Vice with class most certainly rewarded

No actress suffered with greater intensity, received more unmerited heartache, and caused more smitten suitors to jump to the wrong conclusion that Greta Garbo. Her spellbinding beauty clocked a tragic interior life, the knowledge that the woman she was could never match the ideal female in the minds of enraptured men or win over the women who secretly wanted her punished for her otherworldly allure. A figure apart, a galaxy beyond even the biggest stars, she attracted more blithering expressions of purblind worship than the entire roster of down-to-earth ingenues at Warner Brothers. “Garbo talks!” screamed the ads for her first talkie, Anna Christie (1930), which mentioned nothing about the words she was speaking, by a playwright of some repute named Eugene O’Neill. A decade of melodramatic abuse later, an equally stunning exclamation announced another talent of the goddess on the pedestal. “Garbo laughs!” screamed the ads when she played against type in Ninotchka (1939). “What, when drunk, men see in other women, they see in Garbo sober,” swooned the critic Kenneth Tynan, still reeling in 1954.

That is Thomas Doherty from his ever-wonderful book Pre-Code Hollywood: Sex, Immorality and Insurrection in American Cinema 1930-1934. This somewhat lengthy excerpt about Garbo is relevant here not only to demonstrate Doherty’s terrific writing style, and his effective, not-so-subtle sarcasm, but also because it mentions Garbo’s only film with director Ernst Lubitsch, one of the most prolific artists working in the Hollywood’s early Golden Years. Lubitsch’s talent made him one of the most remembered directors of the time (he was also Head of Production at Paramount in the mid-1930s). Specialising in musical comedies, he directed films of the same sophisticated calibre as George Cukor (who, ironically, conflicted and very nearly halted the release of One Hour With  You, Lubitsch’s most delightful and comedic gem).

A particularly wonderful thing about One Hour With You, which screened as part of the Melbourne Cinémathèque’s current retrospective tribute, is the charmingly risqué treatment of its subject matter. Whereas, a few years later, much of what makes this film great would have been censored (probably into offscreen space), in 1932 we are allowed to experience explicit suggestion of sex, adultery, sleeping without pants on (!), and, perhaps the thing that is missed most during the bleak period of the Hays Code, married couples sleeping in the same bed. Avoiding all crudeness, though,  Lubitsch’s romantic comedy does not exploit the single entendre. The comedic tone pokes fun, but treats its subjects only with utmost respect.

Maurice Chevalier and Jeanette MacDonald

Making love in the park

Andre (Maurice Chevalier) can, we are told, “make love” anywhere. Now, in this film the antiquated term “make love” is at its most innocently darling. So he is allowed to kiss his wife, Colette (Jeanette MacDonald), in the park. This is of course because the Hays Code had not yet been fully thrust onto the Hollywood ranks (the Code itself was written by Motion Picture Producers and Distributors of America president Will H. Hays in 1930, but much of what was written was not enforced until Joseph L. Breen was appointed head of the Production Code Administration in 1934) ; Lubitsch was clearly having fun flaunting his violation of the agreement. Doherty documents some commentary from the time: in 1933, Variety declared “Producers have reduced the Hays Production Code to sieve-like proportions and are deliberatly out-smarting their own document.” While such behaviour of course continued into the depths of the darkest Hays Code years, pre-1934 allowed filmmakers to most gloriously disregard it.

The Hays Code, as so humourlessly inflicted on the joys of Hollywood Cinema from 1934-1968, sadly allows us to guess the key to Breen’s idea of a good time. (Bless, though, the official Motion Picture Production Code clearly stated that films “are very important as Art.” At least there is that.) As it is said, “No picture should lower the moral standards of those who see it,” by attracting the audience’s sympathy “on the side of crime, wrong-doing, evil, sin.” Lubitsch defied the code clearly in One Hour With You, where it says, “Comedies and farces should not make fun of good, innocence, morality or justice.” And of course, that adultery “is never a fit subject for comedy” and should not be presented as attractive or alluring. The amazing thing with this last point is, not only is adultery (with the ineffably great Mitzi (Genevieve Tobin)) made alluring to Andre, it is, by direct address to the spectator, made appealing to us as well. The song ‘What Would You Do’, where Andre struggles with his dalliance, pokes fun at the Code’s strict moral attachment to the sanctity of marriage. “Now I ask you what would you do? That’s what I did too!” Lubitsch, Chevalier, and lyricist Leo Robin, must have all had the Hays Code in mind when filming this song. It absolutely defies (in jest, of course) this addenda to the 1930 Code,

The sanctity of the institution of marriage and the home shall be upheld. Pictures shall not infer that low forms of sex relationship are the accepted or common thing.

Chevalier, though, has the ability to look absolutely innocent and apologetic, and forego any woman’s wrath. A rare quality, and a beautiful one to observe.

A highlight of the pre-code era, One Hour With You is glorious today for so many reasons. The performances are all excellent. Samson Raphaelson’s script contains some of the best lines of the early thirties and, indeed, the best man-in-tights moment in cinema history. Also, we get to see some lovely B&W “handling of the body, lustful and prolonged kissing, evidently lustful embraces” and the like, which Hays (with all his Presbyterian responsibility) so clearly did not want. From the very first scene of the film, Lubitsch is doing his very best to poke fun at Hays and his morally uptight patrons. Andre and Colette kiss on a park bench, typically the site of such illicit embraces by wanton unmarrieds, and shock the officer with their declaration of sanctity. It is a daring hint at the immoral followed by a triumphant (musical!) exclamation that, in effect, being married is the greatest thing ever. And from that moment on, the whole cast is in on the joke.

I have become an overnight Lubitsch lover. The other film from the Cinémathèque last night, Schuhpalast Pinkus (1916), was excellent too, definitely showing off Lubitsch’s comedic talents even in the silent era. In the next two weeks of the Cinémathèque’s program we will see two American films, two early German silents, and a documentary about his Berlin years. Billy Wilder had a sign on his office door at Paramount that read, “How would Lubitsch do it?” If only we new.

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About cinemelo

I love to write about film and comment on culture. Hopefully providing insight and interesting thoughts for fellow cultural itinerants.
This entry was posted in censorship, cinema, theory, women. Bookmark the permalink.

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