Monday, March 31, 2008

The Lubitsch Touch

The Wall Street Journal headlined an article on this year’s crop of Oscar nominees “Fade to Bleak,” the point being that four of the five movies were grim stories, filled with blood and gore, amplified by modern technology that lets you actually see grizzly scenes of throat-slashing and other explicitly portrayed mayhem. One of the contenders is aptly named There Will Be Blood, so you can’t say you weren’t warned. So much for the movie theater as a place to escape the hard realities of life.

Once upon a time, it was different. In the early thirties, the public’s appetite for escape via movie musicals was insatiable. Some of them were awful, but some were excellent, thanks to performers like Maurice Chevalier, Jeanette McDonald, and, from England, Jack Buchanan. On the stage, The Desert Song, The Student Prince, The New Moon, etc. were still hugely popular, so it is not surprising that the plots for many of these musicals were essentially Hollywood’s versions of European operettas. By today’s standards, they are silly stories, but then, they are no sillier than most of what’s now playing at the local Cineplex. The other night I watched, for as long as I could stand it, a recent flick called Mr. Brooks, starring Kevin Costner and William Hurt. The plot was at least as noncredible as the worst of the operettas, and there was no music to offset the stupidity.

The master of the romantic-comedy genre in the early 30s was Ernst Lubitsch, and the term “the Lubitsch touch” is still applied to the most stylish romantic comedies.

Some of the Lubitsch treasures have recently been released on DVD and are available through Netflix. I recently waded in, and I’m glad I did. Here is what I found.

The Love Parade

The first 10 minutes of this film telegraph the whimsy that is to follow. Maurice Chevalier (whose name appears above the title) is a diplomat attached to the Sylvanian embassy in Paris. (He has been there long enough to have acquired his French accent, along with a string of female companions.) As we enter the scene, we hear an argument behind closed doors. His girlfriend has found a garter, and it isn’t hers. As she and Chevalier argue about the garter, her husband enters and sizes up the situation. Disgraced, she finds a revolver, shoots herself, and falls to the floor. The grief-stricken husband takes the gun from her hand and shoots Chevalier. But Chevalier, reprising a much-practiced scene, has loaded the gun with blanks. The husband, overjoyed to find his wife unharmed, exits with her (but not before she asks Chevalier to zip up her dress).

The Sylvanian ambassador, fed up with Chevalier’s string of scandals, sends him back to Sylvania, ruled by a beautiful but lonely Queen Louise, played by Jeanette McDonald in her first movie role. The rest of the story is thoroughly predictable. Comic relief, such as it is, is provided by British vaudevillian Lupino Lane (Ida Lupino’s uncle) and, in her cutesy period, Lillian Roth. The score, by Victor Schertzinger, features one standard, “Dream Lover.” The production is amazing for 1929, and the audio and video on the DVD are not bad, considering.

My mother was a big fan of Maurice Chevalier, and it is easy to see why. His warm personality and pleasant singing voice must have been dynamite to the audiences of 1929. As a matter of fact, they were all still evident three decades later, in Gigi.

Monte Carlo

The girl is still Jeanette McDonald, but the male lead is now British song and dance man Jack Buchanan. Jeanette is a countess who runs out on her wedding to an old, dim-witted nobleman and flees to Monte Carlo, where she falls under the spell of a hairdresser named Rudolph. But we know that Rudolph is really a count who pretends to be a hairdresser in order to meet the beautiful Jeanette. She is nearly broke (though she is attended by a maid and a retinue of other servants), and a big win at the casino is her only hope. The plot unfolds as in The Love Parade. She spurns him, he spurns her, she comes to her senses, etc. The similarity with the other movie is easily explained: Lubitsch, once he found a winning formula, milked it. In The Love Parade, the climactic scene is a ballet at the royal theater, with Queen Louise and her Prince Consort in the seats of honor. In Monte Carlo, the climactic scene is an opera (a contrived “Monseur Beaucaire”) with the Countess and Rudolph attending. The score for the film (including the opera scene) was written by Richard Whiting, and it contains one standard: “Beyond the Blue Horizon.” My wife reminds me that when this song was played during WW2, the final words, “a rising sun” were replaced by “a setting sun” in a burst of Nipponophobia.

One other song is worth mention: “Always in All Ways.” It is a delightfully catchy tune, well performed by Buchanan and McDonald. And Buchanan, like Chevalier, kept rolling along, delivering a knockout performance 23 years later in one of the best musicals ever screened, The Band Wagon.

One Hour With You

If you want to find out why Maurice Chevalier was the hottest property at Paramount in the early thirties, catch this one. It is a delicious Lubitsch confection, with clever dialogue, a few good songs, and Chevalier at his comedic best, which is saying a lot. The opening is memorable: The chief of the Paris police orders his gendarmes to sweep the City’s parks of its lovers, not because he is against necking, but because the economy suffers when people are on park benches instead of spending money in nightclubs. Chevalier and McDonald are among the park bench smoochers, and they are expelled by a dutiful officer. But they are married, and they are madly in love with each other, as Chevalier tells us in one of his arch to-the-camera asides. What a setup for the bedroom farce that is to follow, when Jeanette’s best friend, the sexy Mitzi, comes to visit! The supporting cast includes Roland Young as Mitzi’s cuckolded husband and Charlie Ruggles as an old friend who has a yen for Jeanette. The writers have given them some very funny lines, and they both deliver the goods.

The music includes two songs you will recognize, if you’re old enough: the title tune and "Day After Day" (we will always be sweethearts). The music is fine, and the cast (including the lovely Genevieve Tobin as Mitzi, the blonde hypotenuse of the triangle) is first-rate. But to me the revelation was Chevalier. I knew he could put over a song, but I never knew he had such a natural talent for comedy. If you have to choose one of the Lubitsch films to watch, this should be it.

The Smiling Lieutenant

Another operetta-based musical starring Maurice Chevalier. This one, made in 1931, before the censors were at work, has a plot that is silly even by operetta standards, but it’s a lot of fun all the same. Niki (Chevalier), a lieutenant in the Austrian army, is in love with Franzi (Claudette Colbert), a violinist and the leader of a girls’ band. While on duty as an honor guard to greet the visiting king and princess of neighboring Flausenthurm, he smiles at Franzi but is thought to be making eyes at Princess Anna (Miriam Hopkins) and is soon forced to marry her. Thus the triangle: the smiling Niki, Franzi the violinist, and Anna of Flausenthurm. Complications follow, and Lubitsch keeps you guessing till the end whether Niki will wind up with the blonde Anna or the brunette Franzi. The only musical number worth mentioning is “Jazz Up Your Lingerie,” notable mostly for the pianos backing up Hopkins and Colbert.

The dialogue is good. The king begins his grilling of the lieutenant by demanding that he spell Flausenthurm (he has been irritated by a missing “h” in an Austrian sign), and when Chevalier spells it correctly, the ladies in waiting swoon. (“That boy knows his alphabet.”) As I said, it’s all too silly for words, but once you accept that, it’s not bad. To audiences in the depth of the Great Depression, it must have been a wonderful tonic.

Trouble in Paradise

Trouble in Paradise is a Lubitsch romantic comedy, sans music, and it is revered by movie buffs for its sophistication and pre-Code sexiness. Debonair Herbert Marshall and Miriam Hopkins are jewel thieves, and Kay Francis is the wealthy mark. It’s all played for laughs – not belly laughs, but laughs from naughty situations, double entendres, etc. It is like an extended Cole Porter lyric turned into a movie. Today’s directors should study it, in order to learn that a movie can be very racy without showing naked couples rolling about in the hay. In fact, without the dialogue this could be a G-rated movie. It could also have been a musical, and in fact I wish it were. I don’t know whether Marshall and company could sing, but I think the Lubitsch touch is deftest when set to music.

These movies probably will not appeal to younger audiences. They are by definition “dated,” they are of course in black and white, and the appeal lies in the dialogue, the situations, and, sometimes, the music. Almost all scenes are interiors, typically within palaces. There are no car chases, airplane crashes, or murders. But for anyone, young or old, who is interested in movies as an art form, Lubitsch 101 is a must course.

Monday, March 24, 2008

The Disney Touch

I watch movies, not to be educated or manipulated or shocked, but to be entertained. Measured by that standard, Disney’s Enchanted was a success. The story line, if you don’t know it already, goes like this: Giselle, a fair maiden living in a cartoonland called Andalasia, is in love with a handsome prince named Edward. Edward’s stepmother, the Queen, fears that Giselle will be a rival for her throne, so she throws her down a wishing well to a place “where there are no happy ever-afters” – New York City.

Giselle, now played by the flesh-and-blood Amy Adams, clambers out of a manhole in Times Square and is immediately surrounded by the horrors of Gotham. She is rescued from danger by a passerby named Robert. He is a lawyer and a single dad, living with his little daughter Morgan, and the trio repair to Robert’s apartment until he figures out what to do with this confused young woman dressed like a princess in a fairy tale. Eventually, Prince Edward also makes the trip from cartoonland to New York in search of his true love, who is learning the way people in the real world go about courting. The queen, keeping an evil eye on things from Andalasia, isn’t crazy about these developments and dispatches a minion to dispatch Giselle.

You get the idea: Animated characters are thrust into the real world, learn some lessons and teach some, too. In this case, Giselle from Andalasia and Robert from New York City fall in love and are obviously fated to live happily ever after.

Woody Allen also arranged for a handsome movie actor to step out of a movie to fall in love with a downtrodden housewife in the audience. The movie was The Purple Rose of Cairo, and it was clever and enjoyable. It was set in the Great Depression, and it exploited the contrast between the on-screen characters in a drawing-room comedy and the dreary moviegoers seeking escape from hard times. In Enchanted, no one is conspicuously miserable. Robert is a successful lawyer living in a luxurious Manhattan apartment. But his life is empty. Morgan, his little girl, wants a fairy-tale pop-up book, but her father gives her a coffee-table book on famous women like Rosa Parks and Madam Curie. He doesn’t do fairy tales.

Enchanted, given that plot, could have been sappy. Instead it is, well, enchanting. It has something Woody Allen, with all his talent, could never have.

That something is the Disney touch.

Talk about a brand for the ages! The screen fills with the glorious colors of the magic kingdom, against the strains of “When You Wish Upon a Star.” Then the narrator, Julie Andrews, sets up the story with the aid of a pop-up book of fairy tales, a device that will be revisited at the end of the movie. It had to be Julie Andrews. The adorable Amy Adams looks very much like Julie playing Cinderella in the Rodgers and Hammerstein TV special so many years ago, and of course Julie has That Voice.

The Disney touch also fills the screen with the usual menagerie of happy-go-lucky computer-generated animals, including a chipmunk who does his best to protect Giselle from harm. The movie is also chock-full of references to earlier Disney classics. The queen is a dead take-off of the queen in Snow White, as is her alter ego, the old hag who offers Snow White (and now Giselle) a poison apple. On one level, this latest Disney hit is making fun of all the Disney golden oldies. Only a film studio with monumental self-confidence would dare to do that.

Most of the movie takes place in New York, with real people, and the Disney touch is just as magical here. A long musical scene in Central Park involves dozens if not hundreds of dancers (there are certainly more than 100 dancers named in the end credits), and the obligatory ball scene at the climax is Disney at its best.

A word must be said in praise of the two actors who play Giselle’s suitors. As world-weary lawyer Robert, Patrick Dempsey has a tough assignment. When he is on screen, Giselle is usually with him, which means no one (no man, certainly) is looking at him. His dialogue is mostly straight lines, though every now and then the writers give him a gem. He is absolutely perfect in the role. James Marsden, who plays Prince Edward, is given a showy costume and a sword to brandish, and he must have had great fun hamming it up. The make-up crew and the costumers should also be credited for making the cartoon characters and their worldly counterparts look reasonably alike. (They obviously had no trouble sounding alike.)

I don’t want to give the impression that Enchanted is flawless. First, while I accept that birds and chipmunks and even caterpillars can sing and dance in the magic kingdom, I can’t buy lovable rats and cockroaches. (No, I didn’t like Pixar’s Ratatouille.) Second, the over-the-top finale, with the queen transforming herself into a huge dragon and then climbing a skyscraper, King Kong style, struck me as pointless. In Snow White, the queen/hag with her poison apple were quite enough. Maybe the Disney folks thought a modern audience needed a heavier dose of shock and awe, but I thought the last 10 minutes of the movie (after the exquisite ball scene) was a misfire.

Still, the pluses outweighed the minuses, and the movie was a winner.

Once upon a time, long long ago, I saw the original Snow White, and in the years since I have seen most of the animated Disney classics and have visited Disneyland with my children. There is nothing like the Disney experience, because it taps into a very deep, very primitive feeling that there must be someplace where dreams really do come true. I’ll let the psychologists and the theologians sort that out, but what I know is that for me, the Disney magic never pales. It is as bright and colorful as ever.

Monday, March 03, 2008

Renaissance Men

Bill Buckley died last week, and among the many tributes to him was a worry, voiced by Peggy Noonan, that we will all be poorer if our supply of well rounded, articulate men like Buckley starts petering out. (Her column was headed “May We Not Lose His Kind.”) It is a legitimate concern. It is now conventional wisdom that the future of our economy and our way of life depends on our ability to focus the education of our young on science and technology.

I yield to no one when it comes to recognizing the importance of math and science, and I agree that we are now at a competitive disadvantage because our youngsters score much lower in such subjects than the Chinese, the Japanese, and many others, including the Finnish children, who apparently are at the top of the list. On the other hand, what we need most of all are students who are good at math and science AND writing and history and at least one foreign language and geography and civics and all the other subjects that one had to learn, once upon a time, to graduate from high school. A bachelor’s degree from college was a certificate attesting to the fact that you were an educated person, in the fullest sense of the term.

Bill Buckley – writer, yachtsman, bon vivant, occasional politician, TV personality, philosopher, magazine founder and editor – was, flagrantly, an educated man. A renaissance man. There have been others, and one doesn’t have to travel back to Leonardo DaVinci to find them. Alfred Lee Loomis was one. After graduating from Yale Law School, he joined a New York law firm and was a rising star when he left law to pursue investment banking, rescuing a failing bond firm, making a large fortune, and selling out before the Crash. He was one of the 10 wealthiest men in the United States, yacht-racing with the Vanderbilts and their ilk. But, while Wall Street was his “day job,” on weekends he presided over one of the country’s foremost technology laboratories, at his estate in Tuxedo Park, 40 miles north. For Loomis was also a first-class scientist, and he was able to draw the best and the brightest from MIT, Stanford, and elsewhere. Among those drawn to Tuxedo Park were the giants of the era – Einstein, Bohr, Fermi. In the late 30’s, with war threatening, FDR called on Loomis to organize work on radar, and some of the Tuxedo Park crew were recruited for work on the Manhattan Project. Loomis’s amazing story is well told in the book “Tuxedo Park,” written by Jennet Conant, granddaughter of a noted Harvard president.

Another renaissance man was a fellow I once knew while working at General Radio in the 50’s. This was Robert Rines, a patent attorney with Rines & Rines, of Boston. Since General Radio’s engineers were notoriously prolific and creative, there were hundreds of patents to be awarded, and Bob was a master of his craft. But Rines the patent attorney was also Rines the scientist, with bachelor’s degree (MIT) and doctorate in physics, plus his law degree from Georgetown. His pioneering work on high-definition sonar systems was vital to the search for the Titanic and the Bismark. On vacation in Scotland, he became absorbed by the tales of the Loch Ness monster and became one of the world’s foremost experts on the subject. Is there more? There is more. He was also a composer, writing scores for 10 Broadway and off-Broadway musicals.

Then there was my old boss and mentor, Charlie Worthen, another MIT engineer who was a voracious reader of British literature, in particular the essays of Orwell and the arcana of J.R.R. Tolkein. Charlie knew so much more about art and literature and music than I did that it was embarrassing, because he was the engineer and I the liberal arts graduate. (In retribution, I tried mightily but vainly to become a self-taught electronics engineer.)

Engineers are often good musicians, I find, probably because the mathematics of music fascinates them. Lawyers also seem to be drawn to music, and long before Bob Rines, a lawyer named Arthur Schwartz became a hugely successful Broadway composer. (“Dancing in the Dark” was one of his many hit songs.) So the multitalented person is not all that rare. If you have the creative gene, it seems, it will find a variety of outlets.

Not everyone can be a Buckley or a Loomis or a Rines. But everyone can at least be interested in more than one thing at a time, and our schools can return to the old standard, the idea that education means more than knowing one thing well. The Jesuits called their master plan the “ratio studiorum,” and their plan of studies covered the widest possible arc, within the time constraints of the school day. I know, having gone through the drill and having taught at a Jesuit high school for a year.

So, much as I applaud the renewed emphasis on math and science, it would be a tragedy if the rest of the ratio studiorum were crowded out. I wonder, when I hear parents gushing that their eight-year-old Willy “is a whiz at the computer,” whether the child will eventually be taught anything about gerunds or magnetic theory or basic economics. Will he ever know who fought in the Boer War? Will he know where Acadia was? Will he ever read Shakespeare or Pushkin or Ibsen?

Maybe he will. Maybe he’ll Google them and eventually get interested enough to search them out at the library. I hope so, because if he is nothing more than a whiz at the computer, he is being cheated out of most of what life is all about.