Some of the films of Noël Coward, some of the films of Ernst Lubitsch, and one of the films of Oscar Wilde
Back in high school, my girlfriend Carol’s favorite record album was Nöel Coward at Las Vegas, which probably says something about both of us. I always found Noël Coward too Noël Coward, but Carol loved him, and was particularly fond of the line “We’ll roll in the hey nonny nonny.”
A decade or so after I saw Brief Encounter, I came across a TV listing for Blithe Spirit — a married, middle-aged novelist is visited by the ghost of his first wife. Hmmm. Possible gay subtext? A chance to see the “real” Noël Coward? With Margaret Rutherford as the medium Madame Arcati? How could it miss? I decided to check it out, and the film started out precisely the way I expected — Charles and Ruth (Rex Harrison and Constance Cummings), a well-appointed, self-satisfied couple, their marriage far, as Ruth says, from a “fine, careless rapture,” chatting briefly about Charles’ first wife, Elvira, now deceased, rather “ethereal,” as Charles says. Charles is a mystery writer, planning a novel about a medium, and to do “research” he’s invited the Madame over for an evening of table knocking. It’s all rubbish, of course, but it will play well.
So that left me soured on Coward for another decade or two, until I recently reviewed Silk Stockings for Bright Lights, which sent me back to Ninotchka, which sent me back to Ernst Lubitsch. Except for Ninotchka, I’d never really cared for Lubitsch’s films — the few I’d seen — but I noticed that a lot of his stuff from the early thirties, which I’d never seen before, was now available, including Noël’s Design for Living. Lubitsch does Coward? With Gary Cooper, Fredric March, and Miriam Hopkins? Sounds promising!
Preceding the stage version of Easy Virtue (1926), however, was Coward’s first big hit, The Vortex, in 1924, filmed in 1928 but only available now in the BBC version from 1969.3 Surprisingly enough, it’s a tragedy, full of shocking secrets and bitter recriminations, not too far from A Long Day’s Journey into Night, which of course hadn’t been written yet, and very much in the vein of Victorian shockers like Ibsen’s Ghosts.
Seen today, by my skeptical eyes, at least, The Vortex is quite creaky, starting off with a useful plot device, a shrewd, good-natured observer, Helen Saville (Jennifer Daniel), who is good friends with all the leads and worries about them immensely, though it’s hard to see why, since they seem like such shits, but she does, and, even more to the point, fills us in on all the backstory in a long conversation with an elderly dude who I thought was her husband but apparently wasn’t, since there’s no Mr. Saville in the credits.4
Helen tells us that she’s terribly worried about Florence, Florence Lancaster (Margaret Leighton), a former stage star who insists on running around with younger men, which is very hard on her poor husband, David (Patrick Barr). Meanwhile, their son Nicky (Richard Warwick) is off in Paris, worrisome in itself, of course, and reports are that he isn’t spending as much time on his music as he should be. But it appears that he has gotten himself engaged, so perhaps that’s something.
Drug addiction is used vaguely as a euphemism for homosexuality — they’re both bad, of course, and they both tend to happen in Paris5 — but Coward, though he may hint of homosexuality, never spells it out. Anyway, it’s the heteros that are causing the real problems. As you might have guessed, Bunty and Tom have a history of their own, which they seek to renew in the library,6 and, naturally, they get caught at it.
Well, this is embarrassing! Mother and son eating from the same bowl, more or less! This leads to something I didn’t expect, an orgy of mother/son recrimination and Ibsenian/Strindbergian unmasking/truth-telling, with poor Nicky providing the way over the top topper/moral, “We’re caught in a vortex of bestiality!”7
The BBC production ends with Nicky pressing his face into Florence’s bare bosom, saying that they both need to do better. Mom’s bosom doesn’t seem like the best spot for a “new beginning,” but you have to start somewhere, I guess.
The four hapless guests show up, of course, for a disastrous weekend. But instead of fissioning under the stress of having their private amours exposed to the public light, the Blisses instead fuse in Bohemian contempt against their pathetically middle-class guests, who, it appears, were “really” invited merely to be ragged for their hosts’ amusement. After a horrible night, the unhappy visitors sneak out, unobserved and unmourned, while the Blisses gossip and giggle in unlimited self-absorption and self-congratulation over breakfast.
Coward would rewrite this play perhaps a half a dozen times in his life — a Bohemian “gang” (usually not an actual family) who bicker furiously and viciously among themselves, but who unite in contempt against all outsiders — almost always with great success. I find all the invective — usually nasty and rarely funny — tedious and exhausting, but audiences of the day ate it up, and people who “love theater,” which I guess I don’t, still do. This 1984 production has a clever set, with a pretty water-lily pond for us to look at from time to time, and attractive period costumes, particularly for Sorel/Phoebe, who makes a very fun flapper, but otherwise there wasn’t much for me to like.8
When the divorce is finally granted, Larita slinks off to the Riviera, which is where bad women went back then. She finds this wonderful young man, John Whittaker (Robin Irvine), and they get married right away, which is probably not a good idea, since John comes from an immensely wealthy family, but it somehow doesn’t occur to him that Mother would have appreciated a “first look” at the new bride.
When John does bring Larita home to the big house (and it’s really big), things don’t go well. John, it seems, went to the Riviera to “grow,” but once he returns home he starts regressing. Mommy knows best, it seems. Larita doesn’t belong, not really, and so she’s forced out. Once tainted, forever rotten. So sad! We don’t condemn her, of course, but then we don’t have to, because society does it for us, which is convenient to say the least.
In 1921, when Coward was still struggling, he visited New York for the first time. He didn’t meet with much success in the Big Apple the first time around, but he did make the acquaintance of two simpatico fellow-strugglers, Alfred Lunt and Lynn Fontanne, and he apparently “vowed” to someday write a vehicle for the three of them, which he ultimately did, Design for Living, perhaps his naughtiest play. Coward starred in the play with Alfred and Lynn in New York in 1932,9 and it was a huge success, and pre-Code Hollywood took note. Elegant naughtiness? Frivolous sex? Sounds like a Lubitsch Special!
Ernst Lubitsch entered show business at about the same time as Noël Coward, appearing on the Berlin stage in a wide variety of plays produced by the legendary Max Reinhardt, always in minor roles. Ernst happened to be in the right place at the right time when World War I accidentally jump-started the German film industry by cutting off the supply of French films, which had hitherto dominated the market. By the time the war ended, Lubitsch was a leading German director, working with such soon-to-be-legends as Emil Jannings, Pola Negri, and the not famous in the U.S. Henny Porten,10 knocking out top-hatted comedies (The Merry Jail, 1916) and florid, exotic spectacles like Eyes of the Mummy Ma (1918) and Madame DuBarry (1919) with equal aplomb.
Whether driven by mere/sheer ambition or the suspicion that postwar Germany might not be a good place to be a Jew, Lubitsch moved to the U.S. in the early twenties. He surprises me by saying that it was Charlie Chaplin’s A Woman of Paris , made by Chaplin to launch Edna Purviance as a star in her own right, that gave him the model for sophisticated humor rather than mere knockabout.
He worked steadily, but not with consistent success, until the sound era, when “the Lubitsch touch” suddenly became famous. America found that it couldn’t get enough of those naughty musicals that Ernst directed, most of them starring Maurice Chevalier as a suave young officer in some fashionable regiment of some fashionable country — which “should” have been the Austrian Empire, which unfortunately did not exist anymore. Maurice whiled away the hours entertaining an endless succession of naughty French women whose elderly husbands never seemed to notice the hanky-panky proceeding under their fat red noses. It’s a bit odd that Lubitsch, a short, chunky, street-smart Berliner, should have made his career glamorizing and sentimentalizing an aristocratic world he never knew, but if it sells, it sells, I guess.
I went through quite a few of these early musicals without finding much to like. Like so many directors, Lubitsch simply didn’t understand the shift in pacing from silent to talking films. There’s so much dead air on the soundtrack and so much dead time in the pacing. The witty dialogue just isn’t that witty, and the songs, mechanical patter for the most part, lack both melody and wit. One can only guess that what really sold these films was the constant atmosphere of casual sex — not at all graphic but constantly alluded to. I miss, very much, the antic energy of the early silents.
Well, of course he has to marry her. But Anna, though she’s a smash at matters of royal etiquette, below the equator, well, she’s not so hot. Fortunately, Franzi proves to be a true sport, giving Anna some gal-to-gal advice in the snappy “Jazz Up Your Lingerie,” which, while not as good as it could be, isn’t bad, and then bowing out of the picture with the near-classic line “Girls who stay for breakfast seldom get invited to dinner.”
In 1932, Lubitsch directed Trouble in Paradise, echt if not echtesten Lubitsch, not a musical though with Miriam Hopkins again, along with Herbert Marshall, Kay Francis, and Edward Everett Horton. I’m still not a fan of Trouble in Paradise, but with its stylized, black-and-white sets, light-hearted extravagance, and effete comic relief, the film is a (very) obvious template for the Astaire-Rogers films that would soon follow.11
I’m definitely an outlier when it comes to Trouble in Paradise, and I may be the same when it comes to Design for Living. Fortunately for Coward connoisseurs, Design for Living exists in two versions, 1933 and 1979, the latter from the BBC, which allows us to see Coward’s original play and to compare it with what Hollywood, Lubitsch, and screenwriter Ben Hecht did with it.
In the BBC version, Gilda (Rula Lenska) lives with, and betrays, painter Otto (Clive Arrindell) and playwright Leo (John Steiner) in serial fashion while dabbling, we’re told, in interior design. Eventually, she decides it’s time to settle down with someone substantial — art dealer Ernest Friedman (John Bluthal).
Otto and Leo are shattered by her departure and seek to console each other in a scene of vague, drunken groping (on a sofa in Coward’s original; in a shower in the Beeb’s “update”). If they can’t have her, they can have the ones she’s had, can’t they?
Gilda, wanting to put all that sort of thing behind her, talks Ernest into moving to Manhattan, which is where all the money is anyway. With her artistic flair and impeccable taste, she quickly becomes a successful interior decorator on the Upper East Side. Not bad, but it means she has to make nice to Philistine Yanks who pronounce “Wagner” with a “W.” Welcome to Noo Yawk!
Otto and Leo suddenly show up to rescue her from this bourgeois Hell, naturally being as rude as possible to everyone. In the morning Ernest returns home to find them both lounging about his flat in his pajamas, allowing to him to draw the incorrect conclusion that Gilda spent the night with both of them, when in fact she rather bourgeoisly spent the night in a hotel to “think things over.” When Gilda does show up, she gleefully announces her and “our” right to design not only our apartments according to our own private fancies but our lives as well, much to Otto and Leo’s delight. Coward’s own précis can hardly be improved upon:
These glib, over-articulate, and amoral creatures force their lives into fantastic shapes and problems because they cannot help themselves. Impelled chiefly by the impact of their personalities each upon the other, they are like moths in a pool of light, unable to tolerate the lonely outer darkness but equally unable to share the light without colliding constantly and bruising each other’s wings . . . . The ending of the play is equivocal. The three of them . . . are left together as the curtain falls, laughing . . . . Some saw it as the lascivious anticipation of a sort of a carnal frolic. Others with less ribald imaginations regarded it as a meaningless and slightly inept excuse to bring the curtain down. I as author, however, prefer to think that Gilda and Otto and Leo were laughing at themselves.
My own reaction is that the infighting between the merry three is so vicious that it’s hard to imagine them flourishing, but truth can be stranger than fiction in these matters. Coward’s married co-stars, Alfred and Lynn, were notorious battlers — their backstage disputes during a performance of The Taming of the Shrew provided the seed for Kiss Me Kate — but always stayed together, for the good of the act, if nothing else.
Lubitsch probably wouldn’t have enjoyed the level of vituperation that Coward packed into his play — his forte was people doing naughty things with perfect manners rather than people doing bad things with bad manners — so that in the film people say witty things, money being more important than love being one of the favorites, but not terribly mean ones. Lubitsch and/or Hecht do one-up Noël on one occasion — in the movie, but not in the play, George/Leo enjoys a performance of one of his own plays, laughing delightedly as his show cracks up the crowd with this quasi-double entendre — “And what was your mandolin doing in my bed?” “I’ll thank you, sir, to keep my mandolin out of this!”
Everyone is almost always in white tie in the film version of Design for Living, which seems a bit obsessive, and Gilda’s big speech at the end is not about free sex but rather no sex: instead of selling out via marriage to “Max Plunkett” (Edward Everett Horton again, not looking very much like a Max Plunkett), she’ll be the chaste muse to both Tom and George, who apparently are willing to pretend that this is what they want.
Private Lives, Coward’s most famous play, also exists in two film versions, again a pre-Code Hollywood version from 1931, starring Norma Shearer12 and Robert Montgomery, and a mid-seventies BBC presentation, with Penelope Keith and Alec McGowan as the near-legendary Amanda and Elyot. The Bohemian gang has shrunk to two here, but otherwise the pattern is the same as Hay Fever and Design for Living.
Private Lives contains some of Coward’s most famous lines — “Curious how potent cheap music is”13 and “Some women should be struck regularly, like gongs.” The title, and an offhand comment by Amanda, suggests that if only we could allow each other some emotional privacy — a few unquestioned secrets — we might be happier than we are. But, for whatever reason, Coward never pursues this fragile ideal. In his naughty plays, he never fails to let his taste for blood get the better of him. His protagonists — the characters he identifies with — always have to get the final word in, and the final word always has to sting!
Surprisingly enough, I found the film version an intriguing relic and a genuine pleasure — director Sidney Franklin strains out enough of the bitterness and tosses in some clever twists that provide a touch of emotional depth that Coward himself always ran away from. The film version of Private Lives is less than renowned, but it has a very clever ending — easily the best part of the film — which I won’t give away. You probably have to have fairly antiquarian tastes to enjoy Private Lives, but if you do, you will.
In 1942, Norma Shearer and Melvyn Douglas appeared in We Were Dancing, one of the 10 short plays Coward presented with the overall title of Tonight at 8:30 (1936).15 Norma and Melvyn play penniless European aristocrats living off their titles in Philistine America. What we get is second- or even third-rate white-tie screwball comedy at a time when even Lubitsch himself was making films about communists. Still, I enjoyed the funny happy ending: after a good deal of fuss, Norma and Melvyn renounce the high life. We then cut to their humble cottage, where they finish the dishes, fold up the Murphy bed, and dance around their tiny living room.16 Hooray for, you know, love!
Coward’s Present Laughter, written in 1939, represents “mature Coward” — a quasi-self-parody depicting a theatrical “family” of ex-wives, secretaries, agents, and producers all revolving around the ego of aging, self-involved matinee idol Donald Essendine, the cash cow whose income keeps the whole shebang in motion and not so coincidentally allows the whole gang to avoid that dreary unpleasantness known as “real life.”
Not too surprisingly, some of Coward’s most complex zingers go right over the audience’s head. They have to be set up perfectly to be comprehensible. But the crowd never tires of the most obvious — and most frequently repeated — bits of stage business — Essendine fussing compulsively with his hair before every fresh encounter with another human being or writhing in pretended agony whenever forced to do something he doesn’t want to do. If you weren’t cynical to start with, writing for the stage will make you so, because audiences rarely want something they haven’t seen before.
In the film, directed by Eric Styles, all the action, set in the early fifties, takes place on one of those enormous Merchant-Ivory estates where everything looks perfect and no one has to work very hard to keep it that way. The cast features Julie Andrews, Colin Firth, Jeanne Tripplehorn, and William Baldwin, and the film has its moments, but the wicked Mr. Coward gets quite sentimental here, portraying England as a sort of feudal fantasyland where everyone knows his/her place and wants to stay there, and Styles follows his lead precisely, casting a particularly golden glow around Julie Andrews as the wonderfully wise family matriarch who makes everything right, the exact opposite of the clutching, grasping matriarch who made everything wrong in Easy Virtue 30 years before.
Both Tripplehorn and Baldwin have fun as boorish Americans who aren’t really bad, even though they do tend to knock things over quite a bit. They just have to be handled properly, and, fortunately, English breeding is just the thing for that. We’re so proud of our manners! Let’s use them! Besides, if we don’t, they’ll crush us like bugs!
The 2008 version of Easy Virtue, on the other hand, offers a fairly corrosive update of the original play, which itself was not so fond of “old England.” While Coward cringed before the power of traditional authority, the remake, directed by Stephen Elliott and scripted by Elliott and Sheridan Jobbins, defies it, taking direct aim at the clichés embalmed in Relative Values. Larita Filton (Jessica Biel), a downtrodden correspondent no more, is instead a dashing American widow/race car driver who’s just picked up the gold cup at the Monaco Grand Prix, circa 1924. John Whittaker (Ben Barnes), on vacation, finds her irresistible, due largely to the fact that Biel, swanking about in Hepburnish slacks that show off her 34-inch hips to stunning effect, is irresistible.
The 2008 film transforms Larita from innocent victim to Nietzschean Superwoman, standing above and beyond Good and Evil. John is appalled but Dad is intrigued. He and Larita drive off into the sunset together, set to make their own design for living.18 So that transvaluation of all values thing can work out pretty well, if you look like Jessica Biel.19
One for Oscar
One of the more interesting things about the 1945 film version of Blithe Spirit is that it’s a lavish, color production that clashes dramatically with the “little” black-and-white films that would dominate British cinema up until the late sixties. At the end of World War II, the Brits seem to have thought for a moment to recover their old glory, and one of the ways they set about doing it was to make films with West End style and West Coast production values.
Well, by my standards, Blithe Spirit wasn’t all that, but the Brits tried again in 1952, and with Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest, directed by Anthony Asquith, they connected for whatever is “very good” in cricket. Fully half the film’s value comes from the immense presence of Dame Edith Evans, who inhabits, consumes, and devours both the role of Lady Bracknell and the remaining members of the cast. In addition to Dame Edith, there are the costumes, whose massive, whimsical extravagance appears to have been intended as a deliberate affront to the Labour Government that had ruled the U.K. from 1945 to 1951, Lady Bracknell in particular wearing a dress in the final scenes that looks very much like an Edwardian jukebox as designed by Liberace’s gay uncle.20
As for Oscar’s wit, well, it consists mainly of people saying the opposite of what they would say, and his plot is warmed-over Gilbert and Sullivan. But the mise-en-scène is intense.21
Coward’s plays have frequently been done on television, but other than the BBC package none of them seem to be available. He also appeared in some early talkies, which are also not available. In one of his last plays, and in one of his last stage appearances, A Song at Twilight (1966),Coward did play an explicitly homosexual character. The play was praised, but it’s never been done for television or film.
- One good thing did come from Brief Encounter, the bit in the Glenda Jackson/George Segal semi-classic A Touch of Class when the adulterous couple, struggling with the fact that they need to break up, watch the film on TV and sob piteously over the plight of Laura and Dr. Alec. [↩]
- Coward didn’t like the film either, telling director David Lean, “You fucked up the best thing I ever did.” Blithe Spirit was a huge success on the stage, but Coward’s script, which he surely had control over, seems to me to be the weakest part of the film. The only performance that is unimpressive is Hammond’s, and she played Elvira on the stage. Someone could write a dissertation or two on the number of “spirit” films that appeared after World War II, providing the comforting thought that the dead are somehow still with us. [↩]
- “The Vortex” is a pretty snappy title, so it’s been used quite a few times, but this is the only film based on Coward’s play. [↩]
- He’s possibly “Pawnie” (Alan Melville), though I’m not sure. [↩]
- The French, of course, always referred to homosexuality as “le vice Anglais” — all that public school (“private school,” in American) fagging and caning. [↩]
- Isn’t that what they’re for? [↩]
- Reprising a play’s title as a punch line/moral — “like a streetcar named desire,” “like a raisin in the sun” — is perhaps the most heavy-handed of all theatrical traditions. I always associate it with fifties Broadway, but obviously it goes back much further. [↩]
- Also, we never get to see “the Chinese Room,” which might have been fun. [↩]
Design for Living was too hot for London. [↩]
- Porten made her first film in 1906 and her last in 1955, appearing in 175 overall. [↩]
- So why do I like Fred and Ginger and not Ernst? Because they had great tunes instead of lame ones, great dancing instead of (usually) no dancing, and the directing is functional and straight-forward. I find that Lubitsch is always nudging the audience — “Don’t you get it? They just had, you know!” [↩]
- Shearer’s fiercely driven life and career are well discussed by both Gary Morris and Dan Callahan. [↩]
- I always found this line contrived and pretentious, but in context it works very well. Amanda is complaining that an orchestra, playing “their song,” is making her lose control of her emotions. [↩]
- She’s singing music that he wrote for her, which is what makes it all so “bitter sweet.” [↩]
- A performance of Tonight at 8:30 consisted of 3 of the 10. [↩]
- As in Private Lives, it is music (and dance) that cause the leads to stop acting “sensibly” and discover their true selves. [↩]
- A “goof buster” on IMDB points out that Biel’s sexy ride — a Frazer Nash BMW — didn’t go into production until 1934, and the picture takes place 10 years earlier. In addition, Larita is shown reading D. H. Lawrence’s Lady Chatterly’s Lover, first published in 1928, and then only in Europe. The point, of course, is to show us that Larita is a “free thinker.” In Coward’s original play, Larita reads Sodome et Gomorrhe, volume 4 of Marcel Proust’s À la recherche du temps perdu, the volume whose title makes most explicit reference to the theme of homosexuality. [↩]
- This final twist revives, in a manner, the incest theme broached by The Vortex way back in 1924. [↩]
- The “new Larita” owes much to the “American Superwoman” of films like A Fish Called Wanda and Notting Hill, which portray American chicks like Jamie Lee Curtis and Julia Roberts as amoral forces of nature who will swoop down on sweet gentle Englishmen like John Cleese and Hugh Grant and bear them off to a bower of bliss where their deuced English reserve will magically melt and dissolve away for ever and ever. [↩]
- And not the kinda gay one, either. The really gay one. [↩]
- The Importance of Being Earnest was redone in 2002, with Judi Dench as Lady Bracknell. I haven’t seen it myself, but the online reviews I’ve read by Wilde fans haven’t been enthusiastic. [↩]