Category Archives: Classics

Trio (1950, Ken Annakin and Harold French)

Trio is a lopsided anthology of three W. Somerset Maugham short story adaptations. The first two segments, directed by Ken Annakin, are deliberate, thoughtful, wry comedies. The last one, directed by Harold French–and taking up over half the film’s runtime–is something of a tragedy. It’s deeply, chastely romantic, full of characters and enough story to probably run for a feature length outing on its own. Instead, it gets fifty minutes to meander to its finish.

Maugham introduces each story, though not for very long. Trio cuts away from him while he’s in mid-sentence, the uncredited narrator always cutting him off. Kind of strange, given Maugham’s one of the three screenwriters. Apparently someone thought he’d detract from the adaptations themselves.

Annakin does an excellent job with the first two segments.

The first has long-time church verger James Hayter losing his job. His boss finds out he can’t read or write and so does the Christian thing, throwing Hayter out on his butt (because liability issues). All right, so the vicar does give Hayter the chance to become literate but Hayter isn’t interested.

Hayter’s performance is awesome. It’s a quiet, cautious, deliberative performance. Much of the segment, at least in the first half, is just understanding Hayter’s perception of the world and his place in it. When he does make his moves for the future, involving landlady Kathleen Harrison, the segment speeds up quite a bit without losing any of its personality. Very nice work from Annakin, Harrison, and, obviously, Hayter.

The second segment has a much bigger principal cast. Nigel Patrick is an annoying passenger on an oceanliner, who irritates his roommate (Wilfrid Hyde-White) and his roommate’s colleague (Naunton Wayne) and the colleague’s wife (Anne Crawford). While the first segment does end with a bit of a punchline, the second just moves along until it gets to a smile.

The strong direction from Annakin, the excellent performances–particularly Patrick and Crawford, but everyone’s quite good–it gets Trio to a good place before kicking off the third story… the feature presentation, as it were.

Before cutting from Maugham, Trio establishes Roland Culver is going to be playing an analogue of the author. He’s got tuberculosis and he’s going to a sanatorium to recuperate. Sanatorium is also the title of the story. There he meets a cast of interesting people who have all sorts of things going on. Well, not Marjorie Fielding and Mary Merrall, who inexplicably don’t even warrant getting credited. They’re the two gossips who pishposh about goings on.

The main story is between Michael Rennie and Jean Simmons. He’s a retired Army officer and a determined cad. She’s the young woman who’s spent over a third of her life recuperating from tuberculosis but she’s not easily fooled. We never see her not be easily fooled, Culver just talks about observing it multiple times. Rennie pursues her, Simmons doesn’t want to be pursued, but doesn’t entirely avoid his attention.

Meanwhile, Raymond Huntley is a bore to visiting, suffering wife Betty Ann Davies. And John Laurie and Finaly Currie comedically bicker. André Morell’s the doctor in charge of the place, though he really doesn’t have anything to do. Neither does Culver. He’s just around to give Davies someone to talk with about Huntley. Rennie and Simmons function on their own, Laurie, Currie, Fielding, and Merrall are all background.

From the start, director French clearly doesn’t have the same kind of handle Annakin did on the first two segments. French and cinematographers Geoffrey Unsworth and Reginald H. Wyer frequently rely on bad projection backdrops, and French really doesn’t have anything interesting to do with all the talking heads shots. He’s seemingly more concerned with keeping it appear busy.

But the segment gets by. All the performances are good, even if the actors don’t have much in the way of parts. Whether due to the adaptation or the original text, the potentially good scenes (for the narrative) get avoided so there can be occasional reveals. When it does wrap up, it does so without much resolution. French is going for melodramatic effect, nothing else; shame the actors’ fine work adds up to so little. The segment needs more time. It’s got too much for the anthology and not enough for the story itself.

Trio’s universally well-acted, fairly well-written, either well-directed or at least mediocrely, but the lopsided nature of the segments–in terms of runtime and overall effect–hurt it.

2/4★★

CREDITS

Directed by Ken Annakin and Harold French; screenplay by W. Somerset Maugham, R.C. Sheriff, and Noel Langley, based on stories by Maugham; directors of photography, Geoffrey Unsworth and Reginald H. Wyer; edited by Alfred Roome; music by John Greenwood; produced by Antony Darnborough; released by General Film Distributors.

Starring James Hayter (Albert Foreman), Kathleen Harrison (Emma), Nigel Patrick (Kelada), Anne Crawford (Mrs. Ramsey), Naunton Wayne (Mr. Ramsey), Wilfrid Hyde-White (Mr. Gray), Roland Culver (Mr. Ashenden), Michael Rennie (Major Templeton), Jean Simmons (Miss Bishop), Betty Ann Davies (Mrs. Chester), Raymond Huntley (Mr. Chester), Finlay Currie (Mr. McLeod), Marjorie Fielding (Mrs. Whitbread), Mary Merrall (Miss Atkin), John Laurie (Mr. Campbell), and André Morell (Dr. Lennox).


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Captains Courageous (1937, Victor Fleming)

As Captains Courageous enters its third act, Spencer Tracy (as a Portugese fisherman) reminds Freddie Bartholomew (a spoiled blue blood kid Tracy rescues after he falls overboard from an ocean liner) it’s almost time to go home to his regular life. It’s a shock for Bartholomew, but also for the viewer. Even though the first act is mostly Bartholomew and his regular life–bribing his teachers, threatening his classmates, whining a lot about how his rich dad (Melvyn Douglas) will exact his vengeance–it’s been forever since the film has been anywhere but a fishing boat. Just when the film is sailing its best, Tracy comes along to ring the bell and announce its going to be wrapping up.

Fleming’s direction is strong throughout, but most of the fishing boat scenes are contrained. The transition from second to third acts is when Captains really gets out on the water. Franz Waxman’s score is phenomenal during those sequences; the film’s enraptured with the fishing life. Bartholomew’s on board with it, this obnoxious ten-year-old who–shockingly–becomes a part of the crew.

While setting up Bartholomew’s backstory, screenwriters John Lee Mahin, Marc Connelly, and Dale Van Every keep the film’s focus moving. Sometimes it’s on Bartholomew, sometimes it’s on Douglas, sometimes it’s on tertiary supporting cast members. Fleming handles it fine, but Bartholomew’s always got to be the biggest jerk possible. He’s intentionally unsympathetic. And the film keeps that approach for quite a while once he’s onboard the fishing boat.

The boat’s got this great cast–Lionel Barrymore’s the captain, John Carradine’s a fisherman who can’t stand Bartholomew, Mickey Rooney’s Barrymore’s son and a proven teen fisherman–and Bartholomew clashes with everyone to some degree. Even if he’s not being a complete jerk, there’s a clash. The script starts getting a lot more nuanced in how it positions the characters; another reason it’s become so separated from the boarding school and Bartholomew’s rich kid life. But the film never tries to force a redemption arc on Bartholomew, it’s all character development, it’s all part of his arc.

It works because the acting is so strong, especially in how the actors work off one another. Barrymore’s kind of gruff, but also kind of cuddly. He doesn’t have time to get worked up about Bartholomew being a little jerk, whereas Carradine rages beautifully on it. Even though Rooney’s closest in age to Bartholomew, their relationship never forgets the difference of experiences–something the film brings in beautifully in the third act. Bartholomew and Tracy are wonderful together. Fleming knows it too; he’ll fill the frame with their faces, with the lovely Harold Rosson photography, and the film becomes very heavy and very quiet in this deep, soulful way.

Tracy’s got a strong part and his performance is incredibly measured. He never goes too far with it, never pushes at it. There’s a give and take with the other actors–principally Bartholomew, but also Carradine; Tracy never seems reserved or guarded or even indulgent to his costars. He just keeps the right temperment throughout, which isn’t easy given a lack of both melodrama and action for much of the second act. The film’s tension comes from Tracy’s muted exasperation. It’s awesome. And his curled hair looks great.

The third act has some high points and some lower ones. Captains doesn’t run out of ideas, it runs out of patience for sturdily linking them together. It’s like Fleming knows he can get away with it, thanks to the actors, thanks to Waxman, thanks to Rosson. The script sets up opportunities and the film ignores them, rushing to the end.

Fleming’s right–he can get away with it–especially since the third act gives Barrymore his best moments in the film. As sort of implied, Barrymore’s been sage all along. Only he hasn’t had the motivation, time, or space to reveal it. Barrymore’s always good, but in the third act, he’s phenomenal. It’s a shame the rest of the third act isn’t as successful.

Nice or great performances throughout, strong script, great pace from director Fleming, Captains Courageous almost sails through. It gets bogged down at the finish. It could’ve been better, but it’s still quite good.

3/4★★★

CREDITS

Directed by Victor Fleming; screenplay by John Lee Mahin, Marc Connelly, and Dale Van Every, based on the novel by Rudyard Kipling; director of photography, Harold Rosson; edited by Elmo Veron; music by Franz Waxman; produced by Louis D. Lighton; released by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer.

Starring Freddie Bartholomew (Harvey), Spencer Tracy (Manuel), Lionel Barrymore (Disko), Mickey Rooney (Dan), Melvyn Douglas (Mr. Cheyne), Charley Grapewin (Uncle Salters), John Carradine (Long Jack), Sam McDaniel (Doc), and Oscar O’Shea (Cushman).


blogathon-barrymore

THIS POST IS PART OF THE BARRYMORE TRILOGY BLOGATHON HOSTED BY CRYSTAL OF IN THE GOOD OLD DAYS OF CLASSIC HOLLYWOOD.


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Quartet (1948, Ralph Smart, Harold French, Arthur Crabtree, and Ken Annakin)

Quartet opens with what turns out to be a questionable introduction from source story author W. Somerset Maugham. In the rather stodgy introduction to the film–featuring adaptations of four personal favorites from Maugham’s extensive bibliography–Maugham indentifies adjectives critics have given his work over the years.

Those adjectives prove useful during some of the film’s more labored sections.

While there are four different stories with four different directors and four different casts, screenwriter R.C. Sherriff handles the whole adaptation. The script doesn’t really affect the segments, since Sherriff sticks way too close to the source material for each of them. The cast and the directors make and break the segments, though the detached narratives–flashbacks in flashbacks in flashbacks–which might work fine in prose, clunk repeatedly on film.

The first story, boringly directed by Ralph Smart, has gentleman Basil Radford complaining to some of his chums about his son’s misbehaviors abroad. The flashback starts with Radford but then switches over to the son, the amiable if not particularly effective Jack Watling. The first segment gets the least effort in terms of production values–it’s set in Monte Carlo, where everything is inside save one hotel exterior (at night)–and it doesn’t help things.

Watling, ignoring Radford’s advice, tries his hands at gambling and womanizing. The woman in question is Mai Zetterling, who’s got a little more energy than Watling, but not much. The segment does move pretty, mostly because of their amiability, but it doesn’t amount to anything. It doesn’t amount to anything for Watling or for Radford.

The presupplied adjectives start coming into use as it winds down, though not the complimentary ones. Smart’s lack of direction doesn’t help at all.

The second story, featuring Dirk Bogarde as an heir to a country estate who just wants to be a professional pianist, has similarly unimpressive direction from Harold French. Quartet never takes the time to be stagy, though that approach might actually help given the reliance on interiors.

Bogarde’s parents, Raymond Lovell and Irene Browne, don’t approve of his career choices. Meanwhile cousin (Honor Blackman) ostensibly supports him, but really just wants to marry him.

The script and Bogarde’s performance get this one through, along with Blackman’s uneven performance being a lot better in the first half than the second. She doesn’t get any help from French, who ruins her best possible moment during Bogarde’s big piano recital by superimposing previous dramatic events on the frame. A few minutes later, Bogarde gets a similar opportunity and French (and editor Ray Elton) use medium shots instead of close-ups, sapping his expressions.

A clunky epilogue doesn’t help either. It’s back to those adjectives Maugham supplied in the opening bookend.

The third segment, directed by Arthur Crabtree, is a flashback in a flashback in a flashback. A narrator, who seems like it should be Maugham but doesn’t sound like him (and is uncredited), explains it’s a story his friend Bernard Lee told him. Lee is a prison visitor, someone who helps out incarcerted chaps and provides an ear or shoulder as needed. Lee meets prisoner George Cole, who’s in jail for a peculiar reason. Crabtree, Sherriff, and Maugham drag out the revelation of why way too long before getting into Cole’s story. Oh, wait, there’s actually a flashback in a flashback in a flashback in a flashback at one point.

Anyway, Cole’s in jail because he doesn’t want to support his wife (Susan Shaw) because she broke his kite. Why does Cole care about kites? Why would Shaw want to break one? A lot of it has to do with Cole’s overbearing, protective mother Hermione Baddeley, who thinks Shaw is a harpy. And Shaw is a harpy. And Baddeley is awful. It’s a story without any sympathetic characters, much less any one would want to identify with; it drags on and on, easily the lowpoint of Quartet, even if it’s better directed than the first two segments. It’s just grating. Intentionally so.

And its conclusion, presumambly straight from the source story, is downright asinine, which wasn’t one of Maugham’s supplied adjectives, but definitely should have been. None of the performances are bad, they’re all as good as the poorly drawn caricatures deserve.

However, Quartet doesn’t just save the best for last, it saves the good one for last. Not only is Ken Annakin’s direction immediately superior, there’s no silly frame for the fourth segment and it’s got the pacing, plotting, and production values appropriate for a film.

Cecil Parker is an obnoxious, anti-intellectual upper-middle classman with various responsibilities around country and in London, though he mostly just likes London because mistress Linden Travers is there. Unbeknownst to him, wife Nora Swinburne has literary ambitions. She publishes a steamy book of verse and it becomes a huge hit. Parker doesn’t have any interest in reading it until he finds out it’s about a middle-aged woman and her love affair with a younger man.

The segment is a delight and about the only time Quartet approaches its promised insight into the human condition. Parker is fantastic as the bewildered, stogdy boob thrown into arty conversations and–dreadfully–book stores. No one addresses the obvious contradiction–he’s complaining to mistress Travers about Swinburne’s possible adultery–but it still comes through.

Annakin’s direction, focusing on Parker’s subdued but increasing outrage, is great. Travers is good, if underutilized. There’s a fun Ernest Thesiger cameo. And Swinburne, while she has the tale more worth telling, is good.

It almost saves Quartet, at least, as much as it could be saved after three lackluster–though reasonably well-paced–segments. But then there’s Maugham again, offering a parting thought or two to the viewer. Maybe if he had any insight into the film and its adaptations, but it doesn’t even seem like he’s seen them.

Maybe he got bored during the Crabtree directed one and gave up.

1.5/4★½

CREDITS

Directed by Ralph Smart, Harold French, Arthur Crabtree, and Ken Annakin; screenplay by R.C. Sherriff, based on stories by W. Somerset Maugham; directors of photography, Reginald H. Wyer and Ray Elton; edited by Jean Barker and A. Charles Knott; music by John Greenwood; produced by Antony Darnborough; released by General Film Distributors.

Starring Jack Watling (Nicky), Mai Zetterling (Jeanne), Basil Radford (Henry Garnet), Dirk Bogarde (George Bland), Honor Blackman (Paula), Raymond Lovell (Sir Frederick Bland), Irene Browne (Lady Bland), Françoise Rosay (Lea Makart), George Cole (Herbert Sunbury), Hermione Baddeley (Beatrice Sunbury), Mervyn Johns (Samuel Sunbury), Susan Shaw (Betty Baker), Bernard Lee (Prison Visitor), Cecil Parker (Colonel Peregrine), Nora Swinburne (Mrs. Peregrine), Linden Travers (Daphne), and Ernest Thesiger (Henry Dashwood).


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The Moon and Sixpence (1942, Albert Lewin)

The Moon and Sixpence has a number of serious problems, all of them the fault of director and screenwriter Lewin. As a director, while never spectacular, Lewin manages some competence and ambition. He tells Moon and Sixpence in a series of summarized flashbacks. Those flashbacks, narratively and budgetary effective, end up being the film’s undoing.

The film opens with a text scroll informing the viewer it is about a famous painter, Charles Strickland. Charles Strickland, however, is not a real painter. He’s fictionalization of Gauguin. The source novel is first person, from the perspective of that novel’s author, W. Somerset Maugham. Herbert Marshall plays that “character,” only he’s not playing Maugham, he’s got a different name. So it was always supposed to be about a fictionalized version of real person, told by a fictionalized version of an author, but Lewin’s adaptation presents the fictional painter as a real person and the real author as a fictional one.

George Sanders plays the painter, Herbert Marshall plays the author. Even though the film starts with Marshall directly addressing the viewer about his plans to write a history of Sanders, Lewin eventually abandons Marshall entirely. It’s a problem since it’s supposed to be him telling the story… and it gets even worse when there’s an end text scroll to wrap things up. Why’d we need Marshall?

Well, Marshall’s needed because someone needs to do the acting. Sanders is good, but he’s barely in the film. He’s the subject of it, after all, and it’s structured as Marshall’s pursuit of him. There are only a handful of bad performances–but two of them, Doris Dudley and Molly Lamont, are extremely important because they’re the women in Sanders’s life. Lewin’s not a good director of actors; he tries to avoid them with the summarized flashbacks. Lots of voiceovers from Marshall, which eventually give way to voiceovers from people telling their story to Marshall.

A flashback in a flashback in a flashback.

Most of the film relies on Marshall, with occasional bursts of energy from Sanders. Maybe more than an hour of it (Moon and Sixpence runs ninety minutes). There are significant supporting cast members–Dudley and Steven Geray–but Marshall and Sanders are the salient points. Geray’s a caricature. Dudley doesn’t even get to be a caricature (similar to Lewin’s handling of Lamont). It should all be about Sanders, except since Lewin’s not adept at directing performances–not even good ones–Marshall ends up carrying the picture. He’s around the most.

Until the end. In the end, when the action moves to Tahiti, both Sanders and Marshall become detached thanks to the flashback structure. Instead of Marshall telling Sanders’s story, Marshall is telling his own story of hearing about Sanders. Maybe if Albert Bassermann and Florence Bates were better–both are mostly fine, Bates is even fun, but the parts are way too thin–their narratives would be more effective. Or maybe Lewin’s finally just ran out of rope as he lengthens the narrative distance more and more from Sanders.

Either way, just when Lewin needs to build something up for Sanders, he cuts and runs. Moon and Sixpence comes up short.

Eric Blore’s got an amusing, if pointless small part. Elena Verdugo is almost good as another woman in Sanders’s life. She’s certainly better than Dudley and Lamont; maybe she just ignored Lewin’s direction.

John F. Seitz’s photography is fine (he does well with the many projection shots neccesarily to put the cast in Paris and Tahiti). Dimitri Tiomkin’s music is a little much. Maybe if the film were more effective, the music would match, but the film’s ineffective and the music just draws attention to its failings.

The garrish Richard L. Van Enger editing doesn’t help things either.

The Moon and Sixpence seems like it should’ve given Sanders and Marshall great roles, but it doesn’t. Lewin inartfully treats Marshall like a narrative device and Sanders like a guest star. It especially disappoints with the failed conclusion, just because the film had been successfully coasting on its leads for so long, all Lewin needed to do was not botch the third act too much.

But he does botch it too much. Way too much.

1.5/4★½

CREDITS

Directed by Albert Lewin; screenplay by Lewin, based on the novel by W. Somerset Maugham; director of photography, John F. Seitz; edited by Richard L. Van Enger; music by Dimitri Tiomkin; production designer, Gordon Wiles; produced by David L. Loew; released by United Artists.

Starring Herbert Marshall (Geoffrey Wolfe), Steven Geray (Dirk Stroeve), George Sanders (Charles Strickland), Doris Dudley (Blanche Stroeve), Molly Lamont (Mrs. Amy Strickland), Elena Verdugo (Ata), Florence Bates (Tiare Johnson), Albert Bassermann (Dr. Coutras), and Eric Blore (Capt. Nichols).


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