Monday, September 9, 2013

It Started With Eve (1941)

WHO: Deanna Durbin and Charles Laughton star in this.

WHAT: Though it doesn't reach the sublime emotional heights of His Butler's Sister (directed by the masterful Frank Borzage) or the Amazing Mrs. Holliday (which Jean Renoir directed for the most part, though ultimately writer Bruce Manning received his sole directing credit for the film), It Started With Eve is nonetheless one of the most satisfying of the string of class-conscious romantic comedies mid-1930s child star Deanna Durbin starred in after graduating to young woman roles. As in other films made in this stage in her career (also including First Love and Hers To Hold), Durbin's character  is romantically pursued by a handsome man outside her station, and plot points frequently turn around her desire to show off her singing voice to skeptical-to-the-point-of-unwilling audiences. But in It Started With Eve, the narrative mechanisms are complicated and commented upon by the character played by Charles Laughton. He's an uber-wealthy businessman with a deathbed wish to meet the fiancée of his reformed-playboy son (Robert Cummings from Saboteur) who is having long-before-cellphone-era trouble contacting her, so he plucks Durbin out from behind a hotel coat-check counter and brings her home to meet his dying dad.

If you've seen a screwball comedy before you know what happens next. Durbin's luminous presence gives Laughton a new burst of life, and she and Cummings conspire to conceal her true identity from the smitten old man while placating the real fiancée and her perpetually outraged mother (Margaret Tallichet and Catherine Doucet) once they arrive on the scene. The young anti-couple grow increasingly at odds in their attempts to delicately break the truth to Laughton, creating plenty of grist for comic exchanges with each other and with the supporting cast (also including Guy Kibbee as a clergyman and Walter Catlett as the family doctor). But the moment when paterfamilias realizes the deception unbeknownst to the deceivers, and immediately turns matchmaker, takes the proceedings to another level of intrigue and insight. Laughton joins the audience in observing and enjoying the lengths to which Durbin and Cummings will go to maintaining their fantasy romance, but unlike us is able to intercede when the fiction crumbles as they begin to realize how much more right they are for each other than apart. The second half of It Started With Eve reveals the architecture of the romantic comedy genre without disintegrating any of its fundamental charm.

WHERE/WHEN: Today and Tuesday at the Stanford Theatre at 7:30.

WHY: This is the final progam of the Stanford's summer calendar, and since I've already talked about the Humphrey Bogart and film noir titles arriving on the Fall calendar starting this weekend, let me iris out a bit. This program is an appropriate end to an Academic year of programming at the vital Palo Alto theatre. Last September the venue began a tribute to the century-old Universal Pictures, programming that studio's films almost exclusively during for the last months of 2012 and the beginning of 2013, when the venue showed every single feature film ever to star Durbin. She was one of the biggest box-office draws of her era, and the savior of a financially troubled studio when she hit the screen in the mid-1930s, but had fallen into near-obscurity when compared to her contemporaries, in part because she retired from acting and recused herself from the limelight in 1948, retiring to France after twelve years in the business.

Getting a chance to see her films on the big screen where they belong has been a highlight for the Frisco Bay audiences who've taken advantage of the unique opportunity. A friend who was able to attend every program last Fall was very pleased to be able to return for second helpings of six of her films over the past couple weeks. He wondered if Durbin was made aware of the Stanford's retrospective before she died at age 91 this past April. I don't suppose we'll ever know the answer to that, but I do hope her films will continue to make perennial appearances at the venue. I'd especially like another shot at seeing Spring Parade, which Jan-Christopher Horak recently wrote about in advance of a recent Hollywood screening. Although Durbin's appeal transcends Hollywood. Perhaps we could have double-bills of Durbin pictures and pictures directed by Satyajit Ray, the Bengali director who spoke of his appreciation for Durbin when receiving his Honorary Academy Award in 1992, and one of two foreign-language directors (the other being Akira Kurosawa) whose films have semi-regularly graced the Stanford screen since David Packard took it over in 1987.

As noted at The Film Experience blog, this week is the final week for the public to submit nominations for films to be considered in the next round of selections for the Library of Congress's National Film Registry. Anyone can suggest up to 50 titles per year for inclusion on the list of (so far) 600 "culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant films"; each year 25 film titles are added, usually a mix of silent and sound, black and white and color, narrative, documentary, animation and experimental, independent and studio, short and feature-length, well-known and relatively obscure. There are fan campaigns to push films like Die Hard and The Lord of the Rings: the Fellowship of the Ring into the Registry. I'm not sure if there's been a concerted campaign to get a Deanna Durbin film ont the list though. Yes, after 600 selections, not a single one of her films has been included. I definitely plan to include several of her films including It Started With Eve as contenders for possible inclusion, along with titles involving other not-yet-in-the-registry figures like Lupe Velez, Friz Freleng, Christopher MacLaine, Curtis Harrington, William R. Heick, Brian De Palma and Barbara Hammer, in my e-mail to Donna Ross ( this week.

HOW: Screens in 35mm on a double-bill with One Hundred Men and A Girl, also starring Durbin.

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