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Year: 1945

Director: William Dieterle

Cast: Jennifer Jones, Joseph Cotten, Ann Richards

Three years before Dieterle used Jones and Cotten to make his masterpiece Portrait of Jennie, he put together what you might call a dry run with this little gem. Love Letters at its simplest could be called a riff on Cyrano. During WWII, soldier Alan Quinton (Cotten) is writing exquisite notes to the love interest of his buddy Roger Morland — played by Robert Sully. The latter is a crude lothario, lacking in intelligence and grace. His absence of written skills would be a handicap if Alan wasn’t there to do him the favor. The object of Roger’s lust is a beautiful young woman named Victoria (Jones). The two met only briefly in England during shore leave, but Alan’s missives cause her to fall in love with Roger from afar. Cotten’s G.I. — despite his good intentions — finds himself clamoring for Victoria as well, a development that would be difficult to explain to his own girlfriend. No matter, the impetuous Roger marries Victoria making his pal’s conflicted angst superfluous.

During a particular skirmish, Alan is critically wounded and sent to England with an honorable discharge. He convalesces at his parents home in London. With his military identity gone, our protagonist is at a loss to occupy his days. To make matters worse, he finds out that Roger was killed in a marital spat by Victoria. Apparently Roger’s bait and switch did not please his wife. Alan inherits a deceased aunt’s country home in Beltmarsh, a place he used to love as a boy. Having no other plans and just wanting to get away, Cotten’s character decides to take a train and check the place out. His brother suggests they attend a party to celebrate so Alan can leave town on a positive note. The former G.I. is over served during the bash and Dilly (Ann Richards) — the apartment’s tenant — feels badly for the brooding Alan. His drunken confessional concerning the guilt over Roger’s death and the deception of Victoria strikes a chord within Dilly. She makes the connection between his object of desire and her own friend Victoria Singleton. Ms. Singleton killed her husband, went into shock, and was committed to an institution for a year. The young woman has recovered in every way save for her amnesia concerning what happened the night of the murder. Dilly has been kind enough to share her home with Victoria until she decides to move on.

Dilly whispers some clues to the inebriated Alan about what he should be prepared for in Beltmarsh. It seems Roger and Victoria had lived in a neighboring village. The day before his trip, our hero does some archival research on the particulars of the murder. His curious nature and continued jones for Victoria compel him to seek her out. When he finds Jones’ character, he discovers that his feelings weren’t misguided. How does he explain to this beautiful creature of his dreams that his correspondence set in motion events that led to such a heart-breaking tragedy?

One of my local theaters is dedicating the month of January to Jennifer Jones. I’ll be seeing some other pictures and writing reviews as my own tribute to an acting icon. Love Letters has critics who call it sappy, too much like a soap opera. The plot is a little convenient in some key areas, but I found Jennifer sparkling in all her b & w glory.

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Year: 1950

Director: Anthony Mann

Cast: Barbara Stanwyck, Walter Huston, Wendell Corey, Gilbert Roland

Yes, my #1 favorite Stanwyck role is Vance Jeffords in The Furies. The great Walter Huston delivers yet another memorable performance as well, which is appropriate since it’s his final one on film. Babs plays a babe here who has more balls than the men in her life. She’s tough as nails, reliable as a calendar, and loyal to the people she loves. Her dream is to take over her father’s vast cattle empire. She wants her birthright more than anything — even marriage. There’s a great scene where she rides out to warn Rip Darrow that he’s no longer welcome on her property. He doesn’t budge a muscle out of defiance, so she pulls a gun out and shoots a hole in his shirt just above the shoulder. Ms. Jerrods is not one for idle chit chat. One of the most iconic movie sequences is Stanwyck’s character throwing a pair of scissors @ her future mother-in-law. I immediately thought of coffee and Gloria Grahame, realizing that Mann’s scene came first. This is easily Mann’s best western and I love the Stewart films as much as anyone. There is a parallel to Joan Crawford’s character in Johnny Guitar, but nobody plays a strong, agressive female better than Babs.

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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

Year: 1931

Director: Marion Gering

Cast: Miriam Hopkins, Kay Francis, Clive Brook

The director takes an interesting approach to this story by setting it during a 24 hour period in Manhattan. Literally one day, from 11:00pm to 11:00pm. The camera opens the movie with an exterior shot and swings through the window into a posh Park Avenue apartment. A handful of uptight people dressed to the nines are exchanging banalities following the evening meal. All except for one couple: Jim and Fanny Towner — played by Clive Brook and Kay Francis, respecitvely. They are arguing non-stop and it becomes quite clear to the viewing audience that their marriage is an unhappy one. Tired of bickering, the couple doesn’t even go home together. Jim is still thirsty and he’s got numerous squeezes on the side. He staggers down the sidewalk until coming across a speakeasy he frequents. Brook’s character notices the blood on the snowy steps that lead to the door, but Jim shrugs it off and proceeds to take a couple of belts.

Having really tied one on, Mr. Towner decides then to visit his favorite lover: Rosie (Hopkins). She is a chanteuse @ a popular night spot not far away. When Jim arrives at the club, Rosie is in mid-song and the crowd is eating out of her hand. He gets a booth and the singer joins him for cocktails between takes. When the waiter informs the lovers that a man is waiting to see her, Hopkins’ character is irritated but she excuses herself to see who it is. Unfortunately, it’s her no good husband. He is dressed in rags and obviously not doing well for himself. As they talk and argue we understand that Rosie’s been disappointed by this bum over and over again. She refuses to let him come home with her and won’t give him any dough either. Eager to get rid of this embarassment, the singer orders the bouncers to throw him out on his ear. Tony (Regis Toomey) swears he’ll get even.

Aware that her sugar daddy has been overserved, Rosie takes Jim to her home to put him into bed. She helps him with his things and discretely puts him in another bedroom where he passes out. Not long after, Tony breaks into the house and becomes insanely jealous. He knows she’s got another man with her. They struggle all over the home until the brute heaves her onto the bed and begins choking her accidentally while cross examining at the same time. Will her lover be aroused from his stupor in time to intervene? Much of the remaining film plot is fairly lame as Mrs. Towner has an epiphany and realizes that her husband is the only man for her.

Given such a small role relative to the characters Brook and Francis get, Hopkins’ Rosie is unforgettable and she steals the show. The beautiful blonde is easily the most memorable aspect of this picture. She performs two songs exquisitely and her brassy, take-no-guff nightclub singer is one of the best characters in Pre-Code film. A decent copy of 24 Hours isn’t easy to find but if you get the chance to see it, don’t hesitate.

By James White


Year: 1926

Director: Frank Tuttle

Cast: Louise Brooks, Evelyn Brent, Lawrence Gray, Arthur Donaldson

Movies like Love ‘Em and Leave ‘Em would be lost forever in the bin of forgotten films if not for memorable performances like Louise Brooks’ Janie Walsh. This role can almost be thought of the American version of Lulu. Janie is a 1920s flapper, free-loving and completely narcissistic. On the other end of the spectrum is her older sister Mame — played by Evelyn Brent. The elder Walsh is shy, conservative, and responsible. The girls are orphans and on their mother’s deathbed, Mame promised to always look after her sibling no matter what. That oath is what triggers most of the plot.

The Walsh sisters work in a department store in downtown New York City. Mame helps her boyfriend Bill (Lawrence Gray) with dressing the display windows. We don’t much care for Bill from the start as he’s fond of taking credit for all of Mame’s great ideas when they’re acknowledged by management. The department store is sponsoring a Charleston dance on Saturday night and Janie is charged w/ collecting dues. Miss Walsh never met a dance party she didn’t like but trustworthy with finances she’s not. Before long she is using the funds to gamble on the ponies via a neighbor named Lem (Osgood Perkins aka Anthony’s pop).

Mame’s relationship with Bill has escalated to the point where he is proposing marriage. She has earned a week of vacation and wants to get away to ponder the prospect of matrimony. Knowing no shame, while sis is out of town Janie brazenly seduces Bill. The best sequence in the picture has Brooks’ looking more beautiful than ever. Sporting a stunningly tight black satin gown, Janie’s allure is impossible for men to ignore and Gray’s character is no exception. When Miss Walsh adjusts herself between two pillows on the couch, the come hither call is unmistakable. There’s a great gag when Bill initially rejects her and turns away. Janie splashes water from a nearby fishbowl on her eyes to simulate crying over the snub and he becomes powerless to resist.

When Mame comes home early and all excited to tell Gray’s character that she accepts, she finds out that her good-for-nothing little sister has been knocking boots with Bill in her absence. The only thing keeping Mame from throwing Janie out is her promise. But their relationship has been put in deep freeze mode. As if to see how much more she is capable of screwing up, Janie puts the remainder of the membership dues on another horse. Amazingly, the nag wins and she confronts Lem about the $100 win. He gives her back the $20 she wagered and apologizes for not getting the bet down in time. Yeah right. When Saturday rolls around and she’s left with empty pockets, our protagonist turns to that last beacon of hope: Mame. Unbelievably, Janie’s wiles still work on her sister and when Mame hears what that cheat of a neighbor has done, she sets out for his apartment to settle all accounts. This could get ugly.

The part of Mame must have been one of the most thankless roles Brent ever played. Who on earth wants to be a female co-star next to the iconic Brooks in a movie that serves as a showcase for her great beauty? Frank Tuttle was a great admirer of his leading lady. He never told his star that her part was supposed to be comedic, so she played it straight. The director got exactly what he was after. To say the camera is infatuated with Brooks during Love ‘Em and Leave ‘Em is to understate the case. Both the aforementioned dress and the getup she takes to her dance (white top hat, short black skirt, stockings, and high heels) are the highlights of the picture. I am dumbstruck by Brooks’ critics who claim that “she doesn’t do anything.” The fabulous actress had one of the most expressive grills ever and in that space from the top of her head to the nape of her neck lies one of the most effective instruments in cinema history.

By James White

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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