Saturday, July 13, 2013

Mill Creek comedy classics #38: "The Rage of Paris" (1938)

This beautiful poster makes me sad PhotoShop was ever invented.

The flick: The Rage of Paris (Universal, 1938) [buy the set]

Current IMDb rating: 6.7

Director: Henry Koster (The Inspector General)

Actors of note: Danielle Darrieux (The Earrings of Madame de..., Persepolis, 8 Women; extremely long-lived French actress of stage and screen with credits as recent as 2010; has played Catherine Deneuve's mother five times) , Douglas Fairbanks, Jr. (Gunga Din, Little Caesar; son of screen legend Douglas Fairbanks), Mischa Auer (Hollywood's favorite "Mad Russian"; appeared in You Can't Take It With You, My Man Godfrey, Hellzapoppin', etc.), Louis Hayward (And Then There Were None; was married to Ida Lupino and romantically involved with Noel Coward), Helen Broderick (Top Hat, Swing Time), Charles Lane (Nothing Sacred, The Milky Way)

Deceitful dame Danielle Darrieux
The gist of it: Desperate for money, Nicole (Darrieux), a pretty young French woman living in America, lies her way into a modeling agency and steals the address of a client off the boss's desk. But she's taken the wrong address, you see, and winds up at the office of handsome, wealthy Jim Trevor (Fairbanks), who is baffled but amused when this strange woman comes into his room and starts disrobing. Humiliated, Nicole runs back to her apartment, where she is about to be evicted. (She's four days late with the rent.)

A sympathetic older tenant, world-weary Gloria (Broderick), hatches a plan. She knows a waiter named Mike (Auer) who works at a fancy hotel and happens to have $2000 saved up for a restaurant of his own. Gloria convinces Mike to spend the $2000 on Nicole instead. With new (rented) outfits and a ritzy hotel suite, she can pass herself off as a French socialite, "the rage of Paris," just long enough to land a rich husband she can divorce quickly. Then, she, Gloria, and Mike will split the money. Before long, Nicole lands a prospect, nice but gullible Bill (Hayward). Trouble is, Bill's best friend is one Jim Trevor, who knows all about Nicole and threatens to tell Bill the truth unless Nicole does so herself. From there on, it's a battle of wits and wills between Jim and Nicole.

Things come to a boil when Jim more or less kidnaps Nicole after her engagement party and takes her to his remote cabin, where they continue to argue but also begin to realize they were made for each other.

My take: Gosh all hemlock, there must not have been enough movie plots to go around in the 1930s. I'm not even halfway through this Mill Creek collection, and this is already the second movie in which a penniless young woman tries to pass herself off as rich so that she can marry a guy who really is rich. And I thought it was weird that there should be two comedies about truck hijacking. It seems like in every romantic comedy in this set, at least one of the leads is trying to "pull a fast one" on somebody else, pretending to be something he or she isn't or misrepresenting himself or herself in some way. Maybe that's really how people got together in the '30s. I don't know. If you have any grandparents or great-grandparents still alive from that era, why not ask them about it? "Hey, Gramps, who did you pretend to be when you were dating Grandma? An oil millionaire, a European nobleman, a prizefighter? What?"

Movies like The Rage of Paris show you how class conscious people were in the 1930s and how stratified society was at the time. Nowadays, some rich trust-fund case like Bill could marry someone like Nicole just because she was hot as hell. (And, boy, is she!) Back then, though, Nicole had to have a "nice" (meaning "rich") family before she could marry someone else rich. So I guess the wealthy were only marrying each other back then, which might explain some inbreeding that seems to have taken place among the upper class. In this flick, no foolin', Bill actually says to Jim that his family would have "disowned" him if he'd married Nicole. And he's so happy when he says that!

(By the way, did you know the same thing happened to Dagwood Bumstead in the comic strip Blondie? His rich family disowned him when he married "common" Blondie Boopadoop. He was kicked down to the middle class, and he's stayed there for 80 years!)

The Rage of Paris also gives you an idea of what women were looking for in a man back then. Like a lot of guys in these movies, Jim Trevor has shiny, slicked-down hair and a thin mustache. He wears suits everywhere he goes and treats Nicole in a more-than-slightly condescending manner, as if she were a misbehaving child. I don't know if women today would find him all that appealing. The best news here is that this is a Universal movie and thus has higher-than-average production values, plus that neat-looking logo and heroic theme music. There are even a few strikingly pretty compositions in this film, as when Jim and Nicole have dinner in front of a picture window with the city skyline visible outside.

Mischa Auer: An elongated Peter Lorre?
Is it funny: Well, it certainly tries to be. I don't remember actually laughing, but the movie is ingratiating and not unpleasant. You know what this thing is? Cute. Man, this film has cuteness by the metric ton. Cute jokes, cute plot complications, cute accents. It's wall to wall cute. Most of the cuteness is due to star Danielle Darrieux, who is dangerously, diabolically adorable. She's authentically French, but she talks like someone playing a French chambermaid in a comedy sketch. Her dialogue has a lot of malapropisms, too, like "I can took it!" See, 'cause she's French and doesn't speak English that well, get it?

Oh, and she's weak, too. There's a very long, drawn-out comedy sequence in which Nicole can't get her window open, so she asks Jim for help, and he immediately opens it, only to have it fall back down the second he leaves the room. Jim and Nicole cycle through this a few times before Nicole herself gets pinned under the falling window, leading to a scene in which Jim gives her an alcohol rubdown... with French alcohol.

The movie clearly had great faith in the comedic talents of Mischa Auer, who kind of reminded me of a stretched-out Peter Lorre, but nothing he did in this film really caught my fancy. Well, I take that back. There's one scene in a fancy hotel, the Savoy Grand (which has the coolest-looking room numbers ever), where Mike's boss catches him fraternizing/scheming with Gloria, and he tries to play it off like he was testing one of the chairs in her room for softness. Eventually all three of them are bouncing up and down on various chairs.

The Rage of Paris had the bad luck of coming up in the rotation the same day I finally got around to watching the Jonah Hill/Channing Tatum remake of 21 Jump Street. That film, particularly a chase scene in which Hill (for perfectly explainable reasons) is dressed as Peter Pan, made me laugh so hard I had tears in my eyes. Maybe I was lightheaded or something. But after that, The Rage of Paris -- and wouldn't it have been cool if the movie had been about angry Parisians? -- was fairly weak. Sorry.

My grade: B

P.S. - Movies of this vintage work overtime to put racist jokes in the script even when they're completely unnecessary. Audiences must have demanded it back then. In this film, Jim threatens to have his four businessman friends come over and start singing "Mammy" (the song Al Jolson famously sang in blackface) unless Nicole confesses.