Black Sheep: Mon Oncle (1958)

September 26, 2017

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“That would be the ideal film. I would like people to see Hulot less and less and to see other people or characters more and more.” – Jacques Tati

With Mon Oncle (1958), Jacques Tati gets closer to making his ideal film. The character of Hulot gets pushed further and further into the background until he often disappears, letting nearly everyone else in town take center stage. Hulot’s role is to set a disastrous mechanism into motion, then stroll offscreen with charming obliviousness. He is inimical to the quickly modernizing world of the film, able to find the flaw in any advanced doohickey and reduce it to a smoking, blubbering mess in a matter of minutes. Hulot is forever putting the brakes on technological advancement, while the rest of his family is installing the latest and greatest in household tech, from a motion-sensor garage door to a fish water fountain. While his family tries to automate and smooth out their lives, Hulot prefers to live in the grit and grime, in an old rickety house covered in dust and layered with history. Tati uses set and sound design to separate Hulot from his contemporaries, going from the squeaky clean lines of his sister’s ultra-modern home to the clatteringly labyrinthine staircase of his apartment building. Hulot is a man of out of time, trying to impart his destabilizing spirit to his little nephew, the only relative susceptible to his charms.

Mon Oncle opens and closes with scenes of stray dogs fanning out into an alley, eating garbage, urinating and making the world their home. The title appears in chalk on a brick wall, as if this was a post-apocalyptic thriller rather than a slapstick comedy. But all of Tati’s films have this “out-of-time” feeling, since Tati himself felt so upset about the massive re-development changing the French cityscape. Tati told Bert Cardullo (quoted in World Directors in Dialogue): “What bothers me today is that Paris itself is being destroyed. This really aggravates me. If we need additional housing, and God knows we do, let’s build new cities. There is enough room. But we should not demolish nice old buildings in Paris for the sake of new apartment buildings. Paris will end up looking like Hamburg. And it is uniformity that I dislike.” And it is uniformity that he skewers relentlessly in his design of Charles and Madame Arpel’s home (Hulot’s brother-in-law and sister played by Jean-Pierre Zola and Adrienne Servantie), a boxy glass-walled modern edifice in which everything is connected but nothing functions. It is an especially dour place for Hulot’s nephew Gérard (Alain Bécourt), who finds few places to play in the ascetic setup. Even the backyard is landscaped to an inch within its life, and one hopscotches over it rather than walks through it.

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It is Tati’s first film released in color (he shot Monsieur Hulot’s Holiday [1953] in color but it was distributed in B&W), and he uses it to further establish a sense of place. The Arpel home is weak pastel, gray-blue with a smidge of green in the yard. Rather institutional in its color scheme. Hulot’s neighborhood though, is all earth tones, what Tati called, “old, velvety colors.” Hulot lives in what seems like a simulacrum of a small French village, on which probably no longer existed when Tati made the film. But he is a nostalgist for this kind of place, having fond memories of going to delis with his grandmother, “there was some sawdust on the floor, they cut us some thin slices of salami to give us a taste of it, the room smelled deliciously of oak and pepper.” Today, Tati said, “when you go to a restaurant it’s as if you were eating in a clinic.” Hulot’s home is a remarkable construction meant to channel these childhood memories. It is shot head-on in long shot, so when Hulot descends the stairs we can make out his entire journey from top-to-bottom in one sequence, tracking his progress through windows and balconies, his bopping head giving him away. This kind of “dollhouse” shot is one that Wes Anderson liberally borrowed in The Grand Budapest Hotel (2014).

This set is not just that one trick-shot though, it is a living organism that Hulot has to manipulate to keep people happy. In order to make a caged bird sing it’s morning song, he has to manipulate one of his windows so it reflects a beam of sun onto the animal – only then will it start its song. And every day upon departure he provides the girl on the bottom floor with candy or a kind word (by the end of the film she’s grown from a tween to an adolescent while his nephew never seemed to age at all – time does strange things in Hulot’s world). Hulot is always leaving the apartment to pick up Gérard from school. Gérard is a cooped up kid who has found an escape with his ne’er do well uncle and a group of prankster kids. Their favorite routine is to wait for a pedestrian to walk near a lamp post, whistle as if calling them and betting on whether they will run into the post.

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Eventually though, Hulot has to take the boy home, and the construction of that home is one of Tati’s great achievements, a totem to conspicuous consumption without a thought to functionality. And Tati uses sound design to activate multiple levels of the screen space. In one segment Madame Arpel is complimenting a neighbor on her hat in the foreground, while in the background Gérard is cleaning his shoes on the welcome mat, that scraping sound nearly blotting out his mother’s conversation. Everything in a Tati frame matters, there is no centering character. While your eye automatically drifts to Hulot, since Tati is such a master of pantomime, he often wanders out of frame, so you are forced to find other jokes – like the two circular windows that look like eyelid-less eyes, or the great sucking sound of the fish fountain, which Madame Arpel turns on and off depending on the importance of the guest. There is a whole rhythm to the house’s apparatus, the fountain “sucking,” the front door buzz, the soft “thunk” of a glass door closing, one might be able to map the comings and goings of each character just based on the sound design.

Needless to say when they have a dinner party Hulot starts breaking down the Arpel’s much sought-after order. He does the same at the rubber hose factory they get him a job at – the hose ends up looking like sausage, the disposal of which is an adventure on its own. There are so many visual gags, layered into each intricately arrayed sequence, it’s almost enough to be distracted by the solitude of it all. For while Hulot was the center of Monsieur Hulot’s Holiday, here he seems more peripheral, his final expulsion a natural extension of the plot. The final images, rather touching ones, find Charles and his son Gérard ultimately bonding over the lamp post prank. What had been a completely combative relationship has softened in a shared bond over slapstick violence. But Hulot is gone, and they don’t miss him.

Summer Daze: Monsieur Hulot’s Holiday (1953)

September 19, 2017

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The first screen appearance of Jacques Tati’s Hulot character is inside of a car: a clattering, jittering wreck making its way to a seaside hotel in Monsieur Hulot’s Holiday (1953). Tati cuts from the sound of a train horn to the pitter-putter of Hulot’s gasping car engine as it turns the corner of a country lane. The train is carrying the middle-class vacationers to their summer home, but Hulot always travels his own circuitous path. He yearns to be part of the group, but is forever getting sidetracked, by everything from funerals to fireworks. The character of Hulot, established here and elaborated on in three more films (Mon Oncle [1958], Playtime [1967] and Trafic [1970]), is baffled by modern technology and remains continually tangled up in it, reaching an apotheosis in the shimmering urban Hulot-trap of Playtime.  Monsieur Hulot’s Holiday is a gentler affair, though it establishes the unsteadiness and peculiar launching qualities of his springlike body. Like his car, he is as unsteady as a reed in a wind, and the slightest stumble will launch him into the next zip code. But he will always circle back home, hoping to get a few moments’ peace before getting launched once again.

Monsieur Hulot’s Holiday was shot in St. Marc-sur-mer in Brittany, on France’s northwestern coast. It was, and reportedly still is, a sleepy seaside resort town – you can still rent rooms in the same (extensively remodeled) Hotel de la Plage, now part of the Best Western chain. Tati shot on location during the summer and autumn of 1952, with the crew staying at the hotel. It remained open to the public, so if you were staying there during that year, you probably made it into the film as an extra. The rest of the cast was filled with relative unknowns  (Lucien Fregis as the hotel manager) or acquaintances (Nathalie Pascaud, who plays the young blond Martine, was a friend of a friend). As with Jour de fête(1949), which I wrote about last week, Monsieur Hulot’s Holiday doesn’t have much of a plot, but instead is a series of vignettes documenting a day in the town, slices of life that are then shredded by Hulot’s bumblings and stumblings (Tati made multiple edits to the feature, the final cut in 1978 – the original 1953 cut is offered as a bonus feature on FilmStruck).

The film begins, not with Hulot, but with a visual gag at a train station. A group of heavily packed vacationers wait on a middle platform. A noisy unintelligible voice on the intercom starts babbling, and the group, as one amorphous blob, runs to the platform at the bottom of the screen. But then a train starts rolling in at the platform at the top of the screen, and so on and so forth until the rabble finally gets on their train of choice. Shot with a static locked camera, Tati makes the train station look alien, almost inhuman, and the vacationers like a panicked mob. Later, a packed bus ride gets the same treatment – it is so filled with humanity a little boy is sitting inside the opening in the steering wheel. Compared to that, Hulot’s shivering little car doesn’t seem so embarrassing. He putters along at his own pace, breaking down every few miles, sure, but he’s not packed in like sardines. In these travel sequences you can really appreciate Tati’s manipulation of the soundtrack, the cut from a train horn to Hulot’s clattering car immediately emphasizes its fragility and its unconventional nature. The car sounds like it has emphysema, whereas the train is all brawn and strength.

When Hulot finally levers his reedy body out of the vehicle and into the hotel, it is already full with social circles fully formed, and it is near impossible for him to ingratiate himself. And it is here we first see Hulot in full, with the peaked cap, bobbing pipe and that angled, bouncing walk. Biographer David Bellos describes Hulot’s posture as a “‘corporeal structure’ vaguely reminiscent of Giacometti’s spidery lines.” He is spread out in all directions but somehow with a solid center of gravity. Then there is that unchangeable expression on his face which scholar Michel Chion described as “indefinable, somewhere between worry, stupidity, and polite neutrality.”

In the early going Hulot cannot manage the space of the hotel, he is just spilling all over the place. Each door he opens lets in a gale force wind, as if a twister had hit in the lobby. At check-in the tobacco in his pipe is so overflowing the hotel manager has to pluck it out of his mouth so he can speak. This is just the first of endless incursions into other people’s personal space. Even when he’s alone he annoys – during the post-dinnertime lull, he sits alone and plays an absurdly loud jazz record, jolting everyone out of their restful state. Hulot, both by accident and by design, is something of a prankster, so the only people who gravitate towards him are a little boy who gives him a run for his money at ping-pong, and the young beauty Martine, for whom Hulot is a charming respite from incessant male flirtation (from both insufferable Marxists and capitalists alike).

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The most moving vignette depicts a scantily attended masked ball – there are a few children napping in their seats, Hulot and Martine. Hulot shows up in an elaborate pirate outfit, while Martine swoops in wearing a mask and skirt. She enters while he is futzing with the record player behind a curtain – and, just before she is about to depart, he emerges, and they giddily dance around the empty room. It is a moment when the two souls in the town seeking adventure have found each other, and Hulot does not stumble or collapse. In fact he is quite nimble as they skip around the dance floor. It is a short-lived moment, but an exquisite one, showing that the Hulot character, though aloof and oblivious to the world so much of the time, is capable of joining it in full when he discovers someone with the same out-of-step sensibility. It is a transitory moment, and Hulot is swept along by his own momentum as he crashes a funeral, and in the final spectacular stunt, sets off a whole shed of fireworks in a display of sublime idiocy. He ends the summer with a bang, but leaves much as he began, alone in that fussy old car. He gives Martine’s empty room one final look (she left without a goodbye), and drives offscreen, leaving us with an image of the emptied out town. It ends with a stamp being placed on a picture, turned into a postcard, a memory Hulot will keep close to his heart during the further solitary adventures that await him.

The Postman: Jour de Fête (1949)

September 12, 2017

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After a decade-long career as a music-hall performer, Jacques Tati transitioned to feature filmmaking witha comedy about a remarkably gullible postman. Before Tati invented the iconic bumbling bourgeois Hulot (in M. Hulot’s Holiday, 1953), he experimented with a clumsy working class letter carrier, prone to insecure bouts of drinking and falling flat on his face. Jour de fête (1949) exhibits Tati’s elastic expertise at mime, including a tour-de-force drunk bike ride, as well as displaying his immediate talents as a director, constructing brilliantly funny gags through choreography and sound design. All of the gags generate from a small town’s resistance to and obsession with technological advancement, especially as trumpeted by the Americans. Tati eyes all this talk of modernization with a gimlet eye, preferring instead to linger on the absurdities of small town life before they disappear forever.

Having made a name for himself on the music hall circuit, Tati made his way into short films, and gained some notoriety  under René Clément, who directed him in the boxing comedy Soigne ton gauche (1936, for which Godard punned on the title for his Keep Your Right Up/Soigne ta droite). It was in this short that Tati took note of the bicycle riding postman played by Max Martel. This character would be the inspiration for his 1947 script The School For Postmen (1947), though in the interim he would be trying to avoid the German occupation government forces, who were seeking him out to work in Berlin for the Nazi organization “Strength Through Joy” as part of the compulsory work service. Instead he ditched them and hid out in the middle of the country in Le Marembert, four miles from Sainte-Sévère, which would be the location of Jour de fête. Tati and his friend Henri Marquet (a co-writer/actor in Jour de fêtechose Le Marembert as a town to hide out in because, Tati’s daughter explains in the documentary A L’Americaine (also on FilmStruck as a supplement to Jour de fête), “They jabbed a pencil into a map of France, Sainte-Sévère is smack in the middle.”

Tati himself continued that “once there, I was surprised. It was wartime, but in Sainte-Sévère, you’d never have known it. It’s fantastic to see people who know how to live. I thought if I made a film one day, I’d shoot it there.” He would stay true to his word, and retained the image of Max Martel’s postman. This would lead to the 1947 short The School For Postmen, a trial run for Jour de fête, in which his bicycling letter carrier is obsessed with proving that he can deliver the mail as fast as modern American technology allows. Originally slated to be directed by René Clément, his dropping out allowed Tati the opportunity to get behind the camera. And it was this experience that led him to believe he could extend this character out to feature length. He shot from May to December of 1947 in Sainte-Sévère, using it as his outdoor set. It was to be shot in a new color process called Thomsoncolor, but it was unstable and acceptable prints could not be struck. So it was distributed in B&W and that is how it is widely known today. However, in 1964 Tati did a re-edit with some painted in color by his friend Paul Grimault, and in 1994 a full color version was struck from the original negatives. All three versions are available to view on FilmStruck.

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The story, such as it is, involves the fair coming into to Sainte-Sévère and upsetting the natural tempo of the town. The café owner starts re-painting all his tables and chairs, a tad upsetting to his newly stained patrons, while one of the carnies flirts with one of the local girls. Through these side stories stumbles the insecure postman François (Tati), who endures spitballs from the local kids and endless gibes and pranks from the adults, mostly egging him into drinking games. Too eager to please to ever really object or fight back, he instead complains softly to himself. His track through town becomes an obstacle course of townspeople, carnies and kids all trying to distract him or rile him up, and he either ends up blackout drunk in a train car or roped into helping out someone else with their work (setting up a flagpole, cleaning up farmland, fixing a player piano). These are all intricately arranged set pieces that choreograph a whole village in motion (while the camera remains fairly static). The movement in the frame is never ending, and Tati is ever-eager to cede the frame to a better punchline, whether it’s the cross-eyed spike-driver (he needs to be positioned just a bit to the side) or the hunchbacked old gossip who fills in the details of every nook and cranny of the neighborhood; this 90 minutes feature somehow maps the whole town while also finding time to sketch each individual personality.

What François values above all is his job, so when he views a newsreel of all the new U.S. postal delivery technology, from helicopter drops to automated sorting machines, he blows a gasket and tries to prove he can match the Americans’ speed with his own two-wheeler. What ensues is nothing less than a Buster Keaton-esque study in human transportation gone awry, like in Sherlock Jr. (1924) when he loses his driver and rides a motorcycle side-saddle to a series of death-defying near misses. In Tati’s case he just loses his bicycle, which starts riding down the road on its own, as if possessed by a demon. Tati chases it down as if his life depended on it because his reputation hinges upon this mere mode of transportation. His bike goes through all forms of indignities – losing wheels, getting caught on a railroad crossing gate, getting dunked in a river. But it’s all for the greater good (or so François believes), of delivering the mail with speed, “American-style,” he keeps saying. So he is sticking the mail in grain sorters, shoving it on a butcher’s cutting board (which swiftly gets chopped), and sticking it under a horse’s tail. No time for customer service, as long as the mail gets delivered, no matter the condition, he will be satisfied. That is, until he can move no more, and the old hunchback drags him out of the water and tells him, “News is rarely good, so let it take its sweet time.”

Tati prefers the town stay as it is. But his depiction is already old-fashioned, as these towns became more mechanized, less personable. And so he had found a theme that would carry him through the films to follow, though he would need a new character, one more upwardly mobile to explore the ever dehumanized city, if not less prone to pratfalls. So Monsieur Hulot was born: the latest, and certainly the most oblivious cog in the industrial machine.

New Weird America: Something Wild (1986)

September 5, 2017

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To view Something Wild click here.

Something Wild (1986) is a road movie with a penchant for detours, keeping its eyes on the side roads and rest stops instead of the highway in front of it. A shapeshifting romantic-comic thriller, it adjusts its tone to the landscape, paying as a romcom in NYC, a chase film in Pennsylvania and a horror movie in Stony Brook. The only thing that ties together the film are the rest stops and delis the movie’s increasingly unhinged characters stop into for snacks, robberies, and a break from the world outside. Each location provides more subcultures for the insatiable eye of director Jonathan Demme to explore, whether it’s the tiny liquor store manager with a giant pipe or a duo of style conscious old thrift store biddies, Demme imbues every scene with indelible personalities, making the film a kind of American oddball panorama in which two star-crossed lovers keep criss-crossing through.

Jonathan Demme wasn’t sure he would make another big narrative film after Swing Shift (1984) was taken away from him by Warner Bros. It didn’t seem all the time and effort was worth it if he didn’t have any control over the final product. But he took another chance on Something Wild because he loved the script by E. Max Frye, about hip con artist Lulu (Melanie Griffith) who picks up and seduces a square banker named Charlie (Jeff Daniels) and encourages him to indulge his wild side, from childish dine-and-dash to slightly more dangerous subversions. It spins off into more intense and violent digressions from there, as Lulu’s sociopathic husband Ray (Ray Liotta) rages into the story, eager to seek vengeance on Charlie for absconding with his wife. Ranging from NYC to Pennsylvania to Virginia and back.

The further they get from NYC, the more their wardrobes shift – Charlie’s goes from drab brown suit to shorts and skeleton sunglasses, while Lulu transforms even more, from her severe black bangs and endless bracelets, to a spiky short blonde cut and a blue-and-white peasant dress. But while their outfits get more innocent, their actions tiptoe around legality. It is a film about the relationship between personality and place, how much we define ourselves by our past and present homes, and how much of what we thought was our true selves can shift when thrust into a new town, new clothes, and sitting next to a new girl. What seemed like a promising career track back in the city might now seem like prison.

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Demme loved to scour the locations of his shoots (Tallahassee stood in for PA) for local color, and the film is bursting with side characters I would be eager to watch a whole movie about. Such as the roly-poly biker who rides along with his dog, or the gas station attendant who recommends that Charlie buy some shorts. Jeff Daniels spoke to People Magazine in 1987 about the atmosphere on the set:

“‘Jonathan listens to any idea, no matter how idiotic. And he tries a lot of them, because sometimes they work,’ says Jeff Daniels, who co-starred in Something Wild with Melanie Griffith. “I might turn around and see this dog on a motorcycle or a black hitchhiker wearing a cowboy hat. You know you’re walking through a Jonathan Demme movie because of the things he puts behind you and around you. There’s an improvisational feeling to everything he does.”

That feeling translates to the screen, as it bursts with activity. As Charlie, Jeff Daniels channels Demme’s affable people person – he insists on calling strangers by their first name, trying to make each purely commercial transaction more of a personal one. Early on this just means he speaks to waitresses with a solicitous tone – but later on it plays a pivotal part in Charlie’s recovery. He has had his nose broken by Ray, and needs to change out of his bloody shirt. Ray Liotta, by the way, is a demonic ball of coiled energy, and in an interview with David Poland Frye recalled how Daniels was scared by him during their first rehearsal. He can seemingly flex his entire body into a fist – and he plunges it at Charlie repeatedly. Anyway, back to the present, with Charlie at the gas station. He addresses “Nelson” by name to fill up his career, and, bemused by this weird white guy in skeleton glasses, Nelson asks Charlie about his bloody shirt.

Charlie realizes the state of his outfit, and requests a whole new change of clothes, stripping down to his skivvies in the store while Nelson just deadpans, “Charlie, attempt to be cool.” That line is Charlie’s entire existence in a nutshell, straining to be cool but instead landing flat on his face. At least until Lulu showed up. Lulu is an enigma when we first see her, dressed like an extra in a Bangles video with a jangling array of bracelets and necklaces covering up her arms while her face is framed by jet black bangs. She looks like danger, and she is, but the further Lulu and Charlie drive, the more their lies start to wear out, and they begin to learn the truth about each other. By the end very little is left of either of them, both reduced to essential parts, Charlie retaining his gentle nature and Lulu her shapeshifting unpredictability. The NYC they return to is no longer the one they left – having lost the ability to lie about themselves they will have to reinvent themselves anew, adapting to the shifting city around them.

Another Day in the Country: Picnic on the Grass (1959)

August 22, 2017

PICNIC ON THE GRASS, (aka) DEJEUNER SUR L'HERBE,LE, (seated)Paul Meurisse, 1959

For Jean Renoir Picnic on the Grass was both a return and a departure. It was filmed in and around the country estate of Les Collettes, his late father’s land, where he had grown up as a child. It is the perfect setting for this back-to-nature comedy in which a scientist (and hopeful presidential candidate), is lured away from the world of the mind for that of the flesh. But instead of using this return to indulge in nostalgia or reiterate the naturalistic style of his still-famous triumphs – Renoir pushes further into farce and caricature. Picnic on the Grass is a broad and joyful comedy that was inevitably compared with Rules of the Game (1939) and Grand Illusion (1937), which had been restored and re-released around the same time, and so Renoir was compared to his previous self, and found wanting. Jonas Mekas, writing in The Village Voice in 1960, had a profound experience watching Picnic on the Grass and was baffled by its failure – he wrote: “I hear the critics did not like it. Who are the critics? Critics like to talk big – poor nearsighted things! They do not see beauty even when it is there.” FilmStruck presents us with another opportunity to see this beauty, so I attempted to find it there.

Picnic on the Grass was marked by the death of Gabrielle Renard, the nanny who raised Jean Renoir and became one of his father’s models. She brought Jean to see his first film in 1897 at the Palais des Nouveauté. Biographer Pascal Merigeau relates that the screening “threw him into a panic” and that Gabrielle had to rush him outside to calm down. She was a beloved figure in his life, and he devotes many tender passages to her in his memoirs, including these memorable closing lines:

As I bid farewell to the landscape of my childhood I think of Gabrielle. Certainly it was she who influenced me most of all. To her I owe Guignol and the Theatre Montmartre. She taught me to realize that the very unreality of those entertainments was a reason for examining real life. She taught me to see the face behind the mask, and the fraud behind the flourishes. She taught me to detest the cliché. My farewell to childhood may be expressed in very few words: ‘Wait for me, Gabrielle.’

Gabrielle passed away on February 26, 1959, and Picnic on the Grass began shooting in July in Les Collettes, where they had originally formed their bond so many years before.

PICNIC ON THE GRASS, (Le Déjeuner sur l'herbe), Paul Meurisse, Catherine Rouvel, 1959

Renoir had been working on the script since 1958, when he registered a 32-page treatment. The story concerns Etienne Alexis (Paul Meurisse), a television-famous scientist whose main political position is mandatory artificial insemination as a way to increase intelligence in children. Despite this frightening proposition, through complete voter apathy he is likely to be the next president of Europe. That is, until he takes a fateful picnic with his equally ascetic bride-to-be/girl scout leader Marie-Charlotte (Ingrid Nordine). A satyr-like shepherd plays his flute for his goat, conjuring up a strong wind that blows past Etienne’s party and magically juices their libidos. As friends and assistants start canoodling under the trees (reminiscent of the scene in Elena and her Men [1956] with a mass-peasant makeout session), Etienne and his new chambermaid Nénette (Catherine Rouvel) begin an extended flirtation that might bring down his entire candidacy. While his advisers continue to set-up a wedding with Marie-Charlotte, Etienne’s eyes keep roaming to Nénette, a disarmingly direct farm girl who was seeking artificial insemination because she had never found a man worth her time.

Renoir cast Catherine Rouvel after being introduced to her after a screening of Robert Flaherty’s Louisiana Story (1948). She had just turned nineteen, and Pascal Merigeau believes she reminded him of Gabrielle: “Returning to Les Collettes and his father’s house, among the olive trees, on the banks of the river, Renoir recommuned with his youth, rediscovered Gabrielle’s former features and soft curves, as well as Dedee’s, his first love, in Catherine Rouvel.” There is a resemblance, at least going by Auguste Renoir’s many portraits of Gabrielle, and Rouvel dazzles in the part, presenting Nénette as supremely self-confident in her naïveté – a completely charming creation.

Now in the twilight of his career, he was struggling to secure funding for new projects, and would end up producing Picnic on the Grass himself, necessitating a lower budget and tight shooting schedule. It was filmed over 20 days, reusing the studio and crew from The Doctor’s Horrible Experiment (1959), his TV adaptation of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde which he had completed earlier in the year. Precise blocking was drawn out with chalk on the floor, and the actors had to follow them. Renoir later regretted the restrictions the budget required, complaining that working in this way “kills something extremely important, which is the actor’s surprise at being faced with the scenery.”

But Renoir tended to rate his own features based on financial returns, and the film was essentially ignored upon release, and gave Renoir “a pathological distaste for all the processes relating to film or television.” But looking at it outside of the pressure cooker of Renoir’s box office expectations, it’s a film that lives in the zone between the ridiculous and the sublime, happy to look the fool in search of what Renoir valued in life – which according to this film is, in no particular order: lazing about the riverside, eating heartily and sex (preferably outside). Renoir is deeply discouraged by modernity, opening on a parody of the evening news – which spends more time on his pending nuptials than his grotesque plan for population control. It is prescient in depicting how news was sliding ever closer towards entertainment.

Renoir’s POV comes through most clearly in a monologue by a priest out on a walk, telling Etienne what he thinks about his technocratic capitalism.

“Tomorrow you’ll send us to the moon. And, pray tell, what will we do up there on the moon? Do you think we’ll be happier there than under the shade of our olive trees? Scientific dictatorship will be a fine mess. We built the Notre-Dame, we built Chartres. We covered the Earth with cathedrals and churches. You? You’re covering it with factories. You must admit that the smoke from our incense is less damaging to the atmosphere than your atomic radiations. It appears that men enjoy being poisoned.

But, as Renoir well knows, whether or not he disapproves of the flow of history, it will flow on anyway, so you might as well get pleasure where you can. So Etienne and Nénette find themselves in each other, and that will have to be enough.

This is the thirteenth part of a series covering the films of Jean Renoir, sixteen of which are streaming on FilmStruck. To read the previous entries, click below.

Mad Men: Putney Swope (1969)

March 28, 2017

PUTNEY SWOPE (1969)

In 1969 Robert Downey Sr. waited outside a screening of Putney Swope  (1969) at the Cinema II in NYC to see if the film was still working as intended. As reported by Stephen Mahoney in Life magazine: “Two couples emerge. A woman is tearing at a handkerchief. ‘Tasteless. An exhibition…Filth’, she stammers. Under the cowboy hat Downey’s face lights up with joy.” Mahoney’s article was entitled “Robert Downey Makes Vile Movies,” a takeoff on a particularly outraged review by the New York Daily News (“Vicious and vile, the most offensive picture I’ve ever seen.”). Putney Swope is a clattering joke-stuffed satire both hilarious and exhausting. It begins as a spoof of ad agency racism, and keeps widening its targets until it takes itself down, a circular firing squad of comedy. Downey wanted his audiences to leap out of their seats, preferably with shock and disgust, and so it includes a horny and despotic little person president, an office flasher and the takeover of an ad agency by black militants who get co-opted by the business they wanted to overthrow. No one gets away unscathed. Putney Swope is streaming on FilmStruck, along with four other Downey films.

Downey Sr. was aligned with the group of underground filmmakers in NYC who were proselytized by Jonas Mekas in The Village Voice. Mekas was an early champion of Downey’s work, who wrote after seeing Chafed Elbows (1966) that, “Bob Downey is the Lenny Bruce of the new cinema,” and that the movie was, “as good as anything done by nouvelle vague.” Chafed Elbows was a bad-taste La Jetee (1963), an incest comedy visualized almost entirely in still photographs. It gained him enough notoriety to secure financing for Putney Swope, his highest budget production by far (Downey put it at $250,000). Putney Swope the character (played by Arnold Johnson and dubbed by Downey because Johnson couldn’t remember the lines), is the only black employee at a large ad agency. After the chairman of the board keels over in the middle of the meeting, there is a hastily arranged vote to elect the new head, with the body cooling on the table. Swope wins and executes wholesale changes, replacing all the executives with black activists aside from one token member (who complains he doesn’t get paid the same rate). He tells the entire staff to write and create commercials, regardless of the department they’re in.

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These brilliantly demented commercials air in color, while the rest of the film is in black and white. Freed from any market research, or any relationship to the product at all, these ads are gleeful bursts of pure nonsense. “Ethereal Cereal” executes a slow zoom to a curious black eater responding to the white narrator , “No Shit!” The ad for Fan-A-Way electric fans is even more bizarre. With a funky guitar-organ riff on the soundtrack, a woman in gold lamé sashays past a homeless man in an alley. She stops in front of the camera and says, “You can’t eat…an air conditioner,” and then retreats into a smoke machine. The ad for Lucky Airlines is an absurdly long orgy sequence, while that for Face Off acne cream (the favorite bit of Henry Louis Gates, a Putney Swope fan) shows an interracial couple on a bicycle built for two as they sing, “You gave me a dry hump/behind the hot dog stand.” These are all fabulous wastes of money and disconnect the product from the images on-screen. They aren’t selling but destroying.

Though Swope’s company is initially something of a socialist enterprise, with everyone pitching into the creative, eventually Swope does steal credit, and seemingly marries his mistress just so he can use her ideas for campaigns. He gets so successful he is fielding calls from the President (played by little person Pepi Hermine). But in an abrupt and brusquely violent end, he distributes the profits to his employees and then burns the place down. For a black intellectual like Henry Louis Gates, who called it the first blaxploitation film, Swope “was our secret hero. What we wanted to do…our self-styled revolutionary vanguard that integrated Yale in large numbers-was to go in the system and transform it from the inside.” It’s unclear from the film what Swope actually changed in the system itself, as the greater society in the film is depicted as rotten, corrupt and ridiculous. That is why Swope presumably burns it all down, to start back at zero. But it’s a film of energetic messiness and ideological ambiguity, one can take what they want from it. For example, Louis C.K. is a vocal admirer who has used it as an inspiration for making uncompromising work that doesn’t court a specific audience. On WTF With Marc Maron he recalled finding an old VHS copy of Putney Swope and being amazed something like that could be made. Days later he started getting money together to shoot a movie.

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Putney Swope was enormously successful for distributor Donald Rugoff, who told Life, “Once we had this James Bond thing, Thunderball, at Cinema II, and it did this fantastic box office, more than we’d ever supposed possible for any movie, and now Putney Swope is way ahead of it. Isn’t that terrible?” It is not hard to envision its success, considering how outrageous it is (its sketch comedy structure anticipates the Zucker Brothers’ The Kentucky Fried Movie and Mel Brooks’ History of the World) and its eye-catching middle finger theatrical poster.  But in its time writer Stephen Mahoney had a more convincing argument for its popularity: “Alice’s Restaurant makes the point that kids could get on fine if it weren’t for funky adults. There’s More, which makes the case that kids could get on fine if it weren’t for funky adults…. In Putney Swope there is no generational self pity. The point to Downey’s film is that nobody could get on fine in any circumstances.”

LAW AND DISORDER: THE NAKED GUN (1988)

September 27, 2016

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David Zucker, Jim Abrahams, and Jerry Zucker were three wiseasses from Milwaukee who killed time watching movies. They gained an admiration for the stoic leading men in cheap genre productions, those actors who jutted their chins and remained expressionless through the most absurd scenarios. ZAZ’s whole comic ethos stems from these viewings – their main characters are virtuous idiots wandering through a world that explodes with gags around them. These dopes’ deadpan obliviousness provide the majority of punchlines in  Airplane!, Top Secret, and The Naked Gun trilogy. And there was no one more virtuous or more idiotic than the fools portrayed by Leslie Nielsen – who was ZAZ’s platonic ideal for a comic actor. Often mistaken for his  Airplane!-mates Lloyd Bridges and Peter Graves, he had that aging leading man gravitas (and mane of gray hair) and could play everything straight, reciting the most ridiculous lines as if he was in an airplane disaster film like Zero Hour (1957, the model for Airplane!). ZAZ’s follow-up to Airplane! was the short-lived and joke-packed TV show Police Squad! (1982), a parody of M-Squad and other square-jawed cop shows. The TV version was canceled after four episodes (six would air), but strong reviews (and a lead actor Emmy nomination for Nielsen) kept the project alive until ZAZ adapted it into the  The Naked Gun, which airs tomorrow night on TCM as part of their “Salute to Slapstick.” It is with The Naked Gun that Nielsen fully displays his comic gifts, a tour-de-force of deadpan, face-pulling, and pratfall.

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“We invariably would get to discussing our history together, reminiscing a bit and renewing our good-natured debate about who the hell was luckier to have met the other, Leslie Nielsen or the Zucker-Abrahams-Zucker team. The truth was, all of us knew how grateful we were to have each other in our lives, both professionally and personally, and we expressed it to each other often.” – David Zucker

Leslie Nielsen was the last person cast in Airplane!, with David Zucker claiming he was the third choice for the part of the questionably educated Dr. Rumack. Nielsen, an inveterate prankster and master of the whoopee cushion, was eager to act stupid on screen, so he told his agent,  ‘Do not negotiate. Accept! I’ll pay them to do this part!’ ” He was a perfect fit for ZAZ’s brand of humor, and he was brought on to play Det. Frank Drebin in Police Squad! (1982), a hilarious, doomed enterprise that was canceled because, per ABC entertainment president Tony Thomopoulos “the viewer had to watch it in order to appreciate it.” In other words, it wasn’t a show you could have on in the background and get the gist – you had to pay close attention to register the density of jokes on display (Joe Dante directed two episodes, and some of his same spirit shows up in Gremlins 2) . It all starts in the opening credits, in which the guest star is always killed (i.e. Robert Goulet is killed by a firing squad) and the on-screen and voice-over episode titles never match up. There are physical bits that reappear in the movies (pillowcases have devastating effects), visual absurdities (a gunfight of inches), and a barrage of verbal punning (my favorite bit: “-How did you know she handled the loan office heist? -It was just a little hunch back at the office. – I thought so, I brought that little hunchback with me. Charlie come out here!”).

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Nielsen is gently befuddled throughout. They key to the whole Drebin character is his reactions to the jokes made at his expense. When he offers a credit union teller a smoke by asking, “Cigarette?”, she responds with, “Yes, I know.” Instead of arguing with her about semantics, he pauses a beat, his eyes shifting up and down, before muttering, “Well…” He is confused but wants to play it off as natural, which summarizes Drebin’s whole existence.

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The Naked Gun is Police Squad on a bigger budget, so his superior officer Alan North is replaced by George Kennedy, and his airheaded partner is played by O.J. Simpson (no comment). ZAZ has Drebin investigating a hunch that wealthy philanthropist Vincent Ludwig (a hissing Ricardo Montalban) is involved in a plot to kill Queen Elizabeth II, who is planning a visit to Los Angeles. Of course Drebin falls for Ludwig’s assistant Jane (Priscilla Presley), a clumsy femme fatale and confused cook (her trademark meal: boiling a roast). The plot climaxes at a California Angels baseball game and an uninterrupted barrage of gags, from insane blooper reels (tiger attacks at 2B, CF wall beheadings) to a hypnotized Reggie Jackson trying to murder a royal family member.

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The film keeps the same joke density as the show, with throwaway lines and visual gags pushing out of every frame, whether it’s the floating chalk outline of Nordberg or dialogue like, “I think we can save your husband’s arm…where would you like it sent?”. Then there are the big showpieces, which include a press conference in which Drebin wears a microphone into the bathroom, filling the room with the guttural sounds of his celebratory moaning as he looses his bladder. Or there is his first date with Jane, a masterpiece of visual gags (tearaway suits, full body condoms, a cheery post-Platoon screening) and  Drebin’s confession of a lost love: “-It’s the same old story. Boy finds girl, boy loses girl, girl finds boy, boy forgets girl, boy remembers girl, girl dies in a tragic blimp accident over the Orange Bowl on New Year’s Day. – Goodyear? -No, the worst”. It is beautifully rhythmic nonsense with a killer punchline that Nielsen intones with passion and sincerity.

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In 1988 the New York Times quoted David Zucker: “Mr. Nielsen’s rare gift is to get moviegoers to laugh at him even as they feel sympathetic. ‘Audiences love Leslie,’ he said. ‘Part of it is that he looks so dignified and serious, and yet he betrays such insecurity, such a fumbling quality.’ ‘I always looked like whatever I was doing, I did very well,’ Mr. Nielsen said, laughing. ‘Of course, in ‘Naked Gun’ I do nothing well, and that’s the key to Frank Drebin.’ Nielsen is a master at doing nothing well, and for my limited moneythis makes The Naked Gun one of the funniest films ever made.

OTHER GOLD DIGGERS OF 1933: GIRL MISSING (1933)

September 20, 2016

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In the first scene of Girl Missing (1933), Guy Kibbee tries to seduce Mary Brian with the line: “I don’t feel fatherly, I feel…hotcha!” And so begins this randy, money-grubbing, mystery-solving pre-code starring Brian and motormouth Glenda Farrell. They are two out-of-work chorus girls indulging in some gold-digging to leach cash from old lechers. But in the wildly convoluted plot that races through 68 minutes, they get roped into the murder of a mafia bookie and the disappearance of a society dame (or so she seems). It’s a trial run for Farrell’s tamer post-code Torchy Blane (nine films between 1937 – 1939) movies, in which she played a sassy investigative newsgal sans sexual innuendo. In Girl Missing Farrell machine-guns her dialogue to mow down con-men, con-women, and anyone else who has the misfortune to walk past her in the frame. It airs tomorrow on TCM at 6:15AM, and is also available on DVD from the Warner Archive.

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Girl Missing was the first film that Robert Florey directed for Warner Brothers after a tendentious run at Universal (he was removed from Frankenstein after extensive pre-production work) and a short one at independent studio K.B.S. Florey’s career continues to fascinate – he was a French born artist who worked as an assistant director to Louis Feuillade, Chaplin and von Sternberg who made a name for himself with the experimental short The Life and Death of 9413 – A Hollywood Extra (1928, watch here), directed with Slavko Vorkapich and Gregg Toland. A mournful satire of an artist getting chewed up by the movie business, Florey would go on to have a long career in the Bs and then on television. He acclimated to WB’s quick and snappy style, finishing shooting on Girl Missing in thirteen days at a cost of $107,000, per the AFI Catalog. It is no surprise then, that his work pleased studio boss Darryl Zanuck, who sent Florey a memo after viewing an early cut: “a very fine job…in record time. I am certain that the picture will cut up into a fast moving melodrama with a lot of swell comedy and a lot of unusual angles.”

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Zanuck is not far off the mark, although there are no unusual angles – the expressionism that Florey was identified with from his work on Murders in the Rue Morgue is not on display, as there couldn’t have been time for any elaborate set-ups – plus the scenario didn’t lend itself to elaborate stylization. This is a film about speed in front of and behind the camera, and Florey does his job obligingly. He received his next assignment, Ex Lady, within days of finishing Girl Missing. Zanuck called him at 3AM to be at the set in a few hours. Florey responded that he “wanted to know if it was a comedy or drama; who was the star of the film; and perhaps I could get the script…or was it too much to ask?” He finished shooting that in 18 days – and I wrote about that one here.

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Girl Missing concerns the disappearance of Daisy Bradford (Peggy Shannon), who was due to marry the super-rich Henry Gibson (Ben Lyon). Kay Curtis (Glenda Farrell) and June Dale (Mary Brian), are out-of-work chorines not above digging for gold who stumble into a plot to bilk Gibson out his cash.  They recognize Daisy from their hoofer days – she is not the society dame she presented herself as, and a whole conspiracy begins to unravel at their feet. Girl Missing loses its tempo when Farrell is off-screen, which occurs far too much in a film barely over an hour. There is a lot of futzing about with the rich Henry Gibson (a deadly dull Ben Lyon), which had me checking my watch until Farrell stalked back on-screen with her sassy Sherlock Holmes routine.

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Farrell had yet to be paired with her acid-tongued blonde counterpart Joan Blondell, but Mary Brian is game as her gamine accomplice. Their early setup works with Brian as the bait and Farrell as the staller, the one who keeps the old horndogs from getting too handsy. Farrell is the bane of Guy Kibbee’s existence (my main complaint with the film – not enough Kibbee), putting everyone off with pungent dialogue (credited to Ben Markson). There are such gems like, “Working for a living’s old fashioned, but on the other hand so is starving to death.” Or her reaction to Daisy’s nuptials: “When I think of it I could bite a battleship in two.” Joan Blondell described Farrell’s working methods for Hollywood magazine in 1936:

“When she goes into a scene she never follows the script to the sacrifice of her naturalness. She acts just as she would if the same situation arose in her every-day life. In other words, she suits the part to her personality instead of trying to suit her personality to the script. She handles dialogue the same way and never tries to twist her tongue around expressions foreign to her own way of speaking. Before we go into a scene, we go over our lines together and revise them, without changing their meaning, until they fit our mouths.”

Everything is a little snappier when it comes out in Farrell’s nasally purr. We should be thankful she was around for the pre-code era, which gave her the freedom to make these B movies faster, funnier, and more like herself.

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LOST AND FOUND: THE MAN AND THE MOMENT (1929)

May 3, 2016

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The light comedy The Man and the Moment (1929) was considered lost until a dupe negative was recently discovered at Cineteca Italiana di Milano. This part-talkie from First National Pictures was restored in 2K by Warner Bros. at L’Immagine Ritrovata laboratory in Bologna, and was released on Warner Archive DVD last month. A charming proto-screwball comedy, it’s about a marriage of convenience between a rich playboy and an impetuous adventuress that ends up destroying planes, boats and nightclub aquariums. Made during the transition to sound, it exemplifies the stereotype of that era’s stiff, static line readings. It has snap and vigor in the silent sequences, and grinds to a halt for dialogue. This is not aided by leading man Rod la Rocque, who is a debonair charmer in the silent sequences and a wooden statue during dialogue. His co-star Billie Love is more of a natural, and she waltzes away with the film.

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Adapted from an Elinor Glyn best-seller, The Man and the Moment finds Jane (Billie Love) and Michael (La Rocque) at a personal impasse. Jane has a passion for flying, but her strict guardian forbids her to continue her training in the air. Michael, a rich bachelor, is being blackmailed into marriage by the slinky Viola (Gwen Lee). They meet when Jane crash lands her plane into one of Michael’s “Polo Boats” (he plays polo with sea crafts rather than horses – as he is super rich and super bored). They realize that they can solve both of their problems with a quickie marriage. Jane will gain independence from her guardian and Michael can undermine Viola’s scheme. So together they agree to wed, with the understanding it is purely a business arrangement, and that they will divorce soon after. Nothing goes as planned, of course, as Michael instantly falls in love with Jane, and Jane skedaddles, sick of his advances. Jane ends up at Viola’s house, where the various strands of the plot converge and tangle in a wildly convoluted finale.

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Variety wrote that director George Fitzmaurice, “has diluted the Glyn molasses so that the screen version avoids most of the love licorice and dwells on the comedy situations.” Agnes Christine Johnston adapted the story into a script, while the spoken dialogue is credited to Paul Perez. The inter-titles set the tone of the decadent milieu, one reads that Michael’s yacht was “lit by electricity – the guests by noon.” Michael is introduced playing “boat polo”, driving a motorboat with a woman on the stern trying to hit a beach ball towards a goal. It looks insanely dangerous, and Fitzmaurice anchors a camera to the back of a speeding polo boat to emphasize the needless danger of the enterprise. The opening inter-title of the film states: “No person ever dashed their brains out playing Polo Boat – because no person with brains every played polo boat.” Michael is thus introduced as a self-destructive decadent frittering away his wealth on near-death experiences.

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Jane is something more of a mystery. Johnston’s script cuts out any explanatory backstory, so what we are left with is a stuffy guardian (the status of her parents is unknown) and her love of flight. Despite this lack of characterization Billie Dove invests Jane with a winsome ebullience. She is fearsomely independent and lonesome because of it. Most of her identity is wrapped up in her plane. In one telling sequence she blows off Michael by manipulating elements of her plane, knocking him down with wing flaps and blowing him into the water with the engine. She feels strongest when in control of the machine. She loses control of herself when she is accepted into Viola’s circle, and is invited to an “Under the Sea”-themed party (from “8pm – Blotto”, per the invite), complete with giant human aquarium. There she tests out her flirtation skills against Viola’s (impossible, for Gwen Lee is a superb vamp, a sinuous haughty cigarette smoking machine aimed at rich bachelors), and ends up in the tank with a fellow inebriate. Michael can only get her out by smashing the whole thing to smithereens, depicted through the use of endearingly fake miniatures.

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Michael and Jane’s jealousy is now destroying private property, and they need to work things out on their own. Unfortunately this means more dialogue, which Fitzmaurice and his team are ill-equipped to handle. The film’s audio was shot on Vitagraph disc, providing sound effects for the entire feature, and dialogue for a select few. The surviving source was re-cut for silent exhibition, and, as the stated before the feature, “some of the dialogue sequences were truncated. Inter-title cards in place of the missing footage have been inserted into the feature.”  This means the inter-titles appear during the dialogue sequences, a disorienting necessity to maintain synchronization. Regardless, La Rocque is audibly uncomfortable with the dialogue, speaking in monotone as if reading the phone book. Fitzmaurice keeps the dialogue scenes almost exclusively in long, static two-shots, with no sound editing to massage the rhythm. I’ve always found the “static” early sound film to be a canard, as there was intense experimentation going on with the new sound technology at the time, audible in how Von Sternberg uses off-screen space in his contemporaneous film Thunderbolt (1929). But The Man and the Moment is just trying to get the sound-on-disc and move on as quickly as possible. Billie Dove comes off the best in the dialogue sequences, as she has an inviting, conversational tone. Though working with flimsy material, Dove conveys an appealingly clumsy flirtatiousness while La Rocque barely sounds present.

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But even with the technical drawbacks, The Man in the Moment provides a diverting evening at the movies, mainly due to Billie Dove and some outrageous set-pieces. How much you enjoy it may depend on your enjoyment of late ’20s/early ’30s fantasies of wealth (I have a high tolerance). The New York Times reviewed it and wrote: “The Man and the Moment seems designed for those who do not think Mrs. Glyn’s plots fatuous; who like love in airplanes, in yachts and among the members of high society; who would prefer thinking themselves on the beach at Monte Carlo, and who believe that the Four Hundred go to cocktail parties in silk pajamas.” If you check off all those boxes like I do, do give The Man and the Moment a spin.

PRE-CODE COMEDIES: FIFTY MILLION FRENCHMEN, GOLD DUST GERTIE, AND HER MAJESTY, LOVE

February 2, 2016

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In 1931 the vaudeville circuit was dying out, and Hollywood was poaching its performers and routines. Needing content for the new sound technology, studios would string together comedies around a collection of old stage bits. Anarchic, chaotic, and scattershot, these films will do anything for a laugh, and they occasionally get them. The Warner Archive has just released three of these pre-code sketch films on DVD, all from 1931:  Gold Dust GertieHer Majesty Love, and Fifty Million Frenchmen. They feature actors who cut their teeth in vaudeville, including the comedy duo Olsen & Johnson, one-liner artist Winnie Lightner, and W.C. Fields, who made his sound film debut in Her Majesty Love.

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Fifty Million Frenchmen (1931)is a showcase for the antics of Ole Olsen and Chic Johnson, who had been working as a duo since the late teens. Their act didn’t really have a straight man, with wiry neurotic Olsen facing off against the rotund giggling softie of Jonhson.They were known for their boundary dissolving stage shows which strung clotheslines from balcony to balcony to dry their wash, had cows falling from the ceiling, and dubbed Hitler into Yiddish. This kind of madcap deconstruction wouldn’t show up on film until Hellzapoppin’ in 1941, but there some evidence of their insanity in Fifty Million Frenchmen. Originally intended to feature Cole Porter’s songs from the Broadway show, these were cut after the audience rebelled against the glut of musicals released after the coming of sound. Director Lloyd Bacon strings the gags along a slender thread of plot –  in a Paris bar Michael Cummings (John Halliday) bets Jack Forbes (William Gaxton) that he can’t win the love of blonde bombshell LuLu (Claudia Dell) without using any of his family’s money. Jack wins if he successfully woos LuLu only on what he can earn doing odd jobs. Cummings hires Olsen & Johnson to watch Forbes – to make sure he follows the rules of the bet.

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This is the excuse for a series of sketches: like when Johnson mixes a cocktail inside a passed out fat drunk’s mouth, or when both Olsen and Johnson model women’s underwear in the hopes of selling them to an American tourist. Forbes gets a job as a tour guide for English speakers, and one of the best recurring gags involves a woman (Helen Broderick) who hires his services, looking to be “shocked, you know, insulted.” She is nonplussed when he passes her a photo of a nearly-nude strongman, and when Forbes asks her where she’d like to start the tour she responds, “From the bottom, you’re only young twice.” There is also a Bela Lugosi sighting as a short-lived magic act whose routine is usurped and botched by the incompetent trio of Forbes, Olsen & Johnson, who cause a near riot. The latter duo ends up in a Keystone Cops chase through the Paris streets, over the tops of cars and through newly laid tar, in which the chase bogs  down into slow motion.

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Olsen & Johnson also appear in Gold Dust Gertie (1931), but the name above the title is Winnie Lightner, a wiseass who specialized in sassy gold digger roles, most famously in Gold Diggers of Broadway (1929). The opening of the film shows her marrying both Olsen and Johnson, and the film kicks off by her pursuit of their alimony payments. And the only way to get those bums to pay is to get them raises at their bathing suit company (whose conservative “Carrie Nations Fit” is not selling). So Lightner insinuates herself into the company, woos the ancient president Arnold (Claude Gillingwater), and convinces him to produce a more contemporary, risque style of suit. Along the way she runs into a few more ex-husbands from whom she’s still chiseling cash. A money-grubbing dynamo, she is getting what she can while the getting’s good. Lightner has a wonderfully expressive face, one that can flip you off with a sneer. In 1931 Picture Play magazine called her “the only feminine star of rough house comedy”.

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My favorite gag in Gold Dust Gertie, also directed by the industrious Lloyd Bacon, is a moment of bedroom farce. At one point the president invites Lightner, Olsen, and Johnson onto his ship. He has already declared his love for Lightner, unaware that she has already married and divorced every guest on his yacht. Eventually Olsen & Johnson bully their way into her stateroom, hoping to blackmail her with the news of yet another of her ex-husbands, but she neatly twirls them around her little finger with some flirtation and a bottle of booze. But then the president knocks on the door, and Olsen & Johnson are thrust outside the porthole window (after some requisite pottery smashing), getting thrashed by the waves while Lightner continues her seduction of the president. It is a perfectly tuned and timed bit of humiliation, and one of her multiple triumphs of male manipulation.

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Her Majesty, Love, is the most polished film of the three, directed with a roving energy by William Dieterle. This was the second feature Dieterle directed in Hollywood after being imported from Germany (the first: The Last Flight (1931)). It is an adaptation of the German film Ihre Majestät die Liebe, directed by Joe May earlier in ’31. It takes place in Berlin and follows Fred von Wellingen (Ben Lyon), heir to his family’s ball bearing factory fortune. Instead of cultivating the board of directors’ favor, he spends his time in a nightclub, becoming smitten with bartender Lia (Marilyn Miller). His family forbids their marriage, and will only give him the reigns to the company if he agrees to break off their union.

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The central drama is stilted, but there are pleasures at the margins. Dieterle and his DP Robert Kurrle use a circling camera in the nightclub sequences, creating an air of drunken revelry, where everything is spinning in a joyful blur. This is Broadway star Marilyn Miller’s third and final film appearance (she would die in 1937 from a botched nasal surgery), and you get an inkling of what made her so beloved on the stage. She has a relaxed, insouciant charm that makes it believable that her father in the film is played by W.C. Fields. Fields plays a barber and indulgent father who is a born entertainer. At Fred and Lia’s engagement dinner, he can’t sit still for a few seconds before he’s catapulting with his spoon or juggling dishes to the gasps of his table mates. It is his first sound feature, and his movie voice is not fully formed, that plummy nasal whine not fully ripened. And yet he is the clear star of the movie, despite his truncated screen time. One wishes for Fred to disappear and for Lia and her father to put on a show of their own.