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Tag Archives: Historical Drama

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.

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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.

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Queen Victoria and Wheeler

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Posted by on January 23, 2017 in Movies

 

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Madame Bovary (1949)

220px-madamebovarymovieposterMadame Bovary is one of those classic novels I’ve been meaning to read for a long time, along with watching the 1949 film adaptation of it, so when Love Letters to Old Hollywood announced the “Vincente Minnelli Blogathon,” I was quite excited to see the film and read the book (though I haven’t actually read the book yet).

Vincente Minnelli is one of those directors I am always aware of enjoying, even though I am not as good at observing the distinctive style or techniques of a director. I associate him with musicals (The Band Wagon being one of those movies I never tire of seeing), but he also did comedies and dramas and, in the case of Madame Bovary, costume dramas.

Madame Bovary is adapted from the novel by Gustave Flaubert and is set during the mid 1800s. Emma Bovary (Jennifer Jones) is the daughter of a farmer, who grew up on romantic literature much in the way Don Quixote gorged himself on chivalrous adventures. She fully expects life to be a romance, to be beautiful, and when she first meets the doctor, Charles Bovary (Van Heflin), she assumes he is her knight in shining armor, so to speak, even though Charles warns her that he is not a very exciting person and only an adequate doctor who will never rise in the world.

But married life inevitably disappoints. Everything inevitably disappoints her, including motherhood. Charles adores his wife, but cannot figure out how to make her happy. Emma increasingly tries to achieve her illusive dreams of beauty and romance and all the while increasingly digs a hole for herself and her family, leading to tragedy.

It was hard for me not to come away with the impression that Emma Bovary is essentially a silly woman. Not a pragmatist like Scarlett O’Hara, she lacks her grit. She also lacks cleverness. My understanding is that this is not radically different from Flaubert’s portrayal in the book, though. She makes Anna Karenina look wise by comparison.

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Vincente Minnelli directing Louis Jourdan and Jennifer Jones

Because of the book is (I’m getting this from hearsay) about her desire for something extraordinary in a very un-extraordinary world, I also couldn’t help wondering if MGM was maybe the wrong studio to make this film. The film looks a bit too pretty, too picturesque and charming. It tends to work against our sympathy with Emma. Flaubert is noted for his realism, which is not something MGM was noted for. Having said that, however, Vincente Minnelli does some beautiful things in the film.

The most famous scene is the ballroom scene, where Emma and Charles have been invited to the Marquis D’Andervilliers’ house. Charles is clearly out of place, but Emma is in her element. It is the high point for her, where she has temporarily achieved her dreams, the Cinderella at the ball with Louis Jourdan’s Rodolphe Boulanger as the prince charming. The way Vincente Minnelli films it, it is a delirious dance, spinning around so that the audience feels every bit as dizzy, dazzled and disoriented as Emma does.

I also liked Minnelli’s use of mirrors. Emma sees herself in the gilded mirror at the ball, surrounded by admiring men. In a later seen, having a tryst with a humble clerk living well above his means, Leon Dupuis (Alf Kjellin), who is also madly in love with her, she looks at the cracked mirror in her cheap hotel and wonders how she came so low. She views herself through mirrors, it seems, as she appears in her surroundings rather than who she really is as a person.

Another moment that stood out to me was when Rodolphe Boulanger is attempting to seduce her at the local fair. They are inside a building while just outside the windows, speeches are being made about agriculture. Rodolphe speaks words of love and the speaker calls out for more manure. It was the most striking examples of the mismatch between her romantic illusions and reality.

This movies seems to have reminded me of a lot of different movies and books, because I also couldn’t help comparing it to Letter From An Unknown Women, which also stars Louis Jourdan as a womanizer. The leading lady (played by Joan Fontaine) also entertains romantic illusions that are out of step with reality, though in the case of Letter From An Unknown Woman, her illusions are centered on one man rather than a more inchoate future. Emma’s dreams don’t require any particular person

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Jennifer Jones, Louis Jourdan, Van Heflin

I also have to say a word about Emma’s wardrobe. Perhaps symbolic of her dreams, her wardrobe always seems to be out of all proportion to her surroundings. I kept wondering how her husband was affording it. As it turns out, he wasn’t and her inability to pay for her clothes turns out to be very important in the plot as she falls prey to a predatory draper, which precipitates her ruin. But when Charles first sees her in her humble farm house, she is festooned with ruffles and bows and whatnot. She looks like a lady in waiting deigning to visit her humble tenants.

Because the story of Madame Bovary is about an adulterous woman, there were some objections made by the Production Code. To make the story acceptable, . Gustave Flaubert’s real-life obscenity trial was used as a framing story. James Mason plays Flaubert and explains to the court how his story is true to life and also quite moral. The result of his narration means that the film is given a slant towards blaming the creators of romantic literature and expectations for her fall…rather like Cervantes does in the first half of Don Quixote. It has made me very curious about the novel and what the differences are.

Thanks so much to Love Letters to Old Hollywood for hosting! For more posts on Vincent Minnelli, be sure to check out “The Vincente Minnelli Blogathon.”

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Posted by on December 16, 2016 in Movies

 

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The Toast of New York (1937)

mv5bm2nlzwqxzjetowjjny00ndzklwjjmgmtmmnjytjjzdg1m2eyxkeyxkfqcgdeqxvynjc0mzmznja-_v1_ux182_cr00182268_al_1937 was an important year for Cary Grant, appearing in both The Awful Truth and Topper and establishing his persona as a comedian. However, he also made two other movies that year, one of which is The Toast of New York, where he plays an earnest second fiddle to Edward Arnold’s larger-than-life Robber Baron James Fisk.

In fact, it’s very interesting to see Cary Grant be so earnest (partly in the role of earnest lover)…at least when he’s not gleefully assisting Edward Arnold in fleecing other wealthy robber barons like Daniel Drew and Cornelius Vanderbilt. Grant also makes for an exceptionally handsome earnest lover, but clearly a slight adjustment of persona was needed to finally put him over the top.

The Toast of New York is a very odd film to have been released during the Great Depression. It seems to celebrate swindlers, only to pull back in the last twenty minutes or so to warn against excessive swindling. Is that the point? It’s okay to hustle a little money for yourself and cheat other hustlers, but don’t get too big for your britches and cause the collapse of the entire economic system.

The star of the film is unquestionably Edward Arnold as James Fisk. The film begins with Fisk and his two sidekicks, Nick (Cary Grant) and Luke (Jack Oakie) helping him to buy cotton in the South during the Civil War, to smuggle the cotton across the border into the North and sell it for a profit. By the end of the war, they are broke, however, owing to some very ill-advised investments by Luke. Nothing daunted, Fisk then proceeds to swindle the skinflint Quaker robber baron Daniel Drew (Donald Meek) into sharing the Erie Railroad and soon Fisk is locking horns with Drew’s rival, Cornelius Vanderbilt (Clarence Kolb).

Fisk is also in love with an ambitious entertainer named Josie Mansfield (Frances Farmer), who Fisk is determined to make a star. She likes Fisk and owes him everything, but is really attracted to Nick, who is also attracted, but trying his best to throw cold water on her so not to betray his friend. The film ends with a love triangle, while Fisk goes a little Napoleonic on everyone and tries to corner all the gold in the market, saying that the little people don’t matter – he’s above them all.

Four Gleeful Swindlers - Cary Grant, Edward Arnold, Jack Oakie,

Four Well-Dressed Crooks – Cary Grant, Edward Arnold, Jack Oakie, Donald Meek

This is partly where the film gets into trouble. Fisk is presented as a rather lovable old scoundrel and it’s hard to buy his sudden descent into Napoleonic power mongering. And it’s never clear if we’re supposed to be cheering for these people or not. Cary Grant is left in the slightly awkward role of both sidekick and moral conscience, which he does inhabit with flair. In fact, the film can’t seem to decide whether or not it’s a romp through the Gilded Age or a more serious drama about the abuses of the robber barons.

Edward Arnold, it must be said, also inhabits his role with flair. His is the pathos and comedy – the rest are supporting players. Though I have to admit his character is an odd one for the times. He even wears a uniform and has his own regiment, protecting his house and trying to rise above the little people. How did this not look like fascism in 1937? I kind of lovable fascism? It seems to hearken to a later, far more sinister role for Arnold with J.P. Norton in Meet John Doe.

Frances Farmer as Josie Mansfield also seems to inhabit a rather odd place in the film. She’s supposed to be ambitious, accepting favors from Fisk and getting ahead in her career on the strength of his influence alone, and yet she’s not nearly hardcore enough to make us quite believe the character. Apparently Frances Farmer did argue for tweaking the role a little, but she was largely ignored.

The real story of James Fisk and Josie Mansfield is actually far more interesting and would have made a fascinating movie, though not a particularly edifying one. The real Fisk was an associate of perhaps the ultimate Robber Baronl, Jay Gould (who seems to have disappeared in the movie), and together they tried to corner gold. But unlike the movie, neither man was ruined by the venture and actually emerged richer than ever. Fisk was married, but enjoyed a number of affairs, most openly and famously with Josie Mansfield. But when she fell in love with a younger associate of Fisk’s, she tried to blackmail Fisk into giving her a settlement. When Fisk refused, Josie Mansfield’s new lover shot Fisk dead.

So if the movie had been closer to real life, Frances Farmer should have tried to blackmail Edward Arnold and Cary Grant should have shot him. Instead, Arnold dies rather heroically, surrounded by his friends and the woman he loves.

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Cary Grant is getting jealous

Some of the events in the movie did really happen, though. Fisk’s tussles with Vanderbilt, his flight to New Jersey to avoid getting arrested, the attempts to corner the gold market.

I had read that Cary Grant could not make effective period movies, that he didn’t look quite right in period garb. This must be select period garb, because he looks fine in The Toast of New York. He looks very handsome indeed. It must depend on the period films. I guess Gunga Din is period, too. I can’t think of any others, though, that I have seen him in. It’s nearly impossible to imagine him in films set in ancient Greece or Rome (Cary Grant in a toga?) or the Medieval period. Perhaps he had a limit of sixty, seventy years into the past. 🙂 I have to remind myself that the 1860s wasn’t really that long ago in 1937. Like WWII is for us.

This post is part of The Cary Grant Blogathon, hosted by Phyllis Loves Classic Movies. Click here for more entires about him!

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Posted by on December 1, 2016 in Movies

 

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