The Mere Suggestion Of Pajama Bottoms
DIRECTED BY ERNST LUBITSCH
STREET DATE: MARCH 31ST, 2020/KINO LORBER STUDIO CLASSICS
One of the most interesting observations in Kat Ellinger’s commentary for Kino Lorber’s recent Blu-ray of 1938’s Bluebeard’s Eighth Wife is that audiences of its era were spoiled for great comedies. The comic-romantic storm-siege of scintillating dialogue, spirited performances, and frenetic direction sent seismic shockwaves from the 1934 releases of Columbia Pictures’ It Happened One Night, directed by Frank Capra, and Twentieth Century, directed by Howard Hawks. With the industry-wide adoption that same year of its newly self-censoring apparatus known as the Production Code, what before had been more directly and at times indelicately portrayed onscreen — particularly related to topics of romance and sex — was now more potently suggested, sublimated, and scandalized in visual and dramatic metaphors entirely dependent on an individual audience member’s immediate frame of reference (or lack) with Topic A.
From the Walls Of Jericho (It Happened One Night) to the Iron Door (Twentieth Century), the purely and deliciously imaginative spirit of the screwball flourished through a subsequent delicate-laundry list of sparkling sexuality including but by no means limited to My Man Godfrey (1936), The Awful Truth (1937), Bringing Up Baby (1938), Midnight (1939), His Girl Friday (1940), and the eternally unimpeachable comedies of writer-director Preston Sturges, culminating in 1942’s Palm Beach Story. And while revered romantic comedy director Ernst Lubitsch’s 1938 film Bluebeard’s Eighth Wife, starring Gary Cooper and Claudette Colbert, has suffered critically in comparison to those films listed above, it is, among the German-born director’s great Hollywood comedies — including Trouble in Paradise (1932), Design for Living (1933), and the immediately subsequent Ninotchka (1939) — the film that can most accurately be described as a Screwball Comedy. The sartorial disposition of nightwear, among other, even more taboo subjects, finds screen-potent expression of its own in Lubitsch’s filmic interpretation of Billy Wilder and Charles Brackett’s unapologetically risqué script (the venerable team’s very first together). All suggesting on a latterday view that Bluebeard’s Eighth Wife may yet find its way to the upper echelons of the considerable and ever-deepening genre pantheon.
American millionaire Gary Cooper enters a multi-lingual French Riviera lingerie boutique as the film opens, the Midwestern investment tycoon storefront greeted by a descending list of written legends ending in “English Spoken, American Understood”. The latter is sorely put to test as Cooper attempts to buy a pair of pajamas without their trousers; sending a tidal wave of scandal throughout the formerly sedate upscale establishment that ultimately drags the president of the venerable firm out of bed to reveal he too goes pajama-bottomless in the vulnerable hours of the evening. Fortunately, the concurrently satisfying if testy meet-cute between our leads Cooper and Claudette Colbert, the latter introduced attempting to buy pajama tops for an equally scandalously unidentified male, offers its own solution as the mutually intrigued if still verbally combatant pair separately leave the underwear shop with formerly mated halves of a wardrobe whole.
Subsequent and illicit investigation on Cooper’s part reveals the pajama bottoms are in fact pre-clad for the posterior of not a lover but Colbert’s white-mustachioed father, an impoverished aristocrat played with typically fussy flair by Edward Everett Horton. The materially suggestive level of the story further descends from partial to full nudity in the film’s next act, as Gary Cooper’s international banker attempts to ingratiate himself with Colbert’s cash-poor society lady by purchasing her Marquis father’s sole remaining asset, a priceless ceramic in which Louis XIV once bathed the royal form. Impressing Colbert up to Cooper’s strangely persistent insistence on marriage, even co-opting a potential romantic rival in dashing young David Niven as his personal secretary, the deepening comedic-drama drops in the film’s final act, precisely at the moment of the nuptial photograph, as the title reveals itself in Colbert discovering herself the eighth of Cooper’s previous seven, sexually-disposed wives.
One hopes the plot description above does justice to the film’s entertaining first half, but it is the film’s wild and wooly second half — possibly the bottom part — that Bluebeard’s Eighth Wife becomes truly inspired; literally upending the ancient misogynistic legend of the title per a new wife’s greatest weapon: namely, sex. Past a frustrated honeymoon in Czechoslovakia (the difficult spelling of which having provided another sleep-suggestive tangent in the film’s opening scenes) to peculiarly unsettled Continental married life — eventually depositing Gary Cooper’s fully wracked mental faculties into a booby-hatch and strait-jacket — the eternal war of the sexes strongly veers the male chauvinistic myth towards the delightfully distaff. The female empowering tangents of the screwball genre, enacted elsewhere by female personalities as tantalizing as Carole Lombard, Barbara Stanwyck, Jean Arthur, and Irene Dunne, here find Claudette Colbert in sexual triumph over a romantically bettered Gary Cooper.
Part of the previous critical resistance to Bluebeard’s Eighth Wife may stem from the relative brashness of the boisterous romantic-comedy, the more cartoon-like screwball form somewhat out of step with the delicate suggestive layers — keyholes, closed doors, silhouettes, clothing draped over furniture and the like — that tonally constitute the ineffably famed Lubitsch Touch. Here, that “touch”, along with full-facial slaps and at least one (again, bottom) spanking session — the latter inspired by Cooper’s ill-advised and too-literal application of Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shrew (for which he receives, appropriately, a painful ankle-bite) — is somewhat anomalous among other, more restrained Lubitsches, yet here proves unusually and appropriately effective in “rightening” Gary Cooper’s unrepentant rake. As in the best of screwball comedies, the nature of the sexual battle rigorously portrayed obviously calls for drastic measures, and Ernst Lubitsch’s uncharacteristically faster-paced direction and the eye- and ear-raising script and performances effectively deliver on its heightened premise.
And therefore, Bluebeard’s Eighth Wife, while often cast as the rare flop among the legendary Lubitsch’s considerable filmography, viewed today recasts the down and dirty manner of its telling as entirely appropriate to its outrageous subject matter. Making a great case for the film in this regard is the previously mentioned Kat Ellinger commentary, which both acknowledges and answers the film’s lesser reputation among Lubitsch film while playing Dionysian advocate for the film’s more transgressive charms. Thanks to Kino Lorber’s Blu-ray, presenting a clear, sheen-ic transfer which preserves and even amplifies the unmatched Paramount gleam — the studio’s 1930’s films having uniformly risen to the aegis of their production — home viewers now have great opportunity to discover what may prove to them, as it did to this viewer, an undiscovered gem; with its own unique sparkle among Lubitsch films and screwball comedies.
The images used in this review are credited to DVDBeaver. Thanks to Kino Lorber for providing a review copy.