Thursday, November 17, 2022

Classic Films in Focus: THE DIVORCE OF LADY X (1938)

While not on par with the greatest of the screwball comedies, The Divorce of Lady X (1938) delivers a thoroughly engaging British take on the genre with notable performances from two iconic stars. Laurence Olivier and Merle Oberon lead a fairly small cast in this second adaptation of Gilbert Wakefield's play, Counsel's Opinion, the first having appeared under that title in 1933. Alexander Korda produced both versions and even brings back Binnie Barnes, who previously had Oberon's role, as one of the supporting characters, while Tim Whelan provides direction. Gorgeous Technicolor brightens the scenes, especially a fancy dress ball at the beginning of the picture, and the absurd comedy of the mistaken identity plot keeps the mood lively and light, even though Olivier's dialogue occasionally veers into sexist rants about the nature of womankind. Fans of the two stars and screwball comedy in general will appreciate The Divorce of Lady X for its madcap romance and the chance to see Olivier and Oberon paired in a lighter setting than the more famous Wuthering Heights (1939), which would be the last time the two shared the screen.

Olivier plays barrister Everard Logan, who specializes in divorce cases and has returned to London for an important trial when a heavy fog brings the entire city to a standstill for the night. He nabs the last room at a nearby hotel just before a mob of trapped party guests descends on the front desk demanding places to sleep. Unwilling to share his suite with a group of ladies, Everard nonetheless finds himself giving up his bed and his pajamas to the relentlessly charming Leslie (Merle Oberon), who tells him that she's a married woman and refuses to disclose her last name for the sake of discretion. When an incensed Lord Mere (Ralph Richardson) later appears in Everard's office to demand a divorce from his wife, the circumstance lead Everard to assume that Leslie is actually Lady Mere, making him the co-respondent in the impending trial.

Despite accounts of their dislike for one another, Olivier and Oberon generate plenty of chemistry onscreen, perhaps because love and loathing both radiate palpable energy that can be hard for the viewer to differentiate. Oberon's feline smile and wide eyes suit the scheming Leslie perfectly; like most screwball heroines, she takes control of the romance from the start and then upends every aspect of the hero's life. We learn quite early on that Leslie is not Lady Mere and is, in fact, a single young lady and perfectly acceptable love interest, but the ironic comedy of watching Everard suffer under his assumptions delights Leslie and the audience. Our introduction to the barrister sets him up as a selfish cad with a history of questionable liaisons, so we don't judge Leslie too harshly for manipulating him and then forcing him to prove his devotion repeatedly. Everard needs to be taught a few lessons, and Leslie, the granddaughter of a powerful judge, is just the girl to teach them. It's also great fun to watch Olivier, so lionized now for his serious Shakespearean roles, fumble about in pajamas or try to hide his face from the notice of Lady Mere's maid. His physical comedy here never rivals that of Cary Grant or Henry Fonda in their best screwball parts, but Everard has a lot in common with David Huxley and "Hopsy" Pike as he careens between pleasure and panic.

The reveal scene at the end falls a bit flat, and the movie feels like it could do more with its supporting characters, especially Binnie Barnes as the real Lady Mere and Morton Selton as Lord Steele, but the biggest hiccups are the moments of sexist nonsense. Everard has one scene where he humiliates a woman in court solely because of his frustration with Leslie; he rants about the deceptive, irrational nature of women and how they don't deserve independence and respect. Later, when he's happy, he gives the reverse of the same speech, now lauding women as helpmates and loving companions to men but still not recognizing them as human equals in any capacity. Everard wants to read Leslie - and all women - as either evil temptresses or angels in the house, but Leslie's character throughout the movie defies both categories. She's a bit of each, depending on the moment, but mostly she's a very intelligent, ambitious young woman who has no chance of her own career but sees Everard as husband material with potential for greatness. In a modern setting Leslie could be ambitious for herself, and she'd certainly make a cunning lawyer or politician with her ability to talk a complete stranger out of his room, his bed, and his pajamas for the night. It's grating to think that Everard can understand so little about her even after their misadventures end in mutual affection.

Olivier's big pictures following The Divorce of Lady X include Rebecca (1940), Pride and Prejudice (1940), and That Hamilton Woman (1941), but if you like him as a romantic comedy lead try The Prince and the Showgirl (1957), which pairs him with Marilyn Monroe. Merle Oberon also stars in The Scarlet Pimpernel (1934), The Cowboy and the Lady (1938), and That Uncertain Feeling (1941). Oberon and Binnie Barnes both get beheaded as wives in The Private Life of Henry VIII (1933), which came out the same year that Barnes played Leslie in Counsel's Opinion. Although he's hamming it up here as the foolish Lord Mere, Sir Ralph Richardson is remembered as a great Shakespearean stage actor whose extensive film credits include Anna Karenina (1948), The Heiress (1949), and Doctor Zhivago (1965).

Monday, November 7, 2022

Classic Films in Focus: OUT OF THE FOG (1941)

Director Anatole Litvak's Out of the Fog (1941) delivers on the promised atmosphere, with fog heavy piers and dark alleys providing a moody setting for this story of Brooklyn's waterfront working class, but the tone veers away from true noir thanks to the sympathetic and often very funny characters played by Thomas Mitchell and John Qualen. Adapted from a play called The Gentle People by Irwin Shaw, the movie also features compelling performances from John Garfield and Ida Lupino as more typical noir types, with Eddie Albert in a supporting role, but the title of the original work suggests that the characters played by Mitchell and Qualen, two old men who dream only of boats and fishing, are the real protagonists here. Still, Garfield and Lupino fans will find plenty of scenes with the stars to appreciate, and the picture's message about standing up to a bully is a pointed commentary on the looming American entrance into World War II.

Mitchell and Qualen play Jonah Goodwin and Olaf Johnson, two working men who are saving their money to buy a seaworthy fishing boat for a long imagined trip to Cuba. Their dream is threatened when small-time racketeer Harold Goff (John Garfield) forces them to pay protection money for the little boat they already own. Goff also takes up with Goodwin's restless daughter, Stella (Ida Lupino), who chafes at her bland future with boyfriend George (Eddie Albert) and is attracted by the money and excitement Goff offers. With Goff trying to steal both his savings and his daughter, Goodwin becomes increasingly desperate to make a stand against the dangerous gangster. 

Garfield's crook is a grinning menace, bright enough to cause trouble and make himself untouchable by the local law while happily spending his ill-gotten cash. In an especially ironic moment, he uses the money he just extorted from her father to buy Stella a bottle of perfume. Even Stella knows Goff is headed for a violent end, but she likes the excitement of being around him after her humdrum days as a telephone operator and nights on predictably cheap dates with George. Garfield and Lupino don't give us the impression that these two characters share any genuine romance; they're just thrill seekers using each other for their own ends. If they really loved each other this would be an entirely different, and much darker, story because it's clear that nothing good can come out of their relationship. George would undoubtedly be better off with a steadier girl than Stella, especially as a wife, but she doesn't seem any more devoted to him than to Goff. She's a young version of the two older women we see in the picture: her mother, played by Aline MacMahon as a shrill hypochondriac, and Caroline (Odette Myrtil), the domineering owner of the restaurant where Olaf works. Domestic bliss is a myth in this world.

Counterbalancing the classic noir setup are Mitchell and Qualen as the kindly old men, whose scenes without Garfield generally involve fussing about their boat, dodging their disagreeable women, and debating the merits of making a stand against Goff. Mitchell, a brilliant character actor with iconic appearances in Stagecoach (1939), Gone with the Wind (1939), and It's a Wonderful Life (1946), deftly navigates the shifts between gentle comedy, paternal suffering, and hardened resolution. Qualen acts more as his sidekick but perfectly embodies the cook's mild-mannered, philosophical nature. Given the noir atmosphere of the picture the two seem destined for victimization, but the third act sees them rally against their oppressor, first through the useless court of law and then through their own devices. Throughout the narrative they make an argument to the audience about the importance of pushing back against an insatiable antagonist who only takes more and more if left to operate unchecked. The parallels between Goff and Nazi Germany aren't meant to be subtle, especially with Jonah and Olaf frequently punctuating their conversations with discussions of what America ought to be.

Lupino and Garfield also starred in The Sea Wolf (1941) the same year they made Out of the Fog. Garfield would go on to a particularly memorable noir role in The Postman Always Rings Twice (1946), while Lupino would star in The Man I Love (1946), Road House (1948), and On Dangerous Ground (1951). Thomas Mitchell is easy to find given his prominent roles in some of Hollywood's greatest hits, but look for more of prolific supporting player John Qualen in The Grapes of Wrath (1940), Casablanca (1942), and The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962). Anatole Litvak also directed the noir classic, Sorry, Wrong Number (1948), and earned an Oscar nomination for Best Director for The Snake Pit (1948). Moontide (1942) makes a particularly good follow-up to Out of the Fog because it reunites Lupino and Mitchell in another waterfront noir, this time costarring Jean Gabin and directed by Archie Mayo.

Friday, November 4, 2022

Classic Films in Focus: THE DARK CORNER (1946)

Henry Hathaway directed the very solid Fox noir, The Dark Corner (1946), which features genre standouts like Mark Stevens, William Bendix, and Clifton Webb, but most viewers will be drawn to the picture for Lucille Ball, an actress not normally known for noir roles but perfectly at home as the loyal heroine of this romantic detective mystery. The love story between the private eye and his secretary lightens the overall mood in a tale of betrayal, deception, and revenge, but we get plenty of hard-boiled action thanks to Stevens' scenes with Bendix, who knows how to make the most of a tough guy role. With plenty of double crosses and twists to keep the audience guessing, The Dark Corner has everything a noir fan could want, even if it doesn't spin as nasty a plot as some of the genre's darkest gems.

Mark Stevens stars as private detective Bradford Galt, who's trying to rebuild his life after a frame job by a crooked former partner in San Fransisco stuck him with a two year prison sentence. He's making good progress with his new office and his attractive secretary, Kathleen (Lucille Ball), at least until it looks like his old foe, Jardine (Kurt Kreuger), is back to torment him again. Galt's efforts to to learn the truth about his latest string of bad luck set him on the trail of Jardine, a shady henchman (William Bendix), and a wealthy art collector named Hardy Cathcart (Clifton Webb), whose beautiful wife is Jardine's latest conquest.

Stevens is well cast in the detective role, which requires him to shift between hard-boiled violence and budding romance with Ball. His good looks and jawline make him an attractive leading man, and he's equally capable of making eyes at his leading lady and throwing punches at his male costars. Ball, of course, already has that star power about her, and her Kathleen quickly emerges as a very compelling character, practical but good-hearted, and smart enough to be the detective herself. Too often noir detectives ignore Kathleen's type in favor of smoky-eyed femme fatales, but luckily for Kathleen she doesn't have any competition in that department. It's always fascinating to see Lucille Ball in her roles before TV stardom made her an icon; we think of her now as a goofy comedian, but she can be glamorous and serious when the role allows.

The supporting players spread out our attention between them fairly evenly, partly in order to keep us guessing about their motives and relationship to Galt's predicament. Kurt Kreuger is suitably smooth as the blackmailing serial adulterer who makes wealthy married women pay for falling in love with him, and Clifton Webb oozes his trademark sinister charm as the art lover who has acquired a much younger and very alluring wife. Cathcart's obsession with his wife, Mari (Cathy Downs), recalls that of Robert Browning's speaker in "My Last Duchess," particularly when we see him pull back a curtain to reveal a portrait whose subject looks remarkably like her. If Mari read more poetry she might know better than to tempt Cathcart's jealous wrath. Bendix enjoys a little more screen time than his fellow cast members because he handles the dirty work of persecuting Galt, but he's so good as a heavy that the audience can't complain. Reed Hadley drifts into the picture for a few scenes as policeman Frank Reeves, a local cop who wants to make sure Galt sticks to the straight and narrow path of legality after his prison stint.

If you like Lucille Ball in The Dark Corner, be sure to see her in Lured (1947), in which she plays a dancer who turns detective to help Scotland Yard catch a serial killer. Mark Stevens' other noir films include The Street with No Name (1948), Between Midnight and Dawn (1950), The Big Frame (1952), and Time Table (1956). William Bendix earned an Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actor for his role in Wake Island (1942), but be sure to see him in Lifeboat (1944), The Blue Dahlia (1946), and, for contrast, A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court (1949). Don't miss the scene-stealing Clifton Webb in Laura (1944), The Razor's Edge (1946), Sitting Pretty (1948), and Cheaper by the Dozen (1950). Henry Hathaway was primarily a director of Westerns, but his other notable noir films include Kiss of Death (1947), Call Northside 777 (1948), and the outstanding Marilyn Monroe noir, Niagara (1953).