Saturday, February 25, 2023

The Encyclopedia Brown: The room at the top of the stairs


Directed by Clarence Brown
Written by Gene Markey (based on the novella Sappho by Alphonse Daudet)

Spoilers: moderate

Clarence Brown's year with Greta Garbo, encompassing their three films from 1930 to 1931, has never been considered the most fertile period of either the director or the star's careers, and to the extent it's referred to at all it's somewhat dismissed, as a debacle born of necessity.  There's some sense to this kind of choleric appraisal, of course: they didn't collaborate because they'd wanted to but because MGM told them they had to, and so, not very enthusiastically, they did.  But this year secured their positions in their industry as sound overtook the world, re-confirming both Brown and Garbo's reputations as two of their studio's most valuable assets: all three of their pictures together were big hits, and that mattered more than their muted critical assessmentindeed, even if Brown and Garbo were themselves disappointed.

Obviously, nine decades down the line, we don't really have to worry about what Brown thought or what Brown's fans thinkBrown's dead, he has very few fans, and whatever I think is basically what "Brown's fans" think (still, his biographer Gwenda Young obviously counts as a "fan," and while not totally uniform in her negativity on these three films, she does call them "some of the feeblest of his sound career").  As far as Garbo's fans go, meanwhile, and there are several orders of magnitude more of them, it's still probably the obscurest interlude of her Hollywood tenure, especially past the first of the three, Anna Christie, and this one is almost undoubtedly best-remembered through a publicity still as "the one where she has that hair."  (It's the image on her Wikipedia entry, and in fairnessdespite how apparently difficult it was to keep it styled for continuityit is awesome hair.)  I do wonder if Anna Christie hurts their overall reputation, frankly, for while Anna Christie is still fairly-regularly screened today, that's not because it's great cinema, but because of its significance as the sound debut of one of the all-time famous people.  This being the kind of mere box-checking that old movie fans will sometimes get up to, I rather doubt anyone has ever watched Anna Christie and then, upon that basis, made the effort to track down the other two.  (Which isn't even so trivial an effort in today's subject's case, a film that has never been made officially available on DVD, and isn't a ready subject of piracy, either.  So how'd I watch it?  Squirrel!)  But this is very unfortunate: I said last time that Brown and Garbo's second film of 1930, Romance, was no masterpiece, but you could scarcely tell from the way I went on about it, and whatever it was, it was a giant stride towards a return to form; but Inspiration is that return to form, and I'll wind up giving it the same numbers as a masterpiece, so we might as well call it one.

This came as a mighty surprise to me, not necessarily because those who have seen it don't have many nice things to say about it, though that didn't help, but because I knew what a drag it was to make; it was not, as Romance had been, a disaster, but it found Garbo at possibly her most neurotic and strange, exhausted at the end of twelve months where she'd actually made four movies, counting the German-language Euro-market version of Anna Christie, and it could not have raised her spirits that they were all remakes to some extent of Anna Christie.  All were prostitute-in-love/man-aghast stories, which at this point she was bound to consider uninspired (so to speak) even if they were actually good, though in this case the story wasn't quite pinned down as shooting began; and I know I keep mentioning this but it simply keeps being relevant, this meant that in thirteen (or fourteen!) movies for MGM, she'd played some variation on "whore" in all of them (remarkably, she's even called that in the German Anna Christie), and that had to have been tedious.  Whether that excuses behavior like forbidding people to look at her while she was actingand on this film, this wasn't just the miscellaneous crew, but sometimes Brown, and even one of her co-stars (though at least it wasn't co-lead Robert Montgomery, just a co-star she shares only two or three shots with, so it's not noticeable in the product itself)well, that I leave as an exercise for Garbo biographers.  Brown, in any case, was at his wit's endit's probably why he didn't direct Garbo in what was planned as her next film, Mata Hari (so, you know, fifteen*), despite that project having been developed with him attached.  They reclaimed a cordial relationship afterwards, but it was some time before their next collaboration, and Brown was relieved once MGM finally took him off Garbo duty.  I won't say it relieves me, at least in the short term: his next movie was A Free Soul and I'd vastly prefer a Garbo B-side.  But before that, we're still here with Brown and Garbo in the January of 1931, with Inspiration.

It is, happily, more of a remake of Romance done in contemporary dress (it was, in fact, marketed as such) than it is Anna Christie directly.  So: at a soirée in Paris, we find a clutch of older men, most of them artists, led by a rich gadfly, Raymond Delval (Lewis Stone), in a toast to their "inspiration," quite possibly making this the earliest title drop in film history up to this point, albeit of a title that has very little to do with the story.  This inspiration is Yvonne Valbret (Garbo), looked upon with varied affection and envy by the other courtesans here, and chummy with her old lovers, too, though she's presently on retainer with another, who arrives too late at the party to prevent her from spying, eyeing, and capturing the one dissonant element present, young foreign service candidate André Martel (Montgomery).  She asks if he's an artist; he says no; and that's good enough for her to carry him off back to his place.  By the next time we see them, she's already become infatuated with his lack of worldlinessshe shall call it loveand he's just as infatuated with her, though she's distressed when he meets her wealthy libertine friends, and she discovers it distresses him when she shows up unannounced while his bourgeois family is visiting his cramped student dive.  But things do not come to a head till he begins to comprehend that her past is still uncomfortably scraping up against their present, and while he tries, for a little while, to accept it, when the list of her former lovers grows past "one" and becomes a litany, he rejects her in anger.  This is not, in fact, the end of their affair; but by the time they meet again, he's reoriented himself firmly towards conventionality, readying himself for service in Algeria and acceding to his parents' choice of fiancée, his virginal childhood playmate (Gwen Lee), while keeping Yvonne in a small country cottage outside of Paris, which is more conventional than he even realizes, though it is neither sustainable nor an expression of the purer love Yvonne had believed that, finally, she had found.

It's potentially a rather invisible thing, but I want to highlight it: did you notice how many people wind up mentioned in that synopsis?  Well, this movie has an honest-to-goodness supporting cast, and it's arguably the first of Garbo's American movies that ever did, at least in any meaningful way.  They usually weren't as sealed within their own pocket dimension as Anna Christie, which if you delete the funfair scene has literally just five speaking parts, and while of course most of her movies to date wouldn't have had "speaking" parts at all, they've been as a rule some of the most cloistered things, walled-off from concerns outside their narrative ambit.  This has generally worked to their hotbox benefit, but Inspiration provides Garbo's character with an actual social circlenot just a notional one, eitherand distinct dynamics between Yvonne and each of her friends, the most distinct being her worst frenemy (Judith Vossellini), who prosecutes a whole vendetta against Yvonne out of jealousy for the affair that her boyfriend-employer, a sculptor (John Miljan), has appeared to have already stopped pursuing out of respect for his ex-girlfriend's actual love story.  It's interesting, in this grand sweep of Garbo movies, not just for presenting its bohemian milieu in shades of gray (for it is surely not without its perils), but because it does a lot to normalize and humanize a type who's ordinarily imposed upon us in outright mythic termswithout, importantly, ever forgetting that a certain mythic pose must still be struck, though maybe that's just what you're going to get with any Garbo performance, even one permitted to be as loose and approaching a "normal" as this.

Nor is there anything inefficient about it: a 74 minute melodrama could hardly afford to be, but besides all of these social scenes having very salient plot function, Gene Markey's witty, clever script manages to work those dynamics into scenes that almost always involve Garbo or Montgomery, and usually both.  There are only two times we leave either of our principals; the first is early, in an odd POV long take through the eyes of Yvonne's keeper, his gaze quasi-villainous and with overtones of audience implication; the second comes much later, with Stone's charming chickenhawk and his new toy, Liane (Karen Morley, Brown's recent discovery and the co-star Garbo apparently hated).  I don't know if Brown or Markey would've thought of it in exactly these terms, but they intuitively understood that to break perspective like this it would have to be pretty damned important to their storyand while the latter scene does still impact the plot, it's so saliently thematic, and so much the lynchpin of Brown's visual metaphors, that it would be crucial even if it didn't.

We'll come back around to that, after the very minor critique: there's undeniably romance here, but it's not urgently clear what Yvonne sees in this, frankly, undistinguished and unremarkable young man.  Sheand the screenplaymanage to suggest that his very domestication is an element of the attraction, and Garbo supplies chemistry on Montgomery's behalf, even if André is defined by awkwardness.  Given playful scenes that emphasize something like a return to innocence for Yvonne, it's enough and more than enough (Montgomery is also very handsome) to get by, until such time as the plot begins to put some genuinely ugly wrinkles into André's baby-smooth personality.  Montgomery isn't too far from Gavin Gordon's gormless lover in Romance (André is introduced to Yvonne by almost screwing up the Garbo/Gilbert "lighting a cigarette" bit), but it's pitched in a different timbre and through rather different convolutionsthe problem, maybe, is that it takes a lot of the movie before one at last stops asking "is Montgomery actually a competent actor?", which may not ever be completely resolved here; he would become a major leading man, so I assume the answer is "yes," but I'd testify there is legitimately at least one moment where he has to search his memory banks to remember what his dialogue is, in a take of sufficient technical complexity that they weren't going to redo it over a not-quite-a-flub.  Yet whether it's a completely-independent choice or not, the almost-forgetting-his-lines stammers and sometimes flatly-recititative quality of his reads eventually winds up supporting the character anyway, even if this isn't fully integrated till a good while has passed, in one of the best little directorial flourishes of the film, as André's family makes decisions for him and he stands stiffly in the rear of a very large room, his back literally against a wall, Brown's camera moving implacably closer as Montgomery's eyes dart back and forth with nervous energy, like he doesn't fully comprehend what's happening, but is pretty sure he should keep pretending he does.

"Little" flourish implies "big" ones, and despite a late start, Brown has finally gotten used enough to sound (on this, his fifth talkie) to start really doing things again, beyond the tasteful but tentative moves on Romance, and so far beyond the cramped aesthetics of Anna Christie and non-aesthetics of Navy Blues one's tempted just to call them mulligans.  Perhaps it was a way of coping with the Garbo of it all, but he was perhaps as unthrilled with the story as she was and, like Garbo (however unprofessional she could seem), he applied himself to the utmost to make it work as well as he could.  Whatever it was, Inspiration is damned ambitious for 1931.

Not blindly so, either!  But it'll take a few minutes, because besides the very first shot, opening on a champagne fountain, our first scene (and first scene alone) does flirt with active badnessbesides a Russian novelty dance that exists purely as a creature of editing and also for no very good reason, Brown and editor Hugh Wynn are just deeply uncertain about the eyelines between Garbo, Stone, and Montgomery.  But the instant we set foot in the key set, André's building, things start looking upliterally, I suppose, since the key feature of this key set is a staircase that twists at angles like a strange snake around the enclosure.  It's downright expressionist in its complexionit will later be the basis, on a less happy occasion, for some truly gruesome shadow-work from cinematographer William Danielsbut for now what it's expressing is the joy of anticipation, savored as Garbo and Montgomery begin a shockingly long ascent to André's top-floor room.  The astounding thing here is that this is one take, captured from a turntable on a hydraulic lift that rises and circles with our new lovers at play (not quite in sync with them, which may not be fully on purpose but has its own rewards, the camera sometimes continuing to slowly rise even when they stop to fool around).

And it's wonderfully romantic (maybe a little suggestive) even before it's anything else, though it's also a terrifically bold thing to try with sound recording still posing serious challengesif Anna Christie and even Romance pale in comparison to, for instance, Lewis Milestone's All Quiet on the Western Front, Inspiration beats the early sound miracleworker's similar walk-and-talk in Rain to the punch by a year, and Rain didn't have a y-axis.  It is, more significantly for the film itself, symbolic foreshadowing and in the most keenly felt way, especially as that symbol gets complicated: this staircase scene is repeated when André shoos Yvonne away from his family, which is only mostly in one takeMontgomery hesitates to descend, and the necessity of cutting back separates him completely from Garbo (and early sound strikes back, in the form of a noticeably different hum in Mongtomery's cutaways, and it's the only real technical problem with either of these sequences).  We do not return to this set again (though there are several other beautiful and emotionally-charged Cedric Gibbons sets, particularly the room Yvonne obtains after giving up the privileges of her profession, which is so cramped and full of oppressive geometry it's like what you dream of in the witch house; I am also very impressed with the use of precipitation as a whole second visual scheme, rain in the obvious way you would use rain, but surely used well, but, in the end, turned to snow, the chill of emotions that have now hardened into decisive action).  Yet Brown is hardly finished with stairs-as-narrative: another set of stairs (and long takes) launches us into the climax, with a side-plot that's been present all along but scarcely insisted-upon turning out to be gut-punching tragedy, inviting you to finally notice what parallels there might be to draw from it.

Which is what makes Inspiration so surprisingly great, above and beyond its technically-audacious setpieces, and confirms it as one of Brown's smartest, sharpest-edged movies.  Disdainful of intellectualism as such, even if he was no stranger to complexity, Brown's romantic melodramas were not always such well-built vehicles for prosecuting an argument.  Obviously, I don't want to downplay it as a weepy: it's very effective at that.  (I also appreciate that André isn't a complete prudish maniac: he at least makes a half-assed attempt to reconcile himself to Yvonne.)  But Markey's script, borne out fully by Brown's direction, makes vicious observations about its characters, their milieu, and how carelessly they treat love, maybe wondering aloud if most men even do.  (Stone, though not as major a factor here as in Romance, is somehow playing exactly the same character and exactly his opposite, and it was genuinely painful to discover how monstrous he could be, even though Delval, in his way, has never been unkind.)

There's subtlety to this, rendering much of its commentary by way of the funhouse mirror of its bohemian ne'er-do-wells; but inch by inch, stolidly conservative André becomes more like them even as they repulse him, exactly the thing Yvonne wanted to leave behind.  It's not clear he ever understands this, beyond the foggy idea that he's done wrong, but whatever the nature of his epiphany, it's too late for it; it was probably too late already, on the stairs.  It's a difficult, ambivalent, very Clarence Brown ending, and I love it: it maybe leans too much into sentimentalityif I could change one thing about the movie, I might cut the letter that we're probably not really supposed to question the sincerity ofbut, by the same token, maybe its sentimentality is the exact right amount.  For I do question the sincerity or at least the truth of that letter, because it's still impossible to say if Yvonne's final gesture is a gift, or a punishment, or neither, just Yvonne reaching escape velocity.  But Yvonne asks him to think of their love as something "to be proud of."  If only he were capable of that.

Score: 10/10

*I cannot, of course, speak to Garbo's lost 1928 film, The Divine Woman.  But, you know, I could guess.

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