Saturday, March 03, 2012

You and Me (1938)




(Another from the late Nomad Wide Screen, posted in full and slightly revised.)

Discovering You and Me, the oddball three-song musical comedy Fritz Lang made in 1938, is like finding out T.S. Eliot loved Groucho Marx (and he did)--where did that come from? The movie is beyond charming, it’s enchanting, all romance and Damon Runyon quips, mixed with left-leaning social realism that goes down easy in part because it’s sung. Oh, Fritz’s preoccupations are there, all right--double lives, pitiless authority, the tyranny of material needs, the criminal underworld--but the touch is light, despite the shadows on screen. The Siren has been a passionate Lang partisan since viewing M in her early teens, and it was exhilarating to sit in the Film Forum last year, when this was shown as part of a “Fritz Lang in Hollywood” retrospective, muttering, “Damn, he could do charm, too.”

The movie opens with a musical number, “You Can’t Get Something For Nothing,” illustrated with a wonderfully abstract set of images of what you can get for something--everything from carrots to one of those terrifying 1930s permanent waves. We move on to the department store where much of the movie is set, and to Sylvia Sidney, who catches a woman shoplifting and eventually refuses to turn her in.



Then comes one of the most purely sexy moments in any film of the era. Handsome sales clerk George Raft is rebuffing the advances of Joyce Compton (the drawling mantrap with a breezy nightclub act in The Awful Truth). As Raft escorts Compton on the down escalator, we discover why--along comes Sidney on the up escalator. Raft and Sidney's hands meet, then slide apart as they pass, in a touch as erotic as a kiss.

They’re in love, and working in retail, but their problems don’t end there--they are both reformed crooks, which explains Sidney’s lenience with the shoplifter. Raft’s parole has just ended, but Sidney’s has two months to go, and there’s the problem: The terms of her parole forbid her to marry. But marry they do, and move into Sidney’s rooms, presided over by the sort of lovable, affectionate, mom-and-pop landlords common to movies but awfully scarce in modern New York. Sidney can’t bring herself to tell Raft that she’s an ex-jailbird. And Raft has been making a big deal out of full disclosure from any woman he loves. That, plus the fact that the department store is staffed entirely with other ex-convicts, many of them from Raft’s old gang, sets up the conflict.



It plays out in expected ways--Sidney tries desperately to keep Raft from discovering her past, and the old gang wants him back--and yet it stays fresh. Raft is often a self-absorbed presence on screen, a big vortex of narcissism sucking the life out of anyone playing against him, but here he achieves chemistry with his fellow actors and most importantly, his leading lady. There’s that escalator, but there’s also a kiss over a spilled suitcase, where Raft’s hat brim just barely clears the edge of Sidney’s as their lips meet. Raft carries Sidney into her darkened apartment on their wedding night, goes keister-over-teakettle as he collides with a lamp, and the actor laughs at himself as I’ve never seen him do in another movie.



Sidney’s allure was peculiar but potent, focused mainly on a wide-eyed stare that she could use to signal hurt, bewilderment, romantic yearning or granite will. Lang gives her every opportunity to turn on the stare in a big way, notably when she emerges from the shower with her hair adorably soaked, her makeup minimal and her eyes agog for Raft. It’s as beautiful as she ever looked in any movie.



Two scenes in You and Me turned the Siren's infatuation with the movie to outright love. One occurs late, when Raft’s old gang has lured him back and they’re preparing to rob the department store where they work. Sidney has gotten wind of the plan, and together with the kindly department store owner (there’s a combination of words one seldom sees) she confronts them. But instead of giving the men a big speech that will shame them straight, she takes a chalkboard and works out, via simple arithmetic, the fact that their individual takes from the heist will be peanuts. The gangsters sit on rocking horses and doll houses in the toy department, taking in this risk-reward lecture from a gorgeous woman, admiring Sidney’s unassailable logic and graceful way with the chalk.

But the best scene occurs about midway, as the gang reassembles and waits for Raft to appear so they can lure him back. And bit by bit, they roll into a percussive number (via the movie’s composer, Kurt Weill) called “Stick to the Mob”--pounding hands, fists, cups, the cutting getting faster and the lyrics darker and wittier, as they recall their days in prison and the morse-code system of taps they used to get news to one another. It should stop the movie cold, and it does, and it’s even more bizarre to consider that this is the last time a musical number pops up. But it’s superb, irrefutable evidence of why Rob Marshall’s dirge-like treatment of the great “Cell Block Tango” in Chicago was such an almighty letdown. “Stick to the Mob” cements You and Me as a movie where all sorts of improbable things might occur--like having your heart warmed by Fritz Lang.



(Many wonderful screen caps, including some that the Siren used here, at MUBI. Also, click here for a few beautiful shots of Lang directing Lorre in M.)

30 comments:

Robby Cress said...

All of the Fritz Lang films I remember seeing are all so serious - M and FURY being my favorites. It will be interesting to see Lang do "charm" as you say. That scene with the gang in the toy store sitting on the rocking horses and doll houses sounds like a hoot!

La Faustin said...

George Raft – what a strange, sad little man. Have you ever read Lewis Yablonsky's biography? Lots of weird details, like the way perfume recurs in Raft's life, or a real-life version of The Country Wife's "china scene". After you read it, a lot of his narcissism looks more like self-preservation. I love the way you can see other actors imitating him in the early 30's – like Bogart – and recently, looking at Stroheim lounging and smoking in Blind Wives, I thought "Hey – that's who Raft was imitating!"

La Faustin said...

That would be FOOLISH Wives, of course. Gah.

Dave Enkosky said...

Wow. A light-hearted Lang musical? Now this--this is something I have to see. I think the entire time, I'd be waiting for the movie to get really dark.

David Jameson said...

Always love your posts. Any talk of it coming to blu ray?

Shamus said...

Siren,

Thank you. Any film made by Fritz Lang is essential viewing and You and Me is wonderful besides (not to mention, almost completely ignored).

It's odd, but two of George Raft's gestures across the 30's seem very poignant: that final coin toss at the end of Scarface after he fatalistically meets Muni at Dvorak's door and this one here with Sylvia Sydney that you mention. It might not have made him a great actor but two indelible scenes made with two very great directors seems immortality enough.

[Re Eliot, his reliable (and well-documented) anti-Semiticism makes his admiration of Groucho even harder to understand.]

The Siren said...

David, when I wrote this up, Glenn Kenny lent me his German DVD; so far as I know that's all we've got, for those with a region-free player. It really needs to come out. A "Fritz's Lesser-Known Gems" DVD box set would so welcome.

Dave, the number I posted is about as dark as the movie gets, which isn't very. Like you say, I kept waiting for someone to die or be unjustly imprisoned or tried by the underworld, you know, FRITZ, and it didn't happen, and I loved that it didn't happen. It isn't at all like he's slumming; he brought his A game and usual psychology and said hey, the depradations of remorseless fate can be kinda cute.

Robby, the toy-department scene is adorable, particularly so if you have ever sat through a powerpoint presentation.

La Faustin, you said the magic word: perfume. This movie has a major perfume angle I didn't even mention! Well now that Yablonsky bio goes on my next ABEbooks list. Raft would never make my Hollywooden list of actors I dread; he's got something, but he's usually kind of doing his own thing, not breathing along with the movie the way Bogart always is. But when he's right for the part he's pretty awesome. One of these days I should write up They Drive by Night, love that one.

X. Trapnel said...

This sounds delectable, George Raft notwithstanding, perhaps like that other cine-biolgical sport The Whole Town's Talking. I've always liked Sylvia Sydney but the shower shot had me agog and more eager than ever to see her non-suffering self, especially in Accent on Youth which seems to be unavailable.

In his way T.S. Eliot was a sly Groucho-like presence among the London literati; there's a photo of him at some Anglican/high society function in which he looks like Groucho outfaced by five Magraret Dumonts.

Shamus said...

Hmm... X, we seem to have misspelt Ms. Sylvia Sidney's name. Who, after all, deserves a lot of credit for sticking with Fritz Lang. (Who, after all, was no Leo McCarey.)

X. Trapnel said...

A misfired synapse perhaps: Sylvia Sydney Greenstreet.

Shamus said...

Sounds appropriately Freudian(-Langian).

X. Trapnel said...

Or potentially Joycean: Si(y)n-apse

Shamus said...

Okay, you win.

Shamus said...

There is actually a S(y)(i)dney Greenstreet-like character in Wim Wenders' Hammett which has Sylvia Sidney's final film role (a brief role but she remained quite beautiful and preserved that same striking appearance she had in her 30's films). The movie, itself is a pastiche, ostensibly about Dashiell Hammett before he created Sam Spade and purports to give clues about the real "Continental Op" and so on. On this excuse, it endlessly mines and reproduces the riches of Maltese Falcon and Lady from Shanghai and Red Harvest.

Still, it's probably more enjoyable than Miller's Crossing.

DavidEhrenstein said...

Lang worked wit Brecht on Hangman Also Die but to my mind You and Me is far more Brechtian. Especially the scene where Sylvia Sidney PROVES that crime dos not pay.

She had a great career with a grand finale working with Tim Burton in Beetlejuice and Mars Attacks! (in which she makes the Martian's heads explode by playing Slim Whitman records.)

X. Trapnel said...

Yojimboen's movie poster link (previous posting) had a similarly uncharacteristic, but just as fetching still of Sylvia S. pointing a pistol Great Train Robbery-wise at the audience.

Shamus said...

Whoops, it turns out that Hammett was not Sylvia S.'s final film (as David E points out) but Elisha Cook, Jr.'s.

Chalk one more for the Freudian-Langian-califragilistic something or other.

Yojimboen said...

I once spent the day with Sylvia Sidney at her house in Roxbury, Conn, interesting little town; her nearest neighbour then was Arthur Miller (other neighbours at one time or another included Sondheim, Alexander Calder, Dustin Hoffman, Marilyn Monroe, Frank McCourt, William Styron and Richard Widmark).

That same day a French TV crew was there to interview her for a series on Grande Dame American actresses. She had warned them up front that the topic of her liaison with B.P. Schulberg (Budd’s father), then production chief at Paramount, was strictly off-limits.

(To save looking it up, Schulberg was the discoverer and protector of Clara Bow who, when Clara one day threw a hissy-fit, replaced her on the Dashiell Hammett/Rouben Mamoulian project City Streets with his new protégée, Sylvia Sidney.
It made Sidney a star.)

Despite the warning of course the French interviewer asked her about her “friendship” with Schulberg. Those “saddest eyes in cinema” suddenly went cold as ice and she quietly informed them the interview was terminated and, all 5 ft 4 of her, threw the TV crew almost bodily from her house.

DavidEhrenstein said...

Wow! That's quite a story Yojim! I can just see those eyes of hers going glacial.

jke64 said...

Thank you for this piece, Siren! For far too long, the CW on this film was that it was one of Lang's "interesting failures". On my first viewing, I was immediately hooked by the "Something For Nothing" and never lost interest. It was also fun to see the always hilarious Roscoe Karns. Personally, I don't hold out much hope for a DVD release of this one, since Universal owns the rights, unless they put together a George Raft Collection release and cram this film onto a double sided disc along with 5 or 6 other films.

VP81955 said...

I thought there was some sort of Carole Lombard link to this film, and I was right. From IMDb:

The author of the original story, Norman Krasna, saw "You and Me" as an opportunity to direct, but original stars George Raft and Carole Lombard objected. Raft was suspended and by the time he was reassigned, Sylvia Sydney had replaced Lombard with Richard Wallace as director. Sydney, who had starred in Fritz Lang's first two American films, successfully lobbied to have Lang replace him.

Apparently it wasn't anything personal against Krasna on the part of Lombard, who had left Paramount by the time this was released in June 1938, because she appeared in "Mr. & Mrs. Smith," which he wrote, and in fact served as that film's de facto producer.

Dave said...

Shamus: I'm reminded of an interview Sydney gave when she was working on the revival of "Fantasy Island." She was asked what her role was. she replied: "Juliet is a role. Lady Macbeth is a role. This is a part."

Kevin Deany said...

Many years ago, the late film historian William K. Everson related a great Fritz Lang anecdote when he came to Chicago to introduce the rare (at the time) Lang film "House by the River."

He said he interviewed Lang once and asked him why he didn't include jokes and humor in his films, the way Hitchcock did.

Lang bristled and didn't know what Everson was talking about, as his films were full of jokes and humor.

He then asked Everson to name any of his films and he would explain where the humor was in that film.

Everson said, for some strange reason, the first title that popped into his head was "An American Guerrilla in the Philippines."

Lang said OK and told Everson, "There's a scene where Tyrone Power is in the jungle hiding from the Japanese. He has to keep very silent or they will discover him. All of a sudden, ants start crawling across Power's hands and arms. He desperately wants to brush them off but if he makes a movement he'll be discovered. So he sits there in agony with the ants crawling over him while the Japanese are a few feet away. It's hilarious."

X. Trapnel said...

It may not be Lang so much as the difference between British humor and German humor.

Yojimboen said...

"German Humor" Mmm...
Group it with British cuisine; American English, political integrity, natural blonde...

X. Trapnel said...

And, of course, military intelligence.

gmoke said...

These people are Austrian so I guess it doesn't count:
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CFltd2838gc

Harry K. said...

Perhaps a more cinematic example:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nzoBAZA9CRA&feature=related

DavidEhrenstein said...

And while we're on the subject of Fritz Lang. . .

Noel Vera said...

"German humor"

M was fricking hilarious! You have to be kidding me.