Other Dashiell Writings:

Flicks - March 2001
The Sea Wolf (1941)
Romola
Intimate Lighting
La Marseillaise
Lolita (1962)

Wasteland
George Washington
Last Resort (2000)
Too Much Sleep

Nor a Thorn Nor a Threat...
The House of Mirth (2000)
The Bridge (1999)

 


TROUBLE IN PARADISE (Ernst Lubitsch, 1932).

A fortunate director can point to one picture in which all the elements came together to create something close to perfection. This was Lubtisch's favorite among his own films, and posterity has been almost unanimous in proclaiming it his best.

Gaston and Lily (Herbert Marshall and Miriam Hopkins) are lovers in Paris. They are also high class jewel thieves. To pull off the biggest heist of their careers, they insinuate themselves into the confidence of the wealthy Madame Colet (Kay Francis). Unfortunately, Gaston finds himself falling for the charming widow.

The dialogue (by Laszlo Aladar, who also wrote Top Hat), is polished and witty - employing all the virtues of drawing room comedy, while at the same time poking fun at the pretensions of that genre. Lubitsch's camera placement and timing couldn't be better. With its brightly lit, purposely artificial set design, marvelous costumes, and creamy visual texture, the film represents the height of early Paramount style. It is also devoid of moralistic twaddle - the main characters are thieves with no apologies, and the movie makes it clear that their rich victims are just thieves of another order. Trouble in Paradise has an air of freedom from hypocrisy, and that makes it escapism in the best sense, a joyous relief from ponderousness. It was made, of course, just prior to the imposition of the Production Code, which put a damper on creativity in American film.

That Madame Colet has taken her secretary (Marshall) as a lover, or that in fact people do go to bed with one another without being married (as silly as it seems to say this nowadays), is as clear as can be without ever being stated explicitly. And then we have dialogue such as the following between Hopkins and Marshall: "This woman has more than jewelry. Did you ever take a good look at her...." "Certainly." "They're all right, aren't they?" "Beautiful. What of it? As far as I'm concerned, her whole sex appeal is in that safe." "Oh, Gaston. Let's open it right now. Let's get away from here." "No, sweetheart. There's more sex appeal coming on the first of the month - 850 thousand francs." And so forth. They also have a routine (imitated many times since in lesser films) where they pick each other's pockets while being romantic - at one point Gaston says, "You don't mind if I keep your garter?" which he produces from his pocket, giving it a little kiss.

Herbert Marshall, whom I usually find unbearably wooden, is perfect here as an urbane rascal. The underappreciated Kay Francis has marvelous energy and wit - her scenes with Marshall are delicious. If I had to make one complaint (I know, it is heresy to make any), it would be that Miriam Hopkins overdoes things somewhat in her part. She seems a bit too coarse, I think, but this is a mere quibble. With good supporting work from Edward Everett Horton and Charles Ruggles, Trouble in Paradise is a paragon of light entertainment, one of the best examples of what the studio system in Hollywood, with the right mix of talent, could achieve.

SKYSCRAPER SOULS (Edgar Selwyn, 1932).

Metro had some pre-Code sparkle in their early 30s productions as well. This little-known bauble features Warren William as a businessman who will do whatever it takes to retain control over a Manhattan skyscraper, even if that means undercutting his partners with a crooked stock market scheme. He is also a charming lecher - conveniently separated from his wife (Hedda Hopper), having an affair with his assistant (Verree Teasdale), and making designs on a young secretary (Maureen O'Sullivan). The complicated plot also involves a woman of loose reputation (the wonderful Anita Page), her soft-hearted admirer (Jean Hersholt), and a host of other minor characters.

The dialogue is snappy, sometimes veering into corny. Norman Foster, as O'Sullivan's love interest, is among the least appealing male leads in film history. (It's the kind of relationship where they talk about getting married after dating each other once - actually a pretty common convention in movies.) Virtue carries the day, naturally, but it's remarkable how adult realities such as greedy duplicity and extramarital affairs are taken for granted as part of the dramatic landscape. William hams it up a bit, but he's compelling more often than not, and the same could be said for the picture. Medium in quality, but - surprisingly, since I had never even heard of it - not bad at all.

SHERMAN'S MARCH (Ross McElwee, 1986).

The odd conception behind this odd film is that McElwee, setting out to make a documentary about the famous march of Sherman's troops through the South at the end of the Civil War, decides instead to film a personal account of the various women - some of old acquaintance, some of new - whom he encounters along the way.

McElwee, you see, has just broken up with his girlfriend. The women in the successive sections of the film are each considered as potential partners. There is of course something comic about this search for love, interspersed with occasional musings about nuclear weapons, along with some actual insights into General Sherman and his march. But it's a comedy of gentle observation rather than irony or sarcasm, and that's what makes it a different experience than your run-of-the-mill nonfiction film.

The director is never less than generous towards the women he profiles. Even when they're clearly wrong for him - as in the case of one who takes him to a secret hiding place in the mountains to meet her friends who are apocalyptic survivalists, or the one who turns out to be a Mormon searching for a mate who is a man of God - he never mocks them or puts them down. All these women are strong and powerful in their own ways. His attitude is one of wonder and fascination, and the humor is derived from his own hapless ineffectuality as a potential lover, and the absurdity of his stance as documentary observer.

It's a dry sort of humor indeed, and the film does go on rather too long, I think. But there is an attention to the real nuances of character, and the imponderables of life, that is seen very rarely in film. The high point involves a pushy friend named Charlene who is trying to find a wife for McElwee. You couldn't invent a character more hilarious than her if you tried. McElwee himself is a strange bird, a humorist of disarming sincerity. One's reaction to the picture may depend to a great degree on how one takes his personality. I found him engaging and frustrating by turns - just like some real people I know.

MAN RAY FILMS.

The American photographer Man Ray was one of a group of avant-garde Paris filmmakers in the 20s that included Leger, Bunuel, Clair, Kirsanoff, and Cocteau. His short films have finally been released on video, compiled and restored by the Centre Georges Pompidou. The very brief LE RÉTOUR À LA RAISON (1923) consists of moving geometric designs, intercut with distorted night shots of a merry-go-round, then moving three dimensional shapes, and closing with the play of bars of light on a woman's nude torso. It was an experiment in abstract expressionism that inspired other directors. EMAK BAKIA (1926) displays the influence of both surrealism and dadaism. Once again Ray experiments with the movement of shapes - many of the effects seem tired now after decades of innovation in animated film, but they were fresh at the time. He employs bizarre imagery as well - a man's eyes turning into the headlights of a car, a flock of sheep, the legs of a dancing woman. Odd effects are attained through camera movement - sideways, upside down, etc. - or distortion of the image, as in a convex mirror. L'ÉTOILE DE MER (1928) is more adventurous, but less engaging. There are many shots of people walking in Paris - Ray blurs the image a lot, attempting to explore a subconscious nether region - intercut with images of the sea, and some remarkable ones of the underside of a starfish. One of the titles says, "The sun, one foot in the stirrup, nestles a nightingale in a veil of crepe." It is hard to know how seriously to take such surrealistic musings.

The lengthiest and most famous of Man Ray's films is LES MYSTÈRES DU CHÂTEAU DU DÉ (1929). The spacious chateau of the title, along with a rundown castle nearby, is employed to explore various spatial relationships and textures. Some of the best effects are achieved with long shots through windows into landscapes, while the camera is moving at the same time. Ray also does some very strange things involving people wearing nylon stockings over their heads (giving them an identical faceless look), throwing huge dice and practicing weird diving and swimming formations in the chateau's indoor pool.

Overall, I don't find Man Ray's films as interesting or stimulating as those of Clair or Bunuel from the same period. Their experiments were informed by a resolutely personal vision. Ray seems more the purely formal innovator. The cinema (and indeed all art forms) need eccentrics like him who are willing to try different combinations of elements and techniques so as to discover hidden potentials in the art. Ray's pictures are fascinating viewing in this historical sense, but precisely because of their character as innovation in the abstract, they have lost the novelty and excitement they once held. Film method has long since incorporated all these things, so that the works in themselves now seem "old hat." Ray seems to have decided that he wasn't suited for motion pictures, because he stopped making them after the 20s, returning to still photography as his vehicle.

PASSENGER (Andrzej Munk, 1963).

A former guard (Aleksandra Slaska) in the women's section of Auschwitz encounters a passenger on a cruise ship (Anna Ciepielewska) who was one of her prisoners. This sets off a series of flashbacks concerning those terrible days, and the struggle of wills that took place between prisoner and guard.

Munk was one of the guiding lights of the postwar school of Polish film that included Wajda and Kawalerowicz. He died in a car crash before being able to finish this, his fourth feature. His assistant put what footage there was together as a tribute to Munk. There was no attempt to complete the film, and this was probably a wise decision, since no one knew exactly where Munk planned to take the story.

What we have, then, are some extremely haunting sequences that take place in the concentration camp. Passenger captures, arguably better than any other film, a sense of horrifying blankness, a matter-of-fact degradation, which conveys something of what the experience of Auschwitz might have been like. The film is narrated by the former camp guard, which allows Munk to raise questions of guilt and responsibility in novel ways. The guard, Lisa, first tells her husband a sanitized version of events which portray her as someone who was trapped by having to obey orders, but did what she could to help the prisoner, Martha. She then narrates events a second time to herself, and this time we witness her desire for power over Martha, and for Martha to be grateful and subservient to her - a desire which is continually frustrated.

Unfortunately we will never know what Munk intended to reveal about the psychology of domination, or the relationship between oppressor and victim. Perhaps Munk himself didn't know. The mood and images of the Auschwitz scenes tend to overpower the framing device. As it is, Passenger is just a fragment. A tantalizing fragment, maybe a fragment of greatness, but a fragment all the same.

Chris Dashiell, 2001