slightly carla: day one

a couple of disclaimers before we get started: this week's list is a dream. all you jackals out there, all you bloodthirsty louts, you'll have to get your kicks elsewhere this time around. i know how much you enjoy watching me suffer and rip things to shreds during these li'l experiments. i just wanted you to know that there will be none of that this week. also, i have severely overbooked myself this week so this might extend beyond the usual seven days if i don't have adequate time to make it through carla's list.

that being said, here we go. day one was a program of effervescent classics beginning with ernst lubitsch's trouble in paradise (1932), the rosetta stone of romantic comedy.

if you don't know the work of ernst lubitsch then i recommend you rectify that as soon as possible. his films are among the most witty and elegant of hollywood's golden era and this pre-code jewel is probably the best example of what makes them so great. herbert marshall and miriam hopkins play a pair of thieves who fall in love while trying to swindle one another. realizing they are made for each other, they embark on a whirlwind, worldwide courtship, finally landing at kay francis' doorstep. they insinuate themselves into her household as confidante and secretary and put their plan into action to relieve her of several thousand francs. there's just one hitch - love rears its ugly head. it's truly brilliant. we are given a love triangle in which either option is equally viable, as opposed to the configurations we get today in which there is only one obvious, inevitable choice. at every turn, lubitsch gives us just what we need to keep the story moving briskly but in the least obvious manner. for example, we begin in venice, but instead of the standard opening shot of cityscape and canals imparting that information, we are offered a generic doorway and an overflowing trashcan. the contents are emptied onto a garbage scow that we learn is a gondola only as the shot expands to take in the city. in another instance we witness a pivotal romantic scene of the film with only a clock onscreen documenting the speed with which cupid works and offscreen dialogue. lubitsch never fails to find the least conventional way to tell the world's oldest story. he's never dull and never wasteful, every frame moving gracefully, fleetly along, always advancing the tale, beautiful to look at but never simply ornamental. the comedy itself is crisp and sexually charged, taking full advantage of freedoms that would be severely compromised before too long by the motion picture production code. the two female leads are only onscreen together twice but each scene crackles, their first meeting being a wry sparring match and their second being the inevitable showdown. it may be a little mannered and stagebound for some, but for the early sound era it is quite inventive and sophisticated and its influence is far-reaching. from this wellspring, we get everything from screwball comedy to gentleman thieves. it's lithe, lean and, most importantly, very funny. that lubitsch touch is on full display in this one.

next, we cut loose a little bit with howard hawks' ball of fire (1941).

on pedigree alone, this one is impressive. directed by hawks, written by billy wilder, starring gary cooper, barbara stanwyck, a young dana andrews and a houseful of the era's greatest character actors. cooper heads up a team of eccentric lexicographers who are stuck about halfway through the S's and to get the project moving again he goes out into the real world to do some research on his entry for slang. he meets nightclub singer and gangster's moll stanwyck who wields language like it was a thompson gun. she's the perfect research subject and, to avoid the pesky district attorney, she holes up with cooper and his fellow professors, a bawdy snow white to their newly-invigorated seven dwarfs, turning the house upside down while she teaches them the latest lingo. in the finest opposites attract tradition, cooper's straight arrow falls for stanwyck and counters the advances she made under false pretenses with a marriage proposal. she goes along with it, but only until she can marry andrews, which will relieve her from having to testify against him in court. wouldn't you know it, though? cooper's fresh-faced naivety wins her heart. as opposed to trouble in paradise, this one is more boisterous and offers no surprises. the plot is a bit silly but there are abundant pleasures to be found in the performances. gary cooper might as well own the patent on this kind of character. he can do it in his sleep but i'll be damned if he doesn't get me every time. his earnestness is disarming, his bumbling is adorable and if you don't pull for him then you must just be some kind of a jerk. stanwyck's performance is one of my favorites that she's ever put in, just the perfect mix and tough and sweet. she's a practical girl, and we all know how i like that, and their chemistry works well. best of all, the professors are a riot. you've seen their faces in the margins of dozens, perhaps hundreds, of some of hollywood's greatest films, but putting them all together in one house is a masterstroke. combine all that with dizzying linguistics and gene krupa playing a tiny drum solo with matchsticks and everything is jake.

there's a third film, perhaps my favorite of the bunch, that carla intended to be included in this opening cocktail and i am watching it as we speak, but there is no way i'll be able to finish and write it up tonight, as i have to be up for work at 6 a.m. i will include it in tomorrow's entry and then we'll take a walk at the dark end of the street.

keep one hand on your wallet and i'll see you tomorrow.


  1. The Rosetta Stone of romantic comedies--I feel the same way. I think it might be a perfect movie. It looks like you accidentally skipped over one, so don't forget to put it back in (hint: it stars a high-tech record player and beautiful man-closet). Looking forward to every post!

  2. i didn't forget. i just ran out of time. it will be in the next batch.

  3. Oops, I misread, thought you already crossed over into the shadows.

  4. To anybody playing from home, I think these first movies are best watched with the subtitles on. You catch a lot of nuances in the language that you might have missed otherwise.