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Tag Archives: The Awful Truth

Maren Ade’s Toni Erdmann

Toni Erdmann
dir: Maren Ade, Germany, 2016
Rating: 9.8

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“And if, by chance, that special place / That you’ve been dreaming of / Leads you to a lonely place / Find your strength in love”
— The Greatest Love of All

There is an unforgettable scene towards the end of Leo McCarey’s screwball-comedy masterpiece The Awful Truth where the female lead, Lucy (Irene Dunn), is attempting to sabotage the relationship between Jerry (Cary Grant), her recent ex-husband, and Barbara (Molly Lamont), his new fiance. Lucy embarrasses Jerry deeply by showing up at Barbara’s house and pretending to be “Lola,” his drunken floozy of a sister (who does not exist in reality). In front of Barbara and her stuffy parents, Jerry has no choice but to go along with this ruse. Only the longer Lucy sticks around “in character,” the more obvious it becomes that Jerry actually appreciates the cleverness of her act. His exasperation slowly, almost imperceptibly, turns into admiration. As Lucy/Lola sings “My Dreams are Gone with the Wind,” to demonstrate her risque-circa-1937 nightclub routine, Jerry starts to smile in spite of himself, an indication that maybe these two nutcases really do belong together after all. Toni Erdmann, the third feature from the young German filmmaker Maren Ade (Everyone Else), is like this one great scene stretched to an epic running time of two hours and forty two minutes — and I mean that as a huge compliment. The film may be leisurely paced, especially for a comedy, but when the climactic, instant-classic “nude party scene” arrives, you know that Ade needed every one of those minutes in order to reach her sublime destination.

Toni Erdmann was by far the best movie I saw last year (I did not include it in my Top 50 Films of 2016 list because it only screened for the press in Chicago in December and does not open at local theaters proper until this Friday). The genius of Ade’s shaggy-dog story, which is written, directed and acted to perfection, is that it takes the dynamics of the screwball-comedy romance and perversely applies them to a father-daughter relationship (perhaps for the first time in the history of cinema): Ines (Sandra Huller) is a straight-laced and uptight German businesswoman (think Cary Grant in another screwball classic, Bringing Up Baby) whose world is turned upside down after repeated and unwelcome intrusions into her life by her opposite number — her goofball, music-teacher father, Winfried (Peter Simonischek, in the Katharine Hepburn role), from whom she has long been estranged. “Toni Erdmann” is Winfried’s even goofier alter-ego, a character with a bad wig and outrageous false teeth, a prankster persona through whom he tries to forge a new bond with Ines and help her break out of her self-constructed shell of alienation in the process. In many ways, the film is about Winfried/Toni teaching Ines to “learn to love herself,” to quote a certain classic Whitney Houston jam that is prominently featured on the soundtrack, and it is possible to enjoy the film purely on this level — as an emotionally rich character study: I would argue that the poignant father/daughter relationship at its core is as universal and timeless as that of Yasujiro Ozu’s Late Spring (although it is also given a refreshingly female-centric spin by its female writer/director).

But I think Toni Erdmann can also be seen as working on another level — one that makes it much more specific to our own era. The action plays out mainly in Bucharest where Ines has been sent on business by her international consulting-firm employer (her assignment is to recommend to the President of a Romanian corporation how many of his employees he should fire). It is implied that Ines’ high-pressure job is the reason why she has lost the simple ability to enjoy life and, in this respect, the film functions as a subversive and even angry critique of global capitalism. The most bizarre scene, and one that may initially puzzle some viewers, involves a sexual encounter between Ines and one of her clients in a hotel room, a tryst that she engineers because she senses it will be advantageous for her career. Disgusted with herself, Ines instructs the client, a shallow douchebag, to ejaculate on a petit four, which she then promptly and shockingly eats. Ines’ attempt to “control the narrative” of this empty sexual experience is her futile way of trying to make herself feel better about the fact that she is essentially prostituting herself. This is her lowest point, after which she will genuinely start to feel better once she reconciles with her father. But while the film ends with Ines in a better place, Ade is also smart enough to retain a hint of ambiguity. Ines is, after all, still working the same job, still peddling on the same cutthroat capitalist treadmill, only at another company. She puts Toni Erdmann’s false buckteeth into her own mouth but then takes them out again. Ines’ future, like that of our modern world, is uncertain. Did I mention this movie is hilarious?

Toni Erdmann opens in Chicago at the Music Box Theatre on Friday, January 27.

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Getting Screwed

The screwball comedy is a beloved comedy subgenre that flourished in Hollywood from the mid-1930s through the early 1940s. The word “screwball” literally means crazy and therefore perfectly captures the spirit of fast-paced, zany mayhem that typifies many of the best comedies of that era. Frank Capra’s It Happened One Night is widely credited with kickstarting the genre by establishing its core conventions, the influence of which can still be found on Hollywood comedies today. Since the humor in screwball comedy is dependent upon language as much if not more so than sight gags, it is entirely logical that this genre would peak in the early sound era when sound recording technology was still relatively new.

The conventions of screwball comedy are:

– A battle-of-the-sexes love story (there is frequently a healthy sense of competition to go along with the courtship of the male and female leads)

– Rapid-fire, machine-gun paced dialogue (it is sometimes impossible to understand the characters, which doesn’t really matter as the sound and speed of their voices can be more important than what they’re actually saying)

– Female protagonists who are independent, strong-willed and free-spirited

– Situations that become increasingly ridiculous as the protagonists pursue their goals.

These conventions are all beautifully exemplified by three of my favorite screwball comedies, all of which I frequently show in film history classes: Leo McCarey’s The Awful Truth (1937), Howard Hawks’ Bringing Up Baby (1938) and Preston Sturges’ The Lady Eve (1941).

When Leo McCarey won a Best Director Oscar for The Awful Truth in 1938 he noted in his acceptance speech that he had won the award for the wrong movie, a reference to his superb work on the tearjerker Make Way for Tomorrow, which he had directed the same year. Contemporary critics and viewers seem to have taken McCarey at his word; the reputation of Tomorrow has soared in recent years as that film has received deluxe home video releases in both America (The Criterion Collection) and the U.K. (a Masters of Cinema Blu-ray). It’s a shame though that the reputation of The Awful Truth, which is only available in a mediocre quality DVD released almost a decade ago, has been seemingly downgraded at the expense of Make Way for Tomorrow because the movie that actually won him the Oscar is one of the best and funniest screwball comedies ever made.

The Awful Truth tells the story of a married couple, Jerry and Lucy Warriner (the unbeatable pair of Cary Grant and Irene Dunne), who get divorced due to mutual suspicions concerning infidelity and then promptly proceed to sabotage one another’s new romantic relationships. The film is based on a stage play and yet, as was customary for McCarey, the final script evolved out of improvisations with the actors, resulting in a feeling of uncommon spontaneity. While a sense of carefully structured chaos characterizes McCarey’s very best comedies (he also directed the immortal and anarchic Marx Brothers romp Duck Soup), he lends the film’s two part structure a formal elegance and sense of harmony through a delightfully symbolic use of doors: characters are constantly hiding behind them or trying to knock them down, and scenes frequently begin and end with characters barging through them. The door symbology reaches its apex in the final shot of the film where a male figurine follows its female counterpart through the tiny door of a cuckoo-style clock, one of the cleverest instances of sexual innuendo in Hollywood’s studio system era.

The chemistry between Grant and Dunne is amazing. They make the viewer feel that, even though their characters seem to be at odds with one another, they each really want the same thing deep down inside, causing us to root for them into getting back together. A good example is the climactic scene where Lucy pretends to be Jerry’s drunken floozy of a sister in order to undermine his new engagement to a prim socialite. Jerry’s reaction to Lucy’s antics is a mixture of annoyance and barely concealed glee that lets us know he actually appreciates the cleverness of her performance. This makes us feel that these characters were meant to be together. If, as has been said, all screwball comedies are about either the construction or the re-construction of a couple, The Awful Truth is the best example of the latter that I have ever seen.

Bringing Up Baby, on the other hand, is a superb example of how the screwball comedy can chart the construction of a couple, which should not be surprising considering that screenwriters Dudley Nichols and Hagar Wilde fell in love while writing it. They, along with director Howard Hawks, clearly used The Awful Truth as their model. Bringing Up Baby, made just one year after McCarey’s film, carries over both Grant and Skippy (AKA Asta) the dog, as well as a reference to Grant’s character having the ridiculous nickname of “Jerry the Nipper.”

Bringing Up Baby concerns the misadventures of David Huxley (Grant, playing the straight man), a deadly serious paleontologist whose life is turned upside down by the madcap heiress Susan Vance (Katharine Hepburn). After meeting cute on a golf course, Susan does everything she can to prevent David’s impending wedding to a frigid woman named Alice Swallow. This includes convincing David to help her escort a pet leopard (the “Baby” of the title) from her luxurious New York City apartment to her aunt’s house in the Connecticut countryside. The scenes become increasingly ridiculous as Susan, determined to prevent David from returning to New York, sends his clothes out to the dry cleaners while he’s taking a shower. This forces him to don a frilly, feminine-looking bathrobe, the only available clothing item in the house. When confronted by Susan’s aunt regarding his strange attire, the only explanation David can offer is that he “just went gay all of a sudden!” This line, which doesn’t appear in any known version of the screenplay, was apparently ad libbed by Grant and, due to the rapid-fire nature of the delivery, snuck past the censors of the time. It is now believed to be the first time the word “gay” was used in a Hollywood film to connote homosexuality, and the line always gets a big laugh from my students when I screen the film in class today.

In another memorable line of dialogue, David tells Susan that he’s strangely drawn to her in quiet moments . . . although there haven’t been any quiet moments. As McCarey did in The Awful Truth, Howard Hawks spins comic gold out of a scenario where Grant is tricked into going along with the harebrained scheme of a wacky female. Crucially, the success of this scenario in Baby stems from the audience’s belief that David has recognized that Susan, his opposite number, is somehow good for him and thus he has actually half-allowed himself to be virtually kidnapped.

While the battles-of-the-sexes on display in The Awful Truth and Bringing Up Baby prove that the women are at least equal to the men in terms of intelligence and cleverness, the balance shifts decisively in favor of the fairer sex in Preston Sturges’ 1941 film The Lady Eve. Sturges’ masterpiece concerns both the construction and reconstruction of the same couple. This is possible because the male lead, Charles Pike (Henry Fonda, sensational in his only comedic role), is so dumb that he never realizes the two different women he has fallen in love with, Jean Harrington and the Lady Eve Sidwich, are in fact the same person (Barbara Stanwyck in her prime). As the kids like to say, boo-yah!

The Lady Eve begins with Pike returning to “civilization” after spending a year up the Amazon studying snakes. (The snake imagery allows Sturges to sneak in a wealth of both biblical and sexual references.) While aboard a luxury liner that will take him back to America, Pike meets and falls in love with the con artist Jean. Although it is her initial plan to fleece the “tall, backward boy,” she unexpectedly falls in love with him. After Pike learns of her original intention, he unceremoniously dumps her, which causes Jean to create a new identity in an attempt to even the score. Preston Sturges was the first significant Hollywood director of the sound era to write his own screenplays and, elsewhere on this blog, I have compared him to Mark Twain for, among other things, his brilliant ear for satirical dialogue. Here is a small sampling from The Lady Eve to prove my point:

“I need him like the axe needs the turkey.”

“Well, it certainly took you long enough to come back in the same outfit.”
“I’m lucky to have this on. Mr. Pike has been up a river for a year.”

“You ought to put handles on that skull. Maybe you could grow geraniums in it.”

“If you waited for a man to propose to you from natural causes, you’d die of old maidenhood. That’s why I let you try my slippers on. And then I put my cheek against yours. And then I made you put your arms around me. And then I, I fell in love with you, which wasn’t in the cards.”

“I positively swill in their ale.”

“What I am trying to say is: I’m not a poet, I’m an ophiologist.”

And the memorable last line: “Positively the same dame!”

The specter of screwball still rears its head in the never-ending permutation of rom-coms today that, for many years running, all seem to star some combination of Kate Hudson/Gerard Butler/Jennifer Aniston/Matthew McConaughey/Katherine Heigl and blur together into one generic and forgettable movie. Sadly, Hollywood no longer produces comedic screenplays with dialogue like the kind cited above (which is not to say that such dialogue is no longer being written) and, for a variety of reasons, can’t seem to make movies that are nearly as funny today. But, to paraphrase Rick Blaine, we’ll always have the ’30s and ’40s, the golden age of the still uproarious screwball comedy.


Top 25 Films of the 1930s

25. Alexander Nevsky (Eisenstein, Russia, 1938)

24. The Lady Vanishes (Hitchcock, UK, 1938)

It seems that 1935’s The 39 Steps has become the consensus pick for the masterpiece of Hitchcock’s British period but, while I do love that film unreservedly, I love this outrageously entertaining spy caper even more. While aboard a transcontinental train, Iris, a beautiful young Englishwoman, befriends Miss Froy, an elderly woman who mysteriously disappears. In a signature nightmarish paranoid plot, Hitchcock has all of the other passengers deny that Froy was ever on the train, which causes Iris to question her sanity. It’s up to Gilbert (Michael Redgrave in his screen debut), an unflappably witty ethnomusicologist, to help Iris get to the bottom of the mystery. This is one of Hitchcock’s most purely entertaining films, which is saying a lot, in part because of the colorful supporting players; I’m particularly fond of the hilarious slapstick brawl between Gilbert, Iris and a nefarious Italian magician. As someone who wore out his public domain VHS copy as a teenager, I am exceedingly grateful to the Criterion Collection for their impeccable 2011 Blu-ray.

23. Freaks (Browning, USA, 1932)

22. The Only Son (Ozu, Japan, 1936)

My favorite pre-war Yasujiro Ozu film is also his first sound movie, an exceedingly poignant story of the relationship between a single mother who slaves away in a silk factory to give her son the best possible education only to be disappointed when he doesn’t grow up to fulfill her lofty expectations. Exquisite direction, including a signature use of cutaways to seemingly random exteriors, nuanced performances and a simple, unsentimental plot combine for a unique and deeply moving experience.

21. Outskirts (Barnet, Russia, 1933)

Although active as a director until his death by suicide in 1965, Boris Barnet is probably best known for his silent film work (e.g., The Girl with the Hatbox and Miss Mend). Outskirts (AKA The Patriots) was Barnet’s first sound movie and remains an unjustly underseen masterpiece of its era. The film is a comedy/drama about the residents of an unnamed town in rural Russia in the days leading up to World War I. It starts off as a comedy that boasts a delightful and innovative use of sound (where animals and even inanimate objects are given voice) but becomes increasingly serious after the war breaks out. Most surprising of all is the tender love subplot that develops between a Russian peasant girl and a German POW. Hopefully, Outskirts will someday receive the loving home video release it deserves and become much better known among cinephiles.

20. Young Mr. Lincoln (Ford, USA, 1939)

19. Our Neighbor, Miss Yae (Shimazu, Japan, 1934)

The one and only film I’ve been able to track down by the esteemed Yasujiro Shimazu is this delightful comedy/drama about the friendship between two neighboring families set in contemporary suburban Japan. The plot concerns a love triangle between a law student who “looks like Frederic March” and the two sisters next door, one of whom is newly separated from her husband. In a lot of ways, this feels like the most modern (and westernized) Japanese movie of its era – the characters play baseball, watch a Betty Boop cartoon and engage in hilarious, flirtatious banter. The exchanges between the law student and the younger sister in particular (the Miss Yae of the title) are highly memorable and infectiously fun.

18. People on Sunday (Siodmak/Ulmer, Germany, 1930)

A remarkable documentary-like narrative film about a weekend in the life of ordinary Berliners, People on Sunday centers on five characters who are portrayed by non-actors with day-jobs similar to those of their counterparts in the story. The film is also fascinating in that it was made by a collective of young amateur filmmakers, all of whom would soon go on to notable careers in Hollywood: it was directed by brothers Curt and Robert Siodmak, Edgar Ulmer and Fred Zinnemann based on a script by Billy Wilder.

17. The Blue Angel (Von Sternberg, Germany, 1930)

The Blue Angel is notable for many reasons, including its status as the first German talkie and the film that launched Marlene Dietrich to international stardom. The story is reminiscent of Variety with Emil Jannings again playing a man who is driven to ruin by a treacherous woman, this time a cabaret singer of loose morals named Lola Lola (Dietrich at her most iconic). This was the only German-made film by Austrian director Josef von Sternberg.

16. Mr. Thank You (Shimizu, Japan, 1936)

Like Yasujiro Ozu, Hiroshi Shimizu was one of the top directors at Shochiku Studios in the 1930s – although his work was virtually unknown in the West until the 21st century. Mr. Thank You is an astonishing film about a bus driver known for his politeness who travels from town to town through rural Japan. It takes place virtually in real time and was shot on a real bus traveling through the countryside (no rear projection was used), which makes it an important stylistic precursor to both Italian Neorealism and the road movies of Abbas Kiarostami. Shimizu’s film is both universal (a bus journey as a metaphor for life – a series of sad, funny, ephemeral encounters between fellow travelers) and specifically rooted in Depression-era Japan (a woman sells her daughter into prostitution, a Korean laborer helps to build a road that she herself cannot afford to travel on by bus).

15. Vampyr (Dreyer, Germany, 1932)

14. L’age d’Or (Bunuel, France, 1930)

Luis Bunuel’s first feature-length film is also his first masterpiece, a hilarious Surrealist account of a man and a woman who repeatedly attempt to get together and have sex but are continually prevented from doing so by members of respectable bourgeois society. This is full of famous Surrealist images, which still retain their awesome, funny, unsettling power today: a woman shoos a full grown cow off of the bed in her upper-class home, a groundskeeper arbitrarily shoots his son, a woman lasciviously sucks on the toe of a statue, a man throws various objects, including a burning tree, a bishop and a giraffe, out of a second story window. Like a lot of great works of Surrealist art, this was deliberately meant to counter the rising tide of fascism that was sweeping across Europe at the time.

13. The Goddess (Wu, China, 1934)

12. Scarface: The Shame of a Nation (Hawks, USA, 1932)

11. Trouble in Paradise (Lubitsch, USA, 1932)

German emigre director Ernst Lubitsch inaugurated his mature period with this elegant, witty and sophisticated comedy about a love triangle between a master thief (Herbert Marshall), a female pickpocket (Miriam Hopkins) and the wealthy businesswoman they are both trying to fleece (Kay Francis). Not only a hilarious film but a very beautiful one; if you want to know what the famous “Lubitsch touch” is all about, this is the best place to start.

10. The Roaring Twenties (Walsh, USA, 1939)

The conventions of the gangster movie crystallized in the early ’30s with the release of The Public Enemy, Little Caesar and Scarface. By decade’s end, director Raoul Walsh and star James Cagney, both specialists in the genre, delivered the definitive gangster movie with this epic and nostalgic look back at the rise and fall of the bootlegging industry. The way the narrative of The Roaring Twenties continually opens up to situate its events within a wider social context (from the first World War to the stock market crash of ’29) would exert a major influence on Martin Scorsese. And, as the heavy, Humphrey Bogart is a match for Cagney made in tough guy movie heaven.

9. The Awful Truth (McCarey, USA, 1937)

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8. City Lights (Chaplin, USA, 1931)

Charlie Chaplin had more success than any of the silent clowns in transitioning to the sound era – in part because he delayed doing so for as long as possible. City Lights was his last true silent and the penultimate outing of his beloved “Little Tramp” character. Here, the Tramp falls in love with a poor, blind flower girl who mistakenly believes him to be a rich man. Alternately funny and poignant in the best Chaplin tradition, this film also provides the best example of Chaplin’s still relatively unheralded genius as filmmaker: the only close-ups that occur in the entire film are in the final moments, which make them all the more impacting.

7. Earth (Dovzhenko, Ukraine, 1930)

My favorite Soviet film of the silent era is Aleksandr Dovzhenko’s Earth, whose slender narrative about the virtues of collective farming in the Ukraine is merely an excuse for the director to present a succession of rapturously beautiful painterly images: wheat fields waving in the wind, rain falling on fruit, a young woman standing next to a giant sunflower and a series of unforgettable faces that resemble paintings of religious icons. Dovzhenko got his start as a painter and cartoonist and his purely visual approach to storytelling would serve as a model for future Soviet directing greats Andrei Tarkovsky and Sergei Paradjanov.

6. The Story of the Last Chrysanthemums (Mizoguchi, Japan, 1939)

The first major masterpiece of Kenji Mizoguchi’s career is this towering period drama about the taboo relationship between a wealthy young actor and his family’s wet nurse. The formal precision of Mizoguchi’s exquisitely calibrated camera movements, combined with his signature use of long takes and long shots (there are literally no close-ups in the movie), is perfectly suited to his twin themes of doomed love and female sacrifice. This may have been a routine melodrama in the hands of any other director but Mizoguchi, the consummate perfectionist, knew that his rigorous visual style would touch and elevate the viewer. The Story of the Last Chrysanthemums ranks alongside of Mizoguchi’s best post-war films (The Life of Oharu, Ugetsu and Sansho the Bailiff) as one of the greatest achievements in cinema.

5. Humanity and Paper Balloons (Yamanaka, Japan, 1937)

Sadao Yamanaka is considered a major figure in Japanese movies of the early sound era. He died tragically before reaching his thirtieth birthday and only three of the twenty-plus films he directed in his brief, prolific career survive today. This is cause for bitter regret because Humanity and Paper Balloons is probably my favorite Japanese movie of the entire pre-war era, a film I would rank ahead of the greatest early work of the more well-known directors on this list. Set in the Tokugawa era, this story of a kidnap and ransom plot across class lines is a jidai-geki (period piece) that feels like a gendai-geki (contemporary story). Indeed, it’s fascinating to see such an unromanticized view of the samurai class, which went against cinematic trends of the pre-war years. This flawlessly directed portrait of 18th century village life is alternately tragic and funny and brimming with unforgettable characters.

4. M (Lang, Germany, 1931)

My favorite German movie of all time is this police procedural/serial killer thriller based on the exploits of several real-life German murderers of the 1920s. M was Fritz Lang’s first sound film and his innovative use of dialogue, sound effects and music (the killer’s habitual whistling) was hugely influential on subsequent movies. This was also the screen debut of theatrical actor Peter Lorre, chilling and believable as the killer, who would soon follow his director in carving out a memorable Hollywood career.

3. L’atalante (Vigo, France, 1934)

L’atalante tells the story of a newly married couple, a barge captain and his provincial wife, and their tumultuous honeymoon-cum-cargo trip along the Seine river. The simple boy-meets-girl/boy-loses-girl/boy-finds-girl plot is merely an excuse for director Jean Vigo and ace cinematographer Boris Kaufman to serve up an array of rapturously photographed images, all of which correspond to the emotions of his protagonists. In a legendary supporting role, Michel Simon’s portrayal of a tattooed, cat-loving first mate is as endearing as it is hilarious. One of cinema’s transcendental glories – endlessly rewatchable, always uplifting.

2. The Rules of the Game (Renoir, France, 1939)

This is Jean Renoir’s masterpiece and the grandaddy of all films about an assortment of friends and lovers getting together for a weekend-long party in the country. The “rules of the game” are the rules one must abide by in order to get along in society, which involves a considerable amount of dishonesty. Fittingly, the one character who is incapable of lying, the earnest, heart-on-his-sleeve aviator Andre, is also the character who dies “like an animal in the hunt.” Like the best works of Shakespeare or Chekhov, this humanist tragicomedy captures timeless truths about the inner workings of the human heart.

1. City Girl (Murnau, USA, 1930)

F.W. Murnau’s final Hollywood movie was lost until the early 1970s, then seriously critically reappraised when excellent quality DVD and blu-ray versions appeared in the 21st century. The film charts the relationship between a young wheat farmer (Charles Farrell) and his city girl bride (Mary Duncan) through blissful courtship, disillusion with meddling in-laws and the austerity of farm life and, ultimately, hard-won and believable reconciliation. As with all of Murnau’s best work, documentary realism is combined with breathtaking and poetic flights of fancy: Farrell and Duncan’s “run through the wheat” is probably my favorite 30 seconds in any movie ever.


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