Design for Living – Miriam Hopkins can’t decide between a pair of struggling artists, playwright Frederic March and painter Gary Cooper, so they all agree to a joint, non-sexual cohabitation. Predictably, as soon as March goes away for awhile, she hooks up with Cooper, because the young Gary Cooper is almost as irresistible as Miriam Hopkins. But since writers write movies, this one by Ben Hecht from a Noel Coward play, March gets a chance to win her back, whereupon she, predictably, leaves them both for Edward Everett Horton. OK, maybe that isn’t so predictable. Director Ernst Lubitsch is a perfect fit for this material, his lightness managing to avoid the self-indulgent ponderousness, and narrowly masculine point-of-view that François Truffaut would bring to similar material in Jules and Jim. The #7 film of 1933.
Barbary Coast – Miriam Hopkins again, this time as a woman of loose morals who arrives in frontier San Francisco to find her fiancée dead. So she gets a job at Edward G. Robinson’s casino as a physical attraction/roulette cooler. Robinson’s the beruffled bad guy (and is apparently French: he sports the ridiculous name “Luis Chamalis”) who runs the town and is crazy for Miriam, and she’s pretty much resigned to her miserable life until she meets an idealistic prospector played by Joel McRea, who is Robinson’s opposite in pretty much every way. In the background is the formation of a kind of law and order in the nascent community, which quickly turns into the ugliest kind of mob violence, and Walter Brennan with an early, gleefully immoral version of the character he’d play in later Hawks films like To Have and Have Not, Red River and Rio Bravo. The resulting film is a bit of a mess, and was originally a William Wyler film (Hawks was brought on after Wyler was fired), but it was written by Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur, which means it’s good enough even when it doesn’t make a whole lot of sense. The #10 film of 1935.
– A movie that attempts to answer the age-old question: is it possible to be really beautiful and utterly silly at the same time? Made in Czechoslovakia by Gustav Machatý, it stars Hedy Lamarr as a girl who marries a much older man. The opening, near silent sequence depicts her horrible disappointment on her wedding night and every night thereafter, when her husband would rather sleep than sleep with her. One day, she’s off bathing naked in a pond when her horse, who is holding her clothes, takes off in a wild search for a lady horse, leaving poor Hedy to run naked through the countryside in pursuit and in full view of us and some road workers. Who among us hasn’t been there? She meets the engineer in charge of the project and yadda, yadda, yadda, she’s made very happy and leaves her husband. The film was quite famous/notorious in its time for the extended nude scene as well as what was reportedly the first sex scene in a non-porn film, it may also be credited with creating the “foreign art movie = boobies!” idea that has been so vital to the art house movie theatre industry. It’d be easy to dismiss it were it not for the fact that it’s such a beautifully crafted film, more rooted in the style of the great films from the late silent era than the early sound films of the period. Three of the four main sections of the film (the opening wedding night, the sex scene and the tragic conclusion; with the fourth being Lamarr’s naked fun run) are masterpieces of mood created through lighting, editing and score with almost no dialogue. Machatý didn’t have much of a film career following this film, but it made Lamarr an international star and she went on to invent cell phones
. The #13 film of 1933.
Love Me Tonight – Maurice Chevalier and Jeanette MacDonald interrupted their string of musicals directed by Ernst Lubitsch set among European nobility to star in this musical directed by Rouben Mamoulian set among European nobility. Chevalier plays a tailor who get mistaken for a nobleman when he tries to collect a bill from drunken black sheep Charles Ruggles. While at Ruggles’s family estate, he meets MacDonald, a princess or something, who despises him and then loves him as one can only despise and love Maurice Chevalier. Chevalier falls for her too, which is inconceivable considering Myrna Loy is prowling around the estate as well. Jeanette MacDonald is not without her charms, but there is no world in which she is preferable to Myrna Loy (MacDonald and the censors apparently agreed, as the one demanded wardrobe changes for Loy and the other cut some of her scenes for being too sexy). Anyway, aside from a lovely opening sequence seemingly inspired by René Clair’s musicals form the same era (Under the Roofs of Paris, À nous la liberté) and the great “Isn’t It Romantic”, the songs are merely OK and MacDonald’s singing is as annoying as ever. There’s enough else going on that it may very well be better than any of the Lubitsch Chevalier/MacDonalds, but these actors just are not for me. The #13 film of 1932.
Roberta – What’s the point of a Fred Astaire/Ginger Rogers film that has only three dance sequences? I really don’t know. Instead we have a romantic comedy of sorts with Randolph Scott as the heir to a fashion empire and Irene Dunne as the head designer. They quarrel over ladies’ outfits: he thinks they should show less skin, thus confirming that he is indeed the Worst Fashion Designer Ever. Astaire’s his buddy who’s in Paris with a band, Rogers is a fashion client pretending to be a Russian countess or something. I like Irene Dunne as much as the next guy, but in 1935 no woman in Hollywood was a match for Ginger Rogers, it’s a travesty that she’s barely in the picture. The #15 film of 1935.
The Egg and I – Claudette Colbert and Fred MacMurray are cityfolk who buy a chicken farm in the middle of nowhere. Their new place is a dump and everything from nature to their thieving neighbors Ma and Pa Kettle seem to be conspiring to make them fail. Hilarity ensues. Well, not really, but it’s pleasant enough and even gets a little dark at the end. It’s like Funny Farm, but better. Did you know Funny Farm is available on Blu-Ray? This cannot be good for our civilization. The #18 film of 1947.
Way Down East – A very naive country girl (Lillian Gish, lovely as ever) is tricked into thinking she’s married to rich jerk Lowell Sherman. After she gets knocked up, he abandons her, telling her they were never married after all and she’s doomed to a reputation of sluttiness forever. After giving birth, she tries to make a new life for herself as the maid to a wealthy family, but Sherman turns out to be their neighbor (and have romantic designs on one of their relations) and even though Richard Barthelmess, the son in the family falls for her (and how could he not, she being Lillian Gish?) tragedy will surely strike when her secret is revealed. It may be even more florid a melodrama than typical from director DW Griffith, a master of florid melodrama, but the final chase sequence (it can’t be Griffith without a chase sequence) across melting river ice is one of his best. The #3 film of 1920.
– This is the third Harold Lloyd film I’ve seen, and it’s easily my favorite. I still don’t think he’s particularly funny, but the second half of this movie, where he climbs a building in order to get a promotion so he can get married (don’t ask) is as remarkable and suspenseful a sequence as I’ve seen in silent comedy. This is where the famous shot of Lloyd hanging off the face of a clock comes from. Of course, Buster Keaton would have actually climbed the building instead of relying on below the shot platforms*, but it’s Lloyd’s curse to perpetually be compared to Keaton and Chaplin, where he will always come up short. The first half of the film is pretty good as well, with some good slapstick as Lloyd tries to deal with dozens of customers at once. Though, as usual with Lloyd, the jokes are overlong and underfunny. The #2 film of 1923.
*Edit: Turns out Lloyd was missing a thumb and two fingers on his right hand, thanks to a prop explosion in 1919. That excuses him from resorting to camera tricks for his great stunt, I think.