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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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The Temptress (1926) – The Greta Garbo Blogathon

Greta Garbo was only around twenty-one when she made The Temptress, her second film in Hollywood, but my heavens was she stunning. When she removes her mask at the beginning of the film, her leading man, Antonio Moreno, is visibly staggered and can only mumble something obvious about how beautiful she is.

I’ve read countless articles where authors write in reverent, semi-spiritual tones about her mystery and allure, which contrarily, has inclined me to dismiss her. I’ve seen her in only three films, all talkies (including the delightful Ninotchka), but after watching her in a silent film, I begin to see what they mean.

The Temptress is a film that is obsessed with her beauty. The plot revolves around how every man that meets her can’t help falling madly in love. Friends fight and kill each other, men ruin themselves or neglect their work or even commit suicide. And then they blame her for it all.

No wonder she looks so weary at the beginning of the film, in a brilliantly shot scene where she stands in a theater box, looking out at masked revelers. Not many twenty-one year olds can look so weary. She is approached by a man, who demands an answer to some question. She replies that she does not love him. Then she tries to leave the party, but has to fight her way through the throng, many of whom try to draw her into the revelry. One can almost imagine her saying that she wants to be alone.

Opening scene

But she is followed into the garden by one man, Manuel Robledo (Antonio Moreno) and it is love at first sight. They spend the evening making vows of love and so on. Except that she is married and another man has ruined himself for her. So Manuel is disillusioned and returns to Argentina, where he is overseeing the construction of a great dam.

The majority of the film occurs in Argentina. Greta Garbo’s character, Elena, and her husband travel to Argentina to make a new start in life after a scandal in Paris regarding Elana. But Elena is determined to win Manuel back, the only man she ever loved. Except she manages to inflame nearly all the men, including Lionel Barrymore, which gets in the way of building the dam.

Manuel believes that she is evil and resolved not to yield, despite wishing to do so. It’s high melodrama and distinctly sensational at times. Still, the film is strikingly directed by Fred Niblo, who was also responsible for The Mark of Zorro and the 1925 Ben-Hur. There is also an exciting score by Michael Picton, who wrote the original score for the film in ’26.

The film is based on La Tierra de Todos, by Vicente Blasco Ibáñez, who also wrote Blood and Sand. I am not sure exactly how the book goes, but the film appears to be skewed more towards Greta Garbo’s character, understandably. She holds the audience’s attention like no one else in the film and was well on her way to becoming one of MGM’s top stars.

Dangerous woman

Her character is not necessarily given a whole lot of development. In my sister’s analogy, she functions like the Congo River in Heart of Darkness. By going down the river, you find out what you really are like. Except in The Temptress, instead of going down the Congo, you meet her. Men suddenly find out that they are financially corrupt or have it in them to kill their friends. She basically just brings out what was already in the hearts of men.

Though it’s not at all clear that the film endorses this view. There are frequent intertitles extolling “Men’s work!” There are so many references to men and so many exclamation marks that they wouldn’t be out of place in one’s twitter feed. Women essentially get in the way. Especially Elena, who’s very beauty is presented as something of a curse which she has little control over. She certainly acts seductively, but it is suggested that it is her beauty that is the problem. She only acts the way it is expected of her to act.

It’s tough being Greta Garbo in this film. Though perhaps it was tough being Greta Garbo in real life, perhaps even why she retired at only thirty-six, having made twenty-eight feature films in her entire life.

It’s difficult to describe exactly what it was that made Greta Garbo so mesmerizing. She seems to draw you in with curiosity, but never actually satisfies that curiosity. What is she really thinking or feeling? Perhaps that is what kept audiences coming back, through silent and sound films.

This post is part of “The Greta Garbo Blogathon,” hosted by In The Good Old Days of Classic Hollywood. Click here for more posts from the blogathon.

The opening sequence of The Temptress.

 
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Posted by on November 22, 2017 in Movies

 

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Right Cross (1950)

Ah, to be June Allyson. She has her pick of men in Right Cross, a boxing drama where both Dick Powell and Ricardo Montalban are deeply in love with her. Poor Dick Powell, though, doesn’t have a chance in the film, despite being married to June Allyson in actuality.

Right Cross is a boxing drama, a love triangle, and a not fully fleshed-out examination of what it means to be Hispanic American. Pat O’Malley (June Allyson) is the daughter of fight promoter Sean O’Malley (Lionel Barrymore), but runs the business for him because of his ill health. The business is on the decline, but they do manage the current boxing champion, Johnny Monterez (Ricardo Montalban).

Pat and Johnny are in love, but Johnny won’t propose because he’s afraid that if he were no longer champion, she would no longer love him. He can’t believe she would really love him for himself, a man of Mexican background who has had to fight for everything he ever had.

There is also a plot-thread involving Johnny’s hand, which has been injured several times. The doctor warns Johnny that his hand could go at any time, spelling the abrupt end of his career. For Johnny, it is a race against the clock, to find a way to make enough money to deserve Pat before he ends up back where he started: with nothing.

The third wheel to the romance is provided by Rick (Dick Powell), a sports journalist carrying a torch for Pat, but he is also a good friend to Johnny. His hobby seems to be drinking and brawling.

It’s a very intriguing set up and the characters are all appealing, though the plot is imperfectly executed. For one, June Allyson and Dick Powell actually have the better chemistry in the film (which isn’t exactly an imperfection, because it is delightful). Not all off screen couples have good on screen chemistry, but June Allyson and Dick Powell did (they are also adorable in The Reformer and the Redhead). Rick comments that “it’s either there or it’s not,” and we are supposed to believe that it’s not there in the film, but it actually is. The scene where Rick tries to cook a spaghetti dinner for Pat (unsuccessfully) and shows her how he would play a love scene is very sweet and almost made me wish that Rick and Pat could be together.

They even have chemistry in this picture

But the main problem is how the film lets some very interesting plot points drop conveniently at the end. Johnny’s mother does not trust “gringos” and is not pleased that Johnny is dating Pat. Johnny is also ashamed to bring Pat home to meet his mother. At the same time, he does not want his sister to date a “gringo.” And Pat’s father is not thrilled that Pat is dating Johnny. The plot sets up these problems, only to let them disappear at the end.

That being said, the cast is highly appealing. Especially June Allyson and Dick Powell. It’s not that Ricardo Montalban isn’t appealing, but his character is callow and has the unfortunate habit of using others to do things for him that he should do himself, like constantly sending Rick to patch it up between him and Pat, which seems callous, unless he’s oblivious that Rick does love Pat. He has some growing up to do.

June Allyson, on the other hand, is very mature, without being matronly. One of the things that is appealing about June Allyson is how naturally she wears her charm. She seems down to earth, utterly capable, unpretentious, like someone you would like as a friend. She seems natural. Like she’s hardly acting at all. Like she just IS.

That kind of persona is easy to overlook and I’ve always rather taken June Allyson for granted. Thanks to Simoa of Champagne for Lunch, who is hosting “The June Allyson Centenary Blogathon,” I’ve had a chance to think about her roles afresh. And to appreciate  how she can make acting look so easy and natural. I believe that she could be a fight promoter. She can play a professional person without looking like she’s trying too hard to convince us that she’s a professional. She seems totally comfortable as a woman, as a woman in love, and as a fight promoter. Quite an accomplishment. It actually might have been nice to see more of that side of her character in the film!

More posts about June Allyson from the blogathon can be found here.

 
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Posted by on October 7, 2017 in Movies

 

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