I Was a Male War Bride

Marian Marshall, Cary Grant, Ann Sherida in I Was a Male War Bride

I Was a Male War Bride, 1949, 20th Century Fox. Starring Cary Grant, Ann Sheridan. Directed by Howard Hawks. B&W, 105 minutes.

In post-WWII Germany, French Army Captain Henri Rochard (Cary Grant) is given the assignment of tracking down a German lens maker in nearby Bad Nauheim. Assisting him in his travels is American Army Lieutenant Catherine Gates (Ann Sheridan), whom Henri has met before under apparently less than desirable circumstances. Despite protests from both Henri and Catherine, their assignments stand, and they head off together to the German town.

The two encounter one obstacle after another, until, to their surprise, a bond develops. They arrive back from their journey engaged to be married, but new complications arise. Catherine is now assigned stateside, and for Henri to follow her back, he must qualify as a war bride — or rather, the “Alien Spouse of Female Military Personnel Enroute to the United States Under Public Law 271 of the Congress.”

Ann Sheridan, Cary Grant in I Was a Male War Bride
Ann Sheridan, Cary Grant

This is a slower paced comedy than many of director Howard Hawks’ earlier works, such as His Girl Friday or Bringing Up Baby, but it works. Hawks said in later interviews he wasn’t interested in “female impersonation” as a comedy tool, but he found Grant’s portrayal of a war bride acceptable because “he was so masculine.” Indeed, the most comic element of Henri dressed as a woman is the ludicrous nature of trying to turn Cary Grant into someone ladylike.

While he may not have looked to female impersonation for comedy, role reversal was a common element in many of Hawks’ films. In His Girl Friday, he changed the entire tone of the film by making the lead character a woman, instead of a man as originally written, and introducing romance to the plot. In To Have and Have Not, he presented Lauren Bacall as the more powerful of the two lead characters, although arguably it is difficult to see Humphrey Bogart as weak in any way.

Hawks also spoke to the challenge of bringing out the humor in some of the scenes. “We had a scene where Cary had to answer all kinds of ridiculous questions, such as “you ever had female trouble? We looked forward to making that scene, but when we did, it wasn’t funny at all. We got the idea that maybe a man like that would be amused at the sergeant having to ask him these silly questions. ‘Female trouble? Nothing but.'” With that switch in attitude, the scene worked.

Ann Sheridan Cary Grant in I Was a Male War Bride
Ann Sheridan, Cary Grant

Ann Sheridan, an often underrated actress, is thoroughly delightful as the “military personnel” who, in addition to the difficulty of getting her new husband home, is frustrated by the difficulty of spending so much as a single night alone with him. The sexual tension in this film is played for all it’s worth right from the beginning, despite the Production Code restrictions in place. It is indicative of the loosening of Code standards, which was starting to unravel at this time.

Like Cary Grant, this film is charming and disarming, and the humor holds up today. It is based on one man’s true life story of being a “male war bride,” and for the most part, the situations don’t bend the limits of reality too far beyond belief. Grant as a woman may be the notable exception, but that’s also one of the funniest parts of the movie, so it’s easy to overlook.

 

As of July 24, 2017, “I Was a Male War Bride” is scheduled to air on Turner Classic Movies (TCM) on Sunday, August 20, at 4:00 p.m. ET/3:00 p.m. CT. Scheduling is subject to change; check TCM’s schedule for the latest information.

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The Postman Always Rings Twice (1946)

Lana Turner, John Garfield in The Postman Always Rings Twice

The Postman Always Rings Twice, 1946, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer. Starring Lana Turner, John Garfield, Cecil Kellaway, Hume Cronyn. Directed by Tay Garnett. B&W, 113 minutes.

Frank Chambers (John Garfield) is a drifter who chances on a rural diner, owned by Nick Smith (Cecil Kellaway) and his seductive young wife, Cora (Lana Turner). Before Frank can even sit down for his first meal at their diner, Nick has offered him a job.

Nick is blissfully unaware of the sparks between his wife and hired hand, and has no idea the two are having an affair and planning to kill him. Their first attempt fails, but eventually, they try again, and this time they succeed.

It’s up to attorney Arthur Keats (Hume Cronyn), with his less-than-honorable methods, to keep Cora out of jail. Frank somehow is never suspected, but his worries aren’t over. It’s a troubled road Cora and Frank must continue to travel.

John Garfield Lana Turner The Postman Always Rings Twice
John Garfield, Lana Turner

This was considered one of Lana Turner’s best roles, which admittedly is not saying much, as most of her career was marked by so-called “blonde bombshell” parts, requiring less of her than the challenge playing Cora presented. She proved herself capable of a strong dramatic role, however, and gave a genuine performance as the conflicted woman seeking more.

Garfield’s understated presence is a precursor to the method acting that became so popular only a short time after this film was made. There’s no doubt what Frank is thinking at any moment, yet that understanding doesn’t come through words. It is in his expressions and subtle movements that Garfield communicates Frank’s story.

As a member of The Group Theater, a theater collective whose founding members included Lee Strasberg, it’s not surprising Garfield developed the skill to communicate emotion, vulnerability and strength together in the same glance or quiet move. His own rebellious nature comes through in this film as well, adding to the layers of depth for the character of Frank Chambers.

Hume Cronyn, Lana Turner in The Postman Always Rings Twice
Hume Cronyn, Lana Turner

The film was well received by both critics and audiences. The critic for The New York Times wrote, “In its surface aspects, “The Postman” appears no more than a melodramatic tale, another involved demonstration (two hours in length) that crime does not pay. But the artistry of writers and actors have made it much more than that; it is, indeed, a sincere comprehension of an American tragedy. For the yearning of weak and clumsy people for something better than the stagnant lives they live is revealed as the core of the dilemma, and sin is shown to be no way to happiness.”

This is not a perfect movie; it starts out a bit slowly and ends on a melodramatic note somewhat out of tempo with the rest of the film. The courtroom scenes, however, particularly the part of the calculating, suitably amoral attorney played by Hume Cronyn, are gripping.

For fans of film noir, this is a must see, and for fans of classic films in general, this one is worth the watch if for no other reason than the strong performances of the entire cast, as well as the twist in the tale of crime and punishment, a borderline unacceptable plot element for movies of that time.

Wife vs. Secretary

myrna-loy-clark-gable-jean-harlow-star-in-wife-vs-secretary

Wife vs. Secretary, 1936, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer. Starring Clark Gable, Myrna Loy, Jean Harlow. Directed by Clarence Brown. B&W, 87 minutes.

It’s the Stanhope’s third anniversary, and husband Jake (Clark Gable), known to his colleagues as Van, has given his loving wife Linda (Myrna Loy) a diamond bracelet. Jake has just returned from vacation, and everyone in his life, it seems, is glad to see him again.

It’s quite clear the saucy Linda is the happiest, especially after a night of romance with her loving husband.

Other women in his life are glad to see him as well, including his secretary, Helen (Jean Harlow), who goes by Whitey. The two seemingly have a chaste, professional relationship, and Whitey has a serious boyfriend, Dave, (James Stewart), who works hard to keep her happy. Despite the clear lack of any danger signals, Linda’s mother Mimi (May Robson) sees trouble — and the experience and instincts of age may be working in her favor.

When Jake is faced with a sensitive business dealing, he’s forced to keep everyone except Whitey in the dark about his plans. The stage is set for one misunderstanding after another, and of course, that’s exactly what happens.

clark-gable-myrna-loy-in-wife-vs-secretary
Clark Gable, Myrna Loy

Myrna Loy had a great deal of affection for her female co-star, Jean Harlow, who was looking to change her image. “She wanted to darken her hair a shade, in hopes of toning down that brash image. It worked. She’s really wonderful in that picture and her popularity wasn’t diminished one bit. We did kind of a reversal in that picture. Jean stayed very proper, while I had one foot in bed throughout.”

Loy also spoke to Clark Gable’s sex symbol status. “Clark suffered so much from the macho thing that love scenes were difficult. He kept very reserved, afraid to be sensitive for fear it would counteract his image.”

jean-harlow-james-stewart
Jean Harlow, James Stewart

The New York Times critic generally praised the film, with some hand-slapping about placing Loy against Harlow in a battle for a man, saying Loy “enters the ring with glazed eyes, a crutch and one hand strapped behind her back—metaphorically of course.” As brazenly sexy as Harlow was, that imagery may not hold up today, when Loy’s appeal is perhaps more fully appreciated. Overall, the Times critic wrote,”the film has been richly produced, directed competently by Clarence Brown and is well played—within the handicaps of their roles—by Miss Harlow, Miss Loy and by Mr. Gable.”

This pre-code film showcases some of the top talent of the day in a pleasant comedy filled with innuendo and yes, a predictable ending, but one that’s entertaining in the path to that end. The value is in the cast and their strength on the screen, as well as a decent script and solid direction.

 

The Letter (1940)

Gale Sondergaard, Bette Davis in The Letter

The Letter, 1940, Warner Bros. Starring Bette Davis, Herbert Marshall, James Stephenson. Directed by William Wyler. B&W, 95 minutes.

On a Singapore rubber plantation, shots ring out on a languid moonlit night. Leslie Crosbie (Bette Davis) has coolly shot a man dead, dropped the gun and related a story of attempted rape to her husband Robert (Herbert Marshall), his attorney Howard Joyce (James Stephenson) and the local British constable.

While she is sent to the Singapore prison to await trial, there seems to be little doubt of the outcome. No one expects Leslie to pay a high price for killing this man she claims she barely knew. The dead man’s imposing and exotic widow, however, is in possession of a letter that could turn the tide.

In attempting to obtain that letter, Howard Joyce is first torn between honor and saving his client, then must face his client’s husband with the compromise, a half-truth that comes back to haunt him after the trial is over. Leslie, too, must face the repercussions of of her decisions, past and present.

Bette Davis, James Stephenson star in The Letter
Bette Davis, James Stephenson

Davis once again shows her ability to fully communicate to her audience with only nuanced movements and shades of expression, and Stephenson is compelling as the conflicted attorney. This tale of calculated malevolence received seven Academy Award nominations: Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actress (Davis), Best Supporting Actor (Stephenson), Best Original Music Score, Best Film Editing and Best Cinematography, Black and White. It won none, but was critically acclaimed and immensely popular with audiences.

In fact, the film critic for The New York Times commended William Wyler for his superb direction and further wrote, “It is an evil tale, plotted with an eye to its torturing effects. And Mr. Wyler has directed the film along those lines. With infinite care, he has created the dark, humid atmosphere of the rubber country. At a slow, inexorable pace, he has accumulated the details. His camera generally speaks more eloquently than any one in the picture.”

Not everyone was in complete agreement with all of Wyler’s direction, however. Davis famously walked off the set in disagreement over his decision about how to shoot the final scene between Leslie and her husband. Years later, when Davis was presented with the Lifetime Achievement Award from the American Film Institute, Wyler joked at the ceremony that if she had the chance she would “drop everything at that very moment to redo a scene in The Letter.” She nodded an enthusiastic “yes.”

Herbert Marshall, Bette Davis in The Letter
Herbert Marshall, Bette Davis

The dead man’s Eurasian widow was played brilliantly by Gale Sondergaard, with barely a word spoken and a mask-like visage looking out over each scene laid before her. The Asian character actors played their subservient parts with nominal caricature, somewhat surprising given the era and the film industry’s tendency at the time to rely on such techniques.

Based on the play by W. Somerset Maugham, The Letter had been made into a movie once before, in 1929. The play itself had been inspired by the real-life story of Ethel Proudlock, a Eurasian woman married to the British headmaster of a private school in Kuala Lampur who shot a man when he paid her a visit. She claimed self-defense, and was first sentenced to death, then pardoned.

This is a gripping melodrama, with fine performances and the moody backdrop of an exotic locale.  It is a story that would have been more powerful without some of the code restrictions of the day, however, Wyler made it work. Some DVD versions provide an alternate ending that is said to be truer to Davis’ vision of those final scenes; watch it and cast your vote for the better choice.

The Feminine Touch (1941)

Van Heflin, Kay Francis, Rosalind Russell, Don Ameche in The Feminine Touch

The Feminine Touch, 1941, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer. Starring Don Ameche, Rosalind Russell, Kay Francis, Van Heflin. Directed by W. S. Van Dyke, B&W, 97 minutes.

Professor John Hathaway (Don Ameche) is exasperated by his students, in particular the star football player, who would rather flirt with the professor’s wife, Julie (Rosalind Russell), than study. Julie doesn’t take the young man’s advances too seriously, but she is bothered by her husband’s lack of concern about the attention she gets from men.

The professor isn’t likely to get jealous, however. As his book will tell you, jealousy has no place in a healthy marriage.

He’s working to get that book published, and visits publisher Elliott Morgan (Van Heflin) to show him the manuscript. Morgan’s assistant, Nellie Woods (Kay Francis) is in love with her boss, but that doesn’t stop her from pursuing the professor. For his part, Hathaway, either unaware or unconcerned about Morgan’s evident interest in wife, has suggested those two spend time together.

Morgan more than takes him at his word. When Hathaway is mistakenly arrested for lascivious behavior on the subway, Morgan leaps on the opportunity to move in on Julie.

Don Ameche, Rosalind Russell in The Feminine Touch
Don Ameche, Rosalind Russell

Critics at the time noted the film ran a little long, with The New York Times critic writing, “the film has many too many lines, but they do have a sort of dizzy spin to them, and Miss Russell knows how to deliver them mischievously.”

The “dizzy spin” could be attributed in part to Ogden Nash’s part in writing the script. The author and poet was known for his dry wit and deadpan humor, and fans of the understated will particularly appreciate this movie.

Van Heflin, Kay Francis in The Feminine Touch
Van Heflin, Kay Francis

This was Van Heflin’s first role for MGM after a mediocre career at RKO Studios and a run on Broadway in The Philadelphia Story, where he played the role of Macauley Connor. That accolade was used by MGM to promote The Feminine Touch, despite Heflin’s distinctly “un-Macauley-like” demeanor in the film.

This is a lightweight comedy, with a top-notch cast, particularly Rosalind Russell and Kay Francis, who ultimately engage in a classic cat fight over their men.  They’re far more adept at the battle then the men prove to be moments later. While this is film isn’t the finest work for any of its stars, it is a decent showcase of their talents, and a pleasant film to watch when you need an escape.

As of June 27, 2017, “The Feminine Touch” is scheduled to air on Turner Classic Movies (TCM) on Friday, August 18, 2017 at 2:00 a.m. ET/1:00 a.m. CT. Scheduling is subject to change. Check TCM’s schedule for the latest information.

Out of the Past

Robert Mitchum, Jane Greer in Out of the Past

Out of the Past, 1947, RKO Radio Pictures.  Starring Robert Mitchum, Jane Greer, Kirk Douglas. Directed by Jacques Tourneur. B&W, 97 minutes.

Jeff Bailey (Robert Mitchum) has chosen a simple life in a small town, making his living from his gas station and dating the local sweetheart, Ann Miller (Virginia Huston). He is content and at ease, until a dark shadow from his past appears in the memory of Kathie Moffatt (Jane Greer).

Years before, Moffatt had shot and wounded her boyfriend, the less-than-honorable Whit Sterling (Kirk Douglas). She fled to parts unknown, and Sterling hired a private investigator, Jeff Markham, to find her and bring her back. Markham, of course, is none other than the man now known as Jeff Bailey. His search leads him to find Moffatt hiding in plain site in Mexico, but he doesn’t let Sterling know about his discovery. He’s fallen for Kathie, and the two run off together.

They are living quietly until Markham’s partner, Jack Fisher (Steve Brodie), finds them and threatens to take Moffatt back to Sterling. Markham and Fisher get into a brawl, and Moffatt, now sharper in her aim, shoots Fisher dead. After Markham buries the body, he starts a new life, but without Kathie Moffatt.

Robert Mitchum and Jane Greer in Out of the Past
Robert Mitchum, Jane Greer

Destiny steps in, and Jeff finds himself first back in Sterling’s palatial home, then in San Francisco, where he meets up once again with Kathie. The three have a few issues to resolve.

Before Mitchum was cast in the lead, the part allegedly was offered to Humphrey Bogart, John Garfield and Dick Powell, three of the most popular actors of the time. It was said to first have been offered to Bogart because the story on which the film is based, Build the Gallows High, and the movie itself, both strongly echo elements of The Maltese Falcon.

It is brooding, classic film noir, with tension that builds and a resolution that leaves its own questions. As the femme fatale, Jane Greer does a fine job, but her acting doesn’t match the quality performances by Mitchum and Douglas, nor is the interaction between her and either of those men half as interesting as the interplay between the male lead characters.

Kirk Douglas, Robert Mitchum in Out of the Past
Kirk Douglas, Robert Mitchum

Filming took place primarily in a small town in northern California, with most of the cast and crew arriving a week or so before Mitchum appeared. He almost didn’t make it at all when the brakes failed on the four-seat plane he arrived in. The pilot was able to avert disaster, and while the two passengers in the back were unconscious after the emergency landing, Mitchum is rumored to have crawled out and hitched a ride to the set.

It was only Kirk Douglas’ third film role, the first being The Strange Love of Martha Ivers, and he is sharp, cunning and unlikable as the unscrupulous Whit Sterling. Mitchum, also a rising star at the time, shines with his typical low-key style in one of his finest roles.

In 1984, Out of the Past was remade, with a significantly different script, as the film Against All Odds. The remake starred Jeff Bridges in the Mitchum role, Rachel Ward in Greer’s role and James Woods in Douglas’ part. Jane Greer played Ward’s mother, and Paul Valentine, who had a small part in the original film, played a councilman.

Virginia Huston, Robert Mitchum in Out of the Past
Virginia Huston, Robert Mitchum

For fans of film noir, Out of the Past is a must-see, with most of the classic elements of that style seen in this movie. The snappy dialogue, the moody lighting, the sharp contrast between good and evil, all play a role. Mitchum, with his laconic style and brooding appearance, is the quintessential film noir star. And for classic film fans in general, this is one to add to your list of movies worth watching.

The Ex-Mrs. Bradford

William Powell, Jean Arthur The Ex-Mrs. Bradford

The Ex-Mrs. Bradford, 1936, RKO Radio Pictures. Starring Jean Arthur, William Powell. Directed by Stephen Roberts. B&W, 81 minutes.

Paula Bradford (Jean Arthur) and Dr. Lawrence “Brad” Bradford (William Powell) are divorced, yet enjoy a cordial relationship — perhaps enjoyed a bit more by Paula than Brad. The ex-Mrs. Bradford believes the two should re-marry, and to that end, she’s moved back into his roomy apartment.

But that isn’t the only conflict in their relationship. Paula is convinced the recent death of a jockey, who mysteriously fell off his horse during a race, is murder. Brad sees no reason to think this, until someone close to the situation confirms it is, indeed, suspicious.

The two are drawn into the case, with their relationship evolving just as the clues do. But Paula’s meddling truly gets Brad involved when her “work” on the case leads authorities to make him their number one suspect.

William Powell, Jean Arthur star in The Ex-Mrs. Bradford
William Powell, Jean Arthur

Clearly playing on the popularity of The Thin Man (none of the sequels had been made at this point), this film holds its own and was one of the most popular comedies of the year. It was the last film for director Stephen Roberts, who died suddenly of a heart attack at the age of 40 two months after the movie’s release. Roberts had directed more than 100 films in his 14 year career, including Star of Midnight just one year before, with Powell and Ginger Rogers.

Powell and Arthur had both worked for Paramount studios several years earlier, where each got his or her film career start in silent movies. While the transition to “talkies” was easier for Powell, in part because of his smooth voice, both were a hit in Arthur’s first major talking film, The Canary Murder Case (1929). That was also one of Powell’s first detective roles, a type of character he went on to play in numerous films, including The Ex-Mrs. Bradford.

William Powell in The Ex-Mrs. Bradford
William Powell

The film also features Eric Blore, the character actor who appeared in more than 80 films throughout his career, including such Fred Astaire-Ginger Rogers films as Swing Time and Top Hat.

This is a charming, albeit lesser-known mystery-comedy with an outstanding cast, a plot that, while not of the calibre of Dashiell Hammett, is nonetheless clever, and a number of the elements of popular comedies of the day, including a divorced couple whose reunion we eagerly anticipate right from the start, a scatterbrained yet ultimately clever female lead and a convoluted, improbable path to resolution and reconciliation. Fans of screwball comedies of this era will thoroughly enjoy this film.

Born Yesterday

William Holden, Judy Holliday in Born Yesterday

Born Yesterday, 1950, Columbia Pictures. Starring Judy Holliday, William Holden, Broderick Crawford. Directed by George Cukor. B&W, 102 minutes.

Brassy Billie Dawn (Judy Holliday) is the girlfriend of boorish junk dealer Harry Brock (Broderick Crawford), who has taken her with him to Washington, D.C., where he hopes to influence various Senators in a bid to strengthen his business. Brock is convinced Billie’s unrefined ways will harm his efforts, and he hires newsman Paul Verrall (William Holden) to teach her culture and improve her image.

Brock is ignoring his own shortcomings, however, while Billie becomes increasingly aware of them. His belittling manner toward her doesn’t go unnoticed by Verrall, who is falling for Billie. What Verrall doesn’t yet know is how important she is to Brock, not because of love so much as financial interest, for most of Brock’s holdings are in Billie’s name.

Larry Oliver, Barbara Brown, Broderick Crawford, Jim Devery, Judy Holliday in Born Yesterday
Larry Oliver, Barbara Brown, Broderick Crawford, Jim Devery, Judy Holliday

The film was based on the popular play by Garson Kanin, which also starred Holliday in its Broadway run. The film’s producers were reluctant to use her in their production, and first considered a number of other actresses. The turning point in their decision to cast Holliday apparently was her performance in Adam’s Rib, also co-written by Kanin. Katharine Hepburn, star of that film, made sure Holliday’s scenes were essentially a screen test for Born Yesterday.

Holliday won the Academy Award for Best Actress for her performance. While she did a wonderful job with the role, it was not of the calibre of other nominees, in particular, Bette Davis for All About Eve. Davis was expected by many to win the award, but Anne Baxter, whose role in that film was a supporting, not lead, actress part, was also nominated for Best Actress. Many believe fans of the movie split their vote between the two actresses, costing Davis the award. Gloria Swanson was also nominated (for Sunset Boulevard), and while her performance was more award-worthy than Holliday’s, the dark nature of the film may have worked against her.

William Holden, Judy Holliday star in Born Yesterday
William Holden, Judy Holliday

In addition to Holliday’s award, the film was nominated for four other Oscars: Best Picture, Best Director, Best Writing — Screenplay, and Best Costume Design, Black & White. It lost all four to All About Eve.

It is difficult at times to watch Brock’s violent treatment of Billie, and it can be uncomfortable watching Billie awkwardly try to fit in when she clearly does not. Those latter scenes were played for comedy, but don’t always work as intended. What does make this movie worth watching are the scenes between Holliday and Holden; they are sweet and poignant, and pivotal to the change in Billie.

Born Yesterday is a good film, and one with a strong presence in popular culture. It, sadly, remains relevant today in its portrayal of an abused young woman, but her growing strength and awareness of her own worth makes it worth the watch.

The Constant Nymph

Charles Boyer, Joan Fontaine in The Constant Nymph

The Constant Nymph, 1943, Warner Bros. Starring Charles Boyer, Joan Fontaine, Alexis Smith. Directed by Edmund Goulding. B&W, 112 minutes.

Lewis Dodd (Charles Boyer), a concert pianist, is in a slump, and for inspiration he seeks out his friend Albert Sanger (Montagu Love) in Switzerland. Sanger has four daughters, all of whom adore Dodd, but Tessa (Joan Fontaine) is particularly enamored of him.

Shortly after his arrival, the Sanger girls’ worst fear is realized when their father dies. They are left penniless, but in the care of their wealthy uncle, Charles Creighton (Charles Coburn). Creighton visits Switzerland with his daughter, Florence (Alexis Smith), who also becomes enchanted by Dodd, and he returns her feelings. Florence and Dodd are married, leaving Tessa heartbroken. For Tessa, who has a heart condition, this stress is a serious problem.

The life of ease and wealth proves uninspiring to Dodd, however, and the newlywed couple soon discover they are no longer happy together. Equally dissatisfied with their lives are Tessa and her sister Paula, who have been sent to boarding school.

Tessa has never gotten over her feelings for Dodd, and through his music, he appears to now be returning them. But she is young, and he is married, and any union between the two seems unlikely to be destined.

Charles Boyer, Joan Fontaine, Alexis Smith in The Constant Nymph
Charles Boyer, Joan Fontaine, Alexis Smith

The Constant Nymph was nominated for one Academy Award, Best Actress for Joan Fontaine, who lost to Jennifer Jones for her role in The Song of Bernadette. The nomination was deserved; Fontaine created an engaging and memorable character, one that is said to be among her favorites. She was cast after director Goulding had conducted a difficult search for a star who could play a 14-year-old convincingly and with depth, rejecting Joan Leslie, the studio’s choice.

Charles Boyer wasn’t as happy with his part, saying he felt the character lacked strength and sensitivity. Peter Lorre is also featured in one of his most “normal” roles, as the new husband of Tessa’s older sister Toni, and an excited father-to-be.

Charles Boyer Joan Fontaine in The Constant Nymph
Charles Boyer, Joan Fontaine

The movie had been out of circulation from 1951 to 2011 as rights to the story reverted back to Margaret Kennedy, the author of the book on which it was based. This was an unusual situation for Warner Bros., who typically bought story rights in perpetuity. Kennedy stated in her will the film could only be shown in universities and museums, and it was rarely seen even in those venues. In 2011, Turner Classic Movies introduced a restored edition at its annual Classic Film Festival.

This is a fine film, with a story that is well-told and realistic despite its melodrama, and sharp performances from the entire cast. It has a more esoteric approach than most films of its day, focusing a bit more on the ethereal (and perhaps ephemeral) aspects of life, yet it brings the audience into the realities of one of life’s most painful situations, the loss of love.

Ninotchka (1939)

Greta Garbo, Melvyn Douglas in Ninotchka

Ninotchka, 1939, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer. Starring Greta Garbo, Melvyn Douglas, Ina Claire. Directed by Ernst Lubitsch. B&W, 110 minutes.

After her three comrades are taken in by the pleasures of Paris, Nina Ivanovna “Ninotchka” Yakushova (Greta Garbo) is sent by the Russian government to complete their task of selling jewelry seized from the aristocracy during the Russian Revolution. Standing in her way is suave Count Leon d’Algout (Melvyn Douglas), who is representing the woman (Ina Claire) who claims to be the true owner of the jewels. The Count finds himself falling for Ninotchka, who, in her own cool, calculating way, begins to be seduced by both his charms and the sway of capitalism.

Ninotchka is practical and analytical, Count d’Algout is ardent and idealistic. The cold ideals of communism are faced with the bright lights of capitalism, and the hearts of all are quickened by the romance of Paris.

Greta Garbo, Melvyn Douglas star in Ninotchka
Greta Garbo, Melvyn Douglas

This was the first comedy for Garbo, and she was well-cast as the reserved Russian on a mission for the state. Her skills are put to good use in developing the character, and her delivery of some of the funniest lines is impeccable. As one of the finest actresses of her time, had she been given further opportunity in comedy, she may have been a shining light.

Studio executives were seeking an appropriate romantic comedy for Garbo, one with which they could use the line, “Garbo Laughs!” as a takeoff on the immensely popular “Garbo Talks!” marketing campaign used for her first talking film, Anna Christie. They approached Melchior Lengyel, who came up with this three-line synopsis of a story:

“Russian girl saturated with Bolshevist ideals goes to fearful, capitalistic, monopolistic Paris. She meets romance and has an uproarious good time. Capitalism not so bad, after all.”

and Billy Wilder, Charles Brackett and Walter Reisch turned it into the Academy Award-nominated screenplay.

Greta Garbo in Ninotchka
Greta Garbo

In what many consider to be the best year for films in the Golden Age of Hollywood (1939), Ninotchka was nominated for four Academy Awards: Best Picture, Best Actress (Garbo), Best Story (Melchior Lengyel) and, as mentioned above, Best Screenplay. It won none, but this was a year when it truly could be said, “it’s an honor just to be nominated.”

The timing of world events just prior to the release of Ninotchka played a part in its initial success. For years, Russia had been seen as a friend of the United States, and its anti-Nazi sympathies helped solidify the camaraderie. Being a communist sympathizer had not yet reached the point of being considered dangerous to the American way of life.

However, in August of 1939, Germany and Russia became allies, and anti-Nazi sentiment outweighed support of the Russian government or lifestyle. A political satire mocking this new-found enemy was timely.

Felix Bressart, Greta Garbo, Sig Ruman, Alexander Granach in Ninotchka
Felix Bressart, Greta Garbo, Sig Ruman, Alexander Karlach

The satire remains fresh today, and the performances of both stars as well as those of the numerous character actors, including the three men who played the Russians first sent to Paris, are strong and funny. Felix Bressart, whom Ernst Lubitsch also used with great effect in other films, such as The Shop Around the Corner and To Be or Not to Be, is particularly appealing. As is this film.