April 2009


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Year: 1931

Director: Ernst Lubitsch

Cast: Miriam Hopkins, Maurice Chevalier, Claudette Colbert

I’ve commented numerous times on these boards on how much I dislike Mo Chevalier. I saw a thread the other day entitled “Celebrities you’d like to punch in the face” and the French actor came immediately to mind. So it is a measure of my devotion to the great Hopkins that I would sit through another musical with him as a headliner. And am I glad that I saw The Smiling Lieutenant last night! It was brilliant.

The movie’s setting is Vienna, early 20th century. Chevalier plays a young lieutenant named Niki who is a real wolf with the ladies. He joins a friend for an adult beverage at a local beer garden and comes across a beautiful violinist known as Franzi (Claudette Colbert). She is performing on stage with her band The Swallows and her playing is mellifluous. Even during the number Franzi and Niki are flirting via eye contact. The two strike up a scorching romance and it would seem that the lieutenant’s lecherous ways have been thrown aside. One day while attending a royal entrance as platoon leader, Chevalier’s character spots his sweetheart waving at him from across the street. Since he is standing at attention, he can only smile and acknowledge her with a wink. At that very moment, Princess Anna of Flausenthurm (Hopkins) is passing by in her carriage and she mistakenly takes Niki’s wink as a lewd gesture meant for her. She is outraged and impresses upon the king — her father — the importance of a punishment for this insolent military man.

When Niki reaches the Viennese royal home where Anna and her father are visiting for diplomatic reasons, his smooth charm and excessive compliments toward Hopkins’ character slowly win her over. Forget punishment, the princess wants Niki all for herself. Without consulting the lieutenant himself, Anna demands that the king let her marry the lowly military man “… or I’ll marry an American!” Our lead is railroaded into a marriage he never wanted and he is heartsick for his beloved Franzi. Chevalier’s character is miserable with his new bride and despite her advances, he fails to consummate the marriage. Beside herself with grief, Franzi goes to the Flausenthurm castle to appeal to the princess. When she sees Anna, Colbert’s kind character sees how sweet and really naive the young girl is. The princess bears her soul to Franzi about Niki’s lack of sexual interest in her. Since this is a Lubitsch musical, the two girls have a bonding experience through their mutual love of music culminating in the wonderful tune “Jazz up your Lingerie.” The ending involves a selfless gesture and such an original twist that it could only have come from the Pre-Code era.

The Smiling Lieutenant is by far the best example I know of “The Lubitsch Touch.” There is an opening scene where a taylor seeking payment rings Niki’s doorbell several times and leaves when the door goes unanswered. Immediately afterword a beautiful young woman clandestinely gives a secretive knock on the same door and the lieutenant lets her in at once. There is a pause and then Lubitsch’s camera pans to an overhead light that suddenly illuminates. There’s also some clever business about the location of the pillows on the royal bed. Another hilarious sequence captures Niki as he is hounding Franzi for sex. She playfully suggests that they play checkers and she sets the board on the table. Chevalier’s character tosses it on the floor. She then sits next to the game board patiently waiting for him to join her. This flirtaiton continues around the room until the lieutenant brazenly tosses the board onto the bed. After a holding closeup shot of the bed, the two lovers look at each other with big grins.

If I were to rate this film it would be in my top five Hopkins pictures. As good as Chevalier and Colbert are, Hopkins is unbelievable as Princess Anna. Her transformation at the end of the picture is unforgettable and it is pure Lubitsch. See this great musical and you won’t regret it.

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Year: 1932

Director: John Cromwell

Cast: Miriam Hopkins, George Bancroft, Alan Mowbray

What’s with the weird title given the subject matter? I guess this was a rushed second choice to the original (Red Harvest) because they didn’t want any confusion with Daishell Hammett’s popular novel by the same name which had been published just three years prior. To be honest, if this wasn’t Hopkins in a steamy Pre-Code film, I probably wouldn’t have watched it after reading the synopsis. MH plays a Tsarist aristocrat on the lam with some of her contemporaries. The setting is during the 1919 Russian Revolution and the Red Brigade is looking to execute any of the monied classes of the current regime. They manage to narrowly escape via a train car to a safer city behind the skirmish line. Once settled, the privileged waste no time resuming their nonstop lifestyle characterized by black-tie dinners and the consumption of copious amounts of expensive wine and fine foods.

Kylenko (George Bancroft) is the leader of the Resistance and he and his minions descend on all this decadence with other ideas in mind. They crash the glamorous upper class setting and vulgarly grab the food right off people’s plates and brazenly mock the entitled. There is mayhem with frightened diners running everywhere. Except for Maria (Miriam Hopkins). She defiantly stays at her table and stubbornly orders the ruffians out of the establishment. The mob find her insolence under the circumstances humorous and Bancroft’s imposing soldier takes an immediate interest in the sexy aristocrat. He learns later that Maria was not born into wealth but managed to maneuver the class waters between the wage-earner and privileged sectors of Russian society. The Brigade takes its prisoners on a ship set to sail for a Revolutionary stronghold, where their captives will face trial for their lives.

Hopkins’ character and her friends realize that they must somehow get the ship turned around and headed to a friendly port along the Crimean coastline. They devise a plan to fool the navigator by messing with the ship’s compass so that it will display the opposite direction that the vessel is actually traveling. There’s just one problem: they need a diversion and her name is Maria. She pretends to have come to her senses and confesses to Kylenko that she knows her place is alongside her people. To prove her newfound loyalty, Maria makes it clear that she will sleep with him as a gesture of earnestness. The viewer witnesses some pretty intense Pre-Code moments when the elegant Ms. Yaskaya looks doomed to service this sweaty cad.

I was quite surprised when I saw the quality of this picture. The performances of the headliners are excellent and this happy outcome is in no small matter due to Cromwell’s deft handling of two tremendous egos. Bancroft’s temper was legendary and we’ve already covered Hopkins’ endless demand for retakes. The double entendres used by Hopkins are exquisite in their Pre-Code sumptuousness. There is another great scene where she continues to play the piano as if she hasn’t a care in the world while everything around her is in chaos.

By James White

I think that movie blogs, and classic movie blogs in particular, could really use a lot more attention and I really want to help do that in some way. So I’ve decided to (a) look around the web a lot more for great classic film sites and blogs and (b) make a post about them whenever I add them as a link.

So today I have two links to share. They found me, though, and asked to be linked, and after looking at their sites I am more than happy to do so.

Radiation Cinema is even more niche than we are here at Obscure Classics. Mykal Banta writes all about the science fiction B-movies of the 1940s and 1950s. He’s got some amazing and in-depth writeups on movies like I Married a Monster From Outer Space and The Alligator People. The site itself is also pretty damn good looking.

l’eclisse is a more general classic film blog. It’s relatively new, but it already has some very nice content. It seems there’s a lot of attention for Louise Brooks over there, which is pretty awesome. Go visit and give this young blog some love.

I just wanted to pass this link along for anyone who doesn’t frequent the Rotten Tomatoes forums. I’m doing an insanely intense thread on pre-code film, not just about the movies, but also the history and its influence. Once I finish it, I might post some of it here (but really, looking at all that I have so far, it might end up being the size of a small book). But I just wanted to post this link here so that anyone interested in pre-code film and history can take a look.

http://www.rottentomatoes.com/vine/showthread.php?t=676797&page=1&pp=30

Let’s not kid ourselves. John Gilbert is, without a doubt, Greta Garbo’s greatest co-star. The two had a sizzling onscreen chemistry that’s difficult to match. It’s that chemistry that makes their films, Flesh and the Devil, one of the sexiest movies ever made, even after over 80 years. That onscreen chemistry leaked into the stars’ offscreen lives, and the couple carried on an affair that both delighted and disturbed Louis B. Mayer.

But Garbo had a longer career, with a lot of different costars. She starred with Melvyn Douglas three times, twice in comedies and once in a psychological drama. Her pairing with Robert Taylor in Camille is much loved (they were feature in TCM’s recent book “Leading Couples”). She adored John Barrymore, her costar in Grand Hotel.

I’m particularly fond of her pairings with Conrad Nagel, a costar who doesn’t get enough attention in Garbo’s canon (really, he’s an actor who doesn’t get enough attention in general). Nagel, like Garbo, had a unique look and a smoldering screen presense. He wasn’t of any strange or exotic nationality like Garbo was. He was born and bred American. But the silent screen helped to give him an interesting and sensual presense.

Garbo and Nagel starred in two films together, The Mysterious Lady and The Kiss. Strangely enough, despite the fact that both stars went on to have successful sound careers throughout the 1930s, and remained on MGM contract, they never made a talkie together. (In fact, the only silent leading man of Garbo’s that she made a talkie with was Gilbert, when she tried to help revive his career with 1934’s Queen Christina). Perhaps that’s a good thing, though. As wonderful as they both were in sound films, they both underwent an inevitable change in image with the transition to sound. Perhaps they wouldn’t have been as wonderful actually talking to each other.

The Mysterious Lady is often overshadowed by the similar Garbo film Mata Hari from five years later. The Mysterious Lady, though, is a much, MUCH better film. Garbo plays a sexy spy lady who seduces secrets out of soldier Conrad Nagel, only to fall in love with him while doing so. It features an incredible introduction scene for Garbo, where Nagel walks into a box at the theater to see Garbo sitting there, beautiful and completely enraptured in the opera being performed in front of her. In fact, I don’t think Garbo was ever filmed or lit more carefully and lovingly as she was in this movie.

Overall, it’s just an incredible looking movie. There’s such a mysterious and romantic atmosphere established with the lighting and cinematography. The way light and shadow is used works brilliantly for both a spy thriller and a romantic tale. There’s one particular romantic sequence, in which Garbo is seducing Nagel, where she is lit only by candlelight. She never looked so luminous.

With their smoldering chemistry, Nagel and Garbo give their characters so much tension and sensuality. They love and hate each other all at the same time, and both actors are able to perfectly sell the intensity of both emotions. Without a single word, they pass feelings between themselves and the viewers using just their eyes. Anger, desire, lust, longing, hatred. Just subtle facial ticks that speak volumes, and creates a much sexier film than any other kind of physicality ever could.

Nagel and Garbo’s second pairing was in 1929’s The Kiss. It was the last silent film Garbo made before making her transition into talkies the next year, as well as being the last major film of the silent era. Garbo plays a woman married to a wealthy man. She begins a flirtation with a very young Lew Ayres. When her husband catches them kissing, a struggle occurs and her husband is shot. Nagel must then defend Garbo, who he’s loved for some time, in court.

While it’s not nearly as intense or romantic as The Mysterious Lady, The Kiss is an exceptionally good looking movie. It was directed by Jacques Feyder, who was a visual master. The domestic scenes with restless housewife Garbo are intentionally cold and lifeless. It’s beautiful, of course, but it’s a cold beauty. Even her moments with Ayres have an empty feeling to them. Though his friendship does bring her joy, the infatuation is very much one-sided, so there isn’t much feeling on Garbo’s part, and that’s reflected by her surroundings. The courtroom scenes are remarkable, empty space and large objects making the room unbelievably intimidating.

Garbo and Nagel aren’t quite as smoldering here as they are in The Mysterious Lady, but then they’re not supposed to be. There’s a lot of restraint going on between them, and they’re able to express a great deal of feeling going on beneath the surface. He brings out the life in her which is missing with her husband, and Garbo glows in Nagels presense.

These two were a great silent team, and if you ever get the chance to see these movies, take it.

By Katie Richardson