Sunday, April 21, 2013


Friends and Lovers asks the question, "Can two men remain friends when they both love the same woman?" We all know the answer to that one, but the movie spends 68 minutes teasing us with the possibilities -- kind of the way the woman in question does.

Captain Geoffrey Roberts and Lieutenant Ned Nichols (not to be confused with bandleader Red Nichols) are stationed in India when they discover they've both had affairs with a married woman, Alva Sangrito. Roberts tries to settle matters by sending Nichols on a fatal mission, only to wuss out and rescue him at the last minute. Having decided to put Alva behind them, the two men unexpectedly meet her (and her new fiance) in London at the kind of weekend sleepover rich people indulge in.  Realizing that Alva and Roberts are still in love, Nichols takes a wild shot at him, only to miss. Alva, finally realizing she's caused enough trouble for these idiots, leaves the party. Roberts, at Nichols' urging, successfully wins her back.

"Yes, it's true, I'm
devilishly handsome."
Director Victor Schertzinger must have thought Friends and Lovers a work of art, his name appearing as an ostentatious signature on the credits. But it's the actors who make it worth a look. For Friends and Lovers marks the American movie debut of Laurence Olivier, whom RKO Radio Pictures anticipated would be the new Ronald Colman. Unfortunately for both the studio and Olivier, Colman wasn't going anywhere. Within a year or so, Olivier was back on the British stage where he belonged. (You can take that last remark any way you'd like.)

"Don't let the door
hit you on the way out, Larry!"

As Nichols, Olivier is outclassed by Adolphe Menjou's Rogers in more than just military ranking. There's a 17-year difference in their real-life ages, giving Menjou a leg up not only in the art of movie acting but in life itself. Opposite a foxy film veteran like Menjou, 24 year-old Olivier is alternately juvenile (which may be the point) and playing to the balcony of the Old Vic (which definitely isn't). If you weren't aware that he would some day be considered one of the the great actors of his time, his impact on you would range somewhere between zero and so what.

"Love to hate...
or hate to love?"
Viennese-born Erich von Stroheim as Alva's husband, Victor, is the cyanide-laced frosting on the cake. Promoted early in his career as "The Man You Love To Hate" (an honorific now owned by Ashton Kutcher), von Stroheim is terrific as the guy who's been forcing his wife to engage in extramarital affairs just so he can blackmail her lovers for money. The way he bemusedly catches Rogers and Alva in a lie that he's set up is wonderfully funny in an icky way. And when demanding £5,000 to keep the couple's fling quiet, Victor informs Rogers that he's already gone to the trouble of finding out where he banks.
"Thanks for lending me
your wife, buddy!"
The equally-bemused look on Menjou's face signals that we're in the company of two old pros -- both the characters and the actors themselves -- who appreciate each other's jaded world-weariness. (Von Stroheim's innocent defense, "Blackmail is such an ugly word," instantly created a cliche that would launch a thousand comedy sketches.)
This is similar to the
way my wife & I hang out
at home.
Victor, by the way, needs the money in order to indulge in his hobby, collecting porcelain -- the most fragile piece being his own wife, who can't even fight back when he whips her with a riding crop, leading their butler to fatally shoot him. I wish he'd accidentally shot the wife, because von Stroheim's icy presence is missed for the remainder of the movie. A truly underrated actor, von Stroheim was appreciated far more in Europe, to Hollywood's lasting shame.

You may remember the actress who plays Alva, Lily Damita, from a previous piece about the 1932 sex farce This is the Night. Damita's sex-kitten persona in that movie is all but negated here, as she apparently confuses languor for heartache. She must have been mighty hot in real life, because I still can't figure out why Errol Flynn married her, let alone why she's the object of desire by four sapheads in this movie, two of whom were willing to kill each other over her. I guess men weren't as choosy during the Depression.

The only actor to have
starred alongside
Laurence Olivier
Wheeler & Woolsey.
A couple of supporting actors are worth mentioning, not so much for their talent as for just being in the movie. Hugh Herbert plays McNellis, Rogers' valet, with a singularly unconvincing Scottish accent. Herbert, best known as the rubber-faced character actor from a hundred or so Warner Brothers' comedies, seems weirdly out of place when sharing scenes with Laurence Olivier. Your brain reacts to it as it would to, say, Shemp Howard playing opposite Max von Sydow: This makes no sense whatsoever.

"I was born in 1858.
Have some respect, sir!"
As the host of the sleepover, Frederic Kerr trots out his old codger routine seen in Frankenstein the same year. All's that missing is the fez. I bring him up only because he was 72 at the time -- and how often do you see actors who were born 155 years ago?

"Are you convinced I'm wonderful?"     
Watching a somewhat-better-than-average melodrama like Friends and Lovers convinced me that you can pull any Adolphe Menjou role off the shelf and never find a bad performance. His style might not have differed much from role to role -- Menjou doesn't even attempt a British accent in Friends and Lovers, his crisp diction being enough -- but no matter the genre, he was consistently good, occasionally great, always convincing.

"Oui! I am, how you say,
un grand hambone!"
In movies, Laurence Olivier, was inconsistently great, often histrionic, not always convincing. (He couldn't have bettered the job done by Menjou as the despicable martinet in Stanley Kubrick's Paths of Glory.) Check out The 49th Parallel some time, where his French-Canadian trapper (left) could be substituted for Swift's Premium Ham in your grocery's meat section. For every movie like The Entertainer -- brilliant, a role in which Olivier really loses himself -- there's The Boys from Brazil, The Betsy, The Jazz Singer ("I haff no son!"), Inchon... And, of course, the legendary Polaroid commercials for which he was paid the princely sum of one million dollars. Having coveted the dough more than his reputation, it was one of his more credible jobs.
But none of that matters in a piece of sophisticated fluff like Friends and Lovers. Because in real life, Roberts wouldn't have saved Nichols back in India, and Nichols would've shot Roberts through the head at the sleepover. Alva, in turn, would've stayed with her fiance, just to make the survivor that much more miserable. And no amount of great acting would change that.


As a singer, Adolphe Menjou was a terrific actor. Here's "Two White Arms," his only recording (thank God). Reward yourself with a drink if you make it all the way through.

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