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Film Friday: "Bluebeard's Eighth Wife" (1938)

To celebrate Gary Cooper's 114th birthday, which was yesterday, this week on "Film Friday" I am bringing you the first Gary Cooper film I ever saw.

Theatrical release poster
Directed by Ernst Lubitsch, Bluebeard's Eighth Wife (1938) begins when American millionaire Michael Brandon (Gary Cooper) enters a men's clothing store on the French Riviera to buy a pyjama. He only wants to purchase the top, which is all he sleeps in. This unusual request causes some consternation among the salesmen, but everything seems to be settled when Nicole de Loiselle (Claudette Colbert), an impoverish aristocrat, agrees to split the costs and buy the trousers. Michael is intrigued by the seductively coy Nicole and their meeting turns into a conversation about sleeping habits, with her suggesting that he try spelling "Czechoslovakia" backwards to cure his insomnia.

Michael continues to have insomnia, however, and demands to change his suite at the hotel. The managers (Franklin Pangborn and Armand Cortes), show him a room, although the Marquis the Loiselle (Edward Everett Horton) is residing there. The marquis tries to convince Michael to go in on a deal with him, but he refuses until he recognizes the pyjama bottoms and the marquis identifies himself as Nicole's father. Michael agrees to buy a Louis XIV bathtub from the penniless marquis as a gesture of good will and informs the marquis he wishes to marry his daughter. Michael later proposes to Nicole while she is at the beach with her friend Albert De Regnier (David Niven), but she refuses because he seems arrogant. Michael then sends an apology and an invitation to dinner and they fall in love that evening. At her engagement party, however, Nicole discovers that Michael had been married seven times previously and furiously calls off the wedding. She then agrees to marry, though not before insisting upon a pre-nuptial agreement that will give her the generous sum of $100,000 in the event of a divorce. They never consummate the marriage and live in separate rooms, despite his attempts to bridge the gap. When Nicole pretends to have an affair with Albert, Michael finally agrees to a divorce and, emotionally drained, commits himself to a sanitarium. With their newfound wealth, the marquis buys the sanitarium and Nicole pledges her love to Michael.

Nicole de Loiselle: Mr. Brandon, you're terrific, you're gigantic, you're breathtaking. I wish someone would tell you what I really think of you.

When Billy Wilder signed with Paramount Pictures in 1936, Manny Wolf, head of the story department, decided to team him with another contract screenwriter, Charles Brackett, a former drama critic of The New Yorker. Though their very dissimilar styles and personalities clashed constantly, they worked perfectly as a writing team and their association would last for more than a decade. The first film that Wilder and Brackett co-wrote was Bluebeard's Eighth Wife, an adaptation of a play by Alfred Savoir that had previously been filmed in 1923 with Gloria Swanson.

Ernst Lubitsch on the set
When he was preparing Bluebeard's Eighth Wife for filming, which began in October 1937, Ernst Lubitsch wanted Charles Brackett alone to write the screenplay. He didn't ask for Wilder because he didn't want to give the impression that he was a German-born director who favored hiring members of the German immigrant community in Hollywood. But when Wolf told Lubitsch that Brackett and Wilder were a team, he had to take him anyway. Lubitsch was Wilder's idol and he was fascinated by the way his mind worked in devising and directing scenes. Lubitsch was a perfectionist and he always insisted on polishing a screenplay until it was as good as possible, often making his own little additions to it.

If truth were known, [Lubitsch] was the best writer that ever lived. Most of the 'Lubitsch touches' came from him. I remember in Bluebeard, the script had a scene where Gary Cooper walks into a department store in Nice and sees some signs. One of them says 'Se Habla Español,' another one says 'English Spoken Here.' [Lubitsch] took a pencil and wrote underneath that 'American understood'. A tiny little joke, but it meant everything.
(Billy Wilder)

A classic "Lubitsch touch"

Lubitsch had enjoyed working with Claudette Colbert so much in The Smilling Lieutenant (1931) that he didn't think twice about casting her in the female lead. This was also Gary Cooper's second film with Lubitsch, who had previously directed him in Design For Living (1933). Coincidently, this was also Cooper and Colbert's second time working together, after starring in Edward Sloman's drama His Woman (1931). Though this was not Cooper's first comedy, he was apparently terrified of working with Colbert in one, since he considered her to be an expert in the genre.

For the role of Albert de Regnier, Paramount borrowed David Niven from MGM. Niven was absolutely delighted to be working with Lubitsch, Cooper and Colbert and later recalled his time on the set of Bluebeard's Eighth Wife as one of the happiest in his life.
Working with Lubitsch in the company of such professional experts and such privately wonderful human beings as Gary Cooper and Claudette Colbert was a joy that last for about three months.
(David Niven)

Ernst Lubitsch, Gary Cooper and Claudette Colbert on the set

Upon its March 1938 release, despite the hilarity and good fellowship that prevailed during the film's production, the critical response for Bluebeard's Eighth Wife was not very enthusiastic. Though Colbert and the supporting cast received some good notices, as well as Wilder and Brackett's script and Lubitsch direction, Gary Cooper was considered to be terribly miscast. After he had appeared as the boyish innocent Longfellow Deeds in Frank Capra's Mr. Deeds Goes to Town (1936), audiences didn't seem to be able to accept him as a worldly philanderer.

Personally, I think the film is absolutely fabulous. The script is genius, Gary Cooper and Claudette Colbert's chemistry is on the spot and I have no problem whatsoever believing in him as a multi-marrying millionaire. At first, I thought that maybe that was because this was the first time I ever saw Gary Cooper in a film and therefore had no idea what kind of actor he was and what kind of roles he played and what his screen persona was like. But I've seen twenty other Gary Cooper films since Bluebeard's Eight Wife and I still don't find him at all miscast. Either way, I absolutely loved this film and it made laugh out loud several times throughout its 85 minutes. Any film that can make me laugh as much as Bluebeard's Eighth Wife did is a winner in my eyes. I still don't know how to spell "Czechoslovakia" backwards, though.


____________________________
SOURCES:
Claudette Colbert: She Walked in Beauty by Bernard F. Dick (2008) | Ernst Lubitsch: Laughter in Paradise by Scott Eyman (2000) | Gary Cooper: American Hero by Jeffrey Meyers (2001) | Some Like It Wilder: The Life and Controversial Films of Billy Wilder by Gene Phillips (2010) | The Moon's a Balloon by David Niven (2005)

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