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Bitter Sweet (1940)

In the 1930s, there was literally a musical for every kind of musical taste: Bing Crosby and crooning; Fred Astaire and the great standards from Gershwin, Berlin, and Kern; classically-trained singer Deanna Durbin, swinging and ballad singing Alice Faye. And for operetta, there was Nelson Eddy and Jeanette MacDonald.

Bitter Sweet is the second to last of eight movies that Eddy and MacDonald made together. It’s definitely not in the same league as MaytimeRose-Marie, or Naughty Marietta, but I was once again struck with what beautiful chemistry they have while singing together. It’s like the singing equivalent of Astaire and Rogers. Astaire and Rogers have their sexiest chemistry while dancing and Eddy and MacDonald have their sexiest chemistry while singing.

In Bitter Sweet, the year is 1890 in London and Sarah Millick (MacDonald) is in love with her music teacher, Carl Linden (Eddy), though she is engaged to the stultifyingly dull Harry Daventry. She and Carl elope and return to his home in Vienna, but he has very little money. He is trying to interest anyone in his operetta while she inadvertently attracts the amorous attentions of Baron von Tranisch (George Sanders, in short-cropped hair and monocle).

With a title like Bitter Sweet, it’s not surprising that the film ends tragically, somewhat similarly to Maytime. Though not quite as successfully.

Bitter Sweet is an adaptation of Noel Coward’s 1929 operetta “Bitter Sweet.” He was inspired, he said, to write the operetta after listening to Johann Strauss II’s “Die Fledermaus” (The Bat), which is a satiric comic operetta about the wealthy and aristocratic in 1890s Vienna. Evidently, Coward’s “Bitter Sweet” was partly in the mold of a satire. The 1940s film, however, is squarely in the serious romance category.

The film is in color, the first film in color that I have seen with MacDonald and Eddy. Adrian designed the gowns and as is usual with Adrian, I sometimes have the impression that the gowns could get up and walk by themselves, such extraordinary creations they are. I always enjoy Adrian’s gowns.

But I have to bring up the topic of neckties and the power of suggestion via neckties. In the beginning of the film, when Carl and Sarah sing their first duet, he is wearing a bold blue necktie that matches her dress. Clearly, they are meant to be together. At the end of the film, after he is dead, a certain sympathetic Lord Shayne (Ian Hunter) is helping Sarah produce Carl’s operetta and is wearing a more subdued blue necktie. It occurred to me that perhaps it was a sign that Lord Shayne was destined to be part of Sarah’s future. I thought I might have been reading too much into the color of a necktie, but when I later read the plot of Coward’s original operetta, it turns out that she does indeed marry Lord Shayne.

One difficulty with the film, however, is that Jeanette MacDonald is a little too old for the role she is playing, though Eddy is not, since he’s supposed to be older. She simply appears far to knowing and mature a woman to be so naive in general, and especially about the intentions of Sanders. Even in her early days appearing in Lubtisch operettas, she projected intelligence, even when playing flighty women. It also doesn’t generate the same level of tragedy that Maytime does, with the death of Eddy coming a bit too abruptly.

Perhaps the most hilarious moment of the film, however, comes when both Carl and Sarah try, separately, to trade singing lessons for a chicken. The trouble is that they both try it on the same shopkeeper. Like the shopkeeper, if I encountered anyone in the streets who sang like either of them, I would probably consider myself lucky to trade a chicken for some lessons.

And for me, the most effective moment, though brief and unpretentious, is when Sarah (called Sari by her husband and now by everyone in Vienna) is climbing up the many stairs to her apartment after successfully singing in the opening of Carl’s operetta. It’s not a long moment, but it mirrors the moment earlier in the film when Carl carried her up all those flights of stairs. Despite the applause and music and success she just experienced, we know that when she reaches the apartment upstairs, it will be empty now. It’s poignant, perhaps even more poignant than the song she sings when she reaches the top and opens the window to reprise their love song.

I’ve been making it a point to see every film that Eddy and MacDonald made together and am now closing in on my goal. All that remains is I Married an Angel and Sweethearts. Thanks so much to Pure Preservation Society for hosting “The SInging Sweethearts Blogathon.” Happy Valentines Day!

 

 
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Posted by on February 14, 2018 in Movies

 

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Foreign Correspondent (1940)

1138Foreign Correspondent was the second movie that Alfred Hitchcock made in American, following the Gothic, psychological romance Rebecca with a WWII thriller. Actually, the film is only somewhat a WWII thriller. Take out the epilogue and one would hardly know, though there’s a lot of talk about a coming war in Europe.

The editor of the New York Globe – Powers (Harry Davenport) – is frustrated with his foreign correspondents in Europe. All they can give him is speculation about the coming of war with no hard facts. It’s driving him nuts, so he chooses Johnny Jones (Joel McCrea) to go to Europe, a scrappy journalist who got into a fight with a policeman in pursuit of a story and has no particular agenda or political bent.

“What Europe needs is a fresh, unused mind,” Powers observes. So Johnny Jones is sent to Amsterdam with a new name – Huntley Haverstock, provided by Powers – and orders to interview a Dutch politician named Van Meer (Albert Basserman), who is central to the negotiations for peace. Johnny is also put into contact with the British Stephen Fisher (Herbert Marshall), who is head of the Universal Peace Party, which is about to hold an important conference. In the meantime, Johnny also falls in love with Fisher’s daughter, Carol (Laraine Day)

In many ways, Foreign Correspondent feels similar to North By Northwest. Simple American gets mixed up in foreign intrigue and is on the run. Van Meer is assassinated….no, wait… he’s actually abducted. There is a secret clause to a peace treaty that the villains (it’s not mentioned, but they are understood to be Nazis) wish to know from Van Meer. The plot is, however, unlike North By Northwest in that there is a lot of it, a lot of characters and it’s a bit confusing at times.

But the film itself is extremely entertaining, full of wit, with some terrific thrills and memorable scenes and a cast that has a lot to offer. I’ve always loved Herbert Marshall’s voice and as Fisher he makes an excellent, unexpected villain. The secret is that his character is really German (was his name originally Fischer…he just dropped the c?). But he’s a villain with one, glaring weakness. He loves his daughter and in some ways, he’s one of Hitchcock’s least evil villains. He even gets to have a heroic end.

George Sanders also gets to play against type…this time as a good guy. Scott folliott (when his ancestor lost his head to Henry VIII, his ancestor’s wife dropped the capital letter to”commemorate the occasion”). He’s a journalist, too, one of those daring young British types who always makes a joke in the face of danger.

Edmund Gwenn gets a delightful role as Rowley, a cockney assassin who keeps trying to kill Johnny without sucess. Robert Benchley makes an appearance as a dyspeptic correspondent who is now reduced to drinking milk and taking pills and Albert Basserman is the heartfelt voice of the little people against the fascists (his speech in defiance of the Nazis in the middle of the film always drew applause in 1940).

Joel McCrea is one of those actors I seem to like the more I see him. He’s not a flashy actor – I’ve heard him called the poor man’s Gary Cooper, which seems unfair – but he has a central integrity, charm, capable of snark, but also of sweetness…also sincerity, without ever taking himself too seriously. He always seems willing for a joke to be at his expense and to look a little silly. He’s more of an every man than Cary Grant, but a bit more articulate than Gary Cooper.

Laraine Day is not your typical Hitchcock blonde heroine, but the film’s all the better for it. She’s one of the most normal, well-adjusted of all Hitchcock’s heroines (despite having a Nazi for a father)  and the romance between McCrea and Day is unusually sweet for a Hitchcock film.

There are also some wonderful scenes that are very unique to Hitchcock. An assassination in the driving rain, on the steps to a building, then darting away underneath a sea of umbrellas. Sneaking around the inside of a curiously expressionistic windmill. A plane crash in the middle of an ocean. Escape from assassins through a bathroom window in nothing but underwear and a robe.

There are a few moments that mark the film out as having been made specifically during WWII, such as Albert Basserman’s role as Van Meer. But the prevailing ethos is that of Johnny and Scott ffoliott as reporters out for a scoop…somewhat like His Girl Friday. Theoretically, they’re doing it for patriotic reasons, but mostly their just doing it because they’re reporters and they’ve happened on the biggest scoop short of a declaration of war (which does come in the middle of the film). It is Carol and her father who are the ones motivated by patriotism (though admittedly patriotism to separate countries).

The ending, however, is the most striking example of a wartime message. It was added after the end of the film’s shooting and when real-life London was under attack from German air raids. In the film, Johnny is giving the news via radio to America when an air raid occurs and the lights go out and he is forced to modify his message, exhorting America to keep the lights burning, so to speak. It is a direct appeal from Britain to America in 1940, though America wouldn’t get into the war until the end of 1941.

This post was written for The Alfred Hitchcock Blogathon. Thanks so much to Coffee, Classics, & Craziness for hosting!!! Be sure to read all the other posts on Hitchcock.

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Posted by on August 13, 2016 in Movies

 

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The House of the Seven Gables – Movie and Book

house-of-seven-gablesOne of the main reasons I read Nathaniel Hawthorne’s novel The House of the Seven Gables is because I also wanted to watch the 1940 film adaptation, starring George Sanders, Vincent Price, and Margaret Lindsay. I am trying to discipline myself to read more books before rushing off to watch their film adaptations. How do they compare? It’s not easy to compare, since they are both essentially different stories, but I enjoyed both.

The House of Seven Gables: Novel

The House of the Seven Gables was published in 1851 and is a Gothic novel soaked in story layers, ghosts and curses, greed and decaying life and the hope of new life, though it is never made explicit whether or not the supernatural elements are true or merely the fancy of the author.

It is not a conventional story and somewhat difficult to summarize because of its many layers, though the plot is simple. Hawthorne begins the novel by giving us a bit of history. There was land owned by a man named Matthew Maule in the 1600s. Colonel Pyncheon offered to buy it, but when Maule refused, Pyncheon denounced him as a sorcerer and Matthew Maule died during the Salem Witch trials. But before he died, Maule said that God would give the Pyncheon’s blood to drink. And sure enough, not long after Colonel Pyncheon built his great, wood house with the seven gables, he died mysteriously, with blood found on his neck (referred to later as a throat aneurysm). And a number of Pyncheon’s die in this way through successive generations.

Hawthorne then proceeds to give us a bit more history as Pyncheon’s descendants descend into decay, financially and spiritually. One Pyncheon takes it into his head to right the wrong done a long time ago by Colonel Pyncheon to Matthew Maule by returning Seven Gables to the Maule family. But before he can do so, he dies mysteriously. One of his two nephews, Clifford Pyncheon, is accused of the murder and sent to prison. The other, Jaffrey Pyncheon, reforms his wild ways and becomes a model citizen and a judge. But this is all background and disposed of in one chapter, even though it is extremely important to the story.

House of Seven Gables, owned by Hawthorne's cousin, which inspired the house of the story

House of Seven Gables, owned by Hawthorne’s cousin, which inspired the house of the story

The bulk of the book begins with Hepzibah Pyncheon, an elderly woman, also the sister of Clifford. She is obliged to open a cent shop inside Seven Gables to support herself and Clifford, who is being released from prison soon. In the dark house comes Phoebe Pyncheon, a young relative whose parents live in the country. She is like a breath of fresh air in the old house and it seems like the house is beginning to come alive again under her influence. Meanwhile, there is a mysterious lodger at Seven Gables named Mr. Holgrave, who is a daguerreotypist. And Judge Jaffrey Pyncheon really wants to see Clifford, though both Hepzibah and Clifford hate him and won’t let him in, despite his reputation for being a good man.

But the events of the story are not that important in the novel. There is a bit of mystery, very little action. Mostly, there are set scenes that Hawthorne describes and then uses to discuss his characters – their past, their present and their association with the overall story. Hepzibah opens a cent shop and as she does so, Hawthorne tells us about her. How she has a scowl, but not because she’s bad tempered, but because she’s nearsighted. She was bred a lady (the Pyncheon’s are the American equivalent of impoverished aristocracy) and is humiliated by being forced to work. But she has a good heart and is loyal to Clifford.

After Phoebe arrives, Hawthorne takes time to discuss the essential sunshine of her nature. She is something fresh and new from the moldy line of Pyncheons and seems to dispel the curse merely by her refreshing presence, even brightening up the ruined life of Clifford, who would have been a somewhat shallow lover of all things beautiful, but now is a sorrowing man who has a dim sense of goodness that Hawthorne suggests he might not have had otherwise.

The way Hawthorne tells his story, the past and the present seem somewhat blurred. His theme are ancestral decay and family legacy (in this case, a legacy of guilt and rapacity) which is handed down the generations, though Hepzibah and Clifford seem more like victims than perpetrators. It’s a bit of a slow read, but Hawthorne’s prose is lovely. He paints word pictures so vividly and the atmosphere of the book is so strong, it almost comes off the page and I enjoyed it much more than I did his most famous novel, The Scarlet Letter.

The House of the Seven Gables – Movie

house-of-gablesThe movie, on the other hand, is not very like the book. It is a more straightforward Gothic tale of romance and vindication, though it retains the sense of the family legacy of greed and a curse, without the same sense of decay. What makes the movie interesting is its exceptional cast: George Sanders, Vincent Price, and Margaret Lindsay.

The movie begins when Clifford (Vincent Price) and his brother Jaffrey (George Sanders – Jaffrey and Clifford were cousins in the novel) are still young. Hepzibah is transformed into a cousin (Margaret Lindsay) who is in love with Clifford.

Clifford is a musician, eager to leave his moldy family behind and go to New York. He also wants to sell Seven Gables, which appalls his greedy brother, Jaffrey, who believes that there is hidden in the house documents that could make the family very rich (there are echos of this in the novel). When a loud argument between Clifford and his father leads to the latter’s death of a throat aneurysm, George accuses Clifford of his murder and Clifford is sent to jail.

But instead of inheriting the house, Jaffrey is stunned to learn that Hepzibah actually will inherit the house. She forbids Jaffrey to ever enter and closes all the shutters, and cutting herself off from life until years later, when Clifford returns. She also has a lodger, Matthew Maule (Dick Foran), descendant of the original Matthew Maule, and who met Clifford in prison (this Maule is an abolitionist) and is helping him to clear his name. Also Phoebe (Nan Grey) is comes to stay, though she has less to do than she does in the novel, except be a love interest for Matthew Maule and provide contrast with Hepzibah.

Margaret Lindsay is sensational as Hepzibah. As the young Hepzibah, she reminded me of Barbara Stanwyck. The role is actually the kind of thing you could imagine Barbara Stanwyck or Bette Davis sinking their teeth into. She begins as a young girl, with mischievous eyes, hope in her face and a bounce in her step (though not excessively bouncy). But after the years of being alone, her posture changes and grows more severe, her expression hardens, her voice deepens, with a bearing that has a strong resemblance to Olivia de Havilland walking up the stairs at the end of The Heiress.

The young Jaffrey, Vincent Price and Margaret Lindsay

The young Jaffrey, Vincent Price and Margaret Lindsay

There is a lovely, touching scene when she and Clifford are reunited after eighteen years of separation. Both have changed so much, ravaged by time, and they are both afraid to see each other again, for fear of what the other will think of them. But their romance is the real romance and heart of the film (Phoebe and Matthew are mostly there for contrast, as the fresh young couple).

Vincent Price is so young in this film. He was about 29 and had only made his film debut two years previously. But he still has that voice and also does an excellent job playing both the younger Clifford, full of energy, and the older Clifford, now with white hair and a stoop in his shoulders.

George Sanders as Jaffrey remains mostly the same when young and older, but George Sanders is always such a perfectly sneering villain, and he’s not supposed to show the affects of time as much as the others.

Overall, it’s a very satisfying film. It’s not well known, only released as a DVD-R, but worthwhile if you are at all a fan of the actors involved. And its not  necessary to read the book before viewing, though the book is worthwhile in its own way.

 
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Posted by on November 9, 2015 in Books, Movies

 

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