Thursday, April 22, 2010

Consolation Marriage

                  The romantic proposal...with Pat O´Brien

Release date November 21.  1931

"Sure - getting married isn´t a great lead for a couple of moody fighters like us! Might give us a chuckle or two..."

A film about first love and laughs, illusions and laughs, crying for the moon - and laughs!

Steve Porter (Pat O´Brien) is at last at the goal of his dreams: he has a good job as reporter and  can afford to marry his childhood sweetheart Elaine (Myrna Loy). But Elaine, Myrna in her nasty vamp phase, plays accordingly to her image, and is already married when Steve turns up to fetch her. We don´t get to know her husband but looking at Elaine´s surrounding that guy seems to be rich...poor Steve ends as up as being a clunk which throws him off the track.
The fate of Mary Brown (Irene) isn´t any better. Her valentine Aubrey (Lester Vail) - a promising young pianist at the brink of marrying rich to get his career in full swing - declares shop girl Mary his love before he leaves for the altar. As long as she waited for his love declaration as shattered is she now.

                            Aubrey on his way to the altar...

Steve and Mary - those two lost, suffering souls - meet in a speakeasy both celebrating the weedings of their bygone beloveds. It´s interesting how Irene is presented here: Steve´s sidekick  - that practical film instrument this time done by John Hallyday - tries to distract Steve by telling him about millions of nice girls who are around, just like the one sitting at the next table. Well, the nice girl is Miss Dunne, by the way the star of the film!

            Meet a nice girl...there are millions around!

What can two lost souls do? They try to comfort each other and the method of their choice is to share some laughs - not the worst idea for finding some consolation. Trying to give a dog which they bought together a home they decide to marry under the premise of an open marriage. No romantic feelings - those are still reserved for Elaine and Aubrey - and if the whole thing doesn´t turn out right, it´s goodbye without trouble or blurbs. As odd as this relationship is, it´s not platonic because a cute curly offspring is soon the result. Sounds all nice and cozy and my Irene already starts to sing while setting the table for dinner, but then the valentines and sweethearts pop up again...

   The Porters and one shadow from the past in the background

Okay, that´s not much of a storyline and soon we know in what direction the whole thing is heading, but "Consolation Marriage" defenitely has its charms. Being still a pre-code there are some options possible which will be lost in the summer of 1934. First and foremost the handling of the instituition of marriage which is treated neither as a till-death-do-us-part relationship nor like a meaningful, responsible tie between two people, but as a playground for having fun - and sex.

Having fun...                                                              

             and more fun...

A scene in which Mary tries to explain her little kid why she has to leave by saying "What is a baby more than an episode in a woman´s life?" - really took me by surprise because it breaks with all accustomed expectations of motherhood. Of course she didn´t mean it, and I guess I won´t spoil too much by telling that Mary and Steve are a very married couple - with all consequences. Even a pre-code has to return to and to emphasize the universally valid society values.
The bottom line of the film that clinging to our past, to illusions and "crying for the moon" hinders us from living, appreciating and loving the present(s) isn´t new but handily displayed.

                           Another shadow from the past...

Back on the RKO lot from her loan out to MGM Irene gets for the first time the real star treatment billing above the title,  but has to share a lot of screen time with Pat O´Brien. In fact we learn more about his character´s background than we learn about Irene´s. What really impressed me about her characterization are the 15 last minutes of the film. She out acts a touching balance of trying to react bravely to the possibilty of Steve leaving her and being heartbroken about the situation. It´s a steady twist between those contrary emotions and she masters this movingly.

                Trying to be brave...Elaine is preparing for Steve

Under one aspect this film is very "Dunnish" because for the first time it´s Irene´s "normal" speaking voice in opposite to the slightly higher pitched voice she used for Helene and Diana. Of course Irene is going to use the instrument of her speaking voice back and forth, up and down accordingly to her roles throughout her career, but nevertheless this is the speaking voice we are accustomed to.  

                 Irene at the premiere of "Consolation Marriage"

I´m not much of a Pat O´Brien enthusiast but his type is just right for Steve and he and Irene have some good moments on screen - especially when they are kidding around  and sharing some chuckles.
Kindly I get two personal extras in this film: to start with a song - which isn´t much of a surprise considering with whom we are dealing -  but always welcome. This time it´s only Irene and her piano, melancholy singing hers and Aubrey´s torch song "Devotion" - plain and simple beautiful. And there is Myrna - really not much of a part, and dyed blondish she looks odd, but it´s always good having Myrna around!
And don´t forget : "Stop crying for the moon!"

PS. Here is a little extra service for my German friends who are babes lost in the wood when it comes to old Hollywood. Nonetheless they face bravely and kindly a lot of Hollywood/ Irene talk nowadays - thanks, folks! And here is the answer to the urgent question  -thanks to Wikipedia:


Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Detour - Irene Dunne as singer

singing.....(Stingaree 1934- with Richard Dix)

If Irene´s singing voice would have been a little more on the weighty side I probably wouldn´t be sitting here. But as life goes when she auditioned for the MET in 1920 she was turned down with the statement of having too slight a voice. Thus her initial wish to become an opera singer didn´t come true, but this refusal led her to musical comedy and consequently to Hollywood...  

Little Irene grew up in a musical home under the guidance of her mother Adelaide, herself a musician. Adelaide taught her daughter as a very small girl to play the piano, singing lessons followed and Irene was early in life confronted with the fact that art is a lot of work: "Whenever I wanted to play with the neighborhood children I had to practice. There were lessons, lessons, lessons, always lessons." (Screenland, June 21  1937) If there ever was a doubt that the course was set for a professional life with music, it was blown away when Irene at the age of sixteen attended a performance of "Madame Butterfly". Irene remembered this evening in 1936: "It was as if I´d been asleep all my life...Farrar and the beauty of her singing had awakened me."(Movie Mirror, November 1936) What a wonderful opera for an awakening, Miss Dunne!

                   singing... (Unfinished Business 1941)

But before the access to the coveted stage some musical education was still to master. The core of it took place at the Chicago Musical College where Irene won a scholarship in 1919. Though busy with growing success at the theatre since 1922, Irene went on with her studies in Chicago till her graduation with high honors in 1926. This parallelism of work and study shows how serious she was about her formal musical education.

         singing...for once in the chorus (Unfinished Business 1941)

Music is always an important instrument in films. A tool to create atmosphere, to comment and interpret the ongoings on screen or to add subtext, which old Hollywood loved so much to do. Never, ever miss the lyrics of the songs in the background!
But to have an actress at hand for whom music was such a natural part of her being as it was for Irene, creates a new dimension. She sang in 26 of her 41 films and for all kind of purposes: to comfort, to put someone to sleep - and not only kids, to shut her man up, to get her man, to show that she is happy, in love, or even to prove that she is still nuts...and of course for sheer entertainment! Music is a self-evident element of Irene Dunne´s films.

                    still singing...(Never A Dull Moment 1950)

Her upbringing in a house which she describes as :"Music was as natural as breathing in our house."(Picturegoer, Feb.17  1945) is reflected in her natural performing style, though she is every inch an educated singer. It´s not an operatic voice but a well conducted voice with beauty and warmth - her phrasing and musical expression are flawless. Obviously Miss Dunne found  - through her turning to the musical comedy stage - the perfect kind of music for herself. Anyway a fundamental step a singer has to take: finding the material which is fitting for her/his voice.

             Lovely to look at...yes, indeed! (Roberta 1935)

Our love for the opera and a singing education is something Miss Dunne and I have in common and that mostly when Irene is around a song isn´t too far away is one of the great joys for me in her films. Especially because I don´t have to compromise: Irene did not only sing beautifully for an actress, but she did sing beautifully for a singer.

Go on and sing my heart...(Love Affair 1939)

Thank you for all the music, Miss Dunne!

Monday, April 12, 2010

The Great Lover

                                          with Adolphe Menjou

Release date July 18.  1931

"What I wanted was a chance to work with you. To study three or four hours a day! I'd give my soul for that..."

Larger than life Hollywood meets larger than life opera - supported by an elegant MGM production.

On the cruise to New York where he is going to sing the title role in Mozart's "Don Giovanni", Jean Paurel (Adolphe Menjou) meets Diana Page (Irene) an at least in looks promising young opera singer. Not only being a great baritone but also a great womanizer - like his stage character - he invites her to an audition at the opera house and a little luncheon.
That he already heard her singing voice through an adjoining stateroom door is something we know but not Jean Paurel.  Diana joins his vocalizing of the beginning of the famous duet "La ci darem la mano"  - neat way to invent Irene's character.

                            Irene singing to/for a door....

At the opera we make the acquaintance of the other surrounding personnel. The background for the on and off stage great lover Jean Paurel:
La Savarova (Olga Baclonova) the embodiment of a prima donna, former lover and protégé of Paurel, and Carlo (Neil Hamilton) Paurel's understudy and fellow student and love interest of Diana. At least he was until they stopped talking to each other two years ago because he wanted her to give up any kind of opera career.

Naturally Paurel has something else in mind for Diana than really being helpful with her career, but he is soon
touched by the sincerity of her zeal, her talent, youth and underlying innocence. At last it seems he found true love, marriage plans are made and Diana is being prepared for her debut as Donna Elvira - a part initially planned for Savarova. And soon Diana is twisted between her gratitude for Paurel, the ambitions for her career and her love for Carlo...and don't forget jealous Savarova!

Green-eyed Savarova (Olga Baclanova)                    

As so often in those old Hollywood films I have to sing (!) the anthem of the supporting cast. The scenes in the office of the director where all singers at once try to state their wishes are wonderfully cast and played.Picking up all those cliché opera characters - the sensitive tenor, the literally larger than life walkyrie, the temperamental Italians - this is sheer fun to watch. All of this is summed up in a dialogue between the tenor and the trying-to-make-it-right-for-everyone press agent:
"Is this an animal act or an opera rehearsal?"
"Ha - you got me there!"
Got me too, folks!

                                          Office hours....
Rehearsal or animal act?

This is the first time that we hear Irene sing on screen - a least till the dusty reels of "Leathernecking" surface somewhere - and fitting to her part she sings classical music, which is enjoyable to listen to, but clearly shows why her voice ultimately wasn't an opera voice. We are told that she debuts as Donna Elvira, but we hear once again the duet between Don Giovanni and Zerlina, the only imaginable role for real life Irene in Mozart's Don Giovanni. But anyway it's our first chance to meet Irene the singer - an important Dunne moment!

Irene the actress - this time well dressed and looking attractive - has to face some minor script flaws especially concerning her love affair with young Carlo. That they fell for each other to start with is believable enough but after two years without contact Carlo's proposal after a reunion of about one and a half minute: "What about a little matrimony?" didn't really convince me. Diana's interactions with Carlo are consequently kept on the droll side and a little more sincerity would have made their relationship and Diana's being torn between the two men a lot more convincing. But after all we are on the large, comedy side of life!

Breathing lessons with Carlo (Neil Hamilton)-but that guy just won't stop talking!

The most intense scenes are between Irene and Adolphe Menjou who does a great job switching between his oversized baritone ego and generating some thruthful tender feelings for young Diana. Especially when she throws herself  - almost! - at his feet and in his bed, desperately wanting to work with him and searching for artistic enlightening...yes, still a pre-code!

     Irene going pre-code....

To sum it up: me having quite a weakness for Miss Dunne and the opera was rather helpful for my reception of that film, just couldn't help it...but I still wonder about the guy Diana kisses so heartily at the harbor,he never turns up again!

                                 Who is that man??                                                                        

Friday, April 2, 2010

Bachelor Apartment

                                          Miss Secretary

Release date April 15.  1931

Wayne: "I apologize."
Helene: "For what?"
Wayne: "For living!"

This film is only understandable under the assumption that it was already under production before the great success of "Cimarron", and looking on the release dates this was probably the case. Obviously RKO didn´t have the notion that Irene Dunne was a new star sparkling at Hollywood´s heaven, otherwise they likely would have tried to present their newly established leading lady in a more glamorous, convenient vehicle.

Wayne Carter (Lowell Sherman in personal union as lead and director) successful, rich business man and playboy who is approaching the expiration date and anyway starting to get fed up with the flatness of both the ladies and the champagne, happens to meet Helene Andrews (Irene) showing up in his apartment looking for her younger sister Lita (Claudia Dell). We are in the depression era and both women are unemployed, desperately searching for work. Lita, a dancer, is trying to take a shortcut to money via some gold digging for men on Fifth Avenue, but Helene is determined to stay decent and stick to her profession as a stenographer.

                                          Wayne on a hunting trip...

Wayne impressed by Helene´s honesty and straighforwardness instantly gets interested in her.
And what is the most direct way into a stenographer´s heart?
Hire her as a secretary!
Of course it isn´t as easy as that: different ladies from Wayne´s past pop up frequently, a suspicious
husband threatens to kill him and then Lita vanishes...

                                          Oh, those blondes...

This is definitely a Lowell Sherman film, it takes about twenty minutes till Irene turns up for the first time and her role being quite one-dimensional isn´t much to start with. But obviously she quickly grasped the fact -still
only her third film - that the core of film acting is acting with facial expressions, none of her peers in this film
achieves this like she does. If "Bachelor Apartment" has any significance for Irene´s career it´s her playing
a proper part in quite a frivolous surrounding and being proper is one trademark of Irene´s on and off screen image.

                                          Miss Proper

Miss Proper and Mr. Playboy getting seriously...

Although there is not much to do for Miss Dunne here, the film has its charms which are consistent of its racy, pre-code handling of infidelity, teasing and sexuality, some snappy dialogue and above all the over the top performance of Mae Murray as Wayne´s former lover who enters his bedroom from time to time.
Nice little film of the enjoyable and forgettable sort!