The Affairs of Cellini (1934) **
Delightfully irreverent period comedy, with a freewheeling spirit that is as much a signifier of its pre-Code origins as the frivolity with which it plays murder, seduction, torture and adultery for light farce.
A true one-off, it is hard to imagine a film less likely to pass the enforced code regulations that were already in place by the time of its release, with all of its characters left unpunished for their scandalous machinations, not least Cellini himself, a cheerfully self-confessed murderer as well as adulterer, given to attacking members of the Florentine court and forcing them to eat live flies.
Though the film is set ostensibly in Renaissance Florence, and concerns real historical figures and events, La Cava deliberately has his cast play the dialogue in the modern idiom, with Frank Morgan, doing his usual schtick as the henpecked and sexually ineffectual Duke of Florence, emerging a particular delight.This all works in effective contrast to the stylised but lavish costumes and set dressings, like a kind of sophisticated adult pantomime. My wife likened the effect to a Morecambe and Wise play: very true.
Fredric March, in the lead, probably gets least to do, acting more or less as the pivot around which the action revolves, and serving basically as deadpan stooge to Morgan. And also to Fay Wray, who is splendidly funny as the infuriatingly dense and unresponsive model for whom both men are consumed with lust, much more interested in her bobbin work than in sharing Cellini's bed, and expecting him to feel likewise. When he whisks her to his picturesque mountain retreat for a night of passion, she observes only the overpowering smell of sheep and the absence of creature comforts: "You take me away from the nice palace with soft cushions, and you bring me to a place like this with no cushions at all!"
Constance Bennett is elegant and amusing as the seductive Duchess, the true power in court, and my fellow devotees of the luminous Irene Ware will relish her very funny one-scene appearance at the beginning. It's really just a tiny role cast appropriately, but we can imagine it's a guest star cameo in which she typically shines; as a Venetian noblewoman, scandalously seduced by Cellini, who nonetheless refuses to co-operate with his indictment. ("You forced me to come here. I've told my story so boo! It's my own affair. He can come over my garden wall any time he wants to!")
The happy ending sees the Duke and Duchess, who have spent the entire film sneaking around the palace so the other should not catch them in the act of extra-marital diversion, happy at last as she prepares for a mutually acknowledged night of bliss with March, and he does likewise with Wray.
Enjoy it while you can, 1934!