Monday, February 11, 2013

Film Review: The Guardsman

"The Guardsman"  **** (out of ****)

"The Guardsman" (1931) is a sadly forgotten comedy jewel directed by Sidney Franklin, starring Alfred Lunt and Lynn Fontanne (who were married in real life and stars of the stage). Both were nominated for an Academy Award for their performances in this picture, which is why I have chosen to review the movie, since the Academy Awards win be revealed later this month.

"The Guardsman" is the kind of movie you might expect Ernst Lubitsch to have directed or Preston Sturges. It has that same sophisticated level of humor, with great one-liners and a dash of physical comedy thrown in for good measure. A staple of what you could find in a Sturges comedy. But it also has that adult playfulness you'd find in a Lubitsch comedy like "Trouble in Paradise" (1932).

However the film was based on a play written by that great Hungarian playwright, Ferenc Molnar, who was just as funny as Lubitsch or Sturges. Back in the 1930s Hollywood was adapting many of Molnar's plays into films. Others included the William Powell / Myrna Loy comedy "Double Wedding" (1937), "The Bride Wore Red" (1937) with Joan Crawford, "The Good Fairy" (1935) which Preston Sturges adapted the screenplay for, and one of my favorites "One, Two Three" (1961) which Billy Wilder brought to the screen. Molnar also wrote "The Boys of Paul Street (A Pal Utcai Fiuk)" which was adapted into a very famous Hungarian film in 1969.

The screenplay for "The Guardsman" was written by another very good Hungarian writer Ernest Vajda, who wrote many of Ernst Lubitsch's early screen comedies such as "The Love Parade" (1929), "Monte Carlo" (1930) and "The Smiling Lieutenant" (1931). All of which are great. In addition he also wrote "Personal Property" (1937) which I have reviewed.

With so many talented people involved in this film, quite honestly, it shouldn't come as any surprise that the movie works as well as it does. It truly is an unsung comedy gem. It is a shame it has been out of circulation on VHS for years and still hasn't been put on DVD.

Alfred Lunt and Lynn Fontanne play a married couple. Both are actors. Lunt, whom is simply credited as "The Actor" suspects his wife, who is credited as "The Actress", of cheating on him. It seems his wife has begun playing Chopin in the dark (a very bad sign). She cries for no reason at all. And, as far as "The Actor" can tell, his wife's eyes brighten up when she sees the soldiers in the audience. The jealousy has overtaken the actor. There is only one thing he can do. So naturally, he pretends to be a Russian soldier who has been sending the actress flowers every day. He is going to test his wife and see if she allows the Russian to make advances. If she does, he knows it wouldn't be the first time. If she doesn't, he knows that his wife has been true to him and his suspicion has been that of a fool's imagination.

What makes "The Guardsman" so funny is we never quite know if the wife knows what the husband is up to. Can she recognize him in his Russian costume? It almost becomes an acting duel between two star performers. Who will out perform the other?

The situation keeps heightening. When the actor confronts his wife, she never reveals anything. She begins to act coy. But at times it seems as of she is trying to call his bluff. In one scene, the actor lies and says he has been called to give a performance out of town. A few minutes after the husband is suppose to leave the soldier is suppose to show up. But the wife tells the husband she will see him to the train. How will he escape going on the train and have time to switch clothes?

I love the quick witted banter between Lunt and Fontanne. When they argue, there hurtful words are not the words most lovers chose. For example, they do not try to say spiteful things like they slept with another person. Instead, in an attempt to really hurt each other, the wife tells her husband, once, in a small time, she saw an actor give a better performance as "Romeo". He quickly retorts that he also once saw an actress give a better performance as Camille. This is the way to ego driven actors argue.

Of course suspected cheating lovers has always made for good comedy. Great movies are a mirror reflection of ourselves. They make us confront ugly truths. Great comedies on the other hand exaggerate those moments. Look at Preston Sturges' classic comedy "Unfaithfully Yours" (1947), which I have reviewed, a movie about a conductor who suspects his wife is cheating on him and devises a plan to kill both her and her lover. We have all felt jealousy at one time in our lives or another. Sometimes it is only natural when you fear losing someone you love. But other times the paranoia is our own doing. And when it gets the best of us, that makes for good comedy. And that's what "The Guardsman" does. It makes us laugh at ourselves.

"The Guardsman" is also pretty suggestive for a 1930s comedy. This is one of those pre-code films. The movie indicates that characters are engaging in premarital sex. It suggest husbands and wives cheat. And doesn't go to too much trouble to be subtle about it. Though because it is a 1930s comedy and not a movie made today, by comparison the movie is tame and playful. That is part of the movie's charm.

As I mentioned both Lunt and Fontanne were nominated for Oscars. In the best actor race that year there were only three nominees (Lunt's included). Still there was a tie and both Wallace Berry and Fredric March won that year for "The Champ" (1931) and "Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde" (1931) respectfully. While Fontanne lost to Helen Hayes for the melo-drama "The Sin of Madelon Claudet" (1931), I have written a review for that movie. Which is ironic because in that movie Hayes played an unfaithful woman, a woman of "loose morals" who is "punished". Quite the opposite message from the role Fontanne played.

Viewers will also notice Roland Young as the actor's best friend, who gets caught up in the drama of wanting to know whether or not the actress is cheating.

If you can find "The Guardsman" it is well worth your time. A wonderful, charming, and most importantly, funny comedy.