Making the Leap: Douglas Fairbanks, Sr. and Talkies

THE PRIVATE LIFE OF DON JUAN, Merle Oberon, Douglas Fairbanks, 1934

To view The Private Life of Don Juan click here.

Douglas Fairbanks, Sr. made his last movie in 1934. The Private Life of Don Juan was, quite accidentally, a fitting farewell to one of the first megastars of the movie industry. It wasn’t clear while filming it that it would be Fairbanks’ last movie but its story, one of a once vigorous and dashing romantic reduced to seeing a physician because he just doesn’t feel he has it in him anymore, fell in line with Fairbanks’s real life condition. He was only 51 but already feeling the effects of decades of chain-smoking, drinking and general living life to its fullest. He could no longer do a lot of the athletic work he had so easily mastered in his early career. Better said, he could, but it exhausted him. But he was also exhausted by the movies themselves, particularly sound movies. He never quite took to them and despite his stardom and seemingly smooth transition to sound, never quite felt at home.


“My Hawks Picture”: What’s Up Doc? (1972)

To view What’s Up Doc? click here.

Next year, I plan to teach a course on romantic comedy covering the Golden Age through the contemporary era. Not surprisingly, the choices to represent the Film School Generation are limited. It’s not that there were no romantic comedies during the late 1960s through the 1970s, but it was not a preferred genre for directors like Scorsese, De Palma, Altman, Coppola, Friedkin and their socially conscious colleagues.

Fortunately, Peter Bogdanovich’s What’s Up Doc? (1972) fits the bill nicely. One characteristic of the directors of this era was their fondness for paying homage to influential or classic films; another was their reworking or deconstruction of popular genres. What’s Up Doc?, which is an homage to Howard Hawks’s Bringing Up Baby (1938), honors the classic era while updating the screwball comedy.


Hollywood Magic Is Real


In the supernatural comedy I Married a Witch (1942), director René Clair serves up an irresistible potion consisting of revenge, sex, politics and romance. Based on the novel The Passionate Witch by author Thorne Smith, I Married a Witch stars Fredric March and Veronica Lake, an unlikely romantic leading couple if there ever was one. From the significant age gap between March and Lake, to tales of feuding and unprofessionalism on the set, to irreconcilable creative differences amongst the directorial and production staff, not to mention threat of censorship, the legend surrounding the troubled production has only added to the delightful curiosity that is I Married a Witch.  


My Melancholy Valentine: Dans Paris (2006)


Love is complicated. Some see it as a priceless gift or blessing while others describe it as an unshakeable disease. It can be comforting, enriching, elevating, thrilling and divine. It can also be messy, unruly, feral, ferocious and cruel, particularly if you are suffering from acute depression. In Dans Paris aka In Paris (2006), French filmmaker Christophe Honoré (Ma mère aka My Mother [2004], Les chansons d’amour aka Love Songs [2006], Les Bien-Aimés aka Beloved [2011]) introduces us to a family in the throes of a profound depression although this fact is kept hidden from viewers throughout most of the film’s 90-minute runtime. Instead of focusing on the hows, whys and what fors of the situation, Honoré shows us how each family member is trying to cope and for better or worse, their drug of choice is love. With Valentine’s Day looming on the horizon, I thought it would be a good time to revisit Dans Paris, one of my favorite French films of the past 20 years, which is currently streaming on FilmStruck. Honoré’s delightful, difficult and bittersweet romantic drama is part of their holiday appropriate “City of Love” theme featuring films set in Paris, a city that’s mere name conjures up scenes of romance and passion.


Love in Enunciation: Leslie Howard in Pygmalion (1938)

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Aside from George Cukor’s visually stunning musical masterpiece My Fair Lady (1964), Pygmalion (1938), directed by Anthony Asquith (with Leslie Howard receiving co-director credits), is the only other significant film adaptation of George Bernard Shaw’s 1913 stage play of the same name. Of the two films, Pygmalion is the more faithful adaptation and arguably the better movie. Although it lacks the splashy technicolor, catchy Lerner and Loewe musical numbers and intricate Cecil Beaton designed costumes featured in My Fair Lady (and those incredible hats!), Pygmalion tosses aside the showiness (although Schiarpelli fashions are nothing to sneeze at) for a more genuine and authentically English production. Its stripped down approach accentuates the stark contrast between the ill-mannered, uneducated, poorly dressed flower girl, and the simple, well-spoken, dignified elegance of a duchess. The success of this adaptation is likely due to Shaw himself. Producer Gabriel Pascal obtained filming rights from Shaw directly, who was originally hesitant to make the deal. The playwright was involved in the production, lending his talents to the adapted screenplay, which won him the Academy Award in 1939. Despite his involvement with the film, Shaw was greatly disappointed with the tacked-on happy ending. Shaw was aware that his original ending wouldn’t be in the film, so he negotiated a reasonable compromise with Pascal. Unbeknownst to Shaw, Pascal had filmed an ending which was different from what was agreed upon. When he discovered Pascal’s changes, the notoriously difficult Shaw was quite mad, and rightly so. Maintaining his integrity as a well-respected playwright was paramount, and altering the outcome of two of his most famous characters jeopardized that, or so he thought. Moviegoers in the 1930s wanted to see even the most flawed of characters find some sort of happiness, especially in their romantic lives.


Memories of Garry Marshall

blogposterDirector Garry Marshall, who died last month at the age of 81, owned American popular culture in the last quarter of the 20th century. His sitcoms from the 1970s introduced characters so iconic their costumes are on display in the Smithsonian, and his romantic comedies of the 1980s re-set the conventions for the genre. Set your DVRs to catch Marshall’s first foray into feature films, How Sweet It Is, Saturday, August 27 at 8:00am EST.

Marshall’s strength as a director was also his weakness—the enormous popularity of his work. It was his strength because, like the moguls of the Golden Age, he knew how to produce well-crafted entertainment for the mainstream public; it was his weakness because that style, by its very nature, is never innovative, ground-breaking, or even edgy. It hits mid-America where it lives, but it is the bane of culture critics. In an interview, Marshall made a fair comparison when he stated that he set out to be “the Norman Rockwell of television.”

Marshall was a graduate of the journalism department at Northwestern University, which is also my alma mater. Over the years, he gave back to the school that had helped him learn to write. When I was a graduate student in film studies, he returned once or twice a year to offer short classes on writing or directing to the production students. After he completed his first two films, Young Doctors in Love and The Flamingo Kid, he hosted advance screenings at a local theater for Northwestern students. In the 1980s, he and his family donated money to build a dance and theater center on campus.


June 4, 2016
David Kalat
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First Things First

DVR alert—thanks to this month’s Marie Dressler tribute, coming up on June 6th TCM is running the 1914 comedy feature Tillie’s Punctured Romance. This is a hugely important work in film history—just about any film reference will tell you so. Here’s what Wikipedia has to say: “Tillie’s Punctured Romance is notable for being the first feature-length comedy in all of cinema.” Wow. I mean, right? Just wow.

Except… it’s hard to give credit to Tillie’s Punctured Romance for being the “first feature-length comedy in all of cinema” when there was another feature-length comedy released on August 10, 1914, four months earlier.

And you want to know the best bit? This earlier film, arguably the true first comedy feature in film history, is a gender-bending treat that suits today’s mood much better than the fusty old melodramatic complications of Tillie’s Punctured Romance. Click the fold below and let’s find out more!


KEYWORDS: A Florida Enchatment, Sidney Drew

A Forgotten Film to Remember: The Ghost Goes West

blogopenerTomorrow night, May 24, at 9:45pm EST, TCM airs a charming romantic comedy with the unfortunate title of The Ghost Goes West. Unfortunate, because the title is misleading. The film is neither a horror tale, nor does it have anything to do with the Wild West. Released in 1936, The Ghost Goes West is a British film set in Scotland and Florida.

Robert Donat plays a dual role as the 20th century Scotsman Donald Glourie and his 18th century ancestor Murdoch Glourie. During a skrimish with British Red Coats, Murdoch is too busy chasing girls to fight for “the glory of Scotland,” a vague reference to the various tensions with Britain in that century. During battle, Murdoch is blown to bits, save for his Scottish tam o’ shanter, which flutters lightly to the ground. While in limbo between heaven and hell, the Scotsman is dubbed a coward by his deceased father for his shameful behavior in battle. Murdoch is returned to earth as a ghost and cursed to wander the halls of the Glourie castle.



December 12, 2015
David Kalat
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Girls! Girls! Girls!

Two lovers, locked in a room—the future of the state itself depends on whether their roiling lust for each other will override their other emotions and compel them into a marriage. The last time these two saw each other, Danilo (Maurice Chevalier) thought Sonia (Jeanette MacDonald) was a whore. The first time they saw each other, Sonia knew Danilo was a gigolo. And if all this talk of prostitution sounds tawdry, just remember that is in fact what this is all about: the King has ordered Danilo to seduce Sonia because unless she has a compelling reason to stick around in the Ruritanian kingdom of “Marshovia” she’ll take her wealth with her, crippling the economy. This is about trading money for sex, and sex for money.

Fans of high culture of course know this story as the beloved Merry Widow (which is just this weekend finishing a glorious run at Chicago’s Lyric Opera–awesome stuff). Franz Lehar’s opera had been entertaining audiences around the world since its Vienna premiere in 1905. But the prudish censors who governed Hollywood in 1934 weren’t what you’d call fans of high culture. For them, Ernst Lubitsch’s film version of The Merry Widow was just a piece of smut.

So how exactly did this thing get made in the first place? And what did it have to do with the Marx Brothers?


KEYWORDS: censorship, Ernst Lubitsch, Joseph Breen, The Marx Brothers, The Merry Widow, Will Hays
August 1, 2015
David Kalat
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Ernst Lubitsch Forgives Himself

If you were so inclined, you could convincingly argue that Ernst Lubitsch’s Heaven Can Wait is a representative example of its time: a costume drama that luxuriates in period detail (playing to the strengths of 20th Century Fox); .a character study told with inventive narrative techniques and non-chronological structure (ike Preston Sturges’ The Great McGinty or Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane); in glorious Technicolor (surging to popularity in the wake of Snow White and The Seven Dwarves).

Except…this is Ernst Lubitsch we are talking about. He did not make movies like everyone else.


KEYWORDS: Don Ameche, Ernst Lubitsch, Gene Tierney, Heaven Can Wait

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