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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 Song of Bernadette (1943)

220px-Song_sheetWhen my grandmother (Nana) was in high school, every year there would be a day when the nuns would announce that classes were canceled and they would show The Song of Bernadette. Nana and I were talking about the movie, which I had never seen, and she was curious what she would think of it now. We watched it and were both deeply impressed. It’s not theologically deep, but the heart of the film, the themes that it speaks to, and the story it tell is very moving.

The movie begins in 1858 in Lourdes, France. The Soubirous family are poor and living in an old jail while the father (Roman Bohnen) is out of work and the mother is struggling to keep food on the table (Anne Revere). Their daughter, Bernadette (Jennifer Jones) is a frail child, with asthma and she struggles in school. But she has a vision of a lady in white who asks her to come to a certain spot every day for a certain number of days and to have a shrine built there.

When people start hearing of her visions, it creates a disturbance in the town. Her parents do not initially believe her but eventually support her, with her mother, aunt and sister even going with her to the grotto where she sees the lady. No one else can see the lady, but soon people in the town are coming, too, and having communion there. This disturbs both Father Peyramale (Charles Bickford), who says the Catholic Church does not endorse Bernadette’s visions, and the city authorities, because they feel it reflects badly on them and is disturbing the peace, however peacefully.

Jennifer Jones

Jennifer Jones

But when Father Peyramale asks Bernadette to ask the lady for a miracle, a different miracle than he asks seemingly occurs. The lady tells Bernadette to wash in the spring, though there is no spring; but after Bernadette digs in the ground and washes her hands and face in the dirt, a spring is found where she dug and soon healings are reported. One man’s blind eye is restored when he puts the water over his eye (the doctor thinks he just pressed on the eye so much it excited the nerves) and one woman, in desperation, washes her dying and crippled baby in the spring and he is cured.

Soon people are coming from all over France to bath in the spring. Sometimes people are healed and sometimes not. Prosecutor Vital Dutour (Vincent Price) first believes that Bernadette is a fraud and when she proves sincerely to believe her visions, tries to have her committed for insanity. However, Father Peyramale comes to her defense, having begun to believe her. He wants the church to have a formal investigation of her claims and the miracles. It takes years and as she grows up, he suggests that she has a call on her life and should become a nun.

The acting is impressive, with Vincent Price, Charles Bickford and Anne Revere as especial standouts. And Jennifer Jones, who was twenty-four, married and had two children, is remarkably convincing as a child, and also quite moving.

Vincent Price and Jennifer Jones

Vincent Price and Jennifer Jones

The film is based on the novel by Franz Werfel about the historical Bernadette, who was canonized as St. Bernadette in 1933. Some things have been changed from history – Dutour is made into an atheist when he was actually a devout Catholic who was skeptical of Bernadette’s claims. But what the film has done with his character is to make him part of a tableaux of responses from people  to Bernadette, and I assume that the writers wanted an atheist to round things out.

It is not clear to me exactly what the lady wants. It’s a little vague. She asks for a shrine to be built and apparently causes there to be a spring that can heal people. But she never mentions God or Jesus or has a message to give. Even Father Peyramale has trouble when Bernadette tells him that the lady said she was the Immaculate Conception (how can one be a conception?). But where the film shines is in portraying the the different reactions of people to Bernadette and her visions and what it reveals about them.

The miracles attract all sorts of people: the devout, the desperate, the superstitious, the curious and the opportunists. There are people in dreadful poverty who have no hope, desperately seeking healing. The mayor is at first opposed to it all, but as the people come to his city (presumably spending money there) he gets the idea that he could sell bottled water from the spring. Dutour is opposed on principle. To him, it is a reversion to medieval superstition. There is the poverty of most people juxtaposed with the desire of the city leaders to modernize. Reactions to Bernadette range everywhere from belief to jealousy; some think she’s mad, some think she’s a fraud and liar, a few people care about her – like her family and the man in love with her, played by William Eythe – and choose to support her because they love her, though they are not sure what to make of her visions.

Roman Bohnen and Anne Revere as Bernadette's parents

Roman Bohnen and Anne Revere as Bernadette’s parents

In that way, the responses of the characters mirrors the response of many people to Jesus in the gospels. There are the droves of people seeking healing from the springs, as in the gospels people sought healing from Jesus. There is the skepticism from the religious community who are also concerned she will bring discredit to the church, as well as the concern from the civil authority. There are the people who ask for miracles as proof. There is the doubting, but loving family. There is the jealous reaction to her fame. There is pressure brought to bear on Bernadette, at first from her family, then from the church authorities and also from the civil authorities. All these things happened to Jesus.

The film opens with the quotation: “For those who believe, no explanation is necessary; for those who do not believe, no explanation is possible.” 

Dutour cannot believe because he is not willing; it’s out of the question and does not fit with his understanding of the world. The doctor (Lee J. Cobb) knows some things are occurring that he cannot explain, but he is essentially agnostic on the subject. He doesn’t know what to think. Gladys Cooper plays a nun who is antagonistic to Bernadette. She cannot accept that Bernadette could have been granted this gift of seeing the lady when she has not suffered as Gladys Cooper’s character has suffered through life. It turns out that Bernadette has suffered – she dies of tuberculosis of the bones, a very painful disease, and never once complains of the pain. Suffering in life is another theme of the film.

imagesHowever, Bernadette does not see the lady just because she is worthy or has suffered. There is a direct parallel drawn between Bernadette and the Virgin Mary. Bernadette sees the lady because, like Mary when an angel tells her she shall have a child, she has a receptive heart. She is willing to see, hear and to obey what the lady asks.

The movie leaves room to question whether or not Bernadette truly sees the lady. No one else sees the lady. Many of the miracles could have a natural explanation. However, there’s really no doubt by the end that Bernadette’s visions and the miracles are for real.

The movie is 156 minutes, but it goes by quickly and I found the film absorbing. It’s not just an intelligent movie, it is a well-made movie that is entertaining and reverential and stayed with me long after I had finished watching it.

 
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Posted by on May 27, 2015 in Uncategorized

 

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Cluny Brown…with asides about character actors

1946 – Directed by Ernst Lubitsch – Written by Samuel Hoffenstein and Elizabeth Reinhardt – Starring Charles Boyer, Jennifer Jones, and Peter Lawford

Cluny_Brown[1]In Cluny Brown, Una O’Connor proves that you can run away with a movie and never speak a word. All she does is cough.

O’Connor was a character actor from Ireland. She began as a stage actor and then moved to film, though she never completely stopped work in the theater. She was in films such as The Invisible Man, the Bride of Frankenstein, The Adventures of Robin Hood, The Bells of Saint Mary, Christmas in Connecticut, and Witness for the Prosecution (which was a reprisal of her stage role), often as the comic relief, always with her strong Irish accent, wonderful facial expressions, and usual disapproval of things.

Una O'Connor

Una O’Connor

Character acting is a funny thing. During the golden era of Hollywood (that period of time when the studio system was dominate, roughly up to the 1950s), character actors were rarely chameleons, but just as idiosyncratic as any leads. When one casts Fred Astaire or Greta Garbo, you have a rough idea of what kind of character you are getting and it was the same with someone like Una O’Connor or Eric Blore or Thelma Ritter. If you wanted a particular character for a movie, you went looking for a particular character actor. Eric Blore, very British, seemed always to be a butler or a waiter, and Thelma Ritter always had her a wry and trenchant, but hilarious, way with words.

Cluny Brown seems to me to be somewhat unusually endowed with wonderful character actors including, Reginald Gardiner, Reginald Owen, C. Aubrey Smith, Richard Haydn, Margaret Bannerman, and Sara Allgood. And they’re all wonderful.

Of course, the character actors aren’t the only reason to see Cluny Brown – though Una O’Connor alone would be worth anything. The film is set just before WWII begins and stars Charles Boyer, Jennifer Jones as the eponymous Cluny Brown, and Peter Lawford. Cluny loves plumbing, and Adam Belinksi (Boyer), an expatriate from Poland who fled when the Nazis came in, is completely charmed by her naïve enthusiasm and lack of social pretense. However, her uncle is scandalized when he finds her fixing the plumbing of one of his clients and sends her away to become a maid to Lord and Lady Carmel.

She tries very hard to be a good maid, but she just can’t seem to get the hang of it…or lose her passion for fixing a clogged sink. Meanwhile, the son, Andrew Carmel (Lawford) invites Adam to stay with his family because he is convinced that Adam is in great danger from Nazis and needs to get out of London. Once there, Adam proceeds to meddle in everyone’s lives, including Cluny’s, who has struck up a friendship with a stuffy chemist who wants to marry her.

Jennifer Jones, Charles Boyer, and Reginald Gardner looking at...actually, I don't want to know what they're looking at

Jennifer Jones, Charles Boyer, and Reginald Gardiner looking at…actually, I don’t want to know what they’re looking at

The chemist’s mother is Una O’Connor. She never seems to look at people and she never utters a word, though it is always obvious exactly what she’s thinking.

I realize I’m giving a slightly one-sided account of this movie. There are actually many more characters that are even more important than Una O’Connor; it’s just that she’s the character most lodged in my memory. There is a butler and housekeeper who are dedicated, almost to the point of a spiritual calling, to being house servants and doing everything correctly and according to tradition. There is Miss Cream, Andrew Carmel’s tantalizingly provoking friend who he wants to marry. There is the completely clueless Lord Carmel, who only seems dimly aware that there is a Hitler out there, somewhere, bringing war to Europe.

The movie was well received in America, but British critics were offended at the portrayal of British aristocrats as clueless and rather stuffy. According to the article on Cluny Brown on TCM, the ire was quite great and British actor C. Aubrey Smith, who appeared in the film, felt the need to apologize to his countrymen for the movie.

Despite these jabs at the British aristocracy, everyone comes across as rather endearing. There really isn’t anyone I dislike. And though it’s not what I would call uproariously funny, it is whimsical and delightful. It is what I call giggle-inducing. I giggled all the way through and now want to try and get my hands on the book that it is based on, by Margery Sharp (who, I learned, also wrote The Rescuers that the Disney movie The Rescuers is based on), and see if the book is as delightful as the movie.

 
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Posted by on March 19, 2014 in Movies

 

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