Directors: Harry d’Abbadie d’Arrast/Luchino Visconti
By Marilyn Ferdinand
It’s fascinating how a single story can be bent almost infinitely to suit the imagination and purposes of individual creatives. I recently had a chance to view two rare films that riff off the same basic plot—a grindingly poor, but attractive woman marries a wealthy older man for security and faces the dilemma of whether to leave him to be with the penniless man she loves. Both films were shot during difficult times in their respective countries: Laughter premiered just after the 1929 stock market crash that ushered in the Great Depression, and Obsessione was shown as Mussolini’s fascist government was headed toward oblivion, with a feeling of defeat and waste settling over the Italian population. Yet, one film is the prototype of the screwball comedy, and the other a noir tragedy and the second film version of James M. Cain’s novel The Postman Always Rings Twice.
Laughter opens on a downbeat note, as Ralph la Sainte (Glenn Enders), an artist in love with our heroine, former chorus girl Peggy Gibson (Nancy Carroll), seeks her in vain at the mansion she shares with her stockbroker husband Mortimer (Frank Morgan). He leaves her a desperate note and returns to his garret on the wrong side of town, a side she called home before Mortimer plucked her out of the chorus line. Enter financially struggling composer/musician Paul Lockridge (Frederic March), fresh from Paris and looking to renew his love affair with pretty Peggy.
The butler (Leonard Carey) who repeatedly asks for his card to present to Mrs. Gibson becomes the billboard on which the pair communicate, with Paul writing a message on his starched shirt front, and Peggy replying in kind that she is not at home, exclamation point! Paul brings Peggy youth, laughter, and love, whereas Mortimer can only clamp one jeweled bracelet after another around her wrist, thrilling to the ticker that tells him he has made more than $6 million that day rather than enjoying an impromptu vaudeville routine by Peggy and her friends in his drawing room. Circumstances will conspire to put Peggy in the same room with Ralph, ending in a tragedy that has Peggy reconsidering her priorities.
Obsessione begins in much more prosaic fashion, as a wheat-bearing truck stops at a roadside trattoria to gas up and dislodge Gino Costa (Massimo Girotti), a filthy, but handsome tramp who hitched a ride in the flatbed. He charms a meal out of Giovanna Bragana (Carla Calamai), the beautiful, young wife of the trattoria owner, Giuseppe Bragana (Juan de Landa), a fat, old man who treats her like a servant and possession. The attraction between Gino and Giovanna is as strong as her hatred of her husband, and she contrives to keep Gino around by having him pay for his meal with work.
Giuseppe takes a liking to Gino and offers him a permanent job, but the lovers become impatient with Giuseppe constantly underfoot and start to run away together. After walking a while in high heels down a dirt road, Giovanna, tired and unhappy about her future prospects with her impoverished lover, turns back. However, their paths cross again, and fate moves them toward a murderous and tragic end.
Although Laughter and Obsessione take their shared plot in decidedly different directions, each manages to break new ground while providing commentary on the societies from which they emerged. Laughter may seem to have passed its moment in history by not depicting the ruin that befell people like Mortimer Gibson, but it foreshadows the desperation of the Depression while offering an escapist resolution to the love triangle that would become de rigueur in the 1930s. La Sainte represents the disillusionment of the age, a struggling artist whose failures in love and life lead to despair and tragedy.
Although not specifically stated, it would be reasonable to assume that Peggy’s rejection of Paul and marriage to Mortimer were prompted at least in part by the decline of vaudeville and a tawdry future in burlesque and prostitution that sometimes awaited chorines like her. Obsessione makes this fate explicit in the character of Anita (Dhia Cristiani), an attractive woman who meets Gino in a park and tells him that she’s a dancer in a show—even challenges him to check her story out—but starts to remove her sweater the moment she discovers him in her one-room apartment hiding from the police.
In its own way, Obsessione offers a carefree escape for ordinary Italians through Visconti’s Neorealist approach to filming his story on the Italian streets. After Gino leaves the Braganas, he meets an itinerant carnival worker nicknamed “The Spaniard” (Elio Marcuzzo), who pays Gino’s train fare to Ancona, shares a room with him, and puts him to work advertising his street performance by wearing a sandwich board. Ancona is a lively place where people come to vacation, enjoy street fairs and carnival rides, and gather together communally to eat, drink, and participate in contests and games.
Giuseppe and Giovanna run into Gino on their way to a singing contest at a large trattoria, and the jovial Giuseppe invites Gino to come. Giuseppe, justly proud of his fine singing voice, earns our sympathy with his innocent enthusiasm and friendship. The entire scene in Ancona, and later, in the Bragana trattoria, where Giovanna has increased business tremendously by introducing music and dancing to the restaurant, show the sweet life in the midst of tremendous hardship and sorrow, thus lifting the film to a more complex and affecting level.
Laughter, a product of Hollywood, can’t offer the same verisimilitude, but snappy dialogue cowritten by director d’Abbadie d’Arrast, energetic action, and some lovely comic set-pieces evoke the anything-goes attitude of the recently remembered Roaring ’20s. When Peggy meets Mortimer’s grown daughter Marjorie (Diane Ellis), their arch references to each other as “Mother” and “Daughter” signal the unconventional sophistication of their social set. Further, Peggy and Paul think nothing of going off together for a drive in the country without a word to her husband. When Paul conveniently runs out of gas and they get caught in the rain, they break into a conveniently empty house and crawl inside two bearskin rugs for a bit of whimsical playacting that defines a screwball romp. When they are arrested for breaking and entering, Mortimer comes in handy to secure their release—they even rate a police escort back to New York.
In both films, the romantic pairs’ yearning for love and happiness drive the action. Peggy decides that love is more important than money after seeing someone die for love of her. When she leaves her marriage, which even Mortimer acknowledges is not based on love, the audience gets an emotionally satisfying ending, with the attractive couple laughing gaily in a Parisian sidewalk café—not the Ritz, but certainly comfortable enough.
Giuseppe knows the hard facts about his marriage of convenience, too, but he reckons that Giovanna will be rewarded soon enough—he is an old man and not likely to live much longer. Again, when Giovanna and Gino are eaten with guilt and eventually punished for their crime just when they seem to be headed for true happiness, audiences receive the emotional payoff righteousness demands. Both films are cruel to their aging patriarchs who, despite their cluelessness about how to treat a wife, had their redeeming qualities.
Film critic and educator Jonathan Rosenbaum chose Laughter as part of a film course he is teaching at the School of the Art Institute, “The Unquiet American: Transgressive Comedies from the U.S.,” and it’s easy to see how a film that treats love largely as an optional confection is a transgressive reflection of the social upheaval that occurred before and after 1930. Carroll and March are an extremely likeable and appealing couple whose antics would have been a balm to audiences while offering mild titillation that asks them to consider which is the greater sin—love without marriage or marriage without love. Carroll and March must have provided considerable inspiration to Claudette Colbert and Clark Gable in It Happened One Night (1934), which offers perhaps a naughtier view of an unmarried couple on the road despite its appearance during early enforcement of the Production Code.
Obsessione, an international example of film noir shown at Noir City Chicago this year, is less ambiguous about what love makes permissible, signaling the fate that awaits the adulterous murderers when an account of a man shot dead by a cuckolded husband reaches the patrons of the trattoria near the beginning of the film. Even Visconti’s camera blocking when the couple first meets, Gino’s body obscuring all but Giovanna’s legs, lets us know who will be erased by the end of the film. Visconti also inserts the suggestion of a gay subtext with The Spaniard, who behaves like Gino does toward Giovanna, following him back to the trattoria and getting into a fistfight with him in a subtly played jealous rage.
Love is not a confection in this film, but a trap, particularly for its noir antihero, who chucked a happy life when he caught the disease; Calamai, a late replacement for a pregnant Anna Magnani, turns full femme fatale in Ancona to get what she wants. Transgressive in its own time, the film was banned after Mussolini’s son rejected it as not reflecting the reality of the Italian people, and Visconti was forced to turn over all prints and negatives for destruction. We only have this valuable document of wartime Italian filmmaking, as well as Visconti’s pungent directorial debut, because Visconti held back one negative; the film stands as a candidate ripe for restoration.
Two forms largely seen as products of 20th century American life—screwball comedy and noir—reflect the more Janus-faced aspects of common human experiences. Laughter and Obsessione offer the commonality of human emotion particularized by their respective places and moments in time.