Claudette Colbert

Pre-Code Essentials: The Smiling Lieutenant (1931)

The Smiling Lieutenant

Plot

Austrian Royal Guard Lieutenant Niki von Preyn (Maurice Chevalier) is madly in love with violinist Franzi (Claudette Colbert), but when the royal family from Flausenthurm comes to town, Niki winks at Franzi as the royals are moving through town and Princess Anna (Miriam Hopkins) sees it and thinks it was directed at her. She is insulted and the whole incident causes quite the scandal. But when Niki convinces Anna that he couldn’t help himself because she was so beautiful, she insists on marrying Niki right away and he is forced to go along with it.

Being a married man does nothing to make Niki forget about Franzi and they continue to see each other in secret. When Anna finds out what’s been going on, she plans to confront Franzi about it. But when Franzi realizes how much Anna loves Niki, she gives Anna a makeover to make her more appealing to Niki.


My Thoughts

Ernst Lubitsch is one of those directors whose movies never seem to completely let me down and The Smiling Lieutenant is one of my favorites of his. It’s just so…Lubitsch. It’s extremely witty, sophisticated, and has that unmistakably lightness that was Lubitsch’s trademark. Chevalier, Colbert, and of course, Hopkins are just so perfect for his style of direction and the movie’s sharp writing. It’s a really wonderful, delightful little comedy.


The Definitive Pre-Code Moment


Why It’s an Essential Pre-Code

The Smiling Lieutenant is easily the most fun I’ve ever seen a movie have with the subject of marital infidelity. Only in the pre-code era could you get away with making a comedy that involves a wife confronting her husband’s other woman and the two women end up singing a song together about jazzing up their lingerie.

It’s a Wonderful World (1939)

It's a Wonderful World

After millionaire Willie Heyward (Ernest Truex) is accused of murdering his girlfriend, detective Guy Johnson (Jimmy Stewart) gets the job of defending him. Since there is so much evidence to suggest that Heyward is guilty, Guy tries to hide him until he can break the case. But then Guy gets arrested for hiding Heyward and is sentenced to a year in prison. Determined to prove Heyward’s innocence, Guy escapes on his way to prison. Since Guy was handcuffed to a police officer at the time, Guy has to knock him out to get away and poet Edwina Corday (Claudette Colbert) witnesses the whole thing. To keep her from talking, Guy kidnaps her and takes her car.

After hearing Guy’s story, Edwina insists on helping him prove Heyward’s innocence. The last thing Guy wants is to have Edwina tagging along, but despite his best efforts, he just can’t seem to shake her. Together they make their way to upstate New York where Guy believes he can crack the case by joining a theater troupe so he can do some undercover investigating. With help from his colleague Cap Streeter (Guy Kibbee) and Edwina, they manage to capture the real culprit.

I love Jimmy Stewart and Claudette Colbert, so there’s no way I could resist seeing a movie that stars both of them. I was certainly not disappointed; It’s a Wonderful World (not to be confused with Jimmy Stewart’s other, more famous film) was a real delight. If you’ve been reading this blog for a while now, you know how much I love finding those often overlooked movie gems and that’s precisely what It’s a Wonderful World is. It’s a great little screwball comedy that absolutely deserves to be more well-known. It may not be one of the best movies of either Colbert or Stewarts’ careers, but when you consider the careers they both had, even their second tier movies are still better than a lot of other actors’ best films. And you’ve got to see It’s a Wonderful World if only to see Jimmy Stewart wearing a ridiculous scoutmaster disguise.

The Outstanding Ensemble Cast of “Since You Went Away”

 

Since You Went Away Cast

There’s no way to talk about Since You Went Away without talking about how incredible the cast is as a whole. It’s one of those movies where virtually every actor who appears in it is extremely memorable. Lead roles, supporting roles, everybody makes an impact.

Since You Went Away Claudette Colbert

I’ve already talked a bit about how much I love Claudette Colbert’s performance in Since You Went Away, but her outstanding work doesn’t stop after the first scene. Claudette Colbert was initially hesitant to take the part of Anne Hilton because she wasn’t sure if she wanted to be seen as old enough to be the mother of teenage daughters. But fortunately, a nice salary and the assurance that she would be boosting audience morale were enough to convince her to take the part. Anne may have been old enough to have teenage daughters, but it gave Claudette Colbert to prove just how much range she had. She handled everything from being warm and maternal to uncertain and afraid without missing a beat.

Jennifer Jones Robert Walker Since You Went AwayCasting actors who are married to each other to play a young couple in love hardly seems like a stretch. But if Jennifer Jones and Robert Walker’s relationship was ever like Jane and Bill’s relationship, those days were long behind them. By the time they made Since You Went Away together, Jones and Walker’s marriage was essentially over. They had separated in late 1943 and would be divorced a year after the movie was released. But their ability to put personal issues aside for the sake of the movie is extremely impressive and a testament to their talent. Their rapport is so strong and they made such a believable couple, I was very surprised to find out Jones and Walker were actually on the verge of divorce at the time.

Since You Went Away Shirley Temple

When she appeared in Since You Went Away, Shirley Temple, then 16 years old, hadn’t made a movie in two years. Although Shirley Temple is most widely celebrated for her work as a child actress, she proved to be more than just a cute kid in Since You Went Away. Temple gave Brig such a wonderful natural charm without being over-the-top precocious. All of the cast had great chemistry together, but I particularly love Shirley Temple’s scenes with Monty Woolley. The friendship between Brig and Col. Smollett never fails to warm my heart.

Since You Went Away Shirley Temple Monty Woolley

While Shirley Temple is associated with sweetness and light, Monty Woolley had the opposite screen image; best remembered for playing the acerbic Sheridan Whiteside in The Man Who Came to Dinner. Monty Woolley certainly had plenty of chances to do what he did best in Since You Went Away, but Col. Smollett is a character that let him show some softness as well. It’s a very well-rounded role that let him show how much talent he really did have.

Since You Went Away Agnes Moorehead

Agnes Moorehead plays Emily Hawkins, Anne’s snobbish friend, and boy does she ever excel at playing someone you love to hate. I tend to think of Emily as being like Sylvia Fowler: The War Years. Her haughty attitude, back-handed comments, and wardrobe would certainly make Sylvia Fowler proud. But while Sylvia Fowler is a total caricature, Emily Hawkins feels like someone you could actually meet, which makes the scene when she gets taken down a peg one of the best of the movie.

Since You Went Away Hattie McDaniel Joseph CottenJoseph Cotten was a perfect fit for the role of Tony, the handsome, charismatic friend of the Hilton family. It’s certainly not hard to see how someone like him would be so alluring to young ladies like Jane and Brig. I absolutely love his scenes with Claudette Colbert. Even though there is clearly an attraction and a little bit of history between Tony and Anne, Joesph Cotton never plays Tony as someone who is out to steal his friend’s wife. But there’s just enough of a spark to leave the audience wondering if they’re going to wind up together at the end of the movie.

Last, but certainly not least, there’s Hattie McDaniel.  Simply put, Fidelia is a classic Hattie McDaniel role. She got to do everything that made her so likable.

“Since You Went Away” and the Importance of an Effective Opening Scene

One of the most important things a movie can have is a strong opening scene.  A good opening scene can tell the viewer a lot about characters or explain long backstories in a matter of minutes. Just think of the first scene from Gone With the Wind. In two minutes, we get a sense of what Scarlett was like before the war and find out she has romantic feelings for Ashley Wilkes. Opening scenes can also set the tone for the rest of the movie; The GraduateBonnie and Clyde, and Gold Diggers of 1933 are prime examples of that. But 1944’s Since You Went Away is a movie that uses its opening scene to its full potential. It does everything an effective opening scene should do.

Since You Went Away Opening Scene

Since You Went Away opens with a shot of the Hiltons’ home before progressing to a tighter shot of a window with a service flag displayed in it. Clearly, the family that lives here has a loved one serving in the military. From there, we look inside the Hilton home with the camera moving from an empty, well-worn chair with the family dog laying forlornly in front of it to a calendar, a telegram, and the box for a rush delivery of military raincoats.  The telegram, which orders Captain Timothy Hilton to report for duty on January 12th, is dated January 6th. This family’s world was turned completely upside down just a few days earlier.

Since You Went Away Opening Scene

From the telegram, the camera continues moving around the room, revealing that Tim and Anne (played by Claudette Colbert) were married in 1925 and have two teenage daughters (played by Shirley Temple and Jennifer Jones.) Then we’re back to the window we started at, through which we see a car pull up and Anne walking to the door.

Since You Went Away Opening Scene

When Anne gets inside the house, she enters with the weight of the world on her shoulders. This is her home, but it’s different now. This is my favorite acting moment from Claudette Colbert; as she walks through the house, alone, trying to come to terms with her husband’s absence and grappling with uncertainty about whether or not she could face life without him.  Anne’s inner monologue tells us, “This is the moment I’ve dreaded: coming back to our home, alone.” There’s no over-the-top melodrama to be found here. Claudette Colbert impeccably conveys this feeling with her body language and a glint of a tear in her eye. The subtlety of her performance makes this scene so much more emotional than something more dramatic would have been.

Since You Went Away Opening Scene

Anne isn’t alone in the house for long, though.  Just as Anne is about to lose her composure, her daughters Jane and Brig come home and Anne finds her strength again. Jane and Brig are handling their father’s departure in different ways and there’s a lot of uncertainty in their lives right now, but one thing’s for sure — this is a family that will be drawing a lot of strength and support from each other in the near future.

Since You Went Away Opening Scene

The Sign of the Cross (1932)

Sign of the CrossAs Nero (Charles Laughton) watches Rome burn, he blames Christians for starting the whole thing rather than admit he started it.  Nero’s accusation places all Christians in Rome in great danger.  When Titus (Arthur Hohl) and Flavius (Harry Beresford) publicly admit to being Christians, they are arrested.  But when fellow Christian Mercia (Elissa Landi) tries to defend them, Marcus (Fredric March) sees her, instantly falls in love, and helps save Titus and Flavius.

Marcus is being romantically pursued by the empress Poppaea (Claudette Colbert), and when she hears that Marcus has fallen in love with a Christian woman, she becomes extremely jealous.  This places Marcus in a precarious position because not only does Poppaea want Mercia dead, Marcus’ rival takes the opportunity to try to push him out of favor with Nero.  Marcus does everything in his power to seduce Mercia, but there is nothing that can take distract her from her faith.

When all the Christians in Rome, including Mercia, are gathered to be fed to lions for a large crowd’s entertainment, Marcus fights until the very end to save her.  Just before she is to go into the arena, he begs her to renounce her faith to save herself, but she refuses.  Finally, Marcus decides he would rather die in the arena with Mercia than live without her.

The Sign of the Cross is, without a doubt, one of the most completely depraved pre-codes you’ll ever come across.  With Claudette Colbert’s infamous milk bath scene, hedonistic party scenes, revealing costumes, and some rather gruesome moments all mixed together with a message about religious persecution, it’s easy to see why The Sign of the Cross caused quite a commotion.  It’s frequently cited as being one of the movies that drew such a strong reaction from religious groups, it helped usher in the strict enforcement of the production codes.  Even though the movie is actually sympathetic toward Christians, religious groups couldn’t stand Cecil B. De Mille taking stories with religious themes and filling them with so much depravity.

When Sign of the Cross was re-released after the production codes were being strongly enforced, it took quite a bit of work to make it follow the code.  Several scenes had to be cut and in 1944, De Mille filmed a modern-day epilogue and prologue to frame the original movie.  Fortunately, the cut scenes were not lost and have since been restored.

Sign of the Cross isn’t my favorite De Mille movie (that title would go to Cleopatra), but I can’t deny that this movie is completely and totally De Mille’s style.  It’s big, it’s lavish, it’s over the top, it’s everything you expect from a Cecil B. De Mille movie.

Paramount in the 1930’s

Times were tough for just about everyone during the 1930’s, including Paramount Studios.  In the early 1930’s, Paramount was on the brink of financial disaster and with the Great Depression, audiences needed darn good reasons to spend what money they had on movie tickets.  Paramount was facing some pretty tough competition, too.  MGM had Greta Garbo, Clark Gable, and Joan Crawford;  Warner Brothers had their gangster flicks and Busby Berkley musicals.  But Paramount rose to the challenge and created some of the most definitive movies of the decade with some of the best talent in town.

(more…)

What’s on TCM: September 2012

Happy September, everyone!  I hope you all enjoyed this year’s edition of Summer Under the Stars.  One good thing may be coming to an end, but fear not, there are some very, very cool things to look forward to in September.

Silent film fans, rejoice!  Every Thursday night this month, TCM will be spotlighting movies produced at Mack Sennett studios, which means there will be tons of silent films being played during prime time.  83 short films will be included in this tribute, the vast majority of which have never been shown in TCM before, and will feature stars  such as Charlie Chaplin, Mabel Normand, Fatty Arbuckle, and Gloria Swanson.  I, for one, am very excited for this!

Lauren Bacall is the Star of the Month and every Wednesday night in September will be full of her movies.  September 3rd will be TCM’s annual tribute to the Telluride Film Festival

(more…)