The Painted Veil

Dullsville

The Painted Veil (1934)

Ah, Greta Garbo. This Swedish actor played foreign women of many origins during her celebrated career and no one in America seemed to mind if her accent wasn’t quite right. She also played parts that took her characters all over the world. In The Painted Veil, Garbo is an Austrian girl who finds herself in uncivilized China and trapped in a story that offers no satisfactory solution to its plot.

When her sister leaves the family home following her marriage, Garbo’s Katrin finds herself persuaded into married life by her father’s scientist partner Walter, played by Herbert Marshall. The man, a bacteriologist, must immediately leave Europe to return to his work immunizing the residents of Hong Kong.

The transition into an eastern way of life is one challenge for Katrin, another is her husband’s abject absence. He is consumed by work developing vaccines, unlike his friend Jack (George Brent), a British attaché at the embassy. Jack, although married, spends plenty of time with the lonely Katrin and eventually corners her into a kiss. An affair begins from there.

Katrin convinces us she is in love for the first time with Jack, but when Walter learns of the affair, he demands a divorce only on the promise that Jack will also divorce his wife and marry Katrin. Walter has no such intentions. Angry, Walter lugs Katrin with him to a rural community that is thought to be the source of a cholera epidemic. The proximity to the disease is danger enough to the woman, who has nothing to occupy her time. Although she has proved herself selfish, Katrin will come to understand her husband’s work and fall in love with him.

Perhaps The Painted Veil would have been a better movie for me if the roles played by Brent and Marshall were reversed. The young Marshall has always been convincing as a suave, yet head-over-heels sort and one we can easily root for. Brent, on the other hand, is so lackluster and grinning in his every role that Katrin becomes clearly wrong in her affair. His behavior at the nearing of divorce is despicable, so he becomes even lower in our perspective as Katrin goes on pining.

Once in the cholera-ridden town, however, Marshall’s Walter becomes equally distasteful as he deliberately treats Katrin poorly. There appears to be no reconciliation for them, but the ending positions Katrin spilling vows of love and worship that seem no more genuine than Jack’s intentions to marry her.

Garbo is beautiful and perfectly dramatic as always, but the story lends little for the audience to cling to. We struggle to find a likeable character as the bad behavior by both men and Katrin’s betrayal of her wedding vows make all parties sinister to some degree. For me, The Painted Veil is a story of misery that leaves one feeling like he needs a vaccine himself.

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Breakfast for Two

Gasser

Breakfast for Two (1937)

     The romantic concept underlying Breakfast for Two is a novel one, and although not executed to the best extent, the idea of a woman who professionally attacks a man with the intent to win over his heart is a great one. This brief romantic comedy of little more than an hour in length plays more as a television show that did not have sufficient time to develop the romance between its characters.

     Herbert Marshall as Jonathan Blair is the careless owner of his family’s shipping business, which is on the verge of bankruptcy while the young man enjoys all the spoils of a wealthy bachelor’s life. We start the film with Jonathan waking after a raucous night to discover a young woman has spent the night in his room. This Valentine Ransome (Barbara Stanwyck) had brought the drunk home only to be trapped in his room by the large dog that growled at her every attempt to leave.

     Jonathan is intrigued by the woman and sends her flowers after their breakfast for two is interrupted by the arrival of another young woman after the man’s heart, actress Carol Wallace (Glenda Farrell). Receiving the gift and hearing from her banker about Jonathan’s irresponsible handling of his company, the wealthy Val decides to stay in New York and declares she will make the man her husband. To do that, however, the smart girl starts buying up stock to the Blair company until she is a majority shareholder. Jonathan is outraged to see the business leave the family’s hands and all the more so that this woman is the one to do it.

     Val also moves into the Blair mansion, but the move inadvertently sends Jonathan to live in Carol’s apartment. The man’s financial circumstances also result in his intention to marry the actress. With Jonathan’s valet, Butch (Eric Blore), helping in her scheme, the wedding is twice interrupted. The first is by a ridiculous clan of noisy window washers who keep disrupting the justice of the peace’s (Donald Meek) attempts to wed Carol and “Joe-Nathan”, and the second is by Butch’s presentation of a wedding license allegedly fulfilled on the drunken night Jonathan and Val met. Our couple get their reconciliation after some physical rumbling and the company is restored to the family that built it.

     Breakfast for Two is a quick, fun romp laced with humor eliciting mainly from the character actors of Blore and Meek. Blore’s Butch appears in most scenes and even though playing his typical part of servant, he embodies a much larger role here than in most of his films. Stanwyck brings plenty of levity to the movie as the young and fun woman who seeks to build her target into a respectable man who will fight for his company. Marshall, as usual, derives most of his laughs from witty dialogue, but he and Stanwyck look good as a couple. If more time had been devoted to developing true emotion between the characters, I think it could be a stellar piece. As it stands, however, much of the motivation is skimmed over to the final product’s detriment.

  • Breakfast for Two is set for 10 a.m. ET July 27 on TCM.

Cinematic Shorts: The Letter

Wowza!

The Letter (1940)

     For anyone who has ever seen Bette Davis in The Letter, I am sure there is one scene that we all retain as the most memorable: the opening one. We hear a shot fired and the camera brings us to a man stumbling out the front door of a house followed by Davis who continues to fire as the man collapses at the base of the porch steps. She pulls the trigger with a cold expression on her face, continuing to squeeze the trigger even after all bullets have been buried in the man’s body. This take has been featured in many movie montages about great films or Davis herself and is utterly unforgettable because of the woman’s carriage and emotionless delivery.

     In these opening few minutes we know that Davis’ character of Leslie Crosbie wanted her prey dead and that he was no stranger to her. We also easily surmise from her later account to authorities that not only is she lying about the moments leading up to the shots, but that this man Jeff Hammond was more than a casual friend.

     When I watched The Letter recently with my mother, I prepped her for the film by describing it as being about a woman who shoots her lover. Although it takes a while before that exact conclusion is laid out explicitly for the audience, it is difficult to draw any other explanation from the outset. Although Leslie acts stressed in telling the police and her husband (Herbert Marshall) about Hammond’s alleged rape attempt, she sort of laughs it off with the words flowing so effortlessly. As sweet as she behaves now, we cannot forget the woman we met in the opening moments whose gaze suggested a cold-blooded killer.

Davis is shot in multiple occasions with the prison-like shadows of window blinds.

     The plot is a well-convoluted story of what happens as Leslie is arrested and put on trial and the one piece of evidence that suggests a different relationship between Hammond and Leslie than the woman has been providing. This letter will take our anti-hero to dark places physically and emotionally, and the surmounting lies will eventually lead to her downfall.

     Davis gives an overwhelming performance as the woman we’re not sure we should be rooting for. She shows us a two-sided personality and draws us in so that we feel as miserable for her deluded husband as her in-the-know lawyer must.

     Director William Wyler paints a beautiful black and white scene for this flick set in the tropical locale of Malay. I cannot imagine this picture in color as it would lose so much of the intensity that the strong shadowing provides. Much of the film occurs at night making us feel as though Leslie has drawn us into the darkness of her world. Wyler also uses the moon’s light as clouds roll over it to both dim and brighten various scenes and capture Davis’ wide-eyed gaze. The Letter is truly a masterpiece in terms of acting and filmmaking.

  • The Letter is set for 11 p.m. ET Feb. 23 on TCM.

Trouble in Paradise

Wowza!

Trouble in Paradise (1932)

When Trouble in Paradise sought to be re-issued three years after its 1932 release, the Hayes Office said: No way. The film that had been alright for release upon completion, if not without some minor, ignored objections, was far too scandalous for 1935 when the Production Code was in full swing. What was Director Ernst Lubitsch‘s crime with his first talking romantic comedy? Obvious sexual innuendos and a couple of thieves who get off scott free.

The subject that most comes up in discussions of the Production Code is sex. Before the code, women could have multiple partners, couples could have extramarital affairs, and the camera, dialogue or action could clearly indicate that a sexual act had just occurred. Another subject that fell under the Hayes Office’s purview, however, were criminal sorts. Individuals found as outright thieves or murders had to be punished –either by the legal system, suicide or other killing. You see this in many of the popular gangster movies of the 1930s and 1940s where our beloved hoodlum James Cagney or whomever gets it in the end. I suppose the message from the powers that be was understandable enough: Do not encourage crime. But those gangster films and Trouble in Paradise with them still glorify and make sexy the criminal aspect, so the restriction seems a moot one.

It was because of the Code’s distaste for Trouble in Paradise years later, which prevented anyone seeing it again until 1968 (with it unavailable on video or DVD until 2003), that this film has gone largely forgotten despite being among Lubitsch’s greatest work and a standout in film history. Herbert Marshall is Gaston who in his Venice hotel room eagerly accepts a visit from Lily, embodied by Miriam Hopkins, a woman claiming to be a countess. A man in another room has just been robbed of a large sum of money by a man posing as a doctor and seeking to examine his tonsils. During their dinner, Lily and Gaston intermingle romantic sentiments and the woman declares that Gaston is the man who robbed the neighboring Francois Fileba (Edward Everett Horton). As you can see in the video below, this wonderfully romantic and comedic scene –flush with “the Lubitsch touch”– continues as Gaston reveals that Lily has stolen the stolen wallet from him. Also pick-pocketed from the couple by each other are Lily’s pin, Gaston’s watch and Lily’s garter –but she is not getting that back. As an audience, we instantly decide that this pairing is perfect and the two will have an adventuresome future we can all enjoy.

While in Paris some time later, Gaston and Lily plot the thievery of an expensive purse from Mlle. Colet, played by Kay Francis while she is at the opera. To their fortune, the woman puts a notice of a reward for the bag that would exceed the amount the robbers could get if they sold it. Gaston returns the purse but during his visit with Ms. Colet, manages to woo her and she hires him as her secretary, in charge of all her financial affairs. Ms. Colet is the head of a major perfume company –by inheritance– and has a board of directors running things who now takes orders from Gaston. Colet also has “boyfriends” in none other than Mr. Fileba, the tonsil victim, and “The Major” (Charlie Ruggles). With Gaston in her life, however, she loses even more interest in the two feuding beaux. Gaston has brought Lily in to help him with his new duties and the two plan to rob Mlle. Colet’s safe once more cash has been deposited there, via Gaston’s new financial orders. Lily begins to get jealous, however, when it becomes apparent Mlle. Colet wants alone time with the secretary. It is unclear how much of an affair is conducted between Gaston and Colet, although they spend late nights together.

Mr. Fileba has yet to identify Gaston as the man who robbed him, and it is quite amusing to watch this fabulous character actor try to pull from his memory whether or not he has met the man previously. Eventually, The Major says at first he mistook Gaston for a doctor, and click Mr. Fileba has solved the mystery. Realizing this, Gaston and Lily plan to get out of town fast with the little money they can take from the safe at present. Lily is home packing but Gaston is getting tied up in Colet’s embraces as they visit each others’ bedrooms in a highly suggestive but funny number of scenes. What concludes the film are questions of: will they steal the money, will Mlle. Colet find out, and with whom will Gaston choose to stay, but I will not give that away.

I mentioned the highly risqué feel to this film, so here are a few examples. The opening title reads “Trouble in”, an image of a bed appears, and then the word “Paradise” shows up. Thank you, Lubitsch for explaining this movie is about trouble in bed. Besides Gaston and Colet responding to knocks at their bedroom doors by opening the door of the other, the end includes an embrace between those two that is filmed through a mirror above the woman’s bed so we can connect their embrace with that piece of furniture. Several edits using different angles also inserts a perfect shadowed silhouette of the kissing couple on the bed itself. Bullseye.

The sexy suggestions are not why one should watch Trouble in Paradise, however, but instead the snappy Lubitsch dialogue that had me laughing out loud throughout. The film is ripe with quick banter among the characters delivered in the most sophisticated manner that makes slapstick look utterly primitive. Apparently, Lubitsch throughout his career would act out every part in a movie to show the actors how to deliver the lines and move their bodies. He had started as an actor in Germany before entering directing there and finishing out the silent era in America, coming here at the bequest of Mary Pickford. Peter Bogdanovich has said that Lubitsch managed to get performances out of his actors that they did not convey in other films, which was likely the result of this control he exerted on the actual acting.

Sources: Peter Bogdanovich introduction on Criterion Collection DVD, TCM.com

Hitchcock Blogathon #10: Foreign Correspondent

Ring a Ding Ding

Foreign Correspondent (1940)

      All Hitchcock movies have an element of humor to them, even the straight horror ones such as Psycho, but none of his mysteries is funnier than Foreign Correspondent. I developed a certain fondeness for Joel McCrea after seeing this one. I would not say the man is a great actor but he is funny, if not dry. Paired with George Sanders, the movie is full of laughs.

     My favorite aspect is Sanders’ character’s name. It’s ffolliott, spelled with two Fs both lowercase because one his relatives was beheaded by Henry VIII and his wife lowercased the letters in the man’s memory. Only Hitchcock would design a joke like that.

     Set just before England goes to war with Germany, McCrea’s Johnny is assigned as a foreign correspondent in England and the start of the film pokes fun at the many English-American differences in manner and dress. Johnny’s first assignment involves him interviewing Dutch diplomat Van Meer, whom he happens to run into on his way the event where the foreigner is the guest of honor. He shares a cab with the man but after they arrive at the event it is announced Van Meer was detained and unable to join the guests. Johnny also meets love interest Carol Fisher (Laraine Day) at the event. Johnny goes to Amsterdam looking for Van Meer, and finds him although the diplomat does not remember the reporter. On the spot Van Meer is shot and Johnny chases after the murderer. He happens to jump into a car occupied by Carol and ffolliott who humor him with the chase that concludes at a windmill.

     The windmill set is quite impressive, full of winding staircases, windows and rotating cogs. Therein Johnny must sneak about past some Germans and into an upstairs room where he finds Van Meer, alive. It turns out the assassinated one was “a substitute” to make it look as though the diplomat is dead when in fact he is being held captive until he reveals the memorized content of a secret clause of a peace treaty. Upon returning to London, Johnny discovers that one of the men at the windmill, a German in a turtleneck, is pals with Carol’s father, the head of a peace organization, he tells the father of the woman he plans to marry about his suspicions. I’ll stop there to save the surprises.

     Foreign Correspondent tends to go unnoticed among Hitchcock’s work but I really consider it among my favorites. It is full of laughs and a story that unravels in typical Hitchcock fashion.

The MacGuffin: Treaty Clause 27.

Where’s Hitch? 12 minutes into the film when McCrea leaves his hotel, Hitchcock is outside in a hat and coat and reading a newspaper.

Source: Alfred Hitchcock: A Life in Darkness and Light by Patrick McGilligan

I will be posting reviews of Hitchcock movies every hour ending at 8 p.m. today, but other members of the Classic Movie Blog Association, which is hosting the blogathon, have plenty to offer also. Links to their articles is up at the CMBA site. Check them out!

The Little Foxes

Wowza!

The Little Foxes (1941)

     To say The Little Foxes is a triumph for Bette Davis is an understatement. The story of conniving southern siblings seeking to further their riches to the detriment of their workers and customers was seemingly designed for the evil qualities Davis brings to her role. Davis begins the picture looking absolutely stunning in very complimentary Orry-Kelly gowns and favorable makeup but somehow as the film progresses, what I first viewed as a gorgeous face turns into a horror-inducing facade. Late in the film she sits slouching in an armchair as her husband succumbs before her with an unmoving expression of surprise and evil that I might never shake.

Regina sits as a statue as her husband stumbles to his death.

     The Little Foxes also marks the screen debut of Teresa Wright. The 22 year old had stage experience but really shows her talent by giving an Oscar-nominated performance as the sheltered daughter who becomes wise to her family’s infamy and develops a spine by film’s end. I have always found Wright to play consistently nice-girl roles, and this spot is no different, yet she really comes off as a master. The star also set a precedent by being nominated for an Oscar for her first three performances, winning one for her second, Mrs. Miniver. In total, The Little Foxes was nominated for nine Academy Awards but won none of them. Davis was given a Best Actress nod and another Supporting Actress nomination went to Patricia Collinge, who plays the air-headed sister-in-law to Davis’ Regina. Collinge is absolutely magnificent and at times reminded me of Katharine Hepburn‘s performance in Long Day’s Journey into Night.

     Given the overabundance of fine performances, The Little Foxes has a lasting impact on the viewer. What begins as a normal southern family tale slowly transforms into a grotesque story of greed and manipulation. It is certainly among Davis’ finest work and a must see for any film fan.

  • The Little Foxes is set for 8:45 a.m. ET Feb. 2 on TCM.
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