The Purchase Price (1932): The Time of the Season for Love?

poster“I’ve been up and down Broadway since I was fifteen years old. I’m fed up with hoofing in shows. I’m sick of nightclubs, hustlers, bootleggers, chiselers, and smart guys. I’ve heard all the questions and I know all the answers. And I’ve kept myself… fairly respectable through it all. The whole atmosphere of this street gives me a high-powered headache. I’ve got a chance to breathe something else, and boy, I’m grabbing it.”

—Joan Gordon, The Purchase Price 

For the quantity of one (1) soul mate, send $10.00 and a self-addressed envelope to… Yeah right. Ah, if only it were that easy. If only fate (or a non-creepy catalogue, perhaps?) brought a wonderful gal or worthy suitor right to your door. If only you could order your very own Barbara Stanwyck via mail, as William Wellman’s The Purchase Price suggests.

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In spite of its hilarious contrivance—the idea that an ill-advised mail-order marriage could melt into true love—I fell for this offbeat romance. You cannot resist its charms. You find yourself rooting for the wily city girl to end up with the aw-shucks boy-next-door. And I marvel at how much plot and character development these pre-Code yarns could cram into a runtime of barely over one hour.

vlcsnap-2013-07-06-17h59m05s160Trying to pry loose from a dead-end relationship with a gangster, Joan Gordon changes her name, goes to Canada, and switches places with a woman who had agreed to be a mail-order bride on a frontier farm. Although Joan initially rebuffs her yokel husband on their wedding night, she grows to admire and respect him. Transforming into a warm, caring wife, Joan battles financial pressures threatening the farm and tries to fend off shadows of her past.

vlcsnap-2013-07-06-17h42m01s160 Stanwyck shines (does she ever not shine?) in a role closely related to her breakout performance in Ladies of Leisure: a tough child of asphalt who pines for a more meaningful existence. When we first meet Joan, she’s crooning at a speakeasy. In fact, the trailer for The Purchase Price advertised Missy’s singing voice as a significant attraction—announcing “Listen! It’s the voice of Barbara Stanwyck!”— although she only sings in one scene.

Although Stanwyck’s smoky, homely contralto doesn’t exactly soar in a torch song melody, her soulful delivery tells us much more about the character than your usual pre-Code nightclub sequence does. In this opening scene, a surprising amount of drama creeps into the character introduction. For instance, I just love the ironic contrast between the pure yearning in Stanwyck’s voice and the ugly mugs we see from above, looking up at her with wistful lust. The peculiar combination of corny, but heartfelt sentiment and urban grime elegantly sums up Stanwyck’s early image.

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Like an angel in greasepaint, she leans over tables of drooling drunks and sings a sad ballad, “Take me away…” which becomes the movie’s musical and emotional theme.

As Joan hovers over a silken gangster type, his platinum blonde moll, a sort of bargain basement Jean Harlow, eyes her with envy and melancholy. We, the viewers, immediately recognize the difference between your run-of-the-mill working girl and Joan—a complex, earthy woman. Even faced with a gallery of grotesques, Joan Gordon sings like she means it. And, as we soon learn, she’s not just putting on an act: she really does long for an escape.

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The men in Joan’s life seem to specialize in letting her down. There’s Eddie, her slimy, yet affable racketeer boyfriend, who insists, “You daffy little tomato, I’m bugs about ya. I’d marry ya myself—if I wasn’t already married.” Now, there’s a winner! Unfortunately, he doesn’t excite her as much as she excites him, we notice, as she clinically changes behind a screen her dressing room, while he jumps up to get a look.

Screen Shot 2013-07-06 at 5.13.50 PMClearly, she doesn’t like the familiar cheapness of the world they inhabit; he does. He’s not a bad guy as far as racketeers go, but a man like that can’t offer a woman a better future. As she wipes off her makeup after her act, she matter-of-factly returns Eddie’s apartment key and gives him her trademark I’ve-had-enough-of-it speech.

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Unfortunately, Joan’s “chance to breathe,” her rich milksop fiancé, breaks off their engagement because of Joan’s ties to the aforementioned slimy gangster. Prevailed upon by his wealthy father, this anemic fool dumps Stanwyck (“It’s STANWYCK, you goof!” I yelled at my screen) in a humorous hotel scene during which the maid stops scrubbing floors and the groom shuts off his vacuum cleaner to eavesdrop.

And, that night, Joan’s in her dressing room again, getting taken back by her low-life boyfriend—and hating every minute of it.

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I appreciate how William Wellman and canny screenwriter Robert Lord (of The Little Giant and Heroes for Sale) handle what could’ve been clichés with a light touch. Instead of the evil bootlegger, victimized torch singer, and spotless high-class fiancé love triangle, we get something a bit more interesting and true.

Joan comes across as neither victimized nor blameless, neither virtuous nor promiscuous.  I particularly love how she sits there after being dumped by her escape-plan-man, watching men in the street take the garbage out. You can sense every fiber of Staywyck vibrating with contrasting emotions: not only mentally cursing out her limp-wristed fiancé, but also feeling trashy, blaming herself, lamenting what could have been. There are no tears, no hysterics. Just a sigh and a shrug. It’s worse than tragic. It’s disappointing.

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Cheer up, Stany! It’s just the first act…

She’s made of better stuff than the men in her life, but they’re not good-versus-bad caricatures either. Eddie racketeer doesn’t menace her, like we expect him to. And Joan’s fiancé doesn’t defy his family to marry her, like we expect him to.

Having dispatched three stereotypes at once, Wellman returns to Joan and her dilemma. Sick and tired of her life, Joan changes her name and moves to Montréal. Eddie, the clingiest bootlegger of them all, is still trying to find Joan, so she trades places with her maid and goes to the middle of nowhere to marry a stranger.

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Luckily for her, the stranger looks like George Brent. Although Brent just doesn’t do it for me when he’s playing an alluring man of the world, he proves a total delight in the role of Jim Gilson, a loping country bumpkin who conceals surprising reserves of intelligence and dedication.

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Don’t judge a book by its cover. And don’t judge a man just ’cause he looks like he escaped from the cast of Hee-Haw.

Greeting Joan with an iron handshake and a summer cold sniffle, Jim Gilson trots her off to a ludicrous marriage ceremony where the village idiot and a batter-stirring housewife serve as witnesses. All this exaggerated “one-horse town” humor may seem mildly offensive these days, but at least it provides Stany with an abundance of priceless reaction shots.

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“Uh… really?”

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“Really?”

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“Come on—REALLY, now?”

As Jim takes Joan into town, as he haggles over the price of the ring, as he marries her, as he carts her back to his farm, droll suspense lingers in the air—will he attempt to, ahem, assert his marital rights? Um, got awkward? Finally, they get back to his farmhouse and he proceeds to set up a sleeping bag on the living room floor while Stany goes into the bedroom. Phew. No wedding night antics…

Oh, wait. Cut to Jim looking through the legs of the table. He sees shadows under the bedroom door. Cut to Joan getting changed. Cut to Jim, creeping up to the door. Cut to Joan in her nightie inspecting the room. BOOM! There he is, bursting through.

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And since pretty much every Stanwyck movie of the 1930s has to have at least one slap, we know this probably isn’t going to end well for lover boy… I have to take pause and applaud not only the mixture of repulsion and regret that Stanwyck projects, but also Brent’s desire and shame.

Rather than aiming at sheer titillation, this scene sets up the dramatic stakes of the rest of the film. She browbeats herself for hurting him, and he browbeats himself for coming on too strong. Their insecurities bubble up and it will take a lot of adversity—and a year of sexual tension—to bring them together again.

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Will Jim loose his farm? Will he reject Joan when Eddie shows up and reveals her past? What kind of bargain will Joan have to make to save her husband’s dream of happiness?

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Well, I won’t totally give away the ending, but let me say this. I cherish The Purchase Price for its ability to craft a mature fairy tale, a rare blend of pre-Code sex comedy and earnest domestic drama. Let’s face it, a lot of films of the early 1930s betray precious little emotional insight and give us couplings that we don’t exactly buy.

That era of cinematic sophistication often buckled under the pressure of censorship—and the perceived audience desire for an upbeat conclusion—and served up happy endings that the characters didn’t deserve. I mean, who really thinks that Baby Face, Midnight Mary, or Skyscraper Souls (to name only a few) would shake out the way they did in the real world?

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So, it’s a distinctly refreshing feeling to watch The Purchase Price and bask in the agrarian glow of two parallel harvests: a hard-earned crop of wheat and the fruits of an equally challenging courtship. The sensual, yet fully legitimate kiss between Brent and Stanwyck, husband and wife, imbues the film with a cozy, alluring idealism, tempered by the bumpy road it took to get there.

Love, marriage, sex, fertility—these aren’t things that we should snicker about when they occur naturally, as part of a cycle, a ripening. If the premise taxes our credulity a bit, we witness a believable relationship blossom through deliberate pacing and characterization.

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The modern world forces us into all sorts of awkward jumblings of this natural order. (Now, bear in mind, I’m a 22-year-old unattached working girl, so don’t think I’m endorsing the concept of settling down or the white picket fence lifestyle.) I don’t think the movie’s message is “get married randomly and everything will work out.” On the contrary, this movie hints that marrying a stranger is as unnatural as the sort of fast-and-not-so-easy hook-ups that we consider so very modern. The Purchase Price makes the case for courtship, for letting a bond form  patiently between two people.

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The rotation of the seasons as a motif—enhanced through cinematography by Sidney Hickox (of Female and The Big Sleep)—helps to drive this point home poetically.

An astonishing amount of time, effort, and resources went into the set designs that create this “circle of life” seasonal effect. For the bleak winter frontier scenes, masses of snow were made from fine gypsum and thirty-five tons of untoasted corn flakes! The “frozen river” was simulated by heating water then pouring paraffin over top of that which, apparently, reproduces the look of ice—even breaking and cracking like ice when stepped on.

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A behind-the-scenes shot for The Purchase Price, published in the August 1932 issue of Photoplay magazine. William Wellman is teaching Stanwyck to scream.

Winter advisory warning: I’d like to alert you to one seriously hot sequence that takes place in the snow. It’s the one being filmed in the picture above. Even wearing long underwear and a winter coat, Stanwyck manages to turn on the heat and sizzle. “Have you ever heard a woman scream? Well, you’re going to…” In other words, all that set design travail and toil was well worth it!

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I can’t think of many actresses who could sell The Purchase Price, but Missy was the Queen of Credibility. Her extraordinary gift as a screen actress resides in her ability to wed theatricality to realism. Whether with a roll of the eye, a tilt of the head, or a full-on lunge or sock to the jaw, and she is constantly communicating what she is feeling. She tethers her audience to the moment with the sheer present-ness of her performance. For 68 minutes of pure Stanwyck charm, don’t miss out on The Purchase Price. And, to think, I didn’t even mention all those pre-Code lingerie scenes…

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This post is part of the Barbara Stanwyck Blogathon, hosted by The Girl with the White Parasol. Be sure to check out the other terrific entries!

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Free Friday Film: Dead Men Walk (1943)

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“You creatures of the light, how can you say with absolute certainty what does or does not dwell in the limitless ocean of the night? Are the dark and shrouded legions of evil not but figments of the imagination because you and your puny conceit say that they cannot exist?”

Prologue, Dead Men Walk

The name George Zucco stokes the deepest reserves of my film geek love. This classically trained Englishman, with his cultured, grave baritone speaking voice and his startling black eyes, indecently bulging forward at will, is a veritable institution in horror.

Despite a distinguished stage career and several notable supporting roles in big Hollywood productions, Zucco found much of his work among B-movie chillers from Universal and cheap Poverty Row shockers. No matter how tawdry the material or how small the part, his effulgent glee in playing mad scientists, wicked priests, and all-round nasty rotters makes his performances richly pleasurable.

Unlike many of Zucco’s films, Dead Men Walk gave him substantial material that he could really sink his teeth into: a double role as an upstanding community doctor and his degenerate, occult-obsessed twin brother. The story starts with the funeral of Elwyn Clayton, as his brother Lloyd stands over the coffin. (Note to self: never name my child Elwyn.) Gee, Lloyd doesn’t look too broken up. Suddenly, the town crazy lady bursts into the chapel and announces that the dead man doesn’t deserve a Christian burial; he was an unnatural sinner. You know, I get the feeling that something’s not right here…

Sure enough, later that night, vampire Elwyn has risen from his tomb, abetted by his servant, Zolarr, played by Dwight Frye. Because of course he’s played by Dwight Frye. Who else would you call when you need a toady to the undead?

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After feasting on a young maiden, Elwyn drops by his brother’s office the evening after. It turns out—rather surprisingly—that the good doctor Lloyd actually killed his blasphemous brother. Or tried to, not knowing that his twin had attained immortal life as a vampire. Gloating over his power, Elwyn throws down the gauntlet, vowing a horrible retribution:

“You’ll know that I am no intangible figment of your imagination when you feel the weight of my hatred. Your life will be a torment. I’ll strip you of everything you hold dear before I drag you down to a sordid death. You’ll pray you’re dead long before you die.”

Yeah, and you thought your sibling was a troublemaker! In all sincerity, Zucco’s bald-ish, chortling vampire scares me almost as much as prime Lugosi. As Frank Dello Stritto wrote, “If Lugosi’s vampire is something of a lounge lizard, Zucco’s is a dirty old man.” Indeed, he’s the unassuming retiree down the street who secretly wants to suck your blood. His aged, commonplace appearance renders his ugly, mirthless chuckle and his desire to corrupt and destroy young women all the more appalling. He glows with malice.

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Rather like E.F. Benson’s chillingly ordinary vampire in “Mrs. Amworth,” Elwyn is a stealth threat. In fact, I wouldn’t be a bit shocked if the writer of Dead Men Walk was thinking of this particular image from “Mrs. Amworth” when dreaming up some scares: “I saw, with the indescribable horror of incipient nightmare, Mrs. Amworth’s face suspended close to the pane in the darkness outside, nodding and smiling at me…. [W]hichever window I opened Mrs. Amworth’s face would float in, like those noiseless black gnats that bit before one was aware.” Like the titular vampire in Benson’s tale, Elwyn is at his most creepy when hovering outside a victim’s window, bathed in moonlight.

So, who’s going to fight this menace? Surely we have some lovable Van Helsing figure, someone we can identify with and cheer on, right? Not exactly.

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(Who knew Woodrow Wilson had an evil vampire twin? Which reminds me, does anyone want to greenlight my script for Woodrow Wilson: Vampire Hunter?)

While we expect the bad twin to be effectively spooky and awful, the “normal” twin in Dead Men Walk has a surprisingly grim side too. He murdered his brother, no matter how pure his motives might have been. The side of good isn’t so spotless as we might hope, raising questions about the corruption inherent even in fighting evil. The element of fratricide lends gravitas and ambiguity to this dark, dualistic tale of sibling rivalry, a muddied, supernatural Cain and Abel.

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Is Dead Men Walk a great film? Well, no, it was made at PRC, and it’s not Detour. Directed by Sam Neufield, who’s probably best known for the dorky-as-hell I Accuse My Parents, this movie wasn’t worthy of its acting talent. The pacing definitely lags, and I’m phrasing that kindly.

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Mary Carlisle turns in a likable performance, adding suspense to the story as we see her life essence waning under the vampire’s influence. Alas, her love interest could barely choke out his lines. And Dwight Frye does not get enough to do at all. The visuals are appropriately shadowy—often to the point of blacking out parts of faces to suggest the depravity of the villains. Not everyone agrees with me, unfortunately, and some of the reviews elsewhere are just plain cruel. This movie was probably shot in less time than it takes to coax some of today’s movie stars out of their trailers, so let’s cut it some slack, okay?

If you love horror and derive comfort from snuggling up with a slightly creaky but very creepy 1940s horror flick, you can watch this one for free. And if you don’t love that, I will totally haunt you after I’m gone.

This film is in the Public Domain, which means you can watch and download it at the Internet Archive, as well.

Modern Myth: Frankenstein (1931)

I need to reign myself in when writing about Frankenstein. God knows, I could easily concoct a series of blog posts about Colin Clive’s hair alone. So, I’ll isolate one moment that has always fascinated me and try to bring it ALIVE!

Recognize the scene? This is a pristine publicity still, I believe, but you can still get the gist (and some extra angst!) from my slightly murky screenshots.

The monster has dragged his maker to the windmill. Henry Frankenstein wakes up and tries to run away, but the creature stops him and they take up positions on either side of a turning wheel in the mechanism of the mill. In shot-reverse-shot, we get Frankenstein looking at his creation and the thing looking back, as the gear continues to turn between them. There’s just so much in these two shots. They conjure up a multiplicity of meanings.

Following a pretty intense chase sequence, this pause in the action, almost like a fermata, really sticks in your memory—or at least mine. Karloff, for his part, communicates a rising rage against the only person whom he can hold responsible for putting him into this situation of pain and chaos.

For once, Clive’s character isn’t a ball of nerves. He really looks at what he’s made, as though he’s seeing it for the first time. I also think that I detect a certain amount of perverse pride in Henry Frankenstein’s eyes. Remember that scene where Waldeman and Frankenstein double-team the monster, trapping him while trying to administer a sedative? Well, now the tables are turned… Henry’s trying to get away from his monster and his creature clearly has the brain capacity to trap him. One can sense just a little undercurrent of ironic accomplishment. Not only has Clive’s Frankenstein made a man, but a man who can hold his own with his maker.

Frankenstein’s monster shows the capacity to learn and get the upper hand. He thus becomes his master’s greatest achievement and his greatest nightmare.

There’s also an odd “tag you’re it!” aspect of this scene. How many comedies give us this kind of scenario, with two characters faking each other out as they run around a desk or something? It’s a child’s game, really, and both Frankenstein and his creation are like children, causing harm and acting willfully without fully comprehending the ramifications of their actions.

To put a revolving series of bars between the camera and the character also adds a visual flamboyance to the stare-down and draws the viewer in with hypnotic movement. The cyclical motion is like a model or a concretization of the reciprocal gaze. With sound and image working in conjunction, the creaky, yet steady rhythm of the turning mill wheel both grounds the scene in a set pace and makes it uneasy, unsteady, in motion. Now, this turning wheel separating the creator and the creation suggests a perpetual tension and, at least to me, suggests the idea of the monster and maker inscribed in a dialectic relationship.

What an angle! Stunning visual means of conveying the collision-of-universes aspect of this death struggle.

The philosopher Hegel wrote about this concept of dialectic, of a pair of opposites (not just binaries, two things that are just at different ends of a spectrum) but opposites that are forever clashing—as epitomized by the master-servant relationship. The servant wants to rise and become the master and make the master his servant. The master wants things to stay just as they are. Even if you flip the positions, somebody’s going to be unhappy, because each wants “to supersede the other independent being in order thereby to become certain of itself as the essential being.”

It’s a perpetual cycle of conflict, upheaval… and conflict again. It goes ’round and ’round. After all, why else do we, in English, say revolution for both upheaval and turning?

The mill wheel, interposing between the camera and the faces of the Frankenstein and his monster, drive home this tension of seeing oneself in the other and of trying to extricate oneself from that other. Creator and creation can’t really be separated though—they are mutually defined. The wheel connects them to each other on this visual level and allows us to feel this ineffable link, this potent, mythic moment of the pair tragically recognizing themselves in each other and recognizing that they recognize it.

On another, perhaps more obvious, level, the decision to set the conclusion of the film in a windmill also recalls Don Quixote. After all, the mad Don tilts at the most famous windmill in Western Civilization, because he believes it to be a monster. Robert Florey, who wrote the script for Frankenstein, added the windmill. It doesn’t appear in Mary Shelley’s novel, and, although the initially scripted scenes were heavily reedited, Whale clearly made the decision to make the gears of the building quite prominent. Now, I would certainly apply the adjective “quixotic” to Dr. Frankenstein and to his quest. In his character, the romantic and scientific traditions intersect to form an impractical genius who makes things he can’t cope with.

Highs and lows: extreme angles emphasize the fragility and volatility of Frankenstein’s genius. 

This turning windmill also makes us as viewers aware of a churning, orderly edifice in which Frankenstein and his beast suddenly find themselves. Now, I’m dancing on the jagged edge of symbolism here, but the mill creates the feeling that the movie is now inside a working, mechanical system.

Indeed, as the bars of the mill wheel pass between the camera and their faces, this interposing object recalls the zoetrope—one of the first pre-cinema moving image devices which gave the appearance of life by parading a series of images through a tiny peep-hole slot.

(Evidently, I’m not the first person to make this observation. After I pressed publish on this one, a rabid horror fan friend of mine directed me to a similar point in the work of Howard S. Berger and Kevin Marr, The Flying Maciste Brothers. Well, Newton and Liebniz developed calculus independently…)

Now, what does Dr. Frankenstein want most of all? He craves to know how things work, what mechanisms of nature rule the world. The windmill reminds me of the suite of laws that hold together the universe—and continue to do so, in spite of whatever strange dreams man might dream.

“If I could discover any one of these things… I wouldn’t care if they did think I was crazy.”

Frankenstein and his monster, however, both become heroic because they have the guts to stare into that mechanism: Frankenstein by choice, his creation by way of the calamitous existence that was thrust upon him. Their exceptional destinies are intertwined and the movement of the wheel seems to knit them together—as doubles, as a dialectical pair, as two individuals who madness and bad luck has rendered aware, whether rationally or intuitively, of the forces that govern the world and which, when tampered with, grind a human being to despair.

For me, the beauty of Frankenstein resides in the morbid, yet poetic way the film doesn’t just portray modernity, but also practices it. For instance, in true Gothic novels, one prototype being Ann Radcliffe’s celebrated Mysteries of Udolpho, any time a skull or skeleton pops up, we’re dealing with a key plot point or shock-value moment… and you have to wait for about 200 or so more pages for another one.

James Whale, on the other hand, constantly throws this kind of memento mori imagery at us. Even Dr. Waldeman, who presents himself as the healthy scientist, in contrast to Clive’s obsessive one, keeps a line of skulls on the back shelf of his study.

Or, consider the classroom scene preceding the brain theft, which opens with this droll, direct shot of a dead man’s feet.

There’s a very similar shot in Murnau’s Faust, with the feet of plague victim appearing disproportionally large in the foreground, but the effect achieves a grimmer tone there. The cadaver in Frankenstein possesses a good deal less dignity. He’s just served as a visual aid to a bunch of med students, and his feet poke humorously right into the camera, into the spectator’s face as it were. These med students even start to chuckle when, nudged by the gurney, an anatomical skeleton, suspended from the ceiling, bobs up and down. Whale depicts a world at least partially desensitized to the horror of death.

In place of the dreadful, foreboding atmosphere of Browning’s Dracula, Whale gives us a bizarre mixture of irreverence and fear. Frankenstein shows us a world in which death is not the master, but the servant. Death is the thing that we’ve learned to chuckle at and demean—even as we cower before it.

I think that a lot of this cynical attitude towards death comes from the director’s time in the trenches of WWI. A lot of gears were in constant motion on the front…

Like all great works of art, Whale’s Frankenstein doesn’t allow a viewer to pin it down with a single meaning. The monster and his maker both win over our sympathy—and even the torch-wielding villagers do, too! But, for me, the crux of the drama occurs at that moment when the creature and his maker face off with a searing reciprocal gaze, separated by that marvelously evocative wheel that seems to both separate them and unite them. This visually stunning, revolving flourish elevates what could be a stagey, old-fashioned finale into a truly modern metaphor for the gears of the universe, for the mechanical man… and perhaps for that ultimate in life-creating edifices—the cinema?

Under Wraps: The Mummy and His Complex

From the first, Karl ‘Papa’ Freund’s 1932 The Mummy almost slaps you across the face with its audacity.

It’s actually so bold that I daresay a lot of people (me, for about 21 years, included) mistake its stylistic flourishes for primitiveness. In terms of the sheer patience that the film assumes on the part of the audience, it equals Hitchcock, in my humble opinion. After all, Frankenstein opens with a grave robbing and Dracula quickly gets to ghostly coachmen and bats. The Mummy, instead, aligns the viewer with the overly eager British archeologist Norton (Bramwell Fletcher) whose cavalier spirit dispairs over the “bits of broken pottery” he has to catalog before getting to the fun stuff, like the unopened blasphemous casket containing a necromantic scroll and the preserved dead guy. Although, in all fairness, who can blame him on that?

So, the senior archeologists leave the young assistant alone with the loot (I’m an intern—believe me, this is never a good idea). We know what’s going to happen. Casket opened. Ancient curse called down. It’s ALIVE!

But it’s amazing how long Freund toys with us. Norton looks at his work. Gets up. Walks to the casket. Sits back down. Gets up again. Slowly, slowly opens the casket, pulls out the scroll. I can’t stress this enough: it’s a really long time, although it doesn’t feel heavy. It feels leisurely, but taut, I think. When I last watched it with an eye towards this, though, I almost couldn’t fathom how long it is. It reminds me a lot of the famous scene in North by Northwest before the cropduster comes, when Cary Grant is waiting by a bus stop for about six minutes and we’re still riveted.

But the key to the suspense of this opening sequence resides in the way it’s filmed. I lost track of the jump cuts. The camera leaps back and forth from different sides of the young archeologist. These cuts mostly don’t threaten to disorient the viewer since we know the layout of the small hut. Instead, the editing aims to perturb the audience, just slightly. They make you uneasy without you totally understanding why. (Seriously, Jean-Luc Godard, Papa Freund called and he wants his technique back.)

And then the key shift comes after this shot, when the young man finally opens the casket.

And then there’s a cut to this.

WTF is THAT, do I hear you ask? The entire audience has no idea. It’s almost totally abstracted. Cutting to something completely out of scale in order to shock, confuse, and to suggest a seismic shift. The universe is out of balance. It’s a formalistic uh-oh. (Now you, Michelangelo Antonioni, Papa Freund called, he wants his technique back.)

Then, slowly, the head of the archaeologist bobs back into the frame and the camera tilts quickly down to the breeched casket and to Norton’s hands poised over the scroll.

It’s a vertiginous shot, full of bravado and discreet discomfort (on the part of the audience members). It bears the hallmarks of genius for me. And the mummy hasn’t even come to life yet.

Once Norton starts to read, Imhotep does promptly reanimate. Again, you have to appreciate how minimalistic and patient this moment seems in contrast to the theatrics of the other Universal pictures. No histrionic music wailing over the soundtrack (Freund didn’t care for the score that was written for the movie, something I learned via Richard Freeman’s article “The Mummy in Context”). We just hear the faint whisper of a chant as the mummy awakens.

Cliff Alberti’s Immortal Ephemera blog also does a nice job of explaining the admirable restraint of the trailing bandages and the off-screen monster, so I won’t repeat it, but I would like to give a shout-out (pun intended) to Bramwell Fletcher’s terrific shriek, perhaps the best non-female scream in the classic horror pantheon.

I’d also like to express my admiration for the first sight of the risen mummy. The camera pans from the working archeologist to the hand of the undead thing, reaching for the scroll.

Suddenly, the living and the dead, two things that should always be separate, are joined together by a simple turn of the camera. Shudder, shudder. A masterful opener.

A scene later, Karloff’s terrific entrance as the Ardath Bey is also troubled with jumpy cuts. These shots occur in rapid succession.

First, I imagine that Freund was having a little in-joke here. Frankenstein’s monster’s first entrance in Whale’s 1931 film resembles this one very much, with a flurry of jump cuts following the monster’s appearance in a door. However, here again, the cuts serve a pattern. They disturb the default continuity of time and space that we’ve come to expect as viewers. What you think you know about everything—Freund seems to say—forget it all. The dead are walking. And I’m going to show you a thing or two…

Bazin and his Mummy

“For the first time, the image of a thing is bound up with its duration, like a mummy of change.”

These are the words, or rather my translation of the words, which André Bazin, the insanely influential French film theorist, used to describe motion pictures. Like a death mask or a fingerprint, movies are existentially tethered to the things they portray.

In terms of semiotics, the science of signs, fingerprints, death masks, and photographs are indexical signs because they refer back to their original, the thing that they’ve preserved. In other words, we don’t say, “Wow, that picture looks like Boris Karloff.” It is Boris Karloff we’re seeing and we know that the image is proof of his existence. (I’m totally indebted to another great critic, Peter Wollen, for this, BTW. I didn’t cook this up on my own!)

Back to Bazin and the mummy. Bazin believed that movies perfectly realized and attained what humans had always craved to do through art: to defeat death by preserving something forever through its appearance. This need for a “victory over time” is what Bazin called the “mummy complex.”

Holy Isis and Osiris! Doesn’t this sound familiar?

What is the monstrous Imhotep trying to do literally, if not defeat time by creating a copy, a very, very lifelike (or deathlike) representation of Princess Ankh-es-en-amon? Unlike Dracula, who basically wants nourishment (and sex), our Imhotep wants true, enduring, eternal love which he can only attain by mummifying the woman he loves. Reunion isn’t enough. It’s preservation he wants. He doesn’t just want companionship. He wants a companion of his own creation yet somehow representative of the woman he adores, lovingly embalmed.

To this end, let’s look at the introduction of Helen Grosvenor which includes another of Freund’s clever touches. One of the movie’s roving tracking shots trundles around the museum exhibit of the Princess’s belongings until we finally see Karloff, as Ardath Bey, looking down at the mummy of his dead lover.

 

The back-and-forth shot reverse shot stresses his need for a connection with the relics. He bitterly wants for this husk and this garish portrait to be the woman he loves, magically preserved by the customs of his culture in their attempts to cheat time and death. And they do come painfully close. She’s there, but really, she is elsewhere. And this is when the camera swish-pans to the right. This cut, in turn, brings on a strange scrolling panorama of Cairo, which whooshes by before stopping on a close-up of Helen by some ornamental palms (after another disguised cut).

Some special bond, transcending space and time, does connect the mummy case to this girl, we know at once, thanks to this elaborate “scrolling” panorama shot, which I consider a pretty creative visual manner of representing something like reincarnation. But, what a poor likeness! The crude sarcophagus portrait pales in comparison to the real thing, the human face that cinema can deliver to us: Zita Johann palpitating and forever alive.

The movies can embalm time, as Bazin would say. However, I suspect that Bazin would not have totally dug The Mummy as a film. It’s far too invested in expressionism and illusion, in clever tricks of make-up and fantasy, and in the Méliès school of cinema to win his unequivocal good graces. Yet, The Mummy does deal adroitly with the idea of cinema as the mummy, the preserved shell of time and space.

That long, long scene at the beginning makes you really feel time, just as the film’s many roving tracking shots force you to scan and explore the film’s diegetic space as a fully three-dimensional world. Cliff Alberti pointed out that Imhotep walking out of the hut takes place off-screen. So do several of the most crucial horror moments of the film (the murder of the museum guard, Helen’s dog being killed). These spatial ellipses enhance the all-encompassing atmosphere of Freund’s film. It is a total space, a place, a world unto itself, not just a set with a camera plunked down in it.

There are hints of what would come to be known as the Bazanian realism, respecting the integrity of space and time. In fact, Freund later worked with cinematographer Gregg Toland on Mad Love. According to Scott McGee at TCM, Pauline Kael attested that this later film was key in helping Toland develop the techniques he’d employ in Citizen Kane, which Bazin singled out for the intelligent ambiguity of its deep-focus shots. We’re really not all that far away.

Nevertheless, how The Mummy blends this kind of grounding in space and time with the occasional magical, unreal manipulation of these elements intrigues me most. Freund’s camera becomes almost like Imhotep, wiggling around in reality one moment, and, in the next instant, jumping to the past or into some mystical, symbolic abstraction of time or space, like the rolling city panorama or the sudden emptiness of the archeologist’s hut.

The classic example of this shift from real space to a fantasy space occurs during the famous gazing pool scene.

A stunning tracking shot swirls above the characters…

…and then plunges right into the pool, as a seamless dissolve transports us to the past.

And, from here, the flashback takes on the look and feel of both silent cinema and Egyptian scroll paintings (Hmm. Emulating the aesthetics of another era to intensify the philosophical implications of the work? Ingmar Bergman, your turn! Papa Freund called and he wants his technique back!)

People have remarked that this scene symbolizes the unconscious. That’s a slight stretch for me, but the sequence does subtly reveal that the past is never fully past. The tracking shot provides an ostensibly “continuous” movement into the past. Again, the camera is the bridge over time, slipping in and out between registers of reality.

Cinema is a mummy of change, reality embalmed, but it’s a mummy that can also call up quite a few incantations, too. Spells only become cheap tricks when they lose their impact and I think that this camera “trick” is still spellbinding. It makes me wonder what parts of the past are still haunting me—and all of us, on some level.

It’s Not You, It’s Me

The Mummy is a pretty kinky movie when you ponder it. The most warped moment, however, arrives not when the undead creature is present, but rather when Frank Whemple is flirting with the barely conscious Helen.

By talking to her about dead people. Smooth!

He goes on and on about how he dug up the Princess and handled all of her stuff and “her toilette things,” and how, upon unwrapping the lady mummy, he “sort of fell in love with her.”

The Princess’s Toilette Things.

Awfully fetishistic stuff, really.

Apparently, even affable, shaving-cream-ad-good-looking 1930s fellows like David Manners’s Frank harbor a secret necrophiliac bent! And we were condemning Imphotep as strange?

“Do you have to open graves to find girls to fall in love with?” Helen wryly asks. This single line of dialogue makes us truly appreciate Helen as a person for the first time. The sassy comeback renders her modern and amusing—not just some brooding reincarnated chick who’s susceptible to hypnosis. I also consider it a very important line in terms of the movie’s meaning.

Déjà vu?

It’s a deceptively deep question. How and where do we look for love? And why do we fall in love with somebody? Well, a lot of psychoanalysts have suggested that it has very little to do with the person we love and a lot more to do with our own issues. To grossly under-sell the theories of the French analyst Jacques Lacan, we love a certain “something” in that other person that makes us feel complete, since we humans are constantly split-up and divided inside. We’re not so much interested in that other person as we are in the part of ourself that we feel is embedded in that other person.

Frank even admits that one of the reasons he loves Helen is because she reminds him of the dead Princess. His “pure” desire for Helen therefore translates into a need for a victory over death, again. Yes, I’m psychologizing, but he has a crush on a corpse, for crying out loud! By having the woman who reminds him of the Princess, he can feel as though he’s conquered death and time. Wait, isn’t that what Imhotep wants, too?

Of course, Imhotep takes it a little farther. He actually wants to kill her and make her a living mummy whereas Frank seems content with the fantasy. So, in at least two forms, one extreme, the other acceptable, love is inscribed in the mummy complex.

“Love and crime and death” blend together in the all-consuming yearning for immortality. Which is kind of ironic, since all of these actors are dead, yet also undead silver screen mummies, embalmed in celluloid and now in DVD plastic, who dance for us at will.

In closing, I’d just like to make one more observation. I’ve already touched on how cinema is like a fingerprint (courtesy Peter Wollen!). So, I find it significant that the only “proof” that Imhotep came to life when his mummy went missing… is his handprint.

The transcribed hieroglyphs on the paper at left are meaningless if you can’t read them, but the image, connected to the mummy’s physical being, instantly tells a tale.

This handprint motif returns when when Imhotep grabs Helen’s arm towards the end of the film.

Now, that’s creepy because clearly it’s hinting at what she’ll become: a hideously embalmed monster. The dusty, macabre handprint tells us that there is no such thing as eternal life, except if you’re willing to give up some of what we consider to be essential to “life.”

Another aspect of what makes the handprints so eerie consists in their uncanny contradiction: a dead thing isn’t supposed to be able to grab, to touch, or to leave its mark on the living… but this one can. Even the narrator of the original trailer for the film got caught up in this contradiction. “The mummy: is it alive or dead? Human or inhuman?”

At the risk of sounding redundant, I’ll say it again: the film of The Mummy is itself a mummy. It’s the fingerprint of reality, keeping the players in a place between life and death. If Imhotep’s pool is a metaphor for the unconscious, it’s also a meta-phor for cinema. Freund troubles the gazing pool and sets before us strange dreams that are both real and unreal, both forever past and forever present. Both dead and alive.

As Bazin pointed out, every living thing put before the camera has become a mummy of change, a strip of time preserved forever intact. Now, that sounds pretentious when I write it, but it sure looks great when Freund shows it.

Sources and Resources:

Bazin, André. “Ontologie de l’Image Photographique.”  Qu’est-ce que le cinéma? Vol. 1. Ontologie et langage. Paris: Cerf, 1958.

McGee, Scott. “Pop Culture 101: Citizen Kane.” Read the article at TCM.

Mulvey, Laura. “Death 24x a Second.” Reaktion Books, 2006.

Wollen, Peter. “The Semiotics of the Cinema.” Signs and Meaning in the Cinema. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1972.

I did my thesis on Jacques Lacan, so what I say in this post is sort of a condensation of what I got from reading a lot of his essays, too many to cite in a blog, I think. However, if you’d like me to share some Lacan resources and point to a few essays, go ahead and contact me.

I’d also like to recommend Richard Freeman’s “The Mummy in Context,” an excellent review of the literary, cultural, and historical background of Universal’s The Mummy. This is chock full of great insights for anyone who loves this movie or movies in general!

I likewise definitely encourage you to read the Immortal Ephemera blog post on The Mummy, too, which is both personal and insightful and makes some very neat observations about the film. Eye-opening.

Fifty Shades of (Dorian) Gray: In Honor of Albert Lewin

Today, September 23, marks the birthday of Albert Lewin. Old Allie wrote the screenplay for and directed a film that I love, the 1945 M-G-M adaptation of The Picture of Dorian Gray, which does not get nearly the respect it deserves. He was an extraordinary guy and I’d like to take a few moments to remember him and this remarkable film.

You see, Lewin was an intellectual. In studio Hollywood. In the 1940s. Quite the rara avis.

Lewin, right, with George Sanders and Lowell Gilmore on the set of Dorian. 

Born in Brooklyn in 1894, he served in World War I infantry, got his undergraduate degree at New York University, and earned his M.A. in English from Harvard. He was going to become a professor.

Then he saw The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari.

That screening was an epiphany for the young scholar, heralding cinema as the next great expressive medium. As a recovering academic myself, I consider Lewin’s decision to commit himself to cinema, thus totally changing the course of his life, pretty damn brave.

Remember, it wasn’t until much, much later in the 20th century when academic circles began to accept cinema widely as an art!

So, Lewin travelled to California, worked as a reader and script clerk. Irving Thalberg, also a pretty erudite fellow, saw a kindred spirit in Lewin and took him on as his personal assistant. After Thalberg died, Lewin moved around a bit, then returned to M-G-M, this time to direct.

However, rather than making the pretentious, stilted teacup dramas or “idea movies” you might expect from a would-be-professor-turned-Hollywood-man, Lewin served up some of the most delightfully decadent, bizarro, lurid literary adaptations of all time. And his operatic/mythological mash-up drama Pandora and the Flying Dutchman foreshadowed the appropriation of classical characters that we notice so often in blockbusters these days (except that Lewin’s mash-up was actually good.)

So, I’d just like to take a moment to lay out why I believe that The Picture of Dorian Gray is a great—and, no, I don’t throw that word around lightly—film, as well as a great adaptation, worthy of more scrutiny and love than it gets.

Firstly, Dorian Gray does a brilliant job of seizing on M-G-M’s dominant aesthetic—the “house style,” as some would say—and recasting it, twisting it for darkness, horror, and expressionism. Let’s face it, we remember the heyday of the 1930s and 1940s at M-G-M for escapist mega-productions, many of which arguably haven’t aged too well.

They’re so glossy, frilly, and extravagant that they often pale in comparison to the gritty realism of Warner Brothers or the Continental sparkle of Paramount, for instance.

Lewin seems to have been acutely aware of this disadvantage. Dorian Gray, after all, was publicized as a horror film, and it would have been hard to dispute Universal as tops in the horror game. So, rather than trying for the full-on Gothic frisson, Lewin manipulates and reinvents the trappings of M-G-M glamour, slowly inching towards depravity.

Through Lewin’s careful low-key shadings and his faithfulness to the perversity of Wilde’s characters, it’s almost as though the M-G-M look becomes Dorian Gray: cold, soulless, a world of shiny, gleaming surfaces—harboring evil and corruption beneath.

Lewin slowly immerses Dorian’s swanky, polished Edwardian townhouse in shadows and contorts it with oblique angles and striking framings that call attention to their own flamboyance.

Lewin’s brand of horror is a hedonistic, alluring one, a far cry from the sparse, trench-like textures of Whale or the carnavalesque or Gothic tones set by Browning.

 An exotic dancer performing at one of Dorian’s opulent parties.

For instance, take this glorious shot above. So, for some context, Dorian (played by the eerily beautiful Hurd Hatfield) wants to test the virtue of the common girl, Sybil (Angela Lansbury), whom he’s been courting. He tells her that he wants her to spend the night with him. She refuses and he says that if she won’t he doesn’t want to see her again. She walks to the door but then returns when she hears Dorian playing Chopin the piano.

Here, we see her reenter Dorian’s parlor, at the top left corner of the frame, vulnerable, tiny, incomplete, pathetic. The first of Dorian’s victims. Yet, the multiple patterns mingling with shadows give the image a heady glamour, a beauty that’s positively anxiety-inducing.

In the best scene in the film, Basil Hallward, who painted Dorian’s portrait, goes to Dorian’s former childhood playroom where the canvas has been hidden—and sees how the picture has transformed to represent Dorian’s soiled soul.

Dorian panics and (SPOILER) stabs Basil to death. As Dorian makes up his mind to slaughter his friend, the camera tracks in, creeping towards him like a sense of dread. Then there’s a marvelous jump cut to a close-up of Hurd Hatfield’s masklike visage at the exact moment when he decides to grab a penknife at hand and do the deed.

As he does so, he knocks against a hanging lamp which swings back and forth during the struggle, rapidly oscillating between dark and light, dark and light. It’s pure cinema. The changes in lighting are anchored to the mise-en-scene and thus avoid a kind of stuffy symbolism, but still suggest the forces of good and evil warring within Dorian.

On a purely visual level, the manic switching between brightness and shadow attacks the viewer’s eye and produces a simple but undeniable sensation of terror. (Think Touch of Evil‘s flashing neon murder scene or Psycho‘s swinging lightbulb, only more than a decade before!)

Then there’s the fact that the violence is set in a former nursery, which drives home the corrupted innocence of Dorian. Little details imbue the scene with an acid commentary on the loss of the Dorian’s boyish likability, lost since he exchanged his conscience for eternal youth.

As Basil expires, we see his bloody hand fall limply onto a set of ABC building blocks. Dorian even wipes the blood off his hands with an old piece of embroidery, bearing the cheery, childish line, “Oh Little Boy Blue Come Blow Your Horn!” We can hardly believe that our antihero was ever a child, was ever a human being. He is utterly divorced from his self.

All in all, I cannot say enough to recommend this chilling, very influential scene, what with making the lighting part of the violence.

And, in 1945, with the Production Code in full force, Albert Lewin still managed to insert a scene where Dorian visits a dilapidated bar/opium-den/whorehouse. Even though none of these vices are mentioned, every crack in the wall exhales degradation.

Ratty prostitutes sit around talking up drunkards and an old man sits playing Chopin on a tinny piano. It is where all goodness and decency comes to die. Meanwhile, Dorian floats through in his spotless tuxedo and cape, a gentleman slummer in the Ninth Circle of Hell.

Dorian runs into Adrian Singleton (Morton Lowry, who didn’t act in much, but when he did, you noticed), a former friend whom he’d ruined by association. Adrian is onscreen for about 5 minutes, but the setting, the camera angles, and the performance all flawlessly communicate the feeling of being among the damned, of looking into the eyes of a lost soul.

Adrian could sing, write, and draw—but now he languishes in a stupor in some chancrous drug den. This might be a stretch, but he reminds me of the kinds of broken dreamers you’ll find all around Tinseltown, the victims of our collective fantasies.

Meanwhile, Dorian retains his M-G-M sheen, but in the midst of filth and regrets, the audience realizes that, despite the antihero’s veneer of youth and perfection, this is where he belongs. He has unconsciously sought out the place that exteriorizes his soul. The smooth grace and elegance of his London house don’t suit him anymore. Like him, those appearances are a sham.

The Picture of Dorian Gray also displays several other genius touches, like the fact that the movie is black-and-white, but the portrait appears in phantasmagoric Technicolor: at first Adonis-like, then nightmarish.

Then there’s the dialogue, in which Lewin preserved much of Wilde’s sinful satire, with lines like, “I like persons better than principles and persons with no principles best of all.” I must say, the occasional voice-over narration may not appeal to everyone, but I would argue that it’s necessary to suggest some of the complexity (and depravity) of the source material.

I applaud how well Lewin managed to preserve the sophisticated wickedness of Wilde’s novel. There’s no cackling. No abductions of maidens. Just temptation and the idea that, once a man is separated from the consequences of his choices, he loses his self. Life becomes an inferno of pleasure, a looping itinerary of degradation.

And then, there’s the cultural richness of the allusions in the film. How many 1940s Hollywood films can you list that reference, among other things, Baudelaire’s Les Fleurs du Mal, Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde, the Buddha, the aria “La Ci Darem La Mano” from Don Giovanni, Chopin’s Les Preludes, and Omar Kayyám’s Rubáiyát?

To interject an added element of the supernatural into the film, Lewin adds an Egyptian cat statue to explain the mystical transference of Dorian’s soul to the painting. I know that sounds arbitrary… but then, later in the movie, Dorian recites a poem about cats by Wilde that’s not part of the original novel, but which fits in perfectly with the feverishly poetic ambiance of the movie.

You can tell that the man at the helm would have been a fantastic literature professor if he hadn’t discovered film. But thank heaven he did.

The dapper Lewin, right, with Jack Cardiff.

Pardon My French: Foreign Languages and Wit in the Movies

If they ever make a movie about the Tower of Babel, it ought to be a romantic comedy.

After living in a France for two months, I learned just how funny linguistic confusion can be. Notice I said after, because those kinds of problems are only humorous in retrospect, or when they’re happening to someone else. Which brings us to movies and the mildly sadistic pleasure we derive from the befuddlement of others, so long as they’re fictional.

Language versus Body in Design for Living

Some of the most innovative comedy scenes I can think of involve the unexpected interjection of a foreign language—and would fall completely flat without that language, unlikely to be spoken by the majority of viewers. Consider this sublime opener to Lubitsch’s 1933 Design for Living, in which two male friends, George and Tom, (Gary Cooper and Fredric March) meet Gilda (Miriam Hopkins) who’ll become the focus of the love triangle that fuels the movie.

(If, for some reason, you can’t play the video here, I direct you to the unlisted video on my YouTube page and ask that you please not share the link for commercial purposes.)

Look, there’s a lot that’s funny about this, but I’m going to stick to the French. So—apart from how hilarious it is to consider that anyone would ever mistake Gary Cooper for a Frenchman—what’s remarkable about the clip is that the first lines spoken by the main characters wouldn’t have been understood by most audience members. Hollywood isn’t exactly known for giving viewers a lot of credit in the brains department. In fact, Darryl Zanuck actually hired a man he knew to be an idiot because, “I know if a situation is clear to him, it’ll be clear to anybody.” Thus is the importance of clarity to the studio system and, I’d argue, to cinema in general!

This opener harkens back to silent aesthetics, since it relies so heavily on gestures and facial expressions to carry across its meaning. The sound tells you nothing for most of the clip. The image shows you everything. It’s all very physical: from Gilda’s, and our, deduction of Tom and George’s personalities from their sleeping faces to the subjective blurred image of her dainty foot as seen by George. Am I dreaming or is there a fetish object in my lap?

Then again, imagine the scene after everybody wakes up with English instead of French chatter and what have you got? Well, basically an exaggerated argument between quibbling artists.  Goofy, yes, but not truly funny and definitely not witty. The foreign language completes the alchemy of the opening. To a certain extent the misunderstanding that Gary thinks Miriam is French and vice-versa is funny, but even without the great “Aw, nuts!” reveal, the scene would be droll for an American audience.

In my opinion, the humor resides foremost in the fact that we may possibly understand others just as well without speaking their language. It’s just a funny thought: I don’t know what you’re saying, but I know exactly what you mean. We can get the significance even if we don’t get most of what’s being signified linguistically.

It’s the superfluity of language that becomes amusing. There they are, trying so hard to debate the hell out of Frederick March’s upper maxillary bones in a second language, and they might as well have just pointed with the occasional growl. The intellect that it takes to discuss anatomy in French offers a droll juxtaposition to the crude and obvious nature of the gestures and the emphasis on the body in the opening shots. It’s embarrassing, because they (and most other humans) like to believe that they’re perfectly fluent linguistic communicators and thinkers, above caveman grunts. Gilda exclaims her frustration when she feels she can’t win the argument by talking and defending her artistic choice: “Ceci est une caricature!

And what does she say when she breaks into her native language? “Aw, nuts!” It doesn’t get more anatomical than that. The inelegant, staccato English slang even suggests the crassness of what she’s saying and overturns the implicitly civilized nature of all language, which makes all things more abstract and general. The mind and the tongue, the “higher” parts of our nature, serve the body, the physical, the tangible. The way the body and the mind wrestle with each other makes up most of comedy. Lubitsch makes it palpable by switching from a comedy of images to a comedy of words versus images.

I believe that Lubitsch is suggesting that, in the end, humans are pretty primitive. We canget by with gestures, even when discussing something as sophisticated as artistic perspective. Though a fully modern, spirited woman, Gilda can’t help but focus on the physical, too, forming a relationship with the physiognomy of the two men long before she meets them.

And Tom and George, roused (ahem), by a woman’s tiny foot, are not all that far from “Me Tarzan. You Jane.” They’re homo sapiens in nice suits with a smattering of continental charm, but the physical dimension still rules their lives, as it is at the heart of our need to communicate. A big preoccupation of language is courtship. How many times have we mentally face-palmed ourselves after a particularly awkward exchange with a desired individual of the opposite sex?

In Design for Living, we see how often humor is about sex and rivalry, and how often sex and rivalry are humorous. And, in this brilliant opener, we also see how intimately language is bound up with physicality. Language and the mind are the slaves of the body, Lubitsch chuckles at us from behind the screen, and don’t you forget it.

Wooed by Mr. Wu, or Very Creative Intertitles

I could go on forever with examples of comedic moments hinging on language. In Gilligan’s Island, not known for particularly intellectual comedy by a long shot, Ginger announces that she can speak some Hawaiian that she learned while singing in a bar in Waikiki which she promptly rattles off, sounding sultry and exotic. Skipper asks what it means. “The bar is off-limits to all military personnel,” she matter-of-factly replies. That’s another (rather funny) problem with languages we don’t understand. The textures, the feel of the sounds, become more powerful than the meaning. Who needs significance when you have a beautiful, mysterious signifier? Which brings me to case two…

Intertitles, in theory at least, disambiguate the plot of a silent picture. For proponents of pure cinematic art, captions were the bête noire of the silent era, threatening to sully the image with words designed to impose an interpretation. The prejudice continues. When I was a little girl, I read in the Eyewitness Guide to Film, “Poor-quality silent films made heavy use of caption cards, but good directors preferred instead to rely on the cast to tell the story.” In other words, intertitles served as support for the narrative, filling gaps, sort of like plumbers caulk, and nothing more.

That, however, is not always the case.

I had the privilege of seeing the silent film Mr. Wu at the Cinémathèque Française. It’s a very strange film, comprised of 80% Oriental hokum, 20% pure stylistic genius, which comes in flashes. In one scene, a young British imperialist cad, Basil Gregory (the lovely Ralph Forbes), finds his way into the palace walls of a powerful Chinese warlord. Basil immediately proceeds to try to woo the Big Boss’s daughter, Nang Ping (Renée Adorée). As maidens are wont to do, she stumbles and twists her ankle. After some aggressive flirting on Basil’s part and some mute shock on Nang Ping’s, the young lady’s compainion Loo Song (Anna May Wong) arrives to intervene.

That’s when it happens. The screen explodes with dancing calligraphy. Slashes, curlicues, strokes of white, all governed by some order that assimilates them into an unknown meaning, burst across the black screen in vertical bars, pairs, slants, single characters, superimpositions, constellations. In Eisensteinian dynamics, black titles flash into starburst drawings and lines that radiate from the Chinese characters. The maidens talk in shot-reverse-shot, but their words combust.

The audience becomes Basil, beguiled and confused by this plunge into a world of mysterious signifiers. And yet, it’s funny! Even the stiffly urbane spectators at the Cinémathèque couldn’t repress a chuckle at this sly metafilmic subversion.

We read intertitles to understand, but these deliberately vex us. The character-strewn cards use a language we know, the cinematic language, to remind us of a language we don’t. The slight worry on Rénée Adorée’s stretched brows and Anna May Wong’s pout of disapproval give us the gist of the scene (I don’t like that guy one bit! Oh, but he’s so cute!),but the exact exchange escapes us. We are closed out of comprehension. By the very thing that’s supposed to render the film explicit. We’re helpless in the dark. So, of course, we laugh.

Once the clash of symbols has subsided, Nang Ping surprises her suitor by announcing that she does indeed speak English. She may understand without being understood. It’s quite meaningful that the women speak both languages, but the man doesn’t. The female of the species contains the allure of the symbol still to be learned by a foreign male. The woman is the cipher, the indecipherable character.

“We’re speaking different languages!” So goes the refrain of so many failed relationships. Basil and Nang Ping’s relationship—spoiler alert!—is doomed from the start. I can’t help but admire the aptness of the intertitles’ metaphor.

So, I’d observe that the sudden interjection of a foreign language, of something incomprehensible, punctuates a movie with comedy because it touches on a sore spot: the absurd things we manipulate language for… and how language, in turn, manipulates, embarrasses, and tantalizes us— especially when we don’t understand.

Movies are so popular, I suspect, because they largely dwell within the universally, often instantly comprehensible language of images. When a language we can’t make sense of pops up, however, there’s a combustion. We become aware of what we can convey without speaking and we also become more aware of what we don’t know, what we can’t decipher. Language comedy imposes a certain amount of vulnerability on the audience who’s placed its confidence in the readability of the image. It’s a shocking and brash betrayal. And all we can do is laugh.