Tag Archives: Trio

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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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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