Porter Hall

The Princess Comes Across (1936, William K. Howard)

The Princess Comes Across is an uneven mix of comedy and mystery. Too much mystery, too little comedy, noticeable lack of romance. The romance is an awkward afterthought in Walter DeLeon, Francis Martin, Don Hartman, and Frank Butler’s script (four screenwriters is probably too much even in 1936; definitely for this kind of picture), which is weird since it’s the initial setup.

The film takes place on a passenger liner going from England to the United States. Starts with the passengers boarding, ends with them getting off. The script’s very hands off with the trip. When band leader Fred MacMurray says he and the band aren’t just rehearsing (in his room, which ought to be a comic bit but isn’t because the film’s never inventive, in script or direction), but getting ready to play for the ship, you wonder why it was never mentioned before. It’s not even clear the rest of the band’s onboard until that moment. Not for sure; you could assume it, but you could also not, it wouldn’t matter for how the film played. Princess is creatively sparse; its logic is fine (even, possibly, with the romance stuff), but the film never seems to be enjoying itself.

Maybe because MacMurray and top-billed Carole Lombard never get to be funny together. They get their not really cute cute meeting. MacMurray and sidekick William Frawley, who was already bald in 1936, booked the royal suite and are getting booted because Swedish princess Lombard is on board. MacMurray’s initially a jerk about it, then gets a look at Lombard and immediately changes his tune. So while Lombard and attendant Alison Skipworth (who gives the film’s most entertaining performance by far) try to get situated, MacMurray keeps annoying them. And it’s not cute. Especially since MacMurray plays more off Skipworth than Lombard; there’s a reason for it, as the punchline reveals, but… it could’ve been done better. Director Howard doesn’t seem to know how to showcase Lombard even when she’s not running a scene. Ted Tetzlaff’s photography doesn’t help. Tetzlaff’s lighting a thriller and even when Princess is full-on mystery, it’s never a thriller. It’s not just too much mystery in a comedy, it’s also way too light of mystery in a comedy.

The film sets up the mystery not to kick off a suspense thriller, but some kind of screwball gag. There are five police detectives onboard, all from different countries, headed to a conference. The captain (a somewhat underused George Barbier) complains about them in exposition, which seems like it’s going to lead somewhere with ex-con MacMurray or secretive royal Lombard, but instead has the five detectives chasing stowaway Bradley Page. Sure, Page’s a convicted multiple murderer on the lamb but… even when the detectives are talking about dire outcomes, it’s all light. Howard’s just can’t bring any gravitas.

Maybe because all five detectives are basically played as comic relief. The straightest edge is Tetsu Komai as the Japanese detective but only because the movie’s othering him to create suspicion. Douglass Dumbrille’s the French guy; he’s a bit stuck-up but all right. Lumsden Hare’s the British one. He’s not memorable even though he’s got a lot to do third act. But Sig Ruman (as the German) and Mischa Auer (as the Russian)? They’re awesome. It’s like, Ruman and Auer make it seem like Princess knows what its got possibility-wise so it can’t possibly waste it.

Then it wastes all the possibility.

Notice I haven’t mentioned top-billed Lombard and MacMurray in a while? It’s because all they end up doing is reacting to the mystery with Page. And then scuz blackmailer Porter Hall bothering MacMurray and trying to get a pay-off, which ends up involving Lombard too because they’re cabins are next to each other… Sure, Lombard and MacMurray don’t really have story arcs of their own (he’s a successful band leader, she’s about to be successful as a movie star, they don’t get anything else but… vague ambition); they just react when the mystery spills over to their screen time.

They’re both fine. Absolutely no heavy lifting for either. They do have fun in the far too infrequent wordplay scenes. Frawley’s fine. He gets a beret arc, which is more than Lombard or MacMurray get. And more than Skipworth, who doesn’t even get a beret. Again, she’s awesome. Hall’s great too. Ruman, Auer. The cast is good, the film just doesn’t have anything for them to do.

Princess is cute. Ish.

2/4★★

CREDITS

Directed by William K. Howard; screenplay by Walter DeLeon, Francis Martin, Don Hartman, and Frank Butlerz, based on a story by Philip MacDonald and a novel by Louis Lucien Rogger; director of photography, Ted Tetzlaff; edited by Paul Weatherwax; costume designer, Travis Banton; produced by Arthur Hornblow Jr.; released by Paramount Pictures.

Starring Carole Lombard (Princess Olga), Fred MacMurray (King Mantell), Alison Skipworth (Lady Gertrude), William Frawley (Benton), Porter Hall (Darcy), Douglass Dumbrille (Lorel), Lumsden Hare (Cragg), Sig Ruman (Steindorf), Mischa Auer (Morevitch), Bradley Page (Merko), Tetsu Komai (Kawati), and George Barbier (Captain Nicholls).



You Gotta Stay Happy (1948, H.C. Potter)

It takes You Gotta Stay Happy a while to get there, but it’s actually a road movie. Well, it’s flying movie. Owner-operator James Stewart flies his cargo plane from New York to California with a number of paying passengers (a no no), with co-pilot Eddie Albert doing most of the ticket sales. The film’s title is Albert’s favorite phrase, used mostly to remind boss and friend Stewart he’s not doing enough to make himself happy.

Except the film’s not about Stewart and Albert’s post-war attempts at getting a freight airline going (okay, maybe fifteen or twenty percent), it’s about Stewart and Joan Fontaine. He doesn’t know it, but she’s a wealthy spinster (at the ripe age of twenty-eight) who’s running away from her new husband on their wedding night. Willard Parker plays the husband. He’s awful. Not the performance, the performance is fine, but the husband. He’d be a troll if he weren’t so tall; he’s a dipshit. There’s no better adjective. He’s a dipshit.

And Fontaine releases she doesn’t want to be married to a dipshit, regardless of his social position, personal wealth, and career success. So she ends up in Stewart’s hotel room, letting him make assumptions about why she’s running away from Parker. Stewart too knows Parker is a dipshit and feels sorry for Fontaine. She doesn’t correct any of his wrong assumptions.

Stewart and Fontaine’s first night, which features mishaps with wake-up calls, sleeping pills, and intrusive hotel staff, sort of acts as first act, sort of not. Karl Tunberg’s screenplay is an adaptation of serialized story, which would make the film seem more episodic if Tunberg weren’t so good at streamlining and director Potter didn’t have such a fine sense of comedy. And, of course, there’s Stewart and Fontaine. They have very different styles in first act; he’s tired and distracted, she’s on the run. They have entirely different motivators and different ways of pacing their performances. The whole film has great pacing and it’s right from the start.

Then Albert comes in and the plane and the passengers and the cargo. There are newlyweds onboard, there’s a chimpanzee who only likes Fontaine, there’s an embezzeler on the run. The plot progresses along the plane’s flight plan, with Stewart and Albert mistakenly concluding Fontaine’s the embezzeler (not a rich heiress). Fontaine gets some fun scenes before the romance subplot takes over. Turns out Stewart’s taken with her, regardless of suspecting her to be a fugitive.

Many complications ensue, including some with phenomenal minature special effects of the airplane. And Stewart and Fontaine get in sync as far as their performances. You Gotta Stay Happy has a short present action–two and a half days at most–and for the romance to work, the chemistry’s got to be palpable. It ends up so thick it needs to chiseled. With Stewart’s arc mostly pragmatic–he’s got a plane to fly, cargo to deliver, Albert to control–and Fontaine losing her share of solo screentime after she gets onboard, their romantic subplot becomes Happy’s relief moments. They’re somehow set back from the plot–they’ve both got their own trajectories, which have to conclude, and their gentle, tender scenes together hint at something deeper.

It’s not easy to imply that depth, either, because the film is pretty clear about Fontaine’s romantic feelings after a certain point. But there are still problems to be resolved and Tunberg has some last act revealations about Stewart’s character to get in as well. There just wasn’t time to reveal them during the screwball scenes.

The supporting cast is excellent. Albert’s awesome. If it weren’t Fontaine and Stewart in the leads, he’d be able to run away with the movie. Percy Kilbride, Porter Hall, Marcy McGuire, Edith Evanson, they’re all excellent. Potter always gives his supporting cast a lot of room to work without ever overpowering a scene. Though Stewart and Fontaine are always more than willing to make room. The film’s got a wonderful balance. Helps there’s a built-in plot with the flight.

Daniele Amfitheatrof’s score, which is very screwball, gets a little much at times but never enough to break a gag. Russell Metty’s photography is gorgeous, especially once he gets to do night time exteriors. The film spends its open in hotels and hotel rooms, then moves into an airplane interior. Getting outside in to the air gives Metty a chance to shine.

Albeit at night.

You Gotta Stay Happy is a lot of fun. Potter’s direction. Stewart, Fontaine, and Albert’s performances. It’s not a surprise it’s a success–it puts a smile on your face and keeps it there once it’s over. The only time it doesn’t is when it’s making you laugh.

3/4★★★

CREDITS

Directed by H.C. Potter; screenplay by Karl Tunberg, based on a story by Robert Carson; director of photography, Russell Metty; edited by Paul Weatherwax; music by Daniele Amfitheatrof; production designer, Alexander Golitzen; produced by Tunberg; released by Universal Pictures.

Starring Joan Fontaine (Diana), James Stewart (Marvin), Eddie Albert (Bullets), Willard Parker (Henry Benson), Porter Hall (Mr. Caslon), Marcy McGuire (Georgia Goodrich), Arthur Walsh (Milton Goodrich), William Bakewell (Dick Hebert), Percy Kilbride (Mr. Racknell), Edith Evanson (Mrs. Racknell), and Roland Young (Ralph Tutwiler).


Sullivan’s Travels (1941, Preston Sturges)

Sullivan’s Travels is almost impossibly well-constructed. Director Sturges, editor Stuart Gilmore and photographer John F. Seitz go through various, entirely different narrative devices and do them all perfectly. Whether it’s a high speed chase, Veronica Lake having a screwball comedy sequence on the studio backlot, Lake and lead Joel McCrea having soul-searching conversations, McCrea and Lake in a lengthy sequence without dialogue, nighttime suspense sequences, over and over, Sturges, Gilmore and Seitz create these masterful scenes. Every time it seems like Sturges’s direction can’t get better, it does, like Gilmore’s cuts can get better, they do, Seitz’s photography always one ups itself. Sullivan’s Travels is a very serious film about learning why laughing is so important. It’s amazing, start to finish.

McCrea and Lake are both essential to the picture’s success. There are some great supporting performances, but it’s all about Lake and McCrea. He starts the film without her (and goes into the third act minus her as well); once she arrives though, Sturges is able to move the story–and McCrea’s character–along their trajectory. Even though before Lake, Travels is excellent (that fantastic chase sequence is pre-Lake), once she shows up it becomes clear Sturges is going to go all over with the film. He’s already got a phenomenal pace set up and then he just keeps going with it. There’s a delineated structure to the film–McCrea’s always telling people the plan and how the film’s going to progress (at least geographically)–and Sturges sticks to it just long enough to get to the next reveal, the next approach. Only McCrea and Lake, who have a lot of searching conversations (he’s the Hollywood success story, she’s the Hollywood failure story and Travels is very much a film about Hollywood), get some repetition. And some of the supporting cast gets similar scenes. But once things are well enough underway, Sturges has nothing but surprises for Lake and McCrea (and the audience).

Sturges gives McCrea and Lake this awesome dialogue and then directs them in a way as to lean on their performances. For an auteur, Sturges knows he needs his stars. Lake’s a little more impressive because she doesn’t get the protagonist part and she does have to immediately challenge McCrea. She stakes out her part in the film and never lets it go, which Sturges utilizes to get effect out of Lake’s presence, whether she gets lines in a scene or not. It’s a comedy trick applied to drama, but he also uses it for comedy in Sullivan’s Travels. There’s so many different styles, especially since large portions of the film are shot outside. When Lake gets her screwball race through the backlot, it’s another commentary on the reality of Hollywood.

Excellent score from Charles Bradshaw and Leo Shuken.

It’s mind-boggling how many great things going on and how those things interact with each other. Sturges bites off a lot, chews it, bites off even more–writing about the film is frustrating. There’s always something else to be said about it, always something else deserving of mention or exploration–Lake as “The Tramp” and how that disguise comments on Hollywood’s portrayal of poverty. Sullivan’s Travels is a masterpiece.

4/4★★★★

CREDITS

Written, produced and directed by Preston Sturges; director of photography, John F. Seitz; edited by Stuart Gilmore; music by Charles Bradshaw and Leo Shuken; released by Paramount Pictures.

Starring Joel McCrea (John L. Sullivan), Veronica Lake (The Girl), Robert Warwick (Mr. LeBrand), Porter Hall (Mr. Hadrian), Robert Greig (Sullivan’s Butler), Eric Blore (Sullivan’s Valet) and William Demarest (Mr. Jones).


Ace in the Hole (1951, Billy Wilder)

Ace in the Hole moves while the script–from director Wilder, Lesser Samuels and Walter Newman–never races. In fact, it’s deliberate and methodical, maybe even redundant at times (especially in the first act). The redundant moments aren’t actually a problem since Kirk Douglas is in almost every scene of the film and, even when he doesn’t have the best scene, his performance is fantastic.

Douglas plays disgraced newspaperman trying to make it in a world of journalism students and publishers who believe in ethics and so on. Douglas believes in selling the most newspapers and getting paid for it. Most of the first act has Douglas spreading the gospel, which makes for great scenes.

The story then has Douglas happening across a tragic situation and exploiting it. All he has to do is convince a handful of people to do the wrong thing. And here’s where Hole’s eventual problems start showing up. Douglas has this perverted relationship with Jan Sterling; she’s married to Richard Benedict, who’s stuck in a hole and Douglas is turning it into a big story. Wilder and the other writers never really explore Douglas’s motivations (alcohol provides a fast answer) in that situation. Instead, Douglas gets a more traditional, epical arc. An overcooked one.

But that overcooked character arc is in a gorgeously made film. Wilder has excellent composition, whether for dialogue scenes or the big vista shots of New Mexico.

Douglas and Wilder, somewhat separately, make Hole worthwhile. It’s just got its problems.

3/4★★★

CREDITS

Produced and directed by Billy Wilder; written by Wilder, Lesser Samuels and Walter Newman; director of photography, Charles Lang; edited by Arthur P. Schmidt; music by Hugo Friedhofer; released by Paramount Pictures.

Starring Kirk Douglas (Chuck Tatum), Jan Sterling (Lorraine Minosa), Robert Arthur (Herbie Cook), Porter Hall (Jacob Q. Boot), Frank Cady (Al Federber), Richard Benedict (Leo Minosa), Ray Teal (Sheriff Gus Kretzer) and Frank Jaquet (Sam Smollett).


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