Tuesday, January 30, 2018

Bluebeard’s Eighth Wife (Paramount, 1938)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2018 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

I had the rare opportunity these days of catching a movie on Turner Classic Movies, which used to be my favorite cable channel in the days when Cox’s service was still analog and I could record shows from it for later viewing without paying a queen’s ransom to the cable company on top of the king’s ransom I’m already paying for basic service, mainly because a film was coming on that fit the schedule of the rest of my TV-watching. The film was Bluebeard’s Eighth Wife, an odd little screwball comedy directed by Ernst Lubitsch and marking the first collaboration of screenwriters Billy Wilder and Charles Brackett, who worked together for the nest 12 years from this film in 1938 to Sunset Boulevard in 1950, then had a spectacular falling-out — though in that time they rose from just being two more writers in Hollywood to Wilder being a major (and Academy Award-winning) director and Brackett being a producer (and even after he and Wilder broke up Brackett made a few interesting movies, notably the 1953 Marilyn Monroe film noir Niagara). Wilder recalled being ushered into an office at Paramount and asked if he knew Brackett, which he said he didn’t; then he was asked if he’d heard of a play called La Huite Femme de Barbe-Bleu by French writer Alfred Savoir. That he’d heard of, so he agreed to work with Brackett on a script based on both the original French play and an English-language adaptation by Charlton Andrews that had premiered on Broadway in 1921 and turned into a silent film two years later with Gloria Swanson in the lead. Lubitsch was on his way out at Paramount at the time; in 1935 the “suits” running the studio had appointed Lubitsch the head of production, and he proceeded to blow a lot of Paramount’s money on sophisticated Continental-style films, many of which were box-office flops. This was one of his last projects there before he was fired both as studio head and as contract director, and after four years at MGM (where he made at least two great films, Ninotchka and The Shop Around the Corner), he started at 20th Century-Fox in 1943 with the film Heaven Can Wait and worked there for the last six years of his life. 

Contrary to the idea you might get from the reference to Bluebeard in the title, the film is actually a screwball comedy starring Claudette Colbert and Gary Cooper (in that order!) and Cooper’s character, American investor and tycoon Michael Brandon, has been married seven times before the film’s story begins but has not knocked off his previous wives. One of them died of natural causes and he divorced the other six, paying them off according to the terms of his pre-nuptial agreements (a rarer device then than now) with a settlement of $50,000 per year for life. Michael is vacationing on the French Riviera when he has a meet-cute with Colbert’s character, Nicole de Loisette (so for once Colbert gets to play her true nationality, though she doesn’t get to do anything to indicate she’s French — like speaking any French; she plays her whole part in her normal English, which by 1938 had only a slight trace of a French accent) when he wants to buy pajamas, but only the tops. The store refuses to sell him just the tops and he’s bailed out when Nicole comes along and agrees to buy the bottoms for her father, the Marquis de Loiselle (Edward Everett Horton). The de Loiselles are a long-time aristocratic family with no money; when the Marquis learns that Brandon is a multimillionaire, he encourages his daughter to marry him — but of course she resents being sold off as a piece of merchandise to bolster the family fortune. Nonetheless, she agrees to a dinner date with him, they dance and she ultimately falls in love with him for real — only she insists that her pre-nuptial contract be for $100,000 per year. When she learns he’s had seven previous wives she threatens to bail on the marriage, then agrees to go through with it but insists that she’s going to sleep apart from him and is only in it for the money. 

The rest of the movie is a kind of battle royal between the two — at one point he reads a copy of Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shrew and decides to use it as a model, slapping Nicole for no reason and then seeming surprised when she slaps him right back. Eventually they actually divorce but then, this being a “post-Code” movie from Hollywood in 1938, they remarry as a genuinely loving couple. Like a lot of Lubitsch’s movies, Bluebeard’s Eighth Wife is more entertaining for the various Lubitsch “touches” — including a porcelain bathtub the Marquis sells Michael, claiming it was used by Louis XIV, which is big but not big enough for Gary Cooper’s lanky frame: trying it out unfilled, he breaks it in two — than as a whole, and the brutality of some of the gags is hard to take today even though Nicole is giving as good as she gets, at one point hiring prizefighter “Kid” Mulligan (Warren Hymer) to pose as her adulterous lover and knock Brandon out. I’d seen it only once before, at a screening in the mid-1970’s at UC Berkeley (along with another Lubitsch screwball comedy from Paramount, an adaptation of Noël Coward’s play Design for Living), and I liked it then a bit better than I do now, at least in part because Lubitsch way overdid Cooper’s stiffness; other directors, including Frank Capra in Mr. Deeds Goes to Town and Howard Hawks in Ball of Fire, got him to loosen up more and be funnier in comic roles. At times I wished Lubitsch had cast Cary Grant instead!