Twelve Classics for 2016: THE LADY EVE (1941)

To start of my year of Twelve Classics, I decided to begin with a little Preston Sturges.  Because come one, what is better than Preston Sturges when you are feeling a bit down and stressed after the holidays?  Answer…nothing.

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Deep in the South American jungle the heir to the Pike’s Pale Ale empire, one Charles Poncefort Pike (Henry Fonda), is getting ready to set sail back to America with his valet/bodyguard/banker Muggsy and his new pet snake.  Charles, it seems, is a bit of a snake fanatic.  This fact does not deter any of the young ladies about the cruise ship he boards, in fact most of them are doing pretty much anything in their power to get his attention.  One woman who is trying not to catch Charles’ eye, at least not yet, is Jean Harrington (Barbara Stanwyck).  Jean and her father “Colonel” Harrington (Charles Coburn) are con-artists and cardsharps, and they have just found their next meal ticket in one Charles Poncefort Pike.

Jean takes her time observing Charles and the shameless flirting of the other women onboard before she finally makes her move.  Specifically, she trips him.  Then she blames him for breaking her shoe.  Charles is extremely sorry as one might imagine and Jean suggests that he make it up to her by escorting her up to her cabin to pick out a new pair of shoes.  Upstairs, Charles is unprepared for the advances of Jean and is soon putty in her hands.  Returning to the dining room, Charles and Jean join the Colonel in a friendly game of cards.  Despite Muggsy’s watchful eye, Charles has no suspicion that Jean and her father are anything but wonderful people.  In fact he wins $600!  The evening ends with Charles and Jean promising to see each other the next day, and he and the Colonel promising to play cards again soon.

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Over the course of the next several days Jean and Charles spend a great deal of time together.  Naturally, Charles falls in love with Jean but something strange begins to happen as well.  Jean falls in love with Charles.  More than that she tells her father that she has decided that she is going to marry Charles, legitimately with no cons or tricks, and that she will eventually tell him the truth about her past.  While she and Charles are onboard she promises not to reveal anything out of respect to her father but she does warn him not to try any tricks or cons on Charles.  Her father promises but privately decides to continue to con as planned.

That evening, Charles asks the Colonel for his permission to marry his daughter which the Colonel grants.  Jean goes to get some air and Charles agrees to a friendly game of cards with his future father-in-law.  By the time that Jean comes back to the table Charles has lost $32,000!  Jean is furious but the Colonel rips up the check in front of her.  She and Charles excuse themselves and soon retire to their separate cabins.  Meanwhile, Muggsy has been doing some investigating of his own and has found proof of just who Jean and her father really are, proof he shares with Charles.  The next morning Charles confronts Jean and she admits everything.  In his anger, Charles pretends that he knew the truth all along and was just stringing Jean along for a joke.  Hurt, Jean leaves and vows to return to her conning ways and never think of Charles again.  She begins to feel better when he father shows her a check for $32,000 which actually was never ripped up at all.

Some time later, Jean and her family are having a day at the races when they run into a fellow con-artist named Pearly (Eric Blorre).  Pearly is currently known as Sir Alfred McGlennan Keith and has set up quite a comfortable life for himself among the rich of Bridgefield, Connecticut.  Jean perks up at the mention of Bridgefield because that is the hometown of Charles Poncefort Pike.  Despite her father’s protests she devises to visit Sir Alfred McGlennan Keith as his niece…Lady Eve Sidwich of England.

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Do I even need to say that this is a great movie?  First of all Preston Sturges created this screenplay specifically for Barbara Stanwyck and it shows.  Jean Harrington is such a dynamic, intelligent, funny, sexy, and all around amazing woman.  She is a con-artist for sure but you never find her so devious that she is unlikeable.  Even when she is masquerading as the Lady Eve and making Charles’ life miserable, there is still a quality to her that makes you just think she is fantastic.  I honestly don’t think that anyone else could have played Jean except Barbara Stanwyck, even if the part wasn’t written specifically for her.  She can just give one look with her eyes and convey an entire scene.  She more than holds her own in every scene she is in, against the likes of Coburn, Blorre, and Palatte, as well as Demarest and Fonda.  This is not to sat that she steals the scenes from her fellow performers, rather she allows them shine while never letting the audience forget that she is still there.  Barbara Stanwyck is my favorite classic film actress and THE LADY EVE gives her room to play.

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Henry Fonda is terrific as the bumbling, naive, unworldly Charles.  He plays his inexperience as both charming and believable.  Often when there is a character that is supposed to be sheltered and unwise to the world, I find them annoying and overly child-like.  Fonda acts like a man who knows quite a bit about some things but next to nothing about many things.  He is just a quiet man who has lived his life with the knowledge that he will probably not ever get married and have a family, that he will most likely spend his life reading books and collecting snakes.  When he meets Jean its like a whole new world has opened up to him and he is so excited at the possibility.  To find out that all this happiness was based on a lie is devastating to him and for the first, and really only time in the whole movie and perhaps his life, Charles reacts cruelly.  But just like we never dislike Jean for her conning ways, we never dislike Charles for his poor behavior.  We understand why he reacted that way and we hope that he can find a way to return from that.

It speaks to the mastery of Preston Sturges that we can have a film about a con-woman and her criminal family, as well as a rich somewhat childish man and his slightly psychotic and paranoid guarding and still care about and like each and every one of them.  I will also say that the ending when it first began to take shape didn’t make total sense to me.  But as the movie went on and the full culmination became evident, I was certain that there was no other way that this story could have ended.  For a script that was written while Preston Sturges was awaiting his third divorce, THE LADY EVE is a remarkably hopeful story about love and finding ways to accept people for who they are.


This post is part of the 2016 Blindspot Series from The Matinee.  You can see more about it here with my list of films I want to watch in 2016!

 

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The Try It, You’ll Like It! Blogathon: THE PALM BEACH STORY (1942)

This post is part of the Try It, You’ll Like It! Blogathon hosted by Movies Silently and Sister Celluloid.  Be sure to check out the other entries here!

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Let’s be honest.  If you are a classic film fan the chances are good that you have at least one person in your life who is less than excited at the prospect of watching one of your “old movies” with you.  For me that person would have to be my husband.  God love him he tries, he really does, but he just can’t quite muster up the same enthusiasm as I do when I put in a DVD and Barbara Stanwyck comes on screen.  I’ve been trying to convert him, slowly, and I have found some films that he has enjoyed.  Recently, we watched THE PALM BEACH STORY and in my opinion it is a terrific movie to use when introducing non-fans to classic films.

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First, a brief summary of the film.  Tom (Joel McCrea) and Gerry (Claudette Colbert) are a married couple in New York City.  They are also currently in a bit of financial difficulty especially as their landlord is showing new tenants their apartment.  Gerry happens to be home during one such tour and takes refuge in a shower.  She is discovered there by a funny little old man who calls himself “The Weinie King”.  When Gerry explains that the reason the landlord is showing their apartment is because they have no money to pay the rent, the Weinie King gives her a large sum of money for no other reason than to annoy his wife.  And the fact that Gerry happens to be a lovely girl with a nice voice.  Gerry gratefully takes the money and gives the old man a kiss on the cheek.

Tom meanwhile is at the office making a sales pitch.  He is trying to convince a potential investor that his idea for a new kind of airport is an idea worth putting some money behind.  When he gets a very excited phone call from Gerry, who is trying to tell him what happened with the Weinie King, he barely has time to listen.  Gerry agrees to tell him everything that night and then hurries out to put the new money to good use.  When Tom arrives home later he is shocked to find that Gerry has paid all the bills and the rent, as well as bought herself a new dress and now she wants to take him out to dinner and theater with the money left over.  Tom is suspicious of this man who came into the house and gave his wife money and wanted nothing in return.  Gerry is slightly offended by this but not for the reasons you might think.  She has been trying for some time to use all of her talents to help Tom get ahead in the world and every time he becomes jealous and ruins things.  Over dinner that evening Gerry, who has had a bit to drink, tells Tom that she firmly believes that while she still loves him it would be in his best interest if she was to leave him.  She is only holding him back and since he won’t accept her help, leaving is the only way she can ensure that Tom’s career will be successful.  Tom dismisses this notion as foolish but even after they return to their apartment, Gerry is insistent that she is leaving him.  But some caring and helpful unzipping of a difficult zipper stop this conversation from going any farther.

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Morning comes and while Tom slumbers peacefully, Gerry tearfully writes him a note.  In it she explains that she was perfectly serious last night, that in spite of how much she still loves him she is leaving him so that he will finally be the success he deserves to be.  Unfortunately, Gerry is not super stealthy when leaving the note and Tom wakes up in time to see her leaving.  He gives chase and the two eventually end up at the train station.  Having no money of her own, Gerry must resort to using her feminine wiles and finds success in a traveling group of men who call themselves The Ale and Quail Club.  She waves goodbye to Tom as the train pulls away from the station.  Tom decides to follow Gerry’s train and meet her when she arrives in Florida some time later.  By the time he finds her things have changed.  Gerry is no longer part of The Ale and Quail Club, but she is accompanied by a young man (Rudy Vallee) who happens to be a millionaire and who has bought her an entire wardrobe, and his wife introducing him as Captain McGlue to a very forward woman (Mary Astor) with a boyfriend named Toto.

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THE PALM BEACH STORY is crazy, zany Preston Sturgess goodness.  It is just fun!  And that is what makes it such a great first film for non-classic film lovers.  Comedy is perhaps the easiest genre to take when trying a new kind of film, book, or television show.  Humor is a universal value and something we all can enjoy.  It sets people at ease, perhaps making them feel less pressured to do anything more than enjoy the film they are about to see.  Comedies don’t have to be dissected or discussed, although they can be certainly, they really only need to be enjoyed and it doesn’t get much better than Preston Sturges.

Too often people think of classic films as slow, clunky, and boring.  These are three words that will never be used to describe THE PALM BEACH STORY or Preston Sturges.  With THE PALM BEACH STORY, Sturges is at the top of his game and throws himself and the audience into the zany story with reckless abandon.  The story, the characters, and the jokes come fast and furious and with such enthusiasm that we can’t help but get swept up in it.  Have a friend who says that old movies are dull?  Show him this movie and stand back!  The comedy makes the transition easier, the ability to forget that the film being watched is over sixty years old simpler, and the preconceived notions of classic films seem foolish.  This is an old movie that doesn’t feel like an “old movie” and this is because Sturges has crafted such a clever, funny, and enjoyable comedy that it has become timeless.  In case you are still on the fence about whether or not THE PALM BEACH STORY is a great film to show a novice fan, here are three reasons why you should courtesy of The Criterion Collection.

So back to the night I showed THE PALM BEACH STORY to my husband.  He liked it.  He really liked it.  He laughed.  Out loud.  Several times.  And days later he would look at me and say “Nitz Toto!” and start laughing.  I don’t think you can ask for a better review than that, do you?

 

 

The Universal Blogathon: OH, DOCTOR! (1925)

This post is part of the Universal Blogathon hosted by Silver Scenes.  Be sure to check out the other entries here!

Wrapping up my month of silents comes a quirky and thoroughly entertaining comedy from Universal starring Reginald Denny and Mary Astor!

Rufus Billop (Reginald Denny) was born with a thermometer in his mouth and a bottle of medication in his hand.  That is to say that dear old Rufus was a wee bit frail when he was born, so much so that he had to spend some time in an incubator when he was an infant, and though he survived the experience left him a hopeless hypochondriac.  Matters weren’t helped much by the fact that pretty much everyone in his family fed his delusions, all except for his Aunt Beulah (Lucille Ward).  Rufus has now grown up into a man dominated by his neurosis and is stuck living with Aunt Beulah because he has outlived every other member of his family.  For her part, Aunt Beulah is under the impression that all Rufus needs is some red meat and a visit from a twelve foot tall lady osteopath.

Rufus prefers the company of other, more conventional doctors.  He is visited by one such doctor, Doctor Seaver (Clarence Geldart), who realizes at once that Rufus is far healthier than he thinks he is.  Dr. Seaver becomes much more interested when he hears about Rufus’ financial prospects.  Although Rufus has no money of his own at present, he stands to inherit $750,000 as long as he stays alive for the next three years.  While Rufus is certain that he will be dead long before that ever happens, Dr. Seaver convinces him to take out a loan against his inheritance so that he can spend the money to have his final months spent in the comfort that any dying man might wish.  As luck would have it, Dr. Seaver also knows just the fellows who would be willing to take on this deal!

Mr. Clinch, Mr. McIntosh and Mr. Peck (Otis Harlan, William V. Mong and Tom Ricketts) are willing to loan Rufus $100,000 in exchange for the rights to his inheritance.  After an extensive medical examination Rufus is declared an absolutely healthy hypochondriac and therefore a completely risk-free investment.  Rufus is touched that these men are willing to help make him comfortable in what he is sure are his final days.  After receiving the money, Rufus sets about creating an oasis of hypochondriacal desires, complete with his own personal nurse.  When Clinch, McIntosh, and Peck go to visit him they find Rufus apparently at death’s door having been ushered closer to there by his nurse, Death Watch Mary (Martha Mattox).  In a panic that their meal ticket might be punched too early, the three men rush off to Dr. Seaver who prescribes a change of scenery for Rufus.

The change of scenery comes in the form of a new nurse named Dolores (Mary Astor).  Dolores is not only young and pretty, but she also believes in sunshine, fresh air, and not paying Rufus any mind.  Rufus does indeed sit up and take notice of Dolores and decides to take a good hard look at himself.  What he sees is not impressive and Rufus is determined to make himself into a new man.  He will become a man who, to quote his pretty young maid (Helen Lynch), is “not afraid of nothing!”

Rufus’ new life begins with pork chops.  From there it is a short leap to new clothes, a new car, a new driver, and some snappy dance moves.  Of course Rufus begins to take things too far and does things like crashing a motorcycle, driving his car on the wrong side of a racetrack during a race, and begins reading up on deep sea diving, aviation, and steeplejack tricks.  This new found lust for life is shortening the collective lives of Clinch, McIntosh, and Peck.  If Rufus gets himself killed they won’t get their money!  The only person he listens to is Dolores, whom he has taken a particular fancy to, so the three men go off to enlist her help.  Dolores however has caught on to their scheme and has been coming up with one of her own to save Rufus from himself, as well as Clinch, McIntosh, and Peck.

Reginal Denny is one of those actors who I know from sight but not by name.  But I know him like this…

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So imagine my surprise when I realized that the man who I knew from MR. BLANDINGS BUILDS HIS DREAM HOUSE was the same man crashing a motorcycle in OH, DOCTOR!  Denny was an Englishman and a WWI veteran of the Royal Flying Corps who made a name for himself in silent film by playing the “All-American” guy in comedy films.  I have to say that I found his brand of humor quite refreshing.  While the comedy stylings of Keaton, Lloyd, and Chaplin can sometimes be a little out there when it comes to gag set ups, OH, DOCTOR! features comedy based on real life situations.  Rufus is goofy and quirky certainly but he is goofy and quirky in the realm of reality.  As a nurse I can’t tell you how many of these moments reminded me of patients, and family members, that I had encountered over the years.  I loved the parts when Dolores is practically, and sometimes literally, rolling her eyes at Rufus.  I could completely sympathize.

I was first introduced to Mary Astor via THE PALM BEACH STORY.  Seeing her run circles around Rudy Vallee, Joel McCrea, and “Toto” made me sit up and take notice of this dynamic woman.  I had no idea that she had a career in silent film prior to watching this film and let me say she is just as “sit up and take notice” as ever, which is even more impressive given the fact that she was only eighteen when this film was made. As an aside, can I ask why teenagers in classic/silent films are always twenty times more sophisticated than I ever was at that age?

Anyway, Dolores is fantastic.  Her moments with Rufus when she is first dealing with his neurosis are hysterical, especially to any healthcare professionals who will know exactly where she is coming from.  Not only that but she is also a genuinely smart person.  Sure she likes Rufus and dresses up in a pretty dress to impress him, but she also very quickly gets a read on his situation and figures out a way to deal with it.  No running off to Rufus for help, no soppy weeping for mercy at the feet of Clinch, McIntosh, and Peck.  Dolores, like Rufus and his comedy, feels very rooted in reality and it makes her an even more enjoyable character as a result.

I was classify OH, DOCTOR! as a charming comedy.  It is different than most silent era comedies but is just as funny.  It also has a wealth of great character actors who are all serving up their A-games.  This was one of those films where I enjoyed the supporting cast just as much as the main characters.  The only sour note in the film would have to be the racially sterotyped intertitles given to the Chinese gardener, Chang (George Kuwa).  While this was typical of the time, although it was rare that an Asian character would be played by an Asian actor, it is still a bit jarring in practice.  Luckily it is only a few instances and not enough to ruin what is otherwise a really fun film that is deserving of a good deal more attention.  Don’t worry, I won’t make any jokes about it being just what the doctor ordered.  Even though it is.


Fritz of Movies Silently is the one who introduced this film to me through her great review which can be found here.

Watching With Warner: ARSENE LUPIN (1932) / ARSENE LUPIN RETURNS (1938)

My month of Warner Archive is coming to a close and we are wrapping things up with a double feature!  First up we have ARSENE LUPIN from 1932, starring Lionel and John Barrymore, followed by ARSENE LUPIN RETURNS from 1938 which stars Melvyn Douglas, Warren William, and Virginia Bruce.

In ARSENE LUPIN, Lionel Barrymore is police detective Guerchard who is called out to a robbery in progress.  Once there the police chase a fleeing car only to find the passenger tied up in the backseat.  The man (John Barrymore) claims to have just been robbed by the notorious Arsene Lupin, saying he is the Duke of Charmerace.  Guerchard doesn’t believe this for a second and suspects that this man is in fact Arsene Lupin.  However another man named Gourney-Martin (Tully Marshall) returns to the house and confirms the identity of the passenger as the Duke of Charmerace.  Strangely enough the next day Guerchard finds that the shoe impressions taken from the outside of the scene of the crime are an exact match for his own shoes!  Perplexed he goes to see the chief of police where he is told that if he wants to retire quietly to the country with his daughter he needs to do one last thing, and that is to catch Arsene Lupin!  The police have just received a note from Lupin telling them that he will be at the Duke of Charmerace’s ball that night to take whatever he wants.  Geurchard decides to go to the ball himself just to make sure that nothing goes wrong.

The Duke of Charmerace is having some issues of his own.  Two bailiffs have arrived asking to collect past due bills.  He manages to fob them off with drinks and food, while he returns to his ball.  He sees Geurchard enter and begin talking to another male guest, who is an undercover policeman.  It turns out that there are hidden police officers throughout the ball in an effort to trap Arsene Lupin should he try anything.  At this point, the Duke is up in his bedroom where he has found a naked woman in his bed.  The Countess Sonia Krichnoff (Karen Morley) claims that her evening gown is being mended in the other room and since she was cold, she took refuge under the covers of the Duke’s bed.  After some risqué flirtation the Duke and Sonia rejoin the party and just in time for some cake.  Unfortunately, as the lights are down for the cake’s arrival several ladies find that they are missing various pieces of jewelry.  Sonia has lost a bracelet and she hurries to find the Duke.  At this moment Guerchard’s men spring into action but Geurchard is nowhere to be found.  He is a little preoccupied at the moment, being held at gunpoint by the two bailiffs upstairs who have mistaken him for Arsene Lupin.  Once released by the two men, Geurchard begins the send all the guests downstairs to be questioned.  However, he has a private word alone with the Countess Sonia before sending her on with the others.

Later the Duke and the Countess find themselves invited to Gourney-Martin’s home for the weekend.  While there the Duke and Sonia continue their flirtations and Gourney-Martin demonstrates his new electrified safe.  One morning Sonia awakes to find a real bracelet in place of her fake one from none other than Arsene Lupin.  Tourney-Martin has also had a visit from Lupin, though his is far less pleasant.  Lupin has left a note saying that he will come back and steal everything Tourney-Martin has because he is a war profiteer.  Geurchard is called to the house at once to be there when Lupin makes his entrance.  But who Arsene Lupin really?  Is everyone who they appear to be?

In ARSENE LUPIN RETURNS, F.B.I. agent Steve Emerson (Warren William) is the hottest ticket item since Arsene Lupin.  And that is just the problem.  Every newspaper in the country has his face plastered all over it and so every criminal knows just what he looks like.  His boss requests that Steve hands in his resignation and Steve does so with little hesitation.  Taking on the job of private detective he goes to meet his first client and finds a room of people bound and gagged.  It turns out that the Count de Grissac (John Halliday), his niece Lorraine (Virginia Bruce), and cousin George Bouchet (Monty Woolley) have been robbed.  Luckily it turns out that the thief made off with a paste imitation of the famous de Grissac emerald.  Steve notices a card with the signature Arsene Lupin on it, along with a bullet left behind in a wall.  He hurriedly takes both pieces of evidence and then offers to return to France with the de Grissac family in an effort to help them protect the emerald.  He also has become taken with Lorraine and is anxious to find more time to spend with her.

Disembarking in Paris, Lorraine and Steve are met at the dock by Lorraine’s fiancee Rene Farrand.  Rene comes bearing gifts and Steve, whether from jealousy over Lorraine’s affections or actual police instinct, is immediately suspicious of the gentleman farmer.  It turns out that he has reason to be suspicious as we will soon see.  Two men show up at Rene’s home later that week.  They are Joe Doyle (Nat Pendleton) and Alf (E.E. Clive), and they are looking for Arsene Lupin.  They find him in the back taking in some target practice, because as it turns out Rene is Arsene Lupin.  Joe and Alf present Rene with the day’s newspaper which is splashed with the headline ARSENE LUPIN ALIVE?  They wonder if Rene is getting back in the game but they are to be disappointed.  Rene is retired and he had nothing to do with the emerald or any of the other crimes being attributed to Lupin.  Obviously there is a copycat at large.

Arsene Lupin is a gentleman thief and master of disguise created by Maurice LeBlanc, and featured in twenty novels and twenty-eight short stories.  Lupin first appeared in Je sais tout issue number six in 1905, and has been inspiring adaptations ever since.  The first Arsene Lupin movie was made in 1908 and even as recently as 2011.  These two films are not the only Arsene Lupin films but they are definitely among the best.  Both are well written and enjoyable caper films, each having a great cast of actors to bring the stories to life.  But how do they compare to each other?

The 1938 film is often dismissed as being not as good as the 1932 film, and is usually not rated very well.  I am guessing that this is because it is being compared directly to the 1932 film and not by itself.  I found this film quite enjoyable and well done.  The dialogue is witty and fun, the story is well plotted and moves quickly.  The cast is terrific with Melvyn Douglas doing a great job as a suave ne’er do-well and Warren William is perfectly cool as the American G-Man on the hunt for Lupin, as well as love.  And any time that I see Monty Wooley on-screen makes me very happy.  My only quibble would be that Virginia Bruce’s character is very under-utilized, to the point that the entire “love triangle” subplot could probably be cut out without changing much of the film.  However, this film is a very good example of a 1938 romantic comedy/romp and should not be so easily dismissed.  I think that this is an example of a film suffering because it is considered a sort-of sequel to the 1932 version and that is a shame because it really is quite a fun movie.

That having been said there is a definite magic in the 1932 ARSENE LUPIN.  Both Barrymore brothers are hitting on all cylinders, and John Barrymore especially seems to be having a ball.  This film really has you guessing for a little while, wondering who is Arsene Lupin really and how will he get away with everything?  The story is engaging and surprising, and the entire cast is fantastic.  The character of Sonia especially deserves to be mentioned because she might just be the entire reason why this movie is in some ways superior to the 1938 version.  Where the Virginia Bruce character is relegated to window dressing between Warren William and Melvyn Douglas, Karen Morley is given a much meatier role with far more impact on the film.  You simply could not have this film without her character or her story.  Sonia is a complex, clever, and interesting woman, and is more than capable of handling Arsene Lupin and his ruses.

I thoroughly enjoyed both of these films which are part of a double-feature from the Warner Archive.  Even though I have a preference for the 1932 film, both are well worth seeing and I can recommend both.  You can also see ARSENE LUPIN on Warner Archive Instant so you have no excuse not to!