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July 25, 2005

Unfaithfully Yours


Alfred Hitchcock once remarked that he made his films to be watched a second time. Only when the distraction of suspense has been cleared away can the viewer appreciate the great artistry with which Hitchcock filled the screen. The same is true of Unfaithfully Yours, Preston Sturges's rather dark 1948 comedy for 20th Century Fox. Only when you know how everything works out can you appreciate the immense high silliness of the the three central scenes, in which a celebrated conductor indulges, while conducting an orchestra, in three different fantasies of disposing of his wife, and only when you see the finale the second time can you savor its glorious ironies. Another thing that improves with repetition is Rex Harrison's stupendous performance as the conductor, Sir Alfred de Carter.

To suggest the level of this movie's sophistication, I shall gloss Sir Alfred's name. If you are of a certain age, you'll remember hearing of Carter's Little Liver Pills. They were laxatives manufactured in the United States. In England, there were Beecham's Liver Pills, also laxatives. A scion of the Beecham family exhausted the family fortune in the production of Handel operas and Delius concerts. That would be the great Sir Thomas Beecham. When Sir Alfred de Carter says, in passing, that his family's product has "kept England on time since Waterloo," without naming the product itself, we are hearing a lame attempt to ward off any litigation from eccentric (and depleted) maestros. I've never heard that Sir Thomas was even aware of Unfaithfully Yours, but I imagine that he'd have been rather pleased to find himself portrayed by the slim, dashing, and hyperarticulate Rex Harrison.

Sir Alfred is married to the beautiful Daphne (the beautiful Linda Darnell), from whom he has been reluctantly parted by musical engagements abroad.

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July 19, 2005

The Palm Beach Story


Princess: Oh I love you like this, with lightning flashing out of your eyes.

For quite some time, my two favorite funny movies have been The Awful Truth (1937) and The Palm Beach Story (1942). I have never been able to put one ahead of the other in a list, and the movie in third place - well, I don't know what the movie in third place is. How about a tie between Bringing Up Baby (1938) and its remake, What's Up, Doc? (1972)? My two favorites have a few things in common - they've both about rich people, for one thing - but they're really very different. The Awful Truth takes place entirely in well-appointed rooms, an imposing court, and a fantastical night club. The Palm Beach Story takes place very largely outdoors and on the move - on a train, on a plane, on a yacht, and even in the driveway. The soundtrack, which is full of tongue-in-cheek quotations from the classics, gives the movie a musical feeling, and Rudy Vallee actually sings. (And one of the things that he sings, briefly, is that Paramount inevitability, "Isn't It Romantic?") The Awful Truth limits itself to two musical items, "Home on the Range" and "Gone With The Wind," a novelty number not directly inspired by Miss Mitchell's opus. And where The Awful Truth portrays rich people as they're conventionally imagined by Hollywood, The Palm Beach Story is insider information, written from the standpoint of someone very familiar with the high life - as writer, director, and producer Preston Sturges was - and altogether unconcerned with whether the mass audience "gets it."

Finally, what sets The Palm Beach Story apart from nearly every other picture ever made is that it is an adventure story in which a woman has the adventure. That being the case, the movie offers not space ships and secret passwords but no end of sexual innuendo.

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July 07, 2005

Decline and Fall

The first time that I read Decline and Fall (1928), I didn't get it. Still in high school, I wasn't nearly sophisticated enough to appreciate its deadpan satire. I didn't know enough about England, and I didn't know enough about nonsense. My idea of funny writing was Robert Benchley's output. I thought that funny writing ought to be fun, and Decline and Fall, while wicked and laughter-inducing, is not fun. It is at heart among the most serious of books, as are all of Waugh's great novels.

The title might seem to refer to the career of the novel's hero, insofar as it is reported here, but that is not correct. Quite aside from the fact that Paul Pennyfeather ends up where he began, at Scone College, Oxford, with nothing to show for his adventures beside a "heavy cavalry moustache," there is a picture of an English society that is clearly in recession. Knaves and idiots have taken possession of everything, and avoidable catastrophes strike down the innocent. A culture of apologetic personal irresponsibility has taken root. It is unsafe to be around grand people, because in their carelessness or contempt they will put you in harm's way. Everyone seems to be equipped with just enough knowledge to be dangerous to his fellow man. Now, how could this be funny?

Waugh commands several literary devices with Napoleonic efficiency. The skill that comes first to mind is a sense of the preposterous. Waugh knows just how far to go. At the start of the novel, poor Paul intersects with some extremely drunk lords, and in the encounter he loses his trousers. Thus he is seen dashing across the quad in a disrobed state, and therefore he must be sent down. Given the disgrace of expulsion, his trustee is entitled to refuse to advance any of the money that is rightfully his. Given Paul's blamelessness, this outcome is outrageous, but it is also a preposterous consequence of a midnight skirmish. It is not realistic, and we love having our leg pulled a little. Waugh never pulls too hard.

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July 05, 2005



It has occurred to me that a work of art that I take for granted is not as widely familiar as it used to be. Known by two names, Pygmalion and My Fair Lady, this comedy, created by George Bernard Shaw and adorned with songs written by Jay Lerner and composed by Frederick Lowe, is both highly entertaining and extremely illuminating. In the Greek myth, Pygmalion was a sculptor whose most beautiful marble came to life as Galatea. In the comedy, elocutionist Henry Higgins wagers that he can transform a guttersnipe into a lady, simply by teaching her how to speak. As befits such arrogance, he is confounded by his success.

You will ignore the film adaptation of the musical - except, of course, as a reflection of the stage musical's structure. It is a camp curiosity that dates from Hollywood's darkest hours. If you want to know what Rex Harrison was like in the role, watch Preston Sturges's Unfaithfully Yours, which will strike anyone who remembers the original Broadway production as a dress rehearsal for My Fair Lady. As for seeing what Julie Andrews was like, I can't say, because she was already out of the show by the time I got to see it, but I doubt that she was better as an actress than Wendy Hiller is in Pygmalion, the 1938 adaptation of Shaw's play. Shaw himself worked on the screenplay, and the whole business was authorized by him. Leslie Howard is quite good enough as Henry Higgins to put Rex Harrison out of your mind, at least for as long as he's on screen; he's a craftier, geekier Higgins, and he is more obviously vulnerable to the surprise of love than Harrison's good doctor does.

You will also read the play, because Shaw's stage directions, which often seem to equal the word-count of the dialogue, will help you to bring the play to life. Theatre people, who regard the stage directions as a frightful usurpation by the playwright of other professions' work, don't understand how hard it is for the general reader to read a play. Here's a brief sample:

Mrs Higgins [calmly continuing her writing] You must have frightened her.

You can imagine how directors feel about such poaching. But never mind, it's part of the fun of the play for you.

Notwithstanding the great fun of the piece, Pygmalion is entirely without farcical complication.

Continue reading about Pygmalion at Portico.

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