sovay: (Claude Rains)
sovay ([personal profile] sovay) wrote2011-11-07 02:46 am

You do like talking about yourself, don't you?

Conclusion drawn from watching David Hare's Page Eight (2011), which just aired here on PBS: as long as someone was going to remake Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy (1979), Bill Nighy would have made a very fine George Smiley.

The rest of this post is something completely different.

The Divorce of Lady X (1938) is a British screwball comedy in Technicolor, starring Merle Oberon and Laurence Olivier. This alone would have made it weird enough to get my attention, although to my delight it also turned out to be good. He's a very young, very handsome, very pompous barrister—specialty, divorces—who makes all the worst assumptions about the girl who crashes his hotel room on a night so fog-bound, she can't go home after her fancy-dress ball, deducing with the patronizing assurance of those whom the comedy gods are about to destroy that she's not just someone else's wife, but someone else's unfaithful wife, così fan tutte. He's attracted to her, of course, and doesn't know what to do about it, which just makes him even more unsupportably judgmental; by the time he's mistaken her for his latest case, the notoriously oft-married and equally oft co-responded Lady Mere, he thinks he's got her measure and wastes no time telling her so. What he has failed to take into account is that she's the heroine of a screwball comedy, meaning that she's nobody's fool, but the world is hers; she listens to his blithering misogyny with a grave, wide-eyed look of girlish complicity, and then decides to make him pay. The results are not quite as madcap as Bringing Up Baby (1938) or as close to the bone as The Lady Eve (1941), which feel like the film's closest relatives in terms of subject-object reversals and garden paths (I have not seen Counsel's Opinion, mostly because it appears to have been lost since 1933), but it was certainly worth getting up for at stupid o'clock this morning.

I don't know why Olivier didn't do more comedy. Removed from the expectation that a leading man must be serious business, his improbable good looks are revealed as a God-given invitation to all the subversion the story can throw at him—anything that immaculate is going to get messed up. His beautiful viola-tremolo voice flies up half an octave, cracks in helpless temper or despairing adoration; he keeps doing nervous things with his hands and trying to pretend he isn't. Oberon doesn't have the lanky sexiness of Barbara Stanwyck or Hepburn's brash, androgynous grace, but her first appearance, petite, in a froth of dressy tulle, doesn't stop the film from knowing how to play with their roles. She's a Leslie before it was a popular female name; his first name is the embarrassing Everard, which she makes a point of writing on his mirror in lipstick before she leaves. She commandeers his pajamas, which are a catastrophic kind of candy-stripe in crimson and pink; more than one person opens the door on him as he holds her discarded Second Empire gown up against himself with a bemused look, as if it might hide the clue to "Lady X"'s identity, the sweetly confounding Leslie-last-name-unknown or the serial gold digger of Lady Mere's reputation. There are even some surprisingly risqué lines, which she generally initiates:

"But then I didn't like you in your office. I much preferred you in your bedroom."
"Our bedroom."
"My bedroom."
"Surely that's the proper place to judge your future husband?"

It's not one of the movies where I can't understand how I never heard of it before. The leads never lose their chemistry, but the second half feels increasingly diffuse and overstuffed, as though the script is hedging its bets on which plot twist is going to solve the problem; this really doesn't work in a genre as dependent as screwball on precision timing and an unshakable faith in the ludicrous. It introduces characters we don't need to meet. It unravels when it should be winding up for a sparkling whiplash. It does save the ending, though, which would be merely a bit of turnabout-fair-play if not for the sudden, shy flicker of happiness on Logan's face as Leslie allows him to propose to her and grants that she might agree—he may be seasick, professionally sunk, and feel like an absolute fool, but it wasn't all a game to her, not the way she's smiling; and he glows. I don't know, maybe Olivier just took the role to pay the bills while he put his time into the Old Vic, but Cary Grant wouldn't have been ashamed of him. Nor Claudette Colbert of her. I'm a little sorry they were never paired with a better script that wasn't Wuthering Heights (1939).

[identity profile] 2011-11-07 08:22 am (UTC)(link)