The Laughing Academy: It Happened One Night (1934)

It Happened One Night

“If the movies are an art, I kinda think it’ll leak out somehow without bein’ told; and if they’re a science—then it’s a miracle.”

—Will Rogers at the Academy Awards banquet, 1934

“Let’s get this over with.”

—Clark Gable, arriving on the set for the first day of shooting on It Happened One Night

“I just finished making the worst picture I’ve ever made.”

—Claudette Colbert, on finishing It Happened One Night

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The Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences is not exactly known for rewarding a good laugh.

We all know that if you want one of their little gold men on your bedside table, your safest bet lies in unearthing the most degrading, unglamorous, tragic script you can find and wringing it for all its worth. Which is a shame, really, because many of the best movies ever made are comedies and I would argue that it’s much harder to make a good funny picture—one that really makes your sides hurt and a twinkle reappear in in your eye—than a good depressing one.

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Don’t get me wrong—many fine comedies have gotten Oscar nods, and several have attracted one or two of the big awards, but that’s comparatively rare. Perhaps the idea of serious drama adds an air of respectability and legitimacy to movies, and that’s why rather dire, pompous, or grandiose movies tend to hold the Academy trump cards.

Except for once.

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In 1934, a low-budget comedy won every major award. Best Actor. Best Actress. Best Director. Best Screenplay. And, of course, Best Picture. It was the first movie ever to sweep the big awards like that. However, it starred two loaned-out actors who didn’t want anything to do with it. It was made at a fledgling studio in the midst of a town dominated by reigning giants. It bridged the wide gap between an era of Pre-Code naughtiness and a new period of constraints and stringent censorship. It forged a new subgenre: the screwball comedy, which embedded cheeky adventures into a more cautious, traditional courtship framework. It’s a miraculous movie.

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Although it was initially entitled Night Bus, the movie bore a stunningly romantic, already nostalgic name: It Happened One Night.

Night Bus

But let’s get one thing clear: I don’t by a long shot consider it the greatest comedy ever made. I’d nominate Trouble in Paradise, Some Like It Hot, or The Lady Eve for that honor. Nor is it the best movie Capra ever made. Nor is it even the funniest movie ever made.

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Yet, in it’s own strange way, It Happened One Night stands out as perhaps the most likable film ever made—even more so than Casablanca, with its occasionally mawkish bouts of patriotism (although I do love Casablanca). Capra’s little laugh-fest fills me with cozy joy, as if it were tapioca pudding in movie-form. And, in 1934, the heart of the Depression, apparently even the Academy appreciated some filmic comfort food.

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Claudette Colbert: existentialist.

The film glows with the impression of genuineness, of spontaneity. Notice I say “impression” because anyone who’s ever held a camera can tell you that spontaneity requires some of the greatest illusory juju that any cinema shaman can summon up. We talk a lot about Capra the humanist and Capra the idealist—but I want to praise Capra the magician, who can pull realism out of staged simplicity, who can turn two freakishly charismatic people into ordinary individuals who need baths and get hungry, who can even use snappy dialogue and character involvement to make us forget that we’re looking at a rear-projected shot.

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This contrived tale of a runaway heiress and an out-of-work reporter racing to get her back to her fiancée—and inevitably falling in love in spite of their antagonism—succeeds. And how!

By what strange alchemy does this movie turn to gold? I give a lot of credit to what I’d call orchestrated amateurism—endearingly crude cuts and awkward moments added in to what would otherwise be a flat, dull, artificial enterprise. Capra can do flawless and sophisticated. He did it, in my book, the year before with The Bitter Tea of General Yen—a lush, expressionistic story of a doomed romance, every shot of which is fit for framing and hanging on a gallery wall. It Happened One Night, however, is brilliantly flawed and splendidly arranged to seem like everyday life, to seem like it’s just happening as it goes along.

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For instance, there’s a moment that’s always distracted me. Ellie Andrews, the pampered runaway, has to spend a night in the same autopark room with Pete Warne, a canny, independent newspaper man. Although they didn’t exactly go to sleep on good terms, they wake up on a better foot and sit down to breakfast together. Claudette Colbert exudes a natural shimmering warmth in any role, so as she tells Pete about how her filthy rich life wasn’t so great after all, her speech strikes me as cute—but that’s not what I’m watching.

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Ellie’s eating as she talks. Not “movie eating,” picking at food, pretending to eat. Really eating. Shoveling eggs in and chewing them up. And at one point, a little shred of egg white gets caught on her lip and she flips it back into her mouth. It’s a split-second motion, not in the least played up for comic effect, but that’s all it takes to turn a staged scene into something that feels much more real. Capra was the master of the reifying detail, the one thing that turns a scene from a clunker to a charmer.

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Capra cultivates this not-quite-put-together ambiance, this intentional sloppiness in the famous scene the night before, when Pete undresses in front of the camera. Ellie stands there all the while, bluffing, trying to insist that she’s not afraid of Pete’s rough virility. Meanwhile, taunting her in this game of erotic chicken (oh, God, I hope that “erotic chicken” doesn’t show up on my search terms list), Gable does what we must recognize as one of classic cinema’s few male stripteases. Yes, take THAT, male gaze-obsessed film theorists!

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All digressions aside, make no mistake: this is a constructed scene, as snappy and precise as a Busby Berkeley tap routine. In fact, the reason why Gable takes off his shirt to reveal no undershirt (and thereby bankrupted many an undergarment company) isn’t a question of style but of timing: with the undershirt, the spiel and the routine took too long.

However, the editing makes the scene seem a lot more amateurish than it is. When Gable prepares to unbutton his pants, and every female viewer leaned forward a little, we see Colbert, leaning against the door, rush forward—Heaven forbid she see a naked man! Then we get a quick cut to a longer shot, and she’s back where she was, leaning against the door! Almost immediately, she jerks forward again and scampers to the other side of the Walls of Jericho, the blanket that separates the unwilling roommates. In case I’m not being clear, we see the same action, Colbert starting to run away, twice, if only for a second. I wish I could capture it via screenshot, but it’s too fast—I happens right after this…

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Call the referee! A continuity rule has been violated!

Seriously, though, that messy cut consecrates the scene with a paradoxical sense of documentary authenticity. Obviously, anything that’s been edited has been contrived. However, a jumpy cut encourages us as viewers to see this film as somewhat haphazardly thrown together. It’s natural, uncomplicated, unvarnished, practically a home movie, we’re meant to believe. Our good will towards this quaint, patched-up picture from a minor studio swells into fondness. I’d also point out that the doubled action adds an almost Eisensteinian surge of energy to the moment—a jolt to conclude one striptease and usher in another, as Colbert strips to her slip on the other side of the Walls of Jericho.

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Seriously, though, if you’re watching It Happened One Night for the umpteenth time, keep an eye out for how many weird cuts rip through this masterpiece of calculated nonchalance. Perhaps the most effective and, I would argue, self-conscious of these jumpy cuts arrives at the moment when Pete and Ellie come nose-to-nose for the first time—the first time that they’re not screaming at each other, that is.

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As Ellie reclines in a hay bail, Pete folds his trench coat over her. They come face to face. We expect a kiss. Instead, we get a jump cut closer.

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I love how that gratuitous little inch forward allows us to experience the intimacy of that instant. There’s no kiss. There’s no sex. And yet something changed there and we all perceived it. Then Pete gets up and makes up his bed of straw. There are so many hackneyed ways to insist on attractive tension—360-degree camera spirals, zooms, fetishistically long close-ups. But Capra, not exactly known for avoiding sentimentality, saves us from all that saccharine sweetness with a dose of jagged cutting that brings us back to reality… or the illusion of reality.

I suppose that my point, if I must indeed have a point, consists in showing that It Happened One Night deserves every single one of its awards for seeming so effortless, buoyant, and, yes, even a little shoddy.

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As for our Best Actor, I’ll admit it: I usually don’t love Clark Gable—he doesn’t do it for me, I’m afraid. However, in this movie, I can’t resist his disobligingly teasing swagger. He could have collected an Oscar just  for how he mockingly sings, “Who’s Afraid of the Big Bad Wolf?” to sheltered maiden Ellie on the other side of the Walls of Jericho.

Whether gnawing on carrots or tossing his best set of pajamas at Ellie, he amplifies the Average American Man, or what we’d like to think he is: basically decent, crammed with his own cockeyed wisdom, foolish, savvy, glib, cynical, sentimental, sincere, and strong—all in one. These qualities shine beautifully through in Gable, the kind of guy who would and did give his Oscar to a little kid who remarked on it in the street.

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Colbert earned her Oscar by refusing to tone down her part. No mistake—Ellie can be an atrocious brat. In the first five minutes of the movie, she pitches a tray of fresh food on the floor with such single-minded, adolescent fury that I imagine a whole audience of undernourished Americans wanted to slap her, just as Walter Connolly does. She’s the kind of childish gal who returns the stuck-out tongue of a girl half her age!

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Her comedic timing generates laughs, but never hits you as forced or mannered. For instance, in the hitchhiking scene, Gable gets most of the antics, demonstrating the several methods of hitchhiking—all she does in response is go, “That’s amazing.” But, man, the dry, falsely-impressed timbre of her voice is funnier that all the custard pies in the world.

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She was convinced that she’d never win the Oscar and was on her way out of town when she heard the news and was summoned to attend the Academy Awards Banquet. She later recalled: “I was surprised when I got the prize. I really had no idea I would get it. In fact, I was ready to leave for New York the night they called to tell me about it. Dressed in a mousy brown suit, I was escorted into the banquet hall full of diamonds and tail coats. It was especially embarrassing because I imagined they thought I was putting on an act, making an entrance.” Rather appropriate, considering the runway heiress she played in the movie, n’est-ce pas?

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The winning script, by frequent Capra collaborator Frank Riskin, based on a story by Samuel Hopkins Adams, not only packs in lots of witty diatribes, but an extraordinary amount of hilarious situations. To list only a few, who could forget Colbert pretending to be a plumber’s daughter and screeching like a fishwife when private detectives come looking for her? Or Gable throwing her over his shoulder and toting her across a stream? Or the infamous hitchhiking thigh-flash? Or the definitive runaway bride wedding?

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She’s at the ten, the twenty—no one can catch her!

I also admire how Riskin uses lots of stock characters and tropes of the day, but bends them to the will of the public. Our schadenfreude gets a healthy workout as bad things recurrently happen to bad people—and everyone gets their just desserts. The infamous playboy King Wesley gets ditched at the altar and the self-indulgent, self-important Daddy Andrews freaks out because his daughter finally took a stand against him.

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Between love and madness there lies It Happened One Night

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Even the lead romance works only because there’s an element of playful humbling involved on both sides. If we believe that Ellie and Pete are meant for each other, it’s on the level of Mr. Darcy and Elizabeth—their love is founded on romantic one-upmanship, the cancelling out of their proud natures. He shows her up by revealing that there’s more to life than money and she shows him up by knowing things that women just naturally know—that is, how to control men!

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The script cleverly calls for the main characters to slip in and out of several identities. For instance, take Pete’s terrifying imitation of a gangster, scaring the living daylights out of the blackmailing womanizer Shapeley (a very irritating Roscoe Karns) who threatens to reveal Ellie’s identity. In the years previous to this, Gable had played a lot of tough customers (he’s absolutely chilling as a would-be child-murderer in Night Nurse), so he slides easily into the persona of a cold-blooded killer.  Yet, in this case, instead of feeling like we should boo him, because he’s a gangster, we enjoy watching the fierce pre-code villainous Gable put the fear of God into a sniveling creep.

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In the same manner, we can relish Colbert’s impersonations of loose women because we’ve been let in on the secret that Ellie’s never even been alone with a man before she spends the night in the same cabin with Pete. Riskin cunningly takes morally upright people (by the Code’s standard) but leads them through cheeky transformations—dictated by necessity. He deserves a prize for Best Circumscription of Regulations.

And Best Director Capra reinvents realism on two levels. First, his attention to the idiosyncrasies of how people really live comes across as nothing short of staggering.

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A hobo on top of a train waves to an ecstatic Pete—just another “realistic” touch that adds to the movie’s charms.

Second, Capra blows me away with his understanding of a viewer’s desire to believe that a movie is close to reality. We want to think that the circumstances it portrays are true. He knew well enough not to conceal his stars’ cranky attitudes and the less-than-ideal production circumstances. Instead, he emphasizes them in all their unvarnished, slapdash glory. Oftentimes we don’t want our movies to be all wrapped up and consumable. We want them ragged and lovable. He understood this, which is why he really was one of America’s Best Directors, despite what Orson Welles’ called his Saturday Evening Post sensibilities.

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And I think that we must view It Happened One Night as one of Capra’ best films because his mildly preachy American Dream stuff stays under the rug here. Instead of trying to reassure us that God is good and nice guys don’t finish last, he kindly serves us a funny, serendipitous love story. In the end, that’s all I want to see.

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The big messages, the politics, the values of an era tend to fade away, don’t they? Funny, however, usually stays funny. It takes guts and foresight to reward comedy and I wish more comedies had won Academy Awards. But I’m certainly glad this one harvested a whole crop. It does me good to know that, from time to time, even the Academy can laugh.

Or at least appreciate Claudette Colbert’s gams.

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(One last fact: Claudette Colbert initially refused to bare her legs for the hitchhiking—she thought it was cheap and stupid. So Capra got a leg double. And no sooner did Colbert see those replacement legs than she changed her mind and insisted that Capra use her own inimitably lovely pins, the ones you see above.)

This post is part of the 31 Days of Oscar Blogathon, hosted by Paula of Paula’s Cinema Club, Aurora of Once Upon A Screen, and Kellee of Outspoken and Freckled. Visit their blogs and learn more about this wonderful blog event! Find the blogathon on Twitter by searching the #31Days hashtag.

Should Old Acquaintance Be Forgot? The Divorcée (1930)

The Divorcée

The Divorcée is an odd film.

To the eyes of a modern viewer (at least the cinema-seasoned eyes of this modern viewer), the 1930 M-G-M Norma Shearer vehicle, directed by Robert Z. Leonard, comes across as both shockingly bold and, on first viewing, annoyingly stilted and stagey. I’ll fess up: I did squirm at the oh-so-sophisticated depiction of divorce among the upper classes—where there’s no financial consequences, children, or overwhelming familial disapproval to make the rupture messy. This a fantasy divorce, make no mistake, in which virtually nothing peels away at the veneer of glamour, lacquered thick over the whole affair.

The Divorcée

On the other hand, I cannot quite choke back the glee when Norma Shearer informs her dismissive, one-time-philanderer hubby, “I’ve balanced our accounts.” Is there a wittier way of informing one’s, ahem, better half that you’ve attained sweet, sweet revenge?

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Norma gave us her matter-of-fact opinion on sex in motion pictures in this interview from the 30s.

I swoon at the glamour of Norma’s outfits by Adrian. Whether she’s a good girl or a girl behaving badly, career woman Norma parades around in some of the most to-die-for suits and evening gowns I’ve ever drooled over.

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Best of all, she barely dips her toe into vamp territory. We understand that she’s neither a home-wrecker nor a Gothic man-eater, a variation on the succubus. On the contrary, she’s just a sharp lady who wants to have a little fun. And look damn good while doing it.

Shearer won an Oscar for her performance—but she had to fight to get the role. Her husband, Irving Thalberg, head of production at M-G-M, didn’t think she could handle the role. He worried it would eat away at her star image and her popularity. It took a photo shoot that Norma arranged of herself in steamy pre-Code lingerie to prove otherwise. Irving caved to her demands.

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And I must acknowledge that The Divorcée throws quite a few hard punches. Ones that send me reeling, that’s for sure. (Oh, and there are spoilers in this post. If you want to bail out now, I’ll let you.)

So, how are we to evaluate a film like this? One that feels tiresomely backwards—yet looks strikingly forwards? It’s New Years, so I think I have some time to contemplate this Janus-faced creation. In particular, I want to ask the question that the movie seems to cling to: should old acquaintance be forgot? Only, instead of talking about ex-husbands, I want to ask that question about this movie and give a few reasons why, despite a few mawkish angles, The Divorcée deserves to be remembered.

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First off, the title intrigues me. No surprises there. Somebody’s getting divorced! The title already announces a separation, so we, the viewers, know that the wooing, cooing couple we see in the opening scenes, Norma and Chester Morris, is going to end up splitting. But how? That’s suspense, right there. And some rather refined irony!

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Don’t get too attached to this couple!

With jazzy credits music and a bunch of people giggling in a country house, the film’s opening lures you in with the promise of a witty marital sex comedy (of the Private Lives ilk) then steers you right into ugly drama. The movie begins with a blithe little party among friends in the countryside. We get a rather ordinary love quadrangle: Jerry loves Ted, but so does Paul—even though Dorothy loves Paul. So, when Paul hears that Jerry is going to marry Ted. He doesn’t take it so well.

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He gets drunk, drives off the road, and the accident smashes up Dorothy’s face.

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Talk about going from zero to sixty! The scene made my jaw drop. The expressionistic angles of the crash, the sense of loss and irrevocable damage, the shrill shrieks of Dorothy’s sister as she cries for revenge over her sister’s disfigured body.

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In a split second, The Divorcée plunges us into darkness and we’re still gasping for breath when the light comes.

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Right from that nasty car-crash scene, we go to a chapel where Jerry and Ted are going to be joined in matrimony. Movie weddings often bubble over with joy—or at the very least hijinks—but at The Divorcée’s doomed wedding, the sheer inauspiciousness of it all virtually whacks you over the head.

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Sure, the bride blushes and the groom smiles, but something’s not right. We’re all too shaken—and full of presentiments—to bask in the joy.

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There’s a very significant dissolve from the priest reciting the service to this shot of the bride and groom taking their vows. Notice how abstracted it is—no heads, no personality. It’s a picture of Marriage, not of our marriage, not a union between two living, breathing people. It reminds me of a glib Victorian illustration.

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And as if that uncomfortably headless shot wasn’t irony enough, another dissolve transports us to another marriage—the atonement marriage of Paul and Dorothy, who wears bandages in place of orange blossoms and a veil, as she reclines, mutilated for life, in a hospital bed. The Divorcée equates these two weddings and prods us to think hard about the apparent chasm between the dream wedding and the nightmarish one—because, in point of fact, they’re not so different.

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Hands actually play a very important part in this film. Once Jerry separates from her husband and embarks on a series of affairs, we see them transpire in rapid succession through a bunch of shots of hands meeting over tables.

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I love this clever montage for its acidly funny encapsulation of relationships. I’d also point out that the lack of faces allows the viewer to put herself in Jerry’s place and experience the vicarious rush of her lusty divorced life. But, most important, the sequence reminds me of Jerry’s and Paul’s weddings—and not just in a simple “that was right, this is wrong” kind of way.

On the contrary, I think all this hand-play encourages us to see both extreme forms of relationship—lifelong commitment and casual sex—as equally dangerous if undertaken without thought…when you leave your head out of the picture.

Living in the moment is dangerous, The Divorcée tells us, because every moment you’re bargaining with the rest of your life, even when you’re not vowing “ ’til death do us part.”

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The pleasure-haze of an addled brain—a kaleidoscope of good times.

We see this truth alluded to by the motif of drunken mistakes in this film: Paul’s accident, Ted’s infidelity, and, the most carefully portrayed, Jerry’s drunken affair with Don, who was the best man at her wedding. She learned a few hours ago that her husband cheated on her with a woman who “didn’t mean a thing” to him. But, unsurprisingly, that doesn’t make her feel better.

The Divorcée

So she goes out drinking, and we savor a cloudy, loud nightclub as a tracking shot jerks dizzily over to her table where we see written across Norma Shearer’s face a look of blank, despairing stupefaction. All the festivities are lost on her.

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Then Don leans towards her and in that close framing, we can practically feel their breath and smell the alcohol on it. She smiles—it feels nice to be appreciated.

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Without a line of dialogue, this scene nails the dim, sleepy, assault-on-the-senses ambiance of the situation, which could’ve felt contrived. It’s almost as though we’re watching someone’s fuzzy memory replay of what happened the night before.

So they go back to his place.

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As Don suggestively strokes Jerry’s fur coat, the soon-to-be-adulteress looks almost right at us, as if defying us to judge her, to think that we’d do any different in her place.

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Curtains close. Lights go out. Sex makes for the best ellipses, doesn’t it?

Even nowadays, I can’t think of too many movie women who get their bedroom revenge so quickly. I can’t think of any who make the walk of shame look as good as Norma does. But again, it’s hard to congratulate this movie. What’s the take-away message? That women should do as they like? Or that women are just as bad as men?

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Perhaps Norma’s Jerry says it best when she dismisses this kind of broadly gendered talk:

Oh, Ted, don’t let’s talk about men and women. They do all sorts of things. We’ve got to live our own life, dear. There’s so much of it ahead.

The Divorcée serves up a story about individual consequences that aims to look at mature situations. It’s not the clarion call of a sexual revolution. It doesn’t need to be, though. And I refuse to fault the movie for not being one. Even if I do get a little miffed at its contrivances, I can see the ways in which this 1930 sensation still echoes through to today.

As Don, Robert Montgomery dances his way through a performance so likable, yet loose of morals that you feel like he was born to provide consoling vengeance. He’s nice, handsome, rich, smooth, witty—and totally no-strings-attached. They could package him up in cellophane and sell him at Rebounds-Are-Us.

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I adore how fun and non-evil he is as the cheerful “other man.” Especially when, years later, he runs into Jerry’s husband (who has no idea Don slept with Jerry) and talks about Jerry’s mysterious rebound guy. “What would you do if you ever found him,” asks Don. “I’d kill him,” Ted replies. The look on Montgomery’s face is priceless.

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He’s so sweetly caddish that you can also easily trace his descendants in the sitcom, rom-com lineage, including Patrick from Stephen Moffat’s top-notch Coupling and Barney from How I Met Your Mother. (Yes, yes, I watch that stuff too!) Don is still with us, my friend!

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The New Year’s reunion at the end of this movie also, I daresay, inspired the conclusion to When Harry Met Sally. But, it’s a lot more problematic since, in the end, Jerry finds her ex and vows to rebuilt their life together. Lots of people would argue that this ending is lame and conservative—making an otherwise scandalous Pre-Code film palatable to a crowd of morality thumpers ready to knock down the studio doors. However, I would argue something different.

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As Jerry kisses her ex-hubby and “Auld Lang Syne” swells on the soundtrack, we get a vaguely happy feeling, but what’s done cannot be undone. These two adults recognize this—which is why their marriage stands a chance now. They’re people who’ve seen more of the world, enough to know that actions have repercussions. Even Jerry’s insistence that “all the world gets a fresh start,” sounds plaintive and a trifle reserved.  And that’s why, with broken illusions, they can embrace as the lights go black.

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Genuine bitterness: Ted knocks over a wedding cake when he discovers that Jerry’s paid him in kind.

It’s no accident that, at the very beginning of the movie Jerry and Ted were acting out a parody of Romeo and Juliet, Shakespeare’s most clueless and immature lovers.

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When I was in seventh grade and first read Romeo and Juliet, I didn’t like it one bit. I thought it was mushy and dumb. It’s taken me many, many years to come ’round and see it as a delicate exposé of teenage romanticism—the kind of steam-heated, fast-expiring passion that is so very tragic, not just because it makes people do tragic things, but because if those same people had waited one more week they probably wouldn’t have even remembered the caprice.

Not looking forward is pretty stupid. That’s what the characters in the movie do at the beginning. They marry without knowing much about life. They can’t see past some nebulous notion of “forever.”

But not looking back is even worse. The past returns in a tangible and frightening form in The Divorcée when Jerry gets involved again with Paul who proposes to divorce his disfigured wife (there’s a keeper!) to marry her. Jerry is waiting for Paul in her apartment one day when a knock comes at the door. A woman wearing a thick black veil stands there—and the camera even pivots almost imperceptibly to heighten the unease of this apparition.

The Divorcée

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Whatever you want to say about this movie, the raw, surreal jolt that you get out of seeing the deathly figure appear out of nowhere, in such an ordinary, posh setting, cannot and will not be denied. Like I said, in its own way, this movie packs a punch. The Divorcée tugs at the complex tangle of time, past hopes and overshadowed futures. Poor faceless, blameless Dorothy, encased in layers of black tulle, totters into the film like a specter and, to me, remains the most memorable part of the movie.

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In a film that puts drama and comedy into a cocktail mixer and shakes ’em hard, Dorothy seems to come from a horror film—she’s like a ghost. She brings back the past, she’s almost one of the living dead. Even her sister says that it would be better if she died. Nobody seems to want Dorothy alive, yet she lives. And needs to be listened to.

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But—and this is why I chose The Divorcée for my last post of 2012—we can all learn not to turn our backs on the past.

And, when we do look back, we shouldn’t look back with smugness and condescension, like I wanted to when I put this movie on. This year, I’ve met a lot of lovely people who cherish old movies like I do. However, I’ve noticed a lot of old movie bashing and bristled at different enunciations of the idea that we know better now than they did then.

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Messy streamers in the first of The Divorcée’s two New Year’s scenes suggest that the connections between people never get fully severed. Just tangled up.

As Faulkner wrote, “The past isn’t dead. It isn’t even past.” The past always comes back. It wears a veil, no doubt, but only idiots choose not to look at it. The past comes to us and tells us things that we don’t want to hear, things that we often chose to denigrate rather than decipher.

Well, guess what? Someday we’ll all be past—and a new crop of urbane scoffers will assess us.

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Paul catches a glimpse into Jerry’s train compartment. Fate intervenes to bring the past back to him and to Jerry.

We shouldn’t always look back in fondness. Sometimes we need to look back in anger. But, always, always, we need to look back with receptiveness and a little holy dread.

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So watch this movie. For the wisecracks, the shocks, the clothes, the feminist overtones. Whatever. But watch it.

Watch an old movie you want to discredit. Watch it and it might astonish you. I hope it does. It may not. But don’t sneer at it before you’ve given it a chance.

That’s why I watch old movies. Because I enjoy looking back. Because I like learning from and laughing with the past. Because I like remembering, even when it’s painful to remember.

Because someone damn well needs to.

Take this curtain, for instance, which shows up in the first of The Divorcée’s New Year’s scenes. You only see it for a few seconds:

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But I recognized that curtain! I’d seen it in the 1927 M-G-M silent, Mr. Wu. I wrote my thesis on it!

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There’s nothing new under the sun. But that’s no excuse not to look at what gets recycled, at what we keep, at what we remember.

Should old acquaintance be forgot? Not on my watch.

The Divorcée

Warning Signals: The Leopard Man and Uncanny Signs

“Il s’agit de faits qui peuvent être de l’ordre de la constatation pure mais qui présentent chaque fois toutes les apparences d’un signal, sans qu’on puisse dire au juste de quel signal, qui font qu’en pleine solitude je jouis encore d’invraisemblables complicités, qui me convainquent de mon illusion…”

—André Breton, Nadja

(“Sometimes things happen, things which could be on level of facts, of mere observations, but which in each occurrence present all the appearances of  signals, though of what, we can’t exactly say, signals which make me rejoice in the unrealistic complicities of my deep solitude, which convince me of my illusion…”)

Do note that this post contains spoilers.

The Leopard Man teems with signals of all kinds. This horror-mystery-thriller tosses so many signs, details, symbols, and recurrent images at us that we, as audience members, cannot escape the impression that we have fallen through the hatch to some kind of dream world—where everything means something, we just don’t know what. The very richness of these signs—from a fortune-telling cards to a ball whirling on top of a fountain—makes them uncanny.

Just as one piece of information in the absence of all others makes us convinced of its importance a surge of information forces us to look at everything—it floods our senses and encourages us to skip to the kinds of tangential but powerful conclusions which Breton describes in the quote above.

Coincidences are uncanny, Freud argued, because they whisper to us of some grander order that may tick away under the sleek surface of life. The coincidences, formal echoes, and signals that The Leopard Man sows through its unconventional plot together produce this uncanny delirium that makes everything scary, from a young boy making shadow puppets to a lady giving a flower away. Every detail weighs heavy with “the appearance of being a signal.”

Even the characters make these kinds of symbolic, transductive inferences. According to Kiki and her friend the cigarette girl, the film’s setting, a New Mexico town, is “a bad town for blondes”—even though the only three women to be killed there are brunettes! We make the same kind of unsound inferences. For instance, watch the movie and tell me who the Leopard Man of the title is. Duh, it’s the killer. But wait! Nope. The only unambiguous Leopard Man is Charlie How-Come, the native keeper of the leopard, as we learn from the sign on his truck. In other words, signs are always misleading us and creating anxiety.

To this end, Tourneur carefully crafted the film in the baroque, lush, (what I call noir extrême) style that we’ve come to associate with him as an auteur. Many curling shadows, many striking plays of light that call attention to themselves. However, he takes this visual business and coup-de-théâtre flair even farther here to rattle us.

In the first five minutes of the movie, three women, two of them performers in adjacent dressing rooms, appear reflected in mirrors. Clo-clo, the castanet dancer…

Kiki, Clo-Clo’s rival performer at the nightclub…

bang

…And Eloise, the starstruck cigarette girl.

Directly afterwards, in a sweeping camera tilt and pan, we see first a fountain, then a woman reflected in it, then the dancer herself.

This balletic camera cascade over the fountain hypnotized me the first time I saw this film, as did the opening tracking shot. Conspicuously poetic shots like these inscribe these reflection images on the mind. One bathes in this sensation which Breton describes. The intention of the camera movement coupled with the intense visual stimuli provoke a presentiment, a premonition that what we are seeing will become vital.

Tourneur and Lewton populate the rest of the film with reflections as well. Two examples:

I mean, you don’t need to be a film major to pick up on this. The reflections persist so much that we begin to wonder what do they mean? 

It’s a good question! And one for which the answers multiply in my mind without any one explanation satisfying me. I would argue that these mirrors and reflective surfaces exist in the diegesis not as symbols but as signals, in Breton’s sense, as things planted to raise our awareness of what we are seeing, of the fact that we are seeing. I’m not calling the motif a red herring, but I do maintain that the ambiguity of the reflections call up that surrealist part of our brain that notices without understanding.

The light on Clo-Clo’s legs.

On the commentary track for the film, which I recommend listening to, William Friedkin (yes, director of The Exorcist—it’s a damn good commentary!) notes that when a little boy shines a light on Clo-Clo the castanet dancer’s legs, he seemingly marks her for death. Tourneur’s vivid attachment to virtuoso contrasts of light and dark and patterns of duplication enhance the ambiance of presentiment that renders The Leopard Man so tense and intense. The enhanced visuality created by flamboyant, recurrent camera movements and low-key lighting etch details upon the mind and confer importance to them.

I must confess, I felt impelled to write this post after hearing Friedkin say, “Coherence is the enemy of the horror film.”

I agree. The cloud of possible meanings that looms over The Leopard Man teems with electricity, just as a sky about to be ripped apart by lightening makes you tingle. The ambiguity of all the signs in The Leopard Man conjure up the uncanniness of Breton’s signal. We feel like they mean something, but what that something is, we know not what.

The symbols that should scare us most, however, are not the mysterious signs around us, but rather those signals are those whose meaning cannot be negotiated. Significance, in its absolute form, entails a kind of death. After all, one achieves one’s truest being in death—you can never be anything more than what you are once you’ve ceased to live. That sounds morbid, but, whatever you believe, it’s hard to deny that death is final.

For each of the three female deaths in The Leopard Man, Lewton and Tourneur use unmistakable signals of death (or the bringer of death) that nevertheless avoid showing the thing in itself.

Blood under the door, on the other side of which Teresa’s being attacked…

The cemetery tree bending and then springing as the killer pounces on Consuelo…

…And Clo-clo’s cigarette butt burning out.

These signs frighten us because they hold no ambiguity. We know what happened. The decision not to show this horror makes us ponder that thing that can never really be shown—death, since, really, none of us knows for sure what death is.

Signals live. They take on a life because because play with them, negotiate with them, recycle them. When you cannot negotiate with a signal, it turns into the emblem of the finality which we all fear. Which is why I personally find The Leopard Man a difficult film to “analyze” since the movie questions the value of interpreting any sign. Isn’t it the signal and not the significance which breathes and dances? Much of the fun of the movies originates in our tender complicity with signals.

After all, it’s only madmen who see direction, purpose, meaning in everything. Well, scholars and madmen. It’s no coincidence, though, that the mentally unstable killer Galbraith is both a scholar and a madman. He brings together those parallel needs for significance, for explanation—yet he can ultimately offer no rationalization for his desire to kill.

It’s also Galbraith who enunciates the fountain-as-Fate metaphor. (Side note: there’s also a significant fountain in Breton’s Nadja. Could the eminently literate Lewton and the French Tourneur have been making an allusion to the father of surrealism, perhaps?) Too many people take Galbraith’s word as gospel on that, though.

Come on, would you give serious credence to a guy who mauled two women to death because he felt like it? Galbraith wants to hammer down significance, fix the meaning of the fountain, strangle it with a noose of interpretation when he’s completely ignored its fluidity, the very qualities which allow the fountain to serve as a metaphor. What I’m trying to say (badly) is that a fountain on film is never Fate. It’s first and foremost a fountain! When you reduce something to a symbol, you’ve killed it.

In the dark: Galbraith and his compulsion remain mysterious.

I adore the conclusion of this film, with Galbraith running through the procession of mourners, remembering the massacre of natives in the village. When his pursuers catch up to him, they fall in and march with the procession as they start to make him confess.

This chase tempts you to brand it with big words like Atonement and Sin and Religion. But the drama pulls you back in and denies you the corpse-like refuge of significance. As the worshippers in the scene know, the only way to keep a memory alive is not with symbols, but with movement and noise. To quote another Breton chestnut, from his L’Amour Fou, “Beauty must be convulsive—or must not be.”

Convulsive beauty, à la Breton: Clo-Clo rushes at the leopard with castanets.

The moment you pledge yourself to abstractions like Fate and Death, you run the risk of losing the quickness and movement of signals and all the uneasiness they inspire in us.

Warning signal: the leopard’s eyes as two points of light.