Listless Parisian romance: Man of the World (Richard Wallace, 1931)

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Man of the World features William Powell and Carole Lombard, and given what later transpired between them personally and professionally, you’d be forgiven for having some high expectations of them. You may assume that two actors who gave many excellent performances, who co-starred in My Man Godfrey, and who married shortly after making this film, would have some visible chemistry here. Sadly, in all this, you would be mistaken.

Powell is Michael Trevor, an American journalist who fled to Paris after taking the blame for someone else’s indiscretions. Having grown cynical and world-weary, he uses his gossipy newspaper to blackmail some of the many people in Paris who are themselves indiscreet. The city’s full of Americans looking to have a good time, including wealthy Harry Taylor (Guy Kibbee). Trevor poses as a go-between and blackmails Taylor, whose neice, Mary (Lombard), is also visiting Paris. Trevor’s associates, Irene (Wynne Gibson) and Fred (George Chandler) convince him to put Mary in a compromising situation. Of course, the fake romance soon turns into a real one.

After the film’s first third or so, all the energy drops out of it. The romance has no spark, with Powell playing his downtrodden character at the same low note all the way through, and Lombard being so dull that it’s shocking. It’s not entirely their fault, though; most scenes meander about and the script doesn’t give Mary any real reason to fall for Trevor, beyond proximity.

Kibbee shows some verve, and although Gibson delivers her dialogue stiffly, her physical mannerisms are thought through. Her piercing glare and the decorous, impractical way she dons a fur-trimmed wrap give some life to the scenes she’s in, even if the character is unpleasant. It’s no wonder that these two actors had plenty of pictures ahead of them, but Powell and Lombard are, on the basis of this film alone, quite forgettable.

Man of the World makes a decent effort, for its time, at depicting a facsimile of Paris, though the polished production values can’t compensate for the dull plot. The downbeat ending gives the story some edge, but the rest of the film is hard to get through.

Taking a Shot: Possessed (Clarence Brown, 1931)

Clarence Brown’s Possessed may not be a great film –it isn’t even the best movie called Possessed that stars Joan Crawford– but it does have one great moment. Crawford plays Marion, a box factory worker who’s willing to do whatever it takes to achieve a better life for herself. While walking home one night, a train slows to a halt in front of her, the windows rolling by like a strip of film. The people she sees all seem happier than her, even if we do begin on the lower rungs of the social ladder:

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Marion doesn’t want to be the hired help, of course. She wants to be more like these people:pos6pos3pos4

We don’t need to see Marion’s face to understand how she’s affected by these glimpses of wealthier, more romantic lives.

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When the train finally comes to a halt, Marion encounters her ticket into New York high society. He’s no Clark Gable, but that’s who she’ll wind up meeting, through brazen ingenuity of her own. After that, well, as we watch Marion dealing with her not-entirely comfortable life as a kept woman, we could ourselves be the ones outside a window, looking in.

A delightful romance: The Ghost and Mrs. Muir (Joseph L. Mankiewicz, 1947)

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I knew just enough about The Ghost and Mrs. Muir to not expect a good deal from it. However, I was curious to see Joseph L. Mankiewicz working again with Dragonwyck star Gene Tierney. Having low expectations left me open to the surprise of finding that this familiar story is far from trite, and sparkles with charm, intelligence and humour. In some ways, it reflects interestingly back on Dragonwyck. Most importantly, it creates a world that’s a pleasure to spend time in.

You probably know this story too, if not from the film, then from the 1960s sitcom of the same name. Widow Lucy Muir (Tierney) moves into a house by the sea, hoping to start a new life, only to find that the house is still occupied by the ghost of the former owner, sea captain Daniel Gregg (Rex Harrison). What develops is a love story with a lot of respect for plot pacing and character nuances.

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Lucy is a complicated woman. She thought she loved her husband, but found she was mistaken, after their wedding. She’s now more interested in escaping her mother and sister-in-law than mourning him. She has a prim manner and yet also has a rebellious streak. Tierney seems well suited to the warmth and good humour of the character.

Gregg may seem like a caricature, being salty as he is. Harrison has enough charisma, however, that this becomes unimportant. His funniest moment may be when Lucy (who he insists on calling “Lucia”) starts crying and he barks at her, “Belay that!” The character is a fine foil for Lucy, as he has no regards for the respectable standards that she also (inwardly) balks at. She finds his outrageousness delightful, even if she wouldn’t always admit it.

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The Ghost and Mrs. Muir has some visual similarities to Dragonwyck. They don’t share the same cinematographer; Charles Lang worked on the former, and Arthur C. Miller worked on the latter. While both had highly distinguished careers, I have to wonder if Mankiewicz had a strong influence on the look of both films. He’s generally more respected as a writer than as a director, but perhaps his visual style is underestimated by people who don’t look much further than films such as All About Eve and The Barefoot Contessa.

I praised Dragonwyck’s gothic atmosphere, and something similar can be seen again in a couple of scenes here. What I didn’t mention, however, is that Mankiewicz’s earlier film also sometimes had scenes in pleasant, open rooms; Gull Cottage looks much the same. The changing backdrops beyond the window in Lucy’s bedroom further open up the set.

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Dragonwyck’s outdoor scenes were also quite striking, and here, the coastline beyond Lucy’s house is always a treat. The sheep-dotted hillsides are another resemblance to that earlier film.

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On the whole, The Ghost and Mrs. Muir feels open and airy, and full of story possibilities. It’s no surprise, really that this story was adapted for TV. It seems at various points as though it could have gone in a number of directions. The addition of George “Memoirs of a Cad” Sanders as a potential suitor for Lucy is only one of them, though Sanders is not unwelcome. Neither is the quick passage of many years towards the end of the story, which is unexpected, but thoughtful and well-paced. If you’ve never seen this film and thought there probably isn’t much to it, take a look anyway; Mankiewicz, Tierney and Harrison may surprise and delight you.

Gloriously gothic: Dragonwyck (Joseph L. Mankiewicz, 1946)

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Adapted from the novel by Anya Seton, Dragonwyck is set in the 1830s. Miranda Wells is a Connecticut farm girl who’s been raised by God-fearing parents, but dreams of a more extravagant life. Her wishes seem to be granted when Nicholas Van Ryn, a distant relative and wealthy petroon, calls for her to come to his mansion, Dragonwyck, and be a governess to his young daughter. However, Dragonwyck holds many secrets. Nicholas disappears for long periods at a time into his high tower. His wife and child seem neglected and fearful. His grandmother allegedly killed herself at her harpsichord, and can still be heard singing in times of disaster. The real key that all is not well is that Nicholas is played by Vincent Price.

Dragonwyck is a fairly trifling film and is certainly not original, but it’s executed so well that it’s totally enjoyable. It has a heavily gothic atmosphere, aided by the lighting, which is in turns stark and shadowy, shifting with the movements of candles. It’s also well seated in its historical and political context; the tension between the Dutch petroons and the people who work their land, but aren’t permitted to buy it, is an interesting detail. The sets are wonderfully textured, and the costumes often extravagant. Nicholas’ dressing gown, with a dragon embroidered on its pocket, is particularly nice.

I’m not entirely sold on Gene Tierney as an actress, but to her credit, she does convey the most important change in Miranda’s character: after a significant time lapse, Miranda has lost her naivety and is markedly more worldly and self-assured in her demeanour, even under difficult circumstances. Meanwhile, Glenn Langan doesn’t impress in his role as the local doctor, but Walter Huston, Jessica Tandy, and Harry Morgan make for a fine supporting cast.

Price gives the best performance in the film, however, and not just because he looks the part. (Nicholas first appears onscreen whilst Miranda’s father is trying to get her to read some repressive passage from The Bible along with him, and the sudden sight of Price in a magnificent tailed coat makes for a clever juxtaposition.) He’s given the opportunity to show some range here. At the beginning of the story, Nicholas is aloof and imperious, so it’s all the more surprising when he seems to have an outburst of true delight. He manipulates Miranda in a subtle way, and it’s unclear when he’s being sincere and when he’s being duplicitous, and what his motives are. His mysteries are eventually revealed, at which point Price shifts into being totally unhinged. Predictably, this is rather fun to watch.

Dragonwyck is rich with gothic tropes, including suppressed psychological undercurrents, but it’s also rather knowing about itself. When asked what he could possibly do up in his tower, Nicholas responds, “Anything from pinning butterflies to hiding an insane twin brother. Actually, I read.” A sense of humour is just another thing to enjoy about this slight but well-crafted film.

Sarandon and Spader have at it: White Palace (Luis Mandoki, 1990)

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Do you like Susan Sarandon? Do you like James Spader? Do you like them both? Then here’s a film for you! If not, ehrm, you probably shouldn’t bother with White Palace, an enjoyable but inessential romance that‘s not quite a comedy. Max is a young Jewish lawyer still getting over the death of his wife. Nora is a tough 43-year-old waitress at a burger chain who has a Marilyn Monroe fixation and deep-seated insecurities. Can they find happiness together?

The leads are without a doubt the biggest draw. Their fans would probably enjoy seeing them here, and not just because there’s a fair bit of sex and nudity. Sarandon commits totally to her role, and Spader plays a fairly nice guy for a change, while showing his unusual adeptness at allowing himself to be looked at. They’re a good match for each other. The movie isn’t exactly funny (especially given that most of the humour rather ill-advisedly involves Jewish stereotypes), but as a well-acted drama and romance, it does have enough surprises and nice character moments to keep things from feeling rote.

There’s obviously some choice dichotomies going on between the protagonists, but I think the movie could have explored them a little better. Spader’s character can be a cipher, and his big realisation and confession is interesting (the core issue goes beyond ‘she’s old’ or even ‘my wife is dead’), but I think it could have been interwoven throughout the story a bit more. I suppose that’s common in romantic movies, but I think the catharsis is lessened if the viewer doesn’t know what a character needs to let out until they actually do it.

Overall, the film’s mood is pleasantly low-key. Apart from the Jewish stuff, it has a cohesive feel, and it’s enjoyable to spend time in these characters’ world. I think it could actually benefit from being longer. Apparently there was an extra storyline involving Max’s work that got cut, which perhaps could have improved things. With a little more time spent detailing the characters and their lives, it would be more easily recommendable.

Irresistibly endearing: Marty (Delbert Mann, 1955)

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Is it a waste of time to critique the gender politics of old films? Haven’t things changed since then? Or is it too easy to simply presume that contemporary films are always less offensive? The issues in Marty are still common today, and besides, this film does deserve credit for the ways in which it is actually quite progressive.

The regrettable fact about onscreen stories that involve a character learning to love someone regardless of what they look like is that that the ‘ugly’ person is usually a man. Beyond that, ‘ugly’ women who are significant characters, especially those who get to be in a relationship at some point, are often played by conventionally beautiful actors who should have everything going for them, looks-wise, in our culture. Nonetheless, we’re supposed to see these women as unattractive simply because other characters keep saying they are, or because they’ve been styled in a less flattering way. Meanwhile, there’s a far greater variety in how male actors are allowed to look, even those who get major roles.

Marty blatantly shows these double standards in its casting of the good-hearted but ever-overlooked Marty and Clara with Ernest Borgnine and Betsy Blair. I have no wish to say anything unkind about Borgnine’s looks (and if you do, I will cut you), but he wasn’t a matinee idol. Meanwhile, Clara is supposed to be just as ‘ugly’ in the world of this film, but this is entirely a matter of styling and not at all convincing. As the Hollywood Homely entry on TV Tropes points out, Blair had been a model and was once married to Gene Kelly, and yet in this film her character is constantly referred to as a ‘dog.’

Apart from all that (oh, and a decidedly unendearing moment when Marty throws a tantrum because Clara doesn’t let him kiss her), Marty has some interesting things to say about women. It strongly advocates that they should live their lives for themselves, not just for their family. It does this by showing the sad circumstances of two elderly women who devoted themselves to husbands they outlived and to children who are now too old to need their mothers as much as their mothers need them. This film recognises that being a devoted wife and mother is not necessarily rewarding.

Clara may want a loving husband, but she also has a job that means something to her. Even if things don’t work out with Marty, he’s encouraged her to do what she wants with her life, not what she’s supposed to. A few years earlier, Margo Channing in All About Eve famously expressed the prevailing beliefs of the time when she spoke about a woman’s true career being marriage. It’s notable that Marty suggests something different.

Lastly, here’s a few reasons to watch Marty. It may be sentimental, but writer Paddy Chayefsky (who also penned Network and The Hospital gives it an edge. Borgnine puts in a lovely performance. And the best thing about Marty is surprising, given that it’s adapted from a play: it has a great sense of place. With many scenes filmed on the streets of New York, or on real-seeming sets, this film feels like it’s happening in a community. You get shown what these people do with their weekends, how they get around, and the places they go if they want to find each other. Marty is an interesting look back at life in New York in the fifties, and although it’s dialogue heavy, it certainly doesn’t feel stagebound.

Davis vs. Heinreid vs. Rains… Everybody wins: Deception (Irving Rapper, 1946)

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As a virtual three-hander between Bette Davis, Claude Rains and Paul Heinreid, Deception is a treat for anyone interested in these stars. Davis and Heinreid are Christine and Karel, two musicians who became lovers in Europe before being separated by World War II. They have a happy reunion in New York, but Karel’s jealous tendencies are inflamed by Christine’s mysteriously luxurious apartment, as well as the strange behaviour of renowned composer Hollenius (Rains).

Deception’s sophisticated use of music is a pleasant surprise, especially the way it‘s so often diegetic. The original score by Erich Wolfgang Korngold, sometimes standing in for Hollenius’ work, is quite interesting, and a Beethoven piece is a great accompaniment to a dark moment for Christine. Elsewhere, the film’s music is smartly placed rather than being the cloying, pervasive stuff that’s ever-present in so many older movies.

Neither Davis nor Heinreid were musical geniuses. However, the film ably masks this. If had not read in a Korngold biography that Heinreid was not playing, I would have been thoroughly convinced.

Deception feels much like a play, with a few sets used repeatedly. However, these sets are elaborate and, as in the case of Christine’s apartment, impressive to look at. The noir lighting adds depth to the film, visually and emotionally. Characters can be separated by light and dark even when they are physically close. Karol’s stark shdow, separated from his body, says everything about his suspicions after he overhears a phone call from Hollenius to Christine.

The story is dialogue-heavy and, so, greatly dependent on the actors, making the casting of Davis, Heinreid and Rains fortuitous. They have worked together before, in all combinations, and every combination of these actors in Deception’s every scene shows their chemistry. Each actor shines both in their own roles and as a foil for the others. Rains as Hollenius is the greatest delight; he gives the composer equal amounts of gleeful malevolence and unrestrained passion. Davis and Heinreid have harder tasks, perhaps, as while Hollenius is irresistibly dramatic (he makes his first entrance in the film by throwing a door open and striding in with a coat thrown over his shoulders like a cape, stunning everyone in the room), Christine and Karel grow ever more unlikeable in their fragilities and deceits. In a film about deception, Hollenius is always honest. The true sign of Davis and Heinreid’s abilities is that they are not overwhelmed by this remarkably charismatic character, but counter him at every emotional fluctuation and plot turn.