Monday, February 20, 2012

Fontanne and Lunt

Lynn Fontanne and Alfred Lunt were America's preeminent stage couple in the 1920s and 1930s. Unfortunately, nobody was filming the stage back then, so there's almost no record of any of their performances from back in the day. There's one major exception: the couple were wooed by MGM to do a film version of their 1924 play The Guardsman. That film is airing tomorrow morning at 9:00 AM on TCM, and if you haven't seen it before, this is your chance, as it doesn't seem to ever have gotten a DVD release.

Fontanne and Lunt (married in real life) star as The Actress and The Actor, who in the movie are a successful husband-and-wife stage acting team, much as in real life; the only difference in the film being that they're living in Vienna. He's incredibly jealous, and since their success has a lot of people cheering for them, he has a tendency to believe that there are a lot of men flirting with her. She, meanwhile, teases him, and leads him on to believe that perhaps he might not be the only man in her life. To deal with this, he comes up with an idea to figure out once and for all whether or not she's being faithful to him. He'll dress up as a Russian Cossack guardsman and test her fidelity by trying to flirt with her. To his horror, she takes the bait! Or does she? She says she knew all along that the guardsman was just him in disguise, and that she was just teasing him.

Like yesterday's selection, The Last Metro, which also happens to be set in the world of the theater, The Guardsman is a film that to describe it makes it sound as though there's not much going on. But on actually watching it, there's so much more. Lunt's attempts (when he's dressed as the husband) to get away from Vienna so that his wife will think he's away and she can flirt with the guardsman seem to hit a snag, like a constant running joke. And while Lunt and Fontanne play off each other so well, they're also helped by enjoyable supporting performances, from Zasu Pitts as a maid and Roland Young as a critic friend of the couple. Watch also for the beginning; it's a scene at the theater where the couple is performing the final scene of a play. If you've watched enough movies, you'll recognize the scene as being the finale of 1939's The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex, which was based on an earlier play by Maxwell Anderson. It's too bad we couldn't have a screen record of Lunt and Fontanne doing Elizabeth and Essex.

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