Monday, August 19, 2019

Billy Wilder Finds Love (in the Afternoon)

Bluebeard's Eighth Wife (1938) is an astonishingly bad film.  The film was directed by Ernst Lubitsch, writtten by Billy Wilder and Charles Brackett, and starred Claudette Colbert and Gary Cooper.  How could a film produced by this glorious collection of talent have turned out to be a bomb?

Okay, fine, it may be an overstatement to call the film a "bomb."  It does have its funny moments.  The film has a strong start with a scene set at a posh department store.  It's a scene that Wilder always liked.  He said, "The boy is buying pajamas, but he sleeps only in the top.  The clerk is sorry, he cannot sell only the top.  It looks like a catastrophe. Then the girl comes into the store. She buys only the pants because she sleeps only in the pants."

It can be interesting to analyze the weaknesses in a failed film, especially when the film was crafted by the best talent that Hollywood had to offer.  But, frankly, trying to figure where Bluebeard's Eighth Wife went wrong and how it went wrong is not easy.  The film's failure most likely has to do with the type of lead characters that Wilder and Brackett have created.  The film's boy and girl are not the likable sorts you normally find in a romantic comedy.

Wilder later reused elements of Bluebeard's Eighth Wife for Love in the Afternoon (1957).  Everything that he got wrong with Bluebeard's Eighth Wife he got right with Love in the Afternoon.  In Bluebeard's Eighth Wife, famously wealthy businessman Michael Brandon (Cooper) has found it boring to stick with the same wife for too long.  Rather than suffer the boredom, he has paid each of his seven wives a large settlement to get rid of them.  His latest wife, Nicole de Loiselle (Colbert), sets out to break him of this bad habit.  First, she frustrates him by denying him sex.  Later, she hires a man to pretend to be her lover.  In Love in the Afternoon, famously wealthy businessman Frank Flannagan (Cooper, again) finds it too scary to stick with the same woman for long.  His latest lover is a young music student named Ariane Chavasse (Audrey Hepburn).  Ariane hopes, with all her heart, to keep their relationship alive.  She figures to hold the playboy's interest by deceiving him into thinking she has other lovers.  Glenn Hopp, author of Billy Wilder: The Cinema of Wit 1906-2002, wrote: "An innocent, Hepburn enthrals Cooper with details she remembers from her [detective] father's [adultery] cases to create for herself a sexually experienced, mysterious (and completely fictious) past."  Michael Newton of The Guardian found that much of the film's humor comes from "a virginal music student inventing a counter-life as a philandering femme fatale."

But Ariane never hires a man to pose as a lover as Nicole does.  At times, she uses her feminine charms to tantalize Flannagan, but she lacks the combative and sadistic qualities that drive Nicole to withhold sex.  Yes, Ariane and Flannagan have sex.  Forget Cooper's line "I can't get to first base with her," which was something dubbed in later to satisfy censors.  The couple's nights together in Flannagan's hotel room invariably end with the post-coital steam rising off their skin.  Ariane's submission allows her to create an intimacy and attachment with Flannagan.  This makes her different than Nicole.  Ariane is sweet and delicate.  Nicole is crude and cruel.  Flannagan can feel love acutely, but love frightens him.  Brandon is oblivious and indifferent in matters of love.  Bluebeard's Eighth Wife is  a love story without love.  Love in the Afternoon is a love story with love in full display from the first frame to the last.

Reference sources

Glenn Hopp, Billy Wilder: The Cinema of Wit 1906-2002, Germany: Cologne (November 1, 2003).

Michael Newton, "Charade: The last sparkle of Hollywood,"  The Guardian (December 13, 2013).

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