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The Mudlark (1950)

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In the poster, Irene Dunne is portrayed looking more like herself and less like Victoria, perhaps to keep audiences from being confused?

A mudlark is a child who scrounges on the muddy banks of the River Thames, looking for anything of value to sell. Even if it means taking something from a dead body. In that respect, it reminds me of Charles Dickens’ Our Mutual Friend, where characters make their living on the river by robbing the drowned bodies they find.

The Mudlark is a historical drama about Wheeler (Andrew Ray), a mudlark who finds a cameo with the image of Queen Victoria. Without parents, he is completely ignorant of everything beyond the immediate banks of the river and has no idea who she is. He is told, however, that she is Victoria, the “mother of England.” Wheeler says she looks like how he imagines a mother would look and wants to see her. But Victoria has lived in seclusion ever since her husband, Albert, died and the only way for Wheeler to see her is to sneak into Windsor Castle.

The film is partly about his quest to see Victoria, but also about Prime Minister Disraeli’s (Alec Guinness) attempts to get Queen Victoria (Irene Dunne) out of her self-imposed solitude and reengaged with her kingdom. He does this through every means at his disposal: coaxing, reasoning and flat-out political machinations at the Houses of Parliament.

Disraeli also sees Wheeler as a prime example of the kind of ignorance produced by extreme poverty and exactly the kind of child targeted by new legislation he is trying to push through parliament. The chances of the reforms being passed are low, but he knows Victoria supports the reforms and wants her to use her authority to help push it through. So, part of the film is a cat and mouse game between Disraeli and Victoria.

Alec Guinness and Irene Dunne are quite wonderful, especially Alec Guinness. Irene Dunne is almost unrecognizable as Victoria and does a remarkable job of becoming the role. She looks just like her. What gives her away is the intelligence in her eyes that is never absent from Irene Dunne, and a certain way of speaking that comes through periodically.

mudlark-1

Wheeler and Disraeli

Alec Guinness is excellent at transforming himself into different roles. I’ve been watching a number of his films recently and he is a marvel. He too has intelligence shining from his eyes as he gallantly serves his queen, but serves shrewdly.

Victoria and Disraeli did have a very great affection for each other in reality. She loathed dealing with Gladstone when he was prime minister, but Disraeli knew how to talk with her and flatter her and they seemed to have been genuinely fond of each other. He was gallant to the extreme and would talk about Albert with her. He was also a novelist and I am pretty sure I read one of his books once – I think it was Venetia – but I seem to recall it being a melodramatic romance.

Finlay Currie also does well as the Scotsman, John Brown, who occupied a rather unusual position in Victoria’s household. He was privileged to say and do nearly anything in her presence and tended to irritate others with his uncouth and often tipsy manners, not to mention his privileged position (if you are interested in their relationship, the film to see is Mrs. Brown).

There are also other goings on in the palace, like a young lady-in-waiting who keeps trying to elope with her Lieutenant, who is delayed for various reasons.

Another thing that was interesting was the complete ignorance of the mudlark. Wheeler literally knows nothing. Nothing about God or Queen or Country. He doesn’t even know what England is. Such ignorance, however, was not unusual. In The Friendly Dickens (an introduction to all things Dickens: biography, his books), the author, Norrie Epstein, writes about the character Jo in Bleak House. Jo is a crossing sweep and also lives in a state of complete, isolating ignorance. Epstein writes that this was not an unusual case at all during he Victorian era. The situation appalled Dickens. The Mudlark is not dealing in outrage, though, but still notes the situation, particularly in a witty and pointed speech given by Disraeli to the House of Commons.

The film is occasionally stately in pace, but I found a lot to enjoy and it doesn’t take itself that seriously. It manages to encompass a wide swathe of people: queen, politicians, solders, servants both high and low, and a small mudlark from the river.

the-mudlark

Queen Victoria and Wheeler

 
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Posted by on January 23, 2017 in Movies

 

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Comparing Two Oliver Twists: The Jackie Coogan Show and Film Noir Dickens

poster-oliver-twist-1922_03Charles Dickens’ Oliver Twist seems to be one his most often adapted novels. I’ve seen five different film versions, but there are many, many more, from musical to British miniseries to feature film to silent to talkie. Last week, however, I saw the 1922 silent Oliver Twist and David Lean’s 1948 Oliver Twist.

Olive Twist (1922)

I think the best way to think of the silent Oliver Twist is as The Jackie Coogan show. Jackie Coogan is the most full of personality, vital and alive Oliver Twist I have seen yet. He manages the unique feat of being able to co-opt his own story, something that not even the fictional character of Dickens’ novel is able to do. The character of Oliver Twist is, in the words of Norrie Epstein in The Friendly Dickens, a “blank slate” on which all the character seek to put their own stamp. But not Jackie Coogan. He even manages to upstage Lon Chaney as Fagin, though Chaney is certainly good.

Olivr Twist was made one year after Coogan appeared with Charlie Chaplin in The Kid, which feels like an appropriate follow-up film. According to Epstein, Oliver Twist was Chaplin’s favorite novel, which isn’t surprising since Chaplin’s very childhood is essentially Dickensian.

Jackie Coogan has wide, innocent eyes that look up at the camera so mournfully, you wonder how anyone can be cruel to him. But he also brings perhaps just a touch of mischief, which is not something one usually sees in an Oliver. Coogan was eight years old, only one year younger than Oliver’s actual age in the book, But Oliver is usually played by a boy who looks closer to eleven or twelve, making Coogan look so young. It’s hard to imagine anyone imaging that adorable child could be a hardened criminal.

oliver-twistThe movie is actually quite faithful to the book, hitting all the key plot points and characters, but the only other actor who has a chance to make an impression is Lon Chaney as Fagin, though it is still a relatively small role. He shows his remarkable ability to not only transform his face, but his entire posture and manner. But what makes the film work is how Coogan makes us root for and relate directly to the character of Oliver Twist. I can see why he was such a beloved child actor.

Oliver Twist (1948)

David Lean opens his Oliver Twist with a Gothic flourish, as Oliver’s mother makes her way through the rain and storm to a workhouse, where she gives birth. With the storm, it’s like she’s being persecuted by nature itself. But once she arrives in the workhouse, the film switches from Gothic nature to grim London city, with shadows and grime and the seedy side of life, looking occasionally like a film noir, proving that noir is perfectly compatible with the grim, dirty reality of a Dickens novel.

As a result, this Oliver Twist belongs far more to the villains and grifters of the film. Alec Guinness plays Fagin with considerable zest and heavy makeup. It’s amazing to think he played Herbert Pocket in Lean’s Great Expectations just a few years ago. Initially, Guinness seems to be having some fun with his role, but gradually he reveals him to be the one who embodies real evil as he eggs on Bill Sikes (an effectively brutal Robert Newton) into murdering Nancy (Kay Walsh).

mv5bmjexndu3ota1of5bml5banbnxkftztcwnzy3mdyxmq-_v1-_cr7233264427_ux182_cr00182268_al_All Oliver Twist adaptations unashamedly build up to the murder of Nancy. It’s the unacknowledged high-point of any film and filmmakers know audiences are waiting for it with a mixture of anticipation and horror. It has to be one of the most famous murders in literature and Dickens himself was fond if reading that passage aloud to audiences.

And because the film modifies the story somewhat – eliminating the Maylie thread of the story entirely – it leaves more room for Nancy to emerge as the real heroine of the story (which she is in the book, but she must compete for attention with Rose Maylie). Kay Walsh, I thought was very effective as the prostitute who is touched by Oliver and manages to be the only one to stand between him and the combined forces of Fagin, Sikes and Oliver’s evil half-brother, Monk, even though it kills her. This also makes the horror of the murder all the greater and Lean uses this murder as the spur that brings down Fagin and Sikes.

In some ways, the center of the film actually feels like Fagin’s lair. We even get a last stand, with the angry mob outside and Fagin, Bill Sikes and a number of terrified young boys holed up inside. Poor Oliver Twist kind of disappears in his own story during the last bit of the film, but the film is no less effective for it.

Oliver is played by John Howard Davies, who looks a few years older than nine, but plays him with a kind of deadened acceptance of the privations and cruelties of life. He initially looks like a concentration camp survivor, as do all of the children at the workhouse, with their shaved heads and listlessness. It’s one of the most effective dramatizations of the horror of the workhouse and does full justice to Dickens sense of outrage and horror.

As a side note: Alec Guinness wanted his makeup to be modeled after the original illustrations of George Cruikshank and his resulting appearance and especially his nose caused a sensation because of how it evoked traditional, negative depictions of Jews. America in particular was uncomfortable with it and it took three years for Oliver Twist  to be shown in the US, with several minutes of footage of Fagin deleted. My understanding is that his is the last overtly Jewish depiction of Fagin in any film adaptation.

 

 
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Posted by on November 23, 2016 in Movies

 

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Kind Hearts and Coronets (1949)

6a00d8341c2b7953ef013485c24605970cKind Hearts and Coronets is a completely droll and delightful comedy of murders, which happens to feature Alec Guinness eight times over. He also dies eight times over. He is blown up (twice), shot, drowned (twice), poisoned, and has his hot air balloon punctured by an arrow. He also manages to die of a perfectly ordinary heart attack. By the end, there isn’t an Alec Guinness left standing.

The story follows the quest of a draper’s assistant, Louis Mazzini, (Dennis Price) to murder his way to the D’Ascoyne Dukedom. There are seven D’Ascoyne’s standing in his way (all played by Guinness), not to mention the duke himself (also played by Guinness).

Louis is himself the son of a D’Ascoyne, but she romantically ran off with an Italian tenor and was cut off by the family. But that doesn’t prevent her from raising her son with the utmost conviction of his family worth and the grievous offense done to his mother by the family. He decides on revenge after she dies and gets to work, starting things off with an improvised double drowning.

The film makes ruthless fun of the aristocrats and one is almost on Louis’ side for how they all refuse to acknowledge his existence, except that Louis is just as much of a snob as they are.

The two women in Louis life are Sibella (Joan Greenwood), his childhood sweetheart, and Edith (Valerie Hobson), the teetotaler wife of young Henry D’Ascoyne. After Henry is blown up (in his dark room – he’s a photography enthusiast), Edith becomes a widow and Louis determines to marry her. He believes she would make an ideal, dignified and gracious Duchess.

In the meantime, he carries on an affair with Sibella, who he does not think would make a very good Duchess, though she is the only person to see through him. Louis thinks that he has the upper hand and can discard her at will, but she turns out to be every bit as good at scheming as he is, if not a bit better. In hindsight, he really should have just married her – they would have been unstoppable.

Alec Guinness

Alec Guinness

Dennis Price is superb as the man who would be a duke, narrating his story on the night before he is to be hanged (by an executioner thrilled to his core that he is to meet – and hang – a Duke…with a silk noose, no less). It is primarily his story. However, the film is most famous for allowing Alec Guinness the chance to play eight different members of the same family, roles which he approaches with a hilarious kind of tongue-in-cheek deadpan expression. Suppressed glee, perhaps. All one has to do practically is look at Alec Guinness in one of his roles and break out laughing.

He plays the duke, a young photography enthusiast oppressed by his wife’s extreme goodness (and insistence that he abstain from alcohol), a stubborn admiral, a general, a doddering old clergyman, a radical suffragette (my favorite of his roles), an old banker, and a roue, who is also the son of the banker.

Apparently, Alec Guinness was offered four roles, but when he read the script he thought it was so marvelous he suggested that he play eight, instead.

What is interesting is how understated it is all done, though. There is only one shot where we have all eight Guinness’ D’Ascoyne’s together and in every other case they are in separate scenes of their own. None of it is in the least showy. The one scene where he does appear in full force (at church) was evidently very difficult to do, however, and it took several days. They would expose different portions of the film, each with a different Alec Guinness.

This is brilliant British comedy, about as funny as anything I’ve ever seen, in truth. I think, in time, this could become a real favorite.

This is part of the Dual Roles Blogathon. The rest of the posts can be found in recaps for Days 1, 2, and 3.

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Posted by on October 2, 2016 in Movies

 

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