May 4, 2009

0 Brief Reviews

As regular visitors to The Movie Projector know, I have a special fondness for the films of Ernst Lubitsch. This one, though, is an inconsistent work that doesn't measure up to his usual standard. The film is about a chic Park Avenue couple, Jill and Larry Baker (Merle Oberon and Melvyn Douglas), who have been married six years and whose relationship has begun to grow stale and predictable. Each is just a little bored with the other. When Jill begins getting hiccups at moments of stress or agitation, she consults a psychiatrist. At his office, she meets a neurotic pianist, Alexander Sebastian (Burgess Meredith), a self-proclaimed "individualist" who always speaks his mind and dislikes humanity. But he likes Jill, and the two soon develop a curious friendship that becomes a desultory affair that causes the Bakers to separate and plan divorce.

The movie is not without its delights. Lubitsch handles the comedy with his characteristic light and whimsical touch, and it is at a few points laugh-out-loud funny. A couple of long sequences are equal to Lubitsch's best. One is the first meeting of Jill and Sebastian followed by their visit to a modern art gallery. The other is a very funny dinner party at which the Bakers entertain a group of Hungarians who are potential clients of Larry's insurance firm and which Alexander, invited by Jill without her husband's knowledge, proceeds to disrupt in a delightfully comic way. The best thing about the movie is Burgess Meredith as the solemn and self-centered pianist. He makes an essentially humorless character quite funny.

But the movie also has some obvious flaws. Midway through, I realized that the basic plot isn't that different from The Awful Truth, a movie I have praised as the definitive screwball comedy: a couple breaks up over trivial differences, eventually they realize that they were happier together, and in the end they reunite. So why doesn't That Uncertain Feeling work better? For one thing, the pacing of the script is uneven: entertaining stretches alternate with sections of relative tedium. Then some awkwardly jumpy edits indicate an inattention to detail not typical of Lubitsch; perhaps the filming was rushed or he grew tired of the project. But the biggest problem is the two leads. Douglas is a subdued leading romantic man, but he can be very effective, as he showed in Lubitsch's Ninotchka. But to come across, he really needs a dynamic leading woman like Irene Dunne or Greta Garbo to play off of, and the lovely but bland Oberon is almost wholly lacking in dynamism. Douglas actually gets better as the movie goes along, but Oberon remains rather enervated and dull throughout.

The lesson here, I suppose, is that with even the great directors, sometimes the elements simply fail to gel. That Uncertain Feeling, a decent enough movie, is not quite a disaster. It just isn't of the quality we expect of the great Lubitsch.

THE MALE ANIMAL (1942) ***½
Having seen the banal musical remake of The Male AnimalShe's Working Her Way Through College (1952), starring Ronald Reagan and Virginia Mayo—many years ago, I was in no hurry to watch this. It's too bad I waited so long, because the original is so unlike the remake and so much better. I had always wondered what would attract Henry Fonda, who made so few comedies and preferred roles of thematic heft, to such a project, and the movie provided a clear answer.

Fonda plays Prof. Tommy Turner, a mild-mannered academic who teaches English at Midwestern University. On the eve of the big homecoming football game, he finds himself unwillingly enmeshed in a controversy over academic free speech. He is threatened with dismissal by Ed Keller (Eugene Pallette), the despotic, obsessively Red-hunting head of the board of trustees, over his plan to read to his class the last letter of Bartolomeo Vanzetti, the anarchist arrested, framed, convicted as a scapegoat, and executed in Massachusetts in 1927. (Vanzetti and the man convicted with him, Nicola Sacco, were pardoned in 1977 by then-Gov. Michael Dukakis.) Keller would even like to censor student writing by suppressing the student literary magazine that announced the upcoming lecture in a story, but it has already gone to press. At the same time, Turner must defend his wife, Ellen (Olivia de Havilland), from the advances of her ex-boy friend, the former football hero Joe Ferguson (Jack Carson), who has returned for the big game. Ellen wants Tommy to give in and not read the letter, using Joe's revived romantic interest in her and Tommy's insecurity at being so unathletic to attempt to coerce him into forgoing his principles to save their comfortable way of life.

Based on a play by James Thurber and director Elliott Nugent, the movie has intelligent, witty dialogue and a deftly constructed plot. It even contains a memorable drunk sequence with Tommy and his star pupil that ends in a shambolic fistfight between Tommy and Joe. The cast is uniformly good (although deHavilland sometimes seems a bit too intelligent for her role, and comedy wasn't really her forte) and even includes Hattie McDaniel as the wisecracking housekeeper, Cleota.

Even among such great performers Fonda, predictably, is remarkable. He is especially outstanding in the climactic scene when Prof. Turner defies Ellen and the board and reads the brief but eloquent letter to a packed classroom that includes Keller, Ellen, Joe, students, reporters, and the just plain curious. Fonda reads the letter with quiet, underplayed conviction (much the same way he reads the final letter of the lynched Dana Andrews in The Ox-Bow Incident, released the following year) and wins over even his antagonists. The happy outcome seems a bit pat, but who wouldn't sympathize with Fonda's risking his marriage and career to defend academic freedom? If only such disputes always turned out so felicitously in real life.

SHACK OUT ON 101 (1955) ***
This movie would make a super second feature on a double bill with Pickup on South Street (1953) or Kiss Me Deadly (1955). It has the same basic plot setup of good guys battling Communist spies after government secrets during the Cold War of the 1950s. The movie opens with a cheesy close-up of Kotty (Terry Moore) sunning on the beach in a two-piece bathing suit. Up creeps Slob (Lee Marvin), who pounces on her and attempts to molest her before she can fend off his advances. Both Kotty and Slob work at the shack of the title, a Southern California beachfront greasy spoon run by Keenan Wynn that appears to be located near Malibu before it became developed—she as the waitress, he as the cook. The beach and the cafe are the only two locations in this clearly very low-budget movie.

Kotty is being romanced by Prof. Sam Bastion (Frank Lovejoy), a research scientist working at a top-secret government research facility just up the coast. The professor is encouraging the pretty, lively, but slightly dim Kotty to improve herself by studying for the civil service exam to be a stenographer. Moore doesn't look much like Marilyn Monroe, but she sure sounds exactly like her, and every male in the cast treats her as though she is just as desirable as MM. Unfortunately, one evening Kotty inadvertently overhears the professor passing secrets to an enemy agent, and realizing he is a Communist spy, breaks off with him. Without a protector, she is now at the mercy of the lecherous Slob.

The plot and characters are dealt with in an entirely functional way that lacks the artistic vision or cinematic personality of a Samuel Fuller or Robert Aldrich. The two big revelations at the end—the truth about the professor and the identity of the mastermind behind the operation, the mysterious Mr. Gregory—are wholly predictable, as is the means of Kotty being saved from rape and murder by Slob. But the dialogue—especially the repartee between Kotty and her male pursuers, which at times borders on the camp—is uniformly snappy. And the plot is presented with economy and great forward momentum.

But the movie really belongs to Lee Marvin as Slob. He is by turns sadistic, pathetic, comical, dumb, shrewd—simultaneously a feckless joker and a menacing villain. His chameleonic performance only highlights the two-dimensional characters who otherwise populate the film. The scene of him and Keenan Wynn working out with barbells and weights in the diner is the comic highlight of the movie. Of the performances nominated for a best supporting actor Oscar that year, his is equaled only by Jack Lemmon's winning turn in Mister Roberts, and Marvin wasn't even nominated. Shack Out on 101 is by any measure strictly a B-movie, but it does present an amusing time capsule of the insecurities of the era, and it is consistently entertaining. It may not be a masterpiece, but a splendid time is guaranteed for all.

RUGGLES OF RED GAP (1935) ****
In the 1930s, Leo McCarey made three comic masterpieces, starting with the best movie the Marx Brothers ever made, Duck Soup (1933), and ending with what I have called the definitive screwball comedy, The Awful Truth (1937). In 1935 he made this film, which in style falls somewhere between the manic anarchy of Duck Soup and the restrained sophistication of The Awful Truth. The title character, Ruggles (Charles Laughton), is the British manservant to the Earl of Burnstead (Roland Young). Red Gap is the name of the frontier town in Washington state where Ruggles finds himself after the Earl loses him in a poker game in Paris to Egbert Floud (Charles Ruggles), a nouveau riche hick making the grand tour around the turn of the 20th century.

Floud doesn't know what to make of the British class system, finding it incomprehensible that people would voluntarily submit to such institutionalized indignity. He is determined to treat Ruggles as a social equal and to loosen his stiff-upper-lip demeanor, but his wife Effie (a hilarious Mary Boland), a dedicated social climber, has other plans for Ruggles. She wants to flaunt him to the locals as proof of her newfound social status and to use his knowledge to transform her gauche husband into her image of an English-style upper-class gentleman. When the henpecked but crafty Egbert introduces Ruggles as Colonel Ruggles to his hometown cronies, he sets up a dual identity for Ruggles that results in many comic ramifications.

The movie's comic situations are of course, given McCarey's experience working with many of the comedy greats of American movies of the early 1930s, inventively devised and highly entertaining. To me the movie is most reminiscent of McCarey's work with early Laurel and Hardy, with its carefully paced set-ups building slowly to controlled comic explosions, and its opposition of rambunctious characters and repressed ones, But the comedy here is given extra resonance by the social and character details that underpin it: the absurd social pretensions of Effie and her relatives, the tension between the belief in social equality of Egbert and the adherence of Ruggles to the tradition of a prescribed social hierarchy, and the dawning realization by Ruggles that the American way of life and the misunderstandings about him deliberately fostered by Egbert present him with the opportunity to reinvent himself.

Even with all these great character actors (including fluttery, nasal-voiced Zasu Pitts as a potential love interest for Ruggles), it is Charles Laughton who elevates this movie beyond expectations. It might seem inconceivable that the notoriously hammy Laughton could so effectively play a buttoned-up comical character. But he is a marvel as he proceeds through the various phases of the psychological transformation of Ruggles from a Jeeves-like automaton to a new man, one freed from the stifling belief in a life predetermined by social class and presented instead with the ability to create his own identity. Ruggles is like a prisoner inching his way to freedom. When that freedom comes, it is a liberation that, although achieved through comic means, is deeply moving.

Ruggles of Red Gap is a sort of social fairy tale powered by American optimism, the belief in the entitlement of every person to self-definition and an open-ended future. In an age when practically anyone could use a few good laughs and a reminder that people once genuinely believed in such ideals, watching Ruggles is like getting a glimpse into an Edenic past, a less complicated and more innocent time.


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