Bluebeard's Eighth Wife (Ernst Lubitsch / U.S., 1938):

The opening gag, justly famous as it is, deserves recounting: Gary Cooper ambles into an expensive French Riviera department store ("English Spoken, American Understood," the sign reads) for pajamas, but he only want the tops, Ernst Lubitsch's camera follows the "revolutionary request" up the management ladder until it reaches the owner, who climbs out of bed (in pajama tops only, natch) to declare it "communism." Claudette Colbert enters to buy the bottom half, the meet-cute which lends the dapper structure its linchpin, a galaxy of comic concepts and objects ("Czechoslovakia" spelled backwards as a sedative, Louis XIV's bathtub rupturing under Cooper's size) set around a relationship's impossibility of wholeness. Cooper is an American multi-millionaire, Colbert is the daughter of a penniless nobleman (Edward Everett Horton); the courtship is rushed ("Lovemaking is the red tape of marriage"), the matrimony is worked out in a wave of pre-nuptial arrangements, termed a "deal," a "bargain," a "scandal." When Cooper tells Colbert about his previous seven wives right before the wedding portrait is taken, the bride can longer maintain her pose -- frequently brilliant in its sourness, the film plays as a succession of pose-imbalancing scrims, in which Lubitsch's classicism gets continually cracked by the unruliness of the screwball genre and by the caustic thrust of the Billy Wilder-Charles Brackett screenplay. The honeymoon in Venice finds the couple in separate gondolas, the two act more like strangers after marriage than before: Cooper is emboldened by The Taming of the Shrew and takes Colbert over his knee, onion-heavy breath is her riposte ("Fulfill your contract," he demands). Surely a film better understood by other filmmakers than by reviewers: The Lady Eve and That Obscure Object of Desire can be spotted along the way, Mel Brooks remembered David Niven at the typewriter in The Producers and Horton's polite barking in High Anxiety. With Elizabeth Patterson, Herman Bing, Warren Hymer, and Franklin Pangborn. In black and white.

--- Fernando F. Croce

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