Tuesday, March 26, 2013

THE CHOCOLATE SOLDIER (MGM 1941) Warner Archive Collection

Roy Del Ruth’s The Chocolate Soldier (1941) is a real head-scratcher; for it bears no earthly resemblance to the famed Oscar Strauss operetta (itself based on Shaw’s Arms of the Man) as its title suggested, and only a passing likeness to Fernec molnar’s The Guardsman, from whence more directly it derives its rather contrived plot. For one reason or another Hollywood frequently acquired hot stage properties only to gut the artistic accoutrements that made them successful in the first place, even though the results from this tinkering were readily lackluster and infrequent unmitigated flops that paled by direct comparison to the charm of their originals.
Mercifully, The Chocolate Solider isn’t quite the disaster it might have been. In fact, Rise Stevens, the sophisticated soprano of New York’s Metropolitan Opera - newly borrowed by MGM - proved to be the most enigmatic costar Nelson Eddy had had in years. Her arrogant sparkle and flashing eyes appear to have rubbed off on Eddy too. For, although he lacks the charisma to pull off the comedy in his own skin, once transformed by makeup into the lusty Cossack, Vassily Vassilievitch (for the plot within the plot) Eddy positively glows with a ripened sense for comedy and an irrefutable passion for mimicry. Thankfully for the film and the audience, there is more masquerade than mirth in The Chocolate Soldier – enough to sustain and divert attentions away from Eddy’s other shortcomings.  
Nelson Eddy’s career at MGM and elsewhere post-Jeanette MacDonald was very rough going indeed.  Despite being pitched to the public in some very high profile musicals like Balalaika made two years before The Chocolate Soldier, and Universal’s absurdly lavish remake of The Phantom of the Opera (made two years later), the tenor could not shake his reputation as a wooden leading man. There is some truth to this assessment of his talents. To accentuate the obvious strengths of its two stars The Guardsman’s narrative is further revised so that instead of actors the two principals are now a pair of feuding operetta singers, co-starring in a revival of Strauss’ The Chocolate Soldier, thus allowing the film to retain several of the original play’s more memorable tunes, including ‘My Hero’ and ‘The Flower Presentation’.  
Leonard Lee and Keith Winter’s screenplay picks up the story in Vienna, backstage after another thrilling performance. Newlywed Karl Lang (Eddy) is disturbed by his wife, Maria Lanyi’s (Stevens) lack of fidelity in their marriage – or that is to say, what he jealously misperceives to be her lack thereof. Maria enjoys flirting with officers; sly grins and a modest glint in her eye that is reciprocated from the cheap seats in the balcony. What can I say? Maria’s a prima donna, heartily drinking from the cup of success. But Karl is unable to see her flirtations for what they really are – harmless and playful. Instead, he suspects that Maria is planning to leave him for a career in legitimate opera. Maria’s lady in waiting, Madame Helene (Florence Bates) wholly supports that decision – if a decision is to be made; caustically reminding Karl that Maria gave up a promising career in grand opera to marry him.
After another round of blissful bickering Karl retreats to his dressing room, distraught. He confides in mutual friend, Bernard Fischer (Nigel Bruce) his fears about Maria and is comforted. Bernard, a charming bungler, recommends to Karl that he act like the romantic figure in Tannhäuser to woo his bride to her senses. But Karl’s execution of this plan backfires when he finds Maria singing grand opera in her bedroom. The following evening Karl escorts Maria and Bernard to his favorite restaurant, a Russian bistro in what promises to be an intimate dinner for three. Soon, however, Karl receives a telegram informing him that an old friend has become embroiled in a scam that has subsequently landed him in jail. The telegram asks for Karl’s help.
Rushing off, presumably to his friend’s aid, Karl has actually sent the cable to himself, then bribed the club’s owner Klementov (Charles Judels) into masquerading as Vassily Vasillievitch – a bearded Cossack turned nightclub performer – the epitome of just the sort of scandalous rogue Karl is certain Maria will find very attractive. True to his suspicions, after Vassily’s performance at the café Karl approaches Maria’s table in disguise where she flirts with him. Unaware that it is Karl beneath the whiskers Bernard tells the Cossack to go away, informing him that at any moment the lady’s husband will return. A few moments thereafter Karl comes back to their table as himself, pretending to care little about Maria’s first impressions of Vassily. The next afternoon Karl sends Maria long stemmed roses with a card asking her to stand at her window every afternoon at five so that he – Vassily - may be permitted to worship her beauty from afar. Maria conceals the card from Karl who outright accuses her of loving another man because she has openly lied to him about no card being included with the delivery.
Having been brought in on the rouse by Karl, Bernard is startled when Maria also confides in him that she suspects Vassily is Karl. To confirm this theory Maria has sketched a beard and moustache over one of Karl’s photographs. Nevertheless, the next afternoon Maria decides to wait in the window for Vassily. Karl, who must lie about attending a charity function in order to leave his home early, returns just before five as Vassily to woo Maria. She, in turn, beckons him up to the apartment by tossing him the key and is modestly amused when Karl’s disguise does not even fool their dog who sets about affectionately licking Vassily’s hands and face. Attempting his seduction, Karl is delighted when Maria slaps Vassily’s face, but equally as disturbed when she suggests that he should return later on when her husband is certain not to be at home.
Karl leaves the apartment utterly distraught, returning as himself and pretending that he has missed his train. Later on he goes out again, changing back into Vassily to serenade Maria from her balcony window. Bernard, who has been hiding in the bushes all along, encourages Karl to confront Maria with his suspicions about her seeing another man and in doing so is told by Maria that alas her heart has drifted away from him. She is in love with Vassily.  Depressed, Karl decides to reveal himself to Maria the next evening by appearing as Vassily in The Chocolate Soldier. Maria flirts with Vassily throughout the performance but backstage reveals to Karl that she has known it was him all along because no man’s kisses have ever satisfied her the way his can. Overjoyed to hear this news, Karl escorts his wife on stage for their final bows, his own sense of masculine prowess secure until Maria suddenly winks at an officer seated in one of the nearby balconies.
The Chocolate Soldier is a modest musical comedy, full of that Ruritanian charm and schmaltz so affecting with audiences throughout the late 1930s and early 40s. Eddy and Stevens have wonderfully antagonistic chemistry, particularly during the latter half of the film when Eddy – as Karl – voices his frantic concerns, only to be placated and then condemned by Maria for suspecting the worse about her. Nigel Bruce, frequently typecast as a simpleton, and better known to movie audiences for his iconic buffoonery as Dr. Watson in the Basil Rathbone/Sherlock Holmes series, is a delightful fop herein, while Florence Bates offers us yet another variation on the lovably stuffy harridan that endeared her to audiences.
Other songs from Strauss’ play in this Victor Saville produced production include ‘Thank the Lord the War is Over’, Tra-la-la-la’ and ‘Seek the Spy’. To this was added ‘While My Lady Sleeps’ a tune written by Bronislau Kaper (who also conducted the orchestral score), Mussorgsky’s Mephistopheles’ Song of the Flea, and Saint-Saen’s ‘Mon Coeur S’Ouvre A Tu Voix’ from Samson and Delilah.  Cedric Gibbons’ flawless art direction and Edwin B. Willis’ sets – a fascinating amalgam of props corralled from MGM’s vast storehouse, though previous built for and used in Romeo & Juliet, Ninotchka, Anna Karenina and Marie Antoinette evoke a romanticized ersatz European landscape where even such chestnut fantasies as The Chocolate Soldier seem plausible and real. The Chocolate Soldier isn’t a great musical, but it is a very competent one, lushly photographed by Karl Freund, Ray June and Harold Rosson to provide an evening of effortless fluff – tuneful, gorgeous and a lot of fun to watch.
I wish I could say the same for this Warner Archive edition. The Chocolate Soldier’s film elements are in remarkably good shape with minimal age related damage. But the transfer is weak, both in its contrast and exhibiting an overly soft quality that generally wrecks our appreciation for the finer details in the cinematography. Close ups look great, but long shots are fuzzy and flat. Blacks are more velvety gray and whites rarely as bright as they ought to be. Once again, I’ll make the point that any movie worthy of going to disc – even MOD DVD-R – is worth a basic clean up and remastering effort to get things looking better than this. The audio is mono but remarkably clear and free of age related hiss and pop. Clearly the original elements must have been in very good shape because it is quite obvious little to nothing was done to improve on whatever existed in Warner’s libraries before this movie made it to disc. Like most titles in the Archive this one gets zippo in the extra department. Bottom line: recommended, but with reservations.
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)

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