Wednesday, September 9, 2020

REMAKE AVENUE: The Guardsman, 1931 and The Chocolate Soldier, 1941

Lynn Fontanne, Alfred Lunt
The Guardsman, 1924

New York's Theatre Guild, the post-WWI iteration of the Washington Square Players was looking for a boost to their box office in 1924 to accompany and add to their lustre as the home of theatrical integrity and innovation. The Board's Theresa Helburn suggested Ferenc Molnar's The Guardsman with the stars Alfred Lunt and Lynne Fontanne. The well-known actors were married in 1922 but were not renowned as a team as they would be after The Guardsman.

The Guardsman had not found success in New York in 1911. It needed some tweaking and some actors who could put across the light comedy. In Lunt and Fontanne the Guild found actors who put the play above themselves and were willing to work for the negligible salary afforded by the group. The work they put in with perfecting natural, overlapping dialogue and attention to costuming details paid off with great success. Alexander Woolcott in the New York Sun declared "...those who saw them last night bowing hand in hand, for the first time, may well have been witnessing a moment in theatrical history." 

The Actor, after six months of marriage, is growing suspicious of his wife The Actress. She sighs and sits alone in the dark. Is she longing for past or future lovers? The Actor must know! He works up a disguise, a Russian guardsman who woos The Actress to test her fidelity. When the ruse is discovered at the end of the play we are left to wonder if she knew all along or was his performance as perfect as he imagined. For the audience to care about these characters was up to the actor and actress behind them. The 248 performances, plus tours attest to the Lunts' achievement. Support in the production came from Dudley Digges as The Actor's friend, The Critic, and Helen Westley as The Actress's confidante, Mama.


While on tour with Elizabeth the Queen in 1931 a meeting with Irving Thalberg led to the Lunts signing with MGM to make a film of The Guardsman. The Lunts were paid $75,000, did not have to do any publicity for the film, and had their choice of director between Sidney Franklin or Robert Z. Leonard. Franklin got the assignment of directing Ernest Vajda's screenplay.

Lynn Fontanne, Alfred Lunt

The movie opens with a scene from Maxwell Anderson's Elizabeth the Queen to establish the characters of The Actor and The Actress, and then we are off to the races with the moody Actor bemoaning to his amused friend The Critic played by Roland Young that he has lost his love. Mama played by Maude Eburne encourages The Actress's melancholy by bringing up the "good old day" before her marriage.

Alfred Lunt, Roland Young

Lunt cracks me up as The Actor goes from the depths of despair to the self-satisfied autograph giver, to the manic man in disguise. Fontanne is a delight gowned by Adrian, languorously teasing along her husband's moods as she plays her winning game. Roland Young is a special treat as he discovers what The Actor is planning. Young and Lunt, in his over-the-top guardsman disguise, have a chase through the street that rivals any gallop by Keaton or Chaplin.

Alfred Lunt, Lynn Fontanne

While Mama and the maid Liesl played by Zasu Pitts believe the old days have returned with the mysterious lover and do their best to protect what they believe are The Actress' interests, The Critic watches with interest the chess match going on between the couple. Will The Actor have his worst fears realized or will his fondest hopes come true? What does The Actress know and how long did she know what lurked behind that absurd costume and accent?

Lunt and Fontanne were nominated for Best Actor and Best Actress in a Leading Role for the 1932 Academy Awards. There were three nominees in each category with Fredric March in Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, and Wallace Beery in The Champ tied for the win. Helen Hayes won for The Sin of Madelon Claudet over Lynn Fontanne, and Marie Dressler for Emma.

Disney's Parade of Award Nominees was created for the 1932 Academy Awards with caricatures of the nominees by Disney Legend Joe Grant. Watch it HERE.



Oscar Straus' The Chocolate Soldier based on George Bernard Shaw's Arms and the Man was acclaimed by audiences and critics upon its debut in 1908 and has enjoyed many revivals. The only exception to the operetta's popularity was the notably grumpy (he was probably born that way) GBS.

MGM signed the Metropolitan Opera star Rise Stevens in 1941 and for her film debut teamed her with Nelson Eddy in The Chocolate Soldier directed by Roy Del Ruth. Retaining most of Straus' songs and tossing in some Wagner, Mussorgsky, and Saint-Saens, they used The Guardsman as their "book" in place of Shaw.

Rise Stevens, Nelson Eddy

Instead of dramatic stars, here The Actor and The Actress are Karl and Maria, operetta stars in a popular hit. In addition to Karl's suspicions regarding Maria's fidelity, he also fears she is longing to leave him for grand opera! Why else would she give musical evenings at home trilling Saint-Saens to the applause of invited guests?

Rise Stevens, Nelson Eddy

Nigel Bruce supports as the friend The Critic named Bernard. Florence Bates is Mama or Madame Helene. Liesl the maid is played by Nydia Westman in the same step-behind-the-rest-of-the-world manner of Zasu Pitts.

Driven mad by his desperation to discover a truth he doesn't really want to discover, Karl comes up with the ingenious plan of trapping Maria into doing something he doesn't want her to do. Here, perhaps due to the softening influence of the music or the behest of the production code or the studio's own sensibilities, we are left in no doubt as to Maria's knowledge of the trick being played by her foolish husband. After her first encounter with "the guardsman", she takes one of Karl's 8 x 10s and draws on the ridiculous beard to confirm her suspicions.

Nelson Eddy, Rise Stevens, Chorus

Musical production numbers are integrated into the plot by showing the couple at work. How much you enjoy that sort of thing will determine how much you enjoy this musical version of The Guardsman. I am a fan and enjoyed the playing of the witty plot and the music equally. Rise Stevens looks lovely and must have made a good impression on audiences of the time. Nelson Eddy gives a committed comic performance that is a favourite of mine. My one quibble is that Technicolor would have given the film an extra little boost in terms of zing. You may enjoy the trailer HERE.


Of note


Rise starred in a television production of the original The Chocolate Soldier on NBC opposite Eddie Albert in 1955.




Source:
The Fabulous Lunts by Jared Brown
Atheneum, 1988












19 comments:

  1. As soon as I saw the name NYDIA WESTMAN I remembered that she had been in two movies that starred DON KNOTTS. In THE GHOST AND MR. CHICKEN they were residents of a boarding house and the owner was played by LURENE TUTTLE. In THE RELUCTANT ASTRONAUT Nydia played the aunt to Don Knotts. I also remember her from an ep of BEWITCHED featuring MRS. STEPHENS(MABEL ALBERTSON). Nydia was also a guest star on BONANZA and PERRY MASON.

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    1. Nydia spent a career playing sweetly addled characters. She is just as adorable in the 1960s as she was in 1930s films.

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  2. Such a terrific post - I really enjoyed the background on The Guardsman, how it was the play that established Lunt and Fontanne as "The Lunts." I once saw this film many years ago, and I can still remember a scene near the end, of an expression on Fontanne's face - did she know or didn't she?

    MGM did another version of this story in 1941 in Two-Faced Woman, with Garbo as the wife playing her "sister" to stir her husband's flagging interest (her last film). As with The Chocolate Soldier, the Production Code wanted it made absolutely, completely, utterly CLEAR that the ruse is known well in advance by the husband (Melvyn Douglas) - which takes the zest out of the fun and games of the plot, I think! Oftentimes pre-Code did it better.

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    1. Thanks. I haven't seen Two-Faced Woman since I was a teenager and would never have made that connection. What you say about the code does nudge my memory into remembering that the movie was polished but had no zip which is why I haven't watched it again.

      On the other hand, I thought Warners had the other guys beat in reworking properties!

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  3. I looked up ROY DEL RUTH on imdb. He directed THE MALTESE FALCON-not the famous one but the earlier one that came out in 1931. It starred RICARDO CORTEZ who played PERRY MASON in THE CASE OF THE BLACK CAT(1936).

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    1. I am a fan of that first version of The Maltese Falcon. I don't love it like the 1941 version, but it has its own charm.

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  4. RYAN PHILLIPPE turned 46 yesterday. He has a connection to PERRY MASON. He was in A PERRY MASON MYSTERY-THE CASE OF THE GRIMACING GOVERNOR (94) with HAL HOLBROOK. He has a scene with Hal. Ryan played a young hotel employee that WILD BILL(Hal) calls to the witness stand because of his expertise in jewelry. Ryan's daughter AVA turned 21 the day before her dad's birthday. Ava was born on 9/9/99. Her mother is Ryan's ex-wife REESE WITHERSPOON. Ryan and Reese met at HER 21st birthday party. They also have a son DEACON who will be 17 in a couple of months. Have you seen Ryan or Reese in any of their movies?

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    1. Well, the family will usually watch Legally Blonde when we come across it, but I can't say I have seen much of either actor. Just serendipity, not by any purposeful aversion.

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  5. I like the sounds of the Lunts Deal: $75,000 and no publicity stunts? Awesome!

    You've also got me pining to see the film. Happily, there is a decent version on YouTube.

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    1. Nice! I'm sure you'll get a kick out of it. I should check YouTube more often - at least before I go to some DVD site and spend money I can't afford.

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  6. "...used The Guardsman as their 'book' in place of Shaw." I had to read that line a couple of times--imagine replacing dialogue by George Bernard Shaw! Sadly, I have seen neither movie, though the plot sounds like fun. Plus, I'm always game to watch a movie with Nigel Bruce and Florence Bates. Thanks for the informative reviews.

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    1. Thank you.

      It's a torturous route to get to The Chocolate Soldier, but I'm thinking Shaw didn't mind since he never seemed to approve of much that people did with his work. Both Lunt and Eddy seem to take a great deal of fun with the role.

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  7. Speaking of TWO-FACED WOMAN-ROLAND YOUNG was in this adaptation as well as the original movie on this page THE GUARDSMAN!

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  8. ROLAND YOUNG was in the two "TOPPER" movies. In the TV-series TOPPER his part was played by LEO G. CARROLL. The show starred ROBERT STERLING and his wife ANNE JEFFREYS. Robert Sterling was also in TWO-FACED WOMAN with Roland Young.

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    1. Anne Jeffreys is a longtime favourite of mine. I wish I could have seen her on stage.

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  9. What are some of your favorite movies with ANNE JEFFREYS? I remember her from an AARON SPELLING series FINDER OF LOST LOVES with ANTHONY FRANCIOSA(also known as TONY). It aired on ABC for one season(1984-85). Anne played the office manager. Some of the guest stars were LEE MERIWETHER, MELISSA SUE ANDERSON, SAMANTHA EGGAR, HOPE LANGE and CHRISTOPHER NORRIS. I thought it was a good show.

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    1. The film-noir Riffraff, the westerns Trail Street and Return of the Bad Men, along with Dick Tracy vs. Cueball are favourites. I liked her appearances on General Hospital as wealthy socialite Amanda Barrington. I have read of her playing the character Rose on Broadway in a musical version of Street Scene and the idea of that show intrigues me.

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  10. Not heard of this one, but Deborah Kerr in her younger days in film does sound appealing.

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