Friday, January 8, 2010
Next Year's Crowd Already
So it was a little while after midnight on New Year’s, I’d made it home in one piece and I decided to sit down with some champagne and watch a Lubitsch film. What could be more appropriate, right? Exactly. BLUEBEARD’S EIGHTH WIFE doesn’t have one of the greatest reps out there, with Maltin giving it two stars and Frank S. Nugent writing in The New York Times upon its release in 1938 that its good points “do not entirely compensate for the arid and barren stretches which not even Lubitsch could make yield light comedy.” Considering those involved that seems pretty unbelievable. It’s directed by Ernst Lubitsch, written by Billy Wilder & Charles Brackett (based on the play by Alfred Savoir and the previous English adaptation by Charlton Andrews), stars Gary Cooper and Claudette Colbert, it’s one of those 30s romantic comedies that paints Europe (or, more specifically, France) as the most desirable place on the planet and has what must be one of the most prototypical meet cutes in history. What could possibly be wrong? The thing with BLUEBEARD’S EIGHTH WIFE is that all those elements are in place not to mention tons of sparkling dialogue and genuine laughs but after a few minutes something just seems…off. It’s tough to even pinpoint what that is. Maybe it’s just that it’s a lack of tangible story that you can put your finger on—it doesn’t really have one that lets you say “This movie is about…”. And maybe since there isn’t one that means that all the witty repartee ultimately doesn’t mean very much in the end. Billy Wilder told Cameron Crowe, “It was not a very good picture, but it was kind of all right,” which sort of sums it up. You see this film and you certainly don’t want to dislike it and it’s not that you do…but some of the best screwball comedies during this time are effortless. When something like this film happens you can see the flailing a little bit more.
In an upscale boutique along the French Riviera Michael Brandon (Gary Cooper) and Nicole De Loiselle (Claudette Colbert) meet under the bizarre circumstances where he is looking to buy a pajama top—he’s not going to fall for the racket that forces him to buy the whole thing—and she is looking for a pajama bottom. Brandon is intrigued by her but unable to find out just why she only wants the bottom but circumstances provides him with the answer—it’s for her father the impoverished Marquis De Loiselle (Edward Everett Horton). After some haggling over a Louis XIV bathtub Brandon is able to convince the Marquis that he wants to marry Nicole…but it’s not until the engagement party when Nicole learns of his marital history. She agrees to marry him anyway, but intent on teaching him a lesson it’s clear that their problems are only beginning.
The laughs are there from the very beginning—with the language notations on the store window including ENGLISH SPOKEN, then directly below that it reads AMERICAN UNDERSTOOD—and has all the sparkling feel that we would expect from one of these Paramount screwball comedies of the era with wonderfully witty dialogue throughout but with no real story to go beyond the opening sequence that can be connected to on a basic human level, even a screwball human level, it makes BLUEBEARD’S EIGHTH WIFE seem like a string of enjoyable scenes which aren’t supported by anything. Just a vague idea of a man and women caught between love and hate for each other in ways that don’t always made very much sense. I found myself thinking of an earlier effort by the director I happened to see the previous week—1930’s MONTE CARLO starring Jeanette MacDonald and Jack Buchanan, a film which was lighter than air and more dated than just about anything you’ve ever seen but nevertheless a total delight. In the frothy context of a musical comedy early in the sound era everything seemed to flow beautifully into each other, making for an extremely enjoyable 90 minutes. Here we have elements like a plot point involving the ownership of a Louis XIV bathtub as well as David Niven’s put-upon secretary, which is an enjoyable plot runner on its own—I particularly like how he types out a letter one key at a time in a scene—but since it never really connects or pays off it’s just left hanging there. The pajama gag that opens the film is cute and certainly gets your attention but feels like it’s almost trying too hard to be a meet cute tailor made for Lubitsch by Billy Wilder. At least one gag within the sequence (which Wilder credited to Lubitsch) is the sort of payoff which makes it all worth it, making elegant what might otherwise seem slightly strained. Even better is Colbert’s suggestion to help her leading man fall asleep—try to spell Checkoslovakia backwards, which results in several nice bits of business.
The business of the Cooper’s character innocently spilling the beans on all his previous marriages is cute but the casual way he reveals it doesn’t make much sense even in a screwball comedy making it understandable why she’s so upset and it kills some of the laughs. The way the sequence of events flows in a haphazard fashion is enough to make one wonder if Preston Sturges was inspired to turn around some of this setup for the similar sequence in THE LADY EVE. There’s comical exasperation in that film as well but since the whole thing is a lie the casual revelation makes total sense. To anyone interested in screwball comedy and trying to recreate it for today’s world, BLUEBEARD’S EIGHTH WIFE (paired on this DVD from the Claudette Colbert Collection with I MET HIM IN PARIS, another romantic comedy set over on the continent but with no involvement by Lubitsch or Wilder--frankly, it did nothing for me) might be a valuable example to study—all the elements imaginable are there, so why doesn’t it work as well as it should? Isolated moments stand out, like Gary Cooper playing the piano while singing “Here Comes Cookie” or even just the look Colbert gives whenever she begins conniving but it’s not enough. It makes me think of INTOLERABLE CRUELTY, the 2003 Coen Brothers screwball effort about marital discord and pre-nuptial agreements with some vague plot similarities, a film which also has moments of absolute brilliance (“Fine! We’ll eat the pastry.”) but ultimately doesn’t fully connect due to some level of comic reality conceivably missing.
Gary Cooper isn’t who immediately comes to mind when you think of casting for a tycoon living in France who gets mixed up in a screwball plotline. It makes me think that it’s not a big surprise how the actor never worked with Preston Sturges, maybe because his very nature would be too slow—still, he got by in 1941’s wonderful BALL OF FIRE, written by Wilder & Brackett and directed by Howard Hawks. That said, he is manages to overcome this fairly quickly here, playing it just right all the way through—his insistence at only buying a pajama top is funny due to how deadly serious he is and I always like any rich tycoon who on a business call with New York takes a moment to ask “how Flash Gordon got out of that burning submarine” in that Sunday’s paper. Claudette Colbert is ideal as well—that’s certainly no surprise—and she slips into this role as smoothly as Lubitsch’s camera sometimes glides. David Niven is particularly funny as the tortured secretary Albert De Regnier, making the most of every moment onscreen even if his part never quite pays off as much as maybe it should have. Playing Colbert’s father, on more than one occasion Edward Everett Horton pulls off the feat of getting a laugh with just a single word in a scene.
The following year saw better results for the writing team of Wilder & Brackett, reteaming with Lubitsch for the genuine classic NINOTCHKA for MGM and they also were responsible for the script for MIDNIGHT, also with Claudette Colbert, which might be as close to an Ernst Lubitsch as one ever got without actually getting Ernst Lubitsch to direct (Mitchell Leisen did). If you haven’t seen either of these films, stop reading right now and get that taken care of. As for BLUEBEARD’S EIGHTH WIFE, I don’t even like writing something disparaging about it. Out there around the net I find some positive reviews of this film which, aware of what people have said about it, seem a little defensive and why shouldn’t they be? It’s a frothy screwball comedy from the 30s with some of the best people involved. What’s to complain about? In many other cases, that’s exactly the way it is. Looking at this film might be an education to see an example of all the right elements from the right people not quite connecting and with a number of genuine laughs throughout it can in no way actually be called bad. Just problematic. To fully learn about the famed Lubitsch Touch, viewing certain other films might be necessary. Of course, you sometimes still need to see everything a certain director is responsible for so to fully learn about their approach to things and, after all, lesser Lubitsch is still Lubitsch. That much is obvious. And if someone has their own reasons for loving BLUEBEARD’S EIGHTH WIFE, I’m not going to try arguing the point with them.