “I want to be alone” is well remembered, but not particularly meaningful. Garbo was a big star at this point, but audiences were taking a liking to Crawford by this time as well. The two never appear on screen together and had little to do with each other on set especially since Garbo’s scenes were shot on a separate soundstage closed to visitors. Director Edmund Goulding once described the movie as two stories, both centered around women in crisis –Garbo’s depressed dancer and Crawford’s stenographer trying to scrape her way to a better life– with the Baron to connect the plots. I’m not sure I see the movie in that way because I do not view Flemm as a woman in crisis but as a distinctly different type of person bouncing among our main characters.

  • Grand Hotel is set for 9:45 p.m. ET Feb. 15 on TCM.
%d bloggers like this: