September 17, 2020  (Web Review)

The Flame of New Orleans

Kino Lorber, 79 min., not rated, Blu-ray: $24.95, Mar. 31

Reviewer rating: 3.0/4

This first film made in America by French master René Clair impressed neither critics nor audiences when it was released in 1941, but its reputation has improved over the years, and the fine transfer on King Lorber’s Blu-ray reveals it as a charming, though somewhat silly, period romantic comedy, into which a few musical numbers have been inserted. (A DVD, released by Universal in 2015, is still available, with a list price of $14.99.) Marlene Dietrich, wearing an assortment of extravagant gowns, stars as Claire Ledux, whose wedding dress is, as shown in a prologue, found floating in the Mississippi the morning after the ceremony. The script by Norman Krasna then flashes back to Claire’s arrival in New Orleans, where the notorious European femme fatale quickly sets her mercenary sights on rich banker Charles Giraud (Roland Young). He is immediately besotted when she catches his eye with a phony fainting spell at the opera, but during a carriage ride through the park—where, her devoted maid Clementine (Theresa Harris) has forewarned her, Giraud intends to prove his devotion by rescuing her from a fake assault—she is accosted by Robert Latour (Bruce Cabot), a rugged ship’s captain with a pet monkey and acrobatic skills. Giraud says that he is determined to punish Latour for insulting his intended fiancée, and when Claire points him out at a Mardi Gras celebration, challenges him to a duel. She then retracts the identification and takes up with Latour while continuing to lead Giraud on. But when both men become suspicious of her checkered past, Claire invents a look-alike, a cousin named Lili, whom she blames for all the scandalous acts she is accused of. Naturally the imposture is eventually unmasked, and at her elaborate wedding to Giraud she must decide where her heart really lies. This is, of course, a ridiculous fairy tale, but it is beautifully appointed, with lovely art direction by Jack Otterson and costumes by René Hubert, as well as a lush score from Frank Skinner and lustrous cinematography by Rudolph Maté. Clair directs with a light touch, bringing out the best not only from his stars but from a strong supporting cast that includes Mischa Auer, Andy Devine and Franklin Pangborn. While not one her eye on Bob, and Chastity Pariah (Edie McClurg), the puritanical town matriarch who sees her as a danger to the place’s placidity. The major threat to Elvira, however, is her great-uncle Vincent (W. Morgan Sheppard), a warlock who wants to acquire Morgana’s spell book and will rouse the townspeople to burn Elvira at the stake to get it. In response Elvira not only learns how to use the book but discovers her own magical powers, defeating Vincent and, with his fortune, starting her Vegas act. The movie is a parade of feeble jokes, heavy-handed double entendres, chintzy special effects, and outrageously broad performances (especially by Peterson), but there are occasional flashes of wit (like the sight of baby Elvira), and in a picture like this, one is expected to appreciate the groaners. In addition to a crisp, appropriately garish, new transfer, the Blu-ray boasts a cornucopia of bonus features: an expanded “making of” featurette titled Too Macabre (97 m.), another on the effects, especially the so-called “Pot Monster” (22 m.), six image galleries (38 m.), two trailers (3 m.), and three separate audio commentaries, the first with Peterson, McClurg and co-writer John Paragon, the second with director James Signorelli and former Fangoria editor Tony Timpone, and the third with Patterson Lundquist, an actor who is also webmaster of Signorelli also contributes an amusing introduction to the movie in which he needs editing to complete his lines. Except for genre fans, not a necessary purchase. (F. Swietek)