Monday, April 5, 2010

Film Reviews: That Lady in Ermine & He Married His Wife

"That Lady in Ermine" *** (out of ****)

There are moments in "That Lady in Ermine" (1948) that are quite simply magical. The kind of good, decent, old-fashion entertainment I'm usually a sucker for. The film has moments of love, joy, singing and dancing and even room for some comedy. But the screenplay here is just a bit too goofy and hard to follow. It is goofy just enough to the point it is funny and watchable but confusing to the point I can't give it a higher rating, though, I must admit, I'm nearly tempted to.

The film is credited as being directed by Ernst Lubitsch (more on that later) and would be his final film. The script was done by Samson Ralpaelson, a numerous Lubitsch collaborator. The two worked on some of Lubitsch's best known films, "The Shop Around the Corner" (1940), my personal favorite, "Trouble in Paradise" (1932) and the vastly under-rated "Angel" (1937). But despite Ralpaelson talents, the script still leaves something to be desired. Mainly character motivation and set-up.

We focus on a small south eastern European country which is currently run by the Countess Angelina (Betty Grable). She has just married Mario (Cesar Romero). Which had been planned since their childhood. We can subtly tell they are not a good match. He doesn't feel like a "man" in the marriage, since she will actually be the ruler of the country. While she is looking for more romance. It was an arranged marriage after all. One telling moment is when she repeats a legend that when two people are in love they can hear a flute being played. Mario counters by telling her he can do better than that. He can get a whole orchestra. Missing the romantic, sentimental notion of what Angelina was talking about.

As the fates would have it, on the day of their wedding the country and the royal castle are about to be invaded by the Hungarian army (!). This allows the film to go into a lot of playful anti-Hungarian rhetoric. Now Mario, as the new count and head of the army, must flee so he can round up his army and prepare a counter attack, leaving Angelina behind.

So far, I suppose this all makes sense on some level. And if the film had stopped there an audience could probably follow it. But more is added to the story. We have a case of history repeating itself. Many years ago Angelina's great, great, great grandmother, Countess Francesca (also played by Grable) protected the castle from invaders. Her picture and those of many other ancestors hang in the castle, where at the stroke of midnight, they come to life. Now Angelina and perhaps Francesca, will have to save the castle again, only this time from the Hungarians.

I have to admit, since this is kind of a fantasy romantic comedy, on some level I'm willing to go along on this film's ride. But the romance part of the film is quite sloppy and underdeveloped. Rumor has it Francesca was actually in love with the general of the invaders and we are suppose to suspect that Angelina has also fallen in love with the Hungarian Colonel (played by non-Hungarian actor, Douglas Fairbanks Jr.) who has taken over the castle.

This is however a tricky situation for a 1948 movie. The production code was still in effect. A movie could not promote adultery. Even though an audience might suspect Angelina does not love Mario, she is still nonetheless married to him. And she is aware of this herself. Therefore she cannot pursue a romance with the Colonel. However the script doesn't hint enough that Angelina is falling in love or possible could fall in love with the Colonel. The original screenplay for this film was actually rejected by the censorship board because it presented the Angelina as more blatantly interested in the Colonel. But they toned it down way too much. For my eye I couldn't figure Angelina out.

Another flaw with the film is based more on a personal manner. I would have given a million dollars if Fairbanks would have spoken with a Hungarian accent. I would have given two million if he would have said one word in Hungarian. Not even a sentence, just a word, any word! Yes, no, thank you, good night, anything. You could also say the same about Grable. I believe she is suppose to be Italian. She makes no effort. But, she's Betty Grable, an audience wasn't expecting that to begin with. Again, these are minor, personal complaints. The majority could care less.

But I must add the film doesn't have that famous Lubitsch touch. I told you I'd come back to that. Although Lubitsch is give final directing credit, the great comedy filmmaker died eight days into production. Otto Preminger took over directing responsibilities as he had done on "A Royal Scandal" (1945). That film had more of a Lubitsch feel to it than this one. Preminger is unquestionably a talented and gifted filmmaker. But this isn't his kind of story in my opinion. It is fun to mention however than Preminger did direct "Laura" (1944) prior to this film. That movie deals with a man falling in love with a dead woman. Here in "That Lady in Ermine" the Hungarian colonel falls in love with a picture of Francesca.

I have written once before about Lubitsch on this blog, I reviewed one of his most popular films, "Heaven Can Wait" (1943). Lubitsch is one of my favorite directors. A real inspiration to me. His films were always so adult and playful. "That Lady in Ermine" has nothing on his earlier musicals; "Monte Carlo" (1930), "Love Parade" (1929), "The Smiling Lieutenant" (1931) and "One Hour With You" (1932). The sophistication and wit is missing here.

Betty Grable I would argue had a similar adult playfulness to her. She was picture perfect for musicals. And was Fox Studio's number one girl. A box-office champion for many years. Best known for "Down Argentine Way" (1940), which I have reviewed and "Springtime in the Rockies" (1942), even she is not at her best here. We don't see those "million dollar legs" in all their splendor. Only near the end of the film do we get a brief gander at them. But she does sing a couple of songs. The opening number, "Ooh! What I'd Do (To That Wild Hungarian)" is pretty goofy but in its own way catchy. With silly lyrics like "Ooh/What I'd Do/ To That Wild/Hungarian. Ooh/What I'd Do/To That Wild/Barbarian". It sort of serves as the film's theme song. One of the songs managed to get nominated for an Oscar, "This is the Moment".

I should mention the film has a good supporting cast too. Walter Abel as Major Horvath, Reginald Gardiner as Alberto, Angelina's great, great, great grandfather and Harry Davenport as Luigi, a servant at the castle.

"That Lady in Ermine" was filmed once before as a silent film in 1927. Back then the film involved Austrians. Given that Lubitsch was German and Preminger was Austrian they avoided this. Also, I have a hunch, with the war being over, perhaps they didn't want to remind any one about it with a story of Germans invading a country. Been there, done that!

If the film had made a little more sense I'd been recommending it a bit more. It has some great moments though sprinkled here and there. And it involves Hungarians, what more could you ask for!?

"He Married His Wife" *** (out of ****)

"He Married His Wife" (1940) is a completely forgotten screwball-lite comedy, which as far as I know has not been put on DVD and is no longer in print on VHS. And for a lot of readers, it could remain that way. But when I say I love classic Hollywood films, I'm not kidding. And I take just as much pleasure in watching these forgotten films as I do the celebrated ones.

In case you were wondering why I paired these two films together, the common theme is Cesar Romero is in both (gimme a break! I had to think of something!).

"He Married His Wife" was directed by Roy Del Ruth. He mostly directed gangster films and musicals. He even combined the two in "Kid Millions" (1934) with Eddie Cantor (I have reviewed it ). He also directed a great James Cagney film "Blonde Crazy" (1931) a juicy pre-code film.

In "He Married His Wife" Joel McCrea plays Randy Randall, a race horse track junkie. And before you start to jump ahead of yourself, remember I said this is a comedy, it's not about gambling addiction. He has been divorced from his wife, Valerie (Nancy Kelly) for a year. She was tired of coming in second to the race horses. But Randy is late on his alimony, because he bought a horse. She's not going to stand for it and has him arrested.

Randy is growing tired of this arrangement. He says he can't continue to pay her alimony and play the horses. Clearly, he is going to have to give up the alimony. But how? Valerie has to get married of course! She says she doesn't want to but Randy has a plan. Hook her up with his best friend, Paul (Lyle Talbot) who has loved her from afar for years. Will it work or are Randy and Valerie still in love?

It doesn't take Einstein to figure out where this is all going to go and lets face it, the title gives everything away. It is a funny sounding title, but, seriously, couldn't someone think of something better? "Here Comes The Bride", "There Goes The Groom", "Too Many Husbands", something!

McCrea is good in the role. He is best known for his work with Preston Sturges in classics like "The Palm Beach Story" (1942) and "Sullivan's Travel" (1941). He was, I suppose, a tall good looking man. He could have played straight lead characters, check him out in "Foreign Correspondent" (194) by Hitchcock, but that's what made him funny. Think along the lines of Cary Grant, though Grant was better. This is well suited to what McCrea did. I can understand why he was chosen for the role.

The supporting cast is equally good. Roland Young plays Randy's lawyer, Bill Carter, who hatches the plan up with him. He was in a better picture released that year, "The Philadelphia Story" (1940). And played the lead in "Topper" (1937) and all of its sequels, one of which was directed by Del Ruth, "Topper's Return" (1941). The cast also includes Mary Boland as the man-hungry Ethel, who has her eye on Randy and Cesar Romero as Freddie. A mysterious man who has his sights on Valerie, to Randy's disapproval.

The set-up to the film is funny and typical of this genre of comedy. I didn't think there were any big laughs in the film but it was pleasant enough to keep me going along for the ride. But I felt the ending was kind of poor and rushed. It needed a better final image and a funnier ending. There were a lot of promising situations the story could have created.

But, I do like these kind of stories. "He Married His Wife" is no "The Awful Truth" (1937) but it is worth watching if you can find it. Once in a while it plays on the Fox Movie Channel.