Friday, December 19, 2014

You and Me (Paramount, 1938)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2014 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Last night Charles and I finally had the chance to watch a movie together, and having just received my order from TCM Home Video of the boxed set Dark Crimes, volume 2 (oddly I was unable to find a listing on their Web site for Dark Crimes, volume 1) I opened it to extract one of the most elusive 1930’s movies of all time, one that’s almost never been shown since its 1938 release: Fritz Lang’s third U.S. film (and his third in a row starring Sylvia Sidney), You and Me. I’ve heard conflicting reports on the production; in his interview with Charles Higham and Joel Greenberg for the 1969 book The Celluloid Muse Lang made it sound like a personal project from the get-go, but some of the “Trivia” items on suggest it was first developed by Paramount as a vehicle for Carole Lombard and George Raft based on an original story by Norman Krasna (who’d already written the story for Lang’s first U.S. film, Fury). Only Krasna wanted to direct as well as write the film, and George Raft refused to work for a director who’d never directed a film before (an attitude that three years later would cost him the lead in the classic 1941 version of The Maltese Falcon). So Paramount reassigned the film to Richard Wallace as director and, when Lombard dropped out of the project, replaced her with Sidney — who immediately suggested Lang as director since they’d worked so well together in Fury and Lang’s second American film, You Only Live Once. Lang grabbed the project and decided to make it a Brechtian morality play — he and Brecht had been friends in Germany and Lang later worked with Brecht on the 1943 film Hangmen Also Die — with the moral that “crime does not pay” (“which is a lie, because crime pays very well,” Lang told Higham and Greenberg).

He hired Brecht’s musical collaborator from Germany, Kurt Weill, to write a full set of songs that would have turned You and Me into an all-out musical — but after writing just three songs Weill quit the project to return to Broadway and write the songs for the stage musical Knickerbocker Holiday. Phil Boutelje, whose only other credit of note is the 1922 song “China Boy” (which despite its offensively racist lyrics became a jazz standard, though traditional jazz bands usually play it as an instrumental; I have 24 versions of “China Boy” on my iTunes list but only one, Louis Prima’s, contains a vocal), finished one song Weill had left incomplete but neither he nor anyone else wrote any new ones. As a result You and Me is a movie that seems to go off in several different directions at once, particularly since Lang (who never made a full-length sound musical, though the cabaret sequences in his German silents Dr. Mabuse and the restored Metropolis indicate he’d have been more than qualified to do so) shoots the three numbers Weill did write (with Paramount regular Sam Coslow as his lyricist) — the opening “Song of the Cash Register” (even the title sounds Brechtian!), a paean to the glories of consumerism with the warning that they can be yours but only if you pay for them; a torch song called “The Right Guy for Me” (sung by Carol Paige as part of the floor show at a dance hall the Raft and Sidney characters go to on a date) that’s a pretty obvious Weill self-plagiarism from “Surabaya Johnny” in his 1929 German flop Happy End; and a rhythmical chant sung by a group of mobsters who’ve united to plan a new job while expressing their nostalgia for prison (“which is, of course, stupid,” Lang told Higham and Greenberg) for which Lang wanted “not music but only sound effects — people hitting the table, or one glass against another, etc.” It wasn’t exactly a new idea — Rouben Mamoulian had done the combination of voices with sound effects in his stage production of DuBose Heyward’s play Porgy (basis for George Gershwin’s opera Porgy and Bess) in 1928 and his film Love Me Tonight in 1932 — but it still comes off surprisingly effectively.

The plot of You and Me concerns department-store owner Jerome Morris (Harry Carey), who has decided as a matter of social conscience to offer jobs in his store to ex-convicts on parole. Among the people he’s hired that way are sporting-goods salesman Joe Dennis (George Raft) and clerk Helen Roberts (Sylvia Sidney, top-billed) — there’s a humorous introduction of Raft’s character when he snarls in close-up, “This is the best racket I’ve ever had, and I’ve tried them all,” and then the camera pulls back to reveal what he’s talking about is a tennis racket he’s showing a customer (a woman who’s openly cruising him in a scene that seems more like one from 1932, before the strict enforcement of the Production Code began, than 1938). She knows he’s an ex-con but he doesn’t know that about her. They’ve fallen in love with each other (demonstrated by the jealous look she shoots that woman customer who wanted more from Raft than a tennis racket) but one of the rules of parole in those days was that you weren’t allowed to get married. Joe has completed his parole but Helen still has three months to go on hers, and as their relationship progresses into a whirlwind marriage at an all-night “Lightning” chapel, the suspense from our end is what will happen when Joe finds out that Helen is also an ex-con and what will be the legal repercussions, if any, that she’s violated her parole by marrying him. There’s also a sympathetic Jewish couple, the Levines (Egon Brecher and Vera Gordon), who own the boarding house where Helen lives (Joe moves in when they wed, then takes a separate room next door after the Levines throw out a deadbeat boarder we never see) and seem to have been Lang’s spit-in-the-eye response to the Nazis he had fled in the dead of night five years earlier. Helen gets the Levines —the only people besides her boss who know she’s an ex-con — to conceal her marriage if her “friend” J. Dayton (Willard Robertson), actually her parole officer, drops by unexpectedly.

Oddly, despite its experimentalism (including Lang’s music-video style filming of all three Weill songs, two of which have elaborate dramatic sequences similar to the way James Whale filmed “Ol’ Man River” in the 1936 Show Boat), You and Me works best when it’s at its simplest, a tale of the apparently happy but actually troubled relationship between the leads reminiscent of such so-called “pre-Code” films as Columbia’s Three Wise Girls and Virtue (both directed by hacks but written by Robert Riskin, later Frank Capra’s collaborator on most of his major films). Throughout the first half of this film Joe is constantly being approached by his former gangland associates, including the guy who set him up to take the fall for the armed robbery they did together that sent Joe to prison in the first place, who want him to be the “inside man” for a robbery of Morris’s store — indeed, virtually all the “crew” recruited for this job are Morris’s ex-con employees — and Joe refuses to go along until he finally finds out Helen is an ex-con. He’s so hurt that she lied to him he agrees to join the crime, and the plotting and the actual break-in are staged by Lang and cinematographer Charles Lang (presumably no relation) as all-out film noir reminiscent of the sinister studio-built cityscapes of Lang’s German masterpiece M. There are several surprise twists at the end — Helen catches on to the robbery, reports it to Morris but persuades him not to turn in the would-be robbers to the police; instead she gives them an explicit lecture, using the blackboard in the store’s toy department, that the $30,000 robbery would have netted them a little more than $100 each once all their costs were factored in and therefore crime really doesn’t pay, at least for the lower-level crooks. “The big shots aren’t little crooks like you. They’re politicians,” she explains, in a line Lang probably came up with himself (instead of Krasna and screenwriter Virginia Van Upp, who turned his story into a screenplay) since it’s awfully close to Brecht’s even more acid comment, “What’s robbing a bank compared to founding a bank?,” originally written for Happy End and then incorporated into later revisions of the big Brecht-Weill  hit The Threepenny Opera.

Only there’s more; Joe is determined to walk out on Helen and leave for another state where he won’t be known as an ex-con (which he was actually on his way to do at the start when he agreed to stay and marry Helen himself — he takes a Greyhound bus to California, a surprise given that real brand names were almost never used in 1938 movies, but gets off almost immediately once Helen agrees to marry him) when he finds out from Mrs. Levine that Helen is pregnant (given all we’ve seen them doing, when would they have had the time — or the opportunity — to have sex?), and he enlists all eight of the would-be robbers on Morris’s staff to find her. When they locate the hospital where she’s about to give birth, there’s another comedy scene (You and Me has a surprising number of laughs, especially given that Lang was never known for his sense of humor) in which all of them are in the waiting room going through the nervous reactions one anticipates from expectant fathers in that predicament. You and Me is a marvelous movie (though Lang wasn’t proud of it in later years; he told Higham and Greenberg, “It was — I think deservedly — my first real flop”), one of those quirky entries in major directors’ canons (like Cukor’s Sylvia Scarlett — a film that’s grown on me the more I’ve seen it — Hitchcock’s Under Capricorn and Marnie, Welles’ The Trial and Michael Cimino’s Heaven’s Gate) that doesn’t quite “work” as a whole but still ventures so much farther than ordinary movies it’s worth classic status. And You and Me also passes — with flying colors — one of my tests of a classic-era movie: can you imagine it being remade today? Yes, I can, especially if the protagonists were Black and you could tweak the script to incorporate the perpetual fear African-American men who aren’t in prison live under in this society that at any time, for any reason, a white cop could blow them away and not even be put on trial, much less convicted!