Sunday, June 01, 2003


Turner Classic Movies featured pre-Code (1930-1934) movies in May, highlighting some wonderful films in conjunction with a very good book by Mick LaSalle called COMPLICATED WOMEN. I'm planning on spending much of this month getting around to some of those TCM films, and other movies of the same era. This one is a good starting point, as it's a film that certainly could not have been released after the Code crackdown in the summer of 1934. It's about a woman who can't choose between two suitors and so winds us having them both. The opening is a delight, and the best scene in the film. On a train to Paris, two buddies are stretched out and snoozing in their compartment: Gary Cooper is an artist and Fredric March is a playwright, neither very successful, and both perhaps a little proud of that. Miriam Hopkins enters the car and settles down across from them, between their propped-up feet. She, a successful commercial artist, sketches them then stretches out herself and nods off. As Cooper slowly wakes up, his hand grazes Hopkins' leg, leading to a moment on confusion before they all wake up and get to know each other. In Paris, they embark on a platonic menage a trois, living together with a "gentleman's agreement" to avoid sex. She helps both men attain success, and when March heads off to London for the opening of his play, Hopkins, deciding that she's "no gentleman," breaks their agreement and has an affair with Cooper. March takes it fairly well, but when he returns to Paris months later while Cooper is away, he and Hopkins have what amounts to a one-night stand. Cooper returns and catches them during what is clearly a post-coital breakfast. They all quarrel and Hopkins leaves them both for a passionless marriage to her stuffy mentor, Edward Everett Horton (playing an early and far less sinister version of the Clifton Webb character in LAURA). Later in New York, the two men come to Hopkins' rescue during a boring buisnessmen's party.

In the original Noel Coward play, there are hints of homoeroticism between the two men, but those are gone in the film, and I think it actually works better that way. Cooper and March are close friends who genuinely love each other and fall in love with the same girl, who falls for both of them. When the sexless menage doesn't work, the ending strongly implies that they will reach some kind of understanding between them; whether than means "time-sharing" or love as a trio is up to the viewer. Hopkins is sexy and frothy, playing a very independent woman; even when she gives in to the sexless Horton, it's clear that she's thought it through and made what seems like the most logical decision for the situation. March is almost as good, though Cooper feels a bit out of his element here. The most memorable line aside from Hopkins' "...and I'm no gentleman" is Horton's warning to both Cooper and March when he suspects early on that they are both (separately) carrying on with Hopkins: "Immorality may be fun, but it's not enough to take the place of 100% virtue and three square meals a day!" The Paris apartment set is nice, looking quite bohemian and lived in. The film loses some energy in the middle, but the first and last sections are great fun. Franklin Pangborn and Jane Darwell also appear. Ernst Lubitsch directed from a script by Ben Hecht that he was pround of having almost totally rewritten from the Coward play.

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