Monday, May 11, 2009

The Smiling Lieutenant (1931)

Directed by: Ernst Lubitsch

Starring: Maurice Chevalier, Claudette Colbert, and Miriam Hopkins

Plot: A young officer accidentally makes a pass at a visiting princess. To avoid an international incident, he marries the smitten princess but pines for his girlfriend.

Thoughts: While I loved Lubitsch's The Love Parade (pardon the pun), I wasn't as impressed with this film. The derivative plot had a couple of details changed to make an entirely new story. Once again, Chevalier plays a military officer who marries into royalty. Like The Love Parade, innuendo is abundant and the songs are delightful.

Based on Hans Müller’s short story, "Nux der Prinzgemahl" (Nux, the Prince Consort), which was adapted for the operetta, "Ein Walzertraum" (A Waltz Dream), The Smiling Lieutenant was apparently a troubled production. According to film historian Michael Koresky, Lubitsch was in the process of divorce, Chevalier's beloved mother had recently died, and Colbert and Hopkins were rather diva-esque. The end product is good, but in my not so humble opinion, not as good as The Love Parade.

Once limited to the occasional TV screening (no VHS or laserdisc release), 2008 saw The Smiling Lieutenant released on DVD as part of the Lubitsch Musicals box set. This box set is part of Criterion's Eclipse series and includes The Love Parade and One Hour with You (coming in a forthcoming review soon). If you'd like to see the film online, you can view it on YouTube.

The Smiling Lieutenant only received a nomination for Best Picture for the 5th Academy Awards. Interestingly, Lubitsch's One Hour with You also received the nomination that very same year. Both would lose to Irving Thalberg's Grand Hotel.

Friday, May 8, 2009

Almost Back to Full Power

In case you hadn't noticed, the Derby crashed and burned as we entered the last week of March. After work on the huge project suspended things, I was laid off from my job. What ensued was a rather frustrating search for work for the next five weeks. Almost every day involved 12-13 hours of sitting at a computer screen sifting through job ads, customizing resumes, and making phone calls. Thankfully, the end of April bore fruit in this lousy economy and I began working again this week.

The plan this weekend is to at least post the long-delayed entry for The Smiling Lieutenant. Hopefully, this journey through cinematic history can pick up again next week.

Friday, March 13, 2009

Sheesh - Yet Another Admin Post

We are down to the wire with a system delivery at work, which has been eating up much of my free time. Obviously, this has caused a backlog of entries. The plan is to have the review of Ernst Lubitsch's The Smiling Lieutenant up tonight. The three remaining 5th Academy Award nominees (One Hour with You, Shanghai Express, and Grand Hotel) are now tentatively planned for next week.

I sincerely apologize for all the delays. I do hate it when life gets in the way of the important stuff ;-)

Monday, March 9, 2009

Five Star Final (1931)

Directed by: Mervyn LeRoy

Starring: Edward G. Robinson and Marian Marsh

Plot: A newspaper decides to dig up an older murder case with tragic consequences.

Thoughts: This was a really good film. People complain about tabloid (or yellow) journalism now, but it was appearently a problem back in the 1930s also. An aspect portrayed in this film was how not letting go of a scandal could end up hurting people who had nothing to do with it. The purpose of dredging up old, lurid news was solely to increase circulation and make money. The "Five Star Final" was the final issue of a newspaper for the day—this was back when multiple editions would be published, usually a morning and evening but sometimes one or two "extras" during the day.

Five Star Final would be Mervyn LeRoy's first shot at a Best Picture. The film was based on Louis Weitzenkorn's play and adapted by Byron Morgan. One of my favorite aspects was the appearance of Boris Karloff as a creepy reporter. It's odd how much he still looked like Frankenstein's Monster without the makeup. Although Edward G. Robinson shined as the newspaper editor attempting to gain respect, I felt he was slightly miscast. It's probably because of the gangster roles he later played.

The newspaper, The Gazette, was based on The New York Evening Graphic. The Graphic (nicknamed The Porno-Graphic by others in the press) was one of the most sensational papers of the day and had indeed been losing circulation at the time. It eventually folded in 1932 when, I guess, the public had grown tired of reading tabloid material day after day.

This film is not available on DVD and wasn't released on VHS or laserdisc either. The only place to see it is when it shows up on the Turner Classic Movies schedule rotation. So far, there are no plans to bring it to DVD.

Five Star Final only earned the sole nominated for Best Motion Picture, which is a shame. LeRoy's direction was certainly more interesting than Frank Borzage's work in Bad Girl and should have at least earned a Best Director nod.

Tuesday, March 3, 2009

Bad Girl (1931)

Directed by: Frank Borzage

Starring: Sally Eilers and James Dunn

Plot: A young couple rushes into marriage unsure about the other's feelings regarding children.

Thoughts: Bad Girl was a bit of a misnomer. Unless the "bad girl" was the young woman rushing into marriage, there wasn't really a bad girl to be found. That said, I didn't think this particular film was worthy of nomination. It was an okay film, but it was hardly a compelling story nor did it contain particularly remarkable direction.

Based on Vina Delmar's novel and the subsequent play, Fox billed this film as the "greatest love story since Seventh Heaven" (which Borzage also directed). Not sure if I'd go that far, but it wasn't a terrible way to while away an hour and a half. I really don't have much to say about this film; it was just kind of there. The acting was competent, the character relationships were portrayed well, and the dialogue was good. However, the film just felt ordinary to me. Perhaps that was the point; I don't know.

Like Seventh Heaven, Bad Girl was a film rarely seen outside of academia until December when Fox released the Murnau, Borzage, and Fox Collection. It was never released on VHS or laserdisc.

Inexplicably, Frank Borzage won Best Director, beating out King Vidor for The Champ and Josef von Sternberg for Shanghai Express (which we'll cover next week). Bad Girl also won Best Writing, Adaptation, for Edwin J. Burke's screenplay. Considering it was up against Arrowsmith and Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, I guess the win shouldn't be terribly surprising.

Posting Delays

The premise of this blog was that new entries would appear every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday. However, work and life matters have interfered with the timely schedule of things but I am endeavoring to update at least three times a week. You may or may not see an entry for a given day, but it will usually appear either sometime the following day or that evening.

The next entry, Bad Girl, will be posted before 10pm (Eastern) tonight. After that, you can look forward to Five Star Final with The Smiling Lieutenant rounding out the week. We'll finish up the 5th Academy Awards next week and follow with an article about the Hays Code before wading into the 6th Academy Awards.

Lots of good stuff in store so join us, won't you?

Thursday, February 26, 2009

The Champ (1931)

Directed by: King Vidor

Starring: Wallace Beery and Jackie Cooper

Plot: A washed-up ex-boxer tries to raise his son in Tijuana while struggling to set up a comeback bout.

Thoughts: Holy smokes, what a tearjerker. You can't help but feel sorry for the father-son pair, especially when the dad has really bad habits like drinking and gambling. Despite this, it's both amazing and touching that a son could be so devoted to such a person. This was a well-done drama starring two former Best Actor nominees and it's no wonder the Academy considered this for Best Motion Picture.

Frances Marion turned in another terrific script (she also wrote the screenplay for The Big House) full of heart and flawed yet likable characters. While the characters were likable, it seemed that life behind the scenes was anything but. According to Jackie Cooper's autobiography, his co-star, Wallace Beery, was "the most sadistic person [he's] ever known." Given such tension, it's quite a testament to both actors that the final product turned out so well.

The Champ was first remade in 1953 as The Clown with Red Skelton where Frances Marion dusted off this film's script and changed it slightly. Of course, the 1979 remake with Ricky Schroeder is famous for Schroeder's overreaching waterworks at the end.

The Champ took home a Best Actor award for Wallace Beery as the eponymous champ (interesting side note: Fredric March also won Best Actor that year for Doctor Jekyll and Mr. Hyde due to peculiar voting rules) and also Best Writing, Original Story, for Frnaces Marion's terrific screenplay (her second award for writing). The film also earned a nomination for Best Director (his third for directing).