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David Copperfield (1935)

david_copperfield_1935_film_posterI’ve been going through a Charles Dickens phase (books and movies) and have had had my eye on seeing the 1935 David Copperfield for some time. It was produced by David O. Selznick while he was still at MGM and has the kind of cast where you seem to spend your whole time recognizing and pointing out character actors. The film is so full of picturesque characters and actors that one almost loses sight of the titular hero.

David Copperfield is the story of the maturation of young David Copperfield from child to man, and all the people who populate his life. He is born to a widowed, child-like mother, Clara (Elizabeth Allan), and grows into the 11 year old Freddie Bartholomew. His mother marries the domineering Mr. Murdstone (Basil Rathbone) and dies of a crushed spirit. David then runs away and seeks protection from his highly eccentric Aunt Betsey (Edna May Oliver), meets the constantly insolvent Wilkins Micawber (W.C. Fields), the ingratiating and smarmy Uriah Heep (Roland Young), the also child-like Dora (Maureen O’Sullivab), the goodhearted Peggotty family (led by Lionel Barrymore) and the girl-turned woman who will always love him, Agnes Wickfield (played by Madge Evans as an adult).

David O. Selznick wanted to turn David Copperfield into two movies, but MGM was not interested. Instead, the 800 page novel is squeezed into 130 minutes of film and it plays like an animated illustrated Dickens. The highlight reel of the book. A parade of characters fly by. Blink and you miss Elsa Lanchester as Clickett (helping the Micawber’s with their many children). Una O’Connor has a few good bits, though. Jessie Ralph is also excellent as Peggotty, David’s nurse.

The three characters who are most memorable, however, are Edna May Oliver, Basil Rathbone, and W.C. Fields. In truth, I think Edna May Oliver is the real star and hero of the film. She even received top billing and was largely acclaimed as the very image of Dickens’ Aunt Betsey in contemporary reviews. It’s hard to disagree with that assessment (though the first Aunt Betsey I saw was Maggie Smith in the 1999 BBC miniseries adaptation – she gives Edna May Oliver stiff competition, but they’re both wonderful). Indomitable, jerky and abrupt in movement, and with an alarming expression, she also provides the biggest, most sincere heart in the film. She seems to hold it all together. The film opens with her, she saves David from Mr. Murdstone in the middle, and the movie even ends with her and her cousin, Mr. Dick (Lennox Pawle).

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Mr. Dick, young David Copperfield, and Aunt Betsey

Basil Rathbone had a busy year in 1935. He appeared in seven films, including Captain BloodAnna KareninaA Tale of Two Cities, and David Copperfield. He mostly played villains that year and is excellent as the cold, controlling man who enjoys crushing people under his will and succeeds in breaking his wife emotionally. Young David Copperfield describes him as looking just like a panther in one of his books, which seems apt.

I have heard much about W.C. Fields, but David Copperfield was the first film I have seen him in. He is, from what I understand, usually, notoriously not fond of children in his films, but Micawber is an exception. Apparently Charles Laughton was originally cast, but he did not like his performance and bowed out. Fields was inserted at the last minute and even had to read some of his lines off cue cards. I enjoyed his performance, though perhaps because he was reading off cue cards, he occasionally seemed oddly disconnected from the other characters (or is that just how W.C. Fields is?).

The film is a bit static, not nearly as dynamic as I remember the 1935 A Tale of Two Cities being (which also featured Edna May Oliver, Basil Rathbone, and Elizabeth Allan). It’s more like a filmed series of picture postcard, though it makes for a pretty picture and the cast is rich. I’m glad I saw it and it has given me a strong desire to read the book again (though I have promised myself not to start until I finish a few of the books I am reading now).

Random Note: 1935 seems to have been a big year for literary adaptations. Anna KareninaMutiny on the Bounty, David Copperfield, A Tale of Two Cities, A Midsummer Night’s DreamLes Miserables. Even The Mystery of Edwin DroodCaptain Blood, and She. Something in the air?

 
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Posted by on November 7, 2016 in Movies

 

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Frankenstein and The Bride of Frankenstein: A Double Feature

When I originally saw The Bride of Frankenstein (1935) and Frankenstein (1931) I watched them in reverse order, with many months in between, so I thought it would be instructive this October to watch both of them in one day, in their correct order, and see how the two films held up as one continuous story. Most of the Universal horror sequels do not work well as sequels, but these two films actually have reasonable continuity, perhaps because both of them were directed by the same man, James Whale. But despite having a similar theme, the tone of each is quite different.

In the original 1931 Frankenstein, Henry Frankenstein (Colin Clive) is obsessed with creating life and left the university because they had too many scruples about acquiring for him the bodies he needed for his great creation. Now on his own, in a creaky, decaying stone tower, he is helped by the hunchback Fritz (Dwight Frye) to steal fresh bodies just put in their grave or recently hung.

But his fiance, Elizabeth (Mae Clarke) is worried about him and recruits his friend, Victor Moritz (John Boles), and his former professor, Dr. Waldman (Edward Van Sloan) to help talk to Henry. But Henry won’t listen and brings his creation (Boris Karlodff) to life (“It’s alive!”). Now, he says, he knows what it feels like to be God. But Henry is an indifferent god. He intends to teach the monster, but when the monster kills Fritz (who was torturing him) Henry finally agrees with Dr. Waldman that the monster should be destroyed. But he underestimates the strength of the monster, who escapes and wanders around the countryside. the monster doesn’t really want to hurt anyone, but he’s disoriented and confused and when people come after him, he defends himself.

Boris Karloff

Boris Karloff

I have to say that Boris Karloff is incredible as the monster. He’s in heavy makeup, but his eyes express everything. He is pained, confused, moved by kindness and beauty (like a flower), angry, frustrated at his inability to communicate or people screaming and running and attacking him. His eyes express humanity. When he is first created, Henry keeps him in the dark, but when he opens a window, the monster doesn’t shrink, but stands up with his arms outstretched, straining to touch the light, feel it, embrace it. But then Henry closes the window.

Frankenstein, surprisingly, still retains the power to horrify a little, if not frighten. One is horrified when the monster throws a girl into a lake and she drowns. He doesn’t mean to hurt her, he just didn’t understand, but it is still horrible. And the ending still horrifies. Chased by mobs of people, the monster drags Henry into an old windmill, which is then set on fire and we see the monster’s terror as he waves his arms as if begging the flames to leave him alone.

In fact, the entire mood is one of slightly depressed madness. Henry is initially mad, but Elizabeth is gloomy and depressed. She has a foreboding from the beginning of the film, even on her wedding day to Henry. It’s all a bit of a downer, even if Henry does manage to survive the film and we are led to believe will be happy with Elizabeth. But the ending seems slightly out of sync with what came before. One feels that by all rights Henry ought to have died, too, if only to justify all that came before. And the film seems to demonstrate little of the unique James Whale humor that is found in abundance in his later films, The Old Dark HouseThe Invisible Man and The Bride of Frankenstein. But it’s still an effective film.

The Bride of Frankenstein has a completely different feel. It has the same themes – the dangers about trying to imitate God, the alienation of the monster, the inherent humanity of the monster contrasted with the mob mentality of the villagers – but suddenly there is a swell of music (there no music in the first film), the acting takes flight (the first film looks almost naturalistic in comparison), Elizabeth was evidently dying her hair from blonde to brunette while Henry and the monster were engaged in their epic struggle on the windmill (different actress, really), Henry’s father disappears, Henry’s friend Victor runs off (the only explanation, since his character, too, disappears), and Whale’s humor becomes dramatically evident, especially in the additions of the actors Una O’Connor and Ernest Thesiger.

Ernest Thesiger and COlin Clive working in The Bride

Ernest Thesiger and COlin Clive working in The Bride

The film begins with a prologue, with a massively over-the-top Lord Byron, rolling his r’s and making sweeping gestures, who marvels that such an innocent person as Mary Shelley could have written her novel, Frankenstein. But since Mary Shelley is played by Elsa Lanchester, she looks anything but innocent and tells Lord Byron and Shelley that there is more to the story after the monster is burned in the windmill.

In fact, he is not burned at all (if you watch all seven Universal films featuring the monster, you realize that he survives explosions, drowning, lava, being frozen, being burned and having somebody else’s brain swapped for his own). the monster is back, much to the fear of the villagers, but he is just looking for a friend. He temporarily finds one in a blind hermit (who teaches him to speak, which is a nice development from the first film, where the monster struggles repeatedly to communicate without words – now, he is learning how to interact with people), but some not-so-helpful villagers (led by John Carradine) come by and hustle the hermit away, accidentally causing the hermit’s cottage to burn down.

Meanwhile, Dr. Pretorius (Ernest Thesiger) arrives on the scene and wants Henry to help him create more life. Henry says he’s learned his lesson, but Dr. Pretorius has the monster kidnap Elizabeth (now a brunette, played by Valerie Hobson) and Henry agrees to help create a bride for the monster.

Oddly enough, Boris Karloff is probably the most naturalistic character in the film (however naturalistic a monster can be) and brings the same deep feeling to the role. I cannot say enough about how good he is. And of course there is Ernest Thesiger as Dr. Pretorius, campy and fey. He dreams of a new world of “gods and monsters” and doesn’t scruple to blackmail Henry into helping him create a bride for the monster. He has a gleeful meal on top of a coffin and when he is suddenly confronted by the monster, he doesn’t blink an eye, but politely offers him a drink. He’s kind of mad, knows it and delights in it. But he’s mad with so much style and panache.

Elsa Lanchester and Colin Clive

Elsa Lanchester and Colin Clive

One favorite scene occurs at the beginning, which once again highlights Whale’s unique sense of humor. When the monster emerges from the charred windmill, he comes across Minnie (Una O’Connor), who works for Elizabeth, who takes one look at him and starts screaming with her hands raised in such an oddball fashion that even the monster is too puzzled to attack her. He just stares after her with a puzzled look on his face. She’s an outrageous character, taking a ghoulish interest in the monster, but runs about like a chicken with it’s head cut off whenever she encounters him.

I definitely find The Bride of Frankenstein to be a more entertaining film than Frankenstein. It’s rich with symbolism, grotesque characters, witty lines, unique hair, black humor. There are a similar number of deaths in both films, but somehow they seem incidental and not terribly upsetting in the sequel. It’s like Arsenic and Old Lace in terms of movie deaths. It’s almost a comedy, though one with a heart. Amazingly, despite all the humor, Karloff still manages to bring incredible heartbreak to his role and it remains at the center of the film.

Cast

Watching the two films in order made me very conscious of the cast.  There are three actors who manage to appear in both films: Colin Clive as Henry, Boris Karloff as the monster, and Dwight Frye, though he plays two different people in each film. He is Fritz, the hunchback assistant to Henry in the first film, and Karl, one of two criminals hired by Dr. Pretorius.

Two of the characters in both films stay the same, but have different actors playing them. Mae Clarke is Elizabeth in the first film, who I mentioned plays her as a slightly gloomy heroine with a firmly rooted conviction that something dreadful is going to happen. She seems destined for tragedy, somehow. By the time The Bride of Frankenstein was made four years later, Mae Clarke’s career had deteriorated and she was not recast. Instead, Elizabeth is played by Valerie Hobson, who definitely is acting in the mold of Ernest Thesiger. She practically glides across the floor as she approaches Henry, who’s been injured, with arms outstretched theatrically. She doesn’t carry the same air of tragedy, but definitely fits into the mood of the film

Another character who is changed is the burgomaster. In the original film he is played by Lionel Belmore, though he doesn’t get much to do except organize a search for the monster. In the sequel, he is replaced with E.E. Clive, who suddenly brings the character to life with more of Whale’s unique humor evident as a pompous and self-important man who flutters about importantly, but who is actually getting in the way of things being done.

New characters, of course, are Ernest Thesiger, who plays the inimitable Dr. Pretorius and Una O’Connor as Minnie, who I am always delighted to see. And the bride of Frankenstein (why didn’t Dr. Pretorius call her the bride of the monster? She’s not marrying Henry). Elsa Lanchester only gets to show up at the end and she doesn’t last very long, but she certainly makes a splash.

Elsa Lanchester

Elsa Lanchester

Dropped characters include Henry’s father, Baron Frankenstein (Frederick Kerr). Since Henry is suddenly being referred to as the new Baron in the sequel, one can only assume that that terrible night with the burning windmill was too much for Henry’s father and that while Elizabeth was dying her hair, he expired unexpectedly. Also, Victor Moritz (John Boles), a friend of Henry’s who is also in love with Elizabeth, mysteriously disappears that night. The last we hear of him, Henry is telling him to look after Elizabeth while Henry chases after the monster and is dragged to the windmill. One can only assume that while Elizabeth was dying her hair and the Baron was dying that he decided that he’d had enough of the place and ran off somewhere, which makes him craven. Either that or he died unexpectedly, too. He wasn’t that interesting a character, though, so I don’t miss him in the sequel.

 
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Posted by on October 21, 2015 in Movies

 

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Witness for the Prosecution – Movie, Play, Short Story, from Agatha Christie to Billy Wilder

Charles Laughton as the barrister and Tyrone Power is on trial for his life

Charles Laughton as the barrister and Tyrone Power is on trial for his life

One of the best adaptations of an Agatha Christie story is Witness for the Prosecution, released in 1957 and starring Charles Laughton, Marlene Dietrich, Tyrone Power and Elsa Lanchester. It is a courtroom drama, but also a suspense story and even a bit of a comedy. It is one of those films that you think perhaps Alfred Hitchcock could have directed, though it does contain the trademark biting wit of the actual director, Billy Wilder, who also co-wrote the screenplay, with barbed words and witticisms zinging through the courtroom.

The movie is known for its surprise ending and when I first saw the film, I unfortunately knew the surprise, or at least some of it. But what I discovered is that even though I knew the twist at the end, I did not have the ins-and-outs of how it was worked out quite right and my enjoyment was nearly as high as if I had not known what was coming. And even knowing everything, the film loses nothing in subsequent viewings. There is too much humor, good characterizations and the fun of knowing what is coming and watching people’s reactions to things other characters do not know.

Not only did the movie introduce me to Billy Wilder, Marlene Dietrich and Charles Laughton (I already knew Tyrone Power from his swashbucklers, like The Mark of Zorro and The Black Swan), but it also made me want to read the original Agatha Christie story. Witness for the Prosecution is based on a 1953 play, which Agatha Christie adapted from her own short story from 1925. I read them both and it was fun to see how the basic story remained the same, but was changed to suit the increasingly visual mediums, from page to play to celluloid.

51XqC-+3slLBut the story remains the same in all three. Leonard Vole is a pleasant young man who seems to have a way of unconsciously making people, especially woman, like him. He becomes platonically involved with an elderly lady who is murdered, but leaves all her wealth to him. Unsurprisingly, he is then accused of the murder. His solicitor and barrister work to get him off in the face of nearly impossible odds. To make it worse, Vole’s German wife, Romaine (Christine in the movie) seems curiously antagonistic towards him and surprises everyone by refusing to give him an alibi and instead stands up in court to denounce him (since they were not legally married because she had a husband in Germany still living). The solicitor and barrister then receive evidence that might disprove her story.

Short Story by Agatha Christie (1925)  – The short story is told from the perspective of Leonard Vole’s solicitor. We see everyone, Leonard and his wife Romaine, from his perspective. In this original version, Romaine dominates the story. The story is really about her, though we do not meet her right away. The solicitor, Mr. Mayherne, believes Leonard when he tells him he is innocent, though the case looks very bad, but cannot figure out the motivations of Romaine.

In England they have solicitors and barristers. The solicitor is the one who works closely with the client, acts by the authority of the client, but cannot speak in court. The barrister does not have as much contact with the client, cannot act for them, but is the one to make the case before the judge. In the short story, we hardly meet the barrister. He has perhaps one line, but the story is not centered in the courtroom. It begins in Mayherne’s office, passes through the courtroom briefly and then wanders away as Mayherne follows a lead that might break Romaine’s testimony. It is very interesting, but lacks punch when you already know what is coming.

witness_playPlay by Agatha Christie (1953) – In his introduction to The Mouse Trap and Other Plays, Ira Levin writes that Agatha Christie began writing plays because she felt that when other people had adapted her novels into plays, they adhered too closely to her novels, thus making the play confusing. When she adapted her own works, she changed and simplified plots, once even changing who the murderer was and occasionally removing Hercule Poirot from his own story. For “Witness For the Prosecution,” however, she expanded the plot rather simplified it, though she does change some things.

In the play, Mayherne becomes Mayhew, but must share space with the barrister, Sir Wilfrid, as the story becomes a courtroom drama. The plot remains the same and Romaine remains a figure of mystery, much speculated on by the lawyers. And where the short story really doesn’t speculate on who the murderer is if Leonard didn’t kill her, the play offers a suspect in the murdered woman’s housekeeper, the extremely bitter Janet McKenzie, who is also in the short story but less prominent. The play also provides one extra twist to the end of the story that was not in the original story.

Film, directed by Billy Wilder (1957) – Reportedly, Billy Wilder did not want to make Witness for the Prosecution; he felt an adaptation of a play wouldn’t be particularly challenging for him. However, he does an excellent job and really brings the story to life. Where the play is just a courtroom drama, Billy Wilder brings humor and humanity. The biggest change is how he makes Sir Wilfrid (Charles Laughton) the center of the story and gives him a story of his own that is separate from the trial, though connected.

Sir Wilfrid worked so hard that he suffered a heart attack. The movie opens with his return to his office with a nurse in tow (Elsa Lanchester) and orders from his doctor not to take any stressful cases. But Mayhew the solicitor brings along Leonard Vole (Tyrone Power) in an effort to interest Sir Wilfrid. With his nurse protesting all the way, he decides to take the case. Suddenly, not only is Leonard Vole’s life at stake, but also Sir Wilfrid’s, who has to take pills throughout the trial for his heart.

MV5BMTc0MjgyNTUyNF5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTcwNDQzMDg0Nw@@._V1_SX640_SY720_The relationship between Sir Wilfrid and his nurse, played by married couple Laughton and Lanchester, is great. She is the super-cheerful, commanding kind of nurse so often found in Agatha Christie novels who have a habit of saying “we” instead of “you” (how are we doing today?). But she has her match in Sir Wilfrid, who hides cigars in his cane and whisky in his thermos instead of cocoa, and their interaction provides half the laughs. But they also develop an unexpected and mutual respect for each other in the end.

Laughton is the real star of the film. His Sir Wilfrid is brilliant, petulant, warm-hearted and tyrannical, but also truly cares about his clients and is not in the business just for his reputation. As a result,though, of Sir Wilfrid’s prominence, Leonard Vole’s wife (now called Christine and played by Marlene Dietrich) is slightly less the overshadowing figure that she is in the short story and play, but her character remains a highly interesting one, and the one around which the plot still turns.

I don’t want to spoil the ending if you’ve never seen the play or movie, but it is an excellent film. Along with And Then There Were None (1944), it was one of the few movie adaptations of her books that Agatha Christie liked.

Random Note – in the film, the murdered woman’s housekeeper, Janet McKenzie, is played by the inimitable Una O’Connor (The Bride of FrankensteinThe Invisible ManChristmas in ConnecticutThe Bells of St MaryThe Adventures of Robin Hood). O’Connor also played the housekeeper in the play only several years earlier. Since McKenzie seems extremely bitter in the play (though I’ve only read the play, but that is how it seems) and is comedic in the movie, I am extremely curious how she played the role on stage.

Here is a clip of Sir Wilfrid cross-examining Janet McKenzie.

 
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Posted by on January 26, 2015 in Drama, Fiction, Mystery, Plays, Suspense

 

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