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Archive for the ‘Dame May Whitty’ Category

The Constant Nymph

02 May

The Constant Nymph – directed by Edmund Goulding. Romance. 112 minutes Black And White 1943

★★★★

The Story: An adolescent girl has a crush on a classical composer who is a friend of the family.

~

She was a licensed pilot, and, after a flight from their grape ranch in Indio, she and her husband Brian Aherne were tired and decided to eat out before going home. They stopped at Romanoff’s.

In a nearby booth was Edmund Goulding, who had directed Grand Hotel, Dark Victory, The Great Lie, and knew Brian Aherne who was also English. Since Aherne had played the lead in The Constant Nymph in 1934, Goulding thought that Aherne might help with the casting of the female lead in the remake. Joan Leslie and others had been considered. He wandered over to their table.

“Sit down and join us, old boy,” said Aherne. “And, er, this is my wife.”

“Jack Warner wants a star, but she has to be consumptive, flat-chested, anemic, and fourteen,” said Goulding. “It’s impossible.”

“How about me?” said Aherne’s wife.

“Who are you?” asked Goulding.

“Joan Fontaine.”

“Oh my god, absolutely right!” Goulding ran to the nearest phone to call Jack Warner, and Fontaine was confirmed the next morning.

Fontaine had played Rebecca and Suspicion (the only Oscar winning performance in any Hitchcock film), and she would be nominated for The Constant Nymph.

Goulding was generally considered to be a genius director, and that is never more apparent than in his direction of this film. He rewrote a lot of the script to its advantage. His sense of the mis-en-scene, especially in the first half, is remarkable. The frocks on Joan Fontaine are by Sears-Roebuck, which is right, and the gowns on Alexis Smith are by Orry-Kelly and are  royal – indeed, one of them looks made from a bolt-end of Bette Davis’s metallic dress in Elizabeth And Essex. The lighting and camerawork Tony Gaudio did for him, the production by Henry Blanke and Hal Wallis which guaranteed Warner’s top talent, the sets, all make for a first class entertainment. As supporting actors, we have Peter Lorre, Alexis Smith, Dame May Whitty  and Charles Coburn — whose mere appearance in any picture is a comic situation in and of  itself.

But his handling of Joan Fontaine is what is most remarkable. For she is here as she had never been before and would never be again. She had generally played and would go on to play wan heroines and milksops, a series of vapid Rowenas. But in this film she is a lively teenager, tearing around the house with her sister, with her hair anywhichway. I could not believe this tedious and strained actress could act this charming, vivacious, spontaneous jeune fille. The picture is a wonder because of her. She always said it was her favorite film. It is the best thing she ever did.

With complete authority, Charles Boyer carries the part of the composer which he is probably too short, fat, and old to play. But he is entirely seductive, as usual, with his wonderful eyes and sensual mouth and deep and resplendent voice. Boyer is a great actor and enormously popular in his day – which, in this case, means an actor backed up by great internal vitality – such as, for instance, Tom Cruise.

Boyer’s score is by Erich Wolfgang Korngold, but the music side of the story does not work because it is gauche. But this is overridden by Goulding’s direction. His sense of setting and decor. And his handling of actors.

Aside from Fontaine, notice his handling of Alexis Smith, a cold actor, whom Goulding makes sure we see a different side of here. The same is true of Lorre and Coburn. Both are at first obnoxious and both we eventually root for. Indeed, we come to side with all these characters – he has written and directed them in the round — a great feat for a director.

Yes, everyone in Hollywood thought of Goulding as great director. But his Bette Davis movies, for instance, are not great as movies.  So where are his great movies?

Here’s one.

Perhaps one’s enough.

 

 

Mrs Miniver

08 Jun

Mrs Miniver — directed by William Wyler. Drama. An average upper-middle class English family encounters WW II in their own back yard. 134 minutes Black and White 1942.

★★★★

The films of William Wyler won more Academy Awards for actors than any other director, two of them for this picture, which won for Best Picture, Best Director, Best Screenplay, Best Cinemaphotography. Teresa Wright won it for Supporting Actress, and Greer Garson for Best Actress. She didn’t want to do it, and didn’t get along with the director, at least at first. But the fact is that she won the award more for the role she plays than for her playing of it. For neither the film nor her work in it hold up much any more, despite passages here and there. But it was an enormous hit during its day, and rightly so. Helmut Dantine, who rather looks like her twenty-year-old son in the film, is the vicious German, and despite opposition by Mayer, Wyler has him as a very nasty piece of goods indeed. (Mayer was afraid of losing the Axis market, if you will.) Dantine does a good job, but it is for the audience to play the scene where he appears in Greer Garson’s kitchen. Garson is merely moon-faced, unreadable, and this could be said of her performance throughout, except for a moment of humor here or there or the look in her eye when she cajoles Dame May Whitty into relinquishing a rose prize to Henry Travers, a lowly fancier. Garson always acted as though there were a powder puff in her mouth. She is always A Lady doused with English Lavender. My gracious, how gracious!  So her performance, here as elsewhere, is generalized, lacking in punctuation or particularity. Eccentricity is not hers. (One wonders how she ever got to replace Rosalind Russell in Auntie Mame on Broadway.) But at the time this did not matter. She stood for something! And it worked. What she stood for was the ability of everyday people in the Allied home front to engage in the war bravely and positively. She was The War Effort. It was not just a case of The British courage; it was the courage of all people everywhere to endure the hardships of that time and win through. I lived through that time, and Mrs Miniver was the iconic film for it. Looking at it now, one sees how forced the humor is, and how false the Hollywood settings look, and how unquestioning the script. In it, Garson is a portrait, but not of a person. Her work is less than simple. Teresa Wright does just fine; Richard Ney’s performance is every excuse for his big-toothed smile to be promoted. Rhys Williams, Reginald Owen give good, useful supporting performances. Wyler and Henry Wilcoxon, who played it beautifully, wrote the sermon by the rector which is the film’s famous coda. But the only principal performance that stands up over time is that of Walter Pidgeon as Mr. Miniver. With his easy earthiness, his graceful humor, his physical practicality he grounds every scene he is in, keeping them from floating free in a story that does not exist, but which depends everything upon narrative liaison, in which, at least, Wyler is superb. Still it is Pidgeon one thanks. Watch him: he is always acting. He holds everything together. With the merest of means, he brings possibility for joy and real exhaustion and a witty taciturnity to the mise-en-scene. The passage in the home bomb-shelter in the garden is a stunning scene, that still works today; and his authority in it, that is to say, his deliberate modesty of means, contribute immensely here, as they did throughout his long and beneficial career. He was the most deft of actors.

 
 
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