There’s a risk in peaking too early. Just ask Jean Renoir—one of the greatest names in cinema history, whose prolific career was eclipsed by its first act. Having made too many masterpieces as a young man, he set a bar he could never cross again. And nowhere is that clearer than in 1962’s delightful The Elusive Corporal—lively, gorgeously photographed, briskly paced and full of memorable incidents, richly characterized, and fantastic on just about every level—except for not being The Grand Illusion. As if being not quite as perfect as The Grand Illusion constitutes some kind of sin. But there you have it, folks, a glorious film that would have made the career of almost anyone else, but forgotten and dismissed because it (gasp!) wasn’t a masterpiece.
Later this week, TCM is running a programming block to pay tribute to all of the 1937 Best Supporting Actor Nominees. Which is one of those gloriously random, weirdly specific programming decisions that makes TCM such a delightful destination for obsessive compulsives. The channel will run Leo McCarey’s screwball classic The Awful Truth, in honor of Ralph Bellamy’s Best Supporting Actor nod. And that’s all fine and well and good—Bellamy is excellent in his “Right Wrong Man” role—but if you really want to celebrate the best supporting performance in this film, you need to be looking at Asta the Dog.
Let’s start with a rarely seen 1940 screwball comedy, Roy Del Ruth’s He Married His Wife. While I won’t pretend that this is anything but a minor but somewhat enjoyable trifle, there’s something rather weird about it that deserves discussion. A number of social scholars—admittedly some of them film historians, but quite a few of them not film people at all—have written about this movie in a specific context: how Hollywood treats romantic love.
The “he” of the title is horse racing mogul Joel McCrea. His preoccupation with—and incompetence at—the horse trade crowds out any other consideration. Ex-wife Nancy Kelly grew weary of perpetual also-ran status in her husband’s life, and divorced him. Ironically, divorce provides her with the opportunity to force her way higher on his list of priorities: as he is now committed to a punishing monthly alimony, he can’t help but think of her constantly. McCrea conspires with his lawyer Roland Young to end the alimony by getting Nancy married to someone, anyone—say, their mutual friend Lyle Talbot. The plan goes awry when she snubs poor Lyle for a flashy, oily gigolo Cesar Romero. McCrea starts to realize he cares about something much more than horses or alimony… (there’s no real surprise where any of this is heading—just check out the title of the movie if you have any questions).
What makes this interesting to social commentators is that the idea of making a romantic comedy about a divorced couple getting back together didn’t just happen the once, or even twice—it’s an idea you’ll find in: The Awful Truth, (1937), Philadelphia Story (1940), My Favorite Wife (1940), His Girl Friday (1940), Mr. and Mrs. Smith (1941), That Uncertain Feeling (1942), and Palm Beach Story (1942). Add He Married His Wife to that list and you have four such comedies appearing in 1940 alone—eight within five years.
Why do the French love Jerry Lewis? It’s an age-old question—one that has dogged American pop culture for over 50 years. It’s inspired no end of speculation—Rae Gordon wrote a whole book on the subject, and as recently as last year such publications as The New York Times and Vanity Fair took their cracks at it. The answers dig into the history of film comedy, of comedy itself, of traditions of clowning, of differences in French and American culture, of philosophies of masculinity…
Blah blah blah. For all the effort that’s been put into answering the question, precious little has been spent in questioning the question. In other words, before we wonder why the French love Jerry Lewis, we better first figure out do the French love Jerry Lewis?
This coming Wednesday at 6 am Eastern, TCM is running What, No Beer? It is just about as unloved as a movie can be. If all the hatred and invective thrown at this 65 minute-long 1933 comedy were somehow bottled up and concentrated, it could power a small city. (And ladies and gentlemen, that’s my modest proposal to solve the energy crisis—wean us off foreign oil and start using movie criticism as an alternative fuel source).
In the past I have used this forum to defend Buster Keaton’s MGM talkies—but even I sniffed at What, No Beer? 2014 is a new year, though, and with the new year comes the possibility of redemption and renewal for all things. I mean, if we can find détente with Iran, then certainly we can find a way to rehabilitate What, No Beer?
Posted by R. Emmet Sweeney on January 7, 2014
It is Joan Crawford month at Turner Classic Movies, with sixty-two of her features airing on Thursday nights in January. Today I’ll be looking at one of her scene-stealing supporting turns, as the gold lamé digger Crystal Allen in The Women (1939, screening on 1/16 at 8PM on TCM). It was directed by George Cukor, recently the subject of a complete retrospective at the Film Society of Lincoln Center. Cukor was canned from Gone With the Wind a month before shooting started on The Women, and it was a fortuitous re-assignment. The Women was based on the hit stage comedy by Clare Booth Luce, trumpeted as having ran for 666 performances at the Ethel Barrymore theater. Famed for having an all-female cast, Cukor’s movie claimed that even its animals were of the fairer sex. A sensitive director of actresses, Cukor elicits a wide range of performances from his volcanically talented cast. Norma Shearer is the nominal lead, projecting regal innocence as news of her husband’s infidelity is smeared over the tabloids. Rosalind Russell is her loudest friend, a motormouthed gossip buried under headscarves and microscopic hats. Cukor was fondest of Joan Fontaine, one of his discoveries, perfecting her shaking leaf naivete. But the one who hip-swivels away with the picture is Joan Crawford.
Tomorrow night, TCM is letting Roscoe Arbuckle loose to rampage across the prime time schedule in some seminal silent comedies produced by Mack Sennett. This is must-watch stuff, folks, even if you’ve seen it before, and I was given the joyous privilege of writing some contextual material for the TCM site to frame the screenings.
And I seized that opportunity to do something that had been on my to-do list for years—namely, to do nothing. But wait, I don’t mean I just slacked off. I wrote the essay—I just wrote it in a way that deliberately avoided any mention of certain events.
I had been given a similar opportunity many years ago, when I was asked to write the capsule biography of Arbuckle for the book 501 Movie Stars. I failed that time.
OK. So Preston Sturges’ Christmas in July isn’t a Christmas movie. But it has Christmas in the title, and you know what? The Thing wasn’t a Christmas movie either, so there.
Christmas in July is however one of Sturges’ funniest films, and one where Sturges’ somewhat misleading and occasionally inconsistent philosophy really works.
If you look up the word “self-indulgent” in the dictionary, I wouldn’t be surprised if you find that the definition is a TCM blogger who commits three entire weekly posts to a French director whose films are almost never even shown on the channel, and whose work is orthogonally situated to the tastes of the target audience. Well, self-indulgent I may be, but there’s more to the story of Claude Chabrol than I managed to fit in the last two weeks.
I’ve mentioned that Chabrol is one of my favorite directors, but that alone isn’t quite justification to come back for thirds—the reason I’m still on a Chabrol kick is that this last piece of the story deals with the central questions of what constitutes artistry and authorship, in ways that matter far beyond any appreciation just of one man’s body of work (no matter how extraordinary that body of work may be). This is about the endless stupid (and endlessly stupid) alleged schism between great movies and commercial pap.
Posted by R. Emmet Sweeney on December 3, 2013
For Jack Benny The Horn Blows at Midnight was a punchline, the crowning clunker in his failed movie career. He made it the object of self-deprecating scorn on his radio and TV shows, and as late as 1957 on The Jack Benny Program he staged a slow burning sketch that ended with a security guard spotting Benny on a studio lot: “-Jack Benny? -Yes. -The one that starred in The Horn Blows at Midnight? -Yes, yes. I made that for Warner Brothers years ago. Did you see it? -See it? I directed it!” As his last feature in a starring role, Benny kept the film alive as a joke, but as the recent Warner Archive DVD release shows, it’s worthy of more than his deadpan putdowns.
A true oddity that seeped through the Warner Brothers studio filter, it depicts heaven as a corporate bureaucracy in which Jack Benny is just another angelic cog, a variation of which Albert Brooks used in Defending Your Life. Earth is an anonymous planet slated for destruction by harried middle manager Guy Kibbee, who sends Benny to do the deed. After a series of mortal mishaps, Benny gets stuck in NYC, and cultivates a liking for the finer things in flesh-bound life. The script is a pileup of increasingly improbable gags, which director Raoul Walsh speeds through with verve and a definite lack of religious deference. Aided by the kaleidoscopic special effects of Lawrence Butler, the celestial choir is turned into a faceless mass of cardboard cutouts, making life in the swing clubs and ballrooms all the more desirable.
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