This delicious comedy, coming at the tail-end of the screwball era, opens with one of the best ‘meeting-cute’ scenes ever. Gary Cooper – commanding, to the point, and somewhat impatient – wants to buy a pajama jacket without the pants, but the old-world French Riviera department store is thrown into confusion by such a radical suggestion; charming little Claudette Colbert chimes in that she is looking for a pair of pajama bottoms on their own. Now if only they can agree on the colour and pattern..
Needless to say they fall for each other on the spot, but Cooper, as millionaire financier Michael Brandon, makes a poor impression with his blunt, no-nonsense approach. Colbert is Nicole de Loiselle, from a family of down-at heel European aristos, and following some stolid wooing and some business with Louis XIV’s bath-tub which Brandon buys from her fly-by-night father (on discovering who his daughter is) their engagement is announced. Only then does Nicole discover that Brandon believes so much in marriage that he’s done it seven times before. As if that weren’t enough, his standard pre-nup agreement gets her father all excited and she feels even more like a bathtub to be traded. So she doubles his rate, hardens her heart and resolves to teach him a lesson.
The script was the first of many successful collaborations between Billy Wilder and Charles Brackett (Ball of Fire, Ninotchka, Sunset Boulevard) and is full of fantastic one-liners (“I only have to look at your pants to know everything”). It’s not as cruel as some of their later stuff, and Wilder’s in particular, but certainly relishes the cold shoulder Colbert gives Coop as she makes them live separate lives in their New York apartment She waits him out for a divorce, while he stands stubbornly for her stripping him of his pride and self-respect. For it is also an Ernst Lubitsch film, he of the famous comedy touch, and so the luxurious settings of old Europe and upper-crust New York, replete with marvelous hotels, gowns and jewels and an amusing roster of shop stewards and hotel staff, are all whipped up together with the battle of the sexes business to create the sort of perfectly-paced, sophisticated, elegant comedy for which Lubitsch was known, in which, for all their cheerful amorality, nothing is allowed to detract from the charmingly feather-light tone.
Some have remarked that this tone, this touch, has something reminiscent of the supremely well-mannered decadence of aristocratic fin-de-siècle central Europe. Lubitsch was German (and Wilder was Austrian) and in a not-entirely offhand way the battle here is not only between the sexes, but between Europe and America also. From the second shot (of the department store window, where ‘English is spoken’ and ‘American is understood’) we know America’s going to get something of a raw deal. Brandon’s brusque man of action makes snap decisions, follows his hunches, demands action and forges straight ahead, the epitome of the archetypal post-depression American businessman: for whom books are for falling asleep to, love-making is a time-wasting overture to marriage and the Marquis de Loiselle is, naturally, Mr “Loyzelee”. Nicole, on the other hand, is exquisitely French, whimsical, romantic and utterly charming. When she praises him, however, for his “charm and finesse”, Cooper’s sly enough not to let us know whether the sarcasm is going over his head or if he’s just letting it slide. No-one could have conveyed the authority and bearing of the successful “big” man, brusque, brash and bullish, yet remained so constantly endearing as Cooper; it could have seemed like poking fun on paper, but only Coop could make it so appealing boyish when he asks his financial partner over the phone about the end of that week’s Flash Gordon strip. He is always at his best when playing men of simple directness, although they usually have more downhome wisdom than this. It’s partly his lack of understanding of the world, of other people, that has him so grumpy all the time – very much along the lines of the classic uncomprehending father in countless screwball comedies. Cooper’s always funny when he plays grumpy, partly because you know he won’t be for too long (it’s only serious when he has righteous anger), and rather than mean-spiritedness, his impatience is that of a dynamic and successful man with some justification for feeling as though he is surrounded by idiots; among the film’s great pleasures are his frequent outbursts of “it’s an outrage” and the like, the boyish glint is never far from his eye nor the smile from his lips.
In basically the role of the dupe, Coop does a great job of standing up to Claudette Colbert, who is just perfect. Nobody else in pictures achieved such radiant beauty and elegance whilst retaining such sweetness (with a hint of mischief): this despite repeatedly daring large collars, but wearing them more like pierrot than a common clown, and sporting some of the most outrageous eye-brow/shadow design ever to be seen onscreen (in the era of Joan Crawford and Marlene Dietrich, no less). In contrast to the straight-ahead American/man of the head, who’s mind can only run on one track at a time, she’s the playful, emotional European/woman of the heart. With her sponging family set-up, however, she can assure him quite honestly that she too is interested in finance; when baited she shows she can do business in her own, roundabout way, with little enough cunning to best the stiff-backed, unimaginative Brandon at his own game (marriage as investment). With her impeccable manners and composure and a very sly sexiness, Colbert could give her leading men all the trouble she liked.
Talent, script and direction are all wonderful, and the film is fleshed out with a mischievous score that ably carries some of the comic weight, and a super supporting cast, from David Niven’s amiable nitwit of a bank clerk to formidable Aunt Hedwige in a bath-chair. With perfect taste, Lubitsh takes things to the brink of bedroom farce (complete with a straw-hatted prize-fighter) without becoming ridiculous, and it surely can’t have been the first film to try, but there’s even a perfectly-presented Taming of the Shrew gag. Best of all is a delightfully extended scene where Coop tries some tricks of his own to get Colbert to unfreeze, including plenty of champagne and salty caviar (regaling her at the piano with “Lookie lookie here comes Cookie” he manages his trick of being hokey, ridiculous and charming all at once, whilst she plays wonderfully drunk and at one point almost audibly melts with pleasure). If the ending feels a little harsh – manhood is comprehensively defeated as the film contrives Cooper into a straitjacket – we know by now we’re not to take it too seriously and besides, Colbert is so delightful that no-one would dream of begrudging her such a charmingly-won victory for womanhood and romance.