Friday, February 20, 2015

Ernst Lubitsch | Bluebeard's Eighth Wife

locked out
by Douglas Messerli

Charles Brackett and Billy Wilder (based on the play by Alfred Savoir, Le humitième femme de Barbe-Bleue), Ernst Lubitsch (director) Bluebeard’s Eighth Wife / 1938

In retrospect, Ernst Lubitsch’s Bluebeard’s Eighth Wife—based on a 1921 play by Alfred Savoir and proceeded by a 1923 film directed by Sam Wood—seems like a slightly uncomfortable mix between Bartok’s Bluebeard’s Castle and Preston Sturges’ The Lady Eve, the would-be tyrannical lady-killer begin trumped by the loving but revengeful wife, successfully awarding her man his comeuppance so that a “real” marriage might finally be consummated.
     This comedy alternately is absolutely charming and mean-spirited, the later arising from a problem with its casting: as The New York Times reviewer Frank S. Nugent noted in 1938, it is simply impossible to imagine the lanky, aw-shucks-likeable Gary Cooper as a multi-millionaire serial-spouse. That’s not to say that the wonderful Lubitsch doesn’t give it a serious try, adding even a few insightful perceptions about the Perreault-Bartok work to which the movie very vaguely makes reference.

From the very first scene, Lubitsch establishes that Bluebeard (Cooper) is definitely a dominating figure, portraying him as a “top”—a man attempting to purchase only a pair of pajama tops—as opposed to Nicole de Loiselle’s (Claudette Colbert) bottom—a woman who is happy to purchase the bottoms as a gift to her down-on-the-heels, money-conniving-Marquis father (Edward Everett Horton). And as in Bartok, he prefers dark, while she suggests light, but with the added dimension of “stripes,” hinting, perhaps, of his soon-to-be “locked out” situation.

      Colbert, as always, plays her character as a refined European to Cooper’s straight-forwardly tenacious American who cannot comprehend why his immediately wanting to marry the mademoiselle meets with her utter disdain. The fact that she dismissed him, indeed, hardly fazes him; he not only feels he should be awarded for his straight-forward honesty, but that he “deserves” her since he has, metaphorically, purchased her from her father by paying for the ridiculous trinket from Louis XIV’s bathroom—an elaborately embellished contraption so petite that he can perceive it only as a washbasin.
      The Marquis, however, in his underhanded dealings has made his family deeply in debt, a problem which a marriage to such a rich man would quickly resolve. Unlike the operatic Bluebeard, moreover, this interminably innocent American even attempts to charm the object of his momentary affection, memorizing—as he does the details of his business associates—the history of Louis XIV; and, despite herself, Nicole seems to actually fall in love with this ungainly courtier. Everything seems to be proceeding glowingly until he begins to reveal the existence of seven (the film, apparently conflating the number of the Bartok opera’s rooms with the wives) previous wives. Unlike the operatic Bluebeard, this innocent galumpher has allowed for a pre-nuptial agreement to pay each of them $50,000, saving them from the locked-away “passing” of the mythical Bluebeard’s paramours.

      The Marquis’ daughter, almost without missing a beat, decides to take him up on the offer, if only he will raise the ante to $100,000, while she determines to teach him an important lesson about love from a pre-feminist perspective. It’s absolutely delightful that Lubitsch, once described by Mary Pickford as a “director of doors” regally uses his somewhat deserved moniker by reversing the situation of Bartok’s work, representing Nicole as locking herself away from her new husband, refusing him any sexual access and permitting him conversational entrance only upon appointment. As in the operatic work, Lubitsch’s film is a movie of seemingly endless doors locked and bolted—but this time from inside! It’s enough to make any red-blooded Americun male go mad, and this Bluebeard does end up, predictably, in a straitjacket, with Nicole gloating over his shocked embarrassment.

     Of course, there are a lot of other silly shenanigans along the way, some featuring the effete would-be lover, Albert De Regnier’s (David Niven), who is forced to play secretary to Bluebeard and who, in an absurd series of misunderstandings, is beaten up by a hired wrestler and threatened with strangulation by Bluebeard—a perfect role, I might argue, for Niven, who always strikes me as a man about to puke over the impropriety of the roles Hollywood has forced upon him—; Horton, as the Marquis gets several chances to puff-up and putter-down as only he can; and Elizabeth Patterson has the short-lived opportunity to shine as the mean-hearted, level-headed Aunt Hedwige. But everything and everyone is truly unimportant in this tale, as we wait for the moment when Bluebeard, like a cartoon figure who has been plopped over the head one-too-many-times, pops out of his constraints to give the heroine what she has been asking for behind all those closed doors: a good old-fashioned f— —or, shall we describe it for what it really is, a rape?
      Maybe Nicole should have asked the questions on everyone else’s mind: why did Bluebeard divorce all those other women? And what ever happened to them? Despite what seems to be the usual Lubitsch sexual sophistication, the film is too prudish to let us know what goes on behind all those closed doors.

Los Angeles, February 20, 2015

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