Streaming Alert: If you’re a cable TV subscriber, Turner Classic Movies (TCM) should have this available for streaming on their WatchTCM website and app for at least another couple of weeks.
It’s Christmas Eve, so Merry Christmas to those who celebrate it, and Happy New Year to those who don’t (we can all agree that the year ends on December 31st, right?) This holiday film is one of my all-time favorites, though it’s a “Christmas movie” in the same way that, say, Die Hard (1988) is a “Christmas movie,” because it takes place during that season while not having anything to do with Santa Claus or Jesus or “the magic of the season.” The Shop Around the Corner (1940) involves two parallel stories about the beginning of one romantic relationship and the painful end of another, which lends it that air of melancholy that all of the best Christmas movies have. We can appreciate the happy ending our main characters have because we know the potentially sad ending years down the road.
We start with Ernst Lubitsch, one of the few directors in classic Hollywood who was so well-known, he had his own tagline: “the Lubitsch touch.” Of the films he made under the censorship regime of the Production Code, this is one of the best examplars of how he was allowed to handle themes that were supposed to be strictly forbidden (like suicide and adultery) because the censors trusted him to use his “touch” to make the audience empathize with the characters rather than using the themes for cheap sensationalism.
(For a glimpse of what Lubitsch was capable of under less restrictive censorship, take a look at one of his greatest films, Trouble in Paradise (1933), covered by yours truly over at my Pre-Code films blog.)
This film was very personal for Lubitsch because the character of Mr. Matuschek (played by Frank Morgan in probably his best performance) was partially based on Lubitsch’s own father, who was a similarly tyrannical shop owner in Berlin while Lubitsch was growing up — the young Ernst even worked at his father’s store as a teenager. It was based on a Hungarian play about a perfume shop and adapted by one of Lubitsch’s regular screenwriters, the great Samson Raphaelson. It has been adapted several times as a film (including In the Good Old Summertime (1949) and You’ve Got Mail (1998)) and even a Broadway show (She Loves Me), but none of the remakes has ever equalled this simple story of Matuschek and Company, “just around the corner from Andrassy Street – on Balta Street, in Budapest, Hungary.”
I have to admit, I was really torn between reviewing this movie and Holiday (1938), because I love them both so much, but I think this one dovetails nicely with our current election situation, because it’s all about the press being venal, self-serving, and short-sighted, and only stumbling on the truth by a convenient coincidence. His Girl Friday (1940) is a deeply, deeply cynical movie at its heart, and that truth is only slightly concealed by the charms of its stars.
Since I was apparently too subtle in mentioning that The Haunting was adapted from Shirley Jackson’s novel of (almost) the same name, I will say right up front that His Girl Friday is an adaptation of Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur’s The Front Page, a classic play that, like Jackson’s book The Haunting of Hill House, I’ve never read. There are a couple of different stories about exactly what made director Howard Hawks realize that The Front Page‘s bromance between reporter Hildy Johnson and editor Walter Burns could be made into a straight-up hetero romance rather than a story filled with repressed homosexual love, but it makes perfect sense that Hawks would be that guy. Of the “Golden Age” Hollywood directors like John Ford or Frank Capra, Hawks always had the most consistently strong women and always seemed to be the most comfortable with women who could hold their own with and be accepted by the male characters while still being sexy romantic leads. Even when he made a musical starring Marilyn Monroe, in Hawks’ hands it became the story of a strong friendship between two women, not just a story about gold-digging showgirls.
One thing before we start: director Hawks specifically wanted to replicate the fast-moving, fast-talking action of the stage play, so if you have any kind of hearing issues, you may want to turn the closed-captioning on so you don’t miss any vital plot points. The technology of the time required that a series of concealed microphones — up to 35 for a single scene — be turned on and off at precise times, a task made even more difficult by the fact that Hawks encouraged his leads to improvise their dialogue. Though it must have given the sound men conniptions to try and keep up, the effect makes the film still seem fresh and modern 76 years later, and of course the fashion for snappy overlapping dialogue continues to this day.
Since it’s Cary Grant movies, I think we’re all winners here, don’t you? But if you want to know which movie to watch for next week, the winner is …
(insert drumroll here)
We can all use an escape after the events of November, can’t we? So let’s escape all the way into one of these classic Cary Grant movies. Vote on the one you’d like me to write about for discussion next week. As always, I’m giving you the opportunity to vote early and vote often!
Note: for some reason, the original trailer for two of the films isn’t available on YouTube, but I picked the clip that either the home video company has decided is the “new” trailer or a short clip that I think gives a good idea of what the film is like.
Also, I will have a special non-voting Christmas edition of the Insufferable Movie Snob right before the holiday, so stay tuned for that as well.
Since I have been sick the past two weeks, I have been remiss in posting reviews. To take my mind off the election results, I was watching the last episode of the Season Six Dominion arc, Sacrifice of Angels and was struck by the parallels between our times and the DS9 universe. It’s the best of all Treks in my opinion. I love the interplay between the various races, the villains who are unapologetically wicked but have human failings and Garak!
Do you have a specific episode you would like me to review. Leave your selection in the comment section. I will do a poll of the first four by Wednesday. Here is the entire episode list for DS9. DS9 is available for streaming on Amazon Prime and CBS.
Until then enjoy the Klingon Kitteh, one of my lols that got more than 1000 votes when it made to the first page on ICHC, a few years ago. Kittehs + Trek = Win Win!
Haven’t you noticed how nothing in this house seems to move until you look away and then you just… catch something out of the corner of your eye?
Every fan of The Haunting has at least one story about seeing it, and often more than one. Here’s one of mine:
Years ago, G (my now husband) and I went to see it on a triple bill at an old movie palace in downtown Los Angeles. The college kids sitting behind us mocked it at first: old-fashioned, black-and-white, Julie Harris’s oddball whispered voiceovers.
But then, as the film went on, they got quieter and quieter. Finally, about half an hour in, one of them turned to the other and whispered, “Is it just me, or is this movie kind of getting to you?” And then they shut up for the rest of the film.
That’s the kind of horror movie The Haunting is. It’s not a slam-bang special effects spectacle, or a gross-out endurance test. It sneaks up behind you and lays a cold hand on your neck, whispering to you, asking if you’re sure you know what that noise in the dark was that you just heard.
A quick technical note before we begin: when you see the film, make sure you get a letterboxed copy and not one of the older pan-and-scans. You will literally miss out on half the movie if you don’t get the full widescreen version.
All right, kiddies, gather ’round and Auntie Mnemo will tell you a ghost story just in time for Halloween. You have three black-and-white classics to choose from that will have you sleeping with the lights on for a week.
The first and earliest of our films is the 1944 classic, The Uninvited. This has Ray Milland in hero mode, as he and his sister try to puzzle out why something in the house they just bought seems to be trying to kill their new neighbor, with whom Milland has fallen in love. It has a terrific cast and, unlike the other two options, manages to have both a surprise plot twist and a happy ending.
The second one is the creepy classic The Innocents (1961), starring Deborah Kerr as a repressed nanny who may — or may not — be dealing with a case of ghostly possession in her unsettling new charges.
The third one is a film that I don’t mind saying is one of my all-time favorites: Robert Wise’s The Haunting (1963). This is another film where it’s not quite clear whether the haunting is real or a figment of the main character’s imagination, until … well, you’ll have to choose the film to find out. Wise learned his craft at the knee of producer Val Lewton, and he pulls out all of Lewton’s tricks to make this a truly chilling movie.
This poll will only be open for a short time so I can have my essay posted by Saturday morning (i.e. a few days before Halloween), so make sure you vote prior to Wednesday night. Links to the trailers for each film are embedded in the poll, but if I may make a suggestion … make sure to watch them with the lights on.
As you’ve probably figured out by now, I have a weakness for Hollywood iconoclasts, and Preston Sturges was one of the biggest iconoclasts of the old studio system. Like Ernst Lubitsch, Sturges was allowed to put themes and scenes into his films that few other directors or writers had the freedom to do; of Sturges’ The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek (1944), where Betty Hutton’s character is impregnated by a mystery man after a night of drunken revels and goes on to birth sextuplets, film critic James Agee famously said “the Hays office must have been raped in its sleep” to have allowed such risqué content.
Unfaithfully Yours is a bit like that — it has scenes that you won’t see in any other Hollywood film of the era, because no one else would have been allowed to film those scenes. Was Sturges a drinking buddy of Joe Breen’s? Did his writing seem innocuous on the page but play very differently in front of the cameras? Did his bosses tell Breen to lay off because Sturges was making pots of money for them? Nobody knows, but we’re all happy he managed it.
I filed this under “dark comedies” because, make no mistake, this film is dark. Hot-tempered conductor Sir Alfred de Carter (Rex Harrison) becomes convinced that his much younger wife (Linda Darnell) is cheating on him and, during a concert, he imagines three different scenarios for how he’s going to handle the situation, only to have each of them go hilariously awry when he tries to put them into practice in real life. Read the rest of this entry