I’ve been going through a small Greer Garson movie phase and was intrigued by the cast of That Forsyte Woman, especially by the casting of Errol Flynn as a character without a scrap of a sense of humor. Based on the first third of John Galsworthy’s renown Forsyte Saga, which was published in 1922, the film was not well-received when it was released in 1949 and has since been overshadowed by two BBC mini-series that by all accounts are excellent and faithful adaptations.
The novel follows the fortunes of the wealthy Forsyte family, but the movie is focused specifically on Irene Forsyte (Greer Garson) and her relationship with three men – two of which are members of the Forsyte family. She is an impoverished lady who teaches piano and has caught the eye of Soames Forsyte (Errol Flynn). He courts her and repeatedly proposes, always to be refused. But Soames is not a man who gives up easily. His uncle teases him about how, when he sees something he likes, he has to posses it and will pay anything to do so. Finally after some machinations Irene consents to be his wife, somewhat against her better judgment.
But Soames proves to be an possessive husband. He designs her dresses, is convinced she doesn’t love him and accuses her of forgetting their anniversary even when she hasn’t. He feels that he can’t really get close to her, which is hardly surprising given his behavior. Irene seems like she’s trying, but she doesn’t love him.
She has, however, managed to make friends with a few members of his family, like Soames’ uncle Jolyon (Harry Danvenport) and niece, June (Janet Leigh). Irene has also met June’s father, the younger Jolyon Forsyte (Walter Pidgeon). He is the black sheep of the family, cast out when he ran off with his child’s nurse and not allowed to see his daughter ever since. He’s a painter, clearly in love with Irene and to see his daughter again.
June, meanwhile, has fallen in love with a rebellious architect who mistrusts most everything the Forsyte’s stand for. But Philip Bosiney (Robert Young), despite becoming engaged to June, soon falls for Irene (she’s got practically the whole male cast chasing after her at this point). She’s hesitant to get involved and hurt June, but he reminds her of someone she once loved who was likewise rebellious and full of life.
This movie does not usually receive much praise, but I must confess that I was definitely not bored and even enjoyed it quite a bit…even if it is a super-serious melodrama. Perhaps it was the cast. Perhaps after I read the book or see the miniseries I will like it less. But the costumes are lovely, the people are lovely.
I think partially it was Errol Flynn, though. It was absolutely mesmerizing watching him in the role of Soames Forsyte, who never smiles, takes himself so seriously and carries himself always with upright dignity. I could hardly take my eyes off him. He’s controlling, repressed and, in his own way, absolutely besotted with Irene. He almost runs off with the picture, despite the good cast, and by the end you even feel sorry for him. It’s his eyes; the sorrow and anguish he feels at the end.
Greer Garson and Walter Pidgeon have their usual wonderful relationship that always feels right. Pidgeon is a bit more subdued in this film, a sadder man who has suffered a lot in life and wants to find a little peace and happiness and to see his daughter again.
Robert Young actually is the smarmy one, despite being the supposedly romantic figure Irene falls in love with. He’s engaged to one woman, but can’t help making love to another. Though their romance is somewhat presented as a doomed one, it’s not ultimately the heart of the film.
I read that Errol Flynn and Walter Pidgeon were actually intended to have each other’s roles, but were weary of being typecast and agreed to switch. Flynn wanted the dramatic role and Pidgeon wanted the one of the black sheep. I think the role swap was inspired, especially for Errol Flynn who also received most of the positive reviews.
The story is set in the 1880s and makes use several times of a London fog, when London fogs were quite serious events at their most dense and soupy. I was recently reading a book called London Fog: A History, which discuses Galsworthy’s use of London fog as a setting, as well as the use many authors make of fog, as well as painters – it’s the book that inspired me to add Galsworthy to my reading list and gave me added incentive to watch this film. It’s now on my “must read” list for 2016.