And So They Were Married (Elliott Nugent, 1936)

This is my contribution to the Mary Astor blogathon being hosted by classic movie blogs Tales of the Easily Distracted and Silver Screenings, running from May 3-10, 2013 – please do visit the other blogs taking part.

Mary Astor and Melvyn Douglas

Mary Astor and Melvyn Douglas

The Mary Astor film I’ve chosen to write about is And So They Were Married, a little-known romantic comedy from 1936, where she plays a divorced mother thrown together with widowed father Melvyn Douglas at a snowbound ski resort over Christmas and New Year. It’s not available on DVD, but can currently be seen on Youtube, and is also due to be shown on TCM in the US  at 11.15pm (ET) on Wednesday, July 3. While not a masterpiece, this is an enjoyable family film and could also be a fun alternative to better-known Christmas movies to bear in mind when the next festive season arrives.

The scenery, filmed on location at Donner Pass in California, is beautiful, and Astor and Douglas make a great couple, even if at times they could do with sharper dialogue. This will be a fairly short posting and this isn’t the sort of film where you need to worry about spoilers – though, in any case, as the New York Times review pointed out: “And So They Were Married gives away nearly all the story it has to offer in one titular burst of generosity.”

I knew that Mary Astor found herself pushed into mother roles later in her career, but I hadn’t realised she started to play this kind of part quite so young, while still at the height of her beauty. She was just 30 when And So They Were Married was released, and looks very young to be the mother of Edith Fellows, who was 13 (although her character is said to be nine). However, even if the casting is a slight stretch, Astor’s relationship with her screen daughter comes across as warm and natural, showing the way forward to her later mother roles in better-known films like Meet Me in St Louis.

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Angel (Ernst Lubitsch, 1937)

This bitter-sweet romantic comedy flopped at the box office on release, and is still largely overlooked. It led to Marlene Dietrich being labelled ‘box-office poison’ and dropped by Paramount, before going on to reinvent herself in Destry Rides Again.  It also contributed to director Ernst Lubitsch getting his own marching orders from the studio. Nevertheless, I love it, and think it is definitely a film with the ‘Lubitsch touch’, full of  his sophistication and sharp observation of relationships – and also with his flavour of nostalgia for a European way of life which was slipping into the past, something even more poignantly evident in later works like The Shop Around the Corner. There are several mentions of war approaching in Europe, and Dietrich’s weary diplomat husband, Herbert Marshall, plainly has good reason for staying long hours at the office, as he tries to keep the conflict a little further off. The film is available on budget-price DVD in region 2/UK, from Universal Classics, but has not been issued in region 1 as yet. I do discuss the whole plot in this review, but I don’t think the ending will come as a shock to anyone anyway. Continue reading

Counsellor at Law (William Wyler, 1933)

Back to the pre-Code period – and back to John Barrymore. I’ve already written about one fine, though little-known, film where he plays a lawyer, State’s Attorney (1932). The following year he starred in this even better legal drama, which must be one of his finest talkies, and is available on DVD from Kino, though in region 1 only. Barrymore gives a restrained but moving performance as a workaholic lawyer, who spends much of the film having two or three phone conversations at once. Sadly there are no courtroom scenes this time – but it’s an utterly compelling film, which repays repeated viewings. Indeed, you’ll need them to catch all the quickfire dialogue, especially in the scenes with Isabel Jewell chattering away irrepressibly as switchboard operator Bessie.

Like many early 1930s films, this drama is based on a stage play, in this case by Elmer Rice. It does betray its stage origins in the way that it is entirely based in one setting, within the Simon and Tedesco suite of legal offices in the Empire State building. However, where some films set in just one location might drag at times, Counsellor at Law, an early success for great director William Wyler, moves at a breathless pace. Rice, who adapted his own play for the screen, had trained and worked as a lawyer, and the legal background feels very authentic as far as I can tell, tackling still-current issues such as insider trading and professional standards.

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