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Monday, April 26, 2021

Fifty Years of Film in 50 weeks, #12: Love Me Tonight, 1932

"The son of a gun is nothing but a tailor!" "Isn't it romantic"? 

We are now into the height of the pre-Code era with this musical delight of a film.

Love Me Tonight, 1932

Director: Rouben Mamoulian
Writers: Samuel Hoffenstein, George Marion, Jr., and Waldemar Young, adapted from a play by Leopold Marchand and Paul Armont
Cinematographer: Victor Milner
Produced by: Rouben Mamoulian for Paramount Pictures
Starring: Maurice Chevalier, Jeanette MacDonald, Charles Ruggles, Charles Butterworth, Myrna Loy, C. Aubrey Smith
Music and lyrics by: Rodgers and Hart

Why I chose it
I love watching films from the early 1930s and have seen many of the big ones from 1932. Love Me Tonight was one of a handful of recommended new-to-me films; I chose it after it tied with Vampyr in my Twitter poll. The fact that I hadn't seen much of anything from classic film superstar Jeanette MacDonald gave the musical the edge. 

'No-spoiler' plot overview
Our hero, Parisian tailor Maurice (Chevalier), is duped by the penniless Viscount Gilbert de Varèze (Ruggles) into producing a boatload of suits for him on credit. Finally determined to collect what is owed to him, he ventures to the Chateau where the Viscount lives with his imperious Uncle (Smith), various elderly aunts, and cousins Countess Valentine (Loy) and Princess Jeanette (MacDonald). Coincidentally, Maurice had literally run into Jeanette on the road and fell instantly for her; his feelings were not immediately returned. 

To prevent his uncle from finding out about his debts, the Viscount introduces newly-arrived Maurice as a 'Baron'. Thus welcomed as an honored guest in the household, Maurice goes along with the ruse to get close to Jeanette. Ultimately she reciprocates his advances, but once his cover is blown, will they live happily ever after?

Production Background and 1931 in Film History
This film fits nicely into the style that early Paramount Pictures spun into cinema gold: sophisticated and 'continental' comedies and musicals. Russian-born director Mamoulian was a great fit there; he was hired at Paramount's Astoria (NY) studios after directing a number of stage musicals in the 1920s.

Mark Cousins, in his book The Story of Film, said Love Me Tonight is "so explosively innovative that it makes the majority of contemporaneous films look hopelessly dated." He cites Mamoulian's "major coup" as recording the musical and percussive score before the shoot started - unheard of in cinema at that point. In the scene where Maurice first arrives at the chateau, "he seems to dance and dart around the huge rooms" in time to the music. 

At the time the film was released it wasn't seen as a big hit, as 1932 was a down year for musicals before Warner Bros.' 42nd Street resurrected them, but ultimately notched #7 for box office proceeds in 1932. For its post-Production Code re-release (after 1934), this film was trimmed down to 96 minutes to remove more salacious lyrics and costuming. Those missing minutes have never been restored and are presumed lost.

Some other notable film-related events in 1932*:

  • Director George Cukor's A Bill of Divorcement marked the film debut of 24-year-old Katharine Hepburn as Sydney Fairfield (misspelled as Sidney and Katherine in the credits).
  • MGM's classic Best Picture-winning film masterpiece Grand Hotel was the first 'all-star' epic featuring many high-powered stars of the early 1930s, including John Barrymore, Wallace Beery, Joan Crawford, and Greta Garbo, etc. 
  • Welsh-born English actress Millicent Lillian "Peg" Entwistle gained notoriety by tragically committing suicide from atop the Hollywoodland sign  - she allegedly jumped from the giant "H". She had been in only one contracted Hollywood movie role (a bit part) since arriving in the LA area, RKO's Thirteen Women (1932), and it turned out to be the last for the 24-year-old discouraged actress. 
  • Paramount Pictures, founded in 1912, began to curtail activities in its East Coast studios in Astoria (Long Island, NY) and moved to Hollywood, once the conversion to "talkies" was complete.

*Thanks to

My Random Observations
  • Talent overfloweth in this one: Chevalier and MacDonald, of course, and reliably excellent character actors Charles Ruggles, C. Aubrey Smith, Elizabeth Patterson, and Robert Grieg. That said, how underused was Myrna Loy in this one? I'm still really not sure what she was doing there (!). She had freshly graduated from playing exotic and sometimes villainess types in silents but had yet to advance to leading lady roles. Her day will come within a couple of years.
  • As this *may* be the only complete film I've seen with Jeanette MacDonald, my verdict: I like her. She was sassy, elegant, and at once innocent and worldly. Not sure I'm totally sold on her voice, though,although it fits the style of Rodgers and Hart's songs.
  • The opening scene, with the sun rising on Paris and numerous workers and craftspeople beginning their day, had me tapping my toes and snapping my fingers. The rhythmic blend of sounds crescendoed until the camera found Chevalier and he broke into song. You can't go wrong with a movie that starts like this. The opening scene can be viewed here: 

  • The musical numbers overall were tremendously memorable thanks to the genius of Rodgers and Hart. I had no idea that the classic 'Isn't it Romantic?' originates in this film. 
  • Maurice Chevalier seemed to always play the same charming French romantic rogue, but nobody did it better. While I loved this film, my favorite Chevalier remains The Smiling Lieutenant with Miriam Hopkins and Claudette Colbert.
Paris is bustling in the early morning.

Our first glimpse of our Maurice with his million-dollar smile.

Don't trust any man (Ruggles) who pretends to run a street race
because he doesn't have any outerwear!

Everyone joins in singing "Isn't it romantic?"

First glimpse of the lovely princess Jeanette - singing, of course.

Valentine (Myrna Loy) is enjoying this tiff between the Viscount
(Ruggles) and their uncle the Duke (Smith).

The doctor tells Jeanette's assorted relatives that her 
fainting spells will abate if she marries a young man(!)

Robert Grieg once again cast as butler, shows Maurice the way.

A hunting expedition results in a little accident for Maurice,
but brings him into the orbit of his love, Jeanette.

Jeanette finally acknowledges her feelings for Maurice,
but doesn't yet know that he's 'nothing but a tailor'.

Shot superimposition catches Jeanette watching Maurice 
walk down the winding path away from the Chateau

You better not mess with Jeanette - she's determined here
to stop a moving train on its tracks.

Where to Watch
The film is on DVD available through Kino Lorber. A few versions of the film are currently up on YouTube. 

Further Reading    
Richard Barrios's essay for the National Film Preservation Board here.
Fellow CMBA blogger and film historian Annette Bochenek from Hometowns to Hollywood film blog adds her thoughts and fills in some production details here.

Monday, April 19, 2021

Fifty Years of Film in 50 weeks, #11: La Chienne, 1931

MC 1: "Ladies and Gentlemen, we are proud to present a stirring social drama. Our presentation will prove that vice never goes unpunished."

MC 2: "Ladies and Gentlemen, we're proud to present a comedy with a moral."

MC 3: Ladies and Gentlemen, don't listen to them. The play we shall perform is neither drama nor comedy. It contains no moral message and has nothing to prove. The characters are neither heroes nor villains. They're plain folk like you and me. The three leads are He, She, and the Other Guy, as always."

-from the opening of the film.

La Chienne, 1931

Director: Jean Renoir
Writers: Jean Renoir, adapted from a novel by Georges de La Fouchardière
Cinematographer: Theodor Sparkuhl
Produced by Roger Richebé for Les Établissements Braunberger-Richebé
Starring: Michel SimonJanie Marèse, Georges Flamant 

Why I chose it
I was tempted by The Front Page, a well-known film based on the celebrated play by Hecht and MacArthur, but I was really in the mood for something outside classic Hollywood. I had seen two of Renoir's most famous films, The Rules of the Game and The Grand Illusion, but nothing else, so it was time to correct that. Additionally, 'La Chienne' sounds so elegant...but the English translation "The Bitch" would not have made it as a title for a film in the U.S., especially not in 1931.

'No-spoiler' plot overview
Socially awkward retail clerk Maurice Legrand has taken up painting as an escape from his nagging, shrewish wife Adèle and his tiresome day job. Leaving a late evening work function, he comes across Lulu on the street, who is being mistreated by Andre Jauguin, also known as Dédé. He comes to Lulu's aid, and opportunist Jauguin decides that Legrand is a convenient mark to fleece: Lulu is a prostitute who is pimped out by Dédé, who treats her horribly but still receives her love and devotion. Lulu lures Legrand who falls hard for her and puts her up in style in an apartment, and then proceeds to sell his paintings to keep up the lifestyle she and Jauguin have come to expect. Legrand doesn't realize that Lulu is two-timing him while he himself is seeing her behind his own wife's back. A further complication results when Legrand's wife's first husband, thought killed in WWI, shows up with plans to blackmail Legrand for the price of letting him stay with Adèle. Unfortunately for him, Legrand turns this to his advantage, as, of course, he is looking for any reason to be free to be with Lulu. The film climaxes with a murder and an execution.

Production Background and 1931 in Film History
The film was celebrated director Renoir's second sound film and its production was difficult, to say the least. Filming on location in the Montmartre area of Paris, Renoir clashed on set with the production executives when he insisted on using direct sound, a technology difficult to get right in 1931. Further, the human drama playing out on the set paralleled that on screen. Apparently, lead actor Flamant and leading lady Marèse began an affair, while co-star Simon also fell for her. Shortly after production wrapped, Marèse tragically was killed in a car being driven by Flamant, who survived the crash. So when the film was released, the mourning public turned against Flamant, and his career really stalled after.

Another European directed a film based on this story, but converted it to an American setting. This was Fritz Lang's noir Scarlet Street with Edward G. Robinson as the Legrand character, supported by the always terrific Dan Duryea and Joan Bennett. It's certainly worth seeing, but a very different experience. 

Some other notable film-related events in 1931*:

  • 1931 saw the release of two of the most celebrated early "monster" films, both from Universal studios: Dracula (with Bela Lugosi) and Frankenstein (with Boris Karloff).
  • Additionally, two of the earliest and most celebrated gangster films were released: Little Caesar (with Edward G. Robinson) and The Public Enemy (with James Cagney), launching the era of the gangster film, which morphed in the 1940s into a crime film/film noir genre.
  • The 'double feature' came into common use as cinema entertainment.
  • The Best Picture-nominated Trader Horn, by director W.S. Van Dyke, was notable as the first non-documentary production to be filmed in Africa. Some of its jungle stock footage was later used for MGM's first Tarzan film with Johnny Weissmuller, Tarzan, the Ape Man (1932).

*Thanks to

My Random Observations
  • Having watched *mostly* American-made films during my decade-long love affair with classic film, my immediate reaction to La Chienne was how much it was, well, French. The story dealt more frankly with sordid details of the life of a prostitute than even contemporaneous pre-Code films from the U.S. There was a scene in which Lulu mentioned matter-of-fact details of the sex act to a girlfriend that just seemed natural at the moment. Another example is Michel Simon's character: while being cuckolded and shown to be socially awkward, he could still be sensual and passionate in his interactions with Lulu, in a way that Edward G. Robinson could not do in Scarlet Street.
  • Is there a character here that is worth rooting for in this film? Probably not. At least the motives and situations of the three main characters, along with the actors' performances, render them interesting and at times sympathetic, proving once again that a 'hero' isn't a requirement to keep the attention of the audience. 
  • Was Renoir's attraction to this work related at all to the Legrand character being an underappreciated painter?
  • As hinted by the 'play within the play' opening commentary, the film defies categorization. While mostly a drama, dark comedic elements are hard to miss. Perhaps the most obvious is the irony of the vaunted late husband 'Sgt. Godard' showing up alive and demonstrating himself to be a low-class petty criminal who never really loved his wife.
  • Renoir was a visual genius on film like his father was on canvas. There are so many brilliant compositions, a few of which I've captured below. 

MC in the opening framing device introduces us to Lulu, 
"La Chienne", while her image is superimposed.

Opening shot frames a banquet table through a dumbwaiter
being used to produce a delicious entree.

Legrand (Simon) does not enjoy the conviviality
of his fellow employees.

Lulu (Marèse) is introduced after suffering a beating from her
lover, Dédé.

Legrand arrives home to the wrath of his wife, Adèle.

With her late husband's portrait between them in the scene,
Adèle reminds Legrand that he isn't living up to his memory.

Terrific mirror-aided shot of Legrand painting his self-portrait.

Legrand is feeling amorous but Lulu wants to talk business.

The former husband, Sergeant Godard, is not dead
after all.

Lulu confides in Dédé (Flamant) that she is getting tired
of her duplicitous love life. 

The ruse might be over.

Legrand and Sgt. Godard fall on hard times.

Where to Watch
Modern audiences now have the benefit of the Criterion restoration to enjoy this film as it looked when it was released in 1931. Get it on DVD or see it streaming on the Criterion Channel, or Amazon, YouTube, and other services for a small fee.

Further Reading
Ginnette Vincendeau's essay for Criterion is detailed and insightful if you don't mind important plot points being revealed. And TCM's article shares more about the troubled production of the film, including struggles with editing.

Sunday, April 11, 2021

Fifty Years of Film in 50 weeks, #10: Anna Christie, 1930

 I'm now 20% through my blog project, and entering a new decade. It's appropriate that since Greta Garbo was such a major star during this era, that I include one of her films. 

Anna Christie, 1930

Director: Clarence Brown
Writers: Frances Marion, adapted from the play by Eugene O'Neill
Cinematographer: William Daniels
Produced by Clarence Brown, Irving Thalberg, and Paul Bern for MGM 
Starring: Greta Garbo, Charles Bickford, George F. Marion, Marie Dressler

Why I chose it
This film rose to the top of my shortlist for Greta Garbo, but also for director Clarence Brown. Many years ago I was impressed with what he did with Valentino's Russian romp The Eagle, and vowed to explore more of his films. I learned of his vast impressive filmography, from the silent days to studio-era classics such as Intruder in the Dust, The Yearling, and National Velvet

That the film was recommended by a film friend and tied for first on my Twitter poll solidified my choice for 1930.

'No-spoiler' plot overview
After being separated from her father Chris (Marion) for most of her life, a young Swedish-American woman, Anna (Garbo), returns to seek shelter with him on the coal barge he captains. Unbeknownst to him and the young sailor she falls for (Bickford), her past is clouded with rape and prostitution. Eventually, she is forced to reveal these details to those she loves and risk their rejection.

Production Background and 1930 in Film History
In some ways, MGM was taking a risk with this film, with Garbo a silent film superstar but so many others becoming victim to the talkies because of their thick accents or other challenges adapting to the new medium. Fortuitously, the script, based on Eugene O'Neill's play, called for his protagonists to be Scandinavian-American, giving perfect screen to Garbo's accent. The film was marketed by MGM with the famous "Garbo Talks!" tagline. They had secured the services of veteran actor George F. Marion (he was born in 1860!), who had originated the role of Chris Christophersen in the Broadway run of the film as well as the 1923 film version. A version in German was also shot at the same time, starring Garbo but featuring a different supporting cast. 

Director Clarence Brown was nominated for two Oscars for films in 1930: this one, and Romance, also starring Garbo.

Some other notable film-related events in 1930*:

  • The first daily newspaper for the Hollywood film industry, The Hollywood Reporter, had its debut.
  • All Quiet on the Western Front (1930) was the first major anti-war film of the sound era, faithfully based upon the timeless, best-selling 1929 novel by Erich Maria Remarque. Although it won the Academy Award for Best Picture, it was criticized as being propagandistic and anti-militaristic. 
  • German stage revue actress Marlene Dietrich starred in her first Josef von Sternberg film, The Blue Angel (1930), playing the role of cabaret singer Lola-Lola and performing her signature song: "Falling in Love Again (Can't Help It)." Her performance in the first major German sound film led to a contract with Paramount in the US. 
  • The movie industry began to dub in the dialogue of films exported to foreign markets.

*Thanks to

My Random Observations
  • Garbo is not a favorite of mine; while she is usually a glamorous, elegant, and sympathetic screen presence, her acting style brings a touch too much melodrama for my tastes. Yet here, I appreciated what Garbo did with the film's early version of Anna - the fallen, lower class, rough and cynical woman. She left her glamor in her dressing room and convinced as this character. Later, she transformed to a more poised, elegant version of Anna that better matched Garbo's type.
  • Not being from Ireland, I don't know if Charles Bickford's thick Irish accent was a good one, but it sure sounded like it! Bickford had a long Hollywood career and I love it when he shows up in a film. Bonus points if he gets to play a romantic lead.  Although his role here stretches the definition of romantic lead, considering his extreme roughness.
  • Garbo's and Dressler's characters are seen coming into the bar using the "Ladies' entrance"--I had no idea that such a thing existed. A little internet research set me right. According to Madelon Powers in her University of Chicago Press book called Faces along the Bar: Lore And Order In The Workingman's Saloon, 1870-1920,  a 'ladies entrance' served three purposes:  “First, it permitted women to enter inconspicuously and minimize public scrutiny of their comings and goings… Second, women’s entry through the side door eliminated the necessity of their running the gauntlet through the establishment front room . . . undisputed male territory.  . . .  Finally, the side door afforded women quick and convenient access both to the far end of the bar, where they could purchase carry-out alcohol and to a second chamber known as the ‘back room,’ where they could feast on free lunches or attend social events hosted there.” Who knew?
  • My second choice for 1930 film was Min and Bill, also a working-class drama starring Marie Dressler, who was the supporting character, Marthy, in this film. Like George Marion, Dressler was also born in the 1860s and was a theater veteran and considered today one of the greats in early cinema. It never gets old to witness performances of actors whose careers flourished over a century ago.
Christophersen (Marion) and his companion Marthy (Dressler)
meet up at their favorite watering hole.

Anna (Garbo) arrives at the bar and develops a bond
with Marthy, a kindred soul.

Anna's face and body language signal melancholy and
uncertainty in what she will find returning to her father.

High angle shot of the Anna's new environs.

Anna begins a life of dutiful domesticity aboard
her  father's barge.

Rugged sailor Matt Burke (Bickford) checks 
Anna out in the fog.

Anna and Matt getting to know one another.

A fun 'date' in the city.

Lovely shot of Anna with Brooklyn Bridge

Christophersen and Burke have competing
designs on Anna.

High melodrama: Anna and her father during
a moment of reckoning.

Is a happy ending possible for these three?
Where to Watch
The film can be streamed for a small fee on many streaming platforms, including Amazon, Hulu, and YouTube.

Further Reading
Danny of discusses the film here, highlighting how it conforms to conventions of pre-Code cinema, and like me, admit to not being a huge Garbo fan. As usual, TCM has an excellent essay on the film here.

Monday, April 5, 2021

Fifty Years of Film in 50 weeks, #9: Rio Rita, 1929

"Ziegfeld's colossal girl-music spectacle" (see film poster below) ushered me into the talkie era, and quite an experience this was!

Rio Rita, 1929

Director: Luther Reed
Writers: Luther Reed, adapted from the book by Guy Bolton and Fred Thompson
Cinematographer: Robert Kurrle
Produced by Florenz Ziegfeld and William LeBaron for RKO Radio Pictures
Starring: John Boles, Bebe Daniels, Bert Wheeler, Robert Woolsey

Why I chose it
The title 'Rio Rita' reminded me of 'Rita Rio', the stage name of singer/actress/orchestra leader Dona Drake (see her 'soundie' with Alan Ladd here). When this film popped up as an option for 1929, I immediately put it on my shortlist, and then it won my Twitter poll. It also had the advantage of being my first 'musical' of this film project.

'No-spoiler' plot overview
James Stewart (John Boles) is a Captain of the Texas Rangers assigned to the Mexican border to track down a mysterious bandit named "Kinkajou." Across the Rio Grande he meets the vivacious Rita (Bebe Daniels) and the two instantly hit it off. Complications ensue when the local Governor, General Ravinoff (Georges Renavent), who has designs on Rita, sows distrust between Rita and James with the suggestion that Rita's brother Roberto may actually be the "Kinkajou" that the Captain is pursuing. Meanwhile, another, comic, love triangle develops between honeymooning Chick Bean (Wheeler), his new wife Dolly (Dorothy Lee), and his former wife Katie (Helen Kaiser). It doesn't help that Chick's lawyer and sidekick Ned Lovett (Woolsey) gives very questionable legal advice.

Production Background and 1929 in Film History
Rio Rita originated as a hit Broadway musical in 1927, with lyrics by Joseph McCarthy and music by Harry Tierney.  Produced by the famed Florenz Ziegfeld of the Ziegfeld Follies fame, the musical brought together Bert Wheeler and Robert Woolsey and set them on their decade-long career as a comic team. The film version gave Wheeler and Woolsey their break in Hollywood, and it became the biggest-grossing film for RKO in 1929. The film was re-released in 1932 and shorted by 1/3 (15 reels to 10 reels). Today, the five reels that were cut are believed to be lost, although some audio exists of the missing parts. It was remade in 1942 with Abbott and Costello in the Wheeler and Woolsey roles. I've not seen that one, but I've read that it's quite a different script. Finally, according to Steven C. Smith in his biography of famed film composer Max Steiner, Music by Max Steiner, Rio Rita composer Harry Tierney was responsible for getting RKO to hire Steiner, who later went on to write fantastic scores for them, including King Kong (1932).

Some other notable film-related events in 1929*:

  • The Marx Brothers first film The Cocoanuts, was released by Paramount.
  • With its launch in 1929, The University of Southern California became the first university in the country to offer a Bachelor of Arts degree in film. The school's founding faculty included Douglas Fairbanks, D.W. Griffith, William C. DeMille, Ernst Lubitsch, Irving Thalberg, and Darryl Zanuck, among others.
  • Taking full advantage of the advent and popularization of sound films, studios released many notable musicals: Hallelujah, the Academy Award-winning The Broadway Melody, the aforementioned The Cocoanuts, and of course this film, Rio Rita.
  • Silent superstar John Gilbert released his first talking film, His Glorious Night. His lack of success at the box office and lukewarm reaction by fans started his precipitous career decline.
  • Walt Disney Productions was formed.

*Thanks to

My Random Observations
  • Wow! This movie had it all - Singing! Dancing! Laughter! Romance! Mistaken Identity! Cowboys! Bandits! Border shenanigans! Color! Black and white! 
  • Seriously, as I watched this film I was reminded of other very early "talkie" film musicals that were more 'revues', or at the very least, light on coherent plot. Released the same year was the Oscar-winning The Broadway Melody, and the following year was 'King of Jazz', both of which I saw within the last 2-3 years. Rio Rita shares with these films very mannered and stage-like acting, and certainly a 'theater-like' production design. I doubt very few films could be considered more 'dated' than these. 
  • Nothing says "dated" more than the garish reds and greens of two-color technicolor. Yet despite and maybe because of the extreme 'datedness' of the film, I felt truly transported to another era and was entertained by spending time there. 
  • In some ways, the film is made by Wheeler and Woolsey. These vaudeville performers were natural screen comedians and displayed charisma and exceptional comic timing during their scenes, full of both slapstick and wisecracks. While I'm not normally a big fan of "low comedy", I appreciate what these two could do, and found myself more than a little amused watching them. They had an extended sequence where they rhythmically traded face slaps that both made me wince (ouch!) and gasp at the brilliant choreography displayed.
  • While Bebe Daniels was fine as the titular character, I didn't find much in her performance that signaled the star status that had accompanied her in her early years in film.
Chick (Wheeler) and his bride Dolly
(Dorothy Lee) make a grand entrance.

Ned (Woolsey)breaks the news to Chick that he may
not be legally married after all, ruining his honeymoon plans.

Chick and Dolly 

The current and future wives of Chick at a standoff with
Ned as referee.

Jim (Boles) serenades his love (Daniels) with the song 'Rio Rita'

Jim eyes Rita's brother suspiciously.

Where to Watch
It's available on DVD from Warner Archive.

Further Reading
Don't miss NY Times film critic Mordaunt Hall's original review of the film here. In his summary, he quips "it is an evening of good music, enjoyable fun and constant screen-fulls of striking scenes that cause one to wonder how much such a production cost."