Essential: HEAVEN CAN WAIT (1943)

Part 1 of 2

TopBilled wrote:

Life is a Lubitsch and then you die. And when you die, like Don Ameche’s character does in HEAVEN CAN WAIT (1943), you have a conversation with the devil to take stock of what you did during the years you spent on earth. Of course, the goal is to get to heaven, right? So Ameche has to defend his life on some level, in order to be reunited with his wife Martha, played by Gene Tierney, who had predeceased him.

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This is a fun, clever satire on the afterlife, which sparkles under the filmmaker’s direction and there are many engaging performances by the top-grade cast. If you’ve never seen it, you’re in for a real treat. Especially because the group of supporting players is basically a who’s who of the finest character actors and actresses from the golden age of Hollywood.

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The script has a lot of fine-tuned dialogue and just hearing these fabulous performers deliver these fabulous lines is a lot of fun. The Lubitsch touch, as it is known in the director’s films, is light-hearted and a bit tongue-in-cheek. So Lubitsch takes the subject matter and  he depicts heaven and hell– and sex itself– in amusing not frightening ways. The magical style in which characters leave their mortality behind and enter into the afterlife is gentle and charming and the death scenes are not at all like we see in other films of the period.

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In the story, Ameche portrays Henry Van Cleve, a shameless Casanova whose adventures are shown in flashback as he tells Satan, and the audience, the things he did during his illustrious lifetime. Though I am quite sure Satan already knew the details. Incidentally, the Spanish title for this film is EL DIABLO DIJO NO, which literally translates as The Devil Said No. I am not sure what the Devil would be objecting to, since in the end, he does let old Henry take the elevator “up” to be reunited with Martha, suggesting Henry does get to go to heaven after all.

As Henry’s story unfolds, we are handed a saga that consists of humor, razor sharp intelligence and sentiment. Some of the sentiments depicted are rather shallow and stem from a vapid male character who has to learn the hard way about his wife’s true love. As stated, Gene Tierney plays Ameche’s love interest, and they share considerable chemistry. The supporting cast includes Charles Coburn as Henry’s down-to-earth grandfather; Spring Byington and Louis Calhern as Henry’s parents; Marjorie Main and Eugene Pallette as Henry’s in-laws; and Laird Cregar as His Excellency the devil.

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Speaking of the devil, Laird Cregar does a good job making that character unusually likable. His Excellency has perfect manners and is friendly and approachable. Not exactly what most people associate with the fires of hell.

The film is based on a play called Birthday by Leslie Bush-Fedeke. During the extended flashbacks we see Henry go from being a ten year old boy, to a 25 year old man who first falls in love with the gal that will become his wife. Then Henry must later deal with his wife’s premature death. Basically we see a man spoiled rotten as a child that grows up and learns many things.

It is very much a dialogue driven movie, yet there are some memorable visuals included. Samson Raphaelson’s script is sprinkled with dry sarcasm along with some laugh-out-loud moments and absurdities. Lucky for us, the folks at Criterion issued a restored copy of the film, preserving it for generations to come.

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Part 2 of 2

JLewis wrote:

Intriguingly Ernst Lubitsch’s debut in Technicolor had its release in the U.S. sandwiched between two great Brit pics opening in the U.K. a few months before and after: Powell & Pressburger’s THE LIFE AND DEATH OF COLONEL BLIMP and Lean & Coward’s THIS HAPPY BREED. On the surface, this trio seem to have little in common apart from making great use of Technicolor to highlight the many details of bygone eras, such as the beautifully preserved Victorian décor presented here.

Yet we have a common theme shared that involves characters who live in the same house for many years and maintain a surprisingly stubborn personality that endures across decades (although the family moves out in the end of THIS HAPPY BREED as so many did at wartime). I think these colorful nostalgic trips helped many Yanks and Brits feel a sense of confidence that “we can get through this” in the fight against the Axis.

Just referencing briefly the Blimp film for comparison, Roger Livesley’s Clive Wynne-Candy thinks all men are gentlemen at heart but must learn from his German (yes, German) friend (Anton Walbrook) that a new “evil” has taken over Europe and the old games of fair play no longer apply to a far more sinister world full of atrocities galore.

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In HEAVEN CAN WAIT, Henry Van Cleve (Don Ameche) thinks he is not going to heaven but That Other Place as he meets up with His Excellency after death (and Laird Cregar plays his role as Hades as if he is some top executive at a big art deco business building). Yet the only “sins” Henry ever committed are of the Victorian kind that even Jimmy Carter admitted to in Playboy: he mostly “cheats in his heart”  or so we think…since we are not given concrete evidence that it goes beyond that. His deceased wife is the only one he truly loved.

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By 1943, it was obvious that the world had far greater sins being committed than Henry, Clive or Celia Johnson’s mother-of-all-mothers Ethel in THIS HAPPY BREED were fussing over. In fact, “His Excellency” had quite a waiting list for that downward moving elevator as it was.

Not that Henry is 100% squeaky clean and, yes, he is occasionally called into question. His wife Martha (Gene Tierney) does temporarily leave him on their tenth anniversary– which is also his birthday– when she suspects that he is carrying on behind her back with showgirls, but the way he and Grandpa (Charles Coburn) retrieve her shows how much he loves her above anybody else.

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By the time of their twenty-fifth anniversary (another birthday of his as he keeps getting older like her), she is long over such jealousy issues with a husband as predictable as him and finds herself laughing at his scorn of their son, Tod Andrews’ Jack, romancing a showgirl himself (Helene Reynolds’ Peggy Nash). As they recall their past in a specific room of the mansion they are privately together in, the same place where he decided to elope her away from nerdy cousin Albert (Allyn Joslyn), she admits that she was never afraid of him but only concerned about why it was taking him so long to come “get” her.

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Again, Henry likes all women…and girls he brought beetles for as a boy as a way of seducing them. Yet he mostly woos verbally and does not touch or insult in a way that the modern #MeToo era would disapprove of. As His Excellency observes: “So far as I can see, you’ve made them all very happy.” I guess we can compare Henry to the many characters personified by Maurice Chevalier from THE LOVE PARADE through GIGI who thank heaven for little girls who get bigger every day. Although youthful women keep him young, his son does advise him wisely that he is better off dating somebody closer to his own age as he deals with the loneliness after his wife’s passing.

Regarding that final nurse attending him, he relates: “and suddenly I was awakened by a caressing touch on my forehead. I opened my eyes and there she was sitting right on the edge of the bed. Nellie Brown, registered nurse. Your Excellency, one look at her and it didn’t matter whether she was registered or not. Then she took out a thermometer, and she said, ‘Open your mouth.’ Who wouldn’t for Nellie?”

In many ways, we want more people in our lives like Henry…and Blimp…because they are genuinely honest and caring people. The French maid (Signe Hasso) only “sinfully” introduces the teenage Henry to champagne. Also she gets him out of his shell: “In your papa’s time, papa kiss mama and zen marry. But this is 1887! Time of bicycle, the typewriter est arrive, soon everybody speak over ze telephone, and people have new idea of value of kiss. What was bad yesterday is lot of fun today.” Martha gets him interested later because she is lying to her mother on a public telephone, but she ends up a beacon of whole fullness in his eyes.

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Although Henry loves his lovely ladies, he isn’t terribly fond of them sporting glasses for some reason. Even Martha is avoiding wearing them late in life, perhaps on purpose. The author of “How to Make Your Husband Happy” is pictured on the back cover as an elderly spectacled matron whom Henry ridicules as Martha plans to buy it in a store. Likewise, the nurse he is eager to get rid of in his final resting bed sports them as well.

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This is a movie all about people who make mountains out of molehills. The parents of Martha in boring Kansas, the Strables, are downright hilarious as played by two of my all-time favorite character supports, Marjorie Main and Eugene Pallette. Although more socially conscious modern viewers may squirm a bit in how the black servants are talked down to (“You talk too much!”), they are quite harmless people at heart, especially in the way they fuss over the outcome of the Katzenjammer Kids in the “funny papers.” Henry’s parents Randolph and Bertha (Louis Calhern and Spring Byington) are constantly worried about him but they also spoil him dearly. Grandpa is the one who understands him the best and wishes he could have lived the same kind of life when he was younger.

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Little side note: We get blessed with not one, but two, ex-“Our Gang” stars playing teens here: Dickie Moore and Scotty Beckett (and I later discovered that this was not their only movie shared). Scotty was doing fairly well at the time, mostly at MGM, despite how unhappy his  later years were. I always enjoy seeing a lot of familiar faces in these old flicks at their different ages.

Although the opening and closing scenes set in The Eternal help the Lubitsch spoofing of Victorian views of “sin,” I really did not feel any of these scenes were necessary for a movie that plays well enough as a fictional biographic sketch. For one thing, I found the big “corporate headquarters” too much of a rip-off of earlier comedies of the thirties also spoofing heaven and “that other place” as if they were offices in a high rise business center. More creativity could have been used here.

This is a rather lightweight biographical sketch of a fictional character but he is, no doubt, a composite of real people whom many in 1943 would have known in their own families and there is gentle ridicule of the antiquated way of life, despite how Henry thinks that he is changing with the times. Samson Raphaelson peppers the script with plenty of funny one-liners and whimsy as he did in the earlier Lubitsch classics he worked on. We kinda know what will happen next but are constantly fascinated by all of the characters on display here.

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HEAVEN CAN WAIT may currently be viewed on YouTube.

Essential: CLUNY BROWN (1946)

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JL: CLUNY BROWN may not be one of the meatier Lubitsch soufflé dinners, but it is well seasoned for taste. The story is not much, despite being based on a popular novel that probably had more going on than 99 minutes can cover on screen.

TB: The novel was written by Margery Sharp, who had several of her bestsellers turned into movies. CLUNY BROWN was published in 1944, so it didn’t take long for Fox to snap up the rights and put it into production. Sharp was an English author who wrote books for adults, but is more known for her children’s books. One of them, THE RESCUERS, would later become a big animated hit for Disney and spawn a sequel. So it’s kind of interesting to put Sharp’s writing into a broader context when we look at this particular film.

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JL: There is a wonderful atmosphere to the 1938 English setting created on the 20th Century Fox backlot for CLUNY BROWN which, in my opinion, boasts an even better “small town England” than MGM’s over at Culver City. The year is significant since Charles Boyer plays a refugee from Czechoslovakia at the time Hitler was creating his own Europe and many Brits were not sure what to make of it, being nervous about a possible war despite going about their day to day routines.

TB: One thing I like about this film is that while the story takes place in the past, it is a not-so-distant past. Yet so much would have happened in the world from ’38 to ’44/’46, causing audience sensibilities to change in the intervening years. People were wiser after the war. This kind of story allows viewers to look back on how naive they might have been.

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JL: We are blessed with many British Hollywood character actors on camera even though most don’t do all that much on screen. These include future Rat-Packer Peter Lawford (usually at MGM at this time), Reginald Owen, that other Reginald…Reginald Gardiner, C. Aubrey Smith, Ernest Cossart and, rounding out the cast, Canadian-born Margaret Bannerman and Irish-born Sara Allgood also playing up their best British accents. Una O’Connor of BRIDE OF FRANKENSTEIN fame is sadly given a role in which she doesn’t speak, although she’s still memorable as “mummy” to equally British Richard Haydn’s Jonathan Wilson.

TB: The reason these character actors and actresses get limited screen time is that they were not personal projects for super producer David Selznick. Selznick of course would have been encouraging the studio and Lubitsch to keep the focus on his wife, Jennifer Jones. Especially her “love scenes” with Boyer.

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TB: Yes. Charles Boyer and Jennifer Jones are the two leads here and, while this feature may not represent their best performances on screen, they are quite lovable in their personalities. At least one review I read stated that they lacked chemistry on screen. Fair enough. However there is no actual “romance” until the final reel and no physical displays of affection until then. Plus, the best relationships begin on a comfortable friendship level anyway and we viewers know these two are a good match in the end.

There could also be the tawdry dialogue impacting the situation here too, for this movie has plenty of talk-talk-talk that is surprisingly graphic for diabolical minds like me with enough imagination.

TB: I have to say that I agree with those who claim Jones lacks chemistry with Boyer. In fact, I think with the exception of William Holden in LOVE IS A MANY-SPLENDORED THING (1955), Jones lacks chemistry with nearly all her leading men. She’s too self-conscious to give any of the love stories in her movies the kind of natural feeling they require. In fact, I’d go so far as to say Jones is the weak link in this film and if they had cast a pro like Claudette Colbert (who previously worked with Boyer in TOVARICH), the results would have been even better.

JL: Many Lubitsch comedies have plenty of spice and this one is no exception. In fact, there is a surprisingly sexual (within Production Code standards) insinuation made in regards to…of all things!…plumbing.

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TB: Oh no. I think I know where you’re going with this!

JL: I instantly remembered 7th grade gym class when we embarrassed boys were forced by our teacher to shower together because, in his words, we had nothing to be ashamed of on account of our similar “plumbing systems” (unlike the girls, who had a different “plumbing system”). Twice we see Jennifer Jones’ Cluny Brown fix the plumbing here, literally of course, and certain little digs are made here and there in the script, suggesting plenty of wink-wink.

TB: Wink-wink? Oh…you mean, yeah…wink-wink.

JL: Let’s start with Pipe Fix #1.

TB: Okay.

JL: Reginald Gardiner’s Hilary Ames is subletting the apartment of rich Andrew Carmel (Peter Lawford) when Charles Boyer’s Adam Belinski arrives as a new guest just as Hilary is fussing with a clogged sink.

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Cluny arrives unexpectedly because her uncle, the official plumber, couldn’t make it. Hilary clearly has no interest in Cluny despite how she rolls up her shirt sleeves and exposes her shapely legs in preparation for “dirty” work, while Adam is both interested in her and in Hilary’s overall lack of interest in her.

Later Adam gets her drunk, which may make some modern viewers question his intentions, and when she describes in a playful, sexy way that she feels “chillerpicked,” Hilary looks perplexed: “I don’t ever recall feeling chillerpicked.” This, in turn, prompts Adam to remind him “I’m afraid you never will, my dear Ames. There isn’t a chiller in you.”

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Hilary is accused of giving a very dull party for Helen Walker’s Betty Cream, the love interest of their shared friend Andrew. It is pretty much spelled out that he displays zero interest in women altogether.

TB: You gotta love made up words like “chillerpicked” and a character whose last name is Cream. Anyway, let’s go on to Pipe Fix #2, shall we?

JL: Pipe Fix #2. With the stuffy pharmacist she is engaged to, Richard Haydn’s Jonathan Wilson, Cluny fixes another clogged sink as he and guests celebrate a very somber birthday celebration for his mother. His response to her, um, hard work: “I wish I hadn’t seen what I saw.”

Although he earlier mentions the possibility of having children with her, he clearly has limited interest in the “how” to achieve that goal. She later tells Adam “you know what plumbing does to me. Just can’t keep my hands off of it and I didn’t last night.” Of course, Jonathan makes it clear that he can’t “afford a wife subject to impulses either to pipes or to himself.”

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TB: One comment I had read about the original story is that Cluny sort of represents the Unruly Element of British society. She doesn’t exactly know her place or where she belongs. She is considered a carefree spirit who doesn’t fit into any specific social class. But she begins to understand herself, and her self-worth, in the process of dealing with this group of complacent upper middle class Brits.

JL: There isn’t much of a conflict between Jonathan and rival suitor Adam, who realizes early on that Cluny and Jonathan are doomed as a couple and he will eventually get-the-girl in the end. He merely teases Jonathan by opening and closing his shop door to get him to run out in “May I help you?” fashion. Likewise, he finishes a private conversation and then adds one-more-thing-to-discuss in order to get Jonathan instantly hopping back like some puppy retrieving a stick. The basic joke is that Jonathan lives only a mile or two from the place he was born and has little intention of leaving his confined space…and habits.

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Jonathan is a practical, rather than romantic, fellow. When he and Cluny are discussing a painting of his, featuring a lone sheep in a meadow, she feels sorry for the animal being so lonely by itself (i.e. no flock) and pessimistically predicts that it will wind up later as mutton, served on a plate just as she provided the Carmels. He merely responds that the sheep is “serving” England just as everybody, including himself, is serving others.

TB: That’s a good point. Despite the silliness of Jones’ performance, and the light-airy Lubitsch touch, there is some sort of serious (moral) tone in the story, which I think is there because of Sharp’s original writing. They all have to serve one another, because if they do that, then they are serving all of England.

Anything else you want to mention?

JL: The primary men in this show are passive and require strong women to help them make their moves, including Peter Lawford’s Andrew who needs both Betty and his mother to do all of the major work getting him to propose to Betty. In contrast, Boyer’s Adam has no inhibitions. As he declares to Cluny with no shame to his game: “If I were rich, I would build you the most beautiful mansion with the most exquisite and complicated plumbing. Right in the middle of the most eloquent housewarming party, I would hand you a hammer and say: Ladies and gentlemen, Madame Cluny Belinski is about to put the pipes in their place.”

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TB: Certainly a bit of innuendo there. Wonder if the production code office was feeling too chillerpicked to object.

JL: Lubitsch & Company soon make it obvious that this twosome becomes a threesome in short order without ever mentioning the words “children” or “pregnancy” but demonstrating with the changing titles of Adam’s latest book titles that involve a particular bird referenced earlier: the nightingale. (Not quite sure what Adam has against the bird, but he dislikes one being outside his mansion window for some reason.)

Sexual themes aside…a bigger theme that was apparently emphasized in Margery Sharp’s novel is the pre-war struggle to “know one’s place.” One key scene emphasizes this in the movie adaptation. Because Cluny enters the wealthy Carmel residence with Col. Graham (C. Aubrey Smith), Sir Henry and Lady Alice Carmel (wonderfully played in their small roles by Reginald Owen and Margaret Bannerman) don’t realize at first that Cluny is the new servant hired and treat her as a friend of their son’s with tea and crumpets.

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When they realize the mistake, the situation suddenly gets awkward for them even though Alice is very polite and allows her to finish eating and drinking before Syrette (Ernest Cossart) shows her the duties. The body language of Jennifer Jones the actress here is quite masterful as she sips her remaining tea with her shoulders held up in submission, suggesting shame and embarrassment.

TB: As I had said in a private message to you, I think you are much kinder about Jones’ acting than I am. When I see a scene like that, I can’t help but wonder how many times Selznick had her rehearse it with a coach on the set, before she got it right. Again, I don’t think she’s a very naturalistic actress. Her performance choices often strike me as odd, and when she does something “wonderful” like this in a scene, I doubt that she came up with it on her own.

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JL: Margaret Bannerman’s Alice is an interesting character in her own right. Although she is ridiculed to some degree as a stuffy lady of the manor, she actually treats Cluny very well. She motherly, if slightly sternly, tells her to finish her tea and eases her that “nobody did anything wrong” when Cluny gives the false impression that she is a friend of the family. She talks much the same as well to Betty, whom she plans on having as her daughter-in-law, by demanding she stay in bed so they can talk. Again, her tone is equal with both Betty and Cluny despite the former’s higher position in the social order.

The whole remembering-your-role theme has its impact on the romantic relationships of these pre-war Brits, but in different ways. The servants Syrette and “Mrs.” Maile (Sara Allgood) are initially shocked at seeing fellow servant Cluny and house-guest Adam leaving the same bedroom and talking in a semi-suggestive tone, but kinda understand this relationship later. After all, they are not lacking feelings and desires themselves.

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TB: Excellent point.

JL: In the end, Adam finally must take charge of Cluny in an effort to prevent her from a life of doom and gloom, especially with Jonathan who will only accept her as the secondary woman in his life and mommy’s ways are the law. The first things to fly out of their train window are her apron and servant hat. This eliminates all phobias regarding her “place” in society and makes the happy couple equal partners in every way.

TB: Thanks JLewis. CLUNY BROWN may currently be viewed on YouTube.

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Essential: THE MCMASTERS (1970)

Last week Jlewis did a fine job reviewing DELIVERANCE, and I feel he set the bar rather high for me to follow-up with this week’s review of THE MCMASTERS. I will tell you right out of the gate that this is not an easy film to watch because of the graphic nature of a few key scenes, though I do think it is essential viewing.

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I stumbled upon this title by accident a month ago on Amazon Prime. A decent looking print is also currently on YouTube. I had finished watching THE LONELY MAN (1957) and was eager to look at more westerns starring or featuring Jack Palance. Palance has a supporting role as a villain in THE MCMASTERS, and boy is he a memorable bad guy! But the film is really a vehicle for African American actor Brock Peters, though Peters is second-billed after Burl Ives. Ives was top-billed because he was a more established name by this point. Some reviewers on the IMDb have erroneously claimed Ives plays support to Peters. While I would agree that Peters has a bit more screen time, especially in the last half hour, after Ives’ character is killed off, I would argue that Ives is playing a secondary lead, not a supporting role.

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What I like very much about THE MCMASTERS is its two-pronged thesis about marginalized races after the Civil War. One thesis is about how blacks, particularly black men, might move ahead financially after the abolishment of slavery. The other thesis is about the continued displacement of the native American Indian population. So basically, we have two disenfranchised groups dealing with their status in a white man’s world after the war. Ives represents a politically correct white man who attempts to right some of the wrongs. Palance represents a politically incorrect white man whose need to maintain control leads to rape and murder.

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I will briefly summarize the plot, so you have an idea of what to expect and how these characters are sometimes at cross-purposes. Mostly, Palance and his gang of unruly cowboys are unhappy about the fact that black men are now free. He and his men want to push Peters off the land and out of their community. We learn early on that Peters and his family had been slaves under Ives. But Peters had gone off to fight for the North, so he’s come back a “hero.”

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Ives not only welcomes him home with open arms, but Ives who has no children of his own, drafts a will and makes Peters his heir. This means Peters will be allowed to stay and work the land as not only a free man but a part owner, and after Ives dies, Peters will inherit the whole estate. Yes, this does not sit well with Palance and his racist buddies who intend to do something about it. They start by taunting Peters at the local saloon, which causes Peters to pull out a gun. But Ives prevents Peters from losing his cool.

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Meanwhile, Peters has become friendly with a local tribe and he hires some of the natives to help work the land for him and Ives. Palance has also been trying to get rid of the natives. After Peters helps the natives during a brief skirmish with Palance, the tribe gives Peters one of their most attractive women to have as a wife. Not bad for a day’s trouble! The wife is played by Asian actress Nancy Kwan.

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One of the more difficult scenes to watch in the film is the “wedding” sex scene between Peters and Kwan. Certainly, there are a lot of negative comments about this scene on the IMDb. While not condoning how Peters takes Kwan’s virginity from her (in broad daylight in an open field), I think we are supposed to understand that he’s a man with some aggression. He takes out his frustrations on his wife, the way things were taken out on him as a slave.

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Kwan’s character develops a bit of a Stockholm Syndrome towards Peters. She stays with him and plays the dutiful wife, not once asking to go back to her people. Even later, when things get much more dangerous with Palance, Peters suggests that Kwan return to her tribe but she does not want to leave him. She has fallen in love with him. And for his part, Peters has also fallen in love with her. So the early brutality of their relationship gives way to a more tender and poignant romance. In other words, we see both characters grow through this unusual marriage, and on some level they are compatible.

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The drama reaches a turning point when Palance and his cohorts, frustrated by their inability to push Peters and Kwan off the land, decide to show up one day and teach Ives a lesson for “compromising” the way white men are supposed to treat blacks and natives. Ives tries to fight back but he is old and out of shape, and no match for the violent young thugs invading his home.

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The gang ends up killing Ives, and some of them assault Kwan. This of course sets Peters on a path of vengeance. And that’s pretty much what the final sequence of the movie is about– a standoff between Peters and Palance, with Palance and his men burning the estate to the ground.

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Originally there were two endings shot for this film, since the producers were unsure which ending would do well with audiences. In the first ending, Palance and the evildoers triumph over Ives and Peters; and in the second ending, Peters succeeds in avenging Ives’ death.

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It seems the print I watched on Amazon Prime is an edited version that combines elements of both endings. In the ending I watched, Palance does succeed in destroying the estate. Peters then goes back to the tribe to reclaim Kwan where he had sent her when it became too dangerous for her to remain at the estate. It is said that they’re going to return to the land Ives left them, and they plan to rebuild it. So while they had been burned out, there is hope that they can start over and still triumph.

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The final shot of Peters and Kwan leaving the tribe to go back to the ranch is very somber and it allows the viewer to contemplate what all this fighting over the land is worth. The natives know the people belong to the land, that the land does not belong to the people.

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In this story Ives is the master and he treats Peters like a son. We have a black man and his native wife becoming the inheritors of the white slave owner’s land, which I find rather interesting. There are a lot of ways to interpret the story, and the fact that the black man not only deals with white men but also with native men– provides dimension in terms of different relationships that occur across a post-Civil War southern/western landscape.

Essential: TO BE OR NOT TO BE (1942)

TB: During the first half of May we will review some of director Ernst Lubitsch’s best work of the 1940s. Lubitsch died in 1947 at the age of 55. His romantic comedies still hold up well today. Like Billy Wilder and Preston Sturges, Lubitsch’s efforts often pushed the boundaries of what was allowed under the production code in Hollywood.

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This week we are going to focus on TO BE OR NOT TO BE, a raucous political satire that was filmed in late 1941. It was not released until early 1942, after its lead actress, Carole Lombard, had been killed in a plane crash. Lombard’s last leading man is Jack Benny of all people.

JL: Jack Benny is my favorite Old Time Radio personality and I have listened to the bulk, if not all, of his surviving radio shows of the 1932-1955 period, including the 1941-42 ones that covered this particular film’s making and promotion. His movies and later TV shows (and specials made up until the year he died) were always good but his radio broadcasts, in my opinion, represent him at his zenith as arguably one of the top comedians of the 20th century.

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To be honest, I actually prefer listening to him more than watching him since his personality displays so much more range audibly than visually even though his trademark smirk and “well…” expression was duplicated in cartoon form everywhere. Nonetheless I do enjoy him a lot in both this one and THE HORN BLOWS AT MIDNIGHT (the one he personally milked to the bank on his shows on account of its dubious “failure”). TO BE OR NOT TO BE is justifiably the one he was most proud of, according to many interviews he did late in life.

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TB: It’s probably the film he is most proud of, because it was the most well-known. It was the only time he’d worked with Lubitsch, and certainly the only time he’d worked with Lombard in a motion picture. So it’s definitely an “A” film. Some of Benny’s assignments at Paramount, the more forgettable stuff, would be considered “B” films today. Though all his movie output received favorable publicity on his radio show.

JL: TO BE OR NOT TO BE is quite famous for multiple reasons apart from Benny, first and foremost for featuring the last of Carole Lombard’s roles before her untimely death during a war bond drive. Supposedly she was cast late because Benny and Miriam Hopkins didn’t fare as well together. The filming was done under much pressure by both the government and the Hays office on account of its anti-Hitler theme because, despite being released after the United States went to war, it was completed in the months just before Pearl Harbor.

TB: According to info on the TCM database, the production dates for TO BE OR NOT TO BE were from November 6, 1941 to December 24, 1941. Interesting that they were still doing scenes, perhaps retakes, on Christmas Eve.

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JL: It was a Hollywood “multi” production before such things were more common place. British producer Alexander Korda dominates with his distinctive clock logo displayed before the main credits, but it’s copyrighted under the Romaine Film Corporation and released through United Artists with the top Hollywood director Ernst Lubitsch also serving as producer.

TB: Let’s talk about how the film begins. Its rather clever set-up immediately draws viewers in.

JL: This film opens with one of the best “gotcha” segments in movie comedy history. A very serious tone is set up in the narration, slightly newsreel-ish but not quite newsreel-ish, as we see Hitler, played by Ted Dugan, in Warsaw examining a deli and standing rather stone-faced in the street with curious folk looking at him as the most famous face in the world.

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We then transition to Jack Benny’s Joseph Tura at a pretty close mock-up of a Nazi headquarters talking to Dugan’s Hitler, but then pan away to reveal that this particular scene is actually occurring on a stage in a theater.

The crew and director are then fussing about its lack of realism, especially whether or not the actor Bronski, as played by Dugan, actually looks like the real Hitler. Bronski declares that he will prove his likeness is convincing by going into the streets with his costume. We then wind up right where we started in our opening scene, with him in front of the deli and the same spectators in awe of him. Then a little girl asks for his autograph and calls him “Bronski” instead of “Hitler.” In short, this is a classic example of “don’t believe what you see until it all plays out.”

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TB: I think it’s also Lubitsch’s sly way of telling us that “reality” can be manipulated, which itself has political significance. I like how there’s an assortment of characters. It’s not all focused on the lead stars. Sometimes the characters work as a team, and sometimes they work at cross-purposes.

JL: The plot involves actors trying to play their roles convincingly in real life as they attempted unsuccessfully on the stage, this time to support the Polish resistance and the Royal Air Force against the Nazis in Poland. The material and adventure scenes are shown rather seriously since this is, after all, a story about war and death. Yet the jokes are plentiful and the dialogue full of witty one-liners.

TB: While watching the film, I sometimes wondered if this was a funny drama or a serious comedy. It’s not exactly a comedy-drama, as such. But Lombard probably plays it more comically than dramatic.

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JL: This is strictly a farce that conveys more fantasy despite its semi-realistic Poland 1939 setting. After all, are we to believe a troupe of actors can actually infiltrate a tightly guarded and well organized German military machine with such great ease? Especially considering how well that government screened everybody it controlled and wanted to control.

TB: What did you think of some of the supporting actors? For instance, Sig Ruman as Col. Ehrhardt.

JL: Col. Ehrhardt is a bumbling dumb-dumb, but he obviously does not reflect the reality of the times. Only what nervous Americans want to be a reality since, at the start of 1942, the Allies were not exactly winning against the Axis nations.

TB: Good point. So there’s some wish fulfillment going on, showing how inept the Nazis are on screen.

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JL: Sig Ruman as Nazi Col. Ehrhardt has an over-the-top call-out to his aid “Schultz!” that became a running joke in a few Daffy Duck and other cartoons of the era. Even more famous among the cinematic, academic crowd is another by the same character/star to Jack Benny’s Joseph posing in disguise and regarding the “real” Joseph as an actor: “What he (Joseph Tura) did to Shakespeare we (a.k.a. the Nazis) are doing now to Poland.”

Speaking of Shakespeare, the title itself references the most famous line in Hamlet, again connecting the main characters to the Allies and Britain (Shakespeare’s home) and this becomes a running gag itself.

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Here, he has his Hamlet speech replacing “Love in Blume,” again getting interrupted as Robert Stack’s Lt. Stanislav Sobinski repeatedly leaving the audience during it to go woo his wife, Lombard as Maria Tura, behind his back. The joke is repeated…yet again…in the final scene with somebody else taking the place of Stanislav and prompting a reaction from both Joseph and Stanislav.

TB: Some gags work better on radio, and some work better on screen. In this case, seeing someone else take Stanislav’s place works quite well as a visual gag. What did you think of the story’s “romantic” elements?

JL: Romantic triangles are as common in Lubitsch comedies as loud choo-choos are in David Lean epics. The Joseph/Maria/Stanislav one is quite silly and likely not physical. Carole Lombard’s Maria is her usual fluffy and scatterbrained self who enjoys the flattery of a handsome young jock, but makes it clear she isn’t exactly “in love” with him.

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Although most of us remember Robert Stack in his later middle-age, somewhat stuffy TV years, he is very young and virile here. Joseph is constantly jealous and quite over blown about it, but the film takes a most enjoyable turn with its established infidelity theme once Stansilav ends up in his own bed with his own pajamas!

TB: We should mention that in 1940, Robert Stack had played a young Nazi in MGM’s classic war drama THE MORTAL STORM. Stack is such a nice looking guy that’s a bit difficult to buy him as a villain or as the other man in a triangle.

JL: Yes. We are asked to question if what we are seeing is to be accepted as reality, as expressed in our opening shots of a Hitler who isn’t Hitler standing in front of a Polish deli. All of the performers make it clear that they love performing at all times. Lionel Atwill’s Rawich aims to out-“ham” the often hammy Joseph, trying so hard to be serious in Hamlet. Felix Bressart’s Greenberg so much wants to play Shylock and never gets a chance. His character plays up the antisemitism of the Nazis a.k.a. “Have I not a Jew eyes?”

TB: Incidentally, that line comes from another Shakespearean play, The Merchant of Venice. It is spoken in Act 3, Scene 1.

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TB: Let’s discuss Stanley Ridges’ character, shall we?

JL: Stanley Ridges’ Professor Alexander Siletsky is not part of the troupe and is, in fact, an “evil” Nazi. Yet he too is acting, disguising himself as a member of the Polish resistance. This tactic doesn’t last once Stansilav discovers that he had never heard of Maria Tura, the most famous actress in Poland.

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Thus, the one major non-actor is the one who informs the actress and her fellow actors, so that they can get in to their new “roles.” Joseph later plays Siletsky himself after his sudden death and gets away with it despite much discussion over whether or not his beard and the found corpse’s beard are fake. Both beards and mustaches make for plenty of comedy here, with a hilarious later scene involving Joseph searching for his missing “disguise” in a taxi.

TB: To be honest I found some of the disguises a bit overdone. Maybe this sort of monkey business would have worked better in a Marx brothers film, I don’t know. But this is where Lubitsch’s film loses me a bit, because I think it tries to be almost too clever for its own good. Of course the film wasn’t a huge hit when it was released in early ’42.

JL: Critics at the time considered this whole production in “such bad taste” and it is understandable why. It was operating against the established mores of the time, which may explain why this later became a cult favorite after the anti-establishment sixties and seventies. For example, a major murder takes place with no real conscious reflection about it. We are forced to accept this as a part of war and characters fighting for greater causes, as many scenes of buildings being bombed and homeless people struggling are presented.

TB: Yes, I’m glad you mentioned those components of the film. Definitely we can see how they ran into trouble with the production code office. And since what plays out on screen is more of a romp than a story designed to arrive at a happy and moral ending, it probably left wartime viewers a bit cold. A lot of Hollywood productions at the time were meant to evoke certain feelings of patriotism and basically generate conditioned responses. But TO BE OR NOT TO BE doesn’t necessarily work that way.

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TB: Final thoughts on Lombard?

JL: Lombard’s Maria is presented both as a heroine and “that other woman” who not only flirts with Stansilav but is willing to seduce Col. Ehrnardt as well! Ultimately this final gag leads to Bronksi showing up unexpectedly in costume and fooling Ehrnhart that he is the real Hitler despite him not fooling the Polish common folk earlier! Lombard was praised for her performance by critics at the time, but there is little doubt that her wartime work and early death figured into it. Her final role is hardly innocent though.

TB: Thanks Jlewis. TO BE OR NOT TO BE may currently be viewed on YouTube.

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Essential: TOPAZE (1933)

Last week we looked at John Barrymore’s performance in A BILL OF DIVORCEMENT (1932). This week our focus will be on TOPAZE (1933). 

In the story, a schoolteacher upholds the virtue of honesty. However, he rethinks honesty being a best policy when he enters the corporate world and becomes affected by the corruption he encounters. Mostly, this is clever socialist propaganda that manages to entertain, while illuminating a few truths about capitalist society. It’s also a story that gives us some insights about the way men and women “sell out.”

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Again David Selznick is the executive producer, and again, he has cast one of his discoveries– Myrna Loy– in the lead female role. Loy’s career was in a state of transition at this point. So while she is playing an unrepentant adulteress, she is not exactly a vamp; but she’s still a far cry from the maternal roles she would become known for in the 1940s.

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TB: Okay, let’s start by discussing the story’s anti-capitalist thesis. We do not see Dr. Topaze totally denounce capitalism at the end…in fact, it is suggested that he starts to become corrupted or dependent upon money.

JL: He does say he supports capitalism when confronted by Baroness Hortense de La Tour-La Tour (Jobyna Howland). The accusation for being a “communist” comes from her son, fittingly given the regal name of Charlemagne and played in equally regal fashion by Jackie Searl. This is because he was graded poorly and he thinks Topaze is “against rich people” like him. Not sure how Dr. Stegg (Frank Reicher) at the school stands on the issue, firing him partly because of the Baroness and partly because he displays some curious shock (“You are a fool”).

TB: This film is based on a French play from 1928, and it was made into a French film in 1933 and was remade again in French in 1936.

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JL: Yes. One French version was directed by Louis J. Gasnier and produced by the playwright Marcel Pagnol and only released in Paris a month ahead of this version. The more “official” Pagnol-directed version was made three years later.

TB: I had said the film promotes socialist propaganda. I think it may even be a bit communist in spots.

J: The Depression years saw this word become less “dirty” than it was in other decades since many Americans struggling without jobs actually thought Stalin was doing some good in the Soviet Union compared to what was happening at home, although much was on account of the propaganda imported that made no mention of the forced-upon famines on peasants and other atrocities.

Many artistic types, even in Hollywood, were toying with the idea of communism (a key reason for the post-war HUAC investigations) even though the moguls themselves stayed in the clear with their very business-is-business mentality. What I find particularly interesting about 1930s Hollywood is that there was relatively little concern then about how “radical” an actor or screenwriter was in his political leanings as long as the more conservative studio head and censoring committee kept him or her in-check.

TB: Interesting. Let’s get back to the character of Dr. Topaze. How would you say this guy differs from Hilary Fairchild in A BILL OF DIVORCEMENT?

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JL: Topaze certainly does well for himself materially in the end. One curio is that he even employs bellboys who assist Dr. Topaze and are the same age as the students he taught. My guess is that these bellboys are too busy working to go to school, but who knows.

TB: How do you think Barrymore the performer responds to what the role requires him to do?

JL: Well…every role he took was taken with great seriousness. He pours into his schoolmaster as much devotion as he does playing the alternate sides of DR. JEKYLL AND MR. HYDE, another wonderful silent era role worth seeking out. Chameleon-like, he does get rather immersed in his roles (a bit like Vivien Leigh in a documentary I recently saw of hers, struggling to get out of Scarlet and Blanche mode when cameras weren’t rolling) and may even forget who he is, which is another possible explanation as to why he never could get his off-screen life together.

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TB: I want to bring up Van Nest Polglase’s elaborate set design. Polglase is somewhat overlooked, but I think he’s every bit as masterful with his set pieces as Cedric Gibbons is over at MGM. For example, the set for Myrna Loy’s apartment in this movie– it is truly scrumptious.

JL: Love the art deco settings in the apartment in which Myrna Loy is introduced. She plays the Other Woman in the life of Reginald Mason’s Baron de La Tour-La Tour but what is particularly interesting here is that both are introduced fully clothed and sitting opposite before the fire like an old married couple. We obviously do not see them in bed together. That scene is reserved to his wife (in equal art deco splendor) and, despite it being one king-sized bed, husband and wife are separated by the son and dog!

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TB: Yeah, let’s talk about the wife for a moment. This film would be rather flat without Jobyna Howland’s sharp performance as the shrew wife. The scene where she threatens to have “government forces come down” on a school where her spoiled brat son received low marks is classic. I loved her performance, though it borders on camp in many ways.

JL: At home she is quite amusing in the way she defends sonny boy against daddy, who is still a kind-hearted daddy who just happens to question all of the “zeroes” on the report card. Also we see her holding on to the Pomeranian who gets more affection than her husband, although the dog ends up sleeping right next to the husband to avoid her.  She is suffocating the poor pooch!

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Later, I love the response of hers when she sees her husband with “that woman” and is asked if she wants to “face the music” in the restaurant. “No, Philippe will face the music.”

TB: Yes, I love that part! In addition to Howland, we also have Luis Alberni’s scene stealing work as a hyperactive rival of Barrymore’s. Barrymore seems to enjoy acting with Alberni.

JL: You may be right but it is hard to tell since their scenes together are rather brief. I did recognize him from a number of other famous features of the period, including more than one Astaire-Rogers musical.

TB: We need to mention the scene in the car where our main characters are driving through the rain, and it is increasingly clear that Topaze is falling in love with Coco (Loy’s character). But they don’t quite get together at the end of the movie, or do they?, which I think is interesting.

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JL: They could just become great friends too. Topaze isn’t exactly “into” women until he sees “Women of Passion” with her. Intriguingly, the Baron hired Topaze because he is specifically not-into-women (which I found rather curious here and wonder what the French versions imply here with less prudishness and censorship) and he does try to re-assure the Baron that they only went to see a movie.

Coco is quite a character herself. She develops a conscience that is pronounced in the third act, but it takes a while. When Topaze first meets the Baron for his new job, she is all open-eyed and attentive to him. Then the Baron tells him that “providence sent you here…I will not take no for an answer” and mentions 4000 francs a month. She purposely closes her eyes, a character move I found rather interesting.

TB: Interestingly the Hays office refused to allow RKO to re-release the film two or three years after its initial release, because with the production code fully enforced now, they complained that Loy’s character was not adequately punished for her adultery. So in that regard Coco is the cliched “other woman” but does not repent or totally correct her ways by the end. Because of this “immorality,” RKO could not distribute the film again, so it basically went back into the vault all those years.

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TB: Let’s discuss the slogans. During key scenes in the movie, we see several written expressions, typically posted on the walls, that indicate Dr. Topaze’s philosophical approaches to life.

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JL: When the two are first shown in close proximity as he works in his lab, his slogan of “Ill gotten gains are not worth while” is strategically posted over both of them, suggesting that maybe both are “ill gotten” for each other?

TB: Or maybe Topaze and Coco the ill-gotten gains of the Baron…that’s sort of how I interpreted it.

JL: Right after this scene, she tells the two curious visitors, one a ‘prominent politician:’ “Why don’t you two go outside where you belong. We were quite happy without you.” Is she hiding something from them?

TB: No. I wouldn’t say she is hiding something from them. I think her comment was meant to say that the fun is in creating something, not necessarily the political or economic part of it. Though, she certainly knows that the Baron is manipulating Topaze to give a scientific seal of approval on the water they are selling to consumers, when the water is not all that is being advertised. But despite her complicity in these events, she starts to soften and shows her heart to Topaze.

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JL: The cab scene is a major point of change when she shocks even pre-Code audiences by telling him she is the Baron’s “lover”. I don’t even think she is ashamed of it since she is a working girl in this profession…and Topaze accepts her because she is honest about it. They even use her profession as “mistress” in the key climax scene against the Baron.

TB: The laboratory scenes and the animated inserts of what Topaze sees on the slides he’s examining through a microscope, are rather interesting. Also the scenes where Topaze sees messages on flashing neon signs that reveal his conscience. There are some good special effects for a 1933 motion picture.

JL: I think the former insert was likely borrowed from a vintage Pathé Pictorial on micro-organisms, but there is definite animation in the neon lights scenes. That montage sequence is brilliantly done. While the technique wasn’t new at the time, it is evident that a lot of work went into it.

TB: I agree.

JL: Actually what impressed me most were the intricate matching of actual travelogue footage of Paris in precise positioning behind performers on sets and this is partly due to KING KONG being concurrently in production at the same studio (with the the same technical experts doing this film too) and fine-tuning the art of rear projection to perfection. Among the key scenes that stand out involves a public Parisian urinal (!?), which most Americans at the time and today would not recognize  unless they traveled, with the big advertising poster of “Drink Sparkling Topaze.” (Yes, but what else is sparkling?)

Even little scenes like Loy and Barrymore in the cab has both rain water dripping and rear projection of cars that is so flawless that you would think it was shot on location. Perhaps it was and I am only thinking it is a special effect?

TB: I believe it was a special effect, with rear projection. And yeah, it was edited so well that it seemed as if they were driving outside the studio, but I don’t think they were.

JL: By the way, the second film the Coco and Topaze see together is “Man Woman and Sin,” shown “twice daily.” I mentioned the earlier one being “Women of Passion.” There is a rather interesting special effect gone-wrong in that last scene involving “twice daily” on a sign which eagle eyes may catch.

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TB: What was your impression of the school room scenes with Topaze’s students. It all comes full-circle in the end. Does he really uphold the slogans that are posted on the walls?

JL: That the honest man is a happy man? That all ill gotten gains are not worth while? What Topaze wants in life is to just to be…somebody.

In his final speech at the school (i.e. his former boss wants him to make one since he is now a famous chemist), he admits that “in the outside world, honesty is not always rewarded.” He even resorts to dishonest “blackmail” and stoops to the Baron’s level to beat the Baron at his own game, even involving Coco, but she doesn’t seem to mind since it allows her to participate in Topaze’s “crisis.”

TB: My impression of that part of the story was Coco was now switching allegiance, from the Baron to Topaze. She seems to trust Topaze more than she ever trusted the old Baron.

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JL: Topaze tells Coco after receiving honors from the French government (due to the Baron’s financial ties with them): “Now I am what they call a great man. I am not Topaze. Topaze lies dead in an alley.” Then he looks in the mirror holding his medal. “Look. Can’t you see how different I am? A distinguished scientist. I am a man of honor. I have been decorated by the Republic.”

TB: The scene with him looking in the mirror later was at the least a bit narcissistic. But not exactly in an Oscar Wilde sort of way. I think it was self-deprecating. That he is now something, look at what’s society has made him, what success has made him, but it’s meaningless. I think he’s still a socialist at heart, even though he’s been immersed in capitalism and the trappings of money.

JL: A common theme in comedy-dramas is to resort to actions that may go against a character’s personal principles just so the common good can be achieved.

His line of “villainy receives more applause than virtue” to the students is rather ominous, even though he admits to resorting to “villainy” himself earlier. That word conjures up more than one image in my mind. Shortly later, we get this very strange, but visually impressive, tracking shot of boys at their desk listening as he says “the world that lies outside that door is a most upside-down place.” Knowing that this film was arriving in theaters just as Hitler was rising in full power in Germany is most eerie. You wonder how many of these boys will survive adulthood in the very “upside down place” that Topaze mentions.

TB: If they come from rich families, they may be protected from such military service. It’s interesting to speculate what happens to them. I have a feeling that if there had been a sequel, set in the future, we would find that Charlemagne had a change of heart and instead of becoming like his father, he became like Topaze. There would have to be some great irony. Also, it is clear that the boy learns more from Topaze than from his parents or home life.

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TB: Charlemagne has an interesting moment at the end of the film, when Topaze comes back to lecture the boys. Care to elaborate on it?

JL: Topaze is harsh on him because he can’t remember the three Punic Wars, but he sports a black eye suggesting he just fought one. I suspect the movie makers here want us to side with him, if also laugh at him, because it takes a fighting spirit to get through an “upside down place.”

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TB: I did not expect Topaze to humiliate the boy in front of entire crowd. But I guess it was necessary in order to maintain the natural order of things. Going back to the overall theme of the movie, could something like what we see in this film, happen in 2020? How corrupt are businesses in America today? Also, how are consumers protected?

JL: Regarding the whole sparking drink slogans and a “noted chemist” approving it, it is true that deception seldom goes unnoticed these days and no government health official getting involved is one liberty taken in this movie that may not pass accordingly in any modern retelling of this story.

However it is also human nature to simply believe what many a media source or an advertising slogan pretends to be “official.” You would think in this era of our vast information highway that most would fact check, but they usually don’t. The average American today (not every, but most) has too short of an attention span for that. To be fair, we are bombarded with a brain overload that our ancestors seldom dwelt with, so it could be an overall failure to adapt to a world changing too fast for human comfort.

The Baron being a “business associate” with government officials of France is most interesting and maybe even more reflective of 2020 than 1933. Back then, many were against this kind of set-up and this film is sharply critical, wanting you to side with Topaze’s opinion on the matter. Today, everybody merely turns the other cheek and I have a feeling quite a few prominent politicians and business people of today would find offense to this old message.

TB: Anything else you care to add?

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JL: The character of Topaze is very complex and, as a teacher, he is shown both positively and negatively. We are not necessarily supposed to agree with his way of life, since he does display some slight cruelty in the classroom as well. There was much criticism of the French school system at this time and it is interesting that 1933 was also the year of the controversial ZERO DE CONDUITE, one of Jean Vigo’s masterpieces in which the students take control over the authoritative teachers much like Lindsay Anderson’s much later IF… Note too how Charlemagne is rated “zero” in his grades, which is also the title for the Vigo film.

Apparently Charlemagne isn’t alone behaving in “zero for conduct” fashion. When Topaze gets fired initially, the backboard has been totally transformed from a math lesson to childlike graffiti. It is fun to study it in freeze-frame with the tic-tac-toe, mocking image of a general in uniform (?!), three separate bunny rabbits and even Mickey Mouse!

TB: Thanks Jlewis! I’ve enjoyed discussing this film with you. Our readers may currently find TOPAZE on YouTube.

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Essential: A BILL OF DIVORCEMENT (1932)

TB: Our first theme in April is an interesting one. We’re going to turn the spotlight on John Barrymore and look at two of his precodes. Both were made at RKO in the early 30s when Barrymore was still a very well-known and highly respected actor. He hadn’t been totally defeated by alcohol at this point, so his performances are a bit more sober, you might say.

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The first one we’ve selected is Katharine Hepburn’s motion picture debut. She plays Barrymore’s daughter, Sydney Fairchild. Years later, in a sit-down chat with Dick Cavett, Hepburn talked about how starstruck she was when she first met Barrymore. According to what she told Cavett, she had not met him until after she was hired and took the train west from New York to Los Angeles.

She said that while en route to L.A., she had gone out on the deck of the observation car and something sharp flew into her eye. I believe she said it was a tiny sliver of metal from the train, or some such thing. It was removed from her eye, but when she arrived at the studio the next morning, her eye was still a bit red and swollen. Barrymore mistook this for drinking and instantly bonded with Hepburn, even going so far as to recommend a certain kind of eye drop to clear up the redness!

The somewhat tragic story that plays out on screen, about an impressionable girl and her former mental patient father, requires that the actors be perfectly in sync. And fortunately for us, Barrymore and Hepburn are indeed perfectly synchronized, even if their combined acting styles are somewhat theatrical. Though I must say for Barrymore, he gives a rather subdued and tender portrayal of vulnerable Hilary Fairchild.

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***

Part 1 of 2

TB: A BILL OF DIVORCEMENT is based on a British play and it had already been filmed in 1922 in England. David Selznick secured the rights for the American version at RKO and hired George Cukor to direct. Cukor is the one who discovered Hepburn by noting something unique in her screen test, though Selznick often took the credit for discovering her. Cukor and Hepburn formed a very close friendship during the making of this film, and they would work together on many more productions, up through the late 1970s.

JL: I should start out commenting here on the title, much like THE DIVORCEE made earlier that was also tantalizing at the time. It all seems mundane today due to the fact that half of all marriages end in divorce and nobody bats an eye over it. Yet in 1932, the D-word still had some degree of “scandal” to it since most had to go to specific states like Nevada just to get one. Note too how the difficulty of getting one became a major subject in George Cukor’s later THE WOMEN, made at the more conservative-minded MGM during the production code era.

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In all of these films, divorce is something to be ashamed of regardless of the circumstances or how “right” it feels to those getting one. Billie Burke’s Meg comments on how church bells (symbolizing of authoritative religious teachings she may have endured in her youth) stop suddenly after a telephone rings that her more 20th century and less traditionally minded daughter Sydney answers. These sounds are also viewed by her as  “wedding bells” and that call is the first signal that Meg’s husband will be back to cast any future wedding (to another suitor) in doubt. There is much hesitancy in Meg’s behavior with future husband Gray Meredith (Paul Cavanagh) that is full of guilt, a.k.a. “Is it too good to be true?,” with some ominous dread of being punished by Fate from Above.

One way this film got over hangups with certain religious groups (and this was the time when Father Coughlin had one of the highest rated radio shows, often accusing Hollywood of its “sins”) are frequent religious references that make all of these characters express a willingness to atone. As John Barrymore’s Hilary Fairchild states “I was in the garden lost. I could never make anyone understand. You know, I was never really like the rest of them. I was always really sane…but the face was turned away.” When asked “what face?,” he responds “the face of God.”

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TB: Let’s talk specifically about the acting styles of Hepburn and Barrymore. There is one scene where they both become very overwrought then smartly “dial it down.” As I said, this was Hepburn’s motion picture debut. Her first of many films with director George Cukor. She does not seem like a neophyte or amateur at all. From her very first moment on camera, you can tell she is made for the movies.

JL: First, an observation on how each is introduced. Hepburn literally runs down a staircase in her opening shot, a signal that she is no shy wallflower. She also seems very idealistic and free spirited in her introduction, but gradually we see her “dial down” not so much as an actress but as the character of Sydney slowly unravels secrets through Elizabeth Patterson’s Aunt Hester and others.

With Barrymore, our first shot is curiously a photograph that Hester is holding when Sydney apologizes after her criticism over a Christmas gift. The photo showcases the “Great Profile” that Barrymore was famous for…and the image Hollywood fans knew him for before the tabloids started leaking he was having problems in his personal life.

When Barrymore as Hilary arrives in the house unexpectedly, he is smiling with hope (since Sydney learns he left the asylum thinking he is well) and then that grin mutes to befuddlement as he notices how much change has taken place with the original house décor, a suggestion that time passed him by and he is now a stranger to the world he used to know.

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Sydney first observes him through the garland-wrapped staircase as if observing some dangerous “beast” behind leaves of foliage in a jungle.

We then cut to another shot of her head rising above the staircase rim after she sees a look of softness and sadness in his expression, making him less threatening and mysterious. I can’t resist comparing the way Barrymore as Hilary touches the more familiar aspects of the house, like the bookcase and mistletoe, to Greta Garbo’s most famous scene in QUEEN CHRISTINA the following year as both performers were flawless in expressing a particular emotion just with their overall movements. Likewise, Sydney asks “what are you looking for” when she is, again, behind the safety of more…you guessed it… foliage within the house. He responds “Meg, my darling” since his own daughter reminds him of her mother grown up.

Under Cukor’s direction, Hepburn seems very willing to altar her performance if he felt she was coming across too dramatic or over-the-top. One minor flaw is that both she and Barrymore still occasionally get a bit “theatrical” at times. It does not cause any specific problems here since I was quite engrossed in their performances, but I sometimes felt this is a stage adaptation more than a movie. Maybe the problem is more about the dialogue than the actors since certain lines seem a bit more poetic and preachy than common everyday speech.

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TB: We should point out that this was Billie Burke’s first significant movie role in the sound era. She had made silent films in the teens and early 20s, but then focused on her marriage to Florenz Ziegfeld. (Ziegfeld died during the production of A BILL OF DIVORCEMENT.)

As the mother…this is a “straight dramatic” part for her…so her usual scatterbrained comedy routines are absent from this picture. She was 47 when she made A BILL OF DIVORCEMENT and is technically old enough to play Hepburn’s mother (Hepburn was 24 at the time of filming). But Burke looks young, at least ten years younger than her actual age.

JL: DINNER AT EIGHT was the following year and I consider that a dramatic rather than comic role despite it being a semi-comedy. She is quite exasperated and emotional in that one. They really made her look young as Glinda the Good Witch of the North in a much later film I need not mention. She was a Leo who took great, um, pride in her appearance and performances. “Age is of no importance unless you are a cheese.”

TB: That’s funny. I’ll have to remember that one!

JL: An interesting curio that is irrelevant to anybody except to me– but Burke in this film and others reminds me of my paternal grandmother when she was young, just in her overall appearance and hair style. Personality-wise, my grandmother was closer to Hester who brings down much of Meg’s idealism.

TB: I have to comment on David Manners as Hepburn’s love interest, Kit Humphreys. There are some very romantic scenes between them, especially at the start of the movie. A bit later there is a medium-length shot of Manners outside that has to be one of the most attractive images of a young leading man ever captured on film. He was a very handsome actor.

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JL: Remember your past observations of Leonard Whiting in ROMEO & JULIET? I am sure that the director greatly enjoyed looking at him regardless of his acting and I also noticed how the heterosexual excitement is emphasized more than usual so that nobody can question anything. One of the first in-depth discussions in A BILL OF DIVORCEMENT between Sydney and Kit involves how many children they will have, with both agreeing that she must carry at least “two of each kind.” Can you imagine the real Katharine Hepburn reacting the same way? (Spoiler alert: we get the real Hepburn as Sydney back in action later, concerned about a possible “herd of squalling children.”)

In their romantic scene by the fire, which I find rather interesting in that she is not looking at him and seems distracted by other thoughts, she comments after his suggestion that a son of theirs could become Canadian prime minister: “Fool. Dear fool.” At first, I was wondering if she was thinking her boyfriend was the “fool” in his idealism…or commenting on herself. Her own mother also says about ten minutes later “what a fool I am” and maybe daughter thinks like mother. Later she warns Kit, while smoking a cigarette to display her defiance to being “pawned” over as a woman, “don’t be such a fool.”

TB: I think Sydney’s back-and-forth nature with Kit is really dependent upon the newfound relationship Sydney has with Hilary. She doesn’t seem to be able to balance both men in her lives. She feels she has to choose one over the other. So in order to let Kit down ‘gently,’ she mocks what he’s offering as not the kind of life she wants, when I think deep inside her, she does want to marry him and have a brood of obnoxious brats.

Ultimately she chooses papa over lover boy. The movie does not have a traditional happy ending, which I think makes it stand out from other Hollywood offerings.

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JL: Actually, 1932 had a lot of them like that (a.k.a. I AM A FUGITIVE FROM A CHAIN GANG). But I think the happy ending scenario is a stereotype many of us develop when comparing and contrasting them to another country’s films or singling out some director/performer who wasn’t into happy endings. For example, most French films of the 1930s involved doom and gloom with LE QUAI DES BRUMES often getting mentioned as “anti” Hollywood. Yet this logic requires you to think all Hollywood films are alike when they aren’t.

TB: Fair enough.

JL: I should point out how unusually happy and over-joyed the opening scenes of this movie are, which are in sharp contrast. The setting is at Christmas with caroling outside.

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Burke’s Meg commenting cheerfully about youth and Sydney is so giddy the moment she flies down the stairs to dance in her boyfriend’s arms. This is the classic set-up of a things-won’t-always-be-happy situation later. I guess I could reference that other ’32 title again in comparison with Paul Muni’s James Allen happy to finish his war service and express to everybody his happy dreams of a future career in engineering before he too faces disillusionment and plenty of doom and gloom. All classic Great Depression material that moviegoers at the time were willing to pay tickets to see since it proved that Hollywood was not ignorant to their own sufferings.

However…is the ending that unhappy? Even though she closes the curtain on the whistling, are things really over between Sydney and Kit? Is she closing the curtain on the outside world and creating a new “asylum” for her and Daddy? Note how she helps her father finish his symphony on the piano. Maybe they will finish other projects that require closure and can move on with their lives.

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TB: Let’s switch gears a bit and talk about the overall look and feel of the film. For example, the furnishings, clothing and camera movements. There are some sweeping tracking shots that were clearly devised by Selznick and Cukor to show off the elaborate and rather costly set. Plus there are some very ornate knick knacks on the shelves, with photos turned not towards the camera, but towards the characters who would be looking at them. It’s a grand home, but it feels like a real home.

JL: These tricks allow the film to feel a bit less stage-bound and show off Cukor’s skill as a movie director.

TB: Yes, good point. Okay, let’s pause here. Tomorrow we will resume our review of A BILL OF DIVORCEMENT. Jlewis and I will look at the subject matter of the story, plus discuss a few other important aspects of the film. Please join us…

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Part 2 of 2

TB: Okay, we’re back with the second part of this review. Let’s go over the subject of A BILL OF DIVORCEMENT, which is mental illness, and how Barrymore handles this delicate topic. I haven’t read the original British play but assume it is about how mental illness runs in families. And how there are obligations one has to one’s family. Interestingly, Burke’s character (the mother) is allowed to shirk her responsibilities while Hepburn (the daughter) must step in and look after her “recovering” father.

JL: Not without a lot of effort, poor Meg. She is feeling so much guilt trying to get over her past with Hilary. I feel her daughter is the one helping her shirk her responsibility because Hilary should NOT be a responsibility. He is not a child and must learn to take care of himself. Yet Meg describes him to Gray as “a lost child.”

Sydney is a take charge person while mother lets others persuade her more. Note how, just moments after Hilary responds to his daughter telling the servant that he is “staying for lunch” with “and also dinner and tea…,” she is instantly on speed dial to get Dr. Alliot (Henry Stephenson) to come retrieve Daddy right away! Sydney feels she must save her mother from this burden.

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At the same time this story’s writers seem to have very strong opinions about the rules of religion as a whole but is very gingerly in how they address them so that those who want to follow all rules aren’t easily offended. We see characters tormented and that is okay as long as viewers can choose sides here in accordance to their own sense of morality as to which path will lead these characters out of torment.

TB: Was there a moment that seemed to illustrate the torment more than other scenes?

JL: Yes…where Meg says “Oh Gray. I am wicked! I am wishing he (Hilary) never got well. In my heart, I am hating my husband.”

TB: That’s where I felt some of the dialogue was a bit over the top.

JL: Then Gray replies to Meg, “You have no husband. You are marrying ME. You’re MINE.” At first she seems to agree with him, but doesn’t look at him when she says that, much as Sydney is not looking at Kit when he is wooing her. Another interesting detail is how Hilary confronts Meg for turning “sideways” when he talks to her and soon realizes this is a sign that she is not being honest with him, something Gray and Kit haven’t quite grasped of the women they love even though the latter admits he is “not a mind reader.”

This brings up another major theme to this story, one of honesty. The more honest people are with each other, the more emotionally stable they are.

TB: Interesting point. And I would certainly agree with that. Anything else you care to discuss?

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JL: Although the Production Code was not in effect yet, it is obvious some doctoring of the script was made in a few places. For instance, at one point, Meg claims “I’ve done nothing wrong. I’ve been trying to tell you. Hilary, fifteen years is a long time.” Then Hilary replies, “Yes, I suppose it is a long time…for a woman to be faithful. What do you expect me to do? Forgive you?” Meg quickly stands up in defiance and answers: “There is nothing to forgive! (then relieving her intensity and sitting down by him) Oh Hilary, we have so much to forgive of each other, but not that.”

Meanwhile we are given a sign that things might not be over between Sydney and Kit. She tells her mother “Don’t worry about Kit and me. We will work everything out together.” After all, she was honest with Kit earlier about her phobia about becoming insane. She may temporarily shut him out but, if he truly loves her, he will keep trying…and trying…until she reopens all of the curtains in her house.

In regards to the daughter taking on the mother’s role, there is a fascinating moment that springs her into action.

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Dr. Alliot says in words he intends to be helpful but are NOT helpful at all: “Face it man, one of you must suffer. Which is it to be? The whole or the maimed? The healthy woman with her life before her or the man whose children should have never been born?” Hepburn’s reaction shot as Sydney is brilliantly edited here. She confronts the doctor quickly and he apologizes for his wording, but she now worries if he and the always pessimistic Aunt Hester are correct that insanity runs in their family and either she will develop it or pass it on to her offspring. (It is frightening to note how many believed this at the time and the future Nazi Germany had its own solution to the problem.)

TB: I was glad Sydney confronted the doctor after his questionable statement. In a way, I think this helps bond her to Hilary more. Even if she does not turn out to be insane later, like her father, she knows that she has to shield him from people who think like Dr. Alliot does. And if Hilary is now becoming cured of his mental illness, then it will be her job to ensure that her father continue to stay well.

JL: I also think she realizes that she must learn to fully understand herself and her own needs before falling for any man, understanding that her parents might have made a mistake even when he was “sane” before the asylum. (I am guessing she was five or six when he entered in 1917.) However her fears of being insane like daddy can either be viewed as an obstacle here or a smokescreen for her unwillingness to be married until she feels ready to give up some level of independence (note her smoking when dealing with Kit). I found the scene of Kit sobbing in her arms not wanting to lose her eerily similar to Hilary doing the same with Meg and Meg  feeling all constricted in the process.

TB: I considered that to be a deliberate plot point, where the writer wanted to connect the idea that Sydney will mother Hilary, in a way Meg cannot…to Sydney also having mothered Kit. Which shows the most tender side of the Sydney-Kit relationship.

Going back to Hilary for a moment. Would Barrymore’s character ever fully recover from said mental illness? Or would he have a relapse? If he does have a relapse, then Sydney will be forever mothering him, unless Meg comes back having decided not to marry Gray.

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JL: Interesting that the smokescreen cover for possible family insanity is wartime shell-shock, a topic we’ve discussed in other films such as SPELLBOUND. War is also all about death, even for the living who survive it. Hilary died during the war in a way and must now adjust to a rebirth of sorts. As Aunt Hester notes, the dead returning to the living is always a shock. Yet Dr. Alliot thinks this, like anything, is something one can get through.

Interesting side note to add about Barrymore’s performance. At times, his speeches do get slightly Shakespearean and lengthier than usual and there are fascinating subtle messages incorporated that only those paying close attention will notice. For example, there is a speech he makes that loosely remarks he is a war veteran who deserves more in life than he was given, even though this story is set in England rather than the United States. He does not spell everything out in a way that we viewers of 2020 can understand but I am certain 1932 viewers got it instantly since this movie was released only two months after President Hoover utilized the present U.S. army to disperse war veterans protesting unemployment outside the White House, a move that was widely condemned at the time and probably cost him the election that November.

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TB: Some have said Barrymore gives one of his most poignant portrayals in A BILL OF DIVORCEMENT (1932). After seeing the movie, would you agree or disagree?

JL:  I like a lot of his performances and feel he is as equally tender in, say, GRAND HOTEL and many other features of this period as this one. I don’t think there is one particular role that is better than another. This one blends in pretty closely with so many others. Obviously he is different in DON JUAN but even that one has its tender moments too.

TB: Elizabeth Patterson plays the spinster aunt. She sort of disappears mid-way into the story but has considerable influence over family matters in the early part of our drama. There’s a very amusing scene where aunty gives niece a proper Christian present for Christmas that is unwanted.

JL: Not so much unwanted but my sense is that Sydney had received the same gift before and was hoping for something different. I’ve discussed the religious aspects a bit already, especially in regards to divorce at the time, so… yes…it may be significant that it is a “Christian” gift as well. (A couple films of the period like the Oscar winning CAVALCADE suggest a loss of religion with That Younger Generation due to the war and that theme can be addressed here in some indirect way.)

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Hester herself is an interesting character, dressed in her old-time shawl and constantly in a worried state. I think a key reason why she is trying to stop Meg from remarrying is not so much because of her moral feelings regarding divorce but because she feels she too “died” when Hilary “died” at the asylum and thinks Meg is a key to keeping him “alive.”

TB: This is a Hollywood production. RKO bought the rights to the play, which is very British in origin and had been the basis for a British film version in 1922. Technically the action is set outside London, in the countryside somewhere. But it feels very much like an Americanized treatment of the story in many ways. I don’t see why they couldn’t have just had it take place in New England. Given Hepburn’s east coast accent, that would have made a bit more sense.

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JL: I think the rather European setting with the house being a bit Gothic in its stone walls ties it a little with some of the crazy horror material famous at this same time period.

In closing remarks, I enjoyed this movie just as I had decades ago, but had forgotten some of the more stage-bound aspects to it, not that it suffers any more than other studio-bound productions of the era. Yes, I agree that Hepburn gives a surprisingly seasoned performance here despite it being her first on screen appearance and Cukor is definitely a major reason for this. Plus I do feel she was an actress, like Bette Davis, who was a natural for this line of work and did not require a lot of coaching.

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TB: Thanks Jlewis. A BILL OF DIVORCEMENT (1932) may currently be viewed on YouTube. It has also been released on DVD by the folks at Kino Lorber. And so has the RKO remake from 1940, starring Maureen O’Hara, Adolphe Menjou and Fay Bainter.