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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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Our Hospitality (1923)

Our Hospitality was Buster Keaton’s third feature film and the second feature film he directed, following his Three AgesOur Hospitality is a remarkably assured film, however, and remarkably inventive. He shows his love of machines, his flair for period authenticity and his capacity to fully integrate his comedy into his story, comedy that unfolds with inexorable logic.

The film opens in 1810 in the South with a mock-serious prologue, recounting the death of the latest victims in a multi-generational family feud between the McKays and Canfields. When her husband is killed, Mrs. McKay takes her son, Willie Mckay, to live in New York.

That in itself is rather funny. It’s not every comedy that begins with murder and Keaton seems to be parodying melodramas or even D.W. Griffith.

By 1830, Willie is now played by Buster Keaton and learns that he has inherited some land from his father and must return to the South to claim it. On the train trip down south, he encounters a charming young lady (Natalie Talmadge), who just happens to be a Canfield. Not knowing each other’s names, she invites him to her father’s house for dinner, only for her father and two brothers to learn that he is a McKay and must be killed. The problem is that their rules of hospitality dictate that they cannot kill him while in their house. When Willie learns of this, he must contrive to stay in the house, while falling in love with the daughter.

The Pea Shooter Pistol

Our Hospitality definitely shows Keaton’s love of machines. The film prominently features an early train that looks more like a string of coaches on rail tracks and pulled by what looks like a toy train engine. As idiosyncratic as the train looks, however, it was based on an actual model of train from the era. The same with the dandy horse Keaton rides, which looks like a bicycle without pedals. Keaton also gets a lot of comedy out of the fact that guns could only fire once and then had to be reloaded with powder and bullets. One brother in particular has an elegant little pea shooter of a pistol that seems to underwhelm in it’s murderous function.

Out of so many excellent Keaton silent films, Our Hospitality struck me as a special delight and I could only marvel at his inventiveness on full display. Not just for machines, but for the logic of his comic gags. He rarely introduces a prop and just discards it after he’s finished with the gag. Even the train has a role to play in the final, thrilling chase with the Canfields trying to shoot Willie.

One great example of the prop that continues to have completely logical significance is the rope that becomes tied around both Willie’s waist and the waist of a Canfield brother. Willie is hanging from a cliff, but the brother can’t get a good shot at him, so lowers a rope so he can swing Willie to safety so he can then shoot him. Of course they both fall into a lake and even when the rope is finally severed between them, the little bit of rope that Willie cannot untie continues to have vital significance, both for good and ill (thought mostly ill). Best of all, the rope plays a role when Willie stages his daring rescue of his beloved, who is about to tumble down a waterfall. It’s a pretty amazing stunt.

But this logic is, I believe, what gives Keaton films a particular delight. They aren’t just funny. They make sense. What WOULD happen if two men, one who was trying to kill the other, were tied together with a rope? I rarely foresee what happens, but it always makes perfect sense once it does occur. The unexpectedness is where the comedy comes in.

He also has a lot of fun with the absurdities of the Southern code of honor (or any such code of honor). What happens when two parts of one’s code come into conflict? A McKay MUST be killed. A guest MUST be respected. What does the existence of such a conflict say about their code? Not to mention the humorous existence of a frame in the Canfield home, enjoining them to “Love thy neighbor as thyself.” What are the Canfield’s to do? You have to watch Our Hospitality to find out. It’s a true delight.

Thanks so much to Silent-ology for hosting “The Fourth Annual Buster Keaton Blogathon” and giving me an excuse to watch a film I’ve been meaning to see for a long time! For more posts about Buster Keaton, follow this link.

 
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Posted by on February 13, 2018 in Movies

 

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Saskatchewan (1954)

Saskatchewan is the first western I have ever seen where a native tribe rides to the rescue of the cavalry. The first thing that is mentioned about the film by anyone, however, is the gorgeous location shooting done at Banff National Park in Alberta, Canada. A typically entertaining Raoul Walsh directed adventure, Saskatchewan offers a chance for dashingly attired Mounties to take a scenic tour of the Rockies by way of avoiding the Sioux.

The second thing that is frequently mentioned about the film is that Saskatchewan looks nothing like Banff National Park, but is actually much flatter, so I am not certain if the title refers to the province of Saskatchewan, the Saskatchewan River (which does flow through Alberta), or if the fort in the film was called Fort Saskatchewan. Titles of films are often an enigma to me, but Saskatchewan does perhaps make a more catchy title than Alberta.

Alan Ladd is Thomas O’Rourke, an orphan who was raised by Chief Dark Cloud of the Cree (Antonio Moreno) and raised as a brother to Cajou (Jay Silverheels). He is now a Mountie, however, and his duty comes into conflict with his friendship with the Cree.

Early in the film, he and Cajou come across a wagon train that has been destroyed by the Sioux, who have come up through Montana after destroying Colonel Custer. The only survivor of the wagon train is American Grace Markey (Shelley Winters), who is fleeing a U.S. Marshall (Hugh O’Brien). But when the Cree are ordered to turn in their guns, leaving them without a means of hunting food for themselves, Crazy Horse and Sitting Bull see an opportunity to persuade the Cree to join them in war. The Mounties set out with guns and ammunition, but the Sioux attack, thus providing the Mounties with the opportunity to escape picturesquely through the mountains.

A little mutiny (though Alan Ladd is the politest mutineer I’ve ever seen; “May I borrow your glasses, Sir”), an exciting canoe chase, a few battles and explosions, negotiations with the Cree, a little romance, conflict between the jealous U.S. Marshall and O’Rourke over Grace, all follows apace, not to mention lots of riding through the Rockies and looking out on shimmering lakes, rivers, trees and snow-capped peaks.

And I must say that O’Rourke seems remarkably complaisant about Grace being an accused murderer. She may possibly be a murderer, but he is always a gentleman, unlike the Marshall, who pushes Grace around and shoots a Cree in the back. But in truth, all the Mounties are gentlemen. The script stresses that in Canada the First Nations tribes are treated fairly. The only reason there is trouble is because the Sioux, who were not treated fairly, are stirring up the Cree to war, aided by the unreasonable attitude of the Canadian authorities about confiscating Cree weapons.

There’s something of the British nobility in the Mounties in general. One Mountie is even Scottish and the commander is played by Robert Douglas, a British actor, thus enhancing the impression. Perhaps a little like those British colonial adventure films meets the western in Canada.

Another connection to Canada is actor Jay Silverheels, who plays Cajou. He was a Canadian Mohawk who achieved his most famous role with Tonto in the Lone Ranger TV series. Before he became an actor, he was an excellent lacrosse player and did some boxing in America. He began in films as a stuntman and gradually was given better roles in a number of ‘A’ Westerns, though was always remembered as Tonto.

While Saskatchewan was being filmed, Marilyn Monroe and Robert Mitchum where also at Banff National Park, filming River of No Return. Shelley Winters evidently spent some of her off time with Monroe and they got along quite well. Banff National Park has been a relatively popular location for filming. Other films at least partially shot there include Days of Heaven and 49th Paralell. I actually have all three films – Days of Heaven49th Parallel, and River of No Return – on my list of films to see in the future (which admittedly is a somewhat unwieldy list).

Saskatchewan is definitely not a classic western, but I tend to find that nearly all Raoul Walsh films have a good pace and interesting action and Saskatchewan has that. There’s not much room for intriguing character development, but the setting in Canada is fresh and lovely. In fact, it is safe to argue that Banff National Park is the real star of the film.

This post was written as part of the “O Canada” Blogathon,” hosted by Silver Screenings and Speakeasy. For more entries, see the recap for Day 1, 2, and 3 of the blogathon.

 
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Posted by on February 11, 2018 in Movies

 

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