Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
Remarkable movie star Claudette Colbert was always considered at the very top of her game over a film career that lasted 34 years, 50 if you count an extra TV movie appearance. A consummate professional, she played the game her own way, neither fighting to be the best-regarded actress nor the most desired lover. Stories about her on-set demands never reached bad-reputation levels. She definitely had her wilder party years but never attracted a scandal. Born French but raised in America, Emille Claudette Chauchoin could pass for foreign royalty or the down-to-earth girl next door. She was a slinky seductress for Cecil B. DeMille, a runaway heiress for Frank Capra and one of Preston Sturges' most elegant comediennes.
Perhaps the best compliment for Ms. Colbert is that I can't recall her giving a bad performance -- none of the movies I've seen her in are obvious turkeys, and are usually quite the opposite. Universal's new The Claudette Colbert Collection stacks six titles scattered over fourteen of her best years.
Three-Cornered Moon demonstrates Paramount's handling of the Great Depression. The play by Gertrude Tonkonogy imagines the goofy Rimpleger Family, which consists of an addle-brained matriarch (Mary Boland), her three spoiled and selfish sons (Wallace Ford, Tom Brown & William Bakewell) and her disenchanted daughter, Elizabeth (Colbert). In between silly dealings with a German cook (the short-lived Lyda Roberti of Torch Singer), Mother reveals that she's lost the family fortune in the stock market. The boys must look for work and Elizabeth lies about her experience to get a sweatshop shoe factory job. Even after selling off their valuables and taking on Dr. Alan Stevens (Richard Arlen) as a boarder, the Rimplegers can't make ends meet; Elizabeth's boyfriend Ronald (Hardie Albright) has free rent and is too committed to the book he is writing to consider taking a job and helping out with the groceries. Alan waits patiently, hoping that Elizabeth will notice him.
There's not a lot to this movie, which talks a lot about money and tries to work up some comedy with some "silly family" antics but doesn't really have a handle on a subject much more directly addressed over at Warner Bros.. Wallace Ford's aspiring lawyer must get serious about passing the bar exam but his brothers and Elizabeth have no knowledge of what work is. The idea that one brother will have to forget about college isn't pondered any longer than it takes to say the words. Elizabeth gets her shoe factory job with the help of a street-wise pal who apparently comes out of nowhere to coach her in the interview. The ditzy mom can't even communicate with the ditzy family cook, who keeps working even though she's not being paid. Such fun!
All the show's effort is channeled into Elizabeth's character arc; she begins as the only (marginally) competent family member and eventually sees through the selfishness of her writer boyfriend Ronald. The rather harsh message is that artists and dreamers are worthless parasites. We can't but approve when she chooses the young doctor instead, as Ronald is really jerk interested only in himself. The movie also infers that women like Elizabeth shouldn't work. Despite a pessimistic visual and audio montage on the Depression ("They want me to work for free until I get experience") the film still insists that anybody who really wants a job can get one. One son is an unemployed actor; he does his bit by snagging a small part in a big show. Gee, that's always easy to do.
Elliott Nugent's direction is okay and Leon Shamroy's cinematography is up to the usual Paramount level of polish. Colbert is tops, but she's the whole show here. We're told that on Broadway the Elizabeth role was played by Ruth Gordon.
1937's Maid of Salem concerns the same historical events as Arthur Miller's classic play The Crucible. Although it has a happy ending, it comes off equally as pessimistic on the human race. In the 1690s in the Puritan town of Salem, gossip, superstition and malicious children ignite a witch hunt that ends up with a number of innocent women hanged for consorting with the Devil. Beautiful young Barbara Clarke (Colbert) becomes suspect because she's carrying on a flirtation with an unseen stranger that the locals believe to be Satan; he's really Roger Coverman (Fred MacMurray), a fugitive anti- British rebel from Virginia.
The screenplay's most nagging aspect is its clear condemnation of Puritan society. Almost to a man the townspeople are vain, selfish and maliciously repressed; to hide their petty crimes they think nothing of accusing each other. A small group of single women goad a Haitian slave (Madame Sul-Te-Wan) into regaling them with voodoo tales, but they can't handle the sensuality therein and start behaving erratically. To avoid punishment for stealing a book on black magic, a mean-spirited girl pretends to be possessed, triggering a spate of denunciations, trials and hangings. The girl is played by Bonita Granville in much the same way as she played the evil informer in William Wyler and Lillian Hellman's These Three. The Maid of Salem movie makes a strong connection between different kinds of societal intolerance.
We know that trouble is brewing almost immediately. Barbara dares to wear a frilly bonnet and wants to laugh and dance, all things forbidden in Salem. She improvises a doll for a small child frightened by witch-tales and is accused of bewitching her. Hey, what's an upstanding Alderman doing with a book about black magic in the first place?
These Three is much more honest about how witch-hunts play out. Yet we're surprised by this serious social comment movie from Paramount, even if in the disguise of a period melodrama. The mechanics of denunciation and guilt by accusation are so well laid out that Maid of Salem should have been screened at the HUAC hearings ten years later. Only the conclusion is a letdown. We see no reason why Barbara's vile accusers should suddenly publicly recant, and the film assures us than an anti- Witch Hunt law will make things right. We also don't see what happens afterwards; surely Barbara will be shunned and these Puritans will just continue as they have before. Most audiences would applaud if an Indian massacre wiped out the whole intolerant lot.
Maid of Salem is given good direction by Frank Lloyd; he sticks to the script and moves the picture right along. The movie's only visual problem is that the Massachusetts coast seems to have almost no trees, and looks just like Southern California.
Claudette is the most elegant-looking Puritan imaginable until she's given a Joan of Arc makeover for the hanging tree scenes. Fred MacMurray does nothing wrong but can't help looking like a college boy in a fraternity skit. The great supporting cast includes Louise Dresser, Beulah Bondi, Virginia Weidler, Donald Meek, E.E. Clive, Halliwell Hobbes, Pedro de Cordoba, William Farnum, Zeffie Tilbury, Mary Treen, J. Farrell MacDonald, Stanley Fields, and Russell Simpson. Gale Sondergaard is wonderfully malevolent as a jealous doctor's wife and Beulah Bondi scary as a sexual hysteric. Sterling Holloway is very effective as a cowherd who considers himself a made man, ready to 'take possession' of Barbara as his wife.
I Met Him in Paris is a romantic travelogue clearly designed to appeal to women dreaming of travel, adventure and pursuit by handsome men in tuxedoes. Although we're assured that our lovely heroine Kay Denham (Colbert) saved up for years to afford a trip to Europe, from then on she's decked out in high fashions, as if her origin were Park Avenue. That's Hollywood glamour at work; with beautiful people like Colbert to enjoy who will complain?
Kay Denham is clearly in Paris looking for romance, so as to forget her drip New York boyfriend Berk Sutter (Lee Bowman). She's literally picked up by not one but two dashing Americans abroad, engaging Gene Anders (Robert Young) and moody writer George Potter (Melvyn Douglas). George interferes with Gene and Kay's blossoming relationship, and invites himself along on a mad vacation (a vacation from a vacation?) in Switzerland. Cue the funny winter sports scenes, all staged and filmed with style and humor. None of the films in this set look cheap.
I Met Him in Paris flirts with the idea of a hot love affair and then quite nimbly skips back into territory acceptable to the Production Code. Kay ends up standing in judgment on all three men in her life (a real feminine power fantasy), verbally slaying two of them with ease. Of course, the third beau ends up being Mister Right. The show is fast, pleasant and not really very memorable. Mona Barrie is a decadent wife, and Fritz Feld gets laughs as a hotel clerk putting up with Robert Young's charm-challenged antics.
Perhaps the best picture in the collection is Ernst Lubitsch's Bluebeard's Eighth Wife from 1938. This almost perfect Lubitsch comedy consists of nothing more than inspired romantic interaction with hardly any intrusion by the outside world. The screenplay by Charles Brackett and Billy Wilder is their first collaboration in a partnership that would last through twelve years of classic titles.
Sort of a twist on The Taming of the Shrew, the story concerns millionaire Michael Brandon (Gary Cooper, turning on the cutes full force) wooing Nicole De Loiselle (Colbert), the daughter of a penniless Marquis (Edward Everett Horton). Brandon succeeds in getting Nicole to walk down the aisle, but she interrupts the Honeymoon when she finds out that he's been married several times -- she has no intention of being a wife for just a few months. The second half of the picture plots out Nicole's strategy to force Michael into a different understanding of marriage.
Wilder idolized and adored Ernst Lubitsch, who he considered the master director of them all; Wilder was fond of explaining how he and Brackett impressed their mentor by finding a gem of an introductory scene they called "meeting cute". The unreasonable millionaire Michael confounds the cleraks in a fancy men's shop by insisting on buying only the top half of a pair of pajamas; the controversy is taken to the floor manager, the sales manager and the company manager before finally being referred to the store owner who is at home in bed. I won't spoil the gag. Bright-faced Nicole comes along and offers to buy the bottom half of the same pajamas, setting up their mutual flirtation. Does the lady want the pajamas for a boy friend? A lover? Michael worries himself half sick. We're too busy imagining Nicole herself sleeping in just the bottoms. It's a terrific censor dodge.
Horton is funny as the penniless father, while David Niven takes the thankless role as a lowly clerk, friend to Nicole and employee to Brandon. The writers invent the notion that Nicole refuses to consummate the marriage, leaving the couple co-habiting in a perfect sex-delayed / sex-deferred comedy pattern. Nicole hires a prizefighter (Warren Hymer) to pretend to be her lover, hoping to make her husband jealous. With the consistent witty dialogue and bright performances, Bluebeard's Eighth Wife needs no more recommendation beyond a simple, "see it". Most Billy Wilder fans I know have tracked down almost all of his pictures. I am now well aware that after a couple more, I'll have seen them all. Then there'll be no more delightful surprises like this.
One of Billy Wilder's favorite verbal punching bags was director Mitchell Leisen. I've always been told that there was more to Leisen than that, but for the longest time saw only Frenchman's Creek and Golden Earrings and wasn't all that impressed. Then along came a pack of really fine Leisen films: Easy Living, Midnight, Remember the Night and Hold Back the Dawn. 1943's No Time For Love does without a superstar writing team but manages 83 fast minutes of very funny comedy. It's also a good movie for observing sex roles in Hollywood movies, even though the up-front message is the same old stuff about a woman preferring a puffed-up stud who insists on dominating every situation.
Name photographer Katherine Grant (Colbert) takes photos for a slick New York magazine even though she'd rather shoot artistic images instead of showgirls and ballet dancers. She's engaged to a refined publisher but becomes interested in the tough & cocky Jim Ryan (Fred MacMurray), a sandhog laborer helping to dig a tunnel under the Hudson River. Suspended for fighting, Ryan gets a job hauling equipment for Katherine. They fall in love, even though she hired him to "get him out of her system".
That may not sound promising but No Time For Love (a meaningless title) is both funny and clever at all times. Katherine's attempts to forget Ryan go nowhere, thanks to the nervy intervention of her sister Hoppy (Ilka Chase) and Ryan's ability to prove that his rough workingman's ways are preferable to High Society puffery. Ryan quickly gets a snooty waiter on his side, leading to an evening at an Irish restaurant that becomes a near brawl, incited when Ryan's friends play a wild punch-out version of musical chairs. Ryan uses his new job to pick up a hot number from a stage show (June Havoc), frustrating Katherine to no end.
What's interesting is the film's clever play with sex typing. Katherine is surrounded by cultured but sexless male drones. When he feels he's being slighted, the virile Jim Ryan gets away with literally knocking their heads together. Katherine hires a muscle-bound model for a photo shoot, and Ryan can't resist beating him up as well. That the Ryan character doesn't come off as a boor can only be credited to MacMurray's personality, and the fact that Ryan is toying with Katherine. He knows she's trying to play a game with him.
The other Irish Sandhogs -- Rhys Williams, Rod Cameron, Tom Neal (Detour) pick fights and bicker worse than cavalrymen in a John Ford movie, yet we accept them as well. Most interesting of all is Richard Haydn's musician, who gets called a pantywaist (!) and isn't considered a real man by anybody, including Katherine. He turns out to be the film's most level headed, unselfish and generous character.
Leisen pulls off a strange sequence that makes fun of the 40s flirtation with Dali-esque surrealism. Katherine dreams that she's rescued by Ryan's literal superman character, who carries her through a stylized sky much like Christopher Reeve in the later film. It very effectively demonstrates Katherine's secret desire to be swept off her feet by a macho brute he-man.
Also impressive are scenes in an enormous tunnel set, where Ryan is almost crushed in an accident and a mudslide threatens to bury most of the cast. Leisen gets across the rough industrial-strength aspects quite well, although he seems more interested in admiring all the strongmen on view than the curvaceous June Havoc (who proves a not-bad comedienne herself).
(no spoilers here)
The film might have a better reputation if it didn't throw away its credibility at a key juncture, when one of the characters is revealed to be something entirely different than has been portrayed for the previous seventy minutes. It's as if script doctors (or censors) stepped in and sent the story off at a 90-degree tangent. We still enjoy ourselves but all dramatic integrity goes out the window. The screenplay's apposition of the cultured vs. the uncouth no longer makes any sense, and the show must work to its conclusion on star appeal alone.
Alan Hale Jr. and Woody Strode are said to be among the sandhog construction workers.
The huge hit The Egg and I (1947) successfully re-teams Colbert and MacMurray. It spawned a cycle of spinoff "Ma and Pa Kettle" movies starring Percy Kilbride and Marjorie Main. For subsequent reissues those supporting characters were given precedence over the stars. Expanding from Betty MacDonald's extremely popular book of memoirs, the show charts the adventures of city folk Betty and Bob MacDonald as they adjust to farm life.
The movie starts with slapstick before moving into more serious territory. As in the later TV show Green Acres, Betty is only informed on her wedding night that her husband has chickens on his mind. She finds herself struggling to cope with a run-down farm, uncooperative animals, bad weather, and an unending stream of strange hick neighbors. Most notable are the Kettles, who are raising a pack of wild kids under near-feral conditions. Lazy clod Pa Kettle "borrows" things and claims skills he doesn't have; Ma gave up housecleaning ages ago. The screenwriters turn a nearby model farm into romantic competition for Betty, by making its owner a beautiful husband stealer (Louise Albritton).
Colbert wins us over in the usual way, stoically putting up with humiliations and proving herself a lady no matter what the provocation. Fred MacMurray finds the honest, optimistic, slightly ditzy persona he would use for most of the rest of his career. The movie drags in too many obvious jokes up front but we eventually invest in the MacDonald's welfare. Of course, audiences loved the ridiculous slapstick that results in buildings destroyed and Betty dragged through the pigsty muck. Pa Kettle is really a menace to society. We think that justice would be best served if a deputation simply dragged the old b------ out behind the chicken coop and shot him dead.
The real events of the story happened in the Depression years, but the movie updates things so that Bob MacDonald first dreamed of his chicken ranch while fighting on the beaches of Okinowa. Weirdly, the movie ends with a fantasy that nullifies what might have been a back-to-the-sticks social message: the MacDonalds somehow buy the model farm with all of its modern advantages. That's the American Dream, right? Just move into the plantation house. Now why didn't Tom Joad think of that?
All of the titles in Universal's The Claudette Colbert Collection look fine, and the newer titles are spotless. These Paramount shows have survived the iffy MCA archiving in great shape. The set as a whole raises our respect level for Ms. Colbert. Younger people today don't know who Cary Grant is, and great stars like Claudette Colbert are becoming truly, unjustly obscure.
The Egg and I has been released before and so comes with a reissue trailer and a fairly flimsy featurette on its star. But it has no subtitles. The others carry subs in English, French and Spanish but no other extras. All the films here are entertaining, with Bluebeard's Eighth Wife, No Time For Love and The Egg and I sure winners.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
The Claudette Colbert Collection rates:
Movies: Good -- Excellent
Supplements: none, except for The Egg and I, which has a featurette and a trailer.
Packaging: three discs in plastic and card folding holder in card sleeve
Reviewed: October 31, 2009
DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2009 Glenn Erickson
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