Lopsided Triangle: the Duke, the Dutchman and the Box Office Poison.
Last week, a bout of insomnia drove me out of bed late one night and into the living room, where I turned on TCM and hoped to find some nicely soporific picture that would lull me back to sleep on the sofa. Instead, I found myself in the middle of a plush French Resistance melodrama called “Reunion in France” (Metro, 1942). I found it so hilariously ludicrous that I abandoned all hope of getting a good night’s rest, and instead, laughed my head off for the next hour, then ordered the DVD as soon as the picture was over.
“Reunion in France” is a camp melodrama — make that Camp with a capital C — and it brims with patriotism and propaganda, high dudgeon and low comedy: the adventures of a feckless Parisian socialite, Michele de la Becque (Joan Crawford), who returns to newly-occupied Paris after a long vacation on the Côte d’Azur, to find that her wealthy fiancé (played by Dutch actor, Philip Dorn, who doesn’t sound remotely French)* has turned Quisling. The shock of her lover’s transformation radicalizes Michele on the spot. His cooing rationalizations enrage her. She scowls, she snarls, she sneers, but she can’t budge him: he’s too much in love with his wealth and position. So she breaks off their engagement and goes to work as a shop assistant in the atelier of Mme Montanot (Odette Myrtil). Mme Montanot is the couturier who, till Michele’s sudden loss of social position, has always designed her dazzling gowns. As in dozens of pictures before this one, Crawford once again finds herself working behind a counter, selling expensive shit to spoiled bitches. Enter recently shot-down RAF flyboy, Pat Talbot (John Wayne) of Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania, who’s on the lam from a Kraut Stalag. Pat and “Mike” (as he insists on calling the now penniless, but still elegant Mlle Michele de la Becque) meet cute one night after she closes up shop. Quicker than she can say “Je suis pressé, monsieur,” she finds herself helping him to outwit a Nazi spy (the reliably egregious Howard da Silva), after which they set up house temporarily. While he’s holed up in her flat, she connives to get him out of France and back to his comrades. This includes a lot of fancy double-agent footwork on her part, which requires her to play pattycake with a few Nazi Scheißkerle and, harder still, to keep a civil tongue in her head. And all the while she’s tricked out in an amazing assortment of furs, jewels, shimmering gowns and astonishing hats. Crawford was still considered box office poison when this picture was released; her next picture for Metro (“Above Suspicion” with Fred MacMurray) would be her last before she was released from her contract.
* The accents and languages deserve special mention. Since it’s a Hollywood picture and the action takes place in Paris, English stands in for French. Fine. But the accents are all over the international map. Odette Myrtil, who was born in Paris, speaks her lines with a Parisian accent; most of the other Frenchies are played by Americans and Brits, who speak with their normal accents. This makes the Dutch-born Philip Dorn something of an oddity: though he pronounces the name “Martin” in the French manner, he sounds neither French nor Dutch when he speaks English (i.e., the stand-in for French): he sounds like a damned Jerry. Then there’s John Wayne, a Yank in the RAF. Is the English he speaks to Crawford supposed to be French? It’s hard to believe, but that seems to be the case. And finally, we have the Krauts (most of whom are played by Germans, Austrians and Czechs), who speak to the French characters in English with heavy German accents, but among themselves, they snarl away in German — without benefit of subtitles.
The complications keep coming at you: car chases, executions, double-crosses. I won’t go into it all: it’s got to be seen to be believed, and possibly seen more than once to follow all the nuttiness. It’s one of the weirdest camp pictures I’ve ever seen — and highly enjoyable. I haven’t tried this yet, but I make no doubt it’s even better if you precede it with a meaningful cocktail hour, to loosen you up for the zaniness. I’m happy to report that, despite all the odds against him, John Wayne is really very good in a nutty, atypical part. He has so much presence and male authority that even Crawford seems to pay attention to him. It is a bit strange, however, to hear Big Duke Wayne comment intelligently on women’s fashions.
Joan Hears Die Meistersinger
In this clip, Michele has just returned to Paris, where she (and we) get the first intimations that her formerly patriotic fiancé has taken up with the Jerries.
First we see those Nazi hats . . . et alors, mon dieu, le Wagner maudit! Can the end of the world be far behind? Crawford is all a-tremble at the sound of Die Meistersinger, but now she must face a room full of Nazis, where she’ll deliver some of her own zingers. The Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Marc Connelly (and one of George S. Kaufman’s first collaborators) co-wrote the screenplay. The head screenwriter was Jan Lustig. I’d like to think they were kidding (after all “lustig” is German for “funny”), but it’s impossible to know.
Jerries, Meet the Jerries
That’s John Carradine as the cadaverous menace; he’s one of the few American actors who play a Kraut in the picture. Natalie (Lovey Howell from “Gilligan’s Island”) Schafer is another. Her performance is hilarious camp. I only wish she had more to do.
Kraut Swine Go Shopping
These next two clips are like “The Women” with a cast of Krauts. The ugliness, obesity and barbarousness of German womanhood provide much of the fodder for low comedy in this flick — just look at them: they’re all built like gasoline trucks and have the manners of lady wrestlers. Even their sesquipidelian surnames are the subject for ridicule. God, I love it! Check out the surprise cameo in this clip.
That’s la jeune Ava Gardner as Marie the salesgirl. My God, how gorgeous she is! Yet it was another four years before she was cast in a role that got her career going (“The Killers,” 1946, where she was on loan to Universal).
Joan Seeks Employment
I especially like the overhead shot from the balcony where we see the beefy Hausfrauen shoving and shouldering their way up to the merchandise counter; seen from above, they look like a drift of swine rooting for truffles. Throughout the picture, the Kraut women are presented as extravagantly bad-mannered.
I’m partial to Odette Myrtil, who was a fashion designer as well as an actress. I first saw her in “Dodsworth,” in which she gives a lovely, subtle performance in a small role — also as a couturier. She has more to do in this one; she’s charming and very poignant. And, of course, we learn that she’s also a member of the Underground, who sticks it to the Krauts every way she can, always with a sweet smile on her lips.
Mendelssohn ist Streng Verboten!
More amusing propaganda in this scene. The violinist is playing the famous melody from the slow movement of Mendelssohn’s Violin Concerto in E minor, Op. 64. The Nazis have forbidden the playing of Mendelssohn, but see how the foxy fiddle-player outwits the Krauts.
I cannot explain it, but it always makes me laugh when Joan Crawford talks about music. She’s got another great musical moment (with Hollywood’s feinste Nazi Teufel, Conrad Veidt) in “A Woman’s Face,” and “Humoresque” is full of howlers. But the combination of Crawford, French Resistance, Nazis and Hollywood is almost unbearably wonderful. That ubiquitous Nellie of Golden Era Hollywood, Henry Daniell — the queen I love to hate — is also on hand, but has, alas, not much to do.