Monthly Archives: December 2016
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.