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Ethel Barrymore in “The Spiral Staircase”

The Spiral Staircase (1946) is a tense post-WWII thriller that manages to both thrill and also explore the results of the belief that some people are stronger or better than others.

Post-WWII people were appalled at the widespread eugenics practiced by Nazis, culminating in the nearly unimaginable horror of the Holocaust. What made it so unsettling, however, is that such beliefs in eugenics had been embraced, though less aggressively, by many other countries and people. For me, Ethel Barrymore’s character embodies this position perfectly in The Spiral Staircase.

The story is an old dark house thriller. Someone is murdering women with disabilities in a small town set in the early 1900s (when cars and horses briefly shared the road). Helen (Dorothy McGuire), is a servant at the Warren mansion, on the outskirts of town, who has been unable to speak ever since witnessing her parents burned alive in their home (PTSD was another concern for post-WWII audiences). Everyone is concerned that she will be the next target and insists she stay safely inside the house. Except that the killer turns out to be one of the people inside the house.

It’s a stormy night, people come and go, but eventually it seems as if one-by-one the killer is neutralizing everyone until there is only Helen and the killer.

Ethel Barrymore plays Mrs. Warren, the owner of the house. She is the second wife of the now deceased Mr. Warren, a dynamic man’s man who despised weakness and only admired strength: physical endurance, the ability to hunt and shoot, etc. Mrs. Warren lives in the house with her step-son (George Brent) and her own son (Gordon Oliver), but agrees with her late husband that they are both “weaklings.”

She herself is a dynamic character, though now bedridden and with her mind wondering. But she remains fixed on one idea the entire night: the need to get Helen out of the house or to hide Helen, because she knows that the evil is within the house, not outside it, as everyone else supposes.

(Spoilers) I think what I admire about Ethel Barrymore’s performance is that she really doesn’t try to make her character sympathetic, though she does want to save (and ultimately does save) Helen. She’s wily and cunning, demanding, querulous and openly disdainful of people she despises. She also share’s her late husband’s views about strength and weakness, though she would never take it so far as to actually murder anyone. She is even appalled by murder.

Ethel Barrymore and Dorothy McGuire

But she’s also complicit in the crimes. She believed the murderer was her son (as opposed to her step-son) and could not bring herself to denounce him. As a result, the murders went on. She only finally musters the strength of will to shoot (somewhat like you shoot a mad dog) the killer when she realizes that it is not her son.

(End Spoilers)  The the sheer power of Ethel Barrymore’s personality suggests what Mr. Warren must have been like…and what it would have been like to live in a house with two such people.

Power, I think, is the word for Ethel Barrymore in the film. In fact, it’s hard to imagine a man being stronger-willed then her…though her character clearly idealizes the late Mr. Warren as a man of power. But despite being bed ridden and with a wondering mind, she can suggest what Mrs. Warren would have been like when well. And one can see how her step-son and son might have been warped by it.

This post is part of “The Third Annual Barrymore Blogathon,” hosted by In The Good Old Days of Classic Hollywood. The rest of the posts about the three Barrymore’s can be found here.

 
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Posted by on August 17, 2017 in Movies

 

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Othello – William Shakespeare

Plot Summary – Othello is a black Moor who has converted to Christianity and fought for Venice against the Ottoman Turks for well over thirty years. At the beginning of the play, he has eloped with Desdemona, the daughter of a Venetian senator. Iago, Othello’s ensign, is at the same time angry that he has been passed over for promotion by Othello for the young and less experienced Cassio and plots to destroy Othello. Manipulated by Iago, Othello ends by suffocating Desdemona, believing her to be unfaithful to him.

Generally, when I have heard or read “Othello” discussed, professors and critics are primarily fascinated with the character of Iago, the villain who manipulates and destroys Othello. He often becomes, for these people, the main character, the one who drives the plot and possesses the most modern sensibilities with his cynicism, wit and amorality. The other characters are obsessed with virtue, personal honor, loyalty and military glory.

However, one of the aspects of the play that fascinated me is not so much Iago’s great genius – something that gets covered a lot – but Iago’s hypocrisy. Iago, a deeply twisted soul, has acquired the reputation of a good and honest man who tells it like it is. The kind of man everyone trusts and confides in. Even strangers confide in him and trust him.

Othello: “This fellow’s of exceeding honesty, And knows all qualities, with a learned spirit of human dealings.”

We tend to think of hypocrites as being like Tartuffe or Elmer Gantry. Often religious hypocrites, often gratuitous. Tartuffe is so obviously a hypocrite that nearly every character – except the one who matters – sees through him. But Iago is so successful and subtle a hypocrite that it is almost never remarked on, even by critics.

Iago: “In following him, I follow but myself. Heaven is my judge, not I for love and duty, But seeming so, for my peculiar end; For when my outward action doth demonstrate The native act and figure of my heart In complement extern, tis not long after But I will wear my heart upon my sleeve For daws to peck at; I am not what I am.”

But his chief weapon is not his genius for understanding character’s weaknesses and exploiting them (though he does have a genius for this), but for being believed by those characters. It wouldn’t have mattered how well he understood their weaknesses if no one trusted him. He is able to plant little poisonous seeds into so many characters precisely because everyone expects him to speak the truth, no matter how painful it supposedly is for him to do so. As Othello says after Iago begins his campaign by implying that Cassio and Desdemona are in love:

“This honest creature doubtless Sees and knows more, much more, than he unfolds.”

Paul Robeson as Othello

Half Iago’s proof is his own word. The further “proofs” that Iago contrives are pretty flimsy, but he only needs a little something to seem to concur with his own word. Thus his scheme of stealing Desdemona’s handkerchief and planting it with Cassio. Not overwhelming proof. As the Doge  of Venice says at the beginning of the play when Desdemona’s father asserts that Othello must have used dark arts to captivate her, “To vouch this is no proof.”

Interestingly, it has been pointed out that there is a dichotomy in the play between Venice (law and order) and the Turks (uncivilized barbarians). Most of the play is set on Cyprus, an outpost for Venice, somewhat far away from the reassuring law of Venice. In Venice, everyone, including Desdemona, is allowed to state their case when her father complains to the Doge. In Cyprus, Othello does not investigate the matter, but merely believes.

Emilia, Desdemona’s maid and Iago’s wife, speaks in defense of Desdemona and shrewdly divines that someone must be playing on Othello’s jealousy, but is discounted by Othello as “a simple bawd.” He does not believe Desdemona, either. He only trusts Iago, his ensign.

In some ways, Othello shares some parallels with General Ulysses S. Grant. Both great generals, saviors of the country they serve, but both indiscriminately trusting. Iago knows that “The Moor is of a free and open nature That thinks men honest that but seem to be so.” This can serve one well as a general, who must trust his men, but is deadly in politics and relationships. Grant’s presidency was wracked with corruption and he lost his fortune near the end of his life because he trusted the wrong people. This trust in his soldiers, however, leads Othello to mistrust the words of others, especially those of the women.

The racial aspect of the play was less prominent than I expected. Othello is indeed an outsider, which makes him vulnerable, but although Iago makes a number of gross racial comments, most characters hold him in esteem and admire him. Desdemona says that “I saw Othello’s visage in his mind, And to his honors and his valiant parts Did I my soul and fortunes consecrate.” In fact, Desdemona goes so far as to say – after hearing his stories of all that he had suffered and done – that she wished she could have been “such a man.” His reputation is one of greatness and dignity and his fall is mourned. He’s a bit like a colossus from Greek times – a man known for thirty years of upright implacability and honor, brought low by petty human jealousy.

 
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Posted by on July 5, 2017 in Books

 

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The Man With a Cloak (1951)

themanwithacloakIt’s difficult to know exactly what to call The Man in a Cloak. It’s not a mystery, it’s not a Gothic thriller, or a romance or a drama. It’s sort of a gaslight crime drama…except no crimes are ever actually committed…just skirted around. In fact, not much of anything happens.

Madeline Minot (Leslie Caron) arrives in New York from Paris in 1848 (a year of multiple revolutions throughout France, the Italian peninsula, the Hapsburg Empire and Prussia ). She is the fiance of a French revolutionary who is estranged from his Bonepartist grandfather, Charles Thevenet (Louis Calhern). She has come to ask that Thevenet leave his vast fortune to his grandson, who is in dire need of the money for his cause.

But Thevenet is not sympathetic to his grandson’s cause, though he is a sucker for a pretty face. But he also seems to owe his servants. It’s a peculiar arrangement. Lorna Bounty (Barbara Stanwyck) is an ex-mistress, sort of housekeeper, companion, and she has been living with him for ten years, along with the butler, Martin (Joe De Santis), who looks more like an ex-thug, and the cook, Mrs. Flynn (Margaret Wycherly). They are all waiting for Thevenet to die and do not welcome the intrusion of a pretty face to steal their fortune.

In the meantime, Madeline receives unexpected help from a mysterious stranger/poet (Joseph Cotten) who calls himself “Dupin” and spends most of his time getting drunk.

It’s an interesting premise, but somehow the film never quite jells or goes anywhere dramatically. We don’t even get a proper murder. There’s a lot of talk about danger and evil, but nothing very dreadful occurs. Mostly, it is a struggle with Lorna and the servants against Madeline and Dupin, each trying to ensure that Thevenet leaves their side the money.

I think the The Man in the Cloak is more interesting for the story it doesn’t tell than the story it does. Who are these three people, living together in the house for ten years, obviously from very different backgrounds, who don’t even like each other? Lorna was Thevenet’s mistress, once a star, but clearly seems to believe that he owes her for all he took from her. We don’t know how Martin and Mrs. Flynn came to work for him, but one cannot help but think there is a story there, too.

Lorna basically runs the house and I have to admit that it tickled my funny bone at the thought of a house full of evil domestics. Martin clearly hates Lorna, but can’t help desiring her at the same time. Lorna barely tolerates him, often mocks him and can’t stand the way he slurps his tea. Mrs. Flynn is always laughing at both of them. They are only united in their hatred for Thevenet and desire for his money.

On the other hand, Madeline feels sorry for Thevenet, but it feels misplaced, because Thevenet clearly committed many dark deeds in pursuit of his fortune. To be honest, it was hard for me even to cheer for Madeline to win the money. Perhaps I’m simply biased in Barbara Stanwyck’s favor, but Madeline’s fiance really had no more right to the money than anyone else.

cloak

Leslie Caron, Louis Calhern, Barbara Stanwyck, Joseph Cotten

There are also some interesting parallels drawn that are never fully explored, especially between Dupin and Thevenet. Both men are drinking themselves ill, both men are suckers for Madeline’s pretty innocence, both are conscious of being rather disreputable, and both have people after them for their money. Except that Dupin has no money and Thevenet has too much. But both owe something which they do not repay.

Ultimately, Dupin’s character doesn’t seem quite dark enough. The film isn’t dark enough. Even Lorna seems rather cool about losing everything in the end. One can’t help but wonder what it all adds up to. Though perhaps that’s the point. The irony is that the money the Bonepartist Thevenet sentimentally leaves to his revolutionary grandson will help form the Second Republic that is taken over by Napoleon III in 1851.

The cast, however, is excellent, which makes one wish the film had been better. It is a great idea that is never developed. Leslie Caron seems somewhat overshadowed, but that’s not her fault so much as the plot’s. Barbara Stanwyck is the real force in the film…along with Louis Calhern. It’s unique…worth a look if you are into gaslight dramas or are a fan of Barbara Stanwyck.

 
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Posted by on November 1, 2016 in Movies

 

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