FILMS I WATCHED IN 2020, THE YEAR OF OUR PANDEMIC: PART 7

Two days ago it was announced that we will continue in lockdown mode until, at the very least, the second week of March.  This morning a friend wrote me to say that today will be the “official” announcement.  Does that mean that there’s a possibility that I could be heading back to work after the weekend?!  Somehow I doubt it.  I know I’m not the only one in this marooned boat; I just hope you are finding some interesting things to do to keep yourself busy and somewhat sane at home.

The Marriage Circle (1924) was a film I had wanted to see for quite a few years now and a while ago I noticed that it was available on Kanopy. It’s Ernst Lubitsch’s second American film, a romantic “comedy” about two couples with very different relationships.  Mizzi Stock (Marie Prevost) bores her husband Professor Josef Stock (Adolphe Menjou) and she goes in search of other men she hopes to beguile.  By chance, she shares a taxi ride with Dr. Franz Braun (Monte Blue) who, as she soon discovers, is the husband of her old friend Charlotte (Florence Vidor).

Marie Prevost and Monte Blue

Meanwhile, Dr. Stock’s friend Dr. Gustav Mueller (Creighton Hale) hankers after Charlotte.  Everyone’s jealous of everyone else, except for Professor Stock who is happy to use any form of infidelity, true or false, to get rid of his wife.

Florence Vidor and Creighton Hale

It was nice to see Marie Prevost looking svelte and sexy before she sailed into oblivion due to weight gained most probably from alcoholic consumption and perhaps it was both which caused her to become unemployable in the film business.

There’s a secondary role featuring Esther Ralston, and I also have come to recognize Dale Fuller from her roles in Von Stroheim films.  The adaptation, which was based on the 1909 German play Only a Dream by Lothar Schmidt, was written by Paul Bern who is mostly remembered as being the MGM executive who married Jean Harlow and died sadly and scandalously.  From my readings, Lubitsch very much admired Chaplin’s 1923 film A Woman of Paris and wanted his film to have a similar adult feel to it.  He first cast Warner Baxter in the role of Prof. Stock, but finding him too bland, chose Adolphe Menjou who had impressed him in the Chaplin film to replace him.  Menjou wrote in his memoirs that all he had to do to make Lubitsch happy with his performance was to mimic every gesture he gave him.

Lubitsch, however, thought it was a great film and found no fault with the end result.  Neither did I.

Another silent film I had enthusiastically anticipated watching was Flicker Alley’s newly reconstructed The City Without Jews (1924) directed by Hans Karl Breslauer.  How poignant was this film?  It was made when Hitler was still working at making a political name for himself.  In 1924 he had been sentenced to five years in the Landsberg Prison but was released in December of the same year.  That is where he wrote his book Mein Kampf.  Did this popular 1922 novel, Die Stadt ohne Juden by Hugo Bettauer, or the film have any influence on Hitler?  The novel was a bestseller, so it would have been most probable that Hitler had at the very least heard about its content, which makes sense due to what unfolded in history.

Authentic Feel to These Synagogue Scenes

The film takes place in an imaginary European city named Utopia, which is a stand-in for Vienna, the city in the novel.  In a nutshell, a new law to expel Utopia’s Jewish citizens is passed by anti-Semitic politicians who feel the success of the city is beholden to the Jews.  People protest for their expulsion but once all this occurs, the city’s cultural life becomes impoverished, cafes are converted into beer halls, and couture is no longer close to the latest fashions.  Several of the characters are related to Jews, such as the granddaughter of the lead anti-Semite, whose one parent is banished when the law comes into place.  The daughter of another citizen is engaged to Jewish artist Leo Strakosch until her father forbids the union and Leo must leave.

I thought it was interesting to note that there are also major financial difficulties for Utopia because the story claims that the Jews control the world banks.  If only that had been true, then perhaps the Holocaust would not have been able to happen.  The film, though, has a “happy” finale where a peaceful coexistence between Jews and Christians is once again allowed which is comparatively opposite from what I understand the ending of the novel to be.  The book, though, finished with the surprise that the whole story was a dream by an anti-Semite who comes to realize that the Jews are a “necessary evil.”

A rather shocking piece of information was the reported murder of author Hugo Bettauer by a former member of the Nazi Party, Otto Rothstock, on March 10, 1925.  Rothstock was enraged by Bettauer’s very liberal ideas with regards to the rights of women, as one example.   His lawyer argued that although Rothstock was guilty, he was insane and after less than two years in prison, he was released to a mental hospital.  He was eventually released from there to live freely and up until his death in May of 1990, he never proclaimed any remorse for what he had done.

The Flicker Alley DVD comes in both bluray and standard formats and includes a booklet with essays on the film’s significance as well as related bonus features.

While I was flipping through the films that Kanopy had to offer, I noted that they stream A Cottage on Dartmoor (1929).  Since I had a fine copy on my shelf, I chose to watch it on DVD.

I don’t know very much about director Anthony Asquith but I have seen a number of his films starting with his first, the impressive Shooting Stars (1928).  He also made Pygmalion (1938), which as you know both this and the famous musical My Fair Lady (1968) were based on the play by George Bernard Shaw.  The last film he made before he died was The Yellow Rolls-Royce (1964).  I wasn’t crazy about it although I have to say I can stay engaged enough when it comes to anything which features a 29-year-old Alain Delon.

But with regards to A Cottage on Dartmoor (aka Escape from Dartmoor), I enjoyed the experience. The basic story is about a barber’s assistant, Joe (Uno Henning) who is infatuated with manicurist Sally (Norah Baring).  There first date doesn’t go all that well, but due to one of those fateful misunderstandings, Joe believes their union has been written in the stars.  When Sally starts dating wealthy Harry (Hans Adalbert Schlettow), Joe becomes their stalker.

A close shave

Knowing that Asquith is British, I assumed the film was therefore a British silent.  However, as I was watching, I kept thinking how Germanic this film felt.  That’s when I started looking into the credits to find that the actors were, simply stated, European and the film was beautifully shot by Britian’s Stanley Rodwell and Sweden’s Axel Lindblom.

A different Harry and Sally

The standout scene is when Harry and Sally go to the cinema, with Joe unbeknownst to them sitting a row or so behind, watching what appears to be a scary film.  The scene is really quite long and although we never see what they are watching, we see all of their reactions.  I recognized Asquith as one of the patrons watching the film.  He’s the young man wearing glasses, and if I’m remembering correctly, there’s a reference made by another patron with regard to him and Harold Lloyd.

He’s not watching the screen

However, the flaw in the story comes near the end.  I may be giving things away here so without going into too much detail, would any mother, no matter how sympathetic(?) she feels towards a man who was once obsessed with her and could be a murderer, leave that person alone in the bedroom of her child so that he doesn’t get recaptured by the law?  Again, a beautifully filmed ending, but even though it was completely absurd, I had to laugh between thoughts of, “this is crazy”.

Okay, we’re moving up to the 1930s.  I watched the entertaining Turn Back the Clock (1933) directed by Edgar Selwyn, a little-known director who cowrote the screenplay along with the well-known Ben Hecht.  I had this film sitting on my shelf and besides the fact that it features Lee Tracy and Mae Clarke, it’s one where Peggy Shannon has a fairly substantial role.   I always like stories with time travel and this one didn’t disappoint.  It’s the story of an average man, Joe Gimlet (Lee Tracy) married to his village sweetheart Mary (Mae Clarke) who now run a tobacconist shop together.  One evening, while Joe is playing checkers with a buddy, who should drop by but old rival Ted Wright (Otto Kruger).  He married the town’s prettiest—and wealthiest—girl, Elvina (Peggy Shannon) and Ted invites the Gimlets for an evening out.  They are joined by Dave Holmes (C. Henry Gordon) and it doesn’t take Joe long to figure out that Elvina and Dave are having an affair.  At the end of their dinner together, while Mary has gone off to powder her nose, Ted tells Joe about an investment scheme, doing his best to entice him into forking over his life savings.  Joe is excited about the prospect but when he tells Mary about it, she is highly reluctant.  This is when Joe storms off, has an accident, and his wish of reliving his life with another outcome comes into fruition.

Mary, Ted and Joe

He goes back to being a teenager (yup, you have to use your imagination there), once again eating dinners made by his deceased mother (Clara Blandick – Dorothy’s Auntie Em) and dating Mary.  But when Elvina’s wealthy father (George Barbier) offers Joe a chance to invest with him, this time ‘round he takes him up on the offer.  This changes everything, including marrying Mary.  Instead, he marries Elvina.  And, because Joe knows what is going to happen in the world, he can “predict” all kinds of advantageous things.  He knows the outcome, for instance, of what will happen when the US enters WWI and afterwards, having been there and done that, does a very noble deed for the returning soldiers.  He eventually works his way into politics, only losing his exalted position alongside the President of the USA due to his big mouth.  So Lee Tracy–and I couldn’t help but notice his last name is a popular alcoholic beverage.  However, things don’t go quite as he has planned.

Teenage Life

There is only one major flaw that stuck out for me.  First though, let me say that I took this film as being contemporary of the year it was made.  Obviously Joe can only “predict” the future up until he first met Ted at his tobacco shop.  This scene happens again except with the tables turned with regards to our four main characters.  You and I know that the crash is going to have to happen at some point, and surely so does Joe.  So what doesn’t work for me is that Joe claims not to remember exactly when, only that it did sometime in 1929.  Even I know the date was October 29th!  And whether that date isn’t emblazoned on his memory, at least the month of October should be.  It’s like not knowing the date of when Elvis died or when the Manson murders took place.  Okay, maybe those dates don’t stand out for you, but my point is that I can’t imagine that anyone who lived through the Wall Street Crash, and so recently as to when the end of the story took place (the film was released in August 1933), wouldn’t remember that date.

Lee Tracy, George Barbier and Peggy Shannon

Regardless, this is a film worth watching for all its other plot-perks including an early serenade by those three kooky guys, Moe, Larry and Curly.

Which brings me to watching I’ll Never Forget You (1951), a Tyrone Power film Toronto Film Society showed several years ago but I must have slept through because I couldn’t remember much of it.  And, as it turns out, I don’t blame myself if I did fall asleep.  It was pretty dull, with the best parts being the black and white photography at the beginning and end of the film, the only part of the film that features Michael Rennie.

It was so romantic and so ridiculous a story that I was constantly rolling my eyes.  Why would a man want to go back to the 18th century and then continuously declare to everyone he encounters what the future would hold, knowing full well that they will all think he is mad and want to lock him up in Bedlam, a place where, after watching that film, is somewhere you don’t want to be.  Just stay in the century you were born in, and as it will turn out, you will still meet Ann Blyth, the woman of your dreams.  It was directed by Roy Ward Baker, and again, I’m sorry to say this, but there’s just something about the way Tyrone Power acts, that makes me feel like he is of a limited range.

I had watched a short film on Kanopy, Bernice Bobs Her Hair (1976) which was based on the short story by F. Scott Fitzgerald.  When we were still out and about, a friend of mine had screened this for his film club which enticed me to read the short story.  So when I noticed it was available on Kanopy, I was kind of excited that I’d be able to get to watch it as well.  It was a pretty accurate rendition although the screenplay had more detailed conversational additions which helped manifest Bernice’s evolvement from a wallflower into a sought-after belle of the ball.  Besides starring Shelley Duvall as Bernice, it also featured Bud Cort from Harold and Maude fame, Veronica Cartwright as Bernice’s word-to-the-wise but sometimes nasty cousin, with an introduction made by Henry Fonda.  For those of you who were fans of the recently departed director Joan Micklin Silver, you might want to catch this little gem.

Lastly, I finally got around to watching a film on my shelf of true-science stories, Madame Currie (1943).  In my last post, I mentioned that I aspired to grow up to be like some of these earlier actresses.  Well, Greer Garson was at the top of that list.  She was lovely, always untemperamental even when she was upset, and managing always to say the right thing even if it was the scriptwriters who helped her out there.  My only memory of this film was when she gives a speech at the very end, when she is an old woman.  Let me say off the bat that Marie Currie was only 66 when she died, but here she looked more like 86.  That’s Hollywood for you.  And as with Hollywood biographies, unless you know your history or are willing to read up on the people you are watching, you may be learning completely false facts about them and how they lived their lives.  So, since I didn’t know anything about Marie or Pierre Currie, I can’t tell you how accurate this film is, except that it’s true she was Polish while her husband was French.  Regardless though, it was very engrossing and if I base any of the facts I learned on the feature short that accompanied the film on the DVD, the science part wasn’t far off.  Scientists like the Curries work extremely hard to find what they are looking for.  It took them years, particularly because there was a major mishap that made them have to start their experiments over from scratch.  That they didn’t give up, just shows strong perseverance in remarkable people.

Perhaps their personal life wasn’t quite as romantic as was conveyed in the film.  They were always polite and kind to each other and never seemed to quarrel about anything.  Now that’s romance to me.  So when Pierre Currie (Walter Pidgeon) dies—and I won’t spoil as to how if you don’t already know—it was pretty heartbreaking.

As you know, Marie Currie discovered radium.  It’s not explained in the film that her exposure to it caused her death, unless I just missed it.  What was so impressive was that in 1903 she was the first woman ever to be awarded the Nobel Prize in Physics.  The Curries had two daughters.  Their oldest, Irene was also a scientist, also winning a Nobel prize in 1935 for Chemistry.  She died at the even younger age of 58 from leukemia.  Continuing in their grandparents’ footsteps, Irene’s children also became scientists.  Her daughter Helene is a nuclear physicist while her son Pierre is a biologist.  The Curries second daughter Eve, who lived until the age of 102, went into the arts.  She was a journalist, authoring her mother’s biography, as well as a pianist.  Although she never received the Nobel Peace Prize, her husband did on behalf of his work for UNICEF.

By the way, the film was directed by Mervyn LeRoy and partially an uncredited Albert Lewin who was apparently fired.  An early role for Van Johnson as a reporter.  Due to their success as a romantic team, this was Garson and Pidgeon’s follow up film after making the very successful Mrs. Miniver.

That’s it for today.  I hope you have some pleasurable viewing coming up this weekend.  Stay warm.

2 thoughts on “FILMS I WATCHED IN 2020, THE YEAR OF OUR PANDEMIC: PART 7

  1. It’s too bad that I’LL NEVER FORGET YOU was so forgettable. It sounds promising and I want to like Tyrone Power (mainly because he’s from my neighborhood) but, I agree, he’s a bit unexciting.

    There’s a shameful number of Lubitsch films I’ve not yet seen, including THE MARRIAGE CIRCLE. I’ll get to it soon. Your review is making it a priority.

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