A Marriage Made in Screwball Heaven: ‘Third Finger, Left Hand’

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One of my favorite tropes from Golden Age romantic comedies is the “faux marriage” in which the leading man and leading lady either pretend to be married, or they actually wed for reasons other than true love. As they scheme, maneuver, or fight their way through the plot, they fall in love for real, though circumstances, stubbornness, or other characters prevent them from confessing their true feelings until the inevitable happy ending. The plot device is still commonly found in romantic comedies as a way to bring the main characters together while creating major obstacles for them to overcome.

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November 16, 2013
David Kalat
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2B/not2B (or, Lubitsch vs. Hitler)

The repetition of certain lines of dialogue is one of the defining characteristics of Ernst Lubitsch’s cinema.  Lubitschean characters repeat certain lines as a way of creating double-entendres on the spot.  Audiences are expected to recognize the repetition, and to remember the context of the original lines, so that those memories get overlaid on top of the repeat, imbuing the words with a weight of additional meaning beyond the literal significance of the words themselves.

To single out an especially piquant example from To Be Or Not To Be, consider what Lubitsch does to the phrase “Heil Hitler.”  Over the course of 90 minutes it is yawned by Jack Benny, treated like an Abbot and Costello routine by most of the rest of the cast—Heil Hitler!  No, I Heiled Hitler first!—there is Bronski’s fake Hitler says “Heil myself,” and of course Carole Lombard’s orgasmic moan.

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The central conceit of the movie isn’t about making fun of what the Nazis took from Poland, it’s about creating a fictional space where the Poles take everything from the Nazis.  This isn’t a movie about the German invasion of Poland—it’s about a Polish invasion of Germans.

During the course of the film, our heroes subversively appropriate the Nazis’ uniforms, their identities, even their salute—and as these icons of Nazi terror are systematically taken over by the Polish actors it simply serves to undercut the power of those totems.  They turn “Heil Hitler” into a punchline before the first German troops set foot in Poland. [...MORE]


KEYWORDS: Carole Lombard, Cluny Brown (1946), Ernst Lubitsch, Greta Garbo, Ninotchka, To Be or Not To Be
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Extruded plastic dingus, for kids

Last week I posted here some embarrassing anecdotes about my experiences as a color timer in the early 1990s—and I’d intended to immediately follow it up with a sequel.  The first post was about Even Cowgirls Get the Blues—a film I knew was a commercial and critical disappointment, and I thought it was funny trying to pretend I was the reason for its problems.  And so the sequel would flip the story—a Hollywood film I came near, but which soared to great heights because I was kept safely far away from it.

Except when I sat down to start writing this, I was absolutely jaw-droppingly gob-smacked to discover that my whole premise was flawed.  To my utter astonishment, I learned that the Coen Brothers’ The Hudsucker Proxy was not considered a success.  I’m still trying to wrap my head around this.

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Ralph Bellamy – the right wrong guy

Just in case my love of screwball comedies wasn’t evident from all the times I’ve posted about it here before, I’m here this week to celebrate Ralph Bellamy’s contributions to the genre.

I need to note that upfront, because Ralph Bellamy had such a massive and sprawling career that you could be a huge Bellamy fan and not actually have seen any of the movies I’m going to talk about–even though Bellamy was a major force in the development of the screwball comedy, and was so singularly associated with it he became a punchline in and of himself.

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The Love Song of Capt. McGloo

Hollywood’s fascination with itself has generally meant that movies about movies–or, more precisely, movies that celebrate movies–tend to be overvalued by the film establishment relative to their actual merits. For example, Preston Sturges’ Sullivan’s Travels tends to show up on a lot of classic movie lists, it was singled out for the Criterion treatment back before Criterion’s management really cottoned on to the idea that comedies can be classics, and when writers try to summarize why Preston Sturges is important, Sullivan’s Travels is almost always cited as his one or two most significant accomplishments. What Sullivan’s Travels is not, however, is terribly funny–it is one of Sturges’ tamer works. If you want to ask me what Sturges should be most remembered for, I’d have to say Palm Beach Story–a profoundly anarchic comic masterpiece that wholly abdicates any responsibility to make a lick of sense.

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Home Video Roundup: Witches and the West

I had a similar reaction to Mr. Stewart when I watched Kim Novak purr her way through Bell Book and Candle, just released by Twilight Time on a gorgeous blu-ray.  He also might have been agog at Westward the Women (1951), the William Wellman femme-Western released in a well-appointed DVD from the Warner Archive, which includes an audio commentary from film historian Scott Eyman. They are two films that focus on female desire, a rare occurrence in the generally leering male gazes of post-code Hollywood (pre-code films were replete with sexually independent women – check out Baby Face (1933) for a bracing example). Bell Book and Candle is set in motion because of Novak’s uncontrollable lust for Stewart, and Westward the Women kicks off because of hundreds of ladies’ self-sacrificing desire for a better life out in California, a gender bending variation on Horace Greeley’s advice to, “Go west, young man”.

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Too Hot to Handle

Too Hot to Handle—a fairly forgotten romantic comedy from 1938, a passable entertainment but not the sort of movie likely to inspire much deep discussion.  Or is it?

Too Hot to Handle

See, this unassuming movie ties together many of the themes we’ve been working with since the end of December—this is a movie about movies, specifically about how movies lie, and how people who lie tend to make movies.  Like Melies’ faked coronation of King Edward VII, these are newsreels that lie—documentaries that are secretly fictional (which is the sort of thing we had on our minds at that very first film show in 1895, with the Lumiere Brothers’ very first film being a staged “documentary”).

The film in question is by Jack Conway, whose virtues I sang back on February 4, and is a quasi-remake of a Buster Keaton silent classic—one that calls into question the conventional wisdom of what happened to the silent clowns when the movie started to talk.

That’s a lot to pack into one movie—so let’s get started unpacking it.  This week, Too Hot To Handle!

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The Films of Robert Mulligan, Part 2

This is Part Two of a four-part series that looks at the career of director Robert Mulligan. You can find Part One here.

After the success of To Kill a Mockingbird, Robert Mulligan and producer Alan Pakula made five straight films together to close out the 1960s, before Pakula departed to become a director himself. Using Mockingbird as a template, the duo chose projects that dealt with hot button issues (Love With the Proper Stranger and Up the Down Staircase), or were prestigious literary adaptations (Baby the Rain Must Fall and Inside Daisy Clover). Their final collaboration, The Stalking Moon, with a story taken from a Western novel, is the exception. Regardless of their middlebrow origin, these are films sensitively attuned to the social and geographic landscapes of their subjects, to the ebb and flow of urban overcrowding and the oppressive emptiness of the open plains. These films also continue Mulligan’s interest in outsiders adapting to new realities, in “dramas of experience intruding upon innocence”, as Kent Jones eloquently put it.

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The Gentleman Thief

Last week we visisted with Fantomas, the Lord of Terror.  This week it’s his opposite number’s turn in the spotlight—the Gentleman Thief, Arsene Lupin.

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38th Telluride Film Festival

In case you missed it, the Telluride Film Festival had its 38th bash last Labor Day Weekend, September 2-5. It included the latest films by Aki Kaurismäki, Werner Herzog, Martin Scorsese, Alexander Payne, Béla Tarr, David Cronenberg, and many more. But the reason I still love Telluride is not because it delivers the newest works from so many talented directors, but because they also focus on the past (showing silent films, archive prints, and various repertory titles), along with some unexpected programming courtesy of guest directors who are given Carte blanche to select anything they like, no matter how esoteric that might be. (This year the guest director was Brazilian composer, singer, guitarist, writer, and political activist Caetano Veloso, who has worked on soundtracks for Michelangelo Antonioni and Pedro Almodóvar). Telluride also eschews the competitive awards-system that drives so many other festivals and has managed to sidestep being mobbed by industry professionals, brand-obsessed sponsors, or party-obsessed socialites. In sum, Telluride has managed to still be that rare festival that bends over backwards to bring obscure 35mm movies while simultaneously providing viewers with cinematic experiences that challenge them to broaden their horizons rather than simply pandering to market whims or popular taste. And, yes, I say that despite the fact that this year its tribute star was George Clooney.  [...MORE]

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