Vogues of 1938

DVD REVIEW:

ClassicFlix;
Musical;
$14.99 DVD;
Not rated.
Stars Warner Baxter, Joan Bennett, Helen Vinson, Mischa Auer, Alan Mowbray.

The credits literally unravel on a bolt of silk. Full recognition is paid to the costume designers, makeup artists and haberdashers who contributed more to the look of 1937’s Vogues of 1938 than did director Irving Cummings. The establishing exterior shots show off the newfangled Technicolor camera as much as they do the New York skyline. It would be foolish to expect that an expensive novelty production, bent on exploiting both fashion and Technicolor, would express much interest in telling a story. Luxury’s the thing, from glistening bling and extravagant gowns to PETA-enraging fur coats and a tasteful eye toward color design — the softly shaded gowns are lit and designed so as to stand apart from the earthy background tones. Those interested in fashion won’t leave hungry. Nor will historians, bent on tracing advancement in color cinematography. It’s the purists among you, weaned on spruced up Blu-rays whose cage I’m afraid of rattling.

George Curson (Warner Baxter, on loan from Fox) is a world renowned designer, well heeled in the art of calming beastly spoiled dowagers. His successful beau monde Park Ave. fashion house is constantly operating in the red, with much of the profits being flushed into W. Brockton’s (Jerome Cowen) Broadway musical. Looking to kickstart a career in show business, his wife Mary Curson (Helen Vinson) pushes George into backing the play. Wendy Van Klettering (Joan Bennett) is the other woman, a sophisticated society girl on the verge of marrying Henry Morgan (Alan Mowbray) for his money (and bedrooms with 40-foot ceilings). No matter how much scenery scene-stealing Mowbray chews, unlike the audience, Wendy is not amused. According to Wendy’s logic, she owes George more money than anyone else in town, thus making her his best customer. Refusing a tidy fortune, Wendy lleaves Morgan at the altar. Shrewd George decides to cash in on her notoriety by offering Wendy a job as a model. Mary walks out, the show flops, and it’s with Wendy’s loving help that George is able to pool his resources and put on the best dang Technicolor fashion show audiences had experienced to date. 

Three-strip Technicolor had only been around for a few years, and Vogues of 1938 was poised to raise the bar in terms of invariable color excellence. Technicolor visionary that he was, Wanger bankrolled The Trail of the Lonesome Pine, the first film to move the bulky three-strip camera outside the studio. (You’ll find more than your fair share of New York exteriors in Vogues of 1938.) Two years after its release, Wanger and Bennett would marry. (In need of gossipy diversion? Google “Walter Wanger”; “Shooting”; “Jennings Lang.” Have a ball!) Next to Technicolor, the novelty highlight of the show is the Olympic Trio, a rollerskating twosome (go figure) who spin so fast atop a round wooden cocktail table the friction almost sets the birchwood veneer ablaze.

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America was in the throes of the Depression, but that didn’t stop Warner Bros. from dressing a line of chorines as coinage to assure audiences that prosperity was just around the corner with the tuneful reminder, “We’re in the Money.” Hollywood considered luxuriant fashion such an important marketing tool in the 1930s that MGM took a 6-minute break from George Cukor’s all-female comedy, The Women, to insert a Technicolor dress parade. Fashions of 1934, Mannequin and Stolen Holiday all advanced the concept of Hollywood as the fashion capital of the world. Even the Three Stooges contributed their own cockeyed fashion show in Wee Wee Monsieur (1938). Women fawn over the dresses while their better-halves mentally undress Wanger’s bevy of “the most photographed girls in the world.”

Imagine New York fashion week if models were called on to perform. With only three days training, spiteful Morgan obtains a court order prohibiting Wendy from appearing in any public display. Wendy models by not being a model. She appears on stage not in the capacity of a clotheshorse, but a spectator there to watch the show. Alas, the musical numbers and fashion shows both exceed the limit prescribed by law. Just when it’s beginning to feel like one catwalk after another, madcap eccentric Mischa Auer pops up as Prince Muratov, a rival designer engaged to George’s secretary and endorsed by Morgan, looking to tear down the House of Curson. His presence alone is enough to keep things rolling to the end.

Do you want the good news first? What piqued my interest was the distributor’s claim that it was never released on home video. At one point or another, every film lover born before the dawn of home video had encountered more than their fair share of bathtub dupes. From fuzzy television presentations to scratchy, second-generation 16mm prints screened at local film societies, it was the nature of the beast. Digital cinema has put an end to scratches and splices. (If only they could get the jerk in the 10th row to turn off his cell phone.) Home video has never looked classier. VHS was cataracts to DVD’s glaucoma to Blu-ray’s “see it without glasses” laser eye surgery. Pristine Blu-ray pressings have changed the face of home video to the point watching a dupey print holds a certain nostalgic appeal. While nowhere near the ass-end illegibility of Alpha Video, the ClassicFlix Silver Series presentation is a safe distance from a digital restoration.

There’s Always Tomorrow (Demain est un autre jour)

BLU-RAY REVIEW:

All-Region French Import;
Elephant;
Drama;
$39.99 Blu-ray/DVD;
Not rated.
Stars Barbara Stanwyck, Fred MacMurray, Joan Bennett.

Douglas Sirk’s 1955 entry There’s Always Tomorrow had been previously filmed under the same title in the 1930s, but it couldn’t have offered the same trenchant observations of what at times can be maddeningly rigid suburbia — see also All That Heaven Allows — that distinguish one of the most unjustly overlooked and certainly underrated Hollywood movies of its decade. Other than the fact that it’s in black-and-white during what was mostly Sirk’s color heyday (two more near-masterpieces excepted), any trained eye could correctly guess Tomorrow’s director in a nanosecond — but this said, the movie marches into places that others do not, or at least any movies I can recall.

For one thing, it’s a romantic weeper with a long-suffering protagonist who’s now in middle age, and yet, in this case, we’re talking about a guy. For another, it broaches what is often a very uncomfortable and equally unspoken truth: That children, when you add them to necessary work pressures, are deterrents and maybe even roadblocks to sustaining romance. That’s a tough one from which the picture never flinches.

As ever, Fred MacMurray’s acting style was generally that of a walking arched eyebrow, which is no knock because he could do surprisingly expressive things with it. It could convey misplaced eagerness about to be foiled (Murder, He Says); amused cynicism (The Caine Mutiny); or sinister intentions under a smooth veneer (the two Billy Wilder all-timers, Double Indemnity and The Apartment). In this case, the eyebrow is in recession or even more subtlety employed, conveying a MacMurray character as one sometimes slow to size up a situation before finally understanding better than anyone once it fully registers.

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In this case, the actor plays an L.A. toy manufacturer (robots are about to be big) who begins to realize there’s a pattern to the fact that his devoted wife (Joan Bennett) can never spend any private time with him, be it theater outings or getaway weekends at some local paradise on the water. Taken individually, the excuses are legitimate, but again, there is a pattern. The middle-daughter (Gigi Perreau, who’d worked with both MacMurray and Sirk as a child actress) is preoccupied with piano recitals. The younger one (Judy Nugent) is all dance programs, and now she’s sprained her leg. Both require mom’s undivided attention, so maybe it’s a blessing that the oldest child (William Reynolds) needs no outside help to be such a Butch Waxed dunce — albeit one with a head-on-straight squeeze (Pat Crowley, making something of what might been a throwaway role). You knew his type if you were around in the era: A guy who checks to make sure that Crowley will be wearing his Kappa Tau Gamma pin and, one speculates, likely grooming himself as the head of “Pasadena Youth for Nixon” in the 1960 election. Were the character still alive today, he’d probably have just wangled his way into seeing Ed Meese somehow get the Presidential Medal of Freedom a couple weeks ago.

And then, literally at the front door, appears an old work associate and onetime acquaintance (Barbara Stanwyck) who is now a highly successful New York fashion designer getting the lay of the land for a possible expansion to Los Angeles. Fred’s in an apron because everyone else is out doing something (typical), so he asks Stanwyck if she’d like them to take advantage of his unused theater tickets. They do, which leads to subsequent innocent meet-ups that are misinterpreted by pouty Reynolds to be something a lot more, which causes a lot of unspoken tension in the household and then a rude dinner at home that is humiliating for everyone, other than perhaps unflappable Bennett, who can be kind of a “what, me worry?” type. And then, suddenly … it’s all not so innocent.

No matter how aged she got to be, Stanwyck always had it — so on full career-length balance, she’s my favorite actress of all time, though eventually, my heart could not resist being overwhelmed by Audrey Hepburn nor my hormones Grace Kelly. Stanwyck has a great standout scene here that I’ve never forgotten tearing into the two older children; I also think that Sirk gets something out of MacMurray that no one else ever got, even in the finales of Double Indemnity and Pushover, and that’s truly abject pain that rates one or two powerful close-ups. Some think the film’s final 30 seconds or so tack on an upbeat ending as so many ’50s movies did, but I don’t read it that way. However you cut it, the move makes it challenging to look at era suburban sitcoms about perfect families (white, of course) in quite the same way. Growing up, most of my buds fantasized about being the gas man lucking into quickies with either Donna Reed or Shelley Fabares while their husband/father Carl Betz was shaking down kids’ thermometers at the clinic — or son/brother Paul Petersen was out somewhere asking Don Drysdale to show him how to “dust” batters. But we were a frivolous bunch, and this is serious stuff

The Blu-ray here is another from France’s now extended Sirk Universal catalog made available by Elephant Films that’s close to complete (though let’s have Has Anybody Seen My Gal?, please). Given Kino Classics’ current and welcomely promiscuous flood of releases from the ’50s Universal library, maybe Tomorrow will rate a domestic version soon or eventually. But one is never sure, and Tomorrow is such a personal pet of mine that I didn’t even try to score a screener but immediately shelled out my own bucks. And not because Amazon needed the money.

Mike’s Picks: ‘The Tall Men’ and ‘There’s Always Tomorrow’

The Woman in the Window

BLU-RAY REVIEW:

Street 6/19/18;
Kino Lorber;
Mystery;
$19.99 Blu-ray;
Not rated
.
Stars Edward G. Robinson, Joan Bennett, Dan Duryea, Raymond Massey.

As with a lot of fellow nitpickers whose starting position should be that we’re still talking about a very good movie, Fritz Lang’s The Woman in the Window from 1944 has always been problematic because it has one of the shakier wrap-ups of the big-screen ’40s — though hardly the shake-i-est because there’s always Robert Siodmak’s The Strange Affair of Uncle Harry from the following year. Let’s continue hoping that all the yahoos who instigated creaky censorship boards of the day have been moaning in pain half-a-century or more Waaaaaay Down South where the fires burn, watching the hundred most impoverished PRC releases on a loop.

Fritz Lang directed Window from a Nunnally Johnson script to launch that period in the mid-’40s when the former briefly enjoyed commercial success after immediate follow-ups Ministry of Fear and Scarlet Street also proved popular. (And before The Secret Beyond the Door — also with Window/Street’s Joan Bennett — materialized in 1947 to turn any money-related magic touch back into a pumpkin. In one of his greatest career years (1944), Window also gave the now freelancing Edward G. Robinson (post-Warner) a role worthy of capping his memorably dynamic insurance sleuth in Double Indemnity from a few months earlier. In contrast, the married assistant professor Robinson plays here isn’t dynamic at all but notably meek — albeit one who turns uncharacteristically daring once his life turns messy after meeting the title subject on the street (she’s been the model in a conspicuous storefront painting that has captured his imagination).

Though what really makes Bennett tick is one of the movie’s more intriguing questions, she definitely isn’t a dangerous femme fatale in the usual noir sense (that would be Scarlet Street). And as for what she and Robinson are doing before an out-of-the-blue violent act that substantially alters the film’s direction … well, it’s kind of foolhardy for a man in Robinson’s situation to be on the scene at all but necessarily over the line.

This “situation” includes a wife and two children who are away on a trip, an absence that brings to mind a more serious take on this hook, courtesy of The 7-Year Itch. Before you go “uh, huh,” one should note that this family unit is reasonably harmonious in an un-stimulating way — and that the wife is by no means the disagreeable sort who’d automatically destroy anyone’s quality of life by walking into the room. For one of those, see the crone Charles Laughton is married to in Siodmak’s splendid The Suspect from the same year.

Window is full of potential spoiler minefields, though I gotta say that it was a movie that had been substantially written about even when I was a kid. So let’s merely set the table by noting that Bennett turns out to be a lonely and insecure kept woman with fleeting flashes of confidence; that Robinson gets in deep; and that one of Robinson’s men’s club cronies is a well-cast Raymond Massey as a snooping D.A. who, for fun, is taking Robinson on his investigations to help solve a crime the former knows all too well about.

There’s also Dan Duryea’s terrific show-up late in the picture to make such a strong impression that I (all well as bonus-commentary contributor Imogen Sara Smith) am always surprised to be reminded that his part isn’t bigger. Though Duryea had been quite memorable recreating his stage role three years earlier in the Goldwyn-Wyler film version of Lillian Hellman’s The Little Foxes, this in reality was his breakthrough screen role, paving the way for the Lang-Robinson-Bennett-Duryea reunion in Scarlet Street, a movie I like even more.

Historian Smith’s voiceover is tight and well thought-out, offering the expected bios of the key actors and personnel but also giving weight to alternative interpretations of key events in ways that soften the negative impact of the weak wrap-up. Among other things, they make us wonder if the movie can’t be just as easily seen as an exploration of what makes men’s roving minds tick when they’re jawboning at a men’s club (who the hell would want to go to a men’s club, anyway?) — though, OK, tons-o-fun relationships between senior marrieds likely didn’t offer that many socially normalized alternatives at the time this movie was set. Robison wasn’t likely to be asking the Mrs. to go running with him.

Whatever the interpretation, events are all photographed and constricted in superb Lang style, though aside from some newsreel satire and one bullseye replication in one scene of what old radio commercials sounded like, Lang was never going to be mistaken for Henny Youngman or Rodney Dangerfield. I remember Jonathan Demme once telling me in an interview that it was actually Brian De Palma who came up with the idea to open Married to the Mob with Rosemary Clooney’s recording of Mambo Italiano — quickly noting that one didn’t usually go to De Palma for comical music advice. Not dissimilarly, you don’t watch Lang movies for knee-slapping fun (though the last particular bonus always gave Hitchcock an extra boost), but he could really immerse you in a sinister world.

In keeping with this, Smith offers up some of the stories about Lang’s tyrannical moods and mistreatment of actors (especially minor ones); though Bennett and others would continue working with him, these were not “loose” sets. Maybe this explains how it came to be that Sylvia Sidney wrapped her long career by working with Tim Burton, the second time against a Slim Whitman soundtrack.

Kino’s Blu-ray isn’t up to the impossibly high standards of the French release of Siodmak’s Criss Cross, but neither does it suggest the difference between Grace Kelly and Maria Ouspenskaya in terms of cosmetics and, in this case, delineation of shadow and light. It’s certainly the best presentation of this independent production (originally distributed by RKO) that I’ve ever seen and another example of Blu-ray turning me into a Milton Krasner fan when I didn’t know I was. With me, he’s almost getting to be another Joe MacDonald when it comes to consolidating credits that I didn’t realize were all his — as in, he “shot that, and that … and THAT?!!!”

Mike’s Picks: ‘Up in Smoke’ and ‘The Woman in the Window’