A delightful diversion, with Gertrude Lawrence at her most carefree
This is a remarkable film in many ways. Made in the first full year of sound, its sound quality is surprisingly good. It is a semi-musical comedy drama, with all of the songs written by Cole Porter. His song 'They All Fall in Love' has extremely amusing lyrics. And the film stars Gertrude Lawrence, famous on stage but much less often seen on screen, and here appearing in her first feature film, aged 30. She was a wacky, charming, devil-may-care personality who somehow reminds one of Josephine Baker. Lawrence was not a beauty, but she had a beautiful personality, was cheerful, laughing, joyous, and refreshingly spontaneous. She sings well and with gusto. Another impressive aspect of the film is its fidelity to what Paris was really like between 1914 and 1918, the time in which the action is set. The director, Robert Florey, was a genuine Parisian, and he made certain that when the characters went to the cavern bar The Green Rat (probably based upon Florey's own visits to the famous la Bolée at 25 Rue de l'Hirondelle, Francis Carco's favourite haunt, which still exists, though it no longer has sawdust on the floor and an apparently dead dog lying in the corner), it was authentic. The Paris gangsters known as 'les apaches', named after the American Indian tribe because of their capacity for being ferocious, are dressed correctly, and above all, they and their gals are dancing in the genuine style of the apaches of the period. Hollywood's phony notions of Paris are kept at bay to every extent possible. So what if Charlie Ruggles as Zuzu somewhat over-clowns his French accent? This film is all in good fun anyway. The pompous American named Tony Trent (played by Walter Petrie, who never appeared in another feature film and of whom nothing seems to be known) in his weird frock coat and his overly comfortable atelier lacking all austerity, who has come to Paris for two years of 'trying to paint' (but doing very little, and what he does is not very good) is also authentic. Paris was full of such dilletantes at the time. Robert Florey is to be congratulated (and I wish he were alive to hear it) for making such a worthwhile and authentic film, considering how easily it could have sunk into the mud of mediocrity in the hands of someone who was not really from Paris and simply had to imagine it all. Florey was only 29 at the time he made this film, having come to Hollywood aged 24 as a film journalist. He had been an assistant in Paris to the legendary silent director Louis Feuillade. The year before this, he directed Maurice Chevalier and his wife in a film called WELCOME TO NEW YORK! (1928), of which there is no review, and perhaps no print survives. The film he directed just before this was the first Marx Brothers film, THE COCOANUTS (1928, a filmed version of their hit Broadway show, made in New York). The film he directed just afterwards was the French film LA ROUTE EST BELLE (THE ROAD IS FINE, 1930), set in France, written by a French colleague named Pierre Wolff, and with a French cast. As this film is also unreviewed and has no story précis, perhaps its print is also lost. He followed it with another film made in France, the comedy L'AMOUR CHANTE (LOVE SONGS, 1930), which also appears to be lost. He returned to America by 1932 when he made a film entitled 50-50, of which nothing whatever is known except that it was made in English. He came back into historical focus later that year when he directed Bela Lugosi in a film of Edgar Allan Poe's story MURDERS IN THE RUE MORGUE, set in 19th century Paris. The character of the ghastly and vicious woman Suzanne is played here by Gladys DuBois, who made this and one other film in 1929 and then vanished from the screen forever. She is very effective. I wonder who she was. No biographical information about her is recorded on IMDb. The story and dialogue were written by the very American Gene Markey, later to be married in turn to Joan Bennett, Hedy Lamarr, and Myrna Loy. What was the secret of his charm? I brushed past him in 1956 at the opening of the film, but did not meet him properly (the only people I chatted to were Margaret O'Brien, John Lupton, and Happy Chandler, but then I was only a precocious child at the time and they all thought I was 'cute') at the opening of GLORY, the last film written by Markey, which was a terrible commercial flop. But it did deal with race horses, which had become his obsession by then as he had married as his fourth wife the widow who owned the horse farm Calumet, where I used to go and rub noses with Citation and Bull Lea. I was also the only person who could truly calm Son of Bull Lea at that time, who was wild and bad. Because being a child I could do a perfect whinny, he would stop rampaging around his paddock in his usual crazed frenzy and come and rub noses with me and be completely calm and quiet. He did not like humans, but he accepted me as a 'human colt' who could 'talk horse'. No trainer could normally control him. But then, what has that got to do with the movies? Returning to the subject, Markey's most famous film was AS YOU DESIRE ME, the 1932 Garbo film, for which he adapted Pirandello's play. But this film about Paris, in the hands of a genuine young Parisian director, is a refreshing treat, which readily transcends the limitations of the script by a man from Michigan and makes use of Markey's humour and jokes in a way which actually works successfully.
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