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The Affair of the Necklace (2001)
The truth is better than this fiction
A great story was wasted by the trivialization of the real account of the theft of the necklace, based on a fictionalized mistreatment of Jeanne Remy de Valois. The woman was a fabulous schemer whose sense of entitlement is world-class. It would have been a great story if the writer had used the real one, instead of the weak screenplay composed using scant facts. The role of the fake Countess La Motte is a scenery chewer worthy of Faye Dunaway in her heydey and I would have loved to have seen Tim Curry assay the Cardinal Rohan character which is equal parts scoundrel and fool. The only victim in the real story is Marie Antoinette, in whose name the scheme is initiated, but who never had any part in the necklace theft - in fact turned it down three times when offered it by the foolhardy jewelers who designed it for the more audacious Madame du Barry, Marie Antoinette's godfather-in-law's mistress. The real interplay of ego and privilege ending in utter tragedy had all the stuff of a fascinating and lively movie. This wasn't it.
The Line of Beauty (2006)
Nick Guest meet Nick Carraway. "Gatsby" updated.
"The Line of Beauty," which I recently saw on Logo, is a wonderful film, but it reminded me heavily of "The Great Gatsby" in that it makes the narrator a character in the scenario. Sam Waterston was given the role of Daisy Buchanan's poorer cousin, Nick Carraway. In "Line" Nick Guest serves in much the same way, with the exception that Nick Guest never realized he was an outsider, whereas Nick Carraway always did. Also much like Hemingway's reaction to F. Scott Fitzgerald's (author of "Gatsby") that "The rich are very different from us" - "Yes, they have more money", Guest finds out that human emotions, in this case recrimination, blame and betrayal, are just as much a part of the upper class as the lower. Guest and Gatsby both admire the upper class and at some point in each story, believe themselves equal to them, until each are made to pay for the sins of those they admire. In Gatsby's case, he is mistakenly shot by the wife of a garage mechanic who believes him to be Daisy's husband Tom, who is both wealthy and immoral. It is a classic story of social separatism, told with an extra layer of the start of the AIDS epidemic. It is a fine job of writing and acting all around. I was particularly impressed with the final slap in the face Nick gets from the housekeeper, who should have been more sympathetic to Nick, but who is also self-deluded in her thinking that she is part of the family, and not an outsider.
Her Man o' War (1926)
World War I drama and romance
"Her Man 'O' War" is one of 50+ films released under the DeMille studio banner between late 1925 and early 1928. To fund his own studio, DeMille had negotiated a production supervision arrangement where DeMille would make one film a year and then supervise 50-odd films over a three year period with Producer's Distributing Corporation. The result was that his own films took a year to make, and a lot of "programmers" like this film were made to keep a product flowing out of the studio into those theatres not owned by studios which would exhibit independent studio films. DeMille had taken several top stars with him from Paramount when he left, including Goudal. The temperamental actress proved a problem right away when F.W. Murnau wanted to borrow her for "Seventh Heaven" and DeMille refused. Goudal then looked for a way to break her contract. Able to only find a minor financial foul-up, she received a settlement, but not a release. DeMille would not direct her in a film after this and she was cut from the release version of "King of Kings" as well. Similar personal problems existed between DeMille and his other two leading stars, Leatrice Joy and Rod LaRocque, so that the films they made for the DeMille studio were not directed by him, minimizing the potential publicity and promotional value of the combination of director and stars.
William Boyd is the male lead of this film and he is not up to the task, although frankly, the writing doesn't require that he do much. Goudal vacillates from impish gamine to heavy dramatics not unlike Nazimova in "War Brides". Her overplaying and Boyd's underplaying don't assist this film. It's basic plot is sound, but the romance between the two principals is less interesting than the military mission which is at the film's core. In comparison to "The Big Parade", a contemporary of this film, "Her Man 'O' War" seems weak and clichéd.
Her Sister from Paris (1925)
Split screen doubles Talmadge comedy
It is sometimes hard to judge a film of the 1920's by today's standards because we don't have the same context. This film has no worse a goal than a zillion sitcoms from the 1950's in which a husband who takes his wife for granted is brought to his senses through the attentions and dismissal by another woman. In this case, the "other woman" is La Perry, Constance's characters twin sister who is a stage and cabaret star in Paris. Unlike "The Guardsman" or "Two Faced Woman" in this film the little wife HAS a twin sister, as they are seen in split screen scenes together.
It is a modest morality tale with the erring husband returning to the faithful wife.
Of note in this film are the costumes by Adrian, later M.G.M.'s premiere designer. In those scenes which feature La Perry's stage act, we can see a glimpse of what Adrian had brought to Irving Berlin's Music Box Revues of 1922 - 1925 and his other Broadway credits of the early 1920's before going to Hollywood to design for Valentino in 1924.
Red Dust (1932)
Pre-code period piece melodrama with intelligent writing.
Context is an important element in viewing any work of art or commerce and movies are both. "Red Dust" at it's core is about human weakness and strength, in degree and in full force. Mary Astor, a star since appearing opposite John Barrymore in "Don Juan", plays a repressed wife who doesn't believe in the strength of her husband (Gene Raymond) nor her own weakness when it comes to resisting the animal magnetism of rubber plantation owner Dennis (Clark Gable). Conversely, Gable doesn't realize his weakness in letting himself get involved with the ladylike Astor and underestimates the strength of prostitute Vantine (Jean Harlow) who, when Astor shoots Gable, gives witness to Raymond that his wife is innocent and that Gable deserved shooting. For it's time, 1932, "Red Dust" is sexually progressive, showing the freely running passions of Gable and the two women, while in retrospect, it's depiction of Asians is as poor stereotypes. Willie Fung, who plays Gable's houseboy, is also derided as gay in the script by the line delivered by Jean Harlow. Harlow notices Fung giggling at her underwear, to which she replies "Gee...you even find them in the jungle."
"Red Dust" has a tremendous "back story" as well. John Gilbert was to play the part of Dennis originally as an attempt to bolster his masculine image which had been damaged by the higher-than-anticipated timbre of his voice as recorded by early sound equipment. With the sensation caused by Gable when he returned Norma Shearer's slap in the face in "A Free Soul" Gable's star rose mercurily. No "hero" ever countered the indignation of the leading lady before, and certainly not the divas at Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer. Gable was a whole new breed of leading man. Jean Harlow's star had been on the ascendant after scoring a huge hit in "Red Headed Woman" a scandalous story of a secretary who sleeps her way to the top. The realism of these two performers in those films made them a natural for the raw jungle tale of passion and betrayal. In the middle of the making of the film, Jean Harlow's producer-husband, Paul Bern, was found dead. The scandal that followed frightened the studio who thought that Harlow's career was over. Scandal had ruined the careers of Fatty Arbuckle and Clara Bow, causing their studio (Paramount) to loose millions on their films. M.G.M. was surprised when Harlow's fame and popularity increased. For her part, Harlow returned to the studio and never spoke an unkind word about her late husband. Bern, it turned out, had a common law wife who had emerged from years-long institutionalization and confronted him about his new wife.
Racism is not a key element in the plot of "Red Dust". For that, you would have to see "The Mask of Fu Manchu" where the Asians are neither lazy nor stupid, but sexual predators, instead. Or you could watch any number of other World War Two American movies with Asians in them. But for accurate Pre-censorship Hollywood adult dialogue and plot, "Red Dust" will do nicely, thank you.
The Volga Boatman (1926)
Recent history shortsightedness
"The Volga Boatman" is an interesting film if only for a better idea of the capabilities of William Boyd, an actor known to most only as "Hopalong Cassidy". Boyd, as a DeMille discovery and contract player was in many of DeMille's films for his own studio, after Paramount and before his 3 year stint at M.G.M. DeMille loved Russian affectations at the time, even to wearing Cossack shirts when on his country home called "The Paradise Ranch". The long-standing tradition of eschewing accurate wardrobe in order to appeal to a more contemporary audience is very noticeable in this film. The designer, Adrian, chose (or was directed to choose) decidedly late 1920's fashions for this film. These are not the high waisted hobble skirts of the period, and do not resemble photographs of the women of the Russian royal family whose fashion sense seemed to be closer to the turn of the century rather than 1914-1918. The scenes in which the upper class men and women are pulling the wagons through the mud in their evening clothes reveals the short hemlines and t-strap high heeled shoes so popular in the nineteen-twenties. That the women's clothes are beautiful is beside the point. DeMille was a populist and rather liked being in the forefront of fashion so that the "Volga" wardrobe doesn't contribute to the realism of the film.