Because the screen is the only well-lit mirror in town

Saturday, April 27, 2013

Pre-Code Capsules - SCARLET EMPRESS, LADIES THEY TALK ABOUT, THE BARBARIAN, FRIENDS AND LOVERS, THE RICH ARE ALWAYS WITH US

SCARLET EMPRESS, THE
1934 - ***

Von Sternberg was a genius but one could argue whether he never quite 'got' narrative pacing or dialogue, preferring the language of symbols, small gestures, posed tableaux, whips, furs, clusters of oppressive goose symbolism, ambient noise and Wagnerian gesture, all of which nearly suffocates the first half of arguably his best and worst of the Dietrich collaborations, SCARLET EMPRESS. Taken from the then still-sizzling diaries of the sexually voracious Catherine II of Russia, the film begins in a flower-encrusted choke-hold as the stuffily regimented duty and sickeningly sweet yet brutally-regimented playtime of a young Austrian noble (Dietrich, in curls) is contrasted with overlapping montages of DeMille-level lurid tortures endured by the Proletariat at the hands of the fur-hatted Cossacks in frigid Russia. The handsome, brooding, impeccably-uniformed John Lodge suddenly materializes like the first ever tall black shadow (with sable cape highlights) in the stuffy otherwise treacle-and-posey-filled brightly-lit Prussian parlor of Catherine's mother, to claim her for Russia's inbred maniac Peter (Sam Jaffe). Sexual sizzle seems in the cards, but the pompously over-orchestrated Russian melodies and airless claustrophobia is a long time clearing. One of Austria's unbearable matriarchs pokes and prods Dietrich like a piece of meat at the butcher's until your feminist blood is curdling, and you want to go on a regicidal rampage; and it's only after Lodge has whisked her fully off to Moscow --and has her to himself, warming her up within all the en route lodges, between one controlling reptilian old broad and the another--that we feel we can start to soak up the glories of the snow and the richly photographed sable wraps without the worry we're going to get hit on the head with a fan. Louise Dresser overplays with vulgarly Americanized bossiness as the seated "dowager empress" trying to urge Peter to get into that marital bed and give this doe-eyed Austrian a go, but he prefers prowling through the Satanic art-bedecked corridors of the royal palace like a whispering Harpo Marx on meth crossed with MESA OF LOST WOMEN's Dr. Leland rather than the marital boudoir. Catherine's fine with that, but the dowager is ranting about needing a male heir to the throne, making Bette Davis' mom in Now Voyager seem a model of demure compassion. If Peter won't perform, surely there are good little soldiers who can get the job done --provided they can be discreet, let Peter claim paternity and let the real father ideally not be already one of the dowager's many lovers, which include-- ewww!-- John Lodge. That's earning your sable the hard way.


It should all be salacious fun, but there are too many symbols, the film is choked with them: endless horses marching tediously along by the hundreds past the camera (JVS digs filming his "1,000 extras"); dehumanizing intertitles ("Pushed like a brood mare into a marriage with a royal half-wit"); Vaseline-lensed nature shots; lockets falling gently down the length of vast fir trees; interminable liturgies droned in candle-lit churches (enough grand high Orthodox Christian processions to bore even Eisenstein); endless ringing bells; and strangely modern, rather overwrought Satanic sculptures at every turn. Sure, those sculptures are awesome but still, this may be the most staid, stuffy, boring film that ever included shots of topless women being flogged and branded. If not for Lodge's low-key, strangely modern performance in the handsome lover role we might never feel, for a second, a moment of human realness. He's like the first cool person we meet at a strange school.

I imagine one day, if the right restoration comes along (in Blu-ray remaster rather than the high-contrast Criterion DVD we currently have - nice as that is), all that fussy Von Sternberg lighting over those rippling swaths of sable will finally pay off. For now we can only get the occasional glimmers of highlight along the sheer black - elsewhere it's just a black dark blob. But I'm sure he put it there, Josef was crazy as Masoch over that shit.

Still, high contrast and a reliance on historical montage or no, if you're in the right frame of mind (the kind wherein you dig falling asleep to the molasses-slow poetic sex of Franco or Rollin, for example) you might forgive Von Sternberg being a little too obsessed with the sadomasochistic double bind of Marlene being forced to brood mare it up, and dig how Peter's drilling holes through his mom's walls so he can spy on any lesbian panky reflects  JVS' own predilection for the peeping camera. Then you can sponge up the aesthetic gloom overkill and just lean back and watch Dietrich the actress seem to age quicker than her character does over the course of the film thanks to (based on what Von Sternberg writes in his Notes from a Chinese Laundry) the cruelty he inflicted on his icy, incompetent star. She starts the film gorgeous as she was in the first films--Morocco, Shanghai Express--and ends with the hardness of feature we get in her subsequent films. Indeed. her face in the final shot--wild eyed and triumphant in white--clanging the bells after storming the palace (forever)--is terrifying--it should have been the last image in their collaboration, but instead there was The Devil is a Woman next, a film in which Dietrich overacts as a Spanish peasant gold-digger mining Lionel Atwill--it looks gorgeous but the oversize hair combs are horrid and with her fake tan and brassy overacting, she's almost 50s Crawford-level shrill. The old glowing Dietrich starts out broken in Devil - we have no idea what Atwill or Romero sees in her. Watching it today, you can tell it was Scarlet that broke her. Dietrich seems to age five years for every one of Catherine's.

Still, if you watch closely during the big wedding scene you can see the same painterly glistening and angles on the face of Dresser that Von Sternberg gave to Dietrich in certain scenes of Dishonored. But by the end of the film Dresser is dead and Dietrich isn't the wide-eyed super cool innocent hipster super-seductress anymore (and certainly not the overly wide-eyed hammy innocent, way too gorgeous and reverently-lit for an inexperienced ingenue), but a steely woman with the ability to freeze her face in a malevolent 'chaotic neutral' smile and a slowly-but-inexorably developing knack for a more raucous kind of comedy that would find its post-code place, finally, in Destry Rides Again. 

LADIES THEY TALK ABOUT
1933 - ***1/2

"Watch out for her. She likes to wrestle," notes convict Lillian Roth of a cigar-smoking lesbian who looks not unlike a boxier version of famed sewing circle ringleader Mercedes De Acosta (lover of Garbo, below right). It's only one quick shot during a long and engaging women's prison tour Roth gives new inmate Barbara Stanwyck and, though she never came out of the closet publicly, it's interesting to find Babs semi-mocking an alleged fellow sewing circle sister onscreen. But at least the gay/lesbian reality was represented at Warner Brothers, where butch masseuses and flaming tailors (such as a recently restored scene of one taking Cagney's measurements in PUBLIC ENEMY) were winked at and cajoled but never taunted or humiliated, which is at least more than they'd get after the code, when they'd have to just disappear even deeper back into the closet until Hollywood could peer over Fellini's shoulder to learn what to do with them.

Mercedes De Acosta - right / Dyke in LADIES - left
But were speaking of LADIES. The bulk of this snappy prison film deals with a love affair between gang moll Babs and moral crusader Dan Slade (Preston Foster), the kind where each has to continually top the other in self-sacrifice and scathing honesty. He gets her off after she's busted as a bank job accessory, so she confesses she was really guilty, to burn him. He sends her to the joint, so she gets even by tearing up all his pleas to let him help her get paroled. Dan's terminal earnestness is all but mocked openly by WB screenwriters, but they give Stanwyck full license for two-fisted shots at the chin of numb-nuts patriarchy, the same target Sharon Stone aimed for in Basic Instinct but never really shattered the jaw of with Babs' same level of affinity (Stone seemed to try to be what Babs just was). Coolest of all is how the huge gaggle of female convicts are (a few exceptions aside) all friends; the bull-ettes are nice if you behave. Hell, this women's jail seem almost like Vassar, but when Lillian Roth sings "One Hour with You" while mooning over a glossy of Joe E. Brown, you know that, after the lights go out, things have gotten pretty desperate.


THE BARBARIAN
1933 - **1/2

It’s one of those films that could only have been made in the pre-code era at MGM, the studio who had the hardest time being truly subversive and often wound up just kinky and deeply racist instead. Egyptian guide Emil (Ramon Navarro) begins the film saying a tearful good-bye to a rich white European tourist lady on the outgoing Cairo train, and then affixes himself to an incoming British socialite played by Myrna Loy. Naturally, it being MGM, miscegenation would be out of the question, except that --like all British socialites visiting Egypt who catch the eye of skulking Arabs in the pre-code era--she has an Egyptian mother (or rather 'had' - they're always dead, saving any social awkwardness amongst the white side of the family). In Egypt to visit her indefatigably British fiancee (Reginald Denny), his unbearably controlling mater (Blanche Friderici) and--luckily for Loy's slightly half-caste debutante--Metro's king of 'harrumph' C. Aubrey Smith (lower left) as a more understanding pater. Clearly MGM is nudging its caravan along the same path trod by a pair of 1932 miscegenation fantasy hits, Universal's THE MUMMY and Columbia's BITTER TEA OF GENERAL YEN. But it's still MGM and therefore falls woefully short of Universal's lurid expressionism or even Columbia's humanist handball, even if the pyramids are superbly evoked and the whole scene alive with rear screen magic.

The plot is straight out of a bad romance novel: First Emil first worms his way into her flower-choked hotel room via offers of service as a guide, enduring the casual cruelties he's subjected to at the hands of the lordly British and then turning the tables once he abducts her into the desert (where it's revealed he's a slumming prince). If you imagine what it would be like if MUMMY star Zita Johan went off into the MOROCCO-ending winds to endure SWEPT AWAY-style whipping and dominance head games at the hands of General Yen, well you'll find the erotic Myrna Loy bathing scene to be approximately sexier than Claudette Colbert’s milk bath in SIGN OF THE CROSS, which if these things matter to you, is nowhere near as awesome as Maureen O’Sullivan's nude swimming in TARZAN AND HIS MATE. Frankly I’m ashamed of myself for knowing all this, and so is Ramon Navarro, or will be, once he’s caught by Myrna’s coterie of harrumphing Enlganders. But he won't be, you knew that, right? 

1931
Erich taunts his wife with Adolphe's love letters
FRIENDS AND LOVERS
1931 - **

British officer Laurence Olivier goes a bit bananas as the 'other man' who loves nymphomaniac Lily Damita in this stuffy, tangled FAREWELL TO ARMS-meets D.H. Lawrence-ish saga set partly in London, partly in Paris, partly in India, and always squarely on the MGM stage. The best parts are in the beginning with porcelain collector Erich Von Stroheim as nymphomaniac Damita's aesthete husband, lolling languidly in the surf of her lover Adolphe Menjou's discomfort realizing his lame opera alibi won't wash (he got the title wrong). It turns out Erich's not mad --his habit is to blackmail his errant wife's many lovers, charging Menjou a whopping $10,000 because "porcelain is... expensive."

Though porcelain collecting seems a rather insipid hobby for a man like Von Strohieim, we root for him all the way, especially since Damita is such a wearying screen presence. She can be charming, but when she's not 'on' she radiates a restless peevishness, like she's been kept waiting on the hot set all day and is tired of being prodded and mussed by the make-up lady. Nice legs, though. Too bad that fellow Damita-schtupper Olivier later tries to shoot Menjou in a fit of jealous pique (by this time Damita already has another fiancee in the wings). This all proves a sufficient climax for MGM and the ending abruptly dumps everyone out on the curb after weekending at beloved old character actor Frederick "Here's to the House of Frankenstein!" Kerr's estate, and though he's cool with underhanded business, eh wot? his shrewish wife boots them out for conformity's sake. It's a lot of familiar (for the era) love triangle business that adds up to little more than the bros-before-hos credo 'tested' and broken on the rocks of Damita's scattered lips and alleged sex appeal. Better we should have followed Erich von Stroheim's porcelain, to the floor... in shards if needed!

THE RICH ARE ALWAYS WITH US
1932 - **1/2

Divorce--still scandalous, risque and oh-so progressive--was enough of a subject for entire films back in 1932, even at the already risque and progressive Warner Brothers, so here's novelist Julian (George Brent) pestering newly-divorced rich socialite Ruth Chatterton into marriage. Ick! She wants to have a little fun in Paris first but secretly wants him to come out and pester her, presumably. Trouble is, Brent always presumes that is the case, in every role he's ever played, which is why I despise him on principle--his whole attitude reflects the gateway rationalization of many a stalker. If he likes you, you're his. Your opinion is decided for you. After all, who are you to bust up a beautiful, inevitable romance? Meanwhile, as Chatterton talks on the phone from Paris, her kid sister-like college chum Bette Davis tries to steal Julian away, but in a Midge kind of semi-joking manner that never works in movies, until maybe the very end, (unless the man you're stealing is Frank Sinatra).

What's so fascinating this time around is the idea that ex-married couples can still be friends and look out for each other. Ruth's middle-aged investment broker ex-husband starts losing his clients once he's seen snoozing the night away at ritzy clubs, which he's regularly dragged out to by his energetic, younger Paris Hilton-esque trophy wife. So Chatterton comes back to NYC and throws her weight around to keep him afloat, rather than marrying the sappy and saccharine Brent, who's fond of purring bad lines like, "Will you think I've fallen out of love with you if I light a cigarette?" like it's the cleverest most sincerely romantic string of words ever uttered. Sister Bette Davis' dialogue is, on the other hand, pretty smart, and the issues of marriage and divorce are rather adultly presented. Alfred E. Green (BABY FACE) directs with plenty of that old WB pepper but there's only so much you can do with material this thin. No sooner has the bitchy new young wife announced she's pregnant but doesn't want to keep the baby (since it would ruin her figure), for example, she's instantly killed in a car wreck, but at least she got to say what everyone's thinking. Julian would be better off with Davis, but that's not to say Chatterton doesn't have great ditzy appeal; she's the living hybrid stop between Carole Lombard and her mother in MY MAN GODFREY (1936), and I mean that as a compliment.


4 comments:

  1. Amazing Precode selection!! Although, I can't allow you to make those remarks about Chatterton. Firstly, both Chatterton and Brent were married in real life and although it only lasted a few years they were considered by their contemporaries to be one of those great on and off screen couples. Granted, she wasn't a beauty but she was an embodiment of her time and a brilliant actor.

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  2. thanks Emma... I meant nothing bad about either actor personally. Chatterton perfectly embodies the 'grounded, yet flighty' socialite. One of my good friends is just like that! I love her in FEMALE, anyway, except when she starts turning over power to her man...

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    1. I totally agree. 'Female' was amazing until she began acting subservient to attract Brent and started questioning her ability to run the company.

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  3. Personally I think "The Devil Is A Woman" is the best of all of the Sternberg/Dietrich films. It has all of the bizarre ambiance of "Scarlet Empress" but adds more fun, characterization...and Lionel Atwill!

    And Claudette's milk bath in "Sign of the Cross" easily trumps Myrna Loy's "Barbarian" bath AND Maureen O'Sullivan's stand-in's nude swimming scene in "Tarzan and His Mate" any day of the week, at least in my book.

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