Friday, August 12, 2011

Capsule Reviews: The Smiling Lieutenant, Ménilmontant, The Miracle Woman

The Smiling Lieutenant (Ernst Lubitsch, 1931)

A delightfully wicked musical that puts the Lubitsch touch on full display, The Smiling Lieutenant has the sophistication and subtly charged sensual construction one expects of the artist. Maurice Chevalier is a joy as the titular lieutenant Niki, putting his massive grins and thick accent to hysterically suggestive use with some lines that show Lubitsch, as ever, pushing himself to the limit of decency. Claudette Colbert, playing Niki's naughty true love, asks him whether the princess he's unwittingly been forced to marry is blond or brunette. "I don't know," replies Chevalier with a caddish grin, removing all doubt as to what hair he's really talking about. The songs are all jovial, but if you pay attention to the lyrics you realize they could be sung in a pub after a pint or four. It all ends with a demented (yet classy, natch) spin on Cyrano as Franzi teaches Anna how to make our lieutenant switch his affections, and a significant fade-out puts a wider smile on Niki's face than ever before. The way Miriam Hopkins looks when she finally grabs her husband's attentions? Hell, I'd be singing too. Grade: A-

Ménilmontant (Dimitri Kirsanoff, 1926)

The phrase "avant-garde Russian silent cinema" is redundant; I've yet to see a Russian film from the '20s that was anything less than confrontational and experimental, even when it amounted to nothing more than naïve propaganda. Ménilmontant named for the Parisian suburb where it was shot, may technically be a French work, but one need not be told that a Russian emigré directed it to know its true national roots. Opening with an unexplained, terrifyingly edited and grisly axe murder of the parents of two young girls, Ménilmontant soon morphs into an abstracted tale of grief and isolation, following the sisters as they grow up and slowly drift apart when one of them gets a lover. A host of silent-era techniques—including double exposure, superimposition, impressionistic close-ups, mood-setting pillow shots of buildings and nature, and, of course, montage—create a manic state of bewilderment and poetic terror as the women discover what a harsh world it really is out there for a lady. This neglected masterwork feels like a proto-feminist, modernist fairy tale as made by Dziga Vertov. With potential like that, who needs intertitles? Grade: A+

The Miracle Woman (Frank Capra, 1931)

An improvement over Capra and Stanwyck's first collaboration, chiefly because Capra, having figured out how to work with Stanwyck's style, now knows how to get even more out of her. The story itself is simple, but it's noteworthy that Capra would rework its basic theme—a protagonist giving up prestige and wealth for morality and/or love—several times after Hays office cracked down but always with the more acceptable male lead instead of a strong-willed female played with fiery, if fabricated passion by Stanwyck. Oddly prescient in its depiction of ludicrously ostentatious evangelism (shame Jerry Falwell never stuck his fat ass in a lion cage for a stunt), The Miracle Woman boasts three unforgettable setpieces in its first 20 minutes. The second half doesn't match the brilliant staging of Stanwyck's opening sermon, theatrical debut as a charlatan (she emerges on-stage over roused men like the dancing robot in Metropolis) and the averted suicide of the sweet blind man, an otherwise grating presence who often plays like a self-treating Patch Adams. I was also mildly disappointed that its rich potential for social commentary gave way to the usual Capra story of an affirming romance. Nevertheless, Capra's increasing visual sophistication, Stanwyck's dynamic performance and a flirtation with the dark side of Pre-Code immorality make this one of the director's more enjoyable pictures. Grade: B


  1. Oooo sounds like three good ones here! I want to see more Lubitsch and Capra anyway so I'll have to check those out. And I don't think I've ever seen any Russian silents aside from a few animated shorts so MENILMONTANT would be interesting.

    Anyway interesting post! Good times!

  2. All of these are up on YouTube if you're interested, though at least THE SMILING LIEUTENANT is on DVD. But I really loved MENLMONTANT. It's weird just how radical silent cinema still feels at times even when it's 80-100 years old.