Saturday, February 6, 2010

THE CLAUDETTE COLBERT COLLECTION (Paramount/Universal 1933-47) Universal Home Entertainment

An enviable actress with acute eccentricities, Claudette Colbert remains one of Hollywood's most luminous and highly regarded female stars from the golden age of movie making. Beginning her career in 1927, Colbert quickly rose through the ranks, proving her metal in Biblical/historical epics and taut melodramas. Arguably, she is best remembered for her turn as a madcap in romantic screwball comedies from the mid-1930s onward.

In over 60 films, Colbert retained that strange and elusive air of a movie queen - occasionally prone to temperament and eccentricities on the set. Some may recall that she insisted all her close ups only being photographed from the right side to conceal what she alone perceived was her facial flaw; a demand that drove her various directors logistically batty.

Others may remember how she made It Happened One Night (1934) for director Frank Capra with so much reluctance that when Capra called 'cut' on the final scene to be shot, Colbert simply grabbed her wrap and hat, walking off the set without so much as an acknowledgement to either her director or co-stars for their work. Instead, she telephoned a friend almost immediately to declare "I've just made the worst film of my career!" However, an interesting postscript came on Oscar night, when Colbert won Best Actress and chose the moment to remedy her ill behavior by simply stating, "I owe this to Frank Capra."

By the mid-1930s, Colbert's ascendency to stardom had plucked her from relative obscurity in poverty row B-movies; entering a plush Paramount contract that made her the highest paid actress in the business by 1937. After her career faltered in the mid-1950s, Colbert continued to work tirelessly on the stage, before retiring and dying of a series of strokes at the age of 92 in 1996. Today, she continues to rank among filmdom's most treasured stars. She is currently #12 on AFI's list of Screen Legends.

And now - at long last - Universal Home Video has seen fit to honor the star with a collection of 6 movie classics; 5 from Colbert's tenure with Paramount. Spanning her reign from 1933 to 1947 the films in The Claudette Colbert Collection are a testament to Colbert's versatility as a consummate professional. Not that every movie in this collection is a gem, but Colbert's performances arguably are.

The first film in this set is Elliot Nugett's Three Cornered Moon (1933); an abysmally second rate comedy that holds the dubious distinction of being readily cited as the first 'screwball' in American film.

Colbert is Elizabeth Rimplegar, pert daughter to a scatterbrain mother, Nellie (Mary Bolland) and three useless brothers; Kenneth (Wallace Ford), Eddie (Tom Brown) and Douglas (William Bakewell). This wealthy entourage is rendered instantly penniless by Nellie's bad investments, thus forcing everyone to go out and get a job in Depression America with varying degrees of failure and success.

The family's trusted physician, Dr. Alan Stevens (Richard Arlen) secretly pines for Elizabeth, even though she is engaged to penniless hack writer, Ronald (Hardie Albright). However, when Kenneth's girlfriend, Kitty (Joan Marsh) takes up with Ronald, the doctor makes his move and he and Elizabeth vow to marry.

The screenplay by Ray Harris and S.K. Laren cannot focus on any one in the cast long enough for our sympathies to agree on a favorite. Colbert is given the plum part, but it is constantly being interrupted by some such nonsense featuring Elizabeth's ineffectual brothers or business with the foreign housemaid, Jenny (Lyda Roberti); whose constant fracturing of the English language is painfully obtuse.

Colbert fares better in the second film in this set; Frank Lloyd's Maid of Salem (1937); a fictionalized account of the paranoia that spread during the trials that condemned many an innocent to death for witchcraft. Colbert is Barbara Clarke - a maiden whose rural community is rocked by rumors that there are witches living amongst them. Barbara meets Roger Coverman (Fred MacMurray); a political exile who romances her behind closed doors but reveals too much of himself in dark shadows - thus convincing some of the more simple minded folk that Satan is lurking about town.

Unable to reveal Roger without betraying him, Barbara is accused of being a witch (a similar charge conveyed against her late mother) and sentenced to death. After being imprisoned, Roger receives a reprieve from the governor and comes to Barbara's aid.

Maid of Salem is spotty entertainment at best with its screenplay by Bradley King something of a mishmash of spook stories and half truths about the real Salem witch hunts. Nevertheless, the film holds together primarily because of Colbert's compelling performance. Although an amiable actor in his own right, Fred MacMurray is miscast as the Irish dissident on the lam.

Next up is Wesley Ruggles' I Met Him In Paris (1937); a wacked out - rather than wacky - screwball comedy that pits Colbert's Kay Deham against a pair of would-be lotharios; foppish playwright, George Potter (Melvyn Douglas) and his ragtag man about town best friend, Gene Anders (Robert Young).

The boys are on holiday in Paris when they stumble across Kay who is having trouble relating to the locals in their native tongue. Coming to Kay's rescue, George is clearly smitten by her charms - though somehow unable to articulate his feelings, that translate into awkward contempt. This leaves the romantic playing field wide open for Gene...if only he didn't already have a wife back in America. Gene strikes a bargain with George to keep his secret; a promise that seems in constant danger of being broken.

Whisking Kay to a snowy retreat in Switzerland, Gene pulls out all the romantic stops to win Kay's heart. However, when Gene's wife, Helen (Mona Barrie) arrives for a surprise visit, Kay realizes what a fool she has been.

Working from a screenplay by Claude Binyon and Helen Meinardi, I Met Him In Paris is too contrived to be fully appreciated. The situations are awkwardly staged and happen almost by accident rather than through plausible circumstances. Even Colbert seems ill at ease with the material she's been given. Certainly, there's no spark of chemistry between the costars, leaving the romantic element of the story rather cold and flat.

The next film, Ernest Lubitsch's Bluebeard's Eighth Wife (1938) rectifies all major sins committed thus far. Colbert is magnificent as Nicole Deloiselle - an attractive gal in search of the bottom half of a pair of pajamas for her doting uncle, the Marquis (Edward Everett Horton). A cute meet with brash American Michael Brandon (Gary Cooper) in the men's department of a Parisian shop leads to an hilarious misunderstanding.

Michael falls in love with Nicole without telling her first that he has had seven previous failed marriages to his discredit. Discovering this fact leaves Nicole rather jealous. She goes through with her marriage to Michael, then embarks upon a campaign to make him insanely jealous of her attractiveness to other men.

What is often referred to by film critics as 'the Lubtisch touch' - the director's penchant for entertaining elegant European wit and sophistication with a touch of the slightly naughty - is working overtime in Bluebeard's Eighth Wife. From start to finish the film is a lush and gregarious confection of riotous plot developments. The screenplay by Charles Brackett and Billy Wilder is A-1 - deftly ladling frivolity with moments of inspired wit and charm. There is genuine chemistry between Colbert and Cooper - a quiet animosity that gradually and quite plausibly builds into love.

The next film in this collection, Mitchell Leisen's No Time For Love (1943) is almost as good, with Colbert cast as Katherine Grant - a photographer much sought after for her keen eye and skill with a camera. After Katherine's editor assigns her to take pictures of 'sandhogs' building an underground vehicular tunnel, Katherine comes face to face with Jim Ryan; an opinionated digger she nicknames 'the ape' but who stirs Kate's romantic interests primarily because he is so self-assured and overtly butch.

Katherine's sister, Hoppy (Ilke Chase) urges her to publish a photograph taken in the mine of Jim slugging another worker during a brawl. Katherine refuses, then finds that her editor and soon to be fiancée, Henry Fulton (Paul McGrath) has published the photo anyway without her permission. The exposure gets Jim suspended from his job. To make up for his loss, Katherine hires Jim to do odd jobs as she photographs subjects for the magazine.

The on screen chemistry between Colbert and MacMurray only previously glimpsed in Maid of Salem is fully explored in No Time For Love with hilarious results. The romantic sparring between these two is genuinely electric, particularly during scenes where Jim calls out Katherine to admit her obvious attraction toward him.

In one of the film's best remembered sequences, Katherine is assigned to photograph, muscular model, Leon Brice (Jerome DeNuccio) - sparking a near lethal confrontation between Leon and Jim that ends when Jim takes Leon's dumbbell and tosses it into Leon, thereby sending the man and his muscles sailing through the paper thin photographic backdrop Katherine has set up in her studio.

The collection caps off with Chester Erskine's The Egg and I (1947); Colbert and MacMurray once again - this time cast as Betty and Bob MacDonald; a loving couple put to the test when Bob announces that he has decided to give up city life and his promising career in advertising to become a chicken farmer instead.

Based on Betty MacDonald's slightly autobiographical novel, the screenplay by Erskine and Fred F. Finklehoffe delights at extolling various 'fish out of water' scenarios that inevitably arise when city folk make the rocky transition to country life, thus threatening the MacDonald's happy marriage. The film is also noteworthy for its debut of Percy Kilbride and Marjorie Main - cast as irrepressible Ma' and Pa' Kettle; a pair of country bumpkin sponges who both aid and take advantage of the McDonalds as they reshape their lives into the very picture of rural bliss...well, sort of.

The first 5 movies of this collection are from Colbert's Paramount tenure; the last, from Universal. All are B&W and all have been digitally remastered to look their best - although the results are not entirely thrilling. Not surprising, the poorest transfer of the lot is the oldest; Three Cornered Moon, its image suffering from slightly lower than expected contrast levels and a loss of fine detail throughout. Otherwise, the transfer quality on the remaining titles falls into the mid-range.

On Bluebeard's Eighth Wife, there are several glaring instances where the image wobbles (presumably from sprocket hole damage). Minor edge enhancement plagues The Egg and I but will surely not distract. Otherwise, the transfers are generally crisp and remarkably free of age related artifacts. The audio on all titles is mono as originally recorded and quite adequately represented. The real disappointment here is that Universal has given us NO extra features - not even theatrical trailers and/or audio commentaries to supplement the films. For shame!

FILM RATING (out of 5 - 5 being the best)
Three Cornered Moon 1
Maid of Salem 3
I Met Him In Paris 2.5
Bluebeard's Eighth Wife 4
No Time For Love 3.5
The Egg and I 3.5



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