Fredric March

The Bridges at Toko-Ri (1954, Mark Robson)

With the exception of Grace Kelly (the only significant female character in the film), none of Bridges at Toko-Ri’s main characters are ever explicitly scrutable. Even when the admiral, Fredric March, muses about the nature of war and the men who wage it, the film’s already established March’s thoughts don’t betray him. He’s not cagey; if anything, he’s a conversational duelist, on the offensive. It’s a very interesting development on the character, who’s initially set up as a sad old man with a dead son who latches onto those officers with similar demographics in his command, in Toko-Ri’s case it’s William Holden. Holden’s a disgruntled lawyer from Denver, Colorado who got called up ahead of activist reservists because of his WWII experience. He’s got Kelly and two daughters at home; he’s miserable at war, living on the carrier, flying missions; he’s trying to grow a drinking problem and he’s thought through faking mental issues to get out of flying those missions.

And he’s not quiet about it either.

One of the strangest things about Toko-Ri’s script, other than it really being a grim, tense, terse war movie with a bunch of character drama shoehorned in to utter perfection, is how little the film is concerned with establishing Holden’s character. The movie opens with March, then goes to Mickey Rooney, who’s fourth lead in the first half, third in the second… maybe second in the second. March is the admiral, Rooney’s the rescue helicopter pilot (Earl Holliman is Rooney’s sidekick), Holden’s the pilot, Kelly’s the wife. Holden never gets a scene to himself until into the second half of the movie, after he’s been introduced through Rooney’s lens, March’s lens… maybe not Kelly’s lens. She doesn’t really get a lens. She gets the dramatic music and she gets to speak plainly about her feelings, though she’s also adorably small c conservative—the one full, sweet scene we get with Holden, Kelly, and the daughters is when they’re in their Japanese hotel and they go to the steam baths and there’s a Japanese family there too. It’s cute but not pandering; mostly thanks to Robson’s direction and Holden but also editor Alma Macrorie, who’s just as good doing the comedy as the fighter jets.

The movie opens with Holden crashing into the ocean, Rooney saving him, March bonding with Holden and telling him Kelly and the daughters are waiting for them in Japan. Then it’s three days ahead and we only get hints of how they passed from Holden’s expressions and how he interacts with the other guys on the ship. The point of that very soft character development technique becomes clear later, in the second half of the film, when it’s just Holden shutting all the guys out on the ship after they’re back to sea, headed to a dangerous mission. Bridges gives its characters their own politics, identifying most with Holden—who’s slowly buying into March’s take, but March also just sees Korea as a diversion from Soviet Russia… but for progressive reasons. Sort of. Kelly’s living “Donna Reed Goes to War.” Rooney’s a sociopath we find out. A lovable one, but a complete sociopath.

The film is character studies but fits them into the epical war drama frame. While mostly being tense action and preparation for action. Valentine Davies writes a really tight script; Bridges is based on a James Michener so who knows where that efficiency is from. Because there’s also Robson. He opens the movie with this very practical look at the way aircraft carriers work. The film opens with a thanks to the U.S. Navy for their participation, but it’s not clear how much participation Bridges is going to get. It gets a whole lot. There are big action set pieces, both in and out of fighter jets. Macrorie and whoever did the miniature effects startlingly match the actual jets. It’s a beautifully edited film.

Including on the opening “welcome to an aircraft carrier” montage sequence. It fits into the narrative eventually, but for a while it’s just Robson displaying this world. Very quickly the grandiosity of the carrier becomes mundane. Very quickly. In fact, I think Robson just cuts away from the carrier setup and never comes back to it. So he truncates it, because Robson keeps a brisk pace through the Japan sequence. Yeah, there’s the cutesy bathhouse scene but there’s nothing else. Otherwise the film’s always working toward the second half, where it slows down and puts Holden through a wringer and the audience never really gets to understand exactly what’s going on with him. Because even though the narrative distance is fairly firm on being about what happens to Holden and around Holden, it also seems like it could toggle over to being about what Holden’s going to do, which would change reads on how previous events unfolded. The Bridges at Toko-Ri doesn’t tell the audience what kind of the film they’re actually watching until around the third act; from the start, it promises to tell them, then keeps building to it. For at least an hour. It’s kind of breathtaking how well Robson and Davies pull it off. They don’t do it for the benefit of the genre—the early lefty-ish war movie—but for the film’s. Instead of going big, Robson and Davies keep it about the four main characters. It’s a tricky finish and the film’s very nimble in the execution.

The best performances are Holden and March. Not to knock Kelly or Rooney, they just don’t get the parts. Holden doesn’t really get to talk about his and March doesn’t talk about his when he’s talking about his. Robson cuts to their close-ups and waits for their reaction, in expression or dialogue, the film unable to continue until they’ve had their moment. Bridges hinges on them. Kelly and Rooney are both excellent, but the film doesn’t hinge on them in the same way. Because Kelly does get to talk about her experience; arguably her learning to speak up for herself is the film’s only traditionally successful character arc. She doesn’t suffer in silence or obfuscation. Rooney’s an entirely different case, initially set up as comic relief (or near to it) he’s actually something quite different. While still retaining some of the comic quality. But just as tragic as everyone else in their mutual delusions.

The Bridges at Toko-Ri takes the pieces of a war action movie and a war melodrama and assembles them into something very special. Great work from Robson, Davies, Holden, March, Kelly, Rooney, editor Macrorie, and photographer Loyal Griffs (save a rear screen projection shot here and there). It’s a phenomenal piece of work.

4/4★★★★

CREDITS

Directed by Mark Robson; screenplay by Valentine Davies, based on the novel by James A. Michener; director of photography, Loyal Griggs; edited by Alma Macrorie; music by Lyn Murray; produced by William Perlberg and George Seaton; released by Paramount Pictures.

Starring William Holden (Lt. Harry Brubaker), Fredric March (Rear Adm. George Tarrant), Grace Kelly (Nancy Brubaker), Mickey Rooney (Mike Forney), Earl Holliman (Nestor Gamidge), Charles McGraw (Cmdr. Wayne Lee), Keiko Awaji (Kimiko), and Robert Strauss (Beer Barrel).



The Buccaneer (1938, Cecil B. DeMille)

Even if you give The Buccaneer a lot of its historical absurdities and classic Hollywood whitewashing, even if you give it a motley crew of murdering (but not raping, good family men) pirates getting giddy and doing a singalong while they row themselves through the bayou to fight for Andrew Jackson against the British, even if you give the film lead Fredric March’s accent, it’s got a lot of problems. Without even mentioning how director DeMille gives everyone a slave, American, British, Pirate. Like, he likes it. It’s creepy.

Especially at the opening when you want to be enjoying Spring Byington doing a brief cameo as a capable (and rather sexy, like what is up what that dress) first lady Dolly Madison who was to suffer men trying to rescue her when she’s doing it herself.

The big problem is The Buccaneer himself. Not March, who’s rather likable even with that accent and able to whether the silliest of DeMille’s jingoism. But the character. So he’s a pirate who doesn’t rob American vessels and doesn’t kill passengers, unless they’re asking for it (everyone gets a chance to disembarck). He’s in love with New Orleans society girl Margot Grahame, who grossly comes on to Andrew Jackson (Hugh Sothern) at one point. Not because it’s in character, but because no one–not the four-ish screenwriters, not director DeMille, not Grahame herself–knows what to do with the character. She’s there to give March a reason to fight to be an American. For the pretty, well-spoken girl who gets shown up in every one of her scenes with guardian aunt Beulah Bondi. Just because Grahame’s got nothing else to do. She’s in love with a pirate, if only he’d go legit for her. She’s just not the female lead, so she’s got squat.

The female lead–and kind of protagonist, certainly more than March–is Franciska Gaal. She’s playing an adorable–literally squeaking–Dutch girl who ends up with March and his band. March becomes her protector and, accordinly, Gaal falls in love with him even though she’s seen his men kill an entire ship of innocent people and even try to kill her. She only escapes because pirate Fred Kohler, who met her in the film’s first scene, has been trying to rape her since that first scene.

The film does this whole “she’s not in any great danger with these pirates, oh, wait, no, it’d be better if the nicer one just killed her instead” thing for the first act and beginning of second, so you’d think you’re supposed to take it serious. But then you aren’t whenever Gaal’s supposed to be foolish instead of brave. Like, the movie craps on Gaal’s performance and all the potential for the character. After the setting up the movie to focus on those things.

Because, as Gaal later whines to March when her character does nothing but lather him with unrequited verbal admiration, all the men are acting like little boys and fighting. Once the movie starts moving toward the opening text exposition on Lafitte’s place in history, once all the fighting starts, Gaal gets dropped like a rock. Worse, there’s more with Grahame. No fault to her, but she and March have even less chemistry than March and Gaal. At least March is protective of Gaal. With Grahame, it’s bewildering. She’s supposed to be his obsession and they’re flat together.

Maybe the accent got in the way. But more likely Grahame’s character being really thin. And, really, March’s isn’t much better. He’s supposed to be this great pirate captain yet the only times things go right it’s because of Gaal or Akim Tamiroff as his main sidekick. Anthony Quinn’s all right as the second sidekick. Tamiroff’s in love with Gaal. He makes it cute. He’s the best performance in the film, with Walter Brennan a somewhat close second as Andrew Jackson’s dotting frontiersman sidekick. Gaal’s a far third.

Because there aren’t any standout supporting performances. Douglass Dumbrille’s okay as the governor who’s out to get March. Ian Keith’s bad as the bent politician, working for the British. Hugh Sothern’s hilariously bad as Andrew Jackson. Though at least he doesn’t play Jackson horny old man when Grahame offers.

Beulah Bondi is fine as the aunt. Some of the third tier supporting performances are solid. It’s a big movie. There are a lot of people around. They’re mostly all right. Even Kohler. He’s not good but he’s not bad.

Technically, the film’s competent. I mean, DeMille has annoying two shots because–apparently–of height disparities and Anne Bauchens never cuts to them well. Based on DeMille’s composition, it’s probably because he didn’t get the right shots, which is weird since it’s clearly big budget and so on. He saves his energy for the battle scenes, which really aren’t effective because March doesn’t do much. He tells the other guys what to do mostly.

He does have a sword fight, but it’s got a bad finish and leads into his second asinine patriotic speech (after the Americans have massacred a bunch of his men) and the movie doesn’t even try. DeMille doesn’t try with anything in Buccaneer. It gets annoying. The massacre of the pirates at their base is probably the best action sequence. But it’s in the middle of the rather long two hour and five minute film. And it’s a dramatic fail of a plot beat.

The Buccaneer clearly was a big production and DeMille and company do make an epic. It’s just not a successful one. The script’s alterately lazy, cheap, and dull. The third act only “saves” the film because it stops getting worse. It plateaus. And Gaal’s charming and March’s likable and you just want it to end so why fight it. It’s not a success, it’s a surrender.

1/4

CREDITS

Produced and directed by Cecil B. DeMille; screenplay by Edwin Justus Mayer, Harold Lamb, and C. Gardner Sullivan, adaptation by Jeanie Macpherson, based on a novel by Lyle Saxon; director of photography, Victor Milner; edited by Anne Bauchens; music by George Antheil; released by Paramount Pictures.

Starring Fredric March (Jean Lafitte), Franciska Gaal (Gretchen), Akim Tamiroff (Dominique You), Margot Grahame (Annette de Remy), Anthony Quinn (Beluche), Ian Keith (Senator Crawford), Douglass Dumbrille (Governor William C.C. Claiborne), Fred Kohler (Gramby), Hugh Sothern (General Andrew Jackson), Walter Brennan (Ezra Peavey), Beulah Bondi (Aunt Charlotte), and Spring Byington (Dolly Madison).


Middle of the Night (1959, Delbert Mann)

Paddy Chayefsky adapted his own play for Middle of the Night and there are some clear alterations with original intent. Fifty-six year-old widower Fredric March is in garment manufacturing. His first scene has him hanging out with the other old guys in the factory, kvetching about how there’s nothing to do but visit their children. March’s character isn’t Jewish… but he was in the play. And apparently it was a big deal in the play. In the film, he’s probably Polish–though when he wows Kim Novak with Old World wisdom, it’s called a “European saying.” If it weren’t for Chayefsky’s dialogue for March and the boys–which comes up time and again–it wouldn’t be such a disconnect. Though occasionally March will do a light accent (with the exception of one scene where he goes all in) and it doesn’t come off. March is doing just fine. The film really doesn’t need the failed attempt at subtext leftover from the source play.

Novak is playing March’s twenty-four year-old receptionist. She’s recently divorced from musician Lee Philips (who, shockingly, originated the part on Broadway and isn’t in the film because the studio wanted some bland leading man type) and miserable. Confronted with Novak’s sadness, March shows some kindness. And becomes utterly infatuated with her. His business partner, Albert Dekker (in a devastating performance) is always out with younger women, but paying them for their time–well, putting it on customers’ expense accounts but March has no interest in that kind of thing. He feels sympathy and adoration for Novak. And finally works up the nerve to ask her on a date.

Now, until this moment in the film–the occasional awkward play adaptation aside–Chayefsky’s script hasn’t put any corners. Novak’s big opening scene where she breaks down to March is so thorough it looks like there’s added footage to her monologue (Carl Lerner’s editing occasionally has such problematic cuts it must have been something with the footage director Mann shot). Then the movie skips to their third date, when Novak has a hard talk with March. Now, she swears up and down she didn’t just keep going out with him because he was the boss and, based on the following ninety minutes of film, it’s more than believable. But then what was so successful about those first three dates? Sure, she’s lonely, but not actually alone (her best friend, Lee Grant, gets introduced in the last forty-five minutes but she should’ve been around at the time–not to mention kid sister Jan Norris who goes unmentioned until she appears at the same time as Grant). It seems like Chayefsky’s cutting some corners. And it sticks out. And it sticks out again when Grant and Norris show up, because why hasn’t Novak’s life been important until so much later… The movie wants a pass on it.

And I haven’t even gotten to the part where, after promising Novak he’ll leave her alone, March forces himself on her. At the factory, at night (presumably the Middle of the Night), and basically breaks her down into agreeing to their romance. But he’s good to her, even if it’s a little paternal. Or so she keeps saying. Their scenes together tend to be their problem scenes. March is incredibly likable so it’s all reasonable, he’s just always in a mood when he’s with Novak, which is all of her scenes in the movie until after the halfway point. Novak making their relationship seem real is a heck of a lot more impressive than what March has to put into it. He’s just got to puff out his chest because she’s this gorgeous twenty-four year-old who wants him. Or does a reasonable facsimile of wanting him.

Middle of the Night’s biggest defect is the utter avoidance of honesty between Novak and March. There’s a bit of a showdown scene in the third act, before a deus ex, but it’s too little, too late. They’re more than willing to be honest away from each other–the scene where Novak lays it out to best friend Grant is fantastic, ditto the one where March finally talks to Dekker about being a dirty old man (just a nice one)–and it’d have done wonders for the character development for them to be honest together. Especially if it had been in the first half of the picture or so, because Middle of the Night is kind of long at two hours.

It’s always well-acted, it’s beautifully directed and photographed (Joseph C. Brun’s black and white is breathtaking), and Chayefsky’s dialogue is always on point–when there’s not too much dialect flourish–so it’s not a bad two hours at all. The third act has some great pay-off, it just comes a little too late. All that time Chayefsky’s script skips over is apparently not just for the onscreen action, it’s like the character development paused for it too. Other than March’s puffed chest. Novak’s on pause for most of the movie.

With the exception of Philips, all the acting is good. March is great. Novak’s like one moment of onscreen realization away from being twice as good (the movie’s way too condescending towards Novak’s character). Edith Meiser’s good as March’s sister, who lives with him and doesn’t like the idea of Novak. Shocker. Joan Copeland plays one of two daughters–the other one doesn’t figure in at all. She’s really good at the beginning, when her writing is better; in the second half of the film, both she and Mesier are basically competing for bigger harpy. Martin Balsam’s fun as Copeland’s husband. It’s not a great part, but he does well with it.

On the other side of the proverbial aisle, Grant’s the best. She’s got one hell of a monologue about the misery of married life, which echoes Dekker’s–just separated by gender… and thirty plus years–she’s also the only one who’s able to make believe she’s got any concern for Novak. Sister Norris and mom Glenda Farrell at one point seem like they’re going to help Philips assault Novak, they’re so passively cruel and actively dismissive of her agency. The movie wants to say something about Norris being a young tart but doesn’t. And Farrell wins the harpy contest.

Every time Middle of the Night gets problematic, you just have to wait it out and eventually Mann will do something great or Brun will have an amazing shot and March and Novak will have gotten through whatever contrived problem they have and it sails on until the next problem. Then it just grinds until it passes again. And so on. March and Novak mesmerize, against the glorious black and white New York–fantastic score from George Bassman too. There are a lot of successful parts (the lead performances, the technical aspects–save those bad Lerner cuts, which don’t seem to be his fault), it’s just not a success overall. Someone needed to make some hard choices and neither Chayefsky nor Mann did.

2.5/4★★½

CREDITS

Directed by Delbert Mann; screenplay by Paddy Chayefsky, based on his play; director of photography, Joseph C. Brun; edited by Carl Lerner; music by George Bassman; produced by George Justin; released by Columbia Pictures.

Starring Fredric March (Jerry Kingsley), Kim Novak (Betty Preisser), Edith Meiser (Evelyn Kingsley), Joan Copeland (Lillian Englander), Martin Balsam (Jack Englander), Glenda Farrell (Mrs. Mueller), Jan Norris (Alice Mueller), Lee Grant (Marilyn), Lee Philips (George Preisser), and Albert Dekker (Walter Lockman).


The Best Years of Our Lives (1946, William Wyler)

If it weren’t for the first half of the film, The Best Years of Our Lives would be a series of vingettes. The film runs almost three hours. Almost exactly the first half is set over two days. The remainder is set over a couple months. Director Wyler and screenwriter Robert E. Sherwood don’t really do much summary in the second half. Subplots run through a series of the vingettes, never all of them–the film’s unequally but definitely split between its three male leads. Wyler and Sherwood reveal develops through attitude and dialogue. Time passes through Dana Andrews’s gradual resignation. Through Harold Russell’s depression. Alternately, I suppose, it also passes through Fredric March and Myrna Loy’s re-familiarization.

The film opens with Andrews, Russell, and March returning from World War II. Dashing Andrews was an Air Force captain, sailor Russell has lost his hands, older guy March was just an Army sergeant. The first ten minutes sets up the characters, their hometown (the fictional, vaguely midwestern Boone City), and the people waiting for them.

The first ten minutes establishes how much of the film is going to be on the actors’ faces. Watching real-life amputee Russell contend with the polite and not polite–among fellow servicemen–dominates. Whatever nervousness Andrews and March are experiencing, they’re always aware of what’s going on with Russell. And they aren’t comfortable. The bond between the three builds with that comfort, which Russell (and Sherwood and Wyler) determinedly demand. Much of the first half of the film is spent examining the three men; both for character development and just plain characters looking at each other. The men are strangers when the film begins, polite ones, but strangers.

Once they arrive home, it gets more complicated. Sure, the trio aren’t looking at each other, but they’re discovering the ground situation. Wyler and Sherwood lay it out for the audience and the characters. All the characters. Best Years focuses on the three men’s return home, but their supporting cast gets a lot of establishing and developing. March’s homecoming to wife Loy and children Teresa Wright and Michael Hall sets up two big subplots and sort of Loy’s character arc. Russell’s return suggests something similiar–he’s got a literal girl next door fiancée (Cathy O’Donnell) waiting for him–but it doesn’t end up being as big. Russell gets less screentime in the second half. The film always returns to him at just the right moment, when he’s been away too long.

He’s got the “simpliest” subplot–his depression and how it affects his relationship with O’Donnell. Andrews has got PTSD a rocky wartime marriage (to Virginia Mayo), and a flirtation with someone he shouldn’t be flirting with. March has got a drinking problem, a work problem (back banking for chickenhawk Ray Collins), as well as feeling uncomfortable at home.

Most of these details get introduced in the first half. Mayo shows up just at the end with some foreshadowing for turmoil, but nothing onscreen. Same goes for March’s work problems. Andrews and March get these subplots second half; Russell doesn’t.

It’s unfortunate but the film’s so good, it gets a pass on that one.

The first half also brings the characters back together. March drags Loy and Wright out on the town, running into Andrews and then Russell. They’re all at Hoagy Carmichael’s bar. Carmichael is great as Russell’s wise, piano-playing uncle. He defuses situations, which Andrews, March, and Russell frequently need.

Even if it’s just making Loy and Wright less annoyed. They–and the audience–don’t really understand the extent of March’s drinking at the start. Because Best Years is slow to reveal its subplots, slow to foreshadow. One of the reasons it can get away with giving Russell so much less (though his eighth billing isn’t okay) is because what it does give him is so good. Because Russell’s so good. Best Years of Our Lives is, spared down, about a bunch of people who really want to cry and never let themselves. Russell’s the only one who gets to go through that on screen.

Meanwhile, Andrews has to combat his stoicism. His arc is this complicated ego one, with the PTSD an undercurrent; along with the romantic troubles.

So Andrews and Russell have the toxic masculinity arcs. March doesn’t. His resignation and rediscovery arc is much quieter, far less dramatic, and awesome.

Because the film’s so long and goes into vignette, the actor giving the best performance isn’t always consistent. Overall, it’s probably March. But Russell. But Andrews. Supporting it’s easily Loy… though Wright and O’Donnell are both outstanding. Loy’s just got the least screentime for her own arc. She’s always supporting someone else’s. So watching her character develop, rarely in close-up, is special.

Because Sherwood and Wyler are great at maintaining and building on details through the subplots. Andrews and Russell, independently and then together, deal with some real homecoming nastiness (as well as general disinterest), but it’s in the March subplot where it dramatically culminates.

Such a good script. Sherwood’s pacing is phenomenal. Even when, for example, Russell’s subplot is almost overdue, the film hasn’t been dragging. Best Years of Our Lives never drags.

Wyler’s direction is precise, deliberate, patient. He’ll have silences–either filled with mundanely urban background or Hugo Friedhofer’s excellent score. He’ll have noisy–almost anywhere outside Carmichael’s bar and March’s apartment is packed with people. He’s nimble too. He’s got this over the shoulder shot he repeats a few times in the third act, with the divine Gregg Toland photography (there’s no other word). He doesn’t use the shot earlier. He does some similar things, at least with how he places the actors, but it’s this distinct stylistic thing he’s moving towards throughout.

The Toland photography is perfect.

It’d be the most jaw-dropping technical feature–and I suppose, really, it is because it’s the photography–but Daniel Mandell’s editing is a masterpiece of smooth, fluid, and emotively considerate cutting. The editing is exquisite, simultaneously bold and subtle.

The Best Years of Our Lives is a remarkable motion picture.

4/4★★★★

CREDITS

Directed by William Wyler; screenplay by Robert E. Sherwood, based on a novel by MacKinlay Kantor; director of photography, Gregg Toland; edited by Daniel Mandell; music by Hugo Friedhofer; produced by Samuel Goldwyn; released by RKO Radio Pictures.

Starring Fredric March (Al Stephenson), Dana Andrews (Fred Derry), Harold Russell (Homer Parrish), Myrna Loy (Milly Stephenson), Teresa Wright (Peggy Stephenson), Virginia Mayo (Marie Derry), Cathy O’Donnell (Wilma Cameron), Hoagy Carmichael (Butch Engle), Marlene Aames (Luella Parrish), Gladys George (Hortense), Roman Bohnen (Pat Derry), Minna Gombell (Mrs. Parrish), Walter Baldwin (Mr. Parrish), Michael Hall (Rob Stephenson), and Ray Collins (Mr. Milton).



Nothing Sacred (1937, William A. Wellman)

Nothing Sacred is an idea in search of a script. It’s a little surprisingly they went forward with Ben Hecht’s script, which plays like he wrote it on a bunch of napkins and left director Wellman to piece together a narrative.

Fredric March–who has shockingly little to do in the film–is a newspaper reporter who may or may not have tried to defraud the wealthy of New York with a fake sultan and a donation project. Hecht’s script reveals so little about March, it doesn’t even make that determination. His editor, Walter Connolly, sends him off to investigate a dying girl, played by Carole Lombard.

Turns out Lombard’s not dying and deceives March for a trip to New York. She brings along Charles Winninger as her drunken doctor.

Hilarity does not ensue in New York City. Neither do big comic set pieces. A lot of Sacred feels like Wellman trying to justify the Technicolor expense and not knowing how to do so–he shoots the film almost entirely in medium long shot, with occasional closeups and then he blocks parts of shots for emphasis. It’s strange.

Lombard is wonderful in her role. The script doesn’t give her anything to do–the film runs less than eighty minutes, it might just be there isn’t enough time. March’s okay, but on the shallow end of it. Connolly is wonderful. Winninger is not.

The entire film feels truncated and too small for its concept. Instead of making it feel grandiose, the Technicolor instead makes it feel cramped.

1.5/4★½

CREDITS

Directed by William A. Wellman; screenplay by Ben Hecht, based on a story by James H. Street; director of photography, W. Howard Greene; edited by James E. Newcom; music by Oscar Levant; produced by David O. Selznick; released by United Artists.

Starring Carole Lombard (Hazel Flagg), Fredric March (Wally Cook), Charles Winninger (Dr. Enoch Downer), Walter Connolly (Oliver Stone), Sig Ruman (Dr. Emil Eggelhoffer) and Troy Brown Sr. (Ernest Walker).


I Married a Witch (1942, René Clair)

I Married a Witch often seems too short. Director Clair rightly focuses the picture around leading lady Veronica Lake, with Frederic March getting a fair amount of attention too, but the narrative outside them blurs. And it shouldn’t blur, given the high stakes election backdrop.

Clair’s focus also extends to troublesome plot points. Witch goes back on plot decisions just because there’s a good scene if a decision here or there is forgotten. The picture feels willfully constructed (as opposed to sublimely). Of course, this artificiality doesn’t much matter; Clair makes a fine film of Witch.

Lake’s the film’s essential element. She’s appealing whether she’s a good witch or a bad witch, whether she’s physically present or voicing a wisp of smoke. Witch isn’t about March overcoming his family’s curse, it’s about seeing what Lake is going to do to him next. Around halfway, the narrative veers in a new direction, giving both actors much different things to do. They both excel. March might not have as much to do, but it’s impossible to imagine Witch without him.

The two stars get fine support from Robert Benchley (as March’s best friend) and Cecil Kellaway (Lake’s warlock father). Susan Hayward’s around a bit as March’s loathsome fiancée–his family’s been cursed to marry poorly. Hayward doesn’t make much impression beyond the loathsome though.

Ted Tetzlaff’s photography is wondrous, ably handling some of Clair’s more ambitious flourishes. The finale has some fine effects work.

Witch is delightful thanks to Lake and March.

3.5/4★★★½

CREDITS

Directed by René Clair; screenplay by Robert Pirosh and Marc Connelly, based on a novel by Thorne Smith and Norman Matson; director of photography, Ted Tetzlaff; edited by Eda Warren; music by Roy Webb; produced by Preston Sturges and Clair; released by United Artists.

Starring Fredric March (Wallace Wooley), Veronica Lake (Jennifer), Robert Benchley (Dr. Dudley White), Susan Hayward (Estelle Masterson), Cecil Kellaway (Daniel), Elizabeth Patterson (Margaret) and Robert Warwick (J.B. Masterson).



This film is also discussed on BASP | I Married a Witch (1942) / Bewitched (2005).

Design for Living (1933, Ernst Lubitsch)

From the first third of Design for Living, it’s impossible to think it might not be absolutely fantastic throughout. Eventually it does hit a dry period and it’s impossible to think it’s going to pull out of it. Then it does and it’s impossible to think… well, you get the idea. I don’t know why I wasn’t fully trusting of Lubitsch, but during that dry spell, I really did think he’d lost control of the film.

The problem he–and the characters–needs to work out is a familiar one, the love triangle, but here with the added complication of the two male legs being best friends. I’m not sure how much of the solution Lubitsch got from Noel Coward’s source play (Ben Hecht’s adaptation only retained one line of dialogue and I can’t find any information on the plotting), but Lubitsch’s resolution is perfect. The film’s already over its bumpy period and it’s already assured he’s going to end it well, but the way he does is even better than expected.

The bumpy period–which probably only lasts fifteen minutes, at most, of the film’s ninety minute running time–is distinct because of what it lacks. The film opens with Miriam Hopkins sitting down across from Gary Cooper and Fredric March. The opening minutes are silent, followed by a minute of Cooper and Hopkins speaking French, then it’s the trio full steam. They all play perfectly off each other, so when the film’s without them–when it’s just March or just Cooper–it doesn’t work right. Hopkins works great with both of them, but they don’t work quite so well when they aren’t together. In fact, there’s a whole scene emphasizing that point.

Seeing Cooper and March–two leading men–sharing a film like this one, complimenting each other so well, it’s hard to believe they never reunited. The film only spends thirty seconds establishing the friendship–silently no less–between the two. While March went on to do a lot of comedies, Cooper only did them in his (relatively) early career, at least playing up his abilities as a physical comedian. Both of them are superb; hearing them fire Hecht’s dialogue back and forth is joyous.

What’s so frustrating about not knowing how Hecht’s adaptation works is in terms of discussing the scene structure. If I didn’t know the film came from a play, had I missed the opening titles, I might have guessed it. The scenes have a lot of dialogue and a lack of mobility–even if it’s a multi-room setting, the action takes place in the same areas. But then there are other touches–Lubitsch communicating the passage of time with an advertisement on a bus, for example–which are entirely filmic.

The handling of Edward Everett Horton’s character, a ludicrous suitor for Hopkins, is also rather filmic. Horton manages the film’s second most difficult performance (Hopkins having the first, having to convey her conflicted feelings for both Cooper and March in a constantly fresh way); Horton has to both be believable and absurd. The film makes a few drastic changes to the character to keep him in line for the narrative to work and Horton negotiates them well. He’s an amusing, antagonistic buffoon.

The film’s such a success, I’m a little surprised I hadn’t heard of it before. Between the performances–the pairing of Cooper and March and Hopkins in general–Lubitsch’s sublime direction (that opening is masterful), and Hecht’s script… Design for Living should be much better known.

4/4★★★★

CREDITS

Produced and directed by Ernst Lubitsch; screenplay by Ben Hecht, based on the play by Noel Coward; director of photography, Victor Milner; edited by Frances Marsh; music by John Leipold; released by Paramount Pictures.

Starring Fredric March (Tom Chambers), Gary Cooper (George Curtis), Miriam Hopkins (Gilda Farrell), Edward Everett Horton (Max Plunkett), Franklin Pangborn (Mr. Douglas), Isabel Jewell (Plunkett’s Stenographer), Jane Darwell (Curtis’s Housekeeper) and Wyndham Standing (Max’s Butler).


Mary of Scotland (1936, John Ford)

Even with the overbearing music and the strange lighting for emphasis (play-like, it dims to concentrate attention on an object or person), lots of Mary of Scotland is rather well done. Ford’s got some excellent shots and, at times, creates anxious scenes. It’s hard to get particularly excited during most of the film because, while there’s always something going on, it’s more interesting as history than drama. Katharine Hepburn and Fredric March are both good–Hepburn’s got some extraordinary moments–and they’ve got good chemistry, but it’s hard to sustain concern for their problems. Ford seems to get it–or maybe the source play got it–and makes everyone but Hepburn and March, and some of the supporting cast, absolutely evil. Florence Eldridge as Elizabeth, for instance, comes off slightly more inhuman than Emperor Palpatine. Moroni Olsen’s clergyman comes off even more soulless.

The wickedness of royalty raises a lot of questions about the film and historical filmmaking in general–the scene where Eldridge finally confronts Hepburn plays like something out of a Universal horror film of the era. In order to get sympathy for one royal, all the others must be abjectly inhuman. It’d be fine–I wouldn’t have even noticed it–if Mary of Scotland had a story going on. But it really doesn’t, it just sort of ambles along, killing the excellent momentum of the opening–Hepburn’s first night as queen is eventful and sets up the film with a lot of potential. But there’s so little visible interest from Ford’s part. Once he gets around to the lighting effects, he just keeps doing them; it’s a pragmatic way to get things over with.

There’s some excellent supporting performances–John Carradine’s great as Hepburn’s loyal secretary (playing an Italian no less). The scenes with Carradine are some of the film’s most enjoyable, because they’re fun. Also, a lot of March’s early scenes–fun. Donald Crisp’s early scenes, fun. Later on, there’s only Douglas Walton to provide any amusement (and we’re supposed to laugh at him, not with).

By the end, Ford would have been better served with title cards explaining events then trying to tell them scenically. Hepburn and March keep up, but the story’s rote. Regardless of historical inevitability, Dudley Nichols and Ford really should have found some way to vivify the last act. Instead, there’s the dour meeting between the two queens–which the viewer’s been waiting the whole film to see–and the pay-off… leaves a lot to be desired. And then the end, which leaves even more.

2.5/4★★½

CREDITS

Directed by John Ford; screenplay by Dudley Nichols, based on the play by Maxwell Anderson; director of photography, Joseph H. August; music by Nathaniel Shilkret; produced by Pandro S. Berman; released by RKO Radio Pictures.

Starring Katharine Hepburn (Mary Queen of Scots), Fredric March (Earl of Bothwell), Florence Eldridge (Queen Elizabeth I), Douglas Walton (Lord Darnley), John Carradine (David Rizzio), Robert Barrat (Lord Morton), Gavin Muir (Earl of Leicester), Ian Keith (James Stuart, Earl of Moray), Moroni Olsen (John Knox), William Stack (Lord Ruthven), Ralph Forbes (Lord Randolph), Alan Mowbray (Lord Throckmorton), Frieda Inescort (Mary Beaton) and Donald Crisp (Lord Huntley).


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