When the IU Cinema first opened, they invited director Peter Bogdanovich to the dedication, and showed a few of his movies, and a few John Ford movies, who Bogdanaovich interviewed and wrote about.
Since I was involved in design work for the Cinema, and was doing a podcast for them, the director of the Cinema invited me to lunch with the Bogdanovich. I had read his book on directors, and he devoted a lot of space to talking about Ernst Lubitsch. I had never heard of him, but the way he gushed about the filmmaker made me curious.
I asked Bogdanovich for some Lubitsch recommendations. He perked up immediately and started reeling off half a dozen films. I picked up a few DVDs, and was not disappointed. Ernst Lubitsch is one of the great comedy directors of all time, but he’s not remembered the same way other directors of his era are. I assume the reason is that he died relatively young, in 1947, and the majority of his films are from the silent or early sound era. Who knows what he might have done in the 50s or 60s if he had lived?
As Lubitsch and Bogdanovich are forever linked in my mind, today’s films are:
Ernst Lubitsch – Design for Living (1933)
Peter Bogdanovich – At Long Last Love (1975)
Neither is their most famous film. And for Bogdanovich, one of his least loved. But they’re both comedies. And Design for Living is from the pre-code era. Let’s discuss why that matters.
Design for Living (1933)
When many people think of the 1940s or 1950s, they think of a bygone era, when everyone was nice, no one swore, there was no crime(or if there was it was clear the criminals were villains who got their comeuppance in the end), and everyone was a virgin when they were married.
Unfortunately, that world never actually existed. I know that sounds weird, but seriously. It was all a fantasy. The world we imagine exists largely because of the films of that era, which is the only way we can really view life in motion from the past. Unfortunately, we’re not seeing a reflection of the world as it existed. We’re seeing life through the haze of the Hays code.
Whenever a new artistic medium comes along, it flies under the radar for awhile, answerable to no one but the people paying for it. But eventually, if it gets popular enough, people start to take notice, and get offended. When this happens, the government starts paying attention and the people in charge of this new medium have two choices. 1) Censor themselves in some way, or 2) wait to see how the government decides to censor them. Radio, television, comic books, and video games all chose to censor themselves, and film was no different. In 1930, after several scandals, the Motion Picture Association of America designed a production code, but it wasn’t enforced until 1934. The production code was essentially a ‘do’s and dont’s’ for all film productions that determined what could be seen in films. It was eventually replaced with the rating system in the 60’s, but for more than 30 years, filmmakers were bound by it’s rules.
But there was a brief window between the late 20s and early 30s after sound was introduced but before the code was enforced where filmmakers got more daring and we saw films unlike anything that came after. These are collectively called ‘pre-code’ films. Unlike films under the code, these pre-code films explored subjects like drug addiction, violence, sex and rape. All of these topics were forbidden or heavily censored under the code. Today we’re going to look at one of the raciest pre-code films, the aforementioned Design For Living.
Design for Living stars Miriam Hopkins, Frederic March, and Gary Cooper. Miriam Hopkins plays Gilda, a commercial artist, who meets Fredric March’s Tom, a struggling playwright, and Gary Cooper’s George, a struggling painter on a train in Paris. They become quick friends, and Gilda ends up dating both of them.
This is the kind of story you get in a pre-code film. A woman who is successful on her own meets two men, and rather than spending the whole movie mooning over them and having wacky adventures, she just decides dating both of them is a-ok. Furthermore, the film has no problem of making it very clear she’s having sex with both of them. No winking at the camera, no hints or innuendo, just ‘remember when I let you make love to me yesterday?’. Films under the code had to carefully approach these topics and cloak them with subtle clues to the audience as to what was really happening. But here Lubitsch can be more explicit about the topic.
Early on both the men realize they love Gilda, and decide to stop seeing her to save their friendship. This lasts for all of 30 seconds before she calls and comes over. She confesses that she loves both of them, and couldn’t be with just one, because the other would always be on her mind. She suggests an arrangement where they remain as friends, with no sex, and she will be their muse, critiquing their work, and helping them improve. So they form a ‘gentleman’s agreement’.
She goes into action immediately, helping Tom rewrite, and George work on more interesting compositions. She also acts as their manager, helping them get paying gigs. She has success with Tom first, getting a producer to put on his play in London. Tom heads to London, and all three vow to see each other on opening night of the play.
But things don’t turn out neatly, as without Tom to keep them honest, George and Gilda confess their feelings for each other, and rekindle their relationship without Tom, with Gilda lamenting her weakness, in one of the best lines ever captured on film:
“We may have a gentleman’s agreement, but I’m no gentleman.”
The line is great because it tells us everything we need to know about how she is feeling, what she wants and what happens next without spelling it out. The line is also strangely sexy, with Gilda laid out on the bed, inviting George over without simply saying “Let’s have sex.” I doubt many filmmakers today could craft a line with as much meaning and heat as Lubitsch has done here.
This also leads to a great scene with Tom, having found success in London dictating a letter to his friends. He talks about how great it will be when they are all together, and how well things are going when a letter arrives for him. It’s from Tom and Gilda, and we don’t need to see what it says. We’re able to read what it says clearly on his face. Tom has the assistant start the letter over with this simple message: “Good Luck”. The scene is heartbreaking, and Fredric March makes us feel the betrayal deeply.
Tom’s play is a huge hit, and he returns to Paris to look up his old friends, finding them in a new apartment living together, but only Gilda is home. Lubitsch gives us a great scene to bring Gilda and Tom back together which was set up earlier. When leaving London, Tom has to leave behind his typewriter. He asks Gilda to take care of it while he’s gone. When returning to Paris, he finds his typewriter in George and Gilda’s apartment. As he plays with it, he sees it’s in a state of disrepair. He is clearly not pleased.
Gilda appears, and they talk about old times. Tom admits that he has forgiven George, because he can understand why someone would choose Gilda over him, but he hasn’t forgiven Gilda, because she chose George over him. Again, Lubitsch is able to bring real emotion into the film.
Gilda notices that Tom has found his typewriter. He admonishes her for not keeping it oiled. She moves the slide, and the typewriter unexpectedly rings. They both look up surprised. Gilda exclaims “But it still rings!” Tom agrees. “It still rings.”
The metaphor here is clear. The typewriter was the piece of Tom he left behind. In starting their own relationship, Gilda and George have neglected it, letting it become rusty. When Tom returns and sees Gilda, he realizes he still loves her, as he always did, and she loves him back. When Gilda examines the typewriter and finds that it still has some function, it represents the realization that their own relationship can still function.
I love this scene. This is the kind of thing that elevates the film from a simple sex comedy into a real piece of art, and Lubitsch from a competent filmmaker into one of the all-time greats. Lubitsch always writes clever dialogue, and hilarious jokes, but lots of people can do that. The ability to set up and pay off a metaphor like this in a satisfying way is something a lot of filmmakers can’t do.
Tom spends the night with Gilda. Of course, in the morning George appears, finding Tom, and slowly realizes what has happened. Tom and George fight, and Gilda decided to leave with Tom, she goes to the bedroom to pack, but when Tom goes to check on her, he finds that she has left nothing but a note. She has left both of them to be a ‘nice’ girl. Tom and George vow to reconcile their friendship.
The movie shifts it’s focus to Gilda, and Lubitsch uses a couple of quick silent scenes to tell the story of her marriage to Plunkett, her former boss who always carried a torch for her (and hated Tom and George). The scenes go by quickly, but it’s unmistakable what’s happening. We see Plunkett and Gilda shopping for a bed in a funny scene where Gilda objects, then Plunkett measures the bed, then measures himself and Gilda to prove to her it’s big enough. In the next scene, Plunkett sits down at his desk, then opens a file folder to the “M” file, and shuffles through a few bills before finding a marriage license.
Again, Lubitsch shows us he’s a master of the visual form. With two scenes with no dialogue, he takes us from Gilda breaking up with George and Tom to her marriage. There’s no wedding scene, no engagement scene, no scene with Gilda meeting Plunkett again, or considering her options. He understood what the important part of the story was, and by using these quick scenes, he’s telling the audience that the marriage is just the setup, something else is coming to pay it off. He made dozens of silent films, so he really knew how to play out action without dialogue. It’s a skill most modern filmmakers don’t bother to develop, and it always surprises me when I see a modern movie that succeeds at a silent scene.
We see Gilda’s marriage and she seems happy, but it’s clear life is boring. She’s transitioned from her exciting life helping Tom and George succeed in the world, to becoming essentially a trophy wife, planning out social events for her husband, and helping him land advertising clients.
Another great scene comes here on their wedding night. After returning to their honeymoon suite, Plunkett asks Gilda if she loves him. Her response is one of the great lines of the film:
“People should never ask that on their wedding night. It’s either too early or too late.”
Her unrest becomes clear in this scene when finding a small flower pot from Tom and George. She gets so angry at seeing it that she kicks it over, before later coming back and fixing it.
Everything comes to a head on a night when her husband plans a fancy party for his biggest client. Tom and George show up to the party, and after fighting with Plunkett and ruining the party, Gilda decides to leave with them both. In the car as they retreat, they agree that Gilda will return to criticizing them, and they form another ‘gentleman’s agreement’.
Of course, the film doesn’t make it clear if this agreement will work out any better than the last, but one change is clear. In the earlier scene, Gilda kisses each man on the forehead before making the agreement. In this scene, each man kisses her tenderly on the lips. It’s up to the audience to imagine what happens next.
This is an amazingly funny film. Lubitsch could write jokes like no one else. They always make sense in the context of the story, and they’re always clever and unique. For example, early in the film, when asked how he survives on no income, George replies “I survive on miracles.” Cooper’s delivery is brilliant. There’s also great visual gags done with editing, as in a scene where Plunkett confronts Tom about his relationship with Gilda, and Tom confesses his love for her. The camera immediately cuts to scene with George and Gilda kissing.
Beyond that, the characters react in ways that you can relate to, even in an 80 year old film. We’re so used to seeing films from this era that feature antiquated morals and gender roles, seeing one with more modern sensibilities reminds us that the world we saw through the Hays code wasn’t the real world. This film doesn’t show the real world either, to be sure, but we can see that people in this era were capable of viewing women as strong and independent, and considering it was 10th at the box office the year it was released, it wasn’t alien to the audiences at the time either. It’s a good lesson about the way media affects us, the power of film, and how no matter how far we’ve come, we still have a long way to go. Even today, filmmakers have trouble writing characters as well-rounded, capable and confident as Gilda.
I could write another ten thousand words about this film and still not say everything I want to say. But suffice it to say, this film is exceptional, as are all of Lubitsch’s films. It’s not clear why he’s not remembered the way other directors of the same era like John Ford, Hitchcock, or even a comedy director like Preston Sturges are. He is easily the equal of all of them, and likely the greatest comedy director of all time. Every serious film lover should be familiar with as much of his work as possible, and that’s getting easier with the Criterion Collection releasing a lot of his better and lesser known films.
The film is hilarious, and a great time capsule of an era we rarely get to see clearly.
At Long Last Love (1975)
As I said previously, when I think of Lubitsch, I think of Peter Bogdanovich, the man who introduced me to the filmmaker, both indirectly through his writing, then directly over lunch. I selected this movie rather than one of his more famous works for a few reasons. First of all, it’s a comedy musical, which might be a better comparison to Design for Living. Also, I had this Blu-ray on my shelf for a couple of years and had never watched it.
I initially bought it after reading this note from Bogdanovich about how the film was rushed into release, and then re-edited into a better version. The story goes that Bogdanovich recut the film after release for a TV version after a disastrous theatrical release, and people continually told him they had seen it and enjoyed it, even though he had never been totally happy with the film. After 35 years, he sat down to watch it again to find that the film wasn’t his version. It turns out James Blakely, the head of the Fox editorial department who had an affinity for musicals saw the dailies come in, and decided the film could be better. He secretly came up with his own edit of the movie, then released that to TV distribution. That was the version that had been playing for 30 years after Bogdanovich had given up on the film. Bogdanovich loved the new cut, and it finally worked the way he always wanted it to work. The studio decided to release the new cut with a few changes from Bogdanovich.
I love this story, because it speaks to the collaborative nature of film, and how powerful it can be. Bogdanovich likely would have found the best version of the film with enough time, but someone else saw the potential, and couldn’t bear to let a poor version be released. And a huge credit to Bogdanovich to be selfless enough to look at a version of his art that someone else was responsible for, and see the value of it.
At Long Last Love is a musical comedy that instead of using original songs, uses Cole Porter songs to express the emotions of the characters. In addition, the actors sang their parts live on set, largely in long unbroken takes, which wasn’t done since the early days of film. Modern musicals had the actors (or a different actor with a better singing voice, see Singin’ In The Rain) record their songs in advance, and then lip sync them during filming. It’s definitely an experiment, but it isn’t surprising from Bogdanovich. Before transitioning to directing, he began as an actor before becoming one of the premiere film critics and historians of the era. He was a student of film, and reading his books, you can feel his love and admiration for the medium.
The film stars Cybill Shepherd (Brooke), Burt Reynolds (Michael), Madeline Kahn (Kitty) and Duilio Del Prete (Johnny). Michael meets Kitty and Brooke meets Johnny in increasingly cute ways, and the two couples converge at a performance of a show that Kitty is performing in. It turns out Kitty and Brooke went to grade school together and the couples decide to hang out for the weekend.
The film plays like a screwball comedy, with quick dialogue, and snappy comebacks. Reynolds and Shepherd are especially good at this kind of dialogue, but Madeline Kahn has a background in comedy and Del Prete is capable as well. The film has a fun time with these relationships, and even adds an additional relationship with Brooke’s maid pursuing Michael’s butler. One of the best musical numbers in the film happens between them, the call and response song “But in the Morning No.” This song plays as their theme, and returns over and over in the film, but is never unwelcome.
As the film proceeds, Brooke realizes she might like Michael better than Johnny, and casually makes the switch. Johnny and Kitty discover this, but rather than wallowing, they decide that they’ll start seeing each other in an attempt to make the other couple jealous and get their original partners back.
The film stumbles here a bit, while it spends a lot of time exploring Michael and Brookes new relationship, we only see the decision from Kitty and Johnny to see each other, then otherwise we only see them from Brooke and Michael’s perspective. Up until this point, the two couples have had essentially equal screentime. I don’t think the film totally earned this shift to Brooke and Michael, and would have liked to see the Kitty and Johnny relationship explored a little more in this part of the film. It really becomes a problem at the end of the film when we see Johnny leave, and Kitty deals with that, but we haven’t really seen a lot of what she’s missing.
It becomes clear around this point that while the women both love their new partners more than their old partners, but the men are both longing to return to their original partners. After seeing Johnny and Kitty together in a movie theater, Michael follows Johnny to the bathroom and they fight. The scene is played from the other side of the door, only hearing muffled shouts, and see the reactions of other men leaving the bathroom hastily. They finally burst out of the bathroom arms wrapped around each other laughing, clearly coming to an agreement. Johnny assures Kitty that their performance is closing tonight. Like the previous film, both men agree to stop seeing their respective partners.
This sends both women into sadness, and we spend some time with Brooke dealing with the fallout, before the women reunite and lament their loss. The film ends with all of the characters at a dance, the women to forget about the men, the men to rekindle their romances. Michael and Johnny arrive, and they dance with their original partners, before the bandleader shouts “Change partners!” The couples switch, and the film ends without resolving who ends up with who, in one of it’s strongest moments.
There’s a lot to like about the film. The dialogue is quick and snappy, and I’m a huge fan of screwball comedies, and Bogdanovich really captures that genre here. You can feel his love and admiration for these comedies in every scene. The movie is really enjoyable and funny, and a lot of the musical numbers work, especially “Well did you Evah!'”, played out at a party for the elderly the four attend with Michael’s mother. This song is hilarious, and the choreography and the story beats happening during and after it really make it engaging. The film is at it’s strongest when the four characters are all together playing off each other.
However, the film loses some punch when it separates the characters, and slows down a lot when it indulges in exploring the relationship between Brooke and Michael. The scenes themselves are fine, and the songs work, but they take away from the larger narrative of these two couples switching partners and trying to decide who they want to be with. It also loses Kitty and Johnny at this point, which I would have liked to see more of. Overall, I think the film could be shorter and be a bit more effective.
But it is an enjoyable film with some really great scenes, and the musical numbers ultimately work. I especially the confidence Bogdanovich had in the ending, refusing to tie everything up in a neat bow for us, but rather letting the audience wonder which couples would end up together.
The Double Feature
I think this is the strongest pairing I’ve had yet. Both very funny movies, and although they were released 40 years apart, they both have similar sensibilities. Both are about non-traditional relationships, although interestingly, the one from 1933 shows more progressive gender roles than the film from 1975.
In previous pairings, I’d tried to avoid having films that were too alike, but these two were right in line with each other and it worked great. Rather than one serious film and one comedy as a palate cleanser, it was nice to be able to directly compare two films from similar genres. It’s clear how much Bogdanovich loves the early days of film, and how easily he’s able to slip into this largely forgotten genre and homage the directors of the past. It’s hard to say he’s directly channeling Lubitsch, but from his writing, it’s clear he has a great love and respect for the director, and I’m sure that Lubitsch is among his inspirations.
I’m starting to get into the groove a bit, and understand the cycle. I like to watch the films then have some time to reflect and digest the films before writing about them. Some films are harder to write about than others, but I think these two were particularly easy to write about, which helps a lot.
Hopefully I’m getting better at writing about the films as well. I’m aiming to do a post every other day while I have this time off, and hopefully keep things going afterwards, maybe on a weekly basis.
So for the previous pairings, I started thinking of them as soon as I’d finished the previous films. But this time I hadn’t spent a lot of time on it, other than looking through my DVD shelf. But of course I must come to a decision, so here it is:
Wong Kar Wai – In the Mood For Love (2000)
Mike Nichols – The Graduate (1967)
So there you have it. The Graduate is one of my favorite films, but I haven’t seen it recently, while In the Mood For Love is a film I’ve never seen, but always wanted to. That will be the next pairing.
See you then.