Romancing the Talkies: 10 Favorites from 1930

joancrawford_microphoneA few weeks ago the marvelous Katie of Cinema Enthusiast invited me to participate in a poll and name my 10 favorite films of 1930.

I enjoyed the exercise of putting together my “ballot” and, as I combed over the other submissions, I realized that I wanted to write a bit about each of my picks.

3,000 or so words later, here we are. (Make it to the end of this post and you’ll get a Lubitsch GIF. That’s a promise.)

To call 1930 a year of transition in Hollywood would be a tremendous understatement. Sound was here to stay, but the industry was still scrambling to reshape production protocols, star images, and film properties for the talkies. Directors working during this fraught period faced a steep learning curve as they negotiated unwieldy technology and unpredictable audience reactions. All the panic and overhaul led to some very bad, dull movies, for sure, but 1930 gave us far more good American movies than popular opinion suggests.

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Delight Evans, critic and editor of Screenland magazine.

Delight Evans, the perceptive editor of Screenland magazine, noted in March of 1930 that the advent of sound pushed narratives towards realism—and often reduced romance to absurdity: “Talkies leave little to the imagination, you see. We [each] wrote our own dialogue for the Gilbert-Garbo kisses. Now we have to look and listen to a deliberate and diagrammed dissertation on the love scenes. Gone is the mystery, the mood, the enchantment.”

Evans was a sharp cookie. She wasn’t sounding the death knell of celluloid romance as much as she was making a simple observation—and reporting industry news. With the calamitous reception of John Gilbert’s ludicrous dialogue in His Glorious Night (not, as some have mistakenly claimed, his voice) and similar hoots of hilarity from audiences watching early sound love scenes, many producers baulked at flowery declarations of passion and green-lit gritty, hardboiled dramas instead.

Sound films do indeed occupy another of our senses, shaking up the gauzy, dreamlike pace of silent movie lovemaking. Talkies clipped cupid’s wings by grounding romance in our terrestrial scheme, our space-time continuum. We lost a part of the movies, a pleasing parenthesis that the viewer could fill with his or her own fantasies. After all, love in reel life as well as real life is often not a matter of what’s said, but what’s unsaid.

It occurs to me that most of the films on my list explore the talkies’ potential for romance, whether cheerful or star-crossed. Whereas many early sound films have a tendency to blurt feelings and messages (“I love you! I love you! I love you!”), I tried to choose movies that fiercely guard their subtext and keep it… sub. Hidden. Unspoken. Tantalizing.

Several great directors seized the opportunities afforded by sound: Capra, whose empathy and belief in human goodness could redeem the oldest clichés in the book; Lubitsch, whose winking ellipses and whimsical reversals celebrated the unseen and the unpredictable in our nature; and Von Sternberg, whose lush mise-en-scene permeated his films mystery and desire.

That said, this list also embraces the boldly anti-romantic side of 1930: gangsters, soldiers, spirits in limbo, and badass shopgirl Joan Crawford interrupting love scenes with feminist zingers.

I wonder how I would’ve reacted to the coming of sound if I’d been a moviegoer way back then. Would I have mourned the silents and written angry letters to magazines, as did many fans? Perhaps. Change hurts. And we lost a great art at the zenith of its powers when the silents died. But I like to think that any of the movies on this list would’ve changed my mind and made me fall in love with cinema all over again.

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The Devil to Pay – George FitzMaurice

I defy you not to adore any movie that features Myrna Loy simmering in a steam bath and Ronald Colman conversing with a dog. An elegant trifle, The Devil to Pay hints at the madcap joys of the high screwball comedy, which wouldn’t blossom (depending on whom you talk to) for a few years at least.

Lovable n’er-do-well aristocrat Willie Leyland (lovable because he’s Ronald Colman) returns to London to sponge some more money off his crotchety father. Willie succeeds in getting his cash, but then falls in love with a spirited—and engaged—linoleum heiress, Dorothy Hope (Loretta Young). Nobody seems to approve of the match, except the girl herself. And that’s all that matters for Willie. Now, will he have the guts to break off his long-term affair with a stage star (Myrna Loy) before Dorothy gets the wrong end of the stick?

Early talkies about the upper classes—especially the British aristocracy—often ring false, with stilted dialogue, awkward accents, and unconvincing relationships. In The Devil to Pay, the familial bonds feel, well, familiar: sweetly critical and teasingly affectionate. The cast carries a lightweight plot off with breezy chemistry. 17-year-old Loretta Young, already a screen veteran, makes Dorothy, a character that could’ve been a living prop, into a delightfully strong-willed woman who’s not afraid to stand up to her father, her fiancé, or the man she loves.

The film begins as Willie auctions off all of the furniture from his hut in Africa. His bed comes up on the block. One woman asks: Does the bed come with the owner? I suspect that cheeky line elicited yearning sighs from every lady in the audience 86 years ago (and it still does for me, 86 years later). As Willie, Ronald Colman glows at the peak of his handsomeness and exhibits a dashing fluency in sound comedy that most other film actors could only envy in 1930.

Where can you see it? It’s, alas, not available on DVD. But let’s just say it’s around online.

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The Doorway to Hell – Archie Mayo

Before Scarface, before The Public Enemy, before Little Caesar, there was The Doorway to Hell, a bitter, gory talkie gangster film frequently punctuated by the rat-a-tat-tat of a “Chicago typewriter.”

Louie Ricarno, a precocious mob boss with aspirations towards respectability, organizes vying factions in the mob like a business, then tries to go legit. (Sound familiar? The Doorway to Hell might be the nearest classic Hollywood relative to The Godfather films in terms of narrative DNA.) When former associates threaten Louie’s beloved family, our anti-hero rides back into town for the bloody vengeance that triggers his inevitable downfall.

Some might argue that devilishly pretty 22-year-old Lew Ayres lacked the grit to take on a tough-guy role. James Cagney, cast as Ayres’s right-hand man here, would obviously go on to define the pugnacious bad-boy allure of the gangster better than anybody else. Today’s viewers might find it difficult not to focus on Jimmy throughout the movie.

From where I’m sitting, though, Ayres infuses Louie with enough dead-eyed, tight-lipped weirdness to make one’s skin crawl. No, he’s not a swaggering punk like Cagney, nor a bravura stereotype like Muni, nor a ferocious pocket thug like Robinson. Ayres plays Louie as nothing less than a stone-cold killer.

His stiff posture and smugly placid resting expression (bastardface?) convey stuntedness; we’re looking at a little boy who absorbed too much reality too early. This man carries something still and unnatural in him, we feel, something spookier than pride or greed. It’s as though the American Dream were a corrosive substance that ate him away from the inside, leaving only a slick shell and the barest remnants of humanity. Louie is the return of the repressed, the monstrous product of a drive to survive that we all share—and of a society that refuses to take responsibility for him.

The Doorway to Hell packs its share of gut-punch moments. A kidnapping attempt on Louie’s untainted little brother goes awry, pushing the child into the way of an oncoming truck. A few scenes later, Louie shows up at a plastic surgeon’s operating room, asking if the doctor can make his brother look the way he did. “Where is he?” Asks the doctor. “At the undertaker,” Louie replies. Thus the film informs us that Louie’s one hope of transcending his inner meanness has died. Tough, laconic, devastating. (And, gee, doesn’t that foreshadow Don Corleone’s plea to the undertaker Bonasera?)

The dialogue offers a treasury of punchy and creative underworld euphemisms, such as “a handful of clouds” for a fatal spray of bullets. When Louie finally resigns himself to his handful, he struts out of his hideout with a wild paroxysm of laughter, boldly meeting death and renouncing this ugly, pitiless existence as just so much ill-smelling ether. It’s one hell of an ending to one hell of a movie.

Where can you see it? It’s on DVD from Warner Archive. So that’s nice.

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Follow Thru – Lloyd Corrigan and Lawrence Schwab

I’ve already gushed at length about this bawdy two-strip Technicolor romp, which I saw at last year’s Capitolfest. The film offers, among other joys, gobsmackingly vibrant close-ups of Nancy Carroll, Thelma Todd wearing little more than beads and feathers, a splashy musical number about misbehaving (backed up by a chorus line of dancing devils), and Eugene Pallette in drag. It’s so much fun that it borders on gluttony.

Where can you see it? Ahem, you might find it around online. But the available prints don’t do the film justice. How I wish the glorious UCLA restoration that I saw would get a DVD/Blu-ray release!

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Journey’s End – James Whale

Overshadowed by the more technically adventurous All Quiet on the Western Front, James Whale’s drama of the Great War opened in theaters several months earlier. Adapted from R.C. Sherriff’s acclaimed stage play, Journey’s End evokes the claustrophobia of trench warfare with grim authenticity. (Whale had served in WWI, and the horrors he witnessed over there carved a crooked smile into all of his films. His macabre revision of Frankenstein owes as much to the daily crushing terror of total war as to the solemn grandeur of Gothic literature.)

Its auteur aside—and Whale surely deserves the distinction of auteur—Journey’s End makes my list of 1930 favorites because of its star, Colin Clive. Though best remembered today as Doctor Frankenstein, blueblooded Clive rose to fame in the 1920s for his stage portrayal of Captain Stanhope, the doomed commanding officer who numbs his shellshock with alcohol and hopes he’ll die in a blaze of glory before his loved ones learn what he’s become. (Side note: Laurence Olivier was first cast in the role, but didn’t quite click and left the play. Clive took over and scored a hit.)

Brought to Hollywood to reprise the role, Clive made a haunting film debut and demonstrated an intuitive understanding of film acting—at a time when even experienced movie actors were struggling to adapt to the talkies.

Nobody could come apart at the seams before a camera like Clive. He specialized in blow-ups and breakdowns, the emotional trapeze parts that seem overacted unless grounded by utter sincerity. Clive brings Stanhope to life in all of his tortured contradictions: snappish yet gentle, petulant yet wise, terrified yet brave, exasperating yet endearing.

(A few years ago I did a post on this film and Clive, whose brief life paralleled his tragic roles.)

Where can you see it? I believe that the film is in the public domain. You can watch it on YouTube. Sadly, I’ve only ever seen murky prints around.

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Ladies of Leisure – Frank Capra

Capra and Stanwyck’s first collaboration is just as good as you’d hope and needs no introduction from me. I caught it on TCM years ago and can still picture the way Stanwyck’s eyes shine when her hardened “party girl” character realizes that love is not only real, but has come calling in her life.

Where can you see it? It’s out on DVD from Sony.

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Laughter – Harry d’Abbadie d’Arrast

Films that tackle the heavy side of life with a light touch hold a special place in my heart. Some movies wield their direness like a blunt instrument, but who wants to be clubbed half to death? One of the worst ideas about art in the history of art is that great art must somehow be painful—and that, the more painful art is to consume, the better it must automatically be. Art’s greatness is inversely proportional to the pleasure it gives to ordinary folk. Or so asserts a certain school of thought. Personally, I refuse to penalize art for entertaining me.

Laughter is about heartbreak, starving artists, suicide, and the wrench of choosing loveless wealth over romance and poverty. Yet, without diminishing any of those serious themes, this film nourishes the viewer’s joie de vivre. Director Harry d’Abbadie d’Arrast, a pal of Chaplin’s, understood that you don’t have to make the audience suffer to say something about human suffering.

One-time chorus girl Peggy (Nancy Carroll), now married to a decent but dull millionaire (Frank Morgan), longs for the bohemian good times of her past. When her ex-lover Paul (Fredric March), a vagabond composer, shows up, Peggy has to make a bitter choice: risk everything for love and freedom or entomb herself forever in a world of passionless material comforts.

Blending melodrama and zany proto-screwball antics, Laughter deserves all the critical praise it’s garnered over the years. When Pauline Kael describes a film as a “lovely, sophisticated comedy, an ode to impracticality” with “perhaps the best clothes ever seen on the screen,” you’d be a fool not to seek it out.

Best of all, the film defines healthy romance as continual playfulness. We recognize Peggy’s and Paul’s mutual love because they go for joyrides and get hopelessly, merrily lost. They roam around a stranger’s home wrapped in bear-skin rugs. They playact a gender-flipped husband and wife relationship. They discuss Paul’s work-in-progress symphony through an exchange of boisterous vocalizations. The irrepressible human need to love, create, and gather rosebuds while ye may bubbles forth from every scene.

Where can you see it? It’s not on DVD (Damn you, Universal/Comcast!), but you may find it somewhere around this jumble we call the Internet…

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Monte Carlo – Ernst Lubitsch

A minor Lubitsch film is one you can only imagine yourself watching, say, a half-dozen more times in your life instead of a hundred. Monte Carlo is a minor Lubitsch film.

In this musical confection, headstrong Countess Helene (Jeanette MacDonald) leaves her effete would-be groom at the altar and flees to Monte Carlo, hoping to win enough at the casino to balance her hefty debts and avoid marriage. While losing the remainder of her money, she catches the eye of rakish Count Rudy (Jack Buchanan) who poses as her hairdresser—the better to woo her and save her from financial disaster. The countess soon finds herself falling for the faux coiffeur. But will she let snobbery get in the way of true love?

Reviews of this film typically heap scorn on leading man Buchanan. I’d been listening to his song recordings for years before I saw this film, so I must confess my disappointment that his considerable charms did not, to put it mildly, translate well to Monte Carlo. (Hell, in the image above he looks more like he’s contemplating cutting Jeanette MacDonald’s throat than her hair.) But, hey, Cary Grant cited him as an influence, so I’ll just squint and work a little harder to appreciate Buchanan here.

The script at least makes Buchanan himself work a little harder to impress us and MacDonald. His early attempts to pick her up meet with spectacular (if unsurprising) failure; he has to enter her employ and win her trust with a really, really sensual scalp massage. I like the idea that the hero has to serve a kind of romantic apprenticeship, proving himself a loyal and useful companion before his lady love gives him a second look. When Buchanan starts trying to assert himself as master and order MacDonald about, though, the film takes a nosedive.

In any case, MacDonald more than compensates for Buchanan’s shortcomings. This goddess of frivolity indulges in aggressively bad decisions and imperious diva tantrums, yet I still worship at her altar. Why? Because she has amazing hair. I don’t say that in jest. Perhaps only Ginger Rogers could match MacDonald’s use of her hair as a weapon in the arsenal of physical comedy. Monte Carlo’s funniest moment arrives when MacDonald flips out and pulls her lustrous locks into a half-marcelled frizzbomb of feminine whimsy—in hopes of ruining Rudy’s reputation as a coiffeur.

Monte Carlo doesn’t ascend to the giddy, constantly-pleasurable heights of The Love Parade or The Smiling Lieutenant, but Lubitsch dazzles us with MacDonald’s rendition of “Beyond the Blue Horizon” as the music mingles with the rhythms of a locomotive chugging through the countryside. Plus, one of my favorite songs of the 1930s, “Always in All Ways,” provides a sweet moment of harmony between MacDonald and Buchanan. (Note to self: Why do I have this weakness for foxtrots about codependency?)

Where can you see it? Rejoice, ye cinephiles, it’s part of Criterion’s Lubitsch Musicals Eclipse box set!

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Morocco – Josef von Sternberg

Movies melt out of our minds, leaving the occasional morsels of dialogue, gestures, and images. The greatest movies give us something to hang onto. Marlene Dietrich in a tuxedo will remain burned on my brain for as long as I can summon memories.

Marlene, with a cigarette dangling from the corner of her mouth, tugging her bowtie in place as she looks into a grimy mirror.

Marlene tipping her hat back with crisp and cavalier gesture.

Marlene bending down to kiss a slightly shocked but excited female nightclub patron.

In her iconic tux, Marlene embodies a seductive, self-contained ideal, or rather two ideals, two binary fantasies, fused into one person. Behold, spectators: a woman as a complete and unassailable being, a woman who’s imbibed the best qualities of the gentleman and made them her own. When asked if she’s married, Dietrich’s character, Amy Jolly, replies, “Marriage? No, I never found a man good enough for that.” Of course not. She is her own woman and her own man.

Oh, yeah, there’s some plot going on here, too, involving wealthy Adolphe Menjou and Foreign Legion soldier Gary Cooper as rivals for Marlene’s heart. But the point lies elsewhere, in the hypnotic visions of alienation and exploration that Sternberg orchestrates for us. Even the denouement, as Dietrich kicks off her golden sandals and trudges into the the blistering desert sands to follow her lover, strikes me as not a surrender of Amy’s self-contained power, but an enlargement of it. With a slight alteration of costume, this shape-shifting, convention-defying woman will reinvent herself as her heart commands.

Where can you see it? It’s available from the Universal Vault Series.

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Our Blushing Brides – Harry Beaumont

I’ve been working on a post about Our Blushing Brides for over a year. Why has it taken me so long? Because I love this movie and just when I think I’ve run out of things to say about it, I think of something else I want to analyze.

Joan Crawford radiates raw and righteous anger as a department store model fending off the advances of a dapper playboy who happens to be her boss (Robert Montgomery, of course, it’s Robert Montgomery; like, really, were you expecting anybody else?). The screenplay, co-written by Bess Meredyth, flips the shopgirl-Cinderella formula on its head and provides Queen Joan with numerous opportunities to shred male privilege until Prince Not-So-Charming-As-He-Thinks learns his lesson.

Did I mention the mid-movie fashion show? Seriously, go watch this now.

Where can you see it? It’s available on a DVD from Warner Archive and is also currently streaming HD on Warner Archive Instant.

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Outward Bound – Robert Milton

As I was making my late-breaking 1930 list, I “eavesdropped” (or whatever the Twitter equivalent is) on a conversation between two esteemed cinephile friends of mine, Miriam Bale and Kimberly Lindbergs, as they discussed their own lists. Both had selected Outward Bound, a film I’d never heard of. “Gee, if they like it, it must be swell,” I thought to myself. (And, yes, my internal monologue sounds like a 1930s chorus girl.)

Seized by curiosity, I dug up this unavailable film late at night, telling myself I’d check out the first few minutes and watch the whole thing tomorrow. An hour and a half later, it was 2 a.m., I’d watched the entire film, and I was sobbing.

Before there was A Matter of Life and Death there was Outward Bound, a numinous meditation on the afterlife and the wages of our earthly actions.

A group of unconnected people from all classes of society find themselves on an eerily deserted ocean liner with no recollection of buying a ticket. They soon realize that they’ve recently died and now drift towards a unmapped port where they will all be judged for their sins and virtues.

The allegorical shipboard setting, with its winding hallways, simple gathering spaces and mist-shrouded decks, conjures a wondrous yet familiar atmosphere. Within this magically simple backdrop, the performances—from unfeeling grande dame Alison Skipworth to bullying businessman Montagu Love to meek charwoman Beryl Mercer—define a vivid microcosm.

As the first passenger to awaken to the horror of his situation, Leslie Howard balances faraway hopelessness with tightly-coiled angst. In his first sound role, Howard displays the otherworldly grace of a lost soul, a man dead long before he died. He need only run those fragile, tapered fingers of his across his forehead to convey all the broken dreams of the post-WWI generation. And that voice! Just listen to how he says “We are all dead, aren’t we?” in this clip. Listen to the beats between words, the rising pitch on “dead,” the resignation and relief of the last words. He transmutes a question into a phrase of music.

However, it’s Douglas Fairbanks Jr. and Helen Chandler who anchor the film as a devoted young couple drifting on the edges of the doomed group. Boyishly gorgeous Fairbanks and angelic, spellbound Chandler cling to each other with quiet but frantic anxiety: will the great judgement cast them apart for all eternity? Chandler’s singsong voice and delicate gestures finally made me break into tears as she totters down the foggy ship deck in search of her beloved… whom she may never see again.

Perhaps a movie can give us viewers no greater gift than the desire to invest ourselves more earnestly in life—to embrace every fleeting sensation, to bear fate’s blows more patiently, to correct our faults more humbly, and to love more generously. Outward Bound does all of this with the feverish beauty of a sad, half-remembered dream.

Where can you see it? Sadly unavailable, Outward Bound is due for a release. How about it, Warner Archive friends? (I think you own it, n’est-ce pas?)

And about that GIF I promised you…

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Free Friday Film: Nothing Sacred (1937)

posterFredric March was a ladies’ man. Really.

We’re not talking a fellow with a dalliance here and there—we’re talking a full-time, notorious skirt-chaser of Don Draper magnitude. And March, whose shapely thighs seemed to make a supporting appearance in every esteemed period drama of the early 1930s, encountered a fair amount of success in his extracurricular adventures.

However, when he put the moves on co-star Carole Lombard during the filming of Nothing Sacred, she was anything but amused. Deeply in love with Clark Gable, our Carole wanted to send the message to Freddie: go prowl somewhere else.

And, being the master prankster of Hollywood, she dreamed up a wonderfully gross way to tell him to scram.

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Feigning a sudden amorous interest in her co-star, she invited him to come up and see her sometime. In her dressing room. Wink, wink. He didn’t have to be told twice. Boy, was he in for a surprise!

According to Warren G. Harris in Gable and Lombard, “as March’s hand started up under Lombard’s dress, he suddenly let out an astonished oath. He had grabbed a rubber dildo, which Lombard had strapped on herself before his arrival. The shock was too much for March. He never bothered Lombard again.” (83)

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Notice the expression of general unease on ol’ Freddie’s face…

I hope you realize that I’m sharing that delightfully obscene anecdote at the peril of getting some very questionable search term hits on this blog. Yet, I went ahead and included it anyway to illustrate the fact that the sorrows—and embarrassments—of life are the joys of art. Because the real-life hostile energy between March and Lombard translates into a match made in screwball heaven onscreen.

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In this blithely offensive Ben Hecht concoction, directed by William Wellman, a disgraced New York star reporter, Wally, longs to win his way back into the spotlight. He intends to do exactly that by creating a media circus around Hazel Flagg, a young woman who’s dying of radium poisoning. The only problem is, her hick doctor made a mistake. She’s not really dying… but she can’t pass up the chance to escape her little Podunk town in Vermont.

So, as New York City pours out its sappy, self-congratulatory love for the beautiful doomed girl, she’s drinking in the attention—and looking for a way out. Meanwhile, Wally, the fast-talking, hard-boiled reporter, has fallen hard for the girl he thinks has a few weeks to live.

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On a stylistic level, I love William Wellman’s flamboyant habit of obstructing what we most want to see with weird, incongruous objects. A big vase of funereal flowers makes a conversation impossible. A scary old woman’s whimple-like mourning hat blocks out most of Lombard’s lovely face. The most romantic kiss in Nothing Sacred takes place out of our sight, hidden behind a bunch of crates on the New York docks! This off-kilter visual sense imbues the film with a wacky, cartoonish quality that perfectly suits the plot contrivances and broadly comic premise.

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Nothing Sacred gives us a world of awkward silliness, a world so jam-packed with obstacles and ill-conceived objects that it would be sad if it weren’t so ridiculous. Even New York strikes us as a somewhat gaudy intrusion, with its jutting skyscrapers and its huge girders that serve as perches for burly workers eating their lunches.

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I’ve already mentioned that this movie is less than politically correct, but if it’s offensive, it’s offensive to almost everyone, as the title implies. No character escapes a good skewering by Ben Hecht. The prudish, monosyllabic denizens of the town of Warsaw, Vermont (very much like where I grew up) seem just as ludicrous as the hypocritical sinners in New York City.

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Carole Lombard absolutely glows in Technicolor—and I could start weeping when I think that fate never allowed her to make another feature in color. Her sweetly conniving small-town girl wins our hearts from the moment she shambles glumly across the screen, thinking she has weeks to live. Even more amusing, when she finds out she’s not going to die, she breaks into tears. As she sniffles, “It’s kind of startling to be brought to life twice—and each time in Warsaw!”

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We adore Hazel Flagg because, in spite of her charade, she’s actually the most honest person in the film—or perhaps the least dishonest. The people heaping goopy, sugary outpourings of pity on Hazel don’t really give a damn about her. She merely serves as a stimulus that enables them to feel like better human beings. They imagine that they’re moved by her misfortune, so they can all think, “Gee, I’m a real swell person, because of my empathy for that gorgeous dying girl.” At least Hazel never lies to herself, unlike her many phony admirers.

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As Ben Hecht explained in his autobiography, he had a real beef with what he saw as the public’s need to live their lives through others, instead of seizing on any kind of private, first-hand pleasure. With this in mind, Nothing Sacred still levels a relevant criticism at today’s society—it’s easy to get so involved in hyper-publicized feuds, drippy human interest stories, and celebrity trivia that I forget who I am and what I believe as an individual.

The desire to be distracted by someone else’s problems and the craving for undeserved fame feed on each other, fueled by mercenary media moguls. Sound familiar? Nowadays, you can find a zillion neo-Hazel Flaggs—people trying to get famous for their plights and sob stories—with a Google search. And that’s why Nothing Sacred remains fresh and droll more than 75 years after it was made.

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But, back to the story and our squabbling stars. In spite of the fact that Freddie and Carole disliked each other, many of their scenes together exude a charming tenderness. We watch this cynical journalist melt in the presence of the outwardly naïve girl whom he brought to New York, basically as a freak show. I adore a little scene where he takes her away from the ugly publicity, on a sailboat up the Hudson.

Even better, we get to savor Wally’s mixture of outrage and relief when he finds out that she’s not dying—and has been fooling him all along. Love, in my mind at least, is an unmasking. It’s when you discover the worst about a person and realize that it’s all the same things you feel guilty about yourself. In this case, Wally discovers Hazel as a brilliant, brazen, sensational faker. Just like him.

The most famous scene in the movie, the “boxing match” between Lombard and March always cracked me up—and does so even more now that I recognize that it seethes with genuine antipathy.

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Leave it to Ben Hecht to depict the battle between the sexes literally—a fistfight that proves the congruence of love and hate. Does it hurt to watch a woman getting socked in the jaw by a man? Um, yes. But it is completely worth it to watch Wally getting knocked out cold by Hazel.

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Oddly enough, only when Hazel and Wally have knocked each other out (at different times) do they run to the other’s side with a remorseful kiss. In other words, love implies an oscillation between snuggliness and rage, with very little middle ground.

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“God, how I love you when you’re totally unconscious!”

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If this film has one fault, it’s that Carole Lombard doesn’t get enough to do. In the role of an invalid, she lacks the opportunity to rip into her usual slapstick antics until the very end of the film, but she compensates with some of the most splendid facial expressions in cinema history. My personal favorite is the grimace she makes when she receives the key to New York, has no place to put it, stuffs it down her shirt—and gets caught in the glare of a cameraman’s flashbulb. Priceless.

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 More great facial expressions, brought to you by the inimitable Carole…

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I also chuckle to myself watching her rubber face react to all the goofy ways New York chose to “honor” her: forcing her to play muse to a brooding poet, treating her to ten seconds of mopey silence at a boxing match, and, most egregiously, calling her up on a stage of showgirls to complete a flashy line-up of famous historical women.

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Nothing Sacred also features Walter Connolly chewing scenes as an apoplectic newspaper owner, prone to making threats like, “I am sitting here, Mr.Cook, toying with the idea of cutting out your heart, and stuffing it, like an olive!”

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Tough-guy Maxie Rosenbloom also makes a memorable appearance and adds his dummy charisma to the mix. If you dig burlesque, stay tuned for a nightclub show featuring half-naked “Heroines of History” from Lady Godiva to Hazel Flagg—hosted by the spectacularly unfunny Frank Fay, Barbara Stanwyck’s ex.

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Best of all, I encourage you to bask in Ben Hecht’s and William Wellman’s iconoclastic disdain for everything usually considered comic taboo: schoolchildren, kindness, charity, romantic love, and death. Indeed, absolutely nothing is safe and nothing is sacred.

So, check this one out. If you haven’t totally sold your soul to the doctrine of political correctness and good taste (whatever that is), you will laugh. And if you don’t, this is my response to you:

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Walt Disney Company, Hollywood’s Pacific Title & Art Studio, and the restoration laboratory Cinetech of Valencia restored Nothing Sacred so that it looks absolutely beautiful, compared to the blotchy DVD copy I first watched. You can read about the restoration by clicking here. It’s one of the earliest feature films made in three-strip Technicolor which offered a much broader range than two-strip. In this movie, the hues add to the comedic impact of scenes with their startling, exaggerated intensity.

You can watch this YouTube version (also below) in 720p HD, which I definitely recommend.

Since the film has fallen into the Public Domain, you can also download it at the Internet Archive, although the quality is inferior to that of the version embedded here.

When you’re done, please leave a comment and tell me what you think of the movie! 

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.