Wednesday, April 29, 2009

“Oh…you mean NANCY!”

TCM scheduled a trio of films this past Sunday night that were all on my must-see list for a variety of reasons, but their rationale for showing the movies was that they all featured actress Nancy Carroll, a popular actress who began her career in silents around 1927 (save for a small part in Riders of the Purple Sage, made in 1918) and smoothly made the transition to talkies thanks to her extensive musical background on stage. Truth be told, I’d only seen one of her films before the unspooling of the three films Sunday—1935’s Atlantic Adventure…and I watched that one only to catch silent comedy legend Harry Langdon in one of his better sound roles (as photographer-sidekick to newspaper man Lloyd Nolan). So now I have four Carroll films tucked under my belt—just don’t go thinking I’m an expert or something.

Broken Lullaby (1932) – Okay, I have something to confess but I don’t want everybody stampeding to the comments section all at the same time to tell me that I’m obviously insane. I’m not all that big a fan of Ernst Lubitsch. I don’t dislike him, you understand—and I respect his invaluable contributions to cinema—but apart from a few movies (notably The Student Prince in Old Heidelberg [1927], “The Clerk” segment from If I Had a Million [1932], Design for Living [1933], Heaven Can Wait [1943] and my all-time favorite, To Be or Not to Be [1942]) I’m pretty much indifferent. Developing a stronger appreciation for Lubitsch is a work in progress, and I rectified this with watching the rarely scheduled Lullaby, which stars Phillips Holmes as an ex-French soldier so wracked with guilt over killing a German soldier (Tom Douglas) in WWI that he makes a pilgrimage to the soldier’s home town to make peace with his family (Carroll is the soldier’s fiancée, Lionel Barrymore his pop and Louise Carter his ma). Holmes loses his nerve at the last minute and tells the family a lie that the two men were good friends in France—they, in turn, take him into their home and treat him like an ersatz son despite the cluck-clucking from the townspeople. In the end, Carroll learns the truth about Holmes but decides to shield it from Barrymore and Carter, and everything comes out in the wash.

Despite some performances that are a tad overwrought, I liked Lullaby—particularly for Lubitsch’s trademark “touches” that include an amusing sequence in which Carroll and Holmes are taking a stroll downtown and all they can hear in the background are the ringing of bells from every shop because the proprietors are a bit nosey and keep opening their doors to hear their conversation. Barrymore is exceptionally good, and has a nice moment in which he confronts his “friends” at the local tavern and admonishes them (and himself) for never seeming to get the point that while they’re sending their sons off to war and toasting their good fortune…those same sons eventually end up dead…or badly scarred and wounded should they return. Emma Dunn, Tully Marshall, Lucien Littlefield and ZaSu Pitts are also in the cast, and though TCM’s print showed a little wear-and-tear (it had the familiar “A MCA-TV Release” titles) any opportunity to see a rarity like this is well worth it.

The Kiss Before the Mirror (1933) – Paul Lukas is a cuckolded husband who’s finally had it with unfaithful wife Gloria Stuart (she’s been dallying with Walter Pidgeon, who looks incredibly young here) and kills in her cold blood. His attorney, Frank Morgan, decides that his defense will address the fact that Lukas was acting in a diminished capacity when he busted a cap in Stuart’s ass, brought on by the stress of Stuart’s infidelity. (Yeah, like that would work in real life.) But as Morgan delves deeper and deeper into the case, he can’t avoid the comparisons between Lukas’ predicament and his own home life—particularly when it appears that his wife (Carroll) is two-timing him as well.

Director James Whale put this one together (shooting on sets left over from Frankenstein [1931]) and while it’s worth a look for the curious it really doesn’t deliver on its promise. The performances carry the day: Morgan is aces in a straight role as the lawyer, Lukas has toned down his Bela Lugosi impression some and it’s a shame that Stuart departs the film so soon (Bobby Osbo compares her exit to that of Janet Leigh’s in Psycho, which is a fairly apt description) because she is sensationally tarty in her small role. Of the three Carroll films, this is the one that showcases her talent best; she strikes a nice balance between naughty adulteress and devoted wife. (Charley Grapewin is also in this film as Morgan’s clerk, and he’s practically unrecognizable.) Whale liked this material so much he recycled it five years later for Wives Under Suspicion (1938) with professional sleazeball Warren William as the lawyer hubby and Gail Patrick as the wife (and Morgan’s brother Ralph in the cast). Bobby also mentioned that Charles Laughton and Claudette Colbert were originally slated for the leads (now that’s a picture I would have liked to see) and received a rare standing ovation from yours truly when he asked why modern day filmmakers don’t make more movies with the breadth and economy of Kiss instead of stretching them out to two-and-a-half hours.

There Goes My Heart (1938) – This was Nancy Carroll’s cinematic swan song; she saw the handwriting on the wall that the big roles weren’t as forthcoming as they were in the past (Heart is a perfect example; her part is that of snooty roommate to Patsy Kelly) and went back to stage work (and did a lot of early television later on). The story here really focuses on heiress Virginia Bruce, who’s tired of having to bow and scrape to her fuddy-duddy grandpa (Claude Gillingwater) and jumps yacht to start her own life in New York City. She makes fast friends with Patsy (an absolute delight here) and gets a job at her grandfather’s department store; meanwhile, irascible editor Eugene Pallette (also a gem) has ordered ace reporter Fredric March to track down Bruce’s whereabouts and get a banner headline story—which Freddy does, except he falls head over heels in love with Ginny as an unforeseen consequence.

This was the first Hal Roach Studios film to be released by United Artists and while one certainly can’t overlook how derivative it is (it’s part-It Happened One Night and part-Nothing Sacred) it’s still an entertaining screwball comedy with some sprightly gags, jokes and pratfalls (March and Bruce’s antics on ice are hysterical, as is Kelly’s grappling with a reducing machine). The cast is also a big plus—in addition to those I’ve named, you’ll also find Alan Mowbray (as Patsy’s would-be-chiropractor boyfriend), Arthur Lake (this is the second film I’ve seen in which Lake is not playing Dagwood Bumstead), Irving Bacon, Robert Armstrong, Marjorie Main (uncredited)…and a funny cameo at the end from a silent comedian that I previously mentioned at the start of this post. It’s based on an original story by Ed Sullivan (I guess you could call it a really big shew) and directed by comedy veteran Norman Z. McLeod (Monkey Business [1931], It’s a Gift [1934], Road to Rio [1947], The Paleface [1948], etc.)


J.C. Loophole said...

Yep, I really enjoyed There Goes my Heart (interesting to see Arthur "Dagwood Bumstead" Lake almost acting like Dagwood here) and Patsy Kelly Sunday night as well. I had never really seen any Patsy Kelly until Kelly the Second the other night. Thats something I love about classic films- always a fun "new to you" discover around the corner.
By the way, I'm not sure if you watch many silents, but I was also intrigued with Sunday Silent's The Phantom Carriage. I really wanted to see, but I turned in thinking, surely it's on DVD. Oh, how many times I have lamented saying that phrase, when I should've known better. It was a "Set your TiVo,DVR, VCr or whatever strikes your fancy moment" that sailed right by me. I spent the better part of a lunch hour Monday and Tuesday trying to figure out when and how to see it and only finding mere clips. The opening scene I did catch before slumber displayed a beautiful print. Alas it is available as a Region 2 disc. The moral of the story: figure out how to set and work your digital/video/whatever records wayyyy before midnight.

Ivan G. Shreve, Jr. said...

By the way, I'm not sure if you watch many silents, but I was also intrigued with Sunday Silent's The Phantom Carriage.Funny you mention this, J.C., because I did manage to catch this and was completely bowled over by it--what an amazing film! But your sleep did not go unwasted--Carriage may only be available on Region 2, but Grapevine Video also sells a copy that not only has the original Swedish version but the edited M-G-M version (The Stroke of Midnight) as well for $14.95. "A mere bag of shells," as The Great One himself would say.

Doghouse Riley said...

All those curves, showing through that flimsy burnoose...

(I was gonna quote the next line, but I've never been sure if it's "aviary" or "apiary".)

Kate Gabrielle said...

I watched all three movies Sunday, too! I think the first one was my favorite, but as you mentioned, the lead actor overplayed his part a tad. Otherwise it was fantastic, and a great Lubitsch film. Is Ninotchka an exception to your "not that fond of Lubitsch" rule?

Also I thought Nancy Carroll was wonderful in the last film, and should have shown up in films once in a while playing that kind of character; she did it so well!

J.C. Loophole said...

Aha- you have saved me hours of leg work! Thanks Ivan. Off to Grapevine I go!

Ivan G. Shreve, Jr. said...

Is Ninotchka an exception to your "not that fond of Lubitsch" rule?I couldn't help but laugh out loud at this, Kate--because Ninotchka falls under my "not that fond of Garbo's talkies" rule. Honest to my grandma, the only talking film I like Garbo in is Queen Christina. I think her best films are the silent ones.

Scott C. said...

Who cares about Garbo? It's Douglas who's oozing sex from every pore in Ninotchka!

And what, no love for The Shop Around the Corner? Trouble in Paradise? Paramount on Parade?!

Ivan G. Shreve, Jr. said...

Scott: I haven't seen the last film, but as to the first two I just want to reiterate that it's not a lack of love--just a lot of indifference.

And as for the Melvyn Douglas observation, I had to pick myself up off the floor due to a laughing out loud incident.

Laura said...

I really enjoyed this movie when it was shown a few months ago, so much that I DVR'd it and rewatched a big chunk of it last weekend. :) I think my favorite part is when March is coming to Bruce's apartment and finds her hanging out the window: "I'm just making dinner!"

Glad to hear you liked BROKEN LULLABY. I scanned through it in my DVR and thought it looked quite intense, but went ahead and transferred it to a video to watch later, on the strength of the Lubitsch name and its relative rarity.

Best wishes,

Operator_99 said...

Gloria looks stunning for the 4 minutes we see her. Nancy did a good job and Morgan, well, perhaps he should have stayed behind the curtain. :-)