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The Passionate Friends (1949)

The Passionate Friends was directed by David Lean during a period when he made three films with his lover and then wife, Ann Todd: The Passionate FriendsMadeleine, and The Sound Barrier. These films, however, tend to fall through the cracks between his early films such as Brief Encounter and his two Charles Dickens films and his later epics such as Lawrence of ArabiaThe Passionate Friends, however, just might be my favorite David Lean film that I’ve seen so far.

The story is based on a novel by, of all people, H.G. Wells. It is a romantic triangle, about a woman married to an older man, but she loves another, though the film does not develop as one expects.

The film unfolds through various flashbacks. Mary Justin (Ann Todd) is married to the wealthy banker, Howard Justin (Claude Rains). When she was younger, she was passionately in love with Stephen Stratton (Trevor Howard), a poetry-quoting young biologist. But she said she could not bear to belong to anyone; she wanted to belong to herself. Stephen maintained that if two people love each other, they want to belong to each other, but she said she did not like the clutching and grasping and instead chose to wed Howard, who understood that she did not love him, but felt that they could make a good marriage based on affection and a shared enjoyment of wealth and power.

But when Mary and Stephen unexpectedly meet years later, the powerful spark of attraction is still there and they begin a passionate affair, with Stephen convincing Mary to leave Howard. Before she can, however, Howard returns. He’s furious and he convinces her that she would not be happy with Stephen and she agrees with Howard, leaving Stephen flat. Nine more years pass and she and Stephen meet at a mountain resort in Switzerland. The spark of uncontrollable passion is gone, but Howard does not believe it and starts divorce proceedings, which threaten to ruin Stephen’s job, his reputation, and his marriage.

Mary and Stephen

(Spoilers are Rife) The way Lean begins the film is fascinating, because it is set up to make you think that Mary is trapped in a sterile relationship. She bumps into Stephen in a crowd of people. They are at a New Year’s costume party. She then joins Howard, who is sitting in a box high above the rest of the crowd, watching the crowd uninhibitedly kiss and dance and sing while Howard observes them from a detached perspective, even commenting that they look like puppets on a string. In our first sight of Howard, he turns around to face the camera looking rather like Mephistopheles. Stephen, on the other hand, is imbued with romanticism and their encounters are accompanied with romantic words and music. It makes one to expect Anna Karenina (or at least how Anna sees her story).

The brilliance of the film, though, is how by the end of the film, everything is reversed. “Do you know, Stephen, that we are practically strangers.” Mary says, when they meet again in Switzerland. Stephen has found more lasting, tangible love with another woman and has two children. Mary sees that he is happy. Not passionately happy, but contented and at peace with his life…perhaps a more lasting kind of happiness than their delirious love affair.

And it is clear that Mary’s marriage to Howard has not been as flat as it initially appeared. She considers it a success, they like the same things, clearly discuss politics and his work and seem to be a team with genuine affection for each other. She is highly self-aware, so that although she is carried away by romance, knows that romance is not enough. But the real irony is what happens to Howard.

Howard and Mary

Claude Rains as Howard Justin is absolutely magnificent. Ann Todd and Trevor Howard are good, but it is Claude Rains who really leaves an impression on the viewer. He plays a man coldly rational, a man who sees himself as a manipulator of events, such as when he contrives to let Mary know that he knows about her affair with Stephen. His rationality is repeatedly contrasted with the romanticism of Stephen. And yet in the end, he emerges as the genuinely romantic one while Stephen fades into staid gentility.

It’s an amazing transition that happens subtly. What has happened is that Howard has fallen in love with his wife, though he did not know it. He’s found unexpected depths of passion and initially reacts with furious jealousy. It’s shown subtly. In the beginning of the film, he seems complacent about his relationship with Ann. By the end, before he discovers that Mary and Stephen saw each other in Switzerland, he is almost boyishly excited to see his wife again. When he thinks he’s discovered that she’s been unfaithful to him again, his hurt is palpable rather than the mere anger he experienced the first time. He even cruelly tells her to get out and that he doesn’t want her anymore, which crushes her.

And he perhaps has some reason for feeling jealous. Because although nothing happened between Stephen and Mary – it served more as a lovely meeting that brought closure to their relationship – it seems that Mary does love Stephen in a new way. Less emotional, more mature, deeper. A love that seems to think about him rather than herself. When Howard sues for divorce and names Stephen, she is concerned about Stephen and how it will ruin him and his family, not herself, and even resolves on an Anna Karenina-like suicide in order to prevent the divorce from going forward.

Contemplating dying a la Anna Karenina

Howard, however, is the one who gets to rescue her. After dismissing Stephen’s love “as the kind that makes big demands,” of “nearness” and “belonging” and prone to “romantic hysteria,” he ends up loving a woman who does not love him and never will. A love that, essentially, makes no demands. The look of wonderment she gives him after he stops her from killing herself and asks her to come home is rather beautiful.

This post was written as part of the “Underseen and Underrated”, the CMBA Spring Blogathon. Click here for more posts!

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Posted by on May 16, 2017 in Movies

 

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Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939)

220px-Smith_goesAfter watching Meet John Doe and The Miracle Woman, I was struck by one (of many) themes that Frank Capra seemed repeatedly interested in exploring: whether or not something is still true –  faith, an ideal, a principle – even when it is exploited, ignored or corrupted. I had a dim memory that Frank Capra also explored this theme in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington so I thought it was time I revisited it.

The first time I saw Mr. Smith Goes to Washington I was still in my phase of resisting Frank Capra. On the surface, he seemed simplistic and contradictory. I’ve been rethinking that assessment, however, and warming to his films. And this time I around I was greatly impressed by Mr. Smith Goes to Washington.

When a senator from an unnamed state dies, the governor must appoint a temporary senator until the next election. But the governor (Guy Kibbee) and all the politicians are beholden to party boss Jim Taylor (Edward Arnold), a corrupt man who ensures that certain people stay in power, all the while lining his own pockets. The governor chooses Jefferson Smith (James Stewart), the young leader of the Boy Rangers, who they believe will be too ignorant and naive to interfere with Jim Taylor’s little projects in the senate.

Jefferson Smith is awed to be chosen an honorary senator and is especially honored to become the colleague of the revered Senator Joseph Payne (Claude Rains), who used to work with his father fighting for justice for “lost causes.” Jefferson Smith thinks of Payne as a saint, a man who has done well for his state and who looks very likely to make it to the White House. He’s even called the Silver Knight. But Payne, it turns out, is just as beholden to Jim Taylor as all the rest of the politicians of the state.

Jefferson Smith is also assigned a secretary, Clarissa Saunders (Jean Arthur), a tough-egg, knowledgeable, smart and cynical, who is initially convinced that Jefferson Smith is just a stooge, until she realizes that he’s actually sincere and no man’s patsy, at least when he realizes what is really going on. He wants to introduce an inoffensive bill to create a national boy’s camp, but it turns out that it conflicts with a bit of pork in an appropriations bill that will benefit Taylor. When Smith discovers this (with Saunder’s help), he refuses to go along with it and sets out to expose them, only to have Taylor and the “saintly” Payne frame him for the exact crime they committed.

Claude Rains and Jimmy Stewart - ironic image

Claude Rains and Jimmy Stewart – iconic image

Thus begins the filibuster to end all filibusters, with Saunders coaching him all the way; one man standing against the party machine. It’s epic.

My first thought was, “What a cast!” Frank Capra always seems to assemble the most marvelous collection of actors. Edward Arnold (in a similar role to Meet John Doe), Eugene Pallette, Porter Hall, Harry Carey, Guy Kibbee, William Demarest, Thomas Mitchell (drunk, as usual). Jimmy Stewart is perfect as the sincere and naive junior senator who, by all rights, ought not to be in politics, but on finding himself in that position, is willing to fight for what is right. He’s a modern-day nearly-martyred saint.

Jean Arthur is also fantastic. I’ve been watching her in some of her comedies, like Easy Living, where she is a bit of a scatter brain, but not in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. Her character actually shares a lot of similarities with Barbara Stanwyck’s in Meet John Doe: hard-boiled woman who had to go to work young because her father was so philanthropic and ethical that he couldn’t provide for his own family, yet still retains the values of her father deep inside. Her affection for Jefferson Smith hovers between mothering solicitude and deep admiration.

But for me, it is Claude Rains who really gets the best role. He manages to show both the vestiges of the idealism he felt as a young man and the well-schooled, ambitious politician of today. The admiration Jefferson Smith feels for him and the genuine affection Payne has for Smith as the son of his friend makes his denunciation of Smith one of the more effective betrayals I’ve seen in cinema. You can see the hurt confusion in Smith’s eyes and how Payne hates himself for it. Claude Rains also demonstrates perfectly the dichotomy between the private man and the public one, switching between publicly denouncing Smith without batting an eye to being privately ashamed of himself and almost sick to his stomach.

James Stewart and Jean Arthur

James Stewart and Jean Arthur

The central question Jefferson Smith must ask himself is, “are the American principles he believed in still true, even though he was pilloried and the government is mired in corruption and ambition?” The answer, Saunders urges him, is yes. And it’s worth fighting for. But the irony is that although Jefferson Smith expects the people of his state to rise up and vindicate him, the state party machine is too strong and manages to suppress his defense. He doesn’t exactly convince anyone. All that happens is that the war inside Joe Payne (a la Darth Vader) finally comes to a head and his guilt nearly pushes him over the edge and Payne himself vindicates Smith.

Perhaps the message here is that hope is not necessarily to be found in groups of people or the press or the political system, but simply in the consciences of individual people, which is still alive despite all. The most unexpected people can both disappoint, but also support you. The other message, perhaps, is that right is always worth fighting for, win or lose. Or perhaps it’s a story of rediscovery: Joe Payne, Clarissa Saunders, even Jefferson Smith to a certain degree, must rediscover their ideals that have been buried or obscured by the slings and arrows of fortune.

Mr. Smith Goes to Washington and Meet John Doe would make, I think, an revealing double feature. There are many similarities – the martyred public man who ambitious and corrupt men attempt to use as a tool, then destroy when they refuse to be used, the smart, tough-talking woman who is softened by the man and rediscovers the principles of her youth, the self-doubts, the media wars, the exploitation, the fickleness of people in following their hero, the rapidity in which a hero can fall or rise, the struggle to maintain one’s personal integrity. They are films that reward repeat viewings.

 
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Posted by on February 3, 2016 in Movies

 

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The Prince and the Pauper (1937)

download (2)The Prince and the Pauper feels something like a warm up for the 1938 The Adventures of Robin Hood:  both movies were made by Warner Bros., both scores were composed by Erich Wolfgang Korngold and both films share four prominent actors, with Claude Rains trying to steal with throne, while Errol Flynn tries to stop him. But The Prince and the Pauper is not really a Robin Hood-type story. It’s based on Mark Twain’s novel published in 1882 and is a reasonably accurate adaptation (though I haven’t read the book since I was a child).

Born on the same night are two boys in very different circumstances, though nearly identical in appearance. Edward (Bobby Mauch) is the son of Henry VIII and destined to be king. Tom Canty (Billy Mauch – the actors are identical twins) is born in poverty with an abusive and criminal father (Barton MacLane). Perhaps twelves years later, Tom has grown up a beggar in the streets, while Edward lives in his castle, indulged, slightly bored and unaware of the world outside.

Henry VIII (Montagu Love) knows he’s dying and plans to make the Earl of Hertford (Claude Rains) regent while his son is still young, even though he knows Hertford is a scheming, ambitious and sycophantic nobleman, but he can’t stand the truly noble and good Duke of Norfolk (Henry Stephenson), who Edward likes much better. Montagu Love is quite good as the debauched, corrupt, but dying king who nevertheless has a soft spot for his son. His advice to his son about being king is to never trust anyone and never like anyone so much that he is unwilling to “betray them with a smile.”

Bobby Mauch, Errol Flynn, and Billy Mauch

Bobby Mauch, Errol Flynn, and Billy Mauch

But when Tom Canty wanders near the castle and is beaten by the Captain of the Guard (Alan Hale), Edward interferes and invites Tom into the castle to play with him, since he’s so bored. They exchange clothes and realize that they look like each other and when Edward goes outside, he is mistake by the Captain of the Guard for Tom and thrown out of the castle grounds.

The next day, everyone thinks both boys are mad. The only person who believes Tom’s protestations that he’s not the prince is Hertford, who pieces the truth together after interviewing the Captain of the Guard. Henry VIII is dismayed, but determined to ensure that his son will rule, mad or not, but dies before he can appoint Hertford as regent. Meanwhile, Edward runs about London proclaiming that since Henry VIII is dead, he is now the king, but people just laugh at him and he finds himself in a street fight until he is rescued by roving soldier of fortune, Miles Hendon (Errol Flynn), who at first also thinks he’s a bit nuts, but comes to believe him.

Court intrigue ensues for poor Tom, who is told by Hertford that he must appoint him regent and do whatever he says or else Hertford will expose Tom and have his head cut off. Oliver Twist-like adventures ensue for Edward, who gets an education on how his subjects really live. He runs into Tom’s father (who plays him like a Bill Sykes character) who wants to use him as a retriever of stolen goods by lifting him through windows. Meanwhile, Hertford has sent the Captain of the Guard out to look for Edward and kill him. Miles Hendon chases after Edward, rescues him several times and has a sword fight with Alan Hale. Meanwhile, Hertford plans to have Tom coronated as king while Edward tries to return in time with the aid of Hendon.

Billy Mauch, as Tom, and Claude Rains

Billy Mauch, as Tom, and Claude Rains

It’s actually quite interesting to see Alan Hale in a straightforward role, where he is nobody’s sidekick and does not ham it up and is actually the tool of the villain. He doesn’t want to kill Edward, but he fears for his job and life because he unknowingly turned him out of the castle. It’s one of two films – out of 12 movies they made together – where Flynn and Hale are enemies. The other is The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex. But in this one they get a sword fight.

Claude Rains is always excellent (I’d watch him in a film if all he did was sit in a chair and stare at the wall), duplicitous, shrewd and scheming. Errol Flynn is almost hyper-jaunty in this film, perhaps because he has too much energy for the role he is playing. Miles Hendon is not in the film that much and does not even show up until perhaps thirty minutes into the story. Originally, the studio executives were not going to put Flynn in the role because it would cost so much to have him in such a comparatively small role, but after testing Patric Knowles (Will Scarlet in The Adventures of Robin Hood) and George Brent, they realized that only Flynn would do, and he does bring a much appreciate zip and sparkle to the story. One just wishes, perhaps inevitably, for more of him.

The Prince and the Pauper was released in 1937, around the same time as the coronation of George VI of England and there must have been great interest in royal coronations because the one near the end of the film where Tom nearly gets crowned king goes on for a very long time. We get all the oaths, the various postures of humility the king must assume, the prayers, the costumes and the various interjections by the choir. But I suppose if you’re going to take the trouble to pay for a good choir, you might as well have them sing as much as possible.

GW370H303Part costume drama, with a dash of swashbuckling spirit, a little bit of Dickensian social sensibility (Edward learns that it is okay to use the royal seal often, despite his father’s warning not to, so that he get rid of so many of the silly and oppressive laws), good humor and a fantastic cast, The Prince and the Pauper is quite fun. I try not to think too much about real history when watching the film. In reality, Edward VI was crowned at nine years of age (the Mauch twins were sixteen), but ruled for only six years and died at fifteen, after a somewhat tumultuous reign featuring war and rebellion. But Twain’s story is more fantasy than history and so leaves room for imagining a happier ending.

 
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Posted by on September 4, 2015 in Movies

 

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