Arise, My Love (1940, Mitchell Leisen)

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A time capsule of awkward socially-conscious groupthink, Arise, My Love is a nearly indescribable Paramount effort and one of the oddest studio pictures I’ve seen. Rewritten numerous times during production to accomodate the rapidly changing political climate in Europe, with news stories like the invasion of Poland and the entrance of Great Britain into the war inserted into the film virtually as they happened, it’s one bizarre Frankenstein creation. That means it’s a rough watch, but also fascinating. It’s not content to simply juggle genres, it seems to actively become an entirely different film four or five times while maintaining (and staying fairly true to) its two central characters. That probably isn’t by design; evidence suggests it was just that much of a mess to create it and keep it timely.

It’s a romantic comedy, then almost a screwball, then suddenly a fawning romance that’s highly serious (and frankly sensual — watch the way Colbert suggestively holds the phone to her mouth, and caresses herself afterward), then a newspaper movie, then an emotional drama, then an eerie, adventuresome chronicle of then-current rumblings of World War II, then finally a propaganda piece. By the end, the two reels of flighty comedic confusion as Ray Milland’s imprisoned fighter pilot is rescued by a “wife” he’s never met before in his life seem like distant memories of some other film. That wife is the news reporter Gusto (the wonderful Claudette Colbert), who’s lied her way into a Spanish military prison to lead a POW (with a death sentence) to safety and write about it. When the scheme is discovered just a little too late, they steal a plane and fly out. Sounds like a dandy premise for a comedy adventure, but that’s only the beginning.

What’s frustrating about this is that all of the ideas the movie discards are stronger than those it finally sticks with. Kudos to screenwriters Billy Wilder and Charles Brackett for not copping out on letting a career woman have her career, even though I worried several times they were about to, and fashioning a slightly problematic but finally believable romance between two well-drawn people. The nimble direction of Mitchell Leisen helps to keep all this from bursting at the seams. It looks like it all belongs together, even if it doesn’t feel like it.

But the energy of the early scenes of the two of them escaping Italy together would be enough for a good movie, and I’d rather watch that than the tired Cavalcade-like manipulation of having them sink on the Athenia then give a whole lot of speeches. (Gusto almost meets Hitler, even!) At least the dialogue is consistently excellent. The snappy characters make their way pretty sharply through the maze: a stint in the RAF, some will-they-or-won’t-they (meaning the war and the romance) time in Paris when Milland gets weirded out by the enterprising attention, and of course, a belaguered newspaper editor. Then some actual preaching to the audience a la The Great Dictator, but in this terrible year, that was justified.

Yet Arise, My Love does the impossible — it makes me appreciate Milland, an actor even Hitchcock and Wilder couldn’t make credible. Milland was apparently a late replacement for the more appealing Joel McCrea, and the film would probably have been stronger with him in it, but as things stand Milland holds his own well even if he’s constantly upstaged by Colbert. Plus, through Walter Abel, the film has given me one of my new favorite catchphrases (“I’m not happy, I’m not happy at all”). A pity it’s so hard to find (had to use back channels) because Wilder fans in particular would be fascinated by it, given how plainly it reveals his impassioned anxiety about Germany in the late ’30s. Not coincidental that it shares such eloquently cautionary messages with Foreign Correspondent, also the shaky voice of a new Hollywood transport. Generally you probably have to be deeply interested in this period and in true Hollywood oddball curiosities to enjoy this, but if either description applies to you, it’s worth shelling out the bucks for a bootleg or catching on TCM.

[Publicity stills gathered from online in lieu of screencaps.]

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