Bluebeard’s Eighth Wife (1938). 80 minutes. Directed by Ernst Lubitsch. Starring Claudette Colbert (as Nicole de Loiselle), Gary Cooper (as Michael Brandon), Edward Everett Horton (as the Marquis de Loiselle), David Niven (as Albert De Regnier), Elizabeth Patterson (as Aunt Hedwige), Herman Bing (as Monsieur Pepinard), Warren Hymer (as Kid Mulligan), and Lawrence Grant (as Professor Urganzeff). Screenplay by Charles Brackett and Billy Wilder.
When director Ernst Lubitsch was at his best, which was often, his witty romantic comedies had no equals. The great Lubitsch movies—such as Trouble in Paradise (1932), Ninotchka (1939), and To Be or Not to Be (1942)—drip with sparkling repartee, sophistication, and delicious naughtiness (often of a sexual nature) that exemplify Hollywood at its most adult. But the master of subtle innuendo also made some missteps, and Bluebeard’s Eighth Wife is widely considered to be one of his failures. After watching its trailer, I was prepared for it to be awful, and … Read the rest
The Private Life of Henry VIII (1933). 97 minutes. Directed by Alexander Korda. Starring Charles Laughton (as Henry VIII), Merle Oberon (as Anne Boleyn), Wendy Barrie (as Jane Seymour), Elsa Lanchester (as Anne of Cleves), Binnie Barnes (as Catherine Howard), Everley Gregg (as Catherine Parr), Robert Donat (as Thomas Culpepper), Franklin Dyall (as Thomas Cromwell), and Lady Tree (as the king’s nurse).
The Private Life of Henry VIII is a historical film starring Charles Laughton as Tudor King Henry VIII, who lived from 1491 to 1547. As a light and at times comic treatment of the tyrant king’s notorious romantic life, the movie is decidedly strange: both more amusing than a history lesson and more troubling because it is at times so distant from facts. Yet weirdly, its levity remains one of its strongest selling points. Those who are less inclined to watch period pieces due to their perceived stodginess will be entertained by the often racy components of this … Read the rest
Ruggles of Red Gap (1935). 90 minutes. Directed by Leo McCarey. Starring Charles Laughton (as Ruggles), Mary Boland (as Effie Floud), Charlie Ruggles (as Egbert Floud), ZaSu Pitts (as Mrs. Judson), Roland Young (as the Earl of Burnstead), Leila Hyams (as Nell Kenner), Lucien Littlefield (as Charles Belknap-Jackson), and Maude Eburne (as Ma Pettingill).
Ruggles of Red Gap is a delightful comedy about a stuffy English valet who is won in a card game by a pair of nouveau-riche Americans and relocates to their small Western town. With the help of American principles of political and social equality, the valet (Ruggles) embarks on a project of freeing himself from servitude and establishing himself as an independent man. In that regard, the movie reminds me of Born Yesterday (1950), which similarly posits that American institutions can be a force for personal (as well as political) liberation. Ruggles of Red Gap lacks the hard edge of Born Yesterday, but it uses … Read the rest
The Women (1939). 133 minutes. Directed by George Cukor. Starring Norma Shearer (as Mary Haines), Joan Crawford (as Crystal Allen), Rosalind Russell (as Sylvia Fowler), Mary Boland (as the Countess De Lave), Paulette Goddard (as Miriam Aarons), Phyllis Povah (as Edith Potter), Joan Fontaine (as Peggy Day), Virginia Weidler (as Little Mary), Florence Nash (as Nancy Blake), Lucille Watson (as Mrs. Morehead), Marjorie Main (as Lucy), Dennie Moore (as Olga), Butterfly McQueen (as Lulu), and Hedda Hopper (as Dolly Dupuyster).
The late film critic Roger Ebert once wrote an aside on his blog that, rather than focusing on film, instead meditated on the general characteristics of the female sex. Ebert offered a perspective on women that may be familiar to you: that women are the ideal sex, that they have a natural proclivity for love and kindness, etc. “Women are better than men” is what he called his article. We have probably all heard these generalizations before, usually coming from … Read the rest
Trouble in Paradise (1932). 83 minutes. Directed by Ernst Lubitsch. Starring Herbert Marshall (as Gaston Monescu/Gaston Lavalle), Miriam Hopkins (as Lily Vautier), Kay Francis (as Madame Mariette Colet), Edward Everett Horton (as François Filiba), Charles Ruggles (as the Major), and C. Aubrey Smith (as Adolph J. Giron).
Roger Ebert begins his wonderful review of Trouble in Paradise by observing that this movie is a comedy about adults, not the typically juvenile characters that masquerade as adults in modern-day Hollywood films. I would go so far as to say that Trouble in Paradise’s characters are the ultimate adults of the Golden Age of Hollywood: witty, wry, sophisticated, infinitely engaging, amusing, and immaculately dressed and groomed. In particular, the movie not only creates a mature atmosphere laced with champagne, erudite talk, and subtle scheming but also offers us grown-up sexuality, which its characters allude to frequently in word and action, and practice with refinement and enthusiasm. Even more than other daring Lubitsch … Read the rest
Steamboat Bill, Jr. (1928). 69 minutes. Directed by Charles Reisner. Starring Buster Keaton (as William Canfield, Jr.), Ernest Torrence (as William “Steamboat Bill” Canfield, Sr.), Marion Byron (as Kitty King), Tom McGuire (as J. J. King), and Tom Lewis (as Tom Carter).
Buster Keaton’s late silent film Steamboat Bill, Jr. was inspired by the 1911 song “Steamboat Bill” and in turn inspired Disney’s well-known 1928 animated short “Steamboat Willie” (the first cartoon to feature fully synchronized sound). In other words, it grew out of a timely reference and inspired a cartoon that may now strike us as antique. But watching Steamboat Bill, Jr. recently, I was struck by how timeless it is. The movie is not considered to be Keaton’s masterpiece—that honor falls to The General (1926)—but it still features outstanding riverbank stunts and an impressive hurricane sequence, complete with the famous shot of a building facade falling over Keaton’s head. However, part of what makes this movie and so … Read the rest
Modern Times (1936). 87 minutes. Starring Charlie Chaplin (as the Little Tramp), Paulette Goddard (as Ellen Peterson), Henry Bergman (as café proprietor), Stanley “Tiny” Sandford (as Big Bill), Chester Conklin (as mechanic), and Al Ernest Garcia (as president of Electro Steel Corp.). Written, directed, and scored by Charlie Chaplin.
Modern Times is very special: unusually clever, unusually bittersweet for a comedy, and unusually and deliberately archaic. I say “archaic” because although it is from the sound era, Modern Times is largely silent, just like its predecessor City Lights (1931), also directed by and starring Charlie Chaplin and also made during the age of sound. Chaplin’s rejection of the talkies was multifaceted, and in resisting sound, he primarily sought to preserve his silent-era persona—the character known as the Little Tramp, who he did not believe could survive in a sound film. Modern Times, however, resists more than merely the demise of the Little Tramp at the hand of the new … Read the rest
Smarty (1934). 65 minutes. Directed by Robert Florey. Starring Joan Blondell (as Vicki Wallace Thorpe), Warren William (as Tony Wallace), Edward Everett Horton (as Vernon Thorpe), Frank McHugh (as George Lancaster), Claire Dodd (as Nita), Joan Wheeler (as Mrs. Bonnie Durham), Virginia Sale (as Vicki’s maid), and Leonard Carey (as Tony’s butler).
We live in an era where filmmakers deliberately produce raunchy comedies that exceed the limits of good taste in an effort both to thrill their target audiences and to be thought of as cutting edge. But I find most modern comedies rather tepid when it comes to the task of truly offending me. For something that has more punch, I have to look back to the pre-Code era, the time before Hollywood’s internal censorship office began enforcing the moral guidelines known collectively as the Production Code. Smarty, a late pre-Code movie, is about as far away from being a politically correct comedy as you can get, … Read the rest
Bringing Up Baby (1938). 102 minutes. Directed by Howard Hawks. Starring Cary Grant (as Dr. David Huxley), Katharine Hepburn (as Susan Vance), May Robson (as Elizabeth Carlton Random), Charles Ruggles (as Major Horace Applegate), Walter Catlett (as Constable Slocum), Barry Fitzgerald (as Aloysius Gogarty), Fritz Feld (as Dr. Fritz Lehman), Virginia Walker (as Alice Swallow), and George Irving (as Alexander Peabody).
Modern critics such as Peter Bogdanovich are right to give Bringing Up Baby high praise: it is wonderfully hilarious. But oddly enough, it was not a success upon its initial release. In fact, its failure was so painful to RKO that the studio fired its director, Howard Hawks. Following the release of the movie, Katharine Hepburn was labeled box-office poison by the president of the Independent Theatre Owners of America and left RKO as well. But Bringing Up Baby earned its well-deserved reputation for wit, expert pacing, and fantastic performances across the board when it was revived in the … Read the rest
The Great Dictator (1940). 124 minutes. Directed by Charlie Chaplin. Starring Charlie Chaplin (as Jewish barber/Adenoid Hynkel), Paulette Goddard (as Hannah), Maurice Moscovitch (as Mr. Jaeckel), Emma Dunn (as Mrs. Jaeckel), Bernard Gorcey (as Mr. Mann), Paul Weigel (as Mr. Agar), Jack Oakie (as Benzino Napaloni), Reginald Gardiner (as Commander Schultz), Henry Daniell (as Garbitsch), and Billy Gilbert (as Herring). Written, produced, and scored by Charlie Chaplin.
The Great Dictator was in its time and remains today a daring film. Through bizarre coincidence, the movie takes advantage of a unique opportunity for one titan to skewer another—that is, the English comedian with the famous toothbrush mustache lampoons the German dictator with the famous toothbrush mustache. As a comedy about the Nazi regime, and much like its contemporary To Be or Not to Be (1942), The Great Dictator may be hard for some to stomach now as it was then, in spite of its use of revered silent-era star Charlie … Read the rest