Sunday, August 14, 2011

Divine Comedies

Our erstwhile friend, the Self-Styled Siren, has a tag on her blog called "crabby dissent." That phrase really is perfect for how we feel this morning at stately Krell Labs, so I hope she'll forgive me for swiping it. I also hope she'll forgive me for the crime I'm about to commit, because I know that she's a fan of Preston Sturges and, well, I'm kind of not.

My partner has been giving me grief again about the dearth of comedies in our movie collection. This led to a huge to do about the fact that there aren't ANY comedies in our Netflix queue except those she put there herself (and those are movies I tend not to like). I suppose I should own up to something here: Me and comedies don't get along very well. It's not that I don't like comedies. When a comedy is great--your Some Like it Hots, your Gold Rushes, your Girl Shys--then they're ambrosia. Great comedies are one of the true indicators that cinema loves us. Thing is, when comedies are less than great, or worse, when comedies are flat out bad, I get restless in my chair. To me a mediocre comedy ranks below a bad action film and a bad comedy is just about the worst kind of movie imaginable. I mean, if you have a bad horror movie or a bad sci fi movie or a bad melodrama, there might be some laughs. If you have a bad comedy, though, by definition there are no laughs. Not even accidental ones. Kill me now.

So there's a dearth of comedies in my house.

Anyway, in the name of domestic tranquility, I queued some up. Among the movies I added were The Lady Eve, College, The Producers, The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes, and Unfaithfully Yours, among others. And to show that I'm a good sport, we sat down and watched Unfaithfully Yours (1948) a couple of nights ago. Now, this is another one of those films I remember enjoying with my mom, but like The Sting, it's a movie that I probably should have left in my memory because I didn't have a lot of fun with it this time.

The plot of Unfaithfully Yours follows Sir Alfred de Carter, a famed orchestra conductor who has just returned from a long tour of England. He's met at the airport by his doting (and ravishing) wife, Daphne, and his in-laws. His brother-in-law in particular has some news for him. Having taken the comment "keep an eye on my wife" literally, he has hired a detective to have her followed. He presents the report to Sir Alfred who rages at him about the presumption of it. He destroys the report, unread, but the seed of suspicion has been sown. He tracks down the detective and reads the original copy, and then, while conducting, fantasizes about three different ways to deal with his wife's apparent infidelity, including bloody murder. After the concert, he endeavors to put his fantasies into action, but real life thwarts him at every turn.

This sounds pretty funny, and parts of it are. Certainly, Rex Harrison is a terrific choice to play Sir Alfred. Linda Darnell is, as I say, ravishing, but she has precious little to do in the movie besides wear fancy dresses (not that I mind that). The problem I have with the movie is that the last act, when Sir Alfred attempts to bring his fantasies to life, switches gears from witty urbane farce to outright slapstick. And here, I think, it falls flat, because Harrison is the wrong actor and, indeed, Sir Alfred is the wrong character, to turn into a Clouseau-esque buffoon. But that's what happens. This goes to my usual complaint about Sturges. He tries too damned hard. The comedy of errors in the last twenty minutes of the movie seem entirely forced.

This feeling of things being forced for laughs isn't a new one for me when it comes to Preston Sturges. The first time I tried to watch the The Palm Beach Story, I had to turn it off after about 15 minutes because it was so intent on being zany that it gave me a headache.

For all that, Unfaithfully Yours is probably my favorite of Sturges's movies, in part because it has a deliciously dark undertone. Watching Rex Harrison's face as the camera dollies in to his eye, signaling the beginning of one of his fantasies is kind of thrilling, and the demeanor he shows in his fantasies makes me wonder what kind of Iago Harrison might have played, had he not been pigeonholed for light comedy. The murder fantasy is grislier than I might have expected, too, and reminds me of a cover to one of EC Comics' Shock Suspense Stories.

A couple of nights later, our internet was down, so we decided to pull something from my vast movie archive. I've owned Warner's Classic Comedy box for a few years now and it occurred to me that in all that time, I hadn't watched Libeled Lady (1936, directed by Jack Conway), a film that I hadn't actually seen, either. Given that it stars William Powell and Myrna Loy, and given my stated love for Powell and Loy, this is a grievous oversight on my part. And, frankly, I had no expectations of it. I don't think I've ever seen a review of it and Jack Conway isn't one of those directors whose name conjures up anything for me. Indeed, on the evidence, Libeled Lady is one of those movies where it seems like the studio itself is the auteur behind it. Being from MGM, it's hellbent for leather to put a big team of by god movie stars on the screen, in the hope that something clicks. Fortunately, it does.

The plot of Libeled Lady is absurd. A newspaper accidentally prints a false column about heiress Connie Allenbury (Loy), and she decides to sue. Her family has it in for the paper, which has a history of antagonism with her father. They plan to put it out of business. Tasked with saving the paper is Spencer Tracy's married to his job even as he's about to get married to his girlfriend editor, Haggerty, who enlists journalistic fix-it man Bill Chandler (Powell) to frame Miss Allenbury. Their plot involves Chandler marrying Haggerty's girlfriend, Gladys (Jean Harlow), and then seducing Miss Allenbury. Much hilarity ensues when Chandler proves too good at wooing the ladies, as both Connie AND Gladys fall for him. This is all works because of the chemistry between William Powell and Myrna Loy (and, to a lesser extent between Powell and Jean Harlow). Powell is smooth. Much smoother than Spencer Tracy, whose character here appears to be cut in the mode of The Front Page's Walter Burns. The movie wisely lets Powell swipe the movie. Powell is also pretty adept at slapstick, and believable those scenes. The fishing scene in this movie, in which he succeeds in spite of himself, is perfectly timed.

I dunno. Maybe it's all a matter of expectations. Sturges is a bona fide auteur, after all. There are books written about him. You expect something transcendent, and when you don't get it, there's a come-down. Approaching Libeled Lady with no preconceptions, on the other hand, let the movie actually surprise me. Both of these movies come from the screwball school of comedy, but Libeled Lady comes from the great period of screwball comedies, while Unfaithfully Yours comes much later. Is it a decadent version of the screwball comedy, a result of its own self-awareness? I don't know. I'm just thinking out loud here, but by the time Unfaithfully Yours shows up, the rule-making process has shaken out and stifled the screwball comedy. Libeled Lady, on the other hand, plays by its own rules to the extent that once its complications tie things into a gordian knot, it doesn't even TRY to untie it. Where Unfaithfully Yours provides a pat conclusion in which love conquers all, Libeled Lady ends with everything still very much in flux. It's kind of thrilling, actually.


Lauren Hairston said...

I've most definitely suffered through my fair share of bad "classic" comedies! I was rather disappointed with Unfaithfully Yours (and Palm Beach Story and Sullivan's Travels were let-downs after all the build-up). I see what you mean when you say Sturges tries too hard. I think The Lady Eve is much better, but my mother is always telling me what a horrible movie she thinks it is (she's kinda like that, though).

I would watch William Powell and Myrna Loy in practically anything. I think I've seen everything but Double Wedding.

Vulnavia Morbius said...

Hi, Lauren. I can't tell you how happy it makes me to discover that I'm not alone when it comes to Preston Sturges!

I'm with you on the matter of William Powell and Myrna Loy. I think the only thing I haven't seen yet is Manhattan Melodrama.

Aubyn said...

For the most part, I'm pro-Preston Sturges, but I totally understand what you mean. It's actually kind of a relief to find someone who doesn't think The Palm Beach Story is the best thing since sex and chocolate. God, I kept checking my watch through all the Ale and Quail slapstick. Although, to be fair, I liked it much better once it got to Mary Astor and Rudy Vallee.

A lot of Sturges films are like that for me, an unsteady windup but plenty of spin on the ball. By the end of the film, I'm usually having a great time, but it can take a while to get there. With the exception of The Lady Eve, which is pure enjoyment.

In regards to Unfaithfully Yours, I do love that opening scene where doe-eyed Linda Darnell is nattering on about her husband's "magic wand", while her sister rolls her eyes on the sidelines.

Vulnavia Morbius said...

Hi, Rachel,

Oddly enough, Unfaithfully Yours has a terrific opening, then blows it in the home stretch for me. I know what you mean about checking your watch with The Palm Beach Story. That movie can be a slog.