Wednesday, September 03, 2014

Film Declared One of America's Best Not So Hot

Laughter (Harry d'Abbadie d'Arrast, 1930) was the last film I had left to see on Jonathan Rosenbaum's list of 100 great American films and it struck me as much the worst film on the list. Perhaps heightened expectations (and having to be polite to a craggy "anti-Commie" movie collector who sent me a copy of it on VHS for free in the pre-torrenting era) soured the film for me. Or perhaps it truly was as lumpy as Leonard Maltin claimed in early editions of his annual movie guide (it's since been dropped).

Or perhaps my even craggier bootlegs didn't give the film a chance to shine. So I took advantage of living near a great film city and finally saw Laughter on the big screen at the Gene Siskel Film Center with an intro by Rosenbaum himself. But the gorgeous print did little to change my first impressions - a decent enough film but hardly one of America's 100 best.

A warmed over Gatsby, Laughter concerns a young showgirl (Nancy Carroll) who marries a wealthy but dull and grey-haired New York banker (Frank Morgan). When her erstwhile composer boyfriend (a snappy performance by Fredric March) shows up unannounced, she gets seduced back into her carefree ways. Typical of some of the more stagey examples of early talkies, the weak transitions in and out of scenes contribute to the overall lumpiness. Many moments just fizzle out with only telegraphed indications of the characters' pasts. Thus, a disquieting track in to a silent Carroll as she ponders her lot loses its dramatic and even thematic thrust since her laughter-filled past remains vague at best. The story begs for some Lubitschian forward motion.

Even the complexities of the ending are dulled by an abrupt conclusion. Carroll runs off with March to Paris for a life of voluntary poverty. But as March is babbling about the changes he's made to his symphony, she eyes a rich woman in a café brandishing a sparkling bracelet. March catches her lusting after it. "I didn't say anything," she says laughing it off. But here, another slow track in (perhaps with March's voice trailing off the soundtrack) would have underscored her doubt more emphatically.

Still, there are attractive lumps along the way, particularly the scene in which Carroll and March break into a Long Island home to avoid the rain. They keep warm with bear rugs as they act out middle-class married life, a visual stolen by Warren Beatty in the notorious turkey Town & Country (Peter Chelsom, 2001) (the painful and depressing story of which you can read about in James Robert Parish's Fiasco: A History of Hollywood's Iconic Flops).
Some trivia:

A Variety article reported some microphone problems during filming at Paramount's New York studio. In one scene, Carroll suggests to the banker's daughter (Diane Ellis) that they go to a museum. Ellis dryly responds "Oh I've seen a museum." According to the article, the line kept coming out as "Oh I've seen 'em; you've see 'em." So the line had to be switched to "But I've been to a museum." But Ellis quite clearly says "I've seen a museum" in the final print. They obviously got it right after the story went to press.

The scenes between Ellis and Carroll are quite remarkable since Carroll is her stepmother and they're both roughly the same age. They handle the situation with a humor and maturity indicative of the pre-Code spirit. So it's especially upsetting to learn that Ellis died shortly after starring in Laughter. She married Stephen C. Millet, a New York broker, and died in Madras, India while on honeymoon.

The Siskel screening corresponds with a class so the theatre was filled mostly with students. Best line heard from two students sitting next to me: "That has to be the TA. He has that TA swagger."


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