Tag Archives: Quartet

Quartet | Maugham adaptations

When I was in undergrad, I discovered the existence of Secret Agent. I was on a thirties Hitchcock kick and a Maugham kick. The idea of a Hitchcock Maugham adaptation? Should be something. At the time–sixteen years ago–Secret Agent was a major disappointment. I’ve still got an interest in Maugham adaptations, but I don’t expect much.

I worked up the Stop Button’s Quartets theme based a Google-facilitated discovery of a “Quartet film series.” Calling it a film series is a bit of a stretch–starting in 1948, Antony Darnborough produced three W. Somerset Maugham “anthology” films. Quartet, Trio, and Encore. I had a slight awareness of Quartet and Trio existing; I knew they were British, black and white, possibly acclaimed at the time of their release. I didn’t know they were anthologies of Maugham short stories.

Quartet has four stories, Trio and Encore both have three. Maugham introduced each of the stories; title card, with director credited; the same unseen, uncredited narrator (in all three pictures) starts reading the source short story.

The films were well-received, both by audience and critic. Though original production company Gainsborough Pictures only hung around for the first “sequel,” Trio, with another company–Two Cities Films–doing the second, Encore. It’s a shame Two Cities Films didn’t do all three, as Encore is easily the best of the bunch. It also has better screenwriters.

In none of the three films is it clear if “host” W. Somerset Maugham has actually seen the film segments. He doesn’t come off well. He’s awkward and disinterested in the film medium. The introductions range from pointless to discouraging.

George Cole and Susan Shaw star in “The Kite,” from Quartet

Quartet has four directors–Ralph Smart, Harold French, Arthur Crabtree, and Ken Annakin–and one screenwriter, R.C. Sherriff. The stories involve, respectively, a Continental seductress exploiting a young British man, a rich kid who just wants to play the piano, a man whose new bride doesn’t like his kite enthusiasm, and a retired army man who discovers his wife writes explicit poetry.

Quartet (1948). ★½
Quartet (1948). ★½. 2017 review

At least two of the stories–first and third–have a framing device, which might work fine in prose, but just needlessly crowds the segments with characters here. Three of the four directors amble clumsily through their segments, doing nothing for Quartet as a visual narrative and even less for their actors. Annakin, in the last segment, finally shows something more than rote competence–it’s almost enough to turn the film around, or at least bring it above water.

Nora Swinburne and Cecil Parker star in “The Colonel’s Lady,” from Quartet

It’s not, of course, because there’s only so much one part of an anthology picture can do to make up for the rest of it, but Annakin’s effort is a good one. The other three just make it seem like Maugham stories shouldn’t be adapted into short films.

Jean Simmons and Raymond Huntley star in “Sanatorium,” from Trio

The first sequel, Trio, reduces the story adaptations by one. Three stories, not four. Ninety minutes, not two hours. Unfortunately, the adaptations don’t get equal time. The first two stories, directed by Ken Annakin, are gentle comedies. The third story, directed by Harold French, is a lengthy melodrama better suited for feature-length expansion, not being forced into an anthology.

Trio (1950). ★★. 2017 review

The stories in Trio are about a fired church verger’s small business success, an annoying cruise liner passenger, and life in a tuberculosis sanatorium.

The screenplay this time comes from Maugham (himself), R.C. Sheriff, and Noel Langley. Oddly, even though Maugham has more involvement, his introductions to each of the stories gets cut. All three times, the music and narration come up before Maugham has finished talking about these stories’ adaptations, which again it seems like he definitely hasn’t seen.

Nigel Patrick, Anne Crawford, and Naunton Wayne star in “Mr. Know-All,” from Trio

There’s a lot of good acting in Trio and a lot of good direction (from Annakin mostly). But the film lacks any bite–the relative cuteness of the first two segments don’t soothe the third’s hopeless melodrama, it just plunges Trio further into blandness.

Glynis Johns and Terence Morgan star in “Gigolo and Gigolette,” from Encore

Then, shockingly, after two disappointing entries, the Quartet series ends on a high point with Encore. It’s from a different production company, Two Cities Films, it’s got an entirely different set of screenwriters–T.E.B. Clarke, Arthur Macrae, and Eric Ambler–and it’s got two new directors for a couple of the segments, Pat Jackson and Anthony Pelissier. Harold French is back again to direct the last story.

Encore (1951). ★★★. 2017 review

Encore’s got the best scripts too. Best scripts and best concepts. The first story is about a lazy brother exploiting a successful one, the second is another cruise liner story (and Encore’s weak spot), with the finale being a high dive performer’s martial troubles.

Nigel Patrick and Roland Culver star in “The Ant and the Grasshopper,” from Encore

Lots of great acting, lots of good direction. Even French, who previously had problems with his direction, comes through on his entry. Encore just has a better feel to it, mostly thanks to the screenwriters, but also the directors. It doesn’t feel constrained like the previous two.

So three movies in the Quartet film series, three posts for The Stop Button. Only Quartets is a monthly scheduling theme, posted every Friday, meaning I needed one more title. And I’ve been wanting to see The Moon and Sixpence for a long, long time. George Sanders in a Maugham adaptation? What could be better.

George Sanders stars in The Moon and Sixpence

Sadly, many things could be better. The Moon and Sixpence is underwritten–by its director, Albert Lewin–which leaves Sanders and lead Herbert Marshall (playing a Maugham analogue, something Marshall would do more directly in The Razor’s Edge a few years later) with very little to do. The parts are just too thin; Marshall and Sanders can imply all the depth they want, but if Lewin isn’t going to acknowledge it, it doesn’t do any good.

The Moon and Sixpence (1942) .★½. 2017 review

Moon and Sixpence isn’t an easy novel to adapt–it’s a period piece, there are multiple locations in multiple countries, it would do well with a big budget. And Lewin doesn’t have one. There’s an even more fundamental issue. The source novel is loosely based on real-life painter Gauguin and Marshall’s Maugham analogue is the guy who wrote that novel. There are literary things at play, along with some grown-up, Hayes Code unfriendly content; Lewin tries to be faithful but he’s too obtuse. There’s nothing to bring it to a different medium, not even the simplest things. When Lewin finally does get around the showcasing what film can do, it’s way too late to do any good. It’d be more of a disappointment if Lewin ever exhibited any competency.

So another middling Maugham adaptation.

Elena Verdugo and George Sanders star in The Moon and Sixpence

As of 2017, there have been over a hundred Maugham adaptions to film and television–fifty-eight film adaptations during Maugham’s lifetime, two television series dedicated to adapting just his stories–and when a Maugham adaptation is good, it tends to be real good. It’s unfortunate the Quartet series didn’t work out better. It’s unfortunate The Moon and Sixpence didn’t pan out. But they were a fine kick-off to the Stop Button’s Quartets scheduling theme.

At least I got middling Maugham movies done early.

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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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