Saturday, November 23, 2013

Tonight's Movie: The Affairs of Cellini (1934) at UCLA

I've had an absolutely wonderful couple weeks of movie-going at three different theaters: Ginger Rogers movies and a George Chakiris tribute at UCLA, a preview of SAVING MR. BANKS (2013) in Santa Monica, and a sold-out screening of MARY POPPINS (1964) at the El Capitan in Hollywood. I feel very fortunate to be able to take advantage of so many special opportunities in the L.A. area.

Tonight the film fun continued when I met friends at UCLA for another great night in the Gregory La Cava series, a double bill of UNFINISHED BUSINESS (1941) and THE AFFAIRS OF CELLINI (1934).

I previously reviewed UNFINISHED BUSINESS in 2010, and it proved to be an even stronger film than I remembered; of course, part of the appreciation I felt for the film tonight may have had something to do with the magic of watching stars Robert Montgomery and Irene Dunne blown up on a huge screen in a beautiful 35mm print! I'd previously seen a very poor copy, and the big screen enables the viewer to pick up on nuances and subtle expressions which are easy to miss on a smaller screen.

Dunne and Montgomery are both wonderful, and I was especially struck by the depth of Montgomery's performance, as he's both rib-tickling funny and very vulnerable and touching. I also like the way the film rehabilitates Montgomery's older brother, played by Preston Foster; he starts out a rather sleazy love 'em and leave 'em type but in the end proves to be a decent person who wants to do the right thing.

Speaking of the ending, I'd completely forgotten how this one wrapped up, including the big surprise Montgomery receives in the last couple minutes of the movie.

Oh, and there's a Bess Flowers sighting which isn't even listed in her IMDb credits! She's the secretary who opens the door to let Dunne into Walter Catlett's office.

The second film on the schedule was originally going to be LADY IN A JAM (1942), starring Dunne and Patric Knowles, which I reviewed in 2011. It was discovered in advance of the screening that the 16mm print was so shrunken it could not be projected, and so a 35mm print of THE AFFAIRS OF CELLINI, also directed by Gregory La Cava, was substituted. Since UNFINISHED BUSINESS was the real draw of the evening for me, I wasn't too disappointed in the last-minute change; I knew absolutely nothing about THE AFFAIRS OF CELLINI in advance of seeing it, so it was fun to approach it with a completely blank slate. I enjoyed it quite well.

THE AFFAIRS OF CELLINI is an 80-minute bedroom farce set in 16th century Florence, of all things; released in August 1934, just weeks after the Production Code began to be enforced, the film has a definite pre-Code sensibility, particularly with regards to the somewhat surprising conclusion.

Fredric March plays the title role, a sculptor who spends half his time romancing the ladies and the other half engaging in feats of derring-do, regularly killing people yet managing to avoid the hangman's noose himself.

Cellini is commissioned by the Duchess of Florence (Constance Bennett) to make gold plates; once they're completed, the Duchess's husband, the Duke (Frank Morgan), threatens he will finally see that Cellini meets his maker.

Cellini is smitten with his model, a beautiful but dumb-as-a-box-of-rocks peasant girl named Angela (Fay Wray), but he's not above using her to distract the Duke from his plans. As it turns out, Angela is about even with the Duke's intelligence level and she also appreciates his life of luxury, while the shrewd Duchess is taken with the perpetually plotting Cellini. Like finds like, leading to a conclusion that was probably filmed prior to the enforcement of the Code and then somehow slipped past the censors!

This is a rather unusual film, especially the pairing of the subject matter and the setting. I was fascinated to learn it was nominated for four Oscars, including a nod for Frank Morgan as Best Actor. As one of my friends noted, his sputtering performance at times seemed to be rehearsing for THE WIZARD OF OZ (1939).

Fredric March seemed to be channeling Douglas Fairbanks Sr. at certain points, especially a splashy entrance swinging on a rope, but while he's amusing, it's all on the surface, very flamboyant but nothing real underneath.

It was the ladies I found especially interesting, and they made the movie for me. Bennett was both beautiful and smart, easily manipulating her husband into doing what she wants while making him think he's made up his own mind.

The film's revelation for me, however, was Fay Wray, who was an absolute riot as the vacant yet honest to a fault Angela. I think of the typical Wray character -- when she's not playing ladies who are busy screaming -- as very intelligent, and her Angela was...not! Wray was quite delightful, and I left the movie with new appreciation for her talent.

One of the really fun moments for me was suddenly recognizing the palace guard in the garden -- it was Ward Bond! The cast also included Louis Calhern, Vince Barnett, and Jessie Ralph.

IMDb says Bess Flowers is unconfirmed, along with Lucille Ball, to have been a lady in waiting, but I didn't notice either actress. I'd love to go back and take another look.

The screenplay was by Bess Meredyth, who was married to director Michael Curtiz for many years; it was based on a play by Edwin Justus Mayer. The cinematography was by Charles Rosher (SCARAMOUCHE).

This Fox film is different and quite amusing, worth seeking out, especially for Wray's gem of a performance. At this time it's available on YouTube.


Blogger Vienna said...

What a great double bill. And on the big screen!

3:31 AM  
Blogger Kathy said...

Robert "on a huge screen in a beautiful 35mm print..." being "very vulnerable and touching". You lucky, lucky lady. Thanks for sharing. Have you heard anything about the possibility of a collection of LaCava's movies being transferred to DVD? --- which would, of course, include a copy of "Unfinished Business!"

12:58 PM  
Blogger Laura said...

It was a great double bill, Vienna! I'm sure you would have enjoyed it. :)

Kathy, I wish you'd been there too! As many Robert Montgomery films as I've seen, only a couple have been on a big screen (HERE COMES MR. JORDAN and MR. AND MRS. SMITH come to mind). I would certainly love to see La Cava's films on DVD but sadly have not heard any news of same. I'll be sure to post here at my blog if that ever comes to pass!

11:24 PM  
Blogger Kathy said...

Maybe they'll come out at the same time as LETTY LYNTON!

12:21 AM  
Blogger Vienna said...

Finally got to see Unfinished Business and was very disappointed in the script. I do so agree Dunne and Montgomery make a great team but the thin plot really let them down. Still, I can cross it off my list of Irene Dunne films not yet seen.

6:49 AM  
Blogger Laura said...

Thanks for your feedback, Vienna! Very interested in your take. I liked it better the second time I saw it but can understand your point of view. I'm glad you got to see it and check it off your list of unseen Dunne films! She's wonderful. :)

Best wishes,

10:40 PM  

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