COMEDY GOLD #19: Greta Garbo in Ninotchka (1939)

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Earlier this year, I had an idea for a Top 10 article and, as a result, I’ve been watching and re-watching films in order to prepare myself for it – it’s going to be quite an undertaking and I’m super excited about it! Anyway, one of those films was Ninotchka (1939, dir. Ernst Lubitsch), which I hadn’t seen in about eight years.

With Lubitsch at the helm, and Billy Wilder, Charles Brackett and Walter Reisch penning it, Ninotchka could only have been the success that it was anyway, but it is undenieable that Greta Garbo elevated it to a whole new level. Widely known for her aloof and standoffish persona and performances (a reputation that may be deserved if slightly unfair), her performance in Ninotchka proves that she was just as good at comedy as she was in dramatic roles. As the Russian envoy sent from Moscow to Paris to carry out the job of the inefficient agents sent there before her, Ninotchka is a no-nonsense character, professional, firm and methodic, and with little to no time for shenanigans. That is, until she meets Count Leon d’Algout (Melvyn Douglas)… After that, her vulnerability comes through and we believe her just the same. With her stern expression and deadpan delivery, Garbo shows off her surprisingly natural comedic skills, and the film’s tagline ‘Garbo Laughs!’ is a highly anticipated moment that doesn’t disappoint. It’s an all-around performance, multi-layered yet carefully understated, and one suspects that, had 1939 not been the year of Vivien Leigh in Gone With The Wind (1939, dir. Victor Fleming), Greta Garbo would have taken home the Oscar.

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SCREENPLAY BY: Ernest Lehman

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One of the most prolific and respected screenwriters in Hollywood history, Ernest Lehman was described by Dictionary of Literary Biography’s Nick Roddick as a ‘champion of the well-crafted, what-happens-next screenplay’. One look at his career, and we can certainly see why.

Ernest Lehman was born in New York City in 1915. After graduating from the City College of New York, he started working as a freelance writer and copywriter for a Broadway publicist. He also wrote short stories and novellas for a number of magazines, which garnered him considerable attention. In the 1950s, Paramount hired him as a screenwriter and in 1954, he wrote his first screenplay, Executive Suite (dir. Robert Wise), an adaptation of the Cameron Hawley book. That same year, he co-wrote Sabrina (dir. Billy Wilder), with Wilder and Samuel A. Taylor, which was nominated for Best Screenplay. In 1956, he had hits with Somebody Up There Likes Me (dir. Robert Wise) and The King and I (dir. Walter Lang), and in 1957 he co-wrote what is perhaps his greatest screenplay, Sweet Smell of Success (dir. Alexander Mackendrick), with Clifford Odets, having based much of it on his own personal experiences as a writer in New York. Inexplicably, he did not receive a nomination for it. Two years later, he wrote his very first original screenplay, North By Northwest (dir. Alfred Hitchcock), which got him his second Oscar nomination and an Edgar Award – the first of two; the other one was for Family Plot (1976, dir. Alfred Hitchcock). In 1961, he received yet another nomination for West Side Story (dir. Robert Wise), and in 1965, he collaborated with Wise again in The Sound of Music. His last Oscar nod came in 1966, for Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf (dir. Mike Nichols), which he adapted from the Edward Albee play. Though he never won a competitive Oscar, he became the first screenwriter to receive an Honorary one in 2001, before passing away in 2005 at the age of 89.

Vive la France! Blogathon – Les Diaboliques (1955)

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Not only is Les Diaboliques (1955, dir. Henri-Georges Clouzot) one of the greatest psychological thrillers of all time, it is also one of the most unsettling. Georges van Parys’ terrifying score in the opening credits is enough to send shivers down your spine – and remind you of Cape Fear (1962, dir. J. Lee Thompson) in the process – but the steady pace towards the shocking ending is on a whole other level.

School teachers Christina Delassalle (Vera Coulzot) and Nicole Horner (Simone Signoret) conspire to kill Michel Delassalle (Paul Meurisse), a tyrannical school headmaster and their husband and lover, respectively. They carry out their carefully thought-out plan by sedating him and drowning him in a bathtub one night. They then throw his body in the school’s swimming pool, only to find it gone the next day…

The film’s bleak look and overall feel is perfectly suited for its plot and subject matter and what’s great about it is that it hits you straight away. From the beginning, we get this immense sense of dread and doom, so raw and unnapologetically out in the open, which is something I always found particularly brilliant about French cinema of the era. Here, Nicole and Christina’s first interaction sets the tone for the rest of the movie, as it reveals the violent nature of this three-way relationship, while also letting us know who’s in charge. Their scenes together set the plot in motion and the subsequent events are increasingly unnerving, particularly that gruesome murder in the middle of the night, after which, things get even spookier, if that’s even possible. The swimming pool sequence, especially, is a prime example of the ‘anticipation of the bang’ phenomenon that goes with psychological thrillers and it is perhaps the most significant moment in the film, as it changes the course of the narrative and shifts the dynamics between the main characters. This is where the cracks start to show…

Oh and if you’re sensing some Hitchcock vibes, there’s a reason for that. Apparently, Henri-Georges Clouzot beat him for the rights of the book (She Who Was No More by Boileau-Narcejac) by just a few hours and Hitch subsequently called it one of his favorite movies. Luckily, Boileau-Narcejac also wrote D’Entre Les Morts, which, of course, became Vertigo (1958), so…

For more posts on the Vive Le France! Blogathon, click here.

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COMEDY GOLD #18: The picnic from To Catch a Thief (1955)

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To Catch a Thief (1955, dir. Alfred Hitchcock) boasts not only two of the most beautiful people who have ever lived as its leads, but also some of the most breath-taking landscape ever put on film. Let’s face it, To Catch a Thief is pure eye candy! But more importantly than that, it remains one of Hitchcock’s most well-rounded and quintessential films, ticking nearly all the boxes when it comes to genres. It’s a thriller, it’s a romance, it’s a comedy, you name it. And while one could focus on Jessie Royce Landis’ entire performance for this month’s COMEDY GOLD, the picnic scene ultimately takes the cake. At this point, the police are after retired cat burglar John Robie (Cary Grant) following a string of robberies and Frances Stevens (Grace Kelly) is at the wheel, driving him away from them. After a while, they stop at a pre-chosen spot and have a little picnic. Francie’s onto John and she lets him know that not only does she know what’s going on but that she wants in on it. The whole scene is filled with charming little quips here and there, culminating in an equally charming kiss, but the stand-out moment has to be the infamous ‘Do you want a leg or a breast?’ scene, a line which was improvised by Kelly, prompting an improvised response from Grant, all without missing a beat. Well, nearly. He almost started laughing, but managed to keep it together. I’m not sure many people in his position would have.

SCREENPLAY BY: June Mathis

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June Mathis’ legendary eye for detail and sense of plot and theme are second only to her perseverance and determination; her accomplishments in the early to mid-1920s led to her being ranked by the Academy as the third most powerful woman in Hollywood, behind only Mary Pickford and Norma Talmadge.

Born in Colorado in 1887, June Mathis initially pursued a career in vaudeville at the age of 12, finding success in San Francisco. When she realized she wanted to write instead, she entered a screenwriting contest. She ended up receiving several offers and her first produced script came in 1915 with The House of Tears (dir. Edwin Carewe). She signed with Metro, wrote for some of the biggest stars of her day, and in the early 1920s became the first and only female executive in Hollywood. In 1921, came The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse (dir. Rex Ingram), a project that belonged to Mathis in nearly every way. She wrote the script, chose the director, and perhaps more significantly, the star, one Rudolph Valentino. The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse became the biggest-grossing film of 1921, launching its three principals players – Mathis, Ingram and, of course, Rudy – into superstardom. Her lifelong friendship with Valentino was a genuine and prosperous one, with Mathis writing several films for him including The Young Rajan (1922, dir. Phil Rosen), Blood and Sand (1922, dir. Fred Niblo) and The Hooded Falcon (1924, dir. Joseph Henabery). The jaw-droppingly disasterous production of Ben Hur (1925, dir. Fred Niblo) came just a year after the controversial editing of Erich von Stroheim’s Greed (1924), but thankfully First National Pictures was just around the corner, ready to take her in. While there, she wrote several comedy scripts for Coleen Moore, and after two years, she joined United Artists. After Rudolph Valentino’s death in 1926, she loaned her spot in the crypt in the then-Hollywood Memorial Cemetery for him to be buried there. In 1927, June Mathis died from a heart ailment at the age of 40. To this day, Mathis and Valentino rest next to each other in the Hollywood Forever Cemetery.

Film Noir and Friendship – Noirathon

t-men-alfred-ryder-dennis-o-keefe-1947In a world where nothing is what it seems and human emotions get tossed aside for the sake of greed, power and money, it’s perhaps not surprising that relationships of any kind hardly ever last. And if love is meaningless is noir world, so is friendship. Private Hell 36 (1954, dir. Don Siegel) is a good example of this. So is The Third Man (1949, dir. Carol Reed). But sometimes, not all is lost and when danger lurks in the shadows, friendship can be the one relief in these people’s lives. Just look at T-Men (1947, dir. Anthony Mann). In it, Dennis O’Brien (Dennis O’Keefe) and Tony Genaro (Alfred Ryder) are  Treasury agents who go undercover in order to take down a counterfeit ring. Possibly the most tense of all noirs and arguably Anthony Mann’s best, T-Men‘s claustrophobic nature is counter-balanced by the relationship between the two agents. O’Brien and Genaro’s line of work leads them down a path of secrets, lies and deceit, coming from all sides, and their brief yet genuine friendship is the only thing they have, which makes Genaro’s demise particularly heart-breaking. Similarly, when Moe Williams, played by everyone’s favorite character actress Thelma Ritter in Pickup on South Street (1953, dir. Samuel Fuller) meets her end, it’s an especially sad moment. Moe is a police informant who remains loyal to her fellow petty crooks, including Skip McCoy (Richard Widmark), whom she’s known since he was a child. While their friendship is a long-lasting one, it’s her relationship with Candy (Jean Peters) that makes our list. The two bond over Candy’s shaky relationship with Skip and the subsequent exposing of government secrets, with Moe offering her advice on what to do. Moe’s motherly nature towards Candy is sweet and unusual and, yet again, one that takes the edge off in an otherwise secretive and shadowy world. But the greatest friendship in film noir belongs to perhaps the most iconic of them all. In Double Indemnity (1944, dir. Billy Wilder), Walter Neff (Fred MacMurray) and Phyllis Dietrichson (Barbara Stanwyck)’s may be the central relationship, but it’s Walter’s friendship with Barton Keyes (Edward G. Robinson) that warms our hearts – and that’s something you don’t see in noir every day. Their easy-going banter is a breath of fresh air, Walter’s ‘I love you too’ is aww-inducing at first and heart-breaking in the film’s final reel, and Keyes’ disappointment when all is revealed is palpable. The ending is a truly soul-crushing one, in legendary noir fashion, and Walter and Keyes’ relationship has a great deal to do with it. A cautionary tale, like so many others, and one that offers an especially poignant lesson on one of noir’s most overlooked elements. Friendship can sometimes be the most mourned of relationships, and noir world is no exception. Because noir world is an unforgiving and cruel one, where nothing lasts and bad luck is out to get you. And oftentimes, people hang onto the one true thing they have. More often than not, to no avail.

For more posts on Noirathon, hosted by Maddy Loves Her Classic Films, click here.

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COMEDY GOLD #17: The horse from The Lady Eve (1941)

the lady eve 8Just when you thought Preston Sturges’ iconic screwball comedy The Lady Eve (1941) couldn’t get any better, in comes the horse that somehow managed to upstage both Barbara Stanwyck and Henry Fonda for nearly three minutes.
At this point, mistaken identities and misunderstandings have well and truly done a number on our characters, and snake-expert Pike (Fonda) doesn’t know that socialite Eve (Stanwyck) is actually Jean, the con artist he met on the ship and with whom he fell in love, so he, of course, proposes. Again. The same proposal, the same lines as before, as soon as they get off their horses after a ride. Starting with Jean/Eve’s line ‘Stop that! Oh, I thought it was the horse’ as Pike tries to get closer to her, the horse provides some laughs as it gently starts headbutting Pike as he tries to get the words out. Pike’s exasperation is even funnier when you realize that both Fonda and Stanwyck were trying not to laugh the whole time. Sturges’ flair for combining screwball, soph-com, slapstick and farce has never been more wonderfully highlighted as it is in The Lady Eve and I, for one, am a sucker for this scene!

Four dialogue-free scenes in classic movies

In the words of Norma Desmond, ‘We didn’t need dialogue, we had faces’. Sometimes that’s all you need. Sometimes you don’t need dialogue to get the point across and these four dialogue-free classic movie scenes prove that:

Vertigo-007Scottie following Madeleine in Vertigo (1958, dir. Alfred Hitchcock) – The timeless beauty of Vertigo comes from the fact that it’s so many things at once. There are so many ways to look at it, so many possible interpretations, that The Garden has dispensed with that for now. But however you look at it, one could argue that the movie is well and truly set in motion when Scottie (James Stewart) follows Madeleine (Kim Novak) in search of answers. This dialogue-free sequence is both eerie and intriguing, and it carefully places the movie’s MacGuffin right where it should be. Not to mention that we get to enjoy Bernard Herrmann’s stunning score throughout – probably my favorite movie score of all time.

separating-eggs-woman-of-the-yearMaking breakfast in Woman of the Year (1942, dir. George Stevens) – The movie’s progressive message falls through in the last moments, but luckily we get to watch Tess (Katharine Hepburn in an Oscar-nominated performance) hilariously try (and fail) to make breakfast for her estranged husband Sam (Spencer Tracy). A testament to Hepburn’s often overlooked ability for physical comedy, it’s a funny little sequence and a sweet ending to the first movie collaboration of one of the screen’s – and real life’s – greatest couples.

DuckSoup13.pngThree hats from Duck Soup (1933. dir. Leo MacCarey) – This is unquestionably one of the funniest things I have ever seen. In fact, I almost didn’t watch it again just now as I wrote this, because I knew I’d get stuck in a Marx Brothers loop and would never finish this article. Bottom line is, this is one of the brothers’ funniest moments, particularly the Chico/Harpo duo, which is always a joy to watch. I could have chosen the mirror scene, but that one’s been talked about ad nauseam, and this is my favorite.

Rififi-1The heist from Rififi (1955, dir. Jules Dassin) – Quite possibly the single greatest dialogue-free scene in the history of cinema. As the gang, led by Tony ‘Le Stephanois’ (Jean Servais) break into Mappin and Webb, their excrutiatingly meticulous plan is laid out before our eyes from start to finish and thirty-two (THIRTY-TWO!) minutes go by just like that. It’s heart-pounding, nerve-wracking and breath-taking.

There are so many scenes to choose from, but these four will have to do for now. Maybe a Part 2 is in order?

 

 

SCREENPLAY BY: Sidney Howard

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Sidney Howard’s horrific death at the age of 48 in 1939 made him the first person to win a posthumous Oscar, when he won for the adapted screenplay of Gone with the Wind (1939, dir. Victor Fleming). Before that, he’d been one of the most prolific American playwrights of the 1920s and 30s.

Born in Oakland, California in 1891, Sidney Howard studied playwriting at Harvard under George Pierce Baker, with the likes of Eugene O’Neill, Phillip Barry and S. N. Berhman. After his first play, Swords, flopped on Broadway, They Knew What They Wanted was a critical success and won him the 1925 Pulitzer Prize for Drama. For the next few years, he had a string of both successes and failures, with such plays as Lucky Sam McCarver and The Silver Cord. In 1938, he co-founded the Playwrights’ Company, which aimed at producing plays, after its founding members became dissatisfied with the Theater Guild and critics alike. Once in Hollywood, he started working at MGM and he received his first Oscar nomination for the adapted screenplay of Arrowsmith (1931, dir. John Ford), and again in 1937 for his adaptation – of his own stage adaptation – of Dodsworth (1936, dir. William Wyler), both based on Sinclair Lewis novels.

In between his Oscar nods, he also served at the president of the Dramatics Guild of America in 1935, having been a fierce advocate for writers’ rights. In 1940, he won the Oscar for Best Adapted Screenplay for Gone with the Wind, six months after his tragic death – crushed by his tractor in his garage. After this, the Playwrights’ Company created the Sidney Howard Memorial Award, with the goal of finding and encouraging emerging playwrights. A prominent figure on Broadway and in Hollywood throughout the early 20th century, Sidney Howard was inducted into the American Theater Hall of Fame in 1981.

COMEDY GOLD #16: Animal and Shapiro from Stalag 17 (1953)

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Birthday boy Billy Wilder’s flair for balancing comedy and drama in the same movie is legendary and revered. And, barring The Apartment (1960), one could argue that this has never been more beautifully demonstrated than in Stalag 17 (1953), the comedy-drama war movie about a group of Americans held in a POW camp, who slowly come to realize that one of them is in an informant. A tense whodunnit based on the play by Donald Bevan and Edmund Trzcinski, the comic relief in Stalag 17 comes from Shapiro (Harvey Lembeck) and Animal (Robert Strauss in an Oscar-nominated role), two prisoners whose genuine, heart-warming friendship, silly antics and ongoing gags about Betty Grable are the antidote to the otherwise unbearable conditions in which they find themselves. Their moments together are like a breath of fresh air (I couldn’t even pick just one!), especially when you consider that they’re among a group of prisoners that include the cynical Sefton (William Holden in an Oscar-winning performance) and Duke (Neville Brand), the angriest of them all, among others. Speaking of Neville Brand, the latest issue of NOIR CITY E-Mag is out and features a REMEMBER ME article about Brand written by myself. If you want to buy the magazine or donate to the Film Noir Foundation (founded by TCM regular Eddie Muller), click on this link.