Thursday, April 10, 2014

Mill Creek Comedy Classics #78 : "That Uncertain Feeling" (1941)

Burgess Meredith is an unlikely homewrecker in That Uncertain Feeling.


The flick: That Uncertain Feeling (United Artists release of an Ernst Lubitsch/Sol Lesser production, 1941) [buy the set]

Current IMDb rating: 6.9

Director Ernst Lubitsch
Director: Ernst Lubitsch (highly esteemed German-born director known for his witty comedies like The Shop Around the Corner, To Be or Not to Be, and Ninotchka; given an honorary Oscar in 1947, the same year he died at age 55; his films were touted as having "the Lubitsch touch")

Actors of note: Merle Oberon (The Scarlet Pimpernel, Wuthering Heights, The Private Life of Henry VIII; Oscar-nominated for The Dark Angel), Melvyn Douglas (Oscar winner for Being There and Hud; other films include The Tenant, The Candidate, Captains Courageous, and Lubitsch's Ninotchka), Burgess Meredith (Oscar nominated for Rocky and The Day of the Locust; other films in his six-decade career include Grumpy Old Men, Clash of the Titans, Foul Play; well known for roles on TV's Batman and The Twilight Zone), Alan Mowbray (The Villain Still Pursued Her), Harry Davenport (long-time stage actor with late-blooming film career; credits include Gone with the Wind, You Can't Take it With You, The Ox-Bow Incident, and Hitchcock's Foreign Correspondent), Eve Arden (Three Husbands), Olive Blakeney (Auntie Mame, Leave Her to Heaven; lots of TV work on shows like Perry Mason, Gunsmoke, and The Donna Reed Show), Sig Ruman (Nothing Sacred), Richard Carle (also appeared in Lubitsch's Ninotchka and The Merry Widow; other appearances include San Francisco, The Devil and Miss Jones, and Preston Sturges' The Great McGinty)

The gist of it: After six years of marriage, bored and pampered housewife Jill Baker (Oberon) is starting to have psychosomatic hiccuping spells. At the urging of her friends, she visits Dr. Vengard (Mowbray), who quickly discovers the root of the problem: she's become resentful of her husband, Larry (Douglas), a well-to-do insurance man. While Jill diets, Larry feasts. While Jill sits up with insomnia, Larry slumbers peacefully. While Jill frets about her day, Larry cheerfully tunes her out. Mr. Baker, it seems, is just a contented married man who cannot fathom why his wife should have any complaints when everything she wants is handed to her. Instead, he concentrates on landing his next big account.

While sitting in Dr. Vengard's waiting room, Jill meets eccentric pianist Alexander Sebastian (Meredith), a curmudgeonly nonconformist whose philosophy of the world boils down to his catchphrase: "Phooey!" Jill has never met anyone like Alexander, who introduces her to modern art and classical music, and she becomes enamored of him, much to Larry's dismay. Things come to a head when Larry arrives home early from work to surprise Jill, only to realize that she was expecting Alexander instead! Knowing that Jill's fixation on Alexander -- whose piano-playing is loud and near-constant -- is a temporary whim, he decides to initiate divorce proceedings. His hope is that she will give up the silly little piano man and come running back to her husband. Will she?

Meredith, Oberon, and Douglas: Three virtuoso performers.
My take: That Uncertain Feeling was not a box office success at the time of its release, and film historians do not rate it among Ernst Lubitsch's best films. It generally gets filed away in the "good but not quite great" category. (The IMDb's users dutifully regurgitate this "accepted" belief.)

I doubt my little review will reverse 70+ years of history, but I strongly feel that this sharp, funny little comedy deserves to be rediscovered. I know this can be difficult for "serious" cinephiles, but maybe it's best to temporarily forget about the director's other films and just concentrate on the one that's right in front of you.

There are so many good lines and funny moments in That Uncertain Feeling, it's a shame to let them go to waste simply because this isn't Ninotchka. As part of this project, I've watched dozens of comedies from the '30s and '40s, and I can tell you that this one is in the top 5% in terms of quality. Besides, Uncertain is in the public domain and available for free, so what do you have to lose except an hour and a half of your time?

Lubitsch has an excellent cast at his disposal, and his talent for working with actors is easy to see. The quips are flying at 90 mph, and Oberon, Douglas, and especially Meredith deliver them with enviable skill. If you are a student of comedy, there is so much to learn here about the importance of posture and inflection and body language. The actors don't really ham it up in the Vaudeville style that's so common to these movies. The cast is operating at a whole other level. It's like comparing a symphony orchestra to granddad's jug band.

Don't get the impression that That Uncertain Feeling is "perfect" (whatever that means) or some kind of unassailable masterpiece. Ultimately, it is just a silly little comedy. But I'd say it's a gourmet silly little comedy.

Critics can -- and usually do -- point out that the film's plot is flimsy and implausible. Here, after all, are two very immature people playing a ridiculous game of "chicken" with their marriage, essentially daring the other to be the first to flinch. I doubt people would truly behave this way. But then again, maybe they might. I mean, human beings are pretty thick-headed and irresponsible, especially when it comes to marriage. So the plot is not entirely outside the realm of possibility.

If there was something that bothered me, it's that Larry Baker really is sort of an oblivious clod, and Jill Baker does have some legitimate complaints about the way she's treated in her marriage. But this is the 1940s, so it's preordained that Jill will be exposed as a selfish ninny who realizes, almost too late, the error of her ways while Larry learns absolutely nothing.

This also requires turning Burgess Meredith into the film's villain, so about midway through the movie, the script makes him a greedy, petulant, peevish little coward. That's a disappointment, because when he first appears in this movie, he's so drastically different from everyone else in Merle Oberon's life that it's easy to see why she'd fixate on him. Jill's married life seems pretty stifling and homogeneous, so can we really blame her for looking elsewhere in her search for meaning and fulfillment?

Is it funny: I've already referred to it as "funny," so yes. The laughs start pretty early and really don't let up until the end. Burgess Meredith gets the majority of the good lines as Alexander, who rants about just about everything which crosses his path. But looking back on the film, Meredith does a lot of quite-good physical or at least non-verbal comedy in the film, too, as when he pitifully hides behind a lamp to somehow escape the wrath of a jealous husband. Or when he continually places a knick-knack he finds offensive in a drawer so he doesn't have to look at it. Or when he repeatedly gets up from the piano bench before playing so much as a note in order to whisper various demands to Merle Oberon. (Things have to be just so before he'll play.)

At first, I worried that Melvyn Douglas was just going to be a boring nice guy throughout the movie, but his character turns into something much more interesting once he realizes his wife is infatuated with another man. Critics and civilians alike refer to this movie as "lightweight" and "frivolous," but Douglas goes down some darkly funny paths here, like when he brings Burgess Meredith into his den in order to alternately flatter and threaten him.

And then there's the movie's most twisted, unimaginable-by-today's-standards scene in which poor Larry has to work up his courage to slap Jill across the face in front of a witness as part of their divorce proceedings. Yes, he has to do this for legal reasons! Trust me, it makes sense in context... sort of.

My grade: A-



P.S. - No racial stereotypes in sight, but this was released several months before the United States entered WW2, so it was still possible for Melvyn Douglas to briefly imitate Hitler and do a Nazi salute as part of an otherwise-lighthearted scene.

4 comments:

  1. Sounds fun! I have a hard time EVER buying Meredith as a villain. He has one of the most natural and likable screen presences of all time.

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    1. Then rest easy. He's not really a villain villain. He's more like a heel. Or he turns into a heel somewhere in the middle of the movie. Either way, this is one of the best performances I've ever seen him give in a movie. His first scene with Merle Oberon in the waiting room is a particular highlight. (HINT: It starts at around 15:14 in that video up there.)

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