Review: Joseph McBride’s “How Did Lubitsch Do It?”

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Ernst Lubitsch, James Stewart, and Margaret Sullivan (1940)

Director, screenwriter, producer, and actor Ernst Lubitsch (1892-1947) was considered by film luminaries such as Orson Welles, Jean Renoir, and Billy Wilder to be among the greatest of directors. Over the course of 36 years and 69 films, Lubitsch’s career survived two major transitions: the industry-wide shift from silent film to sound and the director’s own migration from Europe to the United States. He worked with some of the most brilliant screen performers of his time—including Greta Garbo, Claudette Colbert, Maurice Chevalier, James Stewart, Carole Lombard, Gary Cooper, and Miriam Hopkins, among many others—in films such as Trouble in Paradise (1932), Ninotchka (1939), The Shop Around the Corner (1940), and To Be or Not to Be (1942). Along the way, he perfected the romantic comedy, infusing it with sophistication and wit, and with a sexual humor that seems both cutting edge for its time and a breath of fresh air in our present film culture.

Why then … Read the rest

The Maltese Falcon (Three Versions, 1931-1941)

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The Maltese Falcon

The following article is a review of three film adaptations of Dashiell Hammett’s novel The Maltese Falcon: the pre-Code Maltese Falcon (1931), the bizarre comedic Satan Met a Lady (1936), and the superb film noir version (1941).

Synopsis: The Maltese Falcon by Dashiell Hammett (1929)

Sam Spade is a private detective working in San Francisco. A woman identifying herself as Miss Wonderly appears in his office one day and asks for his help: she claims her sister is visiting the city in the company of a disagreeable man, and Wonderly wants the two separated. Spade’s partner Miles Archer takes over the case and agrees to shadow the man, Thursby, but that evening both Miles and Thursby are shot dead.

The next day, Spade meets up with Wonderly, who explains that she and Thursby were involved in a plot to capture an illusory, legendary, jewel-studded falcon statuette that has been smuggled around the world by treasure hunters through the ages. … Read the rest

Movies from the Trenches: Marx Brothers Memoirs

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Review of two Marx Brothers memoirs: Groucho and Me by Groucho Marx (1959) and Harpo Speaks! by Harpo Marx and Rowland Barber (1962)

If you are searching for information about how the Marx Brothers made their films or how some of their most famous routines developed, you will probably be disappointed by both Groucho and Me and Harpo Speaks!  In their respective autobiographies, neither Groucho nor Harpo Marx is really interested in providing us with a behind-the-scenes look at their film work.  Harpo is, it must be pointed out, particularly generous with descriptions of the siblings’ theatrical tenure and their early days on the road. Astonishingly, though, neither brother really spends much time dissecting his later work in Hollywood.

Yet there is so much rich and wonderful detail given here about the private lives of these two famous Depression-era film stars.  Harpo focuses much of his narrative on his youth in New York and subsequent astonishing entrance into the famed … Read the rest

Movies from the Trenches: “The Golden Age of Cinema” (Review)

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Richard B. Jewell published The Golden Age of Cinema: Hollywood, 1929-1945 in 2007 because, as he says in the introduction, he was frustrated by the absence of anything like it on the book market.  Jewell is the Hugh M. Hefner (yes, that Hugh M. Hefner) Professor of American Film at the University of Southern California and teaches Golden Age cinema there.

The book has many virtues, and its content tends to be helpful and instructive.  Of particular note are the chapters on technology and censorship.  Both do a marvelous job of making complex processes fairly cogent: the early attempts at color and sound film on the one hand, the intricacies of the Production Code Administration (a.k.a. the Hays Office, Hollywood’s internal and voluntary censorship office) on the other.  The details about the Code, in particular, are fascinating; Jewell excerpts a large portion of the Code itself for our perusal—it is astonishing.  I also appreciated the chapter on the star system, … Read the rest