22 September 2010

Holidays in the '40s

Because I'm a huge fraidy cat, I'm never too keen on watching seasonally-appropriate horror movies on Halloween. But now, having seen Jacques Tourneur's Cat People, I'll be ready with a suggestion when the time comes.

In man's continuing quest to determine all the reasons women won't sleep with us, here's another: Irena (Simone Simon) can't sleep with Oliver (Kent Smith) because if she does she will turn into a panther and kill him. I'm a believer, and would have immediately backed away from Irena but Oliver is that kind of cardboard cutout American who won't take no for an answer. He consults his work chum Alice (Jane Randolph), who isn't a lesbian and therefore produces a romantic complication and Dr. Judd (Tom Conway), who becomes quite captivated by Irena's case.

Tourneur does not miss any opportunities for dramatic lighting. He gives Oliver and Alice a long sequence where they are illuminated only by bright light tables, heightening the effect by having a black kitten walk across the top of one. At only 75 minutes, there's a focus on each shot being as efficient and memorable as possible.

The chilliest scene, straight out of nightmare, has Alice swimming alone in a pool late at night, perhaps with a panther lifeguarding. The camera revolves around the room over and over as we wait for more than the shadow of the panther to appear. Tourneur brilliantly captures the pitch of the pool waves and Alice's screams for help. In the end, her bathrobe takes the brunt of the offensive but her days of evening pool exercise are probably over.

Irena has an abiding interest in the black panther at the zoo, which she visits frequently. Twice she has the opportunity to steal the key to its cage and we have to ask ourselves the delicious question: does she want to let the panther out, or herself in?

The film ends on a stunning tableau, an exquisitely composed shot that blurs the line between the woman and the cat. Plus there's a quotation by John Donne!

So Cat People is charmingly acted, short, scary, beautiful and it ends with poetry--what more do you want?

It seems a mistake that the film was released on Christmas Day 1942 when it's so clearly a Halloween movie. The better 40s Xmas feature is The Shop Around the Corner.

It's a great regret of my life that Jimmy Stewart does not attempt a Hungarian accent in this Budapest-set film (I had to content myself with the way he slurred his coworker's surnames). Nowadays reading papers in Hungarian and working in a shop with Hungarian signage would necessitate all actors speaking in ridiculous variations on an accent. It's almost as if Ernst Lubitsch knew then more than directors do today...

Stewart is Alfred Kralik, one of the principal employees of Hugo Matuschek's (Frank Morgan) store. His friend, and sage family man, is Pirovitch (Felix Bressart). The obsequious Ferencz Vadas (Joseph Schildkraut) is Kralik's natural rival. He seems a little light on his feet so it's all the more amusing when we find he's banging the boss's wife. Pepi (William Tracy) is the inimitable errand boy. And then there's Klara (Margaret Sullavan) who would be great looking if she didn't insist on wearing the most unattractive blouses.

The film is funny two ways, both in the above average jokes and in the rampant misogyny of the screenplay. The shtick is that Kralik and Klara are falling in love as pen pals while hating each other at work. There's a lot of fine repartee (Klara says things like, "Well I really wouldn't care to scratch your surface, Mr. Kralik, because I know exactly what I'd find. Instead of a heart, a hand-bag. Instead of a soul, a suitcase. And instead of an intellect, a cigarette lighter... which doesn't work. "). But Kralik has all the power in their relationship because he finds out that Klara is the recipient of his missives and tortures her with this knowledge for an hour or so before finally revealing the truth.

To complete a joke established early in the film about bowleggedness, Kralik makes every lady's dream come true and reveals his skinny legs, complete with sock garters. Lubitsch crowns the picture with other fine scenery--a lingering shot of the Christmastime streets of Budapest. The fake snow and real bustle make for a perfectly romantic ending (I once spent a decidedly less picturesque Christmas Day working retail in a Las Vegas casino, about which no film has yet been made).

All in all,
The Shop Around the Corner is a perfect sneak attack for an impromptu December night in with your sweetheart. What am I saying? My plot will be ruined if I try to pull the move on anyone who reads this blog...

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