DVD: Climbing High (1938)

September 4, 2013 | By

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Film: Good/ DVD Transfer: Good/ DVD Extras:  n/a

Label: VCI / Region: 1 (NTSC) / Released: August 6, 2013

Genre: Screwball Comedy

Synopsis: A wealthy man must figure out a way to extricate himself from simultaneous marital engagements to a model and a rich, manipulative snot.

Special Features:  n/a

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Review:

Before directing the classic thrillers Odd Man Out (1947), The Fallen Idol (1948) and The Third Man (1949), Carol Reed was working his way through the British studio system, directing fluffy comedies, plus this absolute curio that’s a marginally successful attempt to transpose the slapstick and wry elements of the screwball comedy across the pond from America.

The story involves a wealthy man, Nicky Brooke (Michael Redgrave), who must eventually address the issue of being engaged to up & coming model Diana Castle (Jessie Matthews) as “John Smith,” and his approaching nuptials with the manipulative socialite Lady Constance Westaker (Margaret Vyner). A quandary of too-many-nuptials isn’t old or unique to British nor American audiences, but there are specific affectations in Climbing High which remain very British – Redgrave is very luvvy, very plastic in his physical performance – which feel strange when the next moment involves a sudden cranial collision, or in the film’s broadest comedic sequence – an ad agency’s contents & personnel literally being wind-blown into the street.

Unemployed dancer Diana and her sculptor roommate need money, and they certainly won’t get a dime from their Leninist housemate Max (Alistair Sim), a free-loafing, anti-capitalist twit, if not a human leech. Sim plays Max extremely broad (again, there’s that plastic physicality) which only works when the women force him to find work, and stumbles into the ad agency where they need an ugly man for their Before / After health tonic campaign.

Much like I’m All Right, Jack (1959), Reed and the screenwriters satirize pop and advertising culture in fashion, personal hygiene, and the makers of the ideal man & woman tonics, and the montage of Diana being made up by a make-up team into a bride after she too stumbles into the agency’s employ by accident is almost brilliant (if not a direct satire of Janet Gaynor being prepped for the camera in 1937’s A Star is Born).

Nicky’s failed attempts to quash the protracted engagement with Constance are fairly perfunctory, and the film only gets very weird when Nicky takes real love Diana to the country for a picnic. There they encounter an escaped lunatic from the nearby asylum (veteran character actor Francis L. Sullivan) who forces them to sing opera – which Matthews, with her trained voice, does very well – until a roving team of attendants pick up the nutter and return him to the asylum.

It’s at this stage a rather messy set of story strands begin to intermingle, including one started at the film’s beginning: brother Jim (Torin Thatcher, with full hair!) has returned from Canada, where he’s been working as a lumberjack. As British audiences were reminded by the writers, being a country where people strike first and discuss later, the half-Canuck Jim sets out to defend his sister’s honor by hunting down Nicky, with the chase taking the main cast to the snow-capped mountains of Switzerland.

Eventually, Nicky and Jim must address their differences on the snowy peak of a very stage-bound mountain cap and stop the lunatic – who believes he’s a bird – from taking his first flight with Diana tethered to his waist.

The lunatic character is seemingly extrapolated from a Bugs Bunny cartoon, and yet his recurrence is also not dissimilar to the escaped tiger in Bring Up Baby (1938), a device that film’s writers used to have their characters engage in sharp, fast, and smart-assed repartee.

The strangest moment, however, comes during an exchange between freeloader Max and the superintendent, who’s come to collect current and back-rent. Although a fellow Communist, the superintendant regretfully tells Max it’s the wife who insists on collecting the “immoral” payment, and Max reiterates his promise that in exchange for waiving rent, he’ll send the missus to “a concentration camp” – presumably a reference to a Soviet gulag for political and social unfriendlies instead of a Nazi death camp?

The lead-up to that sequence is less shocking but nonetheless well-times by Reed as a cartoon gag: Max is first seen in the film writing with a towel draped over is shoulders, while the roommate is sculpting something unusually grand. Max is later revealed to be posing for part of a giant horseman, although the sculptor unsubtly infers his pate may be serving as reference for both the rider, and the horse’s round rump.

VCI’s source is from an okay NTSC to PAL transfer, with a sometimes warbling soundtrack when music is in full swing. At 75 minutes, Reed’s screwball opus is very brisk, but it actually begins to feel longer once all the story strands – the dual engagements, brother Jim’s arrival and hunt for Nicky, the ad company’s American chief, the hike on a Swiss mountain – are wrapped up. It’s surely one of Reed’s strangest films, much like Alfred Hitchcock put his suspense films on pause to direct the semi-operatic musical-drama Waltzes from Vienna [M] (1934), co-starring Matthews.

Note: some sources report the film began as an aborted production called “Asking for Trouble,” directed by Climbing High’s screenwriter, Sonnie Hale. Starting as a musical with Kent Taylor, Noel Madison and Jessie Matthews, only the latter actor was retained for the final product. Hale had acted with Matthews (whom he later wed) in several films – Friday the Thirteenth [M] (1933), Evergreen (1934) – and directed her in three films: Head Over Heels and Gangway (both 1937), and Sailing Along (1938).

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© 2013 Mark R. Hasan

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External References:

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