Sunday, February 04, 2018

The Grant Mystique: Enter, Madame!

Cary Grant and Elissa Landi in Enter, Madame!

From a perspective eighty years later, it's surprising to see Cary Grant second billed to Elissa Landi in Enter, Madame! (1935, directed by Elliot Nugent). Grant is so obviously the only bona fide movie star in the whole production that you wonder what they were thinking. Elissa Landi was only ever a minor star, even coming off successes in The Count of Monte Cristo and The Sign of the Cross (where she is completely blown off the screen by wicked, wicked Claudette Colbert). The rest of her output is mostly obscure apart from a supporting role in After the Thin Man. She retired from movies soon after. I don't know how her films did in their day; I can surmise that they were successful given the order of the billing in Enter, Madame! Charitably, Grant wasn't the supernova he would become a mere two years later and Paramount was hardly Warners or MGM. And he was second-billed behind his leading ladies in a couple of  his other 1935 films, too. In spite of all this, the billing seems weird to me.

Frank Albertson, Cary Grant, and Elissa Landi in Enter, Madame!

Enter, Madame! finds opera lover Gerald Fitzgerald (Grant) in the audience for a performance by Lisa Della Robbia, Landi's opera diva, when her gown catches fire. Gerald rushes to put the fire out, but gets clobbered by the curtain when it comes down. Lisa takes Gerald back to her villa to recover. Soon, they wind up married to each other, much to the dismay of her brother and her manager. Her manager warns Gerald that he must take a second place to her career. He agrees. Eventually, it becomes apparent that he's not cut out to be Mr. Della Robbia, and the couple splits. Gerald goes back to his American girlfriend. There are divorce proceedings. Lisa, for her part, finds herself longing to take Gerald back and plots to foul up their divorce...

Cary Grant, Sharon Lynn, and Elissa Landi in Enter, Madame!

Grant starred in a lot of marriage comedies. You can see the broad outlines of The Awful Truth here, in which two people endeavor to foul up their happy divorce. Unlike The Awful Truth, which sparkles, Enter, Madame! plods. This is based on a 1920 stage play that was filmed once before starring Clara Kimball Young and Marie Dressler, which I haven't seen (it still exists in a couple of European film archives, apparently), and even at a fifteen year remove, the 1935 film shows its roots on the stage. Every setting is obviously a set. While that's true of a lot of films from this era, this shows it more than most. This staginess is defensible given that portions of this are set on an actual stage, I suppose, but the scenes outside the theater setting seem equally stagebound. Someone once noted that before Citizen Kane movie sets didn't have ceilings and while that's not actually true, this is a film where the sets really do continue upward into an indefinite and possibly infinite height. Any ceilings that might exist are cropped by the proscenium of the film frame.

Elissa Landi in Enter, Madame!

The filmmakers recreate various operas within the movie, showing off Landi's vocal range and lung capacity. Indeed, it credits each character she plays on stage in the actual credits of the film like she's a grand diva and expends most of its resources on operatic tableaux at the expense of its main story. In this regard, Enter, Madame! seems like a relic from the early talkies even at the late date of 1935, in which the stage proscenium has a hammerlock on the camera, though it should be noted that the operatic scenes are generally the best directed parts of the film. Otherwise, as cinema, it's functional at best, and has to rely on its stars to carry the show. This is something they are mostly unable to do. The supporting cast has a babel of accents in a hangover from the cosmopolitan era of silent films, but even the anglophone actors are stiff. Grant, surrounded by these artless mumbling barnacles, is incandescent in comparison. In the film's defense, there is another movie star in the making down the cast list a bit, but if you blink you'll miss Ann Sheridan as Flora's "shipboard friend" and Hollywood hadn't yet decided to change her name from Clara Lou. Otherwise, this is mostly a bunch of lumps.

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