Thursday, January 31, 2008

Watched December 17-23, 2007 (part one): Murnau and Lubitsch

Tabu: A Story of the South Seas (F.W. Murnau, 1931)

On a frigid winter day, what could be more consoling than watching a movie about the South Seas? Because the weather was so arctic, and my copy of the new Masters of Cinema DVD of Murnau's Tabu had just arrived, this seemed like an obvious viewing choice.

An island maiden and a young fisherman are in love, but torn asunder when the maiden is chosen to be a new "sacred virgin". They flee from one island to another in the South Seas, and think they have found a place they can be safe and happy together. But they are followed by an old warrior sent to proclaim the taboo -- and bring the girl back. Their attempt to flee further is undermined by corrupt behavior by the residents of the more "civilized" island they had fled to.

The story sounds rather hokey -- and the entire cast is made up of non-professionals. But the South Sea settings are beautiful -- and the young leads are good-looking. And Murnau and his cinematographer (Floyd Crosby, with some assistance by Robert Flaherty) make the most of the locale and the cast. Surely the fact that Murnau chose to make this as a "silent" film (it has a musical score-- but no speech) makes it easier for the film to cast is spell.

No real point in detailed discussion of the film's history (and virtues) -- as Master of Cinema's DVD not only looks wonderful but contains copious background information and documentation about the film. More pictures:

The Shop Around the Corner (Ernst Lubitsch, 1940)

In the lead up to Christmas, our family wanted to watch a film suitable to the season -- so we settled on this, one of Lubitsch's most sweet-natured films, because its climax takes place on Christmas Eve. The film was a perfect choice, with everyone agreeing it was even better than they remembered.

The cast here is near perfect, not just the principals (Jimmy Stewart and Margaret Sullavan), but the entire roster (my favorite of all -- Felix Brassart, as Stewart's meek but honest colleague and friend). And Frank Morgan (better knowmn as the Wizard of Oz) is quite good as the (maritaly) beleaguered shop owner. Stewart is especially good here because he is less easy to like here than he is typically. His character is prickly, and a bit priggish and self-satisfied. Similarly Sullavan's character hovers right on the edge of being annoying here. Lubitsch manages to create an almost perfect romantic comedy out of these somewhat unconventional would-be lovers.

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