Thursday, August 05, 2010

Affairs of Cellini (1934)


Historical movies fall into one of three categories. Some strive for meticulous accuracy, some leaven accuracy with a few liberties. Then there are those that frankly don't give a damn beyond costumes and sets--and so it was with Affairs of Cellini, the 1934 Gregory La Cava film. This odd comedic swashbuckler sits right near the start of the director's great run of films up to 1941's Unfinished Business. Despite the 16th-century trappings it does fit with the later films, if you figure that instead of monkey imitations, you're getting little bursts of swordplay. It's based on a play by Edwin Justus Mayer, "The Firebrand," about which the Siren knows nothing. Presumably it drew from the Autobiography of Benvenuto Cellini, which the Siren read in abridged form years ago. And the movie is somewhat less weird than the book, which as the Siren recalls had Cellini swearing he saw halos and had clairvoyant visions and conjured up a bunch of devils in the Colosseum in order to get back a mistress who had gone home to mother.

The movie was still pretty weird, though. Supporting player Fay Wray recalled years later, "It had a certain amount of charm, even though it was a little wacky." The Siren couldn't have said it better herself. The rather murky plot doesn't reward much summary, involving as it does Cellini's need to maim and murder various Florentines whom he finds annoying, the Duke de Medici's need to punish Cellini for doing so, and everybody's need to find someone wholly inappropriate to sleep with.



So what was so wacky? Well, the supporting players obliterate the lead, for one thing. Fredric March was a longtime scene-stealer himself, but he doesn't seem comfortable with this character. Instead he glowers from underneath masses of dark curls and moves like he's trying to convince himself the doublet is an English-drape suit. Which is a shame, because March's legs looked great in tights, something that can be said of very few actors. Maybe (here the Siren indulges in idle speculation) maybe March, one of Hollywood's staunchest liberals, had a bit of trouble finding a way into playing an artist, even a great artist, who wrote with perfect sang-froid about beating the hell out of his mistresses and was also a viperous court intriguer, (possible) political assassin and plain old murderer. But the problem is less with March, a fine actor, and more that the script marginalizes its own title character. Cellini's art is confined to one scene in his workshop where he's making his assistant do all the labor. He's reacting to the plots of others as much as he's doing his own scheming, and Cellini's lines aren't as funny, either. And that's also a shame, because March could time a joke to the millisecond, as he showed in Design for Living and Nothing Sacred.

One of the few lines March really gets to tear off is "For your own sake, don't be any dumber than is absolutely necessary"--spoken to Fay Wray, who's playing Angela, an artist's model of wondrous stupidity. Wray, to whom the Siren had never given much thought one way or another, is unexpectedly funny in this simple part. She doesn't have snappy lines; instead she gets laughs just by sticking to the unflappable demeanor of a person who seldom gets upset about anything because she never understands what the hell is going on. Angela sucks the crumbs off a finger or picks at her sleeve, stares off into the middle distance, finally tunes into the conversation, listens patiently and then, having visibly decided that the man isn't saying one thing worth hearing, goes back to whatever constitutes her inner life. The longer Angela stuck around, the more the Siren enjoyed her, and she was often more interesting than Cellini.

The movie's primary flaw, though, was the Duke de Medici. Frank Morgan's Best Actor nomination for Affairs is often cited as a reason why the Academy needed a supporting category, proving that this unavailable-on-home-anything movie hasn't been seen much. Morgan's got almost as much screen time as March, and his performance dominates the movie. Which is not a good thing, or at least the Siren didn't think so. Understand, the Siren finds the actor delightful in many things, including The Shop Around the Corner (easily his best work), Bombshell and The Wizard of Oz. But if you saw Oz (and hasn't everyone?) you will immediately recognize Morgan as de Medici. It's the same performance. The stammering, the stop-and-start motion, the furtive looks, even the humbug. There are some places where the tricks are still funny, particularly in his dinner scene with Angela. The Duke tries to slide one raddled hand up Angela's arm and Wray looks at him like he's picking his teeth with his fork: "What are you doing that for?" Great line delivery by Wray. Angela really does want to know why his hand is on her arm. She really is that stupid. Responds Morgan, as baffled as his seduction target: "Doesn't that make you, ah, burn and tingle?" And then, later, from Morgan: "Would you like some more peacock tongue?" (Technically this was post-Code. Not sure how that line made it in there.) "Yes, milord." Responds Morgan, like a lecherous Santa Claus: "Don't call me milord. I'd prefer that you call me Bumpy."

Mostly, however, Morgan is just tiresome, fluttering everywhere and being such a ninny that you never have a moment's suspense thinking he's any threat to anyone. Louis Calhern (miles from The Asphalt Jungle, but you'd know that nose anywhere) has some Rathbone-esque bite as the Duke's cousin, Ottaviano, but he isn't around enough to build up a sense of menace.




Thank god for Constance Bennett. The other characters may be dumber than one of Cellini's plates, but Constance is smart enough for the entire movie. The usual routine for swashbucklers, even semi-sorta-swashbucklers like this one, is a fiery heroine with a nice line in flashing eyes and snappy comebacks, who spends the first part of the movie telling the hero he's a common pirate, thief, musketeer, ruffian, whatever. Here, however, we have coolly adulterous Miss Bennett as the Duchess de Medici, more Snow Queen than spitfire. As usual, Constance is the most wised-up person in the picture, going after Cellini and manipulating everyone in sight. Also as usual, Constance was the Siren's favorite, giving just the right cynical touch to the picture's best lines: "The tragedy of all great ladies is to discover that the men with the most exaggerated reputations make the poorest lovers. That is the reason we probably marry half-wits." Bennett always seemed ineffably early 1930s, no matter what decade the movie was filmed or set in, and here her silky walk and line deliveries would fit nicely in a later La Cava picture. She's delightful, sweeping into the apartment that the Duke has set up for his adulterous tryst with Angela, pretending to think it's all for her and maliciously complimenting him on every detail.

Constance, along with March's tights, also provides the dose of sex the movie needs. Watch her sink onto a couch as the slinky dress fabric outlines her legs all the way to her ass. The movie looks good, if not great, with sumptuous sets and a few fight scenes that show La Cava's ability to film chaos and make it coherent. Overall, however, if the Siren watched it again, it would be for Constance, sashaying off at the end, ready to keep out-conniving one of the Renaissance's greatest heels.

30 comments:

MrsHenryWindleVale said...

You know, I take it, about Edwin Justus Mayer's being the credited scenarist for Lubitsch's "To Be Or Not To Me"?

The play this movie was based on, "The Firebrand," was a big hit in 1924, with Joseph Schildkraut as Cellini. Later, in the '40s, it was musicalized bu Kurt Weill and Ira Gershwin (post-"Lady In The Dark"). NOT a success.

Lotte Lenya, playing "the Duchess," performed this song ...

http://www.youtube,com/watch?v=9PycMp35I4o

(Can't say I care much for the performance, but isn't it an elegant lyric?)

A lovely piece, though, Siren, that you've written. What can I say in response but ... "Thank god for Constance Bennett" (It's a part of my Gratitude List, this phrase, in any case.)

MrsHenryWindleVale said...

"To Be Or Not To Be," that is,

Yojimboen said...

Damn, Mrs H – I was excited, I'd just ordered a copy of To Be or Not To Me from Amazon!

Let me echo the adoring praises for Ms Bennett. One of the many joys of this kaffee klatsch, in the short time I’ve been here, is how much I have learned, how much my tastes have evolved (okay matured) – Constance Bennett a case in point. She was one of a kind. I thank the various parties responsible for the Come to Jesus moments in my cinematic development – you know who you are.

Vanwall said...

M Yo - Cellini had a Come to the Devil moment when his old man boxed his ear so's he'd remember the salamander that appeared in their flaming hearth - you want we should try that, too?

Karen said...

Thank god for Constance Bennett.

Amen, sister. Those words should be carved over the doors of every studio, film school, and movie theatre in the land.

(Now, why on EARTH is my WV "botox"??)

DavidEhrenstein said...

Haven't seen this but it sounds like fun. The 30's (my favorite movie decade) was rife with playful period films (eg. Whale's The Great Garrick)

Constance Bennett is indeed a treasure: Topper, What Price Hollywood?, so many others.
She had a great relaxed comedy style. Not as inventive as Carole Lombard (hell- who is?) but always delightful.

The Siren said...

Mrs HWV, I knew I'd seen that name somewhere, thanks for the reminder. This one isn't nearly as brilliant but it has moments. And I rather like "To Be or Not to Me."

Y., Karen, David, VW - so glad we're all united in Constance love. It's only since reading Brian Kellow's book that I've gone much into her movies myself, and so she's a new love for me too.

VP81955 said...

This description of Constance Bennett (I admit to have never seen "Cellini") makes one wonder how Bennett and Gregory La Cava might have fared if, as Universal initially planned, she had been cast as Irene in "My Man Godfrey." William Powell, certainly aware of Bennett's flighty reputation (I don't believe they had ever worked on a film, but I could be wrong), wanted nothing to do with her, and insisted Carole Lombard be cast.

I can't imagine Connie would have made a better Irene -- she lacked Carole's manic charm -- but she would have brought her own kind of cool grace to the role, as she did a few years later in the ersatz Hal Roach "Godfrey," "Merrily We Live."

Of course, you can turn things in the other direction and wonder what a Lombard portrayal of Marion Kerby would have been like...especially since she would have worked off Cary Grant, a "dream team" of screwball comedy. (And, in the sequel "Topper Takes A Trip," how Lombard would have worked with the Asta dog, whom she never partnered with, either.)

Vanwall said...

VP81955 - I loves me some "Merrily We Live", it's an off kilter film all the way, and though not frenetic, it has an air of intensity about its fun. Besides, how can you beat two Great Danes called "Get Off the Rug" and "You, too!"???

DavidEhrenstein said...

The great Frank Morgan died during the shooting of Annie Get Your Gun and was replaced by Louis Calhern.

My favorite Morgan performance (next to The Great and Powerful Oz of course) is as the Mayor of New York in Hallelujah I'm a Bum. That's Rodgers & hart's Brecht-Weill-like musical where Al Jolson sings the incredibly lovely "You Are Too Beautiful" and performs in a far more relaxed style than normal for him.

Trish said...

Oh Siren, what a gorgeous picture of Constance! The thought of her "sashaying" in that outfit causes me to bang my head against the wall and beg for TCM! Besides which, she is staggeringly beautiful in What Price Hollywood. The way she speaks, the way she moves -- there's no one like her, neither then and certainly not now.

As for Fredric March maybe his Cellini would have been better if he'd played him as a drunk? I somehow wonder if March needs a "mask" to reveal himself. His Mr. Hyde was much better than his Dr. Jeckyll. And don't forget the celebrated drunks of A Star is Born and The Best Years of Our Lives.

Yojimboen said...

Merrily We Live (1939) suffers (as it always has) from comparison with My Man Godfrey (1936); but interestingly there’s a chicken and egg problem: MWL was based on a pre-1922 book, which was then adapted as a play, then a movie, What a Man (1930) all of this years before Godfrey.

Certainly Norman Z. McLeod was no LaCava, and the later film is inevitably less subtle and, too often, way over the top; but it has its moments. Connie B is over-directed most of the time (awkward wavings of arms etc.) but I think her professional instincts – or street-smarts – eventually overcome McLeod’s unhip missteps. Billie Burke is sheer bliss. (This came a year before Wizard of Oz but clearly she’s practicing for Glinda.)

Brian Aherne, a lovely man, and a favorite of our gracious hostess, here perhaps has a touch too much William Powell in his performance for it to be accidental.

Sadly the author of the original book for MWL (or authors, “E.J. Rath” was the pen name of a husband and wife writing team) died on Jan 28 1922 in the Knickerbocker Movie Theatre disaster in Washington D.C.; when the roof – burdened by two feet of snow – collapsed and killed more than 200 patrons and employes.

WV: “prologme” (WTF?)

Anagramsci said...

I've always wanted to see this one, but haven't managed to do it yet...

an interesting lead, despite my ignorance! Love the March speculation, the Morgan musing (I agree that Shop is his best work--also love him in The Mortal Storm), and the interesting topic of biopics that slight the nominal "bio" they're pic-ing... my favourite one of these is Juarez, which I've always interpreted as a brilliant critique of the genre itself, by a director (Dieterle) who was forced to think about this type of movie more than anyone else in Hollywood history... perhaps La Cava is attempting something similar here? (with March's assent--if your guess about his objections to the film's subject is correct)

Anagramsci said...

um--make that, interesting "read"...

Karen said...

Thank you, Y., for providing shelter for my confession that I find Merrily We Live to be on the overly hectic side. Everyone seems to be trying too hard, as if the director asked all the actors to turn their performances up to 11. That being said, there are some great lines: my personal favorite is this exchange.

Oh, and Trish, if you think Constance looks smashing here and in WPH?, you have got to see her in Our Betters, swanning about in some of the most stunning Hattie Carnegie gowns ever. Sadly, it--like so many other of Constance's best films--does not appear to be available on DVD.

The Siren said...

I wrote up Merrily We Live a while back; I was a bit harder on it than I meant to be, because I do find it funny. And it isn't a movie's fault if it isn't My Man Godfrey. Affairs of Cellini isn't My Man Godfrey either. But as usual, Constance was my favorite. VP, loved your observations about what she might have been like in MMG. I also think that Lombard's essential sweetness would have been a great loss to the movie. I'll say that despite my abiding love for Gail Patrick in *anything*, Constance could have hit the bitchy sister role right out of the park.

Trish, you have me suddenly reflecting on March's amazing ability to play drunks. The one to track down in that category is The Eagle and the Hawk, which I just saw a few months ago. It was sent to me by David Cairns, who did a superb post on it (right here) and I watched one night with my mother thinking, "Hey, Cary Grant! Leisen!" Oops. Not what we were expecting. Grim don't really begin to cover it. But March's work is so good the performance compares well with BYOOL, and higher praise I could not give him.

Anagramsci, Juarez is definitely a biopic that's most interesting when its title character is offstage.

Tonio Kruger said...

"Maybe (here the Siren indulges in idle speculation) maybe March, one of Hollywood's staunchest liberals, had a bit of trouble finding a way into playing an artist, even a great artist, who wrote with perfect sang-froid about beating the hell out of his mistresses and was also a viperous court intriguer, (possible) political assassin and plain old murderer."

On the other hand, March had no problems at all playing the title characters in Death Takes a Holiday and the 1931 version of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.

Perhaps he just didn't care for the script.

One would have thought that Fay Wray would have thought twice about playing an artist's model after the events of Mystery of the Wax Museum but hey, I guess she went with her strengths.

The Siren said...

Tonio, I take your point. For what little my musing was worth, it was based not so much on the murderousness, but more Cellini's being essentially a reactionary and a tool of the Vatican and other power players. From what I recall of the autobiography, while he's interesting as all hell, Cellini comes across as not just self-aggrandizing, but a suck-up and hanger-on of epic dimensions.

But yeah, March's main problem was undoubtedly the script.

Karen, yes on MWL. I said back when that the main difference between Merrily and Godfrey is that the family in the latter has a clear backstory and fully developed motivations, whereas in Merrily everyone just shows up and starts being funny without anything of the sort.

Also, Constance needs a box set, one that includes Our Betters, among other films. Now.

VP81955 said...

VP, loved your observations about what she might have been like in MMG. I also think that Lombard's essential sweetness would have been a great loss to the movie. I'll say that despite my abiding love for Gail Patrick in *anything*, Constance could have hit the bitchy sister role right out of the park.

Intriguing angle, that -- instead of having Bennett sub for Lombard (or vice versa), have them together in a film! And while I don't know how well they knew each other, I am aware that when Bennett arrived at Pathe in late 1929, returning to movies after being out of the industry for a while, she apparently persuaded Joseph Kennedy to throw Lombard and fellow blonde Diane Ellis off the studio roster because they resembled her too much. (Both found work at Paramount in 1930, but Ellis caught a rare disease while honeymooning in India and died that December.)

Had Carole and Connie ever made a movie together, this info likely would have come out -- and certainly would have added to the sisterly rivalry of "Godfrey."

Yojimboen said...

Can’t see it myself. When Godfrey returns the necklace to Cornelia, she gets all misty and contrite. I just can’t feature C Bennett apologizing for anything – no, she’d be demanding half of Godfrey’s profits from the stock market speculation.

The Siren said...

Y., LOLOL! She would, too! That's our Constance.

Yojimboen said...

Service de Luxe, the film CB did right after MWL is up on YouTube; quality not too swift but watchable.

(With Helen Broderick and Mischa Auer, damn straight it’s watchable.)

Part one here.

VP81955 said...

I should add that the TCM message board has a thread on Connie, with more than two dozen delectable pictures of her. You can find it at

http://forums.tcm.com/jive/tcm/thread.jspa?threadID=154512&tstart=0

Oh, and I concur about the need for a C. Bennett box set -- the lady was big in the early 1930s, albeit mostly in a genre that's rarely revived these days (the "women's weepie"). If the reputations of Norma Shearer, Loretta Young and Kay Francis can be "rehabilitated" through the pre-Code revival, then so should Connie's.

cgeye said...

Where was this shown? I will be *so plucked* if I missed this on TCM....

The Siren said...

Like many things I write about, I saw this one through the kind offices of a reader who sent me a copy. I never did see it come up on TCM although it probably will one day.

Karen said...

It has been on TCM in the past, because that's where I saw it. Not in their common rotation, though.

Speaking of things not in TCM's common rotation, did anyone see "Sally" recently? One of only three films made by Ziegfeld star Marilyn Miller, and one of the last films (according to TCM) shot in two-color technicolor. There's no full technicolor print available, so TCM showed a print that had fragments of technicolor spliced seamlessly in with the B&W, where available. They're all in one of Miller's big dancing numbers, and watching the screen turn from color to B&W and back in quick succession is positively surreal.

Miller's acting wasn't so impressive (she tended to have a kind of amused smile on her face through the entire film, regardless of what emotion she was actually supposed to be conveying), but I have to say she was a hell of a dancer.

Susan Tooker said...

I actually owned an original Fredric March costume from "Affairs of Cellini" until I recently sold it to a major collector in NYC! As a costume designer, this film makes me drool. It is a perfect example of indulgent 30s glamour in the guise of a period film...gorgeous! I also am lucky to have a copy of it, albeit on VHS, that I bought from a film collector in the late 90s!

The Siren said...

WAIT, Susan - be still my heart -- did you own -- THE TIGHTS too?

Seriously, the costumes are completely amazing. The Siren has a definite thing for good costumes.

Susan Tooker said...

LOL!! No, unfortunately, I did not have THE TIGHTS!! It was one of his brocade tunics with a coin purse (it actually still had prop coins in it!) that he wore in scenes with Fay Wray and Constance Bennett! Beautiful fabric, colors (amazing for B&W film) and it was exquisitely made. I understand about THE TIGHTS thing...Fredric March was uber handsome and a great actor...Drool.

Karen said...

Ladies, ladies: simmer down!