The Bride Wore Red

The understanding of critics has been sorely tried by The Bride Wore Red from its premiere. The main problem is in the very first scene. Count Armalia is as drunk as a lord, sipping champagne in a posh Trieste restaurant. He ponders the inequalities of man and man, and gives forth his opinion that it’s all a matter of chance. He goes to the lowest dive in town, asking the proprietor to confirm this, and engages the chanteuse (Joan Crawford) to spend two weeks at his expense in the Alps, coutured for the occasion and alone. He won’t be there to observe, even, evidently trusting to hear reports of his creation’s adventure. And thus George Zucco leaves the film.

This is not only Pygmalion, it’s Colonel Pickering on a spree, but it’s filtered cinematically through the beneficent drunk in City Lights. And yet, Variety thought his actions censurable, and down through the decades he has been viewed as “Machiavellian”. He’s only drunk.

The villain of the piece (he’s only young) is the Count’s convive in the first scene, Rudi (Robert Young), a slight assured man of wealth and a Continental snob. Meeting the girl in her new guise and name, he proposes to marry his fiancée and make her his mistress, but she has met the postmaster of the little resort town, a modest paisano (Franchot Tone) with a poetic nature, and they go off together happily in his donkey cart.

You can see right after the lion’s roar what a formidable director Arzner is. During the credits, the camera shows a figurine of an Italian peasant woman, hands on hips, feet apart, bestriding like a Colossus the mountain and towns beneath her. A closer view of the round music box base as it turns slowly reveals a diurnal landscape painted on its side, which gradually becomes a nocturnal view of Trieste, dissolve to the restaurant scene. The figurine is seen again behind the end credits.

Arzner’s style is somewhat terse and suggestive, repaying more attention than critics are paid to give. She has a prodigious shot at the festa, a handbell is clanged at the lens, tracking out to show a table full of handbells played by several men, crane up and out over peasants dancing, still more to a small crowd and finally down and slightly in to the pair of wrestlers they’re watching outdoors. Her exceptional backgrounds, richly-detailed, profuse and lifelike, seem likely a benefit of the producer, Joseph L. Mankiewicz, who was rebuked by none other than F. Scott Fitzgerald for this film, which Fitzgerald considered as too “groggily sentimental” to be worth a damn, thereby depriving the world of yet another chance for really first-rate film criticism, because, given that Billie Burke and Reginald Owen are so enjoyable in their comic roles of Countess and Admiral, no-one appears to have taken notice of the prevenience here of the shocking red dress in Jezebel by a half-year, and one shouldn’t wonder if that opening shot of a haughty Italiana wasn’t remembered by Hawks when he set Rosalind Russell up to be taken down a peg by Cary Grant in His Girl Friday.