Kay Francis

The Cocoanuts (1929, Robert Florey and Joseph Santley)

The only stand-out sequence in The Cocoanuts comes at the end, when Chico is playing the piano. One of the directors–or both of them–finally had a good instinct and cut to a close-up of Chico’s hands playing. It overrides the first shot of the piano playing, which doesn’t show Chico’s hands at all and barely his expressions; the second shot has hand and expression, so it’s fine. But that close-up is a real surprise, given there’s nothing else impressive as far as the directing goes in The Cocoanuts.

Well, except maybe the emphasis on the dancers’ legs. Directors Florey and Santley can’t figure out depth of field for any other shots, but they sure can when there are dancers’ legs in frame. It’s a little gaudy and more than a little sensational, but it’s competently executed gaudy and sensational.

Otherwise, there’s no competent execution direction in the film. The Cocoanuts’ directors waver between middling and medicore.

The film’s able to coast on the Marx Brothers–and villains Cyril Ring and Kay Francis–into the third act. It gets really long at times (it doesn’t even show a pulse until Harpo and Chico show up twenty minutes in) and musical romantic leads Oscar Shaw and Mary Eaton have a distressing lack of chemistry, but it gets there. Even with Chico and Harpo stuck having to play off Basil Ruysdael’s stuffed shirt detective. Even with Groucho looking visibly bored during some of his monologues, which are usually poorly edited and directed without any energy. Even with Zeppo–top-billed of the Brothers–having four scenes and getting blocked out in most of the third act.

I mean, the back of an extra’s head blocking him out does mean he doesn’t have to look bored during the nonsensical wedding announcement party Margaret Dumont is throwing for daughter Eaton. It’s a gaucho-themed party, though some of the female guests are wearing gowns with crinolines (dome-shaped gowns). The party’s got to be a delight to dissect for costume and production designers.

Cocoanuts takes place in Florida, with Groucho a hotel manager and would-be land baron who can’t attract guests to his hotel (it’s unclear why there the opening establishing shots of the beach are packed with ostensible vactioneers) and can’t sell his properties. One of the scenes the directors screw up is Chico messing up Groucho’s land auction.

Ring is a scumbag blue blood who seems to have lost his money in the Crash, but Dumont’s still got hers and he wants to marry Eaton for it. But she’s in love with Shaw (apparently no one noticed Eaton singing the song Shaw writes for her to serenade Ring at one point makes Eaton even more disposably unlikable). So Francis schemes to help him get rich another–they’re going to steal Dumont’s jewels and frame Chico and Harpo. Their plan doesn’t play out, but still goes their way enough to cause some drama. Cocoanuts is heavy on character setup in the first act (pre-Chico and Harpo, whose introduction turns into a ten minute scene), then completely forgets about the characters. Francis and Ring are still pretty good. The scene where she tries to seduce Harpo is solid (it ought to be great, but for Florey and Santley).

And Ring is a sturdy scumbag.

Eaton’s bad. Shaw is bad with Eaton, but he actually plays really well with the Marx Brothers.

Ruysdael sucks the life out of the film every time he’s onscreen. The third act starts with him getting his own musical number (with a lot of assistance from people who can sing), which gets things off on rocky footing. As if the ornate hacienda, which is apparently part of Groucho’s failing hotel (Dumont and Eaton are his only paying guests), isn’t enough of a credulity pitfall. It actually starts with an excellent shot–kicking off a music number–but that one glimmer of technical hope doesn’t carry through.

Dumont and Groucho have some okay scenes together but nothing great. Her characterization is too thin. She can figure out Groucho (until his manly charms overpower her good sense), but she doesn’t notice Ring’s a scuz? It doesn’t play. And Eaton lets Dumont walk all over her in scenes, even though Dumont’s not trying to do so; Eaton visibly recedes opposite other actors.

Again, the directors.

The sets are good–the whole thing, exteriors included, are shot on interior sets–but the directors don’t really know how to use them. Or they know how to use them for half the frame. There will be a dance number on the bottom half of the screen and its audience ignoring its existence on the top half.

Despite all its problems, The Cocoanuts is still manages to disappoint in the end. The finale is nowhere near effective enough–it doesn’t help Groucho and Chico both look exasperated sitting through a lot of it. Chico in particular seems like he wants to be anywhere else. Harpo at least gets a okay decent drunk scene. Next to them, Francis manages to hold it together though.

The directors sink the picture.

1.5/4★½

CREDITS

Directed by Robert Florey and Joseph Santley; screenplay by Morrie Ryskind, based on the play by George S. Kaufman; director of photography, George J. Folsey; edited by Barney Rogan; music by Frank Tours; produced by Walter Wanger; released by Paramount Pictures.

Starring Zeppo Marx (Jamison), Groucho Marx (Hammer), Harpo Marx (Harpo), Chico Marx (Chico), Oscar Shaw (Bob), Mary Eaton (Polly), Cyril Ring (Yates), Kay Francis (Penelope), Margaret Dumont (Mrs. Potter), and Basil Ruysdael (Hennessy).

Trouble in Paradise (1932, Ernst Lubitsch)

Trouble in Paradise features some great filmmaking. Here, Lubitsch runs wild with the passage of time–there’s a great sequence with various clocks marking the minutes, but there’s a lot of carefully orchestrated fades as well. The film opens with an excellent mixed shot–again, careful fading–moving from one side of a hotel to another. It goes from actors to a model to actors. It’s exquisite.

I almost forgot Lubitsch’s transition between the first and second acts–he goes to a radio advertisement (seeing the announcer deliver it into the microphone), then does an actual advertisement for the product, then transition to the makers of the product–all before revealing if it has any bearing on the story. It’s a gleeful move. These techniques make it almost impossible to recognize Trouble in Paradise‘s origin as a play.

Being Lubitsch, his direction of his actors is, no shock, perfect. I don’t think I’ve ever seen Herbert Marshall give a better performance. He and Miriam Hopkins have a half dozen fantastic scenes together. They even make the final scene work, even though it really shouldn’t. But the film has three leads–Kay Francis is the third–and Hopkins gets the boot for much of the second act. It’s impossible to forget her, but the film practically begs for the viewer to do it. Trouble in Paradise‘s trouble is its genre–it’s an infidelity comedy. Unlike the more sophisticated members of this genre, Trouble leaves Hopkins in something of a lurch. Worse, it never corrects its perspective. Hopkins is always the primary female protagonist, which makes Marshall into a heel. Even worse, it never gives much room for Francis to make an honest impression. She goes from being the mark to being the other woman with a nicely edited sequence involving the butler never being able to figure out if she’s in her room or in Marshall’s.

The film’s third act is something of a narrative disaster. The film’s been building to it all through the second act, but since the script doesn’t love triangle… it seems possible it will be avoided. There are countless opportunities for it to go the other way (I’m not really sure where it would go, but it’d have been somewhere creative, I’m sure) and as they all fall away, it gets kind of tedious. The film doesn’t turn out the way I expected, but only because the third act’s constant oscillation confused the hell out of me.

In the end, Trouble in Paradise is almost a better viewing experience than a finished product. It’s fantastic throughout, only to fail to deliver in the last quarter. It’s got the great Marshall and Hopkins performances. Francis is quite good, even if her character is poorly written. Charles Ruggles and Edward Everett Horton–and Robert Greig as the butler–are excellent in supporting roles. The script’s approach to Horton in the late second act, however, serves as ominous foreshadowing of the problems to follow. C. Aubrey Smith has a smaller role and is solid, but much like Francis, there isn’t a character.

I was thinking my high expectations for the film might have lead to undue harshness, but then I realized the film raised those expectations… I don’t even think I properly conveyed my disappointment.

3/4★★★

CREDITS

Produced and directed by Ernst Lubitsch; screenplay by Samson Raphaelson, based on an adaption by Grover Jones of a play by Aladar Laszlo; director of photography, Victor Milner; released by Paramount Pictures.

Starring Miriam Hopkins (Lily), Kay Francis (Mariette Colet), Herbert Marshall (Gaston Monescu), Charles Ruggles (The Major), Edward Everett Horton (François Filiba), C. Aubrey Smith (Adolph J. Giron) and Robert Greig (Jacques the Butler).


The Feminine Touch (1941, W.S. Van Dyke)

Don Ameche is a university professor working on his book revealing jealousy as an outdated concept. Rosalind Russell is his wife, who wishes Ameche would get jealous over her. Enter Kay Francis and Van Heflin as their extra-martial temptations (though, not really, because Ameche’s not interested in Francis and he’s right about Russell too). Actually, only Heflin is interested. Anyway, as a romantic comedy The Feminine Touch establishes rather early what it’s going to need to get itself sorted out and then takes around ninety minutes getting there. The performances are good for the most part (Russell gets tiresome after about seventy minutes) and it’s decently written–until the third act, there are some rather amusing scenes.

The problem with the film is it doesn’t play to its strengths. Until the third act and the lead-up to it, Francis and Heflin are basically fodder. Heflin’s fantastic as the would-be philanderer, but his character is useless, around to give Russell something to do (ignore his advances). The film’s greatest strength is Ameche and Russell’s happy marriage, which provides for some very good scenes. Their chemistry is so strong and with W.S. Van Dyke directing, it’s hard not to wonder if The Feminine Touch wasn’t originally a project for William Powell and Myrna Loy. But when it choses the necessary path for standard martial comedy conflict, it gets unpleasant. The third act tries to force joke after joke, reducing Ameche to something out of Tex Avery. It gets silly, instead of smart and, as opposed to the beginning, when it really felt like Joseph L. Mankiewicz was producing the film, by the end it felt like he went home after a while to read a book.

Van Dyke’s direction is excellent, of course, subtle but comedic, while maintaining a sympathetic connection to the protagonists of each scene. However, there’s a terrible dream sequence–it looks like someone aped a bunch of Dali on a wall and had Ameche and Russell walk in front of it. Van Dyke does not do well with the fantastic (or, apparently, insuring the set decorators in charge of painting backdrops had heard of perspective–the dream sequence is particularly bad because it’s two dimensional).

The strong start but the small scope of the story (there are five actors credited at the beginning and it’d be hard, after seeing it, to list more than eight) combined with turning Ameche into a caricature and Russell into a manipulative jerk–not to mention the really poor handling of a one month gap between scenes–makes The Feminine Touch decidedly lacking. Especially in terms of a title. It really has nothing to do with the film….

2/4★★

CREDITS

Directed by W.S. Van Dyke; written by George Oppenheimer, Edmund L. Hartmann and Ogden Nash; director of photography, Ray June; edited by Albert Akst; music by Franz Waxman; produced by Joseph L. Mankiewicz; released by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer.

Starring Rosalind Russell (Julie Hathaway), Don Ameche (Prof. John Hathaway), Kay Francis (Nellie Woods), Van Heflin (Elliott Morgan, Publisher), Donald Meek (Captain Makepeace Liveright), Gordon Jones (Rubber-Legs Ryan), Henry Daniell (Shelley Mason, Critic), Sidney Blackmer (Freddie Bond, Elliott’s Lawyer), Grant Mitchell (Dean Hutchinson, Digby College) and David Clyde (Brighton, Elliot’s Butler).


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