31 July 2009

A Tale of Two Movies

Do you remember last week's post about how movies are like dating in that sometimes there's just no connection? If you forgot or missed it just click on this sentence.

I had a date today with Fashions of 1934 (1934). I'd heard good things. We seemed to be match for a variety of reasons: 1) It was a pre code film, 2) William Powell and Bette Davis starred, 3) The co stars included Hugh Herbert, Frank McHugh and Reginald Owen, 4) It boasted musical numbers choreographed by Busby Berkeley, 5) William Dieterle directed.

Sounds great.


How bad was it? Ten minutes into the film I was working on the crossword puzzle from the morning paper. Half hour into it I was scanning the local weekly paper. An hour gone I realized I'd seen the damn thing before. That's pretty bad when you don't remember having seen a film before and fail to recognize it for a full damn 60 minutes.

In other words, this was a second date and I hadn't remembered the first. Yikes!

So what went wrong ?

No chemistry, for one. I mean between Davis and Powell, something that at least Davis readily admitted after the fact. Powell and Myrna Loy clicked together like rice and beans. Powell and Davis were two attractive stars occupying space together on screen. It happens, there's nothing that can be done about it once the cameras roll.

Dieterle and this story were a bad fit. Give him something for his German expressionist sensibilities to run with and he's dynamite. And about this story...it jumped all over the damn place. How they could have tossed so much into an under 80 minute film is a feat -- but not one to be admired.

The Berkeley numbers were tagged on towards the end and they were good enough. But really, the very definition of a Berkeley musical is the spectacular, not the satisfactory. Plus with this story line about shysters in the fashion industry, it wasn't a comfortable fit.

And oh by the way, where were the chuckles, guffaws and hardy har hars? Fashions was totally yuckless.

So I'm not blaming myself so much for this lousy date. It's no surprise that this turkey was not included in the Busby Berkeley DVD set released a few years back or that Fashions of 1934 has not had any DVD release at all. I should have had a clue when TCM host Robert Osborne's introduction for the film highlighted the fact that it was worth watching just to imagine Davis' displeasure at having to wear Orry-Kelly gowns throughout. Call me picky but I look for more than that when selecting a film to watch. I suppose that might have been the real message of Osborne's tepid intro -- viewer beware.

I was surprised to see that Fashions has a viewer rating of 7.2 on IMDb. Then again only 473 people have voted for it, an insignificant sample size. The 77 people who gave it a ten must have been experimenting with some pretty potent drug when they watched it.

As for me, at least Fashions was a loss of only 80 minutes of my life. Moreover the experience will be more than negated later this evening by my third date with Midnight (1939) directed by Mitchell Leisen. Leisen directed only two movies that I have both seen and enjoyed and they're both doozies, this one and Easy Living (1937).

Midnight succeeds in many of the same ways that Fashions of 1934 fails. Some chap named Wilder, Billy wrote the screenplay in conjuction with his frequent partner Charles Brackett. That should tell you that it's witty, unexpected and clever. And it is.

Claudette Colbert stars. She's simply one of the best screwball comedy actresses ever. Like the aforementioned Ms. Loy, the fact that she's both sophisticated and easy on the eyes makes her perfect for the genre. Dumb people doing comedy is stupid (look for that one in Bartlett's). Smart and sexy doing comedy is funny. When they're following a Wilder/Brackett script, they're a scream.

Colbert does have chemistry with her co-stars, Don Ameche and John Barrymore. Midnight also gives you a nice dose of Mary Astor. She's another one of those good looking dames with class that does comedy so well (see her in Palm Beach Story (1942)). Just to top things off you've got Monty Wolley who makes every film he's in better. And that Barrymore fellow, he provides more laughs with his eyes and facial expressions in half a minute than was elicited in Fashion's 80 minutes. Barrymore was great at comedy, and for that matter, tragedy, melodrama and...say what other genres ya got?

If you haven't seen Midnight (get with it and I mean pronto!) giving you plot points could prove distracting. If you've seen it, well then what the hell do you need me to recap it for? Let's just say Colbert is a penniless gold digger in Paris who finds herself posing as a baroness. Ameche is a salt of the earth but bon vivant cab driver. Are they destined to be together? We'll see and laugh while we find out. Midnight also features the fabulously wealthy, philanderers and schemers. Confusion reigns, though often of the premeditated variety. The usual screwball stuff done, as they say in the restaurant biz, to perfection.

So I'm getting ready for this date now and I absolutely know I'll get lucky. Wait, no, that's not luck it's kismet. Yowzah!


Juliette. said...

Sorry to hear the second date didn't go well (nor, as it sounds, did the first).

Fashions of 1934 was certainly not on of Busby Berkeley's better movies. I liked seeing Bette Davis and William Powell together for a bit, but agree with what you said.

Midnight is marvelous. And Easy Living is marvelous. I concur. :)

R. D. Finch said...

Riku, "Midnight" is a movie I love. This and "The Palm Beach Story" are my favorite Claudette Colbert performances, with "It Happened One Night" and "Since You Went Away" close seconds. (I have "Torch Singer," which Mick LaSalle raves about in "Complicated Women" and which is just out on DVD, in my Netflix queue.) Colbert's one of my top 5 women of the studio era (the others: Davis, Hepburn, Dunne, and Arthur). I love the scene she has with Barrymore when she first shows up at the party and stays to scrounge food because she hasn't eaten in days, and he immediately catches on to her. They play this long scene without a word in it, and you just have to marvel at how skilled they are at doing all their acting with their faces--and so subtly too. Of course, they both got their start in silents. All the rest of the cast are wonderful too, as you pointed out. Even Ameche is good, although I would have loved to see Charles Boyer in this part.

Meredith said...

ah, the underrated claudette colbert. i still haven't seen midnight but she's one of my favorites so i don't know what on earth i'm waiting for!