Thursday 25 June 2009

That Uncertain Feeling (1941)

Director: Ernst Lubitsch
Stars: Merle Oberon and Melvyn Douglas

Men have been rightly called the masters of the world, says the introductory text, but there's one place they can never go: the ladies lounge. I'm sure political correctness has fixed this by now, because such a thing is probably deemed sexist, but it was still restricted in 1941. I'm not sure why this is important though, because it doesn't seem to have anything to do with anything. What we really care about here is the hiccups, because Mrs Jill Baker keeps getting them. Her friends send her to Dr Vengard who suggests that everything is her husband's fault.

So even though she's really happy, so happy that the magazines call her and her husband the Happy Bakers, she starts watching everything he does and like anyone under the magnifying glass he comes up wanting. For instance, he has the sheer audacity to sleep better than she does, to gargle in the morning and to poke her in the stomach and say 'Keeks!' There's no explanation for this either but he has to stop doing it because his wife is sensitive to everything now. Maybe if he'd kept it up it would have scared her hiccups away.

Instead he stops poking her in the stomach and she starts hanging out instead with Alexander Sebastian, who she meets at Dr Vengard's. He's a character, and in the hands of Burgess Meredith, he's a thorn in everyone's side. He's for nothing and against everything, he has an utter inability to be happy and he appears to have no sense of humour whatsoever, even though he's a dry riot to we, the audience. He introduces her to music and modern art and suddenly the Happy Bakers aren't so happy any more.

Burgess Meredith does not play a likeable character here in the slightest. In fact it's hard to imagine anyone wanting to hang around with him, let alone leave your husband for him, but he's nigh on impossible not to watch him for the first half of the film. He's a mystery on top of being the catalyst in this little story for Merle Oberon and Melvyn Douglas to act around, but they can't compete with him in the slightest. Then halfway through, the mystery is explained and he becomes vastly less watchable and more intensely annoying. From then on the characters mean less and the story means more, but the question is whether it means enough for us to care.

In fact the longer the film runs the less we care. At least for the first half we can sympathise with the Bakers, whose flaws merely make them human, but as time goes on we sympathise less and less because they do things that sympathetic people just don't do. They get petulant and childish and it's hard to either feel sorry for them or wish them any luck in their endeavours. We just want to slap them instead. There are a host of films that run through this sort of storyline but manage so much better with both the sympathy and the romantic comedy. Uncertain indeed.

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