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.