Blog Archive

05 February 2018

Pink Champagne and Diamonds: The Merry Widow, 1934

Jeanette MacDonald and Maurice Chevalier as Sonia and Danilo

Probably only Ernst Lubitsch could have made a film that amounts to profound fluff. The Merry Widow is so lighthearted, so frivolous, so silly, so deeply committed to gaity and enjoyment that it's a masterpiece of froth.

The wonderful cast includes Jeanette MacDonald at her loveliest as Sonia, the widow in question, Maurice Chevalier as Danilo, the ultimate ladies' man, and supporting players Edward Everett Horton, Una Merkel, Minna Gombell, Sterling Holloway, and George Barbier as a very jolly king of the extremely mythical country of Marshovia.

MGM was always lavish, but this production was over the top, even for them (apparently they did not make a profit, but that hardly matters now). The Academy Award winning production design, by the great Cedric Gibbons and Fredric Hope, shimmers in glorious black, silver, and diamond-white, with unbelievably glossy polished floors (really unbelievable -- after every shot a crew of stagehands had to scurry out and re-polish them), and soaring walls sparkling with gilt ornamentation and mirrors. And the costumes! For this film, the story is set in 1885, allowing the genius that was Adrian, arguably the greatest of golden era costume designers, freedom to romp among the feathers, poufs, gathers, and ruffles of that era. Ali Hubert, another great designer, also created hundreds of costumes. Every gown was an individual creation, and they took masses of seamstresses months to produce. In fact it seems that Jeanette MacDonald is almost drowning in ruffles; fortunately, her creamy complexion, dimples, and flaming red curls are perfectly suited to the era, and she can carry it off.
Spangles, ruffles, and curls

The plot is simplicity itself; the small vaguely Balkan country of Marshovia is strapped for cash, and the King hatches a scheme to ensure that the richest person in the country, the lovely young widow, Sonia, remains there with her money. He orders the nation's most popular ladies' man, Count Danilo, to marry her. Naturally this leads to misunderstandings and complications,

And of course all is buoyed up by the music. The original operetta, produced in Vienna in 1905, was an instant international smash hit, due to the reliably funny story and catchy, romantic, and simply beautiful music. The plot was adapted from an older German play by Leo Stein and Viktor Leon, and the composer was one of the most famous Viennese popular composers, Franz Lehar. Vienna had a particular relationship with the waltz, and still has, as witnessed by every New Year's Eve celebration, which even today includes formal waltzes. Lehar provided one of the most enduring tunes, called from the first "The Merry Widow Waltz." But (unlike a lot of Viennese operettas, it must be said) the score also includes other hit songs, including "Velia, maid of the woods," "Girls, girls, girls," and "I'm going to Maxim's."

Happily, and in keeping with the spirit of fun, the lyrics to these songs were rewritten by Lorenz Hart, (though credited to Rodgers and Hart, who had at that point what is rather cutely called a "whither thou goest so shall I go" contract, so they were always listed as a team), and you can tell it was Hart by the wit and style of his words. For example:

Let us gaze on the wine while it's wet
Let us do things we'll live to forget
Let me dance 'till the restaurant whirls
With the girls, girls, girls, girls, girls!
Where there's wine and there's women and song
It is wrong not to do something wrong
When you do something wrong
You must do something right
And I'm doing all right tonight!


I'll stay out at Maxim's
Until the morning beams
When I am feeling so good
Be sure I'm out for no good
Lolo, Dodo, Zouzou
Cloclo, Margot, Froufrou
We promise to be true
Until the night is through!

The plot is slightly changed from the original (which is just as silly but slightly more complex). One major scene is traditionally set at the famous Paris restaurant, Maxim's, which is introduced in one of the movie's major production numbers. Now, the restaurant didn't even exist in 1885, and also didn't feature the cancan, nor is it as enormous as this set, which seems to cover a city block. But who cares?

The cancan at Maxim's

The girls take to the dance floor in traditional ruffled skirts, black stockings, and feathered hats of cancan dancers, all done in black and white, the band strikes up, and the cancan begins, complete with acrobatics, cries of enthusiasm, and lacy pantalettes insouciantly displayed in the final move. 

One thing that stands out about this movie, and which it shares with Mae West's works, it its attitude to sex. Everyone enjoys sex. There is no guilt or shame or recrimination. Like Vienna, Paris was the city of art and music, famous for its sophistication and tolerance, which is one reason the Nazis hated it so much. It was a city of romance, and not too particular about who was being romantic.

Two misunderstandings in the lobby at Maxim's

One sly scene even encourages -- or at least fails to condemn -- gay romance. Danilo arrives at Maxim's and in the lobby literally bumps into the Marshovian ambassador (Edward Everett Horton), who has just come in with a lady friend. The ambassador speaks sharply to  him, and Danilo responds in kind. They snap angrily back and forth, escalating to the point where the ambassador challenges Danilo to a duel. His lady friend, frightened, rushes out to find a policeman. By the time she returns, however, all hostility has ceased and the ambassador and Danilo, having exchanged cards and realized who the other is, are laughing and embracing. Seeing this, the policeman, obviously assuming they're gay, and not at all inclined to do anything about their public display of affection, shrugs and says to the lady friend, "I wouldn't bother."

Jeannette MacDonald and Minna Gombell

When Danilo enters Maxim's he is greeted by dozens of girls of the demi-monde, all delighted to see him. They love him, and he loves them, greeting each one by name and recalling a personal quirk. The lovely brunette Marcelle, played by Minna Gombell, removes a garter Danilo gave her from her leg to show him -- it is inscribed "Many happy returns!" (This little scene was snipped by narrow minded censors, but has been restored.) Through machinations too complicated to explain (but still silly), Sonia, the wealthy widow, also arrives at Maxim's and pretends to be a lady of the evening named Fifi. She ends up in a private dining room with Danilo, and the strains of the lovely waltz are heard for the first time as they fall in love.

Sonia, the Ambassador, and Danilo

Misunderstandings abound, naturally, and when Sonia and Danilo meet at a grand ball at the Marshovian embassy (which seems to be about the size of Versailles, including a "salle de glaces," or mirrored room), they both have reason to be nettled. They come together in a beautiful waltz, argue, and separate, surrounded by a huge ballroom full of dancers in the second production number, which must include a couple of hundred dancers., the ladies gowned in black, silver gray, and white. Feathered headdresses, spangled lace fans, flaring skirts swing around and around, reflected in wall-sized mirrors.

The gorgeous Embassy Ball

Waltzing in the mirrored hallway

Eventually everyone ends up back in Marshovia, and amazingly enough, and a few more complications (all of them silly) ensue. There's a courtroom scene ("please clear all livestock from the court"), and this allows the King to help things along a bit. The good-natured monarch maneuvers Danilo and Sonia into a jail cell, locks the door, providing a wedding ring and a minister, Sonia and Danilo tie the knot. As Shakespeare put it, "Jack shall have Jill, naught shall go ill, The man shall have his mare again, And all shall be well."

This movie is such fun, so beautiful to look at, and the score is so lovely it should be recognized as one of the great musicals.

The end

Clip: The Embassy Ball

Clip: The Mery Widow Waltz

29 January 2018

Mistress of Melodrama: Kay Francis in Comet Over Broadway

This is my entry in the 
Click link to read them all!

It has always puzzled me that Kay Francis, a beautiful, intelligent, and talented woman who was one of the most popular movie stars of the early 1930's, never asserted herself (like Bette Davis, Olivia de Haviland. and James Cagney did, for instance) and insist on better material. After some wonderful, high-class productions with co-stars like Ronald Colman and directors like Ernst Lubitsch, Francis was increasingly provided with with inferior scripts and uninspired directors. She never complained about it, though she was perfectly aware of the fact.

This movie has some excuse for seeming a little disjointed; director Busby Berkeley became  ill during the filming, and it was completed by an uncredited John Farrow. Francis was such a professional that she gave her best efforts to the material she was given, and her performances are always thoughtful and dignified. And that's what saves Comet Over Broadway. Considered objectively, the plot is pretty ludicrous; but why should we consider it objectively? Enjoyment of a star vehicle depends on the star, and Kay Francis always delivers.
Ian Hunter, Busby Berkeley, and Kay Francis on the set

The story opens with Francis as Eve Appleton, a small-town wife who longs to act, and stars in local amateur productions. When a professional theatrical company comes to town, she is thrilled to meet the fading star player, who invites her to his hotel room to discuss her career prospects. At least, that's her naive idea. Disaster strikes when her husband, Bill (John Litel) follows her, enraged, strikes the actor, whereupon he hits his head and dies. He is arrested, tried, and convicted of manslaughter, and sentenced to prison.
Kay Francis and Ian Hunter

Now shunned by her neighbors, Eve changes her name and leaves town to go on the stage, taking her toddler daughter Jackie (Sybil Jason) with her. This is the most interesting part of the story; Eve, spurred on by her need to provide for herself and her little girl, will do anything to succeed in her profession. But she finds that she can't do that and care for Jackie adequately, too. Eve knows that traveling from place to place without a home of her own is stressful for the child, and that she herself can't put in the hours she needs to develop her career and give Jackie the attention she needs, too. While working in a burlesque show she meets Tim (Minna Gombell, superb as always), an actress whose career never really got off the ground, and who offers to help care for the little girl. At first this is simply occasional babysitting, but when Eve gets her big break, Tim offers to make a home for Jackie until Eve can finally earn enough to care for her properly. Eve sees that Tim sincerely loves the little girl, and leaves Jackie with her. Later -- and it's years later -- when she goes to see Jackie, it is clear that her child now thinks of Tim as her loved and trusted mother. In a rather striking twist for a classic-era film, Eve lets her stay where she's happy. The interaction between the two women is adult and thoughtful.

Minna Gombell as Tim, with Kay Francis as Eve

Able to concentrate solely on her career, Eve's star rises rapidly, assisted by the support of a wealthy producer, played by the charming and stalwart Ian Hunter, who was a very good match for Francis. He was tall, broad-shouldered, and classy, being English, and held his own in drama, comedy, musicals, westerns, and even Shakespeare, having played Theseus in the 1935 Midsummer Night's Dream. He is probably best remembered by Americans for his role as King Richard in The Adventures of Robin Hood with Errol Flynn. Hunter spent most of the 1930's in Hollywood, but when World War 2 broke out in Europe he returned to England and never came back, spending the rest of his career on stage, screen and television in Britain.

The plot of this movie is actually rather simple and has a feeling of inevitability; off course, just as Eve finds love and success, everything falls apart. She discovers that Bill, her husband, has finally won a legal appeal and will be released from prison -- and she also learns that he has become seriously ill with heart disease. She feels it is her moral responsibility to return to him and care for him, since in her eyes she was to blame for his crime -- and taking Jackie with her this time -- leaving her success and the man she loves behind.

Francis makes this stark decision seem the result of serious thought rather than sentimental turmoil, lifting the whole story out of the depths of soap opera. Her circumstances leave her with no good choices; anything she does will cause pain to somebody, including herself. This is something faced by many people. The circumstances may vary, and perhaps be a tad more humdrum for most of us, but the pain is the same. Comet Over Broadway ends with a rather creepy suggestion that Eve won't have long to wait to be truly free, as her unfortunate husband is clearly very ill.

Critics, almost uniformly male, tended to criticize, and referred to such stories as these as "women's pictures," which was not meant as a compliment. But the resolution of such films depends on emotional truth, not logic. If Eve felt responsible, she was responsible; it's her feelings that matter, not the mechanics of plotting. As long as the viewer is willing to go along with that, this movie is quite enjoyable.

The French poster

15 January 2018

Invisible Woman: the Great Minna Gombell

I've been a classic film buff since I was about nine years old, when my parents let me -- heck, they encouraged me -- to stay up late (on a school night) to watch the great Greta Garbo romantic comedy Ninotchka on The Late, Late Show. That was the start of a lifelong passion. And after years of paying close attention I do pride myself on knowing and appreciating not just the major superstars but all of the extraordinarily talented, incredibly hard-working artists, actors, directors, designers, producers, screenwriters, and everyone else who worked to create the art form I love most.

But there are still surprises from the past, and a few years ago I was delighted to discover a great actress who is practically unknown -- Minna Gombell. I was reminded again of this lady's amazing talent when I recently viewed the charming musical biography of songwriter Gus Kahn, starring Danny Thomas as Kahn and Doris Day as his wife and collaborator, Grace Le Boy.  In one of the early scenes where Gus visits Grace at her family home I couldn't help feeling there was something familiar about Grace's mother. And so there was -- it was Minna Gombell, again disappearing into a role and presenting a real person.

As Mimi in The Thin Man

It's not that she didn't play memorable roles; in fact, many viewers will find her characters absolutely unforgettable. But you won't realize that it's the same actress playing, for example, Mimi, the snobbish, greedy wife of the missing scientist in The Thin Man, and a few years later the loving, supportive mother of double amputee Homer Parish in The Best Years of Our Lives. Would you have guessed that the same actress played these roles?

With Spencer Tracy in Boomtown

A native of Baltimore, Gombell had an extensive stage career before she ever reached Hollywood, performing in scores of productions. Her incredible versatility and professionalism -- she was noted for her ability to memorize lines with lightning speed -- made her a sought after character actress. She made seventy-five films between 1929 and 1951, when she retired from movie making (though she did appear in several television shows throughout the next decade).

Gombell is not unknown because she faded into the background or played dull, uninteresting roles; among her creations are riveting characters like the destructive harridan Zilla Riesling in Babbitt (an underseen and underrated film). Gombell's Zilla is a slashing portrait of a woman whose anger cannot be contained; her disdain for her ineffectual husband borders on hatred, which eventually leads to tragedy for both of them. She almost quivers with fury which simply cannot be suppressed, whatever the consequences.
With Kay Francis in Comet Over Broadway

Another great, and completely different, role is that of Tim Adams in the Kay Francis starrer Comet Over Broadway. Tim is an aging, hard as nails chorine who gives up her ambition for the love of a child -- even though it's another woman's child. Her character has just as much dramatic weight as Francis' rising star, though her portrayal is not at all sugary.

As the Beggar Queen

I also particularly love her in one of my favorite films, Earnst Lubitsch's 1934 version of The Merry Widow, with the wonderful music by Franz Lehar and witty, modernized lyrics by Lorenz Hart. This is the ultimate effervescent musical comedy, with a suitably ridiculous plot and a delightful cast including Maurice Chevalier, Jeannette MacDonald, Edward Everett Horton, and Una Merkel. Set in the extremely mythical country of Marshovia in the 1880's, the lavish black, white, and silver sets and costumes glitter like gems. In one plot point too complicated to explain here, Chevalier as Count Danilo, the quintessential ladies' man, visits the famous Parisian nightclub Maxim's, where he has many female friends who are very glad to see him -- including the glossy brunette Marcelle, played by none other than Minna Gombell, looking remarkably glamorous.

With Maurice Chevalier in The Merry Widow

She appears as the warm, supportive dance hall owner, Ivie, in Boomtown with Gable and Tracy, as the Beggar Queen in The Hunchback of Notre Dame, Make Way For Tomorrow, Wild Boys of the Road, The Great Waltz, High Sierra, and The Snake Pit. And her talent also enlivened less serious efforts like Laurel and Hardy's Blockheads, Mexican Spitfire Sees a Ghost, and Penthouse Rhythm.

As Mrs Parish in The Best Years of Our Lives

Playing Grace Leboy's mom in I'll See You In My Dreams was Minna Gombell's last film role, and as always she swiftly sketched a complete character in a limited amount of screen time. Her career was ideal for a committed actress; she was always busy, with serious work to do but without the stresses of fame or celebrity-hood. I hope she felt that way about it, and looked back on her accomplishments with satisfaction.