TCM Picks for February: Pre-Code
I’m pleased to launch a regular feature here at Shadows and Satin – TCM Picks – in which I recommend my top pre-Code and film noir selections airing in the coming month on Turner Classic Movies. For my inaugural edition of TCM Picks, I offer, for your consideration, The Guardsman (1931), on February 21st, and Strangers on a Train (1951), airing the following night on February 22nd.
First up, The Guardsman, starring Alfred Lunt and Lynn Fontanne, and featuring Roland Young, Maude Eburne, Zasu Pitts, and Herman Bing. Filmed near the start of the pre-Code era, The Guardsman is a first-rate comedy with spicy sexual overtones, sparkling wit and charm, fast-paced direction, and outstanding performances.
Newlywed Broadway stars (named only as The Actor and The Actress in the credits) have a relationship that is typified by their mutual inflated egos and their constant bickering, even on stage. When his suspicions are aroused by his wife’s penchant for playing Chopin, sitting in darkened rooms, and weeping inexplicably, the Actor decides to test her faithfulness by disguising himself as a royal Russian guardsman and attempting to seduce her.
The Actress and her longtime companion (whom she affectionately calls “Mama”) are delighted when a bouquet of roses and a letter arrive from the Guardsman. (“Seems like old times again, doesn’t it?” Mama squeals. “This is just too romantic!”) In the letter, the Guardsman informs the Actress that he will come to visit her if she appears at her window later that day. Moments later, there is a knock at the door. The women hurriedly return the flowers to the box behind them on the dressing table and spread out Mama’s apron to cover them. We then see The Actor enter the room. When the camera returns to the women, they are posed, unmoving, as if for a portrait, both of their faces frozen in a countenance of sweet, smiling innocence. It’s one of those moments that you have to experience for yourself to appreciate, but it makes me laugh out loud every time I see it.
“Your own mother might not know you. Your own wife might not know you. And you might put on all the uniforms and all the whiskers and all the wigs in the world. But, as long as you owe me money, I would know you.” Herman Bing as a Creditor
- Lunt and Fontanne were the preeminent couple of the stage. They have a theater named for them on Broadway, were presented with the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President Lyndon Johnson in 1964, and in 1999 were honored with their images on a postage stamp.
- The Guardsman was based on a play by Ferenc Molnar. An interesting article appeared in the New York Times a few years ago about a family fight over Molnar’s legacy. Read more about it here.
- Molnar’s play was remade by MGM in 1941 as The Chocolate Soldier, starring Nelson Eddy and Rise Stevens. (Incidentally, you can also see The Chocolate Solider on TCM on February 21st, right before The Guardsman.)
- Noel Coward’s play Design for Living was written for Lunt and Fontanne, who starred with Coward in the Broadway production. (The screen version starred Miriam Hopkins, Fredric March, and Gary Cooper.)
- Lunt and Fontanne were nominated for Best Actor and Best Actress Oscars for their performances in The Guardsman. (Fontanne lost to Helen Hayes in The Sin of Madelon Claudet; Lunt lost to Wallace Beery and Fredric March, who won in a tie vote for The Champ and Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, respectively.)
- The small part of a bill collector was played by character actor Herman Bing. Known for his thick accent and broad comedic facial expressions, Bing appeared in small roles in great number of features – nearly 90 between 1931 and 1935. But job offers for Bing decreased in the post-war era and, despondent over his dwindling career opportunities, Bing shot himself in 1947.
- The film was directed by Sidney Franklin, who also helmed The Good Earth and several Norma Shearer vehicles, including Private Lives (which I covered here), Smilin’ Through, and The Barretts of Wimpole Street.
- Zasu Pitts (the maid, Liesl) and Maude Eburne (Mama) also co-starred with Roland Young (Bernhardt, the critic) in Ruggles of Red Gap in 1935.
- Lunt and Fontanne turned down other film offers, concentrating mostly on their stage career and a handful of television appearances. Lunt was once quoted as saying, “We can be bought, but we can’t be bored.”
Stay tuned for coverage of my film noir TCM pick for February, Strangers on a Train.