Rupert Pupkin Speaks: Warner Archive Grab Bag: THE MERRY WIDOW, THE UNFINISHED DANCE, A GUY NAMED JOE, EXECUTIVE SUITE ""

Monday, June 24, 2013

Warner Archive Grab Bag: THE MERRY WIDOW, THE UNFINISHED DANCE, A GUY NAMED JOE, EXECUTIVE SUITE

THE MERRY WIDOW(1934; Ernst Lubitsch)
From Warner Archive's site:
"Jeanette MacDonald is Sonia, a bubbly widow who owns 52% of every cow and cowtown in the tiny European country of Marshovia. When she relocates to glittery Paris, suave ladies’ man Captain Danilo (Maurice Chevalier) sets out in hot pursuit. His mission: avert his homeland’s financial ruin by bringing Sonia back on the wings of love. But hang on tight, Danilo. Love always flies a delirious course when legendary director Ernst Lubitsch, known for sophisticated wit and a style affectionately dubbed as “the Lubitsch touch” is at the helm. A frothy, high-spirited gem based on Franz Lehar’s operetta, The Merry Widow set the standard for musicals to come. And it confirmed what MGM’s top brass already knew: Jeanette MacDoanld was a major star. So enjoy the rapturous music, the sparkling dialogue and the swirling “Merry Widow Waltz.” You’ll have to look far and wide for a better comic operetta than this."

I first saw this film about 4 years ago. I remember this because it was the first film I watched, whilst holding my then infant daughter(only a few days old if I recall) in my arms. Though she'd never remember that, I still consider it the first film she and I shared so it has a very special place for me. It was hard to see the movie at that time(this release is its premiere DVD release) and I had dvr'd it off of TCM. I was going through a big Lubitsch resurgence at the time so I was excited to check it out.
I have to admit that I have this thing with Maurice Chevalier. Whenever I see him, I can't help but hear THE ARISTOCATS theme song for at least a minute. This is also linked to my little girl who became a big fan of that film when she was 2 or 3. It may have been one of the first films I ever actually showed to her. Just now realizing the Chevalier connection. Anwyay - I am, for the most part, not a huge fan of Lubitsch's musicals. I much prefer his straight comedies, which are some of my favorite films of all time. His musicals are certainly pleasant enough(check out the Eclipse box set to see what I mean), but just not my bag. That being said, this one is too crazy on the musical numbers so it's okay. And Lubitsch's romance films often have this wonderful light effervescence to them. Like a glass of champagne, they bubble over with affectionate adoration and cleverness. Characters often go to great lengths to court each other in his films and it really is refreshing. At one point in THE MERRY WIDOW, Chevalier declares to Jeanette MacDonald, "Do you know I've been feeding your dogs with the finest imported salami just to get a quiet glimpse of you?". It's as if the world was so much more of a romantic place during Lubitsch's time. That's not to say that there's no romance left today, but it does seem to have been a more powerful force back then. Maybe in this film, some of what the characters do might be called "stalking" by today's standards, but it does make one long for a more innocent, less litigious time(when trespassing and bribery were much more cute). Lubitsch really brings a wonderful vibe to the idea of the "pursuit" of a lady.
You know who fits perfectly into Lubitsch's comedic paradigm? Edward Everett Horton. See DESIGN FOR LIVING, TROUBLE IN PARADISE or BLUEBEARD'S EIGHTH WIFE to get an idea of just how well he fits. 
There just is no real equivalent to Edward Everett Horton nowadays. He frequently plays 'the square' character in a lot of comedies and he does it impeccably. His voice(as we all remember from 'Fractured Fairytales') and manner are quite difficult to surpass. He is truly a one-of-a-kind fella and an actor whose very appearance in just about any film tends to elevate it for me. 
I know Wes Anderson has said that he's drawn some influence from Lubitsch and I feel like he must be a big EEH fan as he often seems to have characters that live in his wheelhouse threaded throughout his movies. He has specifically sited Lubitsch and Wilder as influence on his upcoming film, GRAND BUDAPEST HOTEL, saying that it's "inspired partly by Hollywood Europe, and also by some European writers around that time" -- such as fare by Ernst Lubitsch and Billy Wilder -- Anderson reveals a few movies that are inspiring him. "Yes, like 'To Be or Not to Be,' the Lubitsch with Carole Lombard, that Europe which is not made in Europe at all," Anderson said about the kind of world he's trying to capture. "Or 'Shop Around the Corner'. Or did you ever see 'Love Me Tonight,' the one Rouben Mamoulian made with Maurice Chevalier? I'm not a big musical fan, but it's a wonderful one." 
(Quote taken from this Indiewire article from last year: http://blogs.indiewire.com/theplaylist/wes-anderson-says-grand-budapest-hotel-takes-place-85-years-ago-inspired-by-the-films-of-ernst-lubitsch-billy-wilder-20121031)
 It just warms my heart to know there are filmmakers out there still taking cues from the comedic genius that is Ernst Lubitsch and fans of his will certainly enjoy this film and be happy to finally be able to own it on dvd.




THE UNFINISHED DANCE(1947; Henry Koster)
To call this film "THE RED SHOES Jr." or something along those lines is a bit reductive certainly, but it sort of captures how I feel about it. Dance/ballerina films aren't particularly my bag, but both this one and THE RED SHOES(obviously) are pretty great(and have lovely color palettes). It's the story of a young girl who wants to be a ballerina and is obsessed with one particular dancer to the point of sabotaging another to help her out. The sabotage is accidental, but the story deals with the young girl's guilt over it and the aftermath for two the professional ballerinas that were impacted. It's a wonderful, emotional story and one that is built upon some nice dramatic underpinnings. It was released one year before THE RED SHOES, and though I can't imagine it was seen by the Archers while they were working their film, I'd love to think it was an influence. Margaret O'Brien(THE SECRET GARDEN, MEET ME IN ST. LOUIS) is one of those child actors that goes beyond tolerable to quite splendid in her performance here. I've been watching a lot of Freddie Bartholomew films lately and I'd put her in a class with him in this film. Bartholomew has a real knack for portraying rich, spoiled brat characters that become sympathetic throughout the course of a given film(CAPTAINS COURAGEOUS, LORD JEFF) and O'Brien does something similar here. Danny Thomas and Cyd Charisse also do very well in the movie. It's really a moving and marvelous story over all. Has that almost 'fairytale feeling' about it. It's quite touching. An underappreciated classic.
Lou Lumenick did a great write-up of it for the NY Post here:
http://www.nypost.com/p/blogs/movies/dvd_extra_margaret_brien_blake_the_S9BkF6tqotadz9XdRXn4MK#axzz2WVB7EaaI

 


A GUY NAMED JOE(1944; Victor Fleming)
It's hard for me not to feel a Frank Capra vibe about Victor Fleming's A GUY NAMED JOE. Maybe it's the examination of an afterlife or guardian angels or even the presence of Lionel Barrymore, but it's a pleasant familiarity. The other familiarity comes from the fact that Steven Spielberg remade A GUY NAMED JOE as the 1989 movie ALWAYS with Richard Dreyfuss and John Goodman. I've never been a huge fan of ALWAYS honestly, so GUY NAMED JOE had a bit of its work cut out for it. In this original version, Spencer Tracy plays a hotshot bomber pilot who pushes his luck one too many times and ends up dead. Once dead, he finds himself in the afterlife and assigned to go back to earth as a sort of "guardian angel" for young pilots. He leaves behind his high flyin' pilot gal played by Irene Dunne.
Spencer Tracy certainly gives this movie a boost. Especially because I've seen some great Tracy performances recently including his turn in the outstanding adventure yard CAPTAINS COURAGEOUS(which was also directed by Victor Fleming). Tracy has this amazing ability with delivering dialogue. It just feels so real and natural coming out of his mouth. In the commentary track for BAD DAY AT BLACK ROCK, John Sturges discussed one of Tracy's acting techniques. He said Tracy would memorize his bits of dialogue and then not look at the script, especially the lines that other characters spoke to him. I guess this way, it would all feel really fresh when he heard it and his reaction would be pretty genuine. It shows and I always watch him interact with other actors now with that in mind. 
Irene Dunne is quite enchanting. I've loved her ever since I saw THE AWFUL TRUTH for the first time. She's lovely. She has this gentle way about her here combined with a sassy feisty-ness. She feels a bit like Howard Hawks character. 
I must admit that although A GUY NAMED JOE is heralded as a beloved classic, I really didn't connect to it as I'd hoped to.  As much as I adore Tracy and Dunne, I couldn't buy into their love story. That's pretty key. I know there must be many many folks out there who do and will enjoy this film more than I did so I can't help but recommend that people seek it out. Especially because it hasn't been on DVD until now.I've always been fond of the way the films of the 1930s, 40s and 50s handle this kind of a fantasy story. This particular film makes me think of the Archer's greatly superior A MATTER OF LIFE AND DEATH. Another film it brings to mind is another Victor Fleming joint, TEST PILOT(sadly not on dvd yet). TEST PILOT features Clark Gable in the hotshot pilot role and Spencer Tracy as his best friend. The incomparable Myrna Loy is Gable's wife. Great film indeed. 

EXECUTIVE SUITE(1954; Robert Wise)
Fascinating drama centering around a large furniture manufacturing firm and the turmoil it is thrown into when the company's president drops dead on the street suddenly. Directed by Robert Wise and scripted by Ernest Lehman(NORTH BY NORTHWEST, SWEET SMELL OF SUCCESS), it's a well made movie with a stellar cast. The executive staff of the Tredway Corp includes William Holden, Walter Pidgeon, Frederich March(as a supreme dick), Dean Jagger and Paul Douglas. Barbara Stanwyck is Julia Tredway, the founder's daughter, who also has a controlling interest. They even have Shelley Winters on the phones. 
It really is a surprisingly interesting thing to watch the scenario play out as the Tredway execs fight amongst themselves and scramble to elect a new president and try to avoid plummeting stock values and being bought out. I couldn't help but think briefly of THE HUDSUCKER PROXY for a moment near the beginning(as both films begin with the death of a company president), but the similarities don't go too much further than that.
One interesting bit of trivia about the movie is that it has no musical score(which is quite uncommon for Hollywood productions of this ilk). It also features a pretty neat opening POV-type shot, which had certainly been done before, but it is used to great dramatic effect in this movie.
Included on this disc is a commentary track with director Oliver Stone wherein he discusses many things including EXECUTIVE SUITE's influence on his own film WALL STREET.
Speaking of the film's influence, Matthew Weiner has specifically talked about how it was a partial inspiration for his show MAD MEN as well.

All the above films are available as MOD DVDs from Warner Archive: HERE

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