Richard Boleslawski is another of the many, many great, yet underappreciated directors that we love here at Obscure Classics. While he directed a few films in his native Russia (in the area which is now Poland) between 1915 and 1921, his career didn’t really take off until he came to America. His first job wasn’t exactly the brightest omen of things to come. He did fill in work for Erich von Stroheim on the ill-fated Queen Kelly, which was something of a disaster that was never finished. Fortunately, his first job was not an indicator for the rest of his career, and while he never made a picture as big as Gone With the Wind or Grand Hotel, he made many excellent studio pictures before his career was tragically cut short by his sudden death in 1937. A few of his films, Beauty for Sale and Fugitive Lovers, get quite a lot of talk on this site, so here are a few of his films that haven’t received quite as much attention.

The Mystery of Mr. X (1934)
The Mystery of Mr. X is one of the man mystery/comedies to come out of the 1930s, and while it’s not quite as good as The Thin Man or The Mad Miss Manton, it’s definitely in the upper echelon of these types of films. It’s a little bit different than these other films in that its lead character, played wonderfully by Robert Montgomery, is not a detective, or a doctor/detective, or lawyer/detective. He’s ‘technically’ not a good guy at all, he’s a gentleman thief. He gets caught up in a murder when he’s stealing a diamond at the same time a policeman is being murdered just outside the building. Scotland Yard assumes the murder and theft were committed by the same man, and Montgomery is left to prove himself innocent.

His leading lady is Elizabeth Allan, and the two of them share a really wonderful chemistry that really makes me wish they had made more films together. The screenplay sparkles, and Boleslawski easily mixed the humor with some truly suspenseful scenes.

Men In White (1934)
I’ve talked about this movie a few times on this site. It’s a really incredible pre-code film, which tackles some pretty taboo issues with incredible finesse.

In Men In White, Clark Gable plays a young doctor in love with Myrna Loy, but his constantly busy schedule puts a strain on their relationship, and he ends up having a one night stand with nursing student Elizabeth Allan. She gets pregnant and has a back alley abortion, which is predictably botched and she ends up in the hospital, fighting for her life.

Abortion was perhaps the most taboo subject that could be covered in film in the 1930s, and even during the pre-code era, films had to be delicate about the way it approached the topic. The word “abortion” is never used. It’s hinted at without the word ever being spoken. Boleslawski takes a topic that could be sensationalized and tells a very personal story with it.

The Painted Veil (1934)
Boleslawski’s version of W. Somerset Maugham’s brilliant novel The Painted Veil isn’t nearly as good as the almost perfect 2006 adaptation starring Naomi Watts, Edward Norton, and Liev Schreiber. Naturally, the subject matter had to be handled much more delicately in the 1930s. But for what it is, which is basically a watered down version of Maugham’s story, it’s still a pretty good movie, with a really good performance from Garbo.

Garbo plays a restless woman who marries scientist Herbert Marshall even though she doesn’t really love him. This lack of love, combined with Marshall’s constant working, leads to Garbo having an affair with George Brent. When he husband discovers her infidelity, he takes her with him to inland China to fight the region’s illness, assuming they’ll both probably die. But in these worst of conditions, Garbo grows as a human being, as does her love for her husband.

This movie really only tells half the story of Maugham’s novel, leaving us with the happy ending, rather than going past that to the true, tragic ending of the story. But despite the sunny-ing up of the story, Boleslawski’s film does something that very few films at the time did. It takes a very honest and mature look at adult relationships and marriage.

By Katie Richardson

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1932

Director: Ernst Lubitsch

Cast: Miriam Hopkins, Herbert Marshall, Kay Francis

Since Valentines Day is tomorrow I tried to brainstorm on which films I’ve seen that best exemplify aspects of both romance and cinema from Hollywood’s Classic Era. Maybe it’s because I’ve seen it recently or the fact tha I just completed a Miriam Hopkins countdown on another website, but Trouble in Paradise hits the sweet spot. The acting, direction, and narrative thread for this film are such a potent combination that Lubitsch’s great comedy is considered among the best movies ever made. But enough of that already, lets get to the romance: you get two great love stories for the price of one here. Although Marshall and Francis never consummate their attraction physically, the perfume heiress and the thief share several moments where you swear they are making love mentally. It is Hopkins’ grifter that holds the key to Marshall’s heart, however. They were made for each other and when Hopkins lets out a squeal of joy upon hearing Marshall’s commitment, it is an affirmation that romance isn’t dead. If you’re looking for a good Valentines Day movie to watch this weekend, look no further. This is the picture.

Here’s a review of Trouble in Paradise that I wrote on January 15th of this year:

This movie is a scream.

It is said that this is Lubitsch’s favorite of all the films he made and boy, you can see why. If someone were to ask me what the best example of a Pre-Code comedy is, Trouble in Paradise comes immediately to mind.

MH (Lily) plays a jewel thief who poses as a visiting aristocrat in Venice. She meets Gaston Monescu — played wonderfully by Herbert Marshall — the greatest jewel thief in the world who is pulling the same charade. He arranges for a private dinner in his suite. As the two discuss the banalities of being a baron or countess of the aristocratic class, Lily confesses that she found out he really is the great Monescu and not only is she not disappointed, but she is proud of her chosen profession. What follows is a show of affection and then, in my opinion, the best scene of the film. Each thief starts to reveal what they’ve stolen from their counterpart in a strip poker-esque, escalating exchange culminating in a coup de grace for Gaston. These two thieves were made for each other.

The lovers quickly establish a grift partnership and the road eventually leads to Paris. They seek out the recently widowed Mariette Colet (Kay Francis) whose deceased husband left her the largest perfume manufacturer in France. Gaston scams his way into Mariette’s circle via his considerable charm and hutzpah. Having already stolen her diamond-encrusted purse, Marshall’s character returns it only after a reward is offered. So impressed with his “honesty” and candor, Mrs. Colet hires him as her personal business secretary. To set the con in place, Gaston brings Lily onboard as his assistant. When our protagonist learns that his boss keeps $100,000 French francs in her house safe, the prize is in sight.

To really sell the scheme, the jewel thief does more than just flirt with Mariette. He rolls his sleaves up and discovers some improprieties that have occurred under current management. It is clear that Francis’ widow has strong sexual urges where her new secretary is concerned. While Gaston starts out encouraging her behavior as a necessary part of a successful heist, he becomes quite attracted to the perfume magnate. Hopkins’ assistant is quite jealous of all the unprofessional attention this woman is showering on her man. Yet like a pro, she keeps her eye on the ball and gains Mariette’s confidence. When a previous theft victim recognizes Monescu and then the firm’s chairman of the board accuses him of embezzlement, the thieves fear the jig is up. Amazingly, Madame Colet defends her secretary and they are in the clear even if the window of opportunity has shrunk.

Gaston and Lily agree on the big night, one where Francis’ character will be out on the town for a social commitment. But Marshall’s thief, so smitten with his target’s appeal, can’t resist arranging to consummate their mutual attraction. When Lily finds out about this impending tryst, she is furious and steals the safe’s valuables herself. When Gaston discovers what his partner has done out of jealousy on his behalf, he decides to come clean (sort of) with his employer. He claims to have stolen the $100,000 francs himself, confesses that he is really Monescu the notorious jewel thief, reveals that he can prove her chairman of the board has been embezzling funds for years, and that despite all that’s gone on, he still loves her. Lily comes clean and strikes a bargain with Mariette: she’ll give permission to Gaston for a conjugal visit if she can keep the money she stole. At that moment, Monescu realizes there is truly only one woman who possesses his heart. He tastefully declines the proposition and joins his beloved enroute to the next paradise of their choosing.

Right from the opening scene — Lubitsch’s camera establishes we’re in Venice via a medium shot of a trash-laden gondola — we find moments throughout where this great German emigre is winking at the audience. Even the opening title credits begin with “Trouble in…” and you see a picture of a bed before a pause and then the word “Paradise” comes into view. The dialogue sizzles with sexual innuendoes, double entendres, and very adult, intelligent banter. The three primary players are awesome all around. Marshall is especially effective as the handsome rake and irresistable con man. What to say about Hopkins? She’s cute as a button in this great film. To hear her squeal w/ happiness in the final frame when she knows that Gaston is hers, is to experience a slice of heaven. Avoiding Trouble in Paradise is to miss out on arguably the best comedy of the Pre-Code era.

by James White