Friday, 26 April 2013

Bluebeard's Eighth Wife (1938)

On the Riviera, an American millionaire (Gary Cooper) falls in love with the daughter (Claudette Colbert) of a bankrupt French marquis (Edward Everett Horton). When she finds out she's going to be wife number eighth, and that marriage for him is just another business venture, she decides to teach him a lesson.

Directed by Ernst Lubitsch, this was his last Paramount film. When I wrote about "Ninotchka", also directed by Lubitsch, also scripted by Billy Wilder and Charles Brackett, I mentioned that it felt more like Wilder than it Lubitsch. Here, this is pure Lubitsch, full of the wit that made him famous (the opening sequences at the store, the charge Cooper makes towards Colbert's bedroom, the many Czechoslovakia gags) even if its Lubitschian meet-cute is pure Wilder according to IMDb. The film's location (Paris and the Riviera) and cast (Cooper and Everett Horton) also seem to reference previous films ("Trouble in Paradise", "Design for Living", "Angel" and the Borzage directed "Desire").

The impact of the Hays Code is striking: a woman decides to teach the man a lesson because he doesn't act according to the sanctity of marriage. But the way she does it is slightly subversive. In post-1934 Hollywood, marriage was first and foremost a way to sanctify sex. Whole films, such as Minnelli's "The Clock", basically exist because the two leads are not allowed just to get a hotel room. Here, Claudette Colbert suppresses it after the wedding as well (the distancing of the two during the honeymoon is another lovely Lubitsch touch), thus exposing the hypocrisy of the whole thing: Gary Cooper can't have sex outside marriage because he's not allowed (basically the reason why he married seven times before), but he's also denied it afterwards because he doesn't believe in the right type of marriage, having basically bought Colbert. But, supreme irony of Lubitsch, Wilder and Brackett, when they do have sex, they aren't married anymore, proving the point that censors aren't really the cleverest of people.

While not an absolute masterpiece, it is delightful and entertaining - I confess that having seen it once before I didn't remember anything other than the pajamas at the beginning. While there is some good support from Edward Everett Horton and David Niven, this is really a two hander between the two leads. Claudette Colbert is a delight to watch, at her prime as commedienne, and so is Cooper for that matter. I have to say this is probably my favourite performance of his although he usually doesn't do it for me. I usually find him a bit wooden, but here there is a vitality unmatched in any of his performances I have seen.

The film also reminded me somewhat of "The Lady Eve", which was a couple of years into the future, with the idea of a woman seeking to punish a man that she feels has let her down by marrying him and then making mince meat out of him.


Judy said...

Miguel, I love Lubitsch, Colbert and Cooper, but must admit I didn't like this film all that much overall. My problem was that I couldn't really warm to all the cruel sexual slapstick - I'm also not very keen on 'The Lady Eve' for the same reason (too many scenes where Henry Fonda falls over), so am interested to see you compare the two here and show how these elements point up the hypocrisy of the Hays code. A very thought-provoking review - I'm also intrigued by your comment on how it references previous Lubitsch films.

Miguel said...

Thank you for your comments (both here and in Ninotchka) - they cheered up my commute this morning.

My reference to his previous films was due to an amount of dej√° vu which I couldn't pin point. Too much Paris, Paramount? (The most wonderful "city" in the planet, if you ask me).

I think there is a substantial difference between Cooper and Fonda's characters: the latter is an ingenue whose principles hurt the woman he loves, the former is a womaniser who hasn't done anything wrong. I don't mind what you rightly call the cruel sexual slapstick, but I sympathise much more with Stanwyck's Eve than with Colbert's character. One's revenge is a universal feeling; the other's is a byproduct of censorship.