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Intermezzo (1939)

Intermezzo_Poster_-_ArgentinaAn intermezzo is “a short part of a musical work (such as an opera) that connects major sections of the work,” or more simply “a usually brief interlude or diversion” (these definitions come courtesy of the Meriam-Webster Dictionary). When pianists Thomas Stenborg (John Halliday) comes across his student, (Ingrid Bergman) playing an intermezzo with all the enthusiasm of “a climax,” he reminds her that she is giving the intermezzo of the piece too much importance. It’s a metaphor for her relationship with the married violinist Holger Brandt (Leslie Howard).

Intermezzo is an American remake of the 1936 Swedish film, which David O. Selznick liked so much that he bought the rights to the story…and coincidentally signed the leading lady of the film to a contract. And thus Ingrid Bergman came to American.

The plot is not really a plot, but more of a situation. Violinist Holger Brandt goes on long concert tours that keep him away from his family for months at a time and when he returns to his home in Sweden, his wife and his two children, he seems to be feeling a bit dissatisfied. He wants to run off with his wife and tour the world for a year.

But he soon meets his daughter’s piano teacher, Anita Hoffman (Ingrid Bergman), a student applying for a musical scholarship in Paris. She is young and has admired the great musician Holger for many years and before they know it, they fall in love. She feels a bit guilty, but Holger persuades her to go away with him and take that tour his wife would not take.

I have to admit that I like Leslie Howard much better in comedies or playing a character who is supposed to be a bit of a ham (like Professor Higgins in Pygmalion, or in The Scarlet Pimpernel or It’s Love I’m After). As Holger, he’s too mopey and indecisive. Characters are remarkably patient and forgiving considering his dithering and selfishness. What it seems to come down to is that he wants to feel young again, be free of responsibility. One can’t help but feel that he uses Anita because his wife wouldn’t take that year-long tour. Uses her to feel young again. Like he talked himself into feeling that he was deeply in love so he could justify his actions. If it’s true love, then he must be in the right…right? He’s a male Anna Karenina. Like Anna from the novel, he wins his point and goes off with the person he loves to Europe and travels and pretends to be sublimely happy and all the while is missing his family.

Intermezzo-2What holds the film together is Ingrid Bergman, who enters the film like a burst of warmth and sunshine that thaws out the film instantly. Last week I watched Notorious again and seeing Intermezzo not long after made for an interesting contrast. There are not many actresses who can convincingly portray innocence AND worldliness….not equally convincingly. Usually, one doesn’t quite buy one or the other. I think it’s the innocence that we believe least often.

I came across a quote recently by Lillian Gish in reference to her many roles with D.W. Griffith: “Virgins are the hardest roles to play, those dear little girls.To make them interesting takes great vitality.”

Lillian Gish possessed remarkable vitality. And although Ingrid Bergman is not quite as forceful as Gish, she too possessed the vitality necessary to play convincing and compelling innocent characters.

As Anita, she is warm, more girlish, innocent, without being naive or childish, and practically glows (the gorgeous cinematography was done by Gregg Toland). The plot never does much, but she graces it perfectly and she was the only character who commands sympathy and emotional investment.

She’s also the conscience of the film. Supposedly, Holger is suffering because of the deception of their affair, but he looks more annoyed at the inconvenience. It is Anita who is truly, deeply disturbed. And she’s fallen in love more deeply than Holger. However, one can’t help but be glad when she finally decides it is better to leave Holger and go on with her career. He’s not worth it and seems to be a rather needy person who would consume her life, though she does’t think of it in that way.

ingrid-intermezzo1939-1Intermezzo might best be called a romantic melodrama. The story never feels very urgent, it tends to drift along somewhat dreamlike, the dreamlike-quality perhaps owing to Gregg Toland. It really is a gorgeous film. Holger and Anita once tease about Anita being a phantom and in one scene Holger is looking up at Anita, who is standing at a second-story window and in the shadows she seems to be disappearing like a ghost. The use of shadows and light is breathtaking. As is Ingrid Bergman.

This post is part of The 2nd Wonderful Ingrid Bergman Blogathon, hosted by The Wonderful World of Cinema. Be sure to read all the other excellent posts about Ingrid Bergman, here!poster-3

 
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Posted by on August 29, 2016 in Movies

 

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It’s Love I’m After (1937) – Leslie Howard and Comedy

a6e52ee3b2918cf1797224a9fce87d1eI never like Leslie Howard so much as when he is doing comedy or adventure. Remembered today for his role as Ashley Wilkes in Gone With the Wind and a man who did serious acting on the stage, he actually has a real flair for comedy and high spirits. He’s wonderful in The Scarlet Pimpernel and Pygmalion, and I just saw him in a screwball comedy called It’s Love I’m After, made in 1937 and directed by Archie L. Mayo.

Here he plays Basil Underwood, a ham actor, evidently adored by his female public, self-centered and always fighting with his costar and girlfriend, Joyce Arden (Bette Davis) and quoting from his various plays, usually Shakespeare. He and Joyce have been on the point of marriage so many times, but they always manage to have a fight right before actually going through with it.

And then Marcia West enters the picture (played by Olivia de Havilland). She has seen Basil perform and become completely infatuated with him. Her fiancé is the son of an old friend of Basil’s and asks him for a favor, that he come to Marcia’s family house for the weekend and behave like a boar so she’ll fall out of love with him. Basil has been feeling a little unworthy of Joyce and resolves that he will do this good deed and will come back to Joyce a better man. Of course, since he was on the point of marrying Joyce that night, she doesn’t exactly appreciate this gesture; which is what Basil’s extremely devoted gentleman’s gentleman, Digges, told him would happen (played hilariously by Eric Blore).

its-love-im-afterBut Basil goes down for the weekend and tries to repulse Marcia. However she is not easily repulsed and his plans always seem to work in reverse The fiancé is in despair, poor Digges is in despair, and Joyce comes down to the house and soon Basil is in despair.

In this film, Leslie Howard also has the opportunity to spoof his own performance of Romeo from the 1936 movie Romeo and Juliet that he did with Norma Shearers. At the beginning of It’s Love I’m After, he is doing the last scene of Shakespeare’s play, with Bette Davis’ Joyce playing Juliet. While Olivia de Havilland practically faints with romantic ardor in the balcony, Basil and Joyce try to undermine each other; he kisses her tenderly and complains under his breath about her own, garlic breath. She puts her hand over his face so the audience can’t see him and calls him a ham at one point, while he keeps stealing glances up at the balcony and the lovely ladies. During the applause, they fight behind the curtain about who gets to take the first bow.

Poster%20-%20It's%20Love%20I'm%20After_05Although Bette Davis and Leslie Howard would seem like something of an odd couple, they actually have a very good rapport together. This is the third movie that they did with each other, although it is the only comedy, which is a pity. Neither actor is known for their comedy (especially Davis), but watching them play up their characters as feuding, self-dramatizing, larger-than-life actors is a ball to see and the script serves them well.

Now, Olivia de Havilland was only two years into her movie career and Marcia West is also a bit of a different role for her, at least as far as I’ve seen. Her Marcia West is an airhead and she plays her with such frenetic breathlessness that it’s like she’s channeling Carole Lombard.

itsloveimafter2And finally, Eric Blore. I don’t think this film would have been nearly as good without Eric Blore, who enriches any film that he appears in. He was in multiple movies with Fred Astaire, like Top Hat, The Gay Divorcee, Shall We Dance, as well as other great comedies like The Lady Eve. He always seems to be the butler or the valet. In this film, he is the valet; so devoted to Basil that he says “we” rather than “you.” He is the one Basil unburdens his soul to, usually laced with some Shakespeare, and knows all of Basil’s plays, lines and offstage misdeeds. He is also determined to get Basil and Joyce together again and without him, poor Basil would probably be a very lost soul, indeed.

 
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Posted by on July 25, 2014 in Screwball Comedy

 

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The Many Manifestations of “Pygmalion”

Pygmalion_serialized_November_1914[1]

I seem to be obsessed with all things Pygmalion.

1913 “Pygmalion” (play) by George Bernard Shaw

1938 Pygmalion (film) with Leslie Howard and Wendy Hiller

“My Fair Lady (musical) 1956 Broadway Cast Recording with Julie Andrews and Rex Harrison

“My Fair Lady” (musical) 1959 London Cast Recording, again with Julie Andrews and Rex Harrison (one can’t have too much Julie Andrews)

1964 My Fair Lady (film) with Audrey Hepburn (songs dubbed by Marni Nixon) and Rex Harrison

I never get enough of it.. Ironically, I came to it all backwards. I grew up watching the musical and listening to two of the soundtracks, but when I recently watched it again, I decided I wasn’t being serious enough, so I got a hold of the one soundtrack I hadn’t heard (1956 Original Cast Recording), ordered both the 1938 film and a Penguin Classics edition of the play and consumed them all in a wonderful orgy of Pygmalion-ness.

“Pygmalion” – by George Bernard Shaw

The play, by Shaw, is a modern retelling of the Pygmalion story from Ovid’s Metamorphoses: a long, Roman poem published around 8 AD. In Ovid’s telling, Pygmalion hates women, but creates a statue so beautiful that he falls in love with it. He asks the goddess, Aphrodite, to make the statue come alive and he then marries his creation.

But George Bernard Shaw turns the original tale around. In his version, the “statue” achieves independence from her creator and many critics consider the play to have distinct feminist undertones, as well as being an ironic anti-romance.

George Bernard Shaw

George Bernard Shaw

The Pygmalion character is Professor Henry Higgins, an arrogant, narcissistic, though brilliant, phonetics teacher. The sculpture is Eliza Doolittle, a poor girl who sells flowers on the street and speaks with a Cockney accent. Higgins believes that all that is really separating the classes is their manner of speech and boasts that he could take anybody – in this case, Eliza – and teach her how to speak and act properly and then pass her off as a duchess.

Eliza wants to break out of the limitations imposed on her life – if she spoke better English she could work in a flower shop instead of on the streets – and tries to hire Higgins to teach her. However, Colonel Pickering, a friend of Higgins who is also interested in phonetics, wagers the cost of the lessons that Higgins can’t actually pass her off in society. Higgins takes the bet and months of grueling work ensue for all three of them. In the end, Eliza is triumphant, but is not acknowledged or given her due by Higgins, who feels that he did all the work and made her what she now is. A series god complex.

In Shaw’s play Eliza rebels and leaves, even when he asks her to stay, and Shaw was quite emphatic that she stayed gone. But from the very beginning, there was a tendency to read a romance into the play. The original actor who played Higgins would throw flowers after Eliza left the stage, to indicate that they would later marry. Shaw was so disgusted with the pervasiveness of this belief that he wrote an afterwards to his play, explaining in detail what happens to each of the characters and how Eliza could never possibly marry Higgins. He felt strongly that a romance would undermine the entire point of his play.

George Bernard Shaw was a socialist and was very proud that he was able to insert certain points into a play that could also be successful with the public. One theme was an exposure of the class system, partially maintained by a “verbal class distinction.” By teaching Eliza proper English and the rudiments of polite behavior, Higgins and Eliza completely fool society. She is even taken to be a Hungarian princess and Higgins comments that these “silly people don’t know their own silly business.” The class barrier is demonstrated to be both superficial and oppressive (in how it excludes people and prevents them from moving up – like how Eliza couldn’t work in a flower shop because of her accent). But though they expose the class system, it’s still there. Through Higgins’ heedless “promotion” of Eliza from the gutter, she now belongs to no class.

Leslie Howard and Wendy Hiller

Leslie Howard and Wendy Hiller

Nicholas Grene, in his introduction to the Penguin Classics’ “Pygmalion,” also talks about individualism as another theme in the book. Eliza is uniquely herself; that is why she can’t return to Higgins; she is not his creation or, as Mrs. Higgins calls her, his “live doll.” She always was a little different from others, which is why she wanted Higgins to teach her in the first place. And when she declares her independence, it is not as if she suddenly found her courage, since she always was inclined to stand up for herself. Higgins is likewise an individual, almost to an extreme, who cares not at all for other people and their opinions. Grene says, these people never were just ordinary people, they exist outside of any class system.

Pygmalion – 1938 Film

Gabriel Pascal, a producer and director, somehow talked Shaw into letting him make a film version of his play, with Shaw as screenwriter. However, Pascal insisted on casting Leslie Howard, because he thought he was a more romantic figure. Pascal also managed to get another ending. Eliza leaves, as in the play, but Higgins then realizes how much she has become a part of his life. As he sits, listening to a recording of her voice, she enters the room. He sits up with hope, then leans back and pushes his hat over his eyes and says the lines, “Where the devil are my slippers?”

It works as an ending, despite being against Shaw’s wishes (and Shaw did still like the movie; he approved all the other changes). For one, Leslie Howard really is a more romantic figure in the movie. In the play, Higgins is very attached to his mother and declares no one else measures up. He’s brilliant, but he’s also not quite mature or grown up and truly seems not to have the ability to understand that people have feelings. Leslie Howard does not project this lack of maturity in the same way and is more believable as a possible lover.

The Look

The Look

Also, Wendy Hiller (who played Eliza on stage at one point) definitely sells it at the end when she realizes exactly why she need no longer be in awe of Higgins or crave his approval. There is a new look in her eye when she tells him she doesn’t have to put up with his treatment of her, so even when she comes back, there is still that look in her eyes and you know things will never be the same between them. One imagines a tempestuous romance ensues.

My Fair Lady – 1964 Film

That is what’s missing in the film version of the musical. I used to think that the ending of the musical was the problem, but after seeing Pygmalion, I realized that it has more to do with the casting of Audrey Hepburn as Eliza, since the ending of the musical is exactly the same as in the movie.

I like Audrey Hepburn a lot as an actress, but she’s too fragile, ethereal, elegant, somehow, to quite pull it off opposite Rex Harrison. I don’t quite believe her when she sings “I can do without you” (actually, Marni Nixon sings it, Audrey Hepburn acts it). As a result, when she comes back at the end, it looks like a defeat on her part rather than a victory. With Wendy Hiller, it was definitely her victory.

And although I will never be able to see it, I bet Julie Andrews made it a victory, too. When I think of the roles she played (Mary Poppins, Maria Van Trapp, not shrinking violets) I could see how she could hold her own against Rex Harrison and, by all accounts, she was dazzling in the role. I shall probably never cease to regret not being able to see her as Eliza Doolittle, and no matter how much I enjoy My Fair Lady, there’s always that little regret in the back of my mind that keeps me from absolutely loving the movie.

MusicalTheater3[1]But I absolutely love the music. It has been considered one of the greatest musicals ever – the perfect blend of music, lyrics, book – written by Alan Jay Lerner (books and lyrics) and Frederick Loewe (music). It was a wildly successful musical and when it went to London, it was ecstatically received there, too. And the music so well matched the lyrics, many taken from the play and movie, that when I read the play or even watch Leslie Howard deliver his lines, I half expect him to start talking/singing There is so much irrepressible joy in the music – Shaw wrote an anti-romance, but “My Fair Lady” is all romance.

Irony is often misinterpreted, so perhaps Shaw’s ironic anti-romance was always going to be misinterpreted; and there is just something about the story, an irony of a fairy tale, that captures the imagination. The play overflows with sparkle and life, one area that the musical is brilliant in expressing; and in that way I do maintain that “My Fair Lady” is not a betrayal of Shaw. Lerner and Loewe capture many of his themes – class, individualism, etc. – and it was the musical that made me want to read the play. Both the musical and movie, I feel, bring out something slightly different and will always point back to Shaw. It’s like Pride and Prejudice – it’s been imitated, expanded on, adapted numerous times, changed, reinterpreted, and yet we always come back to the original work by Jane Austen. It’s the sign of true timelessness.

Notes

Here is an interesting article on TCM about the 1938 film Pygmalion, that discusses more about the making of the film and Shaw’s reaction to it.

The closet I’ve ever come to seeing Julie Andrews as Eliza Doolittle: her 1961 performance of “Wouldn’t It Be Loverly” on the Ed Sullivan Show.

 
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Posted by on March 25, 2014 in Books, Movies

 

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