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Madame Curie (1943)

MV5BMjI4NzAwNDUwNl5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTgwMTA1MjkyMTE@._V1_UX182_CR0,0,182,268_AL_After the phenomenal success of Mrs. Miniver (Greer Garson earned an Academy Award for Best Actress), MGM re-teamed much of the cast for Madame Curie, a biopic of Marie Curie and her romance with husband/scientist Pierre Curie. The movie was inspired by the book Madame Curie: A Biography, written her daughter, Eve Curie. The role was originally intended for Irene Dunne in the late 1930s, then Greta Garbo. Finally, Greer Garson was given the role in 1943.

What I was surprised at was how much (reasonably) accurate science is incorporated into the movie. It is a blend of romance and scientific endeavor and apart from an excessively reverential tone, the film is surprisingly interesting and very sweet.

Marie Sklodowska (Greer Garson) is a Polish student studying in Paris in the 1890s. She’s an extraordinary dedicated and earnest student, brilliant in her work, and she is noticed by Professor Perot (Albert Basserman), who sets her up in a lab with Dr. Curie (Walter Pidgeon), a shy physicist who is at first concerned that having a woman in the lab will prove disruptive.

It is only disruptive in that Dr. Curie begins to fall in love with her and is dismayed that she intends to return to Poland and teach. He believes that she has so much to contribute to science that she ought to stay in Paris and continue her work. He also wants her to stay because he loves her, but it takes him a while to realize it.

He finally does propose, however, after having her down to his country home to meet his parents (Dame May Whitty and Henry Travers). Once married, she embarks on her doctoral work, investigating why pitchblende (ore filled with uranium and therefore radioactive) emits energy strong enough to act like light on a photographic plate. She soon discovers that once the uranium is removed from the ore – which she believes is the sole source of the radiation in the pitchblende – the ore is still radioactive. This brings her to the conclusion that there must be another, unknown and radioactive element and she and her husband set out to isolate and prove its existence.

90736-004-05FEA8C2The process of isolating the unknown element was unbelievably laborious and the film does a good job of demonstrating this. They dissolved the ore and selectively precipitated out the different elements, one element at a time, until only the radium remained. Now, you could just put your specimen of ore under a powerful x-ray machine and determine what elements are in it.

Eventually, they are able to prove the existence of radium, though the film skips their discovery of polonium (polonium is best known for being used to poison Alexander Litvineko, who had fled Russia and accused the Russian Federal Security Service of organizing a kind of coup so Putin could take power – ironic since Marie Curie named the element Polonium after her homeland, Poland, to underline the fact that Poland was not an independent country and was partly controlled by Russia).

It is a testament that the film never gets bogged down in excessive science and keeps things understandable, though it does occasionally get bogged down in too-reverential discourses on the importance of science. But what keeps the film relatable is the romance between Marie and Pierre.

Walter Pidgeon in particular brings a lot of warmth to the role and to the film. Greer Garson does well, but she is extremely earnest. She’s like George Eliot’s Dorothea Brooks and Dr. Lydgate combined. She has the saintliness and earnestness of Dorothea (she is even frequently lighted as though she were saint, with a warm glow of light on her face) and the scientific brilliance and dedication of Dr. Lydgate. But Pierre Curie, though equally brilliant, seems a bit more vulnerable, shy, devotedly in love with his wife and dedicated to working side-by-side with her. There is something so sweet in how he discovers that he no longer can imagine working or living without her. They manage the unique feat of being fully committed to their work and fully committed to each other (though as far as I can tell in the film, Pierre’s father is raising their children).

602508_origAnd although it is clear that Marie also loves Pierre, it is like she doesn’t fully appreciate it until after their discovery of radium. After the intense few years of work, now her pressing work has lifted she fully sees how much she loves him…only for tragedy to strike.

I had always heard that Marie Curie died as a result of her work, which gave me the impression that she died particularly young. In my ignorance, I was expecting the last bit of the film to be about her wasting away a martyr to her science, but actually she lived until she was 66, though the cause of her death is believed to be related to her lifelong exposure to radiation. But it was actually Pierre who died tragically young in a traffic accident (run over by a horse and cart) when he was only 47 and she 39.

The film is much more upbeat about science than films would be after the end of WWII. It is about overcoming obstacles, dreaming great things (“to catch a star on your fingertips”), wonderment, collaboration. In Madame Curie, she speaks about cures for cancer, that “science has great beauty and, with its great spiritual strength, will in time cleanse this world of its evils, its ignorance, its poverty, diseases, wars, and heartaches.” After the end of WWII, it was “what man has wrought” and fear of the atomic bomb and an ambivalent attitude about the double-edged sword of science.

Madame Curie doesn’t seem to be watched as often as some of Greer Garson and Walter Pidgeon’s other films, but the chemistry is there and for a 1940s biopic, it’s quite detailed. They even reproduced scenes from pictures of the real Pierre and Marie Curie (their wedding day with their bikes, the clothes Marie Curie wore in the lab) and over all it has a more authentic feel than I am used to from MGM films.

 
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Posted by on July 22, 2016 in Movies

 

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That Forsyte Woman (1949)

1971788276a3b54f7ddf938226e9a16fI’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.

Greer_Garson_in_That_Forsyte_Woman_2June, 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.

Errol Flynn, Walter Pidgeon, Greer Garson

Errol Flynn, Walter Pidgeon, Greer Garson

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.

 
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Posted by on January 8, 2016 in Movies

 

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Goodbye, Mr. Chips (1939)

downloadGoodbye, Mr. Chips isn’t precisely a Christmas film, but since I read and reviewed the book recently and since it does feature a Christmas scene and the entire film glows with warmth and kindness, it seems appropriate to review it during the holidays.

James Hilton’s novella Goodbye, Mr. Chips really made an impression on me with its intermix of sentiment, chivalry, tragedy and ordinariness. It’s a touching story and I had read that the film was equally touching. And accounting for the usual differences between the printed word and visual cinema, I was impressed at how close the movie was to the novella, not so much in events, but in tone.

Robert Donat plays Mr. Chipping from the time when he first comes to Brookfield Public School as a young man in 1870 to when he dies in 1933, having given his whole life to Brookfield, lived through every war from the Boer War to WWI and seen three monarchs, from Queen Victoria to King Edward VII to King George V. But in the midst of it all, Brookfield remains essentially the same. The boy’s clothes change, the topic of conversation changes, but the boys retain their essential character. Child actor Terry Kilburn even plays four generations of Colleys, who all attend Brookfield and interact with Chipping in some way or other (one of the Colley boys grows up to be played by John Mills).

Blink and you’ll actually miss Donat playing his own age. For most of the film he’s in make-up and makes a very creditable middle-aged and elderly man. When he first comes to Brookfield, he is full of ambition and trepidation, but he’s not comfortable interacting with the boys, or really anyone. He’s shy and becomes established in his character as a bit of a dry stick in the mud.

Mr. Chipping introduces his wife to some of the boys - all she has to do is smile and they are lost

Mr. Chipping introduces his wife to some of the boys – all she has to do is smile and they are lost

But after being passed over as head of one of the boy’s dormitories, he is resigned to his fate as a partial outsider who doesn’t quite belong. His friend and fellow teacher, Max Staeffel (Paul Henreid) coaxes him into taking a walking tour of Europe. Completely unexpectedly, he meets and falls in love with Katherine Ellis (Greer Garson), a young woman on a biking holiday with her friend. He is captivated and she charmed by his innate chivalry and kindness….and a lurking sense of humor that he doesn’t often show.

Greer Garson absolutely sparkles in her American screen debut, which comes in the middle of the film and doesn’t last long, but she still makes a big impression. No wonder it launched her as a star. Her warmth, her energy; she is the perfect actress to play the woman who changes Chipping’s life by drawing him out and helping him to show the man he really is inside.

Most movies are not particularly good at portraying shy people sympathetically, but Goodbye, Mr. Chips is somewhat unique in putting a shy man at the center of the story. Mr. Chipping is shy, not reserved, and Katherine sees that. She makes a comment to her friend that she always felt sorry for shy people, because they must be lonely. Shy people often start with the assumption that people don’t really want to talk to them or are not interested in them, and it can cause them to feel isolated as a result. But Katherine changes everything by loving him, Mr. Chipping, as he is. By learning that he can be loved, he learns he can give it to other people, though without changing his fundamental nature. But it all happens because Katherine takes the time to see the real man beneath the surface and to bring it out.

One of my favorite scenes is when Chipping brings his wife to Brookfield to meet his fellow teachers. When they hear he is married, they assume she must be a sad sack of a woman and are completely bowled over when Chipping enters with Greer Garson. All she has to do is smile and they are falling all over themselves to be solicitous. Chipping’s shy pride in her and her own pride in him and his profession makes the scene entirely adorable and sweet and one can’t help but smile along.

chips_2207209b1Robert Donat beat out Clarke Gable for the Oscar for Best Actor, and now that I can finally make a comparison I can see why he won. Donat exhibits the full range of emotions, from love to loss, to understanding, sorrow, sympathy, humor, embarrassment, shyness. He is never anything less than compelling and he really brings out the internal goodness of the man, whilst not stinting on his eccentricities, but not making him a caricature, either.

The movie is definitely more nostalgic than the novella, which is more strongly colored by the events of WWI. But coming out as it did in 1939, when another war was looming, the film focuses more on looking back on another age, before WWI, a more humane and gentle age, before it was shattered by gas warfare and the machines of war. Mr. Chipping represents that age and although he sees a lot of tragedy, he also lives a full life, living his principles, not spectacularly, but in small things, giving his entire life for others simply by living.

 
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Posted by on December 21, 2015 in Movies

 

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