The Invention of the Holy Grail at a ruined abbey in England.
The absconded beloved in New York, “second floor back”.
Return of the lover to Fifth Avenue with his prize (cp. Gilliam’s The Fisher King).
Miraculous healing of the dying girl, effected by a thief.
Trial and reconciliation.
A rescension of The Light in the Dark.
The perfect comedy is ideal in its realizations, scene after scene is virtuosic in the highest degree, the perfection is in the grasp of every detail as taking place between two volleys of a firing squad at target practice.
Valentino’s art is precisely conveyed in a smile at first meeting Mascha, it reappears to confirm the identity of The Black Eagle.
Russianism finely observed, not least in the Czarina, a double game of Sortes BiblicŠ, Vilma Banky’s charm, the calm tempo, Brown’s camera, Pushkin on usurpation and vengeance and service to the Crown.
Flesh and the Devil
The design of the construction is to have a duel for love fought twice over the same woman, once against a stranger (the lady’s husband) and then against a blood brother from childhood (second husband).
The genteel workings of this elaborate device are the mainspring of the comedy, a perfect dunking of the femme fatale. A maiden’s prayers send her across the ice to stop the wintry repeat of the duel, she falls in, bubbles rise from the deeps.
The girl in every port who’s a whore when her sailor’s away, father or husband.
An astounding vitality of composition informs the work decades ahead of its time.
The “cherished image” dragged behind at a safe distance as Garbo will “forty years from now” be Dressler, who gives a perfect performance almost noted by Mordaunt Hall in his New York Times review.
Bickford plays the Irishman, Brown has Christopherson from the first theatrical run, also perfect.
The camera rides a rollercoaster with the lovers, and perches atop a bell rung with two strong arms.
O’Neill filmed correctly.
Wife vs. Secretary
A magazine publisher sees his advertisers slipping away to the lower-priced spread, he buys it.
Now the wife is unhappy because he’s up to his ears in his very efficient secretary, negotiating the deal.
Circumstantial evidence forces the wife’s hand, she goes home to his mother, but the secretary isn’t a genius for nothing, she goes home to her soup-slurping family and clerk of a boyfriend.
Loy vs. Harlow (Clark Gable, James Stewart). “This is the sort of Hollywood superproduction,” the New York Times meant but did not say, “that gives Gotham a bad name.”
The show business as a metaphor, no doubt of it, and nothing of the kind.
Schlesinger’s Darling and Richardson’s The Entertainer are very closely related, however remote they appear.
There are even two endings, one for abroad and one at home, “Abide with Me” and Piccadilly Circus.
The Rains Came
The scene is laid in Ranchipur at the time of filming, and Brown begins with an overwhelming visual effect, the slatted screen of George Brent’s verandah casting long narrow shadows overall. It’s hot, he slingshots a chattering monkey. Abner Biberman strikes a note of mystery, there’s a statue of Queen Victoria in the square. It’s peaceful, anyway, as in the days “before dictators and appeasement.”
Elsewhere, the social maven of the American Mission does a slow burn at the sight of bespectacled Jane Darwell sitting on the schoolroom porch, “so Middle West in front of my guests.”
Lord and Lady Esketh (Nigel Bruce, Myrna Loy) arrive. Brent shows Loy around the palace at a formal dinner. “That’s a Rembrandt. That’s a Buddhist prayer wheel.” It’s a backward place nevertheless, riddled by superstition, as Dr. Safti (Tyrone Power) explains. “Crops and starvation” are among the people’s daily concerns, until the monsoons turn “everything green and alive.” Brent is an old conquest of Loy’s, but that’s all past. He lights her cigarette. Lightning fills the screen.
A daughter of the Mission (Brenda Joyce) decides to leave India and become an actress. She tries her wiles on Brent, who does a flashing double take. The town at last is seen through an archway, Ó la Ford, framing the street and two cows. The rains come.
Loy sets her sights on Power, a military man. He is too gallant to slight her. They hear music together, a song which he translates as it is being improvised. “Would my lyre were of jade, its strings of purespun gold, that I might sing with merit of your beauty... in your heart my love has found a home, and it can never die...”
Among Brown’s considerable single shots is one of Esketh ailing in bed, a window to the left on the night sky, the bed to the right in three-quarter view with a lamp behind shining through the mosquito netting.
George Brent is among those actors who, like Cary Grant and Clint Eastwood, are diffident in some respects with varying directors. Here you see him at his best, sometimes looking like Pedro Armendariz, sometimes like Emilio Fernandez.
He is asked by Loy, “you sober enough to take me to the party?” He answers her as he takes a drink, “almost.” Later she admonishes him. “Some night you’re going to fall flat on your face and people will begin to suspect you drink.”
Myrna Loy is, as the Oxford don said of his mistress Florence Nightingale, “very violent” in this part. She wears a matron’s GrŠco-Roman hair and white dress, and goes great guns from Brown’s first searching close-up. The good doctor has bested her, she resolves to leave Ranchipur sadder but wiser. Then there is an earthquake, a tremor really, followed by a dambusting cataclysm that floods the town (complex, difficult work for the matte artists). And this is where Brown’s utter contempt for the niceties stamps itself on the film in a characteristic revelatory brief scene. Esketh’s butler advances upon him. “Fifteen years, yes m’lord, no m’lord, now you’re afraid.” Both are obliterated. Queen Victoria is up to her diddies in floodwater.
The would-be actress rows exhaustedly to Brent’s rescue, he has been a gentleman and she loves him. He puts her to bed, rows out and loses the boat. “Steady old girl,” he says to the statue he clings to, as he clears away the flotsam. He returns and collapses beside the girl.
The Maharajah (H.B. Warner) dies in bed, his last words are “I know I can count on you to help your queen.” The Maharani (Maria Ouspenskaya) is sage and astute as he, and a poker player to boot. She declares a state of emergency, bids her staff do their utmost, asks Brent for a cigarette, makes him aide-de-camp. There is plague, doctors and nurses are wanting, Loy volunteers, weary of her own jadedness and inspired somehow by the doctor’s loyalty. She is put to cleaning floors, but he orders head nurse Miss MacDaid to train her quickly, “she’s an intelligent woman.” So they work side by side in the plague ward.
You will observe that this is material propounded in Jezebel and advanced in Doctor Zhivago (and A Passage to India), but delicately pointed here as well. As aide-de-camp, with the girl clerking beside him, Brent is a regular Joseph. The viceroy sends his condolences and a plane, with an offer of assistance. The Maharani wants Loy out, the doctor “must remain devoted to his cause.” Loy loves Power at last, for the first time, and won’t go. In a marvelously-filmed scene, she gives water to a patient, sits alone in the ward at night, the squatting man who pulls the fan-cord topples over, he’s put to bed, she pours herself a glass of water, realizes it’s the same one...
The doctor remembers her at the Summer Palace, “shiny, glossy, crafty.” To have submitted to her then “would have been like taking a counterfeit instead of the real coin.” He doesn’t know she’s ill. She collapses, and is put to bed. Miss MacDaid, who never liked her, sits down at the ward desk and amends the list of critical and dying patients, adding a new number to the latter column with a bitter smile, then crumples up the sheet and buries her face in her arms (another of Brown’s cruel aperšus).
“Think of the Maharani and your duty,” counsels Brent. Loy gives away her jewels, and bids remembrance of “a shameless wench called Lady Esketh, who died in Ranchipur during the great disaster of 1938.” The doctor promises to take her to the Spice Islands, Coral Islands, but she dies open-eyed as he speaks (Emilio Fernandez repeats the scene in Rio Escondido).
There is a victory. Brent and the girl are united, the doctor receives honors at a formal ceremony. He marches to it with an impassive look.
One should like to point out that TV Guide mistook several details (malaria for plague, etc.) and then accused Philip Dunne and Brown of eliding the realities.
Edison, the Man
Golden Jubilee of Light. Recollections of the inventor.
In a cubbyhole at Menlo Park sound asleep to avoid a writ of replevin goes lock stock and barrel into Asquith’s The Yellow Rolls-Royce.
And that is how Edison received inspiration, “very important, you know. You have to have it, you can’t invent it.”
Necessity is a mother bear in a frozen world.
Discovery of the phonograph.
Laborious invention of the light bulb. Electricity, vacuum, filament. “I told you we had to leave science behind.”
The gas monopoly.
The Edison Illuminating Company. A sweep of inventions. “Ingenuity and humanity.”
Bosley Crowther of the New York Times, “has the quality of an inspirational document... gets sort of obvious... smooth and workmanlike”. The Catholic News Service Media Review Office, “Tracy’s performance is what makes it worth watching. Its picture of science in the service of humanity as well as the virtues of dedication and hard work will not be lost on the young.” Geoff Andrew (Time Out), “glossily polished biopic... something of a whitewash job” (Halliwell’s Film Guide likewise).
The White Cliffs of Dover
The reasoning behind Brown’s direction is very neat and in its way as elegant as Wyler’s Mrs. Miniver, the rather brutal nature of the subject is the long nightmare of history leading up to the present horrors. It would be possible to make the thing work a hundred thousand times better, and that with ease, yet Brown takes every bump in the road and grinding gear, it doesn’t really work at all, this view of England from an American perspective, for all its decency and rationality and ineffable whatnot. Brown wants a deus ex machina and gets one to serve his turn. The terrible misunderstanding, if it is one, has no solution whatsoever, far from it. No, not a hope, and so be it, except that one’s American mother has the most awful love of the place, England, and such jolly good reasons for it, along with others that one knows not of, and there it is.
“A Clarence Brown Production” in which the mastery of form consists of a tacit inner structure built on casting and makeup, with the conscious participation of the actors. Young Velvet Brown strongly resembles her father, her mother lends her freckle-face to little Donald, the sisters are a spectrum in between, so that the real drama takes place in the romantic obsession of Velvet as an expression of her father’s unconscious spirit, he the butcher, and her mother’s sagacious encouragement as housewife and keeper of accounts but former Channel swimmer, whose imaginative nature and household economy are both reflected in Donald’s “stories” and insect-bottle.
This mainspring seems to have served Phil Karlson in Kansas City Confidential, which prefigures Jack Nicholson’s The Two Jakes.
Apart from this, there is Sewel in Sussex viewed from the perspective of American small-town life as quaint and kindred and therefore absolutely authentic, contrasted with the high view of the seacoast from the Brighton road, and of course the Grand National, which is filmed excitingly. Under Brown’s direction, the animal performers are as good as the children. Horses in the steeplechase prefigure the leaping deer of The Yearling.
The significance of Brown’s formal study is, among other things, that it is even more essentially cinematic than Anna Karenina, and shows the range of art available to a director with the presence of mind to read a screenplay and discern its actual workings.
Brown's formal mastery is richly observed in the sleight-of-hand he imposes on the scene of Mrs. Miniver discovering the bullet holes in the car roof, which in The Yearling is signally transformed into Jody's discovery of the fawn behind the shrubbery.
Intruder in the Dust
The cinematic equivalent of Faulkner’s prose is Oxford, Miss., where Brown films “almost wholly”. Faulkner has his horrors, they are here in a double exhumation. The literary note is thus doubly and trebly secured, the basis of the anecdote is understood as akin to It’s a Wonderful Life among films and (to return among literary models) The Adventure of Huckleberry Finn figures as a close reading.
A double tragedy, the first is that of a man whose brother steals lumber from their sawmill, then kills him and frames a witness to the theft.
The witness (who has seen nothing) comes fairly near to being lynched, but is freed on discovery of concealed evidence. The second tragedy occurs before these events, the witness is belittled by a persistent and thoughtless boy who learns a lesson thereby, but the man’s wife dies.
Conditions of the departure, business dealings, return of the Speedwell.
Conditions of the voyage, Atlantic storm, animosity of the captain and crew.
Conditions at New Plymouth, partial conversion of the captain, crops planted.
Brown could have perfected this, if he had wished. He plays it to the quick.
The adventure is of a kind not adjustable to a sailor’s mind, he sees the end of all things, Lot’s wife, the promised land.
“The production,” said Variety, “ably executed, puts more emphasis on the voyage itself and the attendant dangers than on developing the characters into flesh-and-blood people.”
“Hokey history”, said the Catholic News Service.
“Those Pilgrims were almost as clever as the people at M-G-M,” said Bosley Crowther of the New York Times.
Halliwell’s Film Guide says, “totally unconvincing and very dull”.