Playing it straight: The Lady Eve

I foolishly put a poll on Facebook asking people what movie they felt was Preston Sturges’ best. It was foolish because I used the word “best” when I should have used “favourite” or some other word. How can you pick a “best” Sturges when there are a fistful of movies that could vie for the top with legitimacy? However … as it turns out, though a very small sampling, tied at the top of the results were Sullivan’s Travels and …

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Ernst Lubitsch and his lustfully troubled Paradise

Without really planning too, I’ve found myself watching the movies of Ernst Lubitsch. A few nights ago it was The Shop Around the Corner. Last night it was Trouble in Paradise. I had seen both before, at least once each. What I find interesting is that the more I see them, the more I like them. The first time around you miss how well constructed they are because they evolve so seamlessly. So I definitely recommend seeing them at least twice.

Trouble in Paradise (1932)

One of the finest romantic comedies ever made, and one that in many ways created a template and set standards for later romantic comedies (while also looking ahead to the screwball comedies to come), is Ernst Lubitsch’s Trouble in Paradise, made in 1932.

With a single film, American cinema suddenly grew up. In many ways, it’s the most adult film Hollywood has ever made. (Not long after, production codes were put in place and much of what is in Trouble in Paradise would not have been allowed.)

Prior to Lubitsch’s first nonmusical American film, the sophisticated manner and style of this movie hadn’t been seen, not on this side of the Atlantic. Nor had this degree of elevated wit or sexual play.

Much is made of the “Lubitsch touch,” and there certainly is such a thing. While a bit hard to define precisely, it has a great deal to do with a European sensibility, one not informed by a Puritan cultural background. It has to do with wit and sophistication and adult romance.

Here, adult means playful, well-mannered and tinged by a degree of melancholy. Trouble in Paradise is a perfect example of this.

The movie is about two charming thieves, their love for one another, as well as their enjoyment of their craft. It’s about the playfulness between them, and the woman whom they choose as their mark.

Herbert Marshall is the thief Gaston Monescu. He charms his way into the life of Mariette Colet (Kay Francis) in order to steal her money. His love, the pickpocket Lily (Miriam Hopkins), is his accomplice.

But this is what Hitchcock would call the McGuffin. The movie is really about the triangle that develops as Gaston becomes romantically enchanted by Mariette just as she falls in love with him. All the while, Lily is still there and still loves Gaston, just as he still loves her.

Lubitsch’s direction is nothing less than wonderful here. One of the qualities that characterize his films, especially in Trouble in Paradise, is his refusal to be obvious about anything. He tells his story through indirection and implication, rarely being overt.

This is particularly true with the way he implies sexuality and its encounters without ever stating, much less showing, anything. It is part of the film’s playful wit and charm and adult quality. Equally adult is the absence of any salacious sense. There is no sense of “nudge-nudge, wink-wink” here.

Yet, essentially, the film is about lust, Gaston’s and Mariette’s.

As Peter Bogdanovich mentions in his introduction to the Criterion DVD of the film, it’s a wonder this was ever made in Hollywood, particularly when we see where we are today.

While the troubled triangle of Gaston, Mariette and Lily plays out, the movie also gives us the ineffectual efforts of the Major (Charlie Ruggles) and Francois (Edward Everett Horton), two of Mariette’s luckless suitors. Their ineptness and pretensions provide a nice comedic counterpoint to the sophistication of Gaston.

Much of what Lubitsch does isn’t noticed on first viewing the movie. It is too seamless and fluid. The plot unfolds too effortlessly. It’s only on seeing a second or third or fourth time you see the small details he attends to and just how cleverly the movie is constructed.

In cinema terms, Ernst Lubitsch was a magician. Much of what he does is a kind of sleight of hand — verbal and visual. His movies, like Trouble in Paradise, are mature, charming and absolutely wonderful.


Mr. Arkadin – another fine mess

I’ve noticed Orson Welles had a thing for looking with slightly bowed head up from under his eyebrows. He uses it a lot in Mr. Arkadin, though I suspect it’s deliberate with an intention of parody, perhaps of himself. It’s hard to know with any certainty what his intentions were with that movie since it is an incomplete and irresistible mess.

Mr. Arkadin (1955), aka Confidential Report

Sometimes too much is too much and with Orson Welles’ Mr. Arkadin we have an good example of this. It’s too much of so many things (which in some ways is the film’s point, if it has one at all). To begin with, I have the Criterion 3-disc set, which means I don’t just have the movie; I have three versions of it.

The result has been that it has been sitting on my shelf for ages because I couldn’t decide which version to watch. I finally have arbitrarily choosen the second (or Confidential Report) version for no reason other than that I read somewhere that it was the one with the best picture quality.

If you know anything about Mr. Arkadin then you know it is a movie Welles never finished, so there is no definitive version. The movie was taken from him and others have completed it, in one fashion or another, over the years. The most recent version is the Criterion “comprehensive” version, a scholarly approach to restoring the movie in order to get a version as close to what we dimly know Welles was attempting, though no one really knows. (This last version is also the longest coming in at roughly 110 minutes.)

Not only do the various versions include and/or exclude various scenes, the sequence of the scenes also varies depending on the version. It was always intended to use flashbacks and a degree of disorientation for the audience, but the degree changes. The Confidential Report version may be the one that comes closest to being comprehensible, but that is open to debate.

All of that aside, we’re still left with a movie to watch – one of its versions, at least. What’s the word on that? Is it any good?

Not really. It’s a mess, actually. I had thought I had never seen the movie previously but almost as soon as it started a voice in my head said, “Oh, that movie …” I had seen it before; it didn’t have much impact, largely because it isn’t a good movie.

It is, however, a fascinating movie, at least if Orson Welles intrigues you. It’s hard to know just how serious Welles was in making this work. There is a high level of playfulness in the movie. Is it because he’s just having fun, mocking himself even, but not too serious about the production? Or is it an aspect of a serious film?

Mr. Arkadin is, in some ways, almost a parody of Citizen Kane with its story of a mysterious, powerful man and the puzzle the movie creates around his identity.

Amongst other things, Welles distorts himself physically, at least in a sense, with his wig and fake beard and the obviousness of them, as well as his clothes in the movie. It’s as if he is deliberately focusing in on himself for the purpose of self-mockery. Was that the intent?

As for the puzzle the movie creates, that is largely responsible for the mess that the movie is as it tries to both resolve itself and remain oblique at the same time. Compounding this problem is fact that a puzzle, to be a real puzzle, must have a way to resolve. I suspect neither Welles nor anyone else ever truly figured that one out. As a result, the movie flounders in confusion because there really isn’t anywhere for it to go other than down another blind alley.

Yet the movie is dazzling in its confusion. And bizarre. Odd camera angles, over-dubbed dialogue (that changes from version to version), mix and match scenes … Yes, very odd.

I hadn’t planned to, but I watched Mr. Arkadin a day or two after having watched another of Welles’ movies, The Stranger. They make for an interesting contrast. The latter film is one Welles thought least highly of. It was an exercise in proving he could make a commercial film and, as a result, may be his most coherent. Mr. Arkadin is the exact opposite. It’s famously incoherent.

But for something that is a mess, it sure has style and humour and some fabulous scenes.