Kino packages three more films starring the screen's premier screwball comedienne in Carole Lombard Collection II, and though none of these romcoms rank among the beloved star's best work, they all showcase her versatile gifts, endearing charm, and classic beauty. The video transfers could use some clean-up (and in one case a bona fide scrubbing), but the audio is solid and the package as a whole nicely complements Kino's first volume of Lombard movies released last year. All three films are fun, but only the most passionate Lombard aficionados will likely want to pick up this set. For Fans Only.
Kino Lorber's first box set of Carole Lombard films provided a sparkling sampling of the legendary actress's early work before she became a comic icon. Carole Lombard Collection II jumps ahead a few years and spotlights a trio of lesser-known Lombard performances sandwiched between her comic breakthrough in Twentieth Century and virtuoso screwball turn as the quintessential madcap heiress in the movie that would catapult her to superstardom, My Man Godfrey. Like most sequels, Carole Lombard Collection II doesn't quite live up to its predecessor (co-stars Fred MacMurray and Preston Foster pale when compared to Clark Gable and William Powell), but the ever luminous Lombard shines just as brightly.
More mature and self-assured, the Lombard in this box set fully commands the screen. Her combustible energy, fierce independence, and breathtaking beauty make it impossible to concentrate on anyone else in the frame. Sadly, though, the mediocre material doesn't allow her to maximize her myriad gifts. The three films are generally pleasant and engaging, but much like the movies contained in Kino's Cary Grant collection from the same period, they lack the snap, crackle, and pop necessary to make them memorable. Lombard's legion of admirers will certainly welcome the release of these rare films on Blu-ray, but more casual fans might not be quite as enamored of them.
Hands Across the Table (1935)
An accomplished director can sometimes mask mediocrity, and that's just what Mitchell Leisen does with Hands Across the Table, hands down the best movie in this collection. Leisen's deft hand and artistic eye bring elegance and warmth to this sweet romantic comedy (some call it screwball, but I beg to differ) about a gold-digging manicurist who falls for a millionaire...or is he?
Hard knocks forever plague hotel manicurist Regi Allen (Lombard), so when she's summoned to do the nails of the insanely rich and very eligible Theodore Drew III (Fred MacMurray), she hopes to sink her claws in him and gain the financial security she's always craved. Despite a harrowing manicure, Ted succumbs to Regi's charms, but after a romantic evening on the town, Regi learns Ted is not only engaged, but also broke! Regi is crestfallen, but far too smitten to let Ted go. He admits he's only interested in his fiancée for her money, but getting out of his engagement proves to be a tough assignment...and if he succeeds, will two people who worship the almighty dollar be able to live on love alone?
Though on paper Lombard and MacMurray might seem like an odd match, they click on screen...so much so, they would make three more pictures together over the next two years. (Their next joint venture, The Princess Comes Across, is reviewed below.) Lombard - not surprisingly - is far more magnetic, but MacMurray holds his own and Leisen brings out their best qualities while fashioning a touching romcom that favors romance over comedy. Amusing sequences nevertheless abound in the screenplay, co-written by a young Norman Krasna (White Christmas, Sunday in New York), but without Lombard's impeccable timing and infectious sense of fun, they wouldn't exude nearly as much zip and zing.
Ralph Bellamy supplies sterling support, tugging the heartstrings as a disabled pilot who also pines for Regi but keeps his feelings secret for far too long. (One of his lines to Lombard, "Airplanes weren't as safe as they are now," sends a chill up the spine, as Lombard would tragically die in a well-publicized plane crash seven years later at the tender age of 33.) The priceless Ruth Donnelly is wasted in a throwaway part, but William Demarest, who 30 years later would play the grouchy Uncle Charlie opposite MacMurray's Steve Douglas in the hit TV sitcom My Three Sons, gives the film an unexpected jolt when he turns up for a brief scene as one of Regi's suitors. (MacMurray dresses him down and gets rid of him post haste.)
Hands Across the Table may not make a big impression at first, but thanks to Leisen, Lombard, and MacMurray, its humor, tenderness, and love-conquers-all message resonates, and helps this small movie worm its way into our collective hearts. Rating: 3-1/2 stars
Love Before Breakfast (1936)
Most collections have one clunker, and this is it. Though the racy title and provocative cover art of a smoldering Lombard with a shiner connote a sexy, rule-breaking romp, Love Before Breakfast is merely a tame, by-the-book romantic comedy that like an amusement park carrousel goes round and round and round but never gets anywhere. Director Walter Lang, who would go on to direct such splashy Rodgers & Hammerstein musicals as State Fair and The King and I, keeps the film's engine humming, but the one-note script rarely delivers the laughs it promises.
Arrogant business magnate Scott Miller (Preston Foster) fancies gorgeous socialite Kay Colby (Lombard), but to properly pursue her he needs to get her dashing fiancé out of the way. So like any rich, ruthless executive, he buys the oil company for which Bill Wadsworth (Cesar Romero) works and ships him off to Japan on a two-year assignment. That clears the playing field, but the heartbroken Kay finds Scott abrasive, pushy, and obnoxious. Undeterred, Scott won't leave the beleaguered Kay alone until she promises to marry him. When she finally says yes, but admits it's his millions she's after, Scott decides to play hard to get, and his sudden indifference coupled with Bill's surprise reappearance throw Kay into a dizzy tizzy.
Whether she's brawling in a nightclub, bickering with Foster, or getting drenched on a boat during a storm, Lombard is consistently adorable and delightfully uninhibited, but the film just doesn't match her talent. The brusque, macho Foster tries his best, but can't keep up with her, and their chemistry is tepid at best. It's too bad someone with more charm and sophistication - say, Melvyn Douglas, who was originally cast - couldn't have played the role instead. (Cary Grant would have been perfect as well.) Romero, about 30 years before he would memorably portray The Joker in the Batman TV series, nails his playboy part, and Janet Beecher supplies some sass as Kay's mother, who's more smitten with Scott than Kay is.
Love Before Breakfast only runs 70 minutes, but it feels a lot longer, Romcoms should be exhilarating, but by the time all the sparring and gamesmanship in this frenetic film are over, we're as exhausted as the characters. Rating: 3 stars
The Princess Comes Across (1936)
Lombard and MacMurray reunite for this uneven comedy-mystery hybrid that takes place aboard a transatlantic ocean liner. As the exotic Princess Olga from Sweden, Lombard channels her inner Greta Garbo, complete with droopy eyes and droning contralto, but in true screwball fashion we soon learn it's all a ruse. Olga is really plain old Wanda Nash from Brooklyn, a struggling actress who's created a royal alter ego to land a Hollywood contract.
MacMurray portrays King Mantell, a concertina-playing band leader who harbors a secret from his past. A slick blackmailer (Porter Hall) threatens to expose it and also reveal Princess Olga's true identity. Of course, he gets murdered (in Olga's cabin, no less) by an escaped convict who boarded the ship at the last minute. Luckily, five police inspectors just happen to be passengers as well, but they believe either King or Wanda is the culprit. Preserving their respective secrets while in the hot seat makes both of them sweat, but as the investigation heats up, so does their relationship.
The dual role suits Lombard well and her thinly veiled Garbo impression is a hoot, but the surprisingly suspenseful mystery storyline leaves her in the lurch toward the end. One of the few Golden Age actresses who could play comedy and drama with equal aplomb, Lombard walks the tightrope here with ease, but it's tough not to keep wondering how much better she would be with better material. MacMurray, a musician in real life, plays his own concertina and even sings a song (quite well, I might add), but his hard-boiled character more closely resembles Walter Neff from Double Indemnity than a suave big band leader.
The strong supporting cast adds welcome spice to the story and includes crusty Alison Skipworth as Lombard's partner in deception, the snappy William Frawley as MacMurray's sidekick, the always reliable Douglass Dumbrille, and the always hysterical Mischa Auer. Though Frawley always brings to mind the classic TV sitcom I Love Lucy, it's easy to forget that 24 years after The Princess Comes Across he too would join MacMurray once again for the first few seasons of My Three Sons.
Director William K. Howard nicely builds tension and stages an exciting climax, but the convoluted story - worked on by four credited and two uncredited screenwriters (too many cooks, perhaps?) - can't make up its mind what it wants to be. Comedy? Romance? Mystery? Thriller? Choose your own adventure. Rating: 3-1/2 stars
Right after The Princess Comes Across wrapped production, Lombard went to work on arguably her most famous film, My Man Godfrey, which would cement her reputation as the premier comedienne of her day and crown her the queen of screwball comedy for all time. Though the trio of films that comprise Carole Lombard Collection II don't do her justice, they consistently remind us what a unique, captivating, and timeless talent Lombard was, is, and always will be.
Vital Disc Stats: The Blu-ray
The three discs in Carole Lombard Collection II arrive on Blu-ray packaged in individual standard cases within a handsome box. Video codec for all films is 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 and audio is DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0. Once the discs are inserted into the player, the static menus with music immediately pop up; no previews or promos precede them.
Nothing special here. The 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 transfers for all three movies feature good clarity and contrast, deep blacks, bright whites, and nicely varied grays, and all sport a lovely film-like feel that's enhanced by well-defined details and sharp shadow delineation, but there's no wow factor to grab attention. Grain levels fluctuate but never become distractingly heavy, and Lombard's often breathtaking close-ups beautifully highlight her sunken cheeks, alabaster skin, and the faint scar on her left cheek (from a 1926 car accident). The lovely work of cinematographer Ted Tetzlaff, who photographed several Lombard films (George Raft reportedly turned down the lead in The Princess Comes Across because Tetzlaff made Lombard look better than him in Rumba) enhances all three movies, and the transfers faithfully render it.
The only film to receive any restorative treatment is The Princess Comes Across, which has been remastered in 2K. It looks a tad softer than the other two movies, but exudes a lushness both Hands Across the Table and Love Before Breakfast lack. Hands Across the Table wins the prize for the most balanced and pleasing transfer of the three, as it showcases all the deft nuances of Mitchell Leisen's classy direction.
On the downside, print damage puts a damper on the viewing experience. Love Before Breakfast is the biggest offender in this regard and by far the worst-looking film in the collection. The source material is horrifically marred by scratches, vertical lines, nicks, dirt, and even a few jarring ripped frames, all of which distract and detract from the on-screen action. Both Hands Across the Table and The Princess Comes Across also exhibit imperfections, but they're not nearly as severe or prevalent, which makes them much easier to forgive.
Hands Across the Table - 3-1/2 stars
Love Before Breakfast - 2-1/2 stars
The Princess Comes Across - 3-1/2 stars
The DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 tracks for all three films supply perfectly acceptable sound. Some faint surface noise can be detected during quiet moments, but any pops and crackle have been erased. All the dialogue is well prioritized and easy to comprehend, the music scores nicely fill the room, and no distortion creeps into the mixes. Sound effects don't play a huge role in any of these films, but all the tracks are clear and well modulated and serve their respective narratives well.
Rating for all three films: 3-1/2 stars
All three discs contain audio commentaries, which is a nice touch, but it begs the question: Does every movie really merit a commentary track? All three of these movies are entertaining enough, but they're hardly works of cinematic art, socially relevant, or worthy of prolonged discussion. In the Love Before Breakfast track, film historians Alexandra Heller-Nicholas and Joshua Nelson ponder the relevance of the film's title, assess the career of director Walter Lang, note the differences between the original story and screenplay, and analyze Lombard's appeal, talent, work ethic, off-screen personality, and legacy, but there's very little talk about the film itself, because frankly, there isn't a whole lot to say about a run-of-the-mill movie that lacks any distinctive attributes and an interesting production history.
Filmmaker Allan Arkush and filmmaker-historian Daniel Kremer handle the commentary chores for both Hands Across the Table and The Princess Comes Across, and though the duo sticks a bit more to the films at hand, the discussions still ramble and go off on several tangents. They honor the cast and crew of both movies, admire creative elements, and share some trivia, but depth and insight are lacking, and there's far too much interrupting and fumbling for phrases and ideas. Unless you're a diehard fan of these films, there's not much reason to check out these bland commentaries.
The original theatrical trailer for Love Before Breakfast is included, but sadly no previews for Hands Across the Table or The Princess Comes Across seem to exist anymore. Trailers for other Lombard movies and classic Kino releases are also included on the discs.
The three films in Carole Lombard Collection II - Hands Across the Table, Love Before Breakfast, and The Princess Comes Across - may not rank among the beloved star's best, but they all showcase her timeless appeal, versatile talent, and breathtaking beauty. A little more clean-up certainly would make the video transfers easier on the eyes, but they're watchable enough, and the audio has been nicely restored. If you're a Lombard lover, you'll definitely want to add these rare films to your Blu-ray stash, but casual admirers might not want to give up the precious shelf space. For Fans Only.