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Savant has never found much of anything negative to say about Billy Wilder. The director was perhaps rough on some of his collaborators, but the movies he's left behind are almost all gems. I think I caught up with most of them in college - even things he just wrote, like Midnight, and Hold Back the Dawn. Even after ten viewings, a Wilder film yields up entertainment surprises.
Now that he is gone, finding an unseen Wilder title is a big treat, one that brings back what Wilder said at Ernst Lubitsch's funeral - that the worst thing about Lubitsch dying was that there would be no more Lubitsch films. Mauvaise graine is only co-directed and co-written by Wilder, but it has many of his trademarks. Image's new DVD of this rare picture has a few rough edges, but plays very well, and holds up far better than the scattered lukewarm notices I've read about it.
Mauvaise graine means literally the Bad Seed, or the prodigal son, and at first glance this story of a wayward youth who joins a hot car ring in Paris doesn't seem like typical Wilder material. The picture has fun showing the idle rich enjoying the high-tech consumer privileges of 1934 - new cars, music on the radio - a flashy convertible seems to be surefire pickup bait. Being deprived of his wheels is so humiliating, it motivates the young playboy to turn to crime.
The activities of the car thieves involves very sophisticated car-mounted cameras rolling around the real Paris. Wilder's interest in cars and technology isn't the biggest theme in his films, but it's certainly there (the car in Sunset Blvd., for instance), and he made an entire film out of the beauty of 20th Century tech progress in The Spirit of St. Louis. A nighttime police pursuit operates on a suspense mechanism (will a certain bad weld on one of the axles give way?) that is reminiscent of the later airplane movie.
Where Wilder's cleverness really comes into play is with the clever ruses the gang uses to snatch the cars, most of which involve Jeanette serving as amorous bait. Several of the gags are as good as anything in a new picture, as when they nab a number of desired cars by planting an ad in the paper, conning the owners into bringing them to a fake office.
The picture is sexy, too. Young Henri meets Jeanette in bed, a 'meet cute' that happens when her brother opens a door between the two of them as they're bunking down in separate rooms. The romance angle has to be taken for granted, because the film concentrates more on crime and comedy and we just have to assume Henri and Jeannete are truly in love.
The gang of thieves is a half-sinister, half-humorous organization. The boss is a schemer, but the 'employees' are a fun bunch of cutups that include a hip black welder. One worthless member called 'The Zebra' because of his garish striped coats, keeps bringing in ancient or cumbersome automobiles - the show is practically a time-capsule of Parisian auto styles of the time. Ever hear of a coupe called an 'Hispano'?
Almost every Wilder film has a disguise factor, not necessarily cross-dressing (Some Like it Hot, The Major and the Minor), but some kind of role-playing subterfuge. Digging reveals the structure even in movies like Ace in the Hole, where a chiseling yellow journalist masquerades as a philanthropist. In Mauvaise graine, it's pushing it a bit too far to contrast the hero's honest and dishonest roles; it's too undeveloped. But the heroine's brother has a curious tie fetish. He continually trades neckties with other men, and steals others, a compulsive behavior that starts fights and provides a screwball running gag for several scenes. It's very Wilderish, if one tries to read games with other men's neckties as a substitute for aberrant sexual behavior. In his later films, Billy would make such content less intellectual and more direct. One of his co-writers once asked him why things had to be so obvious: "But what about subtleties, Billy?" "Subtleties! I love subtleties. Make them obvious too!"
Most of the gags and confected situations in Mauvaise graine aren't as integrated into the story as Billy's later scripts would make them. The crime-vs-straight theme doesn't really work, as the lovers' desire to stop being criminals is rather perfunctory. They only really get serious about reforming when they have to walk, which is really a return to the 'no wheels, no fun' theme. The last reel brings in a gangbusting police raid in an effort to straighten out the morals equation. An Austrian expatriate passing through, Billy surely didn't have much control over the script. His imprint is definitely there, but Mauvaise graine is a patchwork of good story ideas. The perfectionist Hollywood Billy would have straightened them all out.
The resolution for Henri's criminality is one afforded only rich man's sons. Caught red-handed, Henri says he'll do whatever his father asks: Dad's solution is for him to leave the country! The father is apparently so status-conscious, he'd rather never see his son again, instead of letting him stand trial for car theft. I guess this is how the John Carradine character got out West in Stagecoach. I also wonder if Wilder, doing his best to run away to Hollywood, thought of himself as more of a rogue on the loose, than a refugee from Naziism.
Mauvaise graine is a bit slow here and there but has plenty of visual distractions, mainly the many scenes on the Paris streets, and the beautful Danielle Darrieux. There's a constant surprise factor, the jokes are entertaining and the action filming is impressive for such an old picture. Even in French, it's definitely a Billy Wilder movie. That in itself is always a high recommendation.1
Image's DVD of Mauvaise graine is a reasonably good copy of the film that has its share of scratches and minor damage. The first few seconds of the main titles have emulsion damage, but the show is otherwise in fine shape. The source appears to be a 35mm print, and the framing and image quality are much better than acceptable. The occasional roughness in the track, and some ragged dissolves may have been part of the original prints. The French dialogue is translated in removable English subtitles. The disc was produced for Image by David Shepard.
A major extra is an early French animated short film called La Joie de Vivre by Hector Hoppin and Anthony Gross. Built around a music score, it features two anatomically - correct females pursued through some very stylized & surreal backgrounds by a young man on a bicycle who's trying to return a slipper one has lost. The animation is fairly unique, and the characters were obviously designed by girl-crazy Frenchmen.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Mauvaise graine rates:
1. Fritz Lang's 'transitional French movie', made like Wilder's also en
route to America, is now on DVD. It's called
Liliom, and it's a masterpiece, a
Film Blanc from the play that
was the basis of the musical Carousel.