Marilyn Monroe. Cary Grant. Katharine Hepburn. Ernst Lubitsch. Alfred Hitchcock.
To see those names on the glittering neon marquee on Palo Alto’s University Avenue is truly a sumptuous treasure. It entices with promises of class and talent. It hooks you with a fervent intelligence that very few of today’s movies approach. We can wait for instant canon classics like The Social Network, Boyhood, and Silver Linings Playbook to come out roughly once every year. But in the end, classic Hollywood is where it’s at. As much as I love the spontaneity of a David O. Russell-Jennifer Lawrence-Bradley Cooper picture, it’s only a slightly paler, modernized take of the timeless magic that Leo McCarey, Irene Dunne, and Cary Grant conjured up seventy-five years ago.
Amid the myriad hotspots in sunny Palo Alto, one building—the Stanford Theatre—boldly sticks out from the rest. Nestled next to a Subway and across from the perpetually busy Pizza My Heart, its giant marquee loudly pronounces its existence with the splendor that one usually accords with the old way of watching movies. Sitting comfortably in the balcony of a neoclassical movie palace; having $7 pay for entry for a double-film feature; having a Hammond organist quietly play between interim periods while the next movie’s being lined up; investing two hours of your life into the lives of characters born before your very eyes, while people voyeuristically slurp their Cokes and kiddies munch on their salted $1 popcorn.
This is what the magic of cinema is all about.
It’s something that you hear about often—how Hollywood films should be treated along the lines of classic literature, music, architecture, and sculpture as entertaining and respectable works of art. But the folks who run the Stanford Theatre actually do the job. They have given these landmark treasures of our culture the respect they deserve. They work to provide people with the means to watch these vital classics inexpensively and in the format they were meant to be shown in: projected in shimmering 35mm on a bigger-than-life screen.
And now, they provide the chance for Stanford students to revisit the work of two of the greatest artists cinema has known: director Ernst Lubitsch and actor Cary Grant. We at the Stanford Arts Review want to afford you the opportunities to investigate the best of the best at your full disclosure. Therefore, below is a short list of movies that, in my humble opinion, are un-fuckin’-missable—they’ll make for a great night out with bae, they’ll provide a laugh-filled time, and they’ll tickle your fancy in ways you didn’t expect.
Trouble in Paradise (April 22-23 @ 7.30 pm)
Directed by Ernst Lubitsch. Screenplay by Samson Raphaelson. Starring Miriam Hopkins, Kay Francis, Herbert Marshall, Charlie Ruggles, and Edward Everett Horton.
A friggin’ masterpiece. Miriam Hopkins and Herbert Marshall play Lily and Gaston, two skillful thieves who start a whirlwind romance centered on their kleptomania. Eventually, they hatch a crazy plot to steal 500,000 Francs from a naïve perfume-company owner (Kay Francis). Along the way, however, Gaston falls in love with the owner, and the thieving couple’s love is tested.
The key word to this movie is “insinuation.” It’s what makes Ernst Lubitsch (this movie’s director) one of the greatest artists Hollywood has ever produced. Today, he is known primarily for his masterpiece To Be Or Not To Be (a crazy, anti-Nazi farce about a group of egomaniacal theatre actors who put on an elaborate ruse to foil Hitler and his cronies in war-torn Poland), but Lubitsch’s entire oeuvre is praise-worthy. He has a seductive sense of humor, a way of describing the most complex emotions with an ease of grace hitherto unmatched in the history of cinema. It’s what we call “the Lubitsch Touch”; he tells stories with a powerful simplicity, economy, and elegance. His love of sumptuous set décor and sexually charged scenarios was a double-whammy formula that only he could master. His entire life philosophy is guided around the mature combination of sex, romance, and love. By only hinting at sex, he makes it funnier than if he were to crudely show his characters engaged in the act. We could all use Lubitschian lessons in subtlety to guide our creative endeavors. Who ever thought that the simple sound of a telephone-ring—or a ticking clock—could be so erotic, sensual, sexual, and fun? Lubitsch breezed stealthily past the censors of his time with constant references to spanking fetishes, torn garters, and kleptomaniacal tendencies that probably make Tarantino blush.
Design For Living (April 29-30 @ 5:50 and 9:05)
Directed by Ernst Lubitsch. Screenplay by Ben Hecht. Starring Miriam Hopkins, Frederic March, Gary Cooper, and Edward Everett Horton.
Lubitsch has never been this delightfully naughty. Based on the Noel Coward play of the same name, Design for Living is an outstanding, tasteful comedy that argues for the benefits of debauched sexual relationships. A young American ingénue named Gilda Farrell (Miriam Hopkins) meets two eager beaver Americans aboard a Parisian train (Frederic March and Gary Cooper). Together, our hair-brained trio cannot decide which guy will get Gilda, so Gilda comes up with a “gentleman’s agreement”: they will live together in a Parisian apartment in a platonic relationship, so that neither guy has an advantage over the other. Of course, things get complicated when Gilda actually falls in love with somebody else and, rejecting the two guys, runs away with a snooty third man (Edward Everett Horton). Together, the two Americans put aside their sexual frustrations and band together in order to convince Gilda to come back. Under Lubitsch’s direction, these four zany character actors have the best brought out of them. Miriam Hopkins as the quippy Gilda plays one of the most frank characters you’ll ever encounter in classic Hollywood cinema; watch out for the glorious moment when Gilda describes orgasms and equates it to a ringing in her ears. The thorough whipping she deals to March and Cooper is a sight to behold. She plays candid deviant well, and the bourgeois March (a wanna-be playwright) and Cooper (a wanna-be artist) match her note-for-note. And the dialogue is so witty and fast-paced you’ll come out of the theatre dazed in delight. The main 7:30 feature-attraction for April 29th and 30th is actually Rouben Mamoulian’s Becky Sharp, but for my money, Design for Living is the more important and the more essential picture.
The Merry Widow (May 6-7 @ 7.30 pm)
Directed by Ernst Lubitsch. Starring Maurice Chevalier, Jeannette MacDonald, and Edward Everett Horton.
No other 30s Lubitsch film captures his signature tension of aristocracy, maturity, and sexuality in a more complete manner than The Merry Widow, a lush musical romance starring Maurice Chevalier (the guy where we get the stereotypical “hoh-hoh-hoh” noise we associate with the French) and Jeanette MacDonald. It takes place in the far-away, make-believe kingdom of Marshovia. When the richest widow in the land (MacDonald) moves away from Marshovia (and takes her money with her), the king dispatches the land’s hammiest playboy (Chevalier) to woo her back and prevent an impending economic collapse. Punctuated by the electric chemistry between MacDonald and Chevalier, the sophisticated Lubitsch touch, and the astounding waltz sequences, The Merry Widow is a nearly-forgotten, satiric look at the lunatic aristocracy. Highly recommended.
The Awful Truth (May 22-24 @ 7.30 pm, with a 4.20 pm matinee on Saturdays and Sundays)
Directed by Leo McCarey. Starring Cary Grant, Irene Dunne, Ralph Bellamy, and Asta the Dog.
If you liked Silver Linings Playbook, you’ll adore this. David O. Russell has been successfully mining for years the kind of Hollywood star system chemistry that originated with Grant and Dunne, but with this once-in-a-lifetime showing, you’ll get to experience that original electricity on the silver screen. The Awful Truth is a mannered, screwy, delightful comedy of increasingly hairbrained schemes. The plot concerns Jerry and Lucy Warriner (Grant and Dunne), who are getting divorced due to irreconcilable differences. The divorce gets comically ugly as Jerry and Lucy fight for ownership of their terrier dog Mr. Smith (played by “Asta”, the most badass canine critter-hero that ever barked—sorry, Toto and Uggie). Eventually, however, Jerry and Lucy discover the difficulties of adjusting to the single life; they each want to prove to the other that they are capable of finding new lovers. Jerry’s and Lucy’s schemes to get back at each other and show off become increasingly insane until the movie’s climax, where all hell breaks loose and the couple realizes they’re still in love with each other. Directed with breezy brilliance by Leo McCarey, if you want a manual of what makes good acting, writing, and filmmaking, look no further than this perfect introduction to the wonders of the screwball comedy genre.
Other pictures to look out for include:
His Girl Friday (directed by Howard Hawks, starring Cary Grant, showing May 8-10 @ 7:30 pm, with a 4:15 pm matinee on Saturday and Sunday)
Angel (directed by Ernst Lubitsch, starring Marlene Dietrich and Herbert Marshall, showing May 13-14 @ 5:50pm and 9:20pm)
The Philadelphia Story (directed by George Cukor, starring Cary Grant, showing May 1-3 @ 7:30pm, with a 4:00pm matinee on Saturday and Sunday)
Ninotchka (directed by Ernst Lubitsch, written by Billy Wilder, starring Greta Garbo, showing May 27-31 @ 5:30pm and 9:15pm)
Photos courtesy of Trouble in Paradise, Design for Living, The Merry Widow, and The Awful Truth