Thursday, January 21, 2021

"Carole Lombard Collection": Fast And Loose, Man of the World, and A Man of Her Own

It's kind of strange that Carole Lombard isn't really the star of any of the three movies in Kino Lorber's Carole Lombard Collection (Volume 1), but maybe that's what you're going to find in any early sampling of a star's career - the movies where you can see she's a star because she's outshining everybody but maybe William Powell. It was not exactly what I expected, but for the most part the movies are fun anyway.

Is it kind of weird that Man of the World maybe did more to endear Herman J. Mankiewicz to me than Fincher's movie? It's a solid, well-constructed movie with one writer's name on it compared to the films on either side of it in the box and, honestly, most of the movies from this period, which often benefit from the writers' room approach in that they have a lot of good parts but don't always come together as a whole the way that one does. Of course, it's not just the writing that struck me in that movie.
That feels like a lot of people at a small table, crowded in to fit an Academy ratio frame. It's not the best example to come from this scene - it looks really awkward when it shoots head-on with Lombard in the middle - but even aside from the aspect ratio, I don't know that a modern movie would shoot it this way.

One last thing that struck me as kind of funny here is that all three movies have the Paramount logo at the front, but the discs are stamped with Universal's logo because Paramount sold their first twenty years of talkies to the other studio in the 1950s, figuring the lump sum would be more than Universal would ever make distributing them to television, absolutely not seeing home video coming. Sixty-odd years after that, it strikes me as a bit odd that Universal licenses them out to Kino rather than putting them out on Blu-ray themselves, but once again, it seems that older movies are being treated as having lesser value, so someone else is given the chance to exploit them. And it's not just the stuff that is not far from the century mark, either; Universal passed Tremors off to Arrow to restore/release even though they are still releasing D2V sequels to it. Stuff turns "old" pretty quickly and gets pushed down to someone else, and apparently it was ever this way.

Fast and Loose

* * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 17 January 2021 in Jay's Living Room (off the shelf, Blu-ray)

About five minutes into Fast and Loose, I was rooting for Miriam Hopkins's Marion and Carole Lombard's Alice to get together, but even though the film is pre-code, it was still 1930, so it wasn't like anything went. Not long after that, it veers off in another direction, and we don't actually see Lombard until almost the end of the movie, as Marion randomly meets a guy, falls in love, and gives her dim fiance the brush-off, and some different fun stuff goes on. The movie bounces around for a while before getting where it means to go, and it's a pretty good time getting there and a reasonably satisfying finish, if more than a bit messy.

It's kind of helpful to remember that movies were made differently in 1930, cranked out on a schedule with a producer buying the rights to a play, two people adapting it into a story that would let them use standing sets and actors under contract, someone else writing the dialog, and the on-set director maybe not having as much control as the producer in the editing room to get it down to a trim 70 minutes. A movie like this is never going to be tight, but it's probably going to be built to do a few things well, and that's the case here - it's Hopkins's first feature but the filmmakers must have known her stage work and tailored the character to her, because she's terrific and holds the audience even when a lot of what she's doing doesn't make a whole lot of sense. Charles Starrett isn't as assured in his first feature - it's not surprising he would settle into B westerns, making an eye-popping 65 "Durango Kid" movies; he's got that sort of vibe - but he's got what's needed for this particular part. There's solid support from Frank Morgan as the father who wants what's best for his children but is willing to listen and good comic performances all around. Lombard actually gets the least opportunity to have fun here, the sensible young lady (despite her chorus-girl job) who could be a steadying influence on Marion's lush of a brother and gives the audience something to measure Ilka Chase's unrepentant party girl against.

Fast and Loose, true to its name, never makes a whole lot of sense but it at least sacrifices that for energy, jokes, and romance that feels good enough to work. It is, in some ways, kind of weird 90 years later, especially if you tend to assume prior eras are more buttoned up in every way, but it's a surprisingly entertaining B movie.

Man of the World

* * * (out of four)
Seen 17 January 2021 in Jay's Living Room (off the shelf, Blu-ray)

Somehow, my brain didn't consciously connect this with My Man Godfrey, and I don't think I'd ever known that William Powell and Carole Lombard were romantically involved off-screen, but that latter bit is reflected in the ease with which they come together in this one, although maybe lingering memories of the former made it feel a little more familiar, despite the very different tone.

This one's a charmingly unadulterated romance, more or less entirely about the pair of them falling in love despite their being something hidden which threatens everything, with a grand gesture to cap things at the end. There's a lot going on in its 74 minutes, but writer Herman J. Mankiewicz and director Richard use that time efficiently, seldom stopping to explain things or simplifying events lest the audience get confused. It's a smart decision to never give either Powell's Michael Trevor or Lombard's Mary Kendall serious rivals for the other's affection, framing it as Just Not Like That with the characters who might serve that purpose, and not having that sort of intrigue on the table keeps things focused.

It's also some really nice work on Powell's part; the opening scenes serve the dual purpose of getting the audience in with the character but also letting them see clearly how that charisma makes his unsavory work possible. Michael winds up just far enough in the mire that he needs Mary to pull him out and one can see it happening. Lombard, meanwhile, puts a lot of life into a woman whose purpose is to save a man's soul, making Mary fun-loving but not the dizzy screwball she would later become; there's a real spark of life to her rather than her just being the perfect younger woman who inspires his with her purity.

There's also a nifty little time-capsule quality to it in 2021, and I think you can tell a little bit about how well-made a movie is that the sort of things that were clearly of its time still work rather than feeling like accommodations. I mention the sometimes odd composition that comes from a combination of the square-ish frame and small sets up top - although maybe it's also a reflection of how tight some of these places are in real life - but you can also see where they're doing rear-projection or matte work, and despite the "you can see" part of that sentence, it's pretty darn convincing - better than some seen in movies made thirty-odd years later. Funny to realize that "actors playing against blank walls" goes all the way back to 1930 at least, when it's so often looked at as a reason why modern pictures often feel fake. Also, while I don't think this movie ever uses the phrase "scandal sheet", it revolves around a publication that is literally that, which amused me because I never realized that the phrase was more than catchy alliteration. It's the sort of stuff you might point and laugh at if the rest of the movie wasn't so solid.

No Man of Her Own

* * ¼ (out of four)
Seen 18 January 2021 in Jay's Living Room (off the shelf, Blu-ray)

There's a really enjoyable farce inside No Man of Her Own that occasionally shows signs of coming out, although a little research suggests that the degree to which the film is that kind of romantic comedy suggests it pulled pretty far away from the source novel by Val Lewton (yes, that Val Lewton). The bit in the middle where the poker hustler returns to New York with an unaware wife and has to fake having a real job despite the fact that she'd probably get a real kick out of being a con artist feels like it could be the engine for a much more entertaining movie.

The biggest issue, though, is that Clark Gable's not a whole lot of fun for most of the movie; during the time when "Babe" is apparently supposed to be so irresistible that Carole Lombard's Connie can't help but fall in love with and impulsively marry him, he comes off as smug and too phony; as much as the circumstances make it easy enough to explain that Connie is blinded by her own desire than something more than the little town she grew up in, Lombard plays her as too sharp to not see through him. They never have the sort of chemistry it seems like they should.

Supposedly, this was one of the movies where studios were pushing things too far leading to the production code, although the box talks about a scene where Lombard is on a library ladder and Gable is looking up as opposed to the more straightforward bits of skin. Perhaps most notable is that after Connie first meets Babe, the ways she talks about him is pretty straightforward "I'm hot for him" rather than couching it as charm or innuendo, and the movie loses something when it drains the sex out of things. It's like the filmmakers can't be sexy, clever, and romantic at once, and wind up moving from one to the other.

Which may be fair; Lewton's No Bed of Her Own doesn't sound like it's really many of those things but more a realistic story that looks at the Depression directly. That's not what this movie is going for, but it never finds the right mood, either.

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