Director: Ernst Lubitsch
Screenplay: Charles Brackett, Billy Wilder
Based on a Play by: Alfred Savoir, Charlton Andrews (English adaptation)
Starring: Claudette Colbert, Gary Cooper, Edward Everett Horton, David Niven, Elizabeth Patterson
Country: USA
Running Time: 85 min
Year: 1938
BBFC Certificate: PG

Though he started his career in the mid-1910s in Germany and made a handful of silent movies in Hollywood in the mid-20s, it was when he moved to Paramount and MGM at the turn of the sound era that he began to make a name for himself. And this he did to a greater degree than most. Lubitsch was an early example of a director marketing himself as a selling point much like Hitchcock would do around the same time.

With a string of beloved sophisticated romantic comedies and musicals to Lubitsch’s name by the mid-30s, his style became commonly known as the ‘Lubitsch touch’. Such was his success, that he was appointed as Paramount’s production manager, a rare feat for a major Hollywood director. This didn’t last long though, as Lubitsch found himself in over his head, trying to run a studio and make his own films at the same time. He was fired after only a year on the job and went back to merely directing.

He only made a couple more films at Paramount, following this debacle, with the back-breaking straw proving to be his last title made at the studio, Bluebeard’s Eighth Wife. It was based on a French play that had already been made into a now-lost but never fondly-remembered silent film of the same name. Whilst, on paper, it was playing to Lubitsch’s usual strengths – a battle-of-the-sexes comedy that took a sideswipe at the traditional idea of marriage, the film flopped badly, giving Paramount the excuse to let him go.

Given its history, it’s not surprising to know that Bluebeard’s Eighth WifeBluebeard’s Eighth Wife on Blu-ray. I love a good classic Hollywood comedy, particularly those made by Lubitsch, so I got hold of a copy to see whether or not I’m in the ‘pro-Bluebeard’ camp.

The film sees multi-millionaire Michael Brandon (Gary Cooper) cross paths with Nicole De Loiselle (Claudette Colbert), the daughter of a broke marquis (Edward Everett Horton). Michael falls head over heels for Nicole and does his darndest to win her over.

He succeeds, initially, and the pair plan to get married. However, on the wedding day, Nicole learns that Michael has already had seven wives prior to this. Disgusted at his frivolous attitude to the institution of marriage, Nicole almost calls off the wedding but her mind is changed when she learns that Michael’s wives are guaranteed $50,000 in the case of a divorce. She talks this up to $100,000 and proceeds with the ceremony.

With this mouth-watering payout in mind, Nicole proceeds to be the worst wife she can be, whilst Michael digs in his heels, determined not to fall foul of her scheme. As time goes on though, you begin to wonder what each of them truly hopes to gain and why.

As mentioned, and as you can likely see from the synopsis, this has ‘Lubitsch touch’ written all over it, in terms of setup and potential. Thankfully this shows on screen too, for the most part. I’m going to be diplomatic and say that I sit somewhere in between the pro and anti Bluebeard camps.

When the film works, it really works. The opening sequence, for instance, is pure gold. Mixing meet-cute with social satire and a healthy dose of sexual innuendo, the scene introduces us first to Michael, as he enters a boutique looking for a pyjama top without the bottoms (he only sleeps with a top on). The staff refuse and attempt to sell him as much as possible until, that is, Nicole arrives, looking for a pair of pyjama bottoms for a mystery man. Flirting and hilarity ensure.

There are several other laugh-out-loud scenes throughout the film (aided by some sharp dialogue courtesy of Charles Brackett and Billy Wilder) but, ultimately, it’s a little hit-and-miss. The mid-to-latter sections, in particular, run out of steam somewhat, not capitalising on what is a cracking start.

I didn’t always buy the flip-flopping nature of the central relationship either. Nicole seems to regularly change her mind with little rhyme or reason, making for some clunky gear changes in the narrative. I wasn’t fully sold on the finale either, making for a dissatisfying end, though some of the climactic scenes are very funny (particularly Nicole’s ‘trap’ that doesn’t quite go to plan).

There are also some scenes of physical violence between the central pair that could be seen as highly problematic in this day and age. I would argue, however, that the way Nicole responds to Micheal’s aggression (often by successfully attacking him back) suggests Lubitsch is commenting on the fact that these old-fashioned violent ways don’t work.

The cast helps hold everything together. Colbert is always a safe pair of hands but I was surprised by Cooper here. Some have said he’s miscast and is part of the reason the film doesn’t quite work but, to be honest, whilst he’s not a natural comedian, like Colbert, he works a charm in this role, using his stoic, tough guy image to play a stuck-up millionaire who can treat people like belongings. I also loved seeing brief moments of boyish awkwardness and a couple of smiles shine through, most notably in the early scenes when Michael initially falls in love with Nicole.

A couple of the supporting players are perhaps more memorable though. David Niven has a fairly early comedy role here and is a hoot as a charming weakling often caught in the crossfire between Michael and Nicole. Stealing even more scenes, however, is Edward Everett Horton, who plays Nicole’s greedy father. The hard-working character actor appeared in dozens of cast-iron-classic comedies over his lifetime and he always delivered the goods. He gets some of the best gags here.

So, whilst Bluebeard’s Eighth Wife doesn’t always hit the mark and flounders a little in the second half, the witty dialogue and game cast make the film hard to resist. It’s not top-tier Lubitsch perhaps, but it still holds its own among the director’s impressive oeuvre.

Film:

Bluebeard’s Eighth Wife is out on 27th March on Region B Blu-Ray, released by Indicator. There’s minimal damage to this very old picture and it looks pretty sharp too. The audio is similarly impressive, coming across clean and clear.

INDICATOR LIMITED EDITION BLU-RAY SPECIAL FEATURES

– High Definition remaster
– Original mono audio
– Audio commentary with academic and curator Eloise Ross (2023)
– The Guardian Interview with Claudette Colbert (1984, 57 mins): archival audio recording of the celebrated performer in conversation at London’s National Film Theatre
– United States (1944, 46 mins): military training film, narrated by David Niven during his time away from Hollywood to serve in the Army, and produced to instruct British troops in the history of their American allies
– Original theatrical trailer
– Image gallery: promotional and publicity materials
– New and improved English subtitles for the deaf and hard of hearing
– Limited edition exclusive 40-page booklet with a new essay by Pamela Hutchinson, archival production reports, contemporary profiles of producer-director Ernst Lubitsch, an account of the lost 1923 adaptation of Bluebeard’s Eighth Wife starring Gloria Swanson and Huntley Gordon, an overview of contemporary critical responses, Fiona Kelly on United States, and full film credits
– UK premiere on Blu-ray
– Limited edition of 3,000 copies for the UK

In her commentary, Eloise Ross provides a thoughtful analysis of the film, looking at why many regard it as lesser Lubitsch, whilst suggesting why people should give it a second chance. It’s a well-researched and compelling track.

The Guardian Interview with Claudette Colbert offers a chance to hear from the legendary actress about her life and career. It’s a light-hearted affair, filled with amusing anecdotes, so makes for easy-listening. I enjoyed it a great deal.

I must admit, I lost interest part-way through ‘United States’ though, a 45-minute military training film included here. It starts off quite well, with a little cross-cultural humour, as an American soldier is sat in an English pub whilst the locals say what they think of the US. As he reminisces about what it’s really like, the film turns into a rather dry history lesson on the country. Narrated by David Niven (which explains its inclusion here), it’s quite interesting as a potted history of the United States, but it’s not particularly gripping or stylishly presented.

The booklet is excellent, as is expected from Indicator. It’s loaded with essays, archival interviews and marketing pieces, as well as period reviews. It provides a solid background on the making of Bluebeard’s Eighth Wife, a little analysis and a good idea of how it was sold to audiences back then.

So, Indicator’s release is well worth a purchase.

Disc/Package:

Bluebeard’s Eighth Wife - Indicator
Film
Disc/Package
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One Response

  1. Edoarda Paolini

    I liked the movie “Bluebeard’s Eighth Wife” very much. Both protagonists are excellent. Also the minor actors (David Niven etc) are extremely amusing.
    It’s too bad I am unable to watch again the movie on my telephone! I shall watch and enjoy it again when I go back to Milan where I bought the CD.

    Reply

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