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.)