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David Copperfield (1935)

david_copperfield_1935_film_posterI’ve been going through a Charles Dickens phase (books and movies) and have had had my eye on seeing the 1935 David Copperfield for some time. It was produced by David O. Selznick while he was still at MGM and has the kind of cast where you seem to spend your whole time recognizing and pointing out character actors. The film is so full of picturesque characters and actors that one almost loses sight of the titular hero.

David Copperfield is the story of the maturation of young David Copperfield from child to man, and all the people who populate his life. He is born to a widowed, child-like mother, Clara (Elizabeth Allan), and grows into the 11 year old Freddie Bartholomew. His mother marries the domineering Mr. Murdstone (Basil Rathbone) and dies of a crushed spirit. David then runs away and seeks protection from his highly eccentric Aunt Betsey (Edna May Oliver), meets the constantly insolvent Wilkins Micawber (W.C. Fields), the ingratiating and smarmy Uriah Heep (Roland Young), the also child-like Dora (Maureen O’Sullivab), the goodhearted Peggotty family (led by Lionel Barrymore) and the girl-turned woman who will always love him, Agnes Wickfield (played by Madge Evans as an adult).

David O. Selznick wanted to turn David Copperfield into two movies, but MGM was not interested. Instead, the 800 page novel is squeezed into 130 minutes of film and it plays like an animated illustrated Dickens. The highlight reel of the book. A parade of characters fly by. Blink and you miss Elsa Lanchester as Clickett (helping the Micawber’s with their many children). Una O’Connor has a few good bits, though. Jessie Ralph is also excellent as Peggotty, David’s nurse.

The three characters who are most memorable, however, are Edna May Oliver, Basil Rathbone, and W.C. Fields. In truth, I think Edna May Oliver is the real star and hero of the film. She even received top billing and was largely acclaimed as the very image of Dickens’ Aunt Betsey in contemporary reviews. It’s hard to disagree with that assessment (though the first Aunt Betsey I saw was Maggie Smith in the 1999 BBC miniseries adaptation – she gives Edna May Oliver stiff competition, but they’re both wonderful). Indomitable, jerky and abrupt in movement, and with an alarming expression, she also provides the biggest, most sincere heart in the film. She seems to hold it all together. The film opens with her, she saves David from Mr. Murdstone in the middle, and the movie even ends with her and her cousin, Mr. Dick (Lennox Pawle).

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Mr. Dick, young David Copperfield, and Aunt Betsey

Basil Rathbone had a busy year in 1935. He appeared in seven films, including Captain BloodAnna KareninaA Tale of Two Cities, and David Copperfield. He mostly played villains that year and is excellent as the cold, controlling man who enjoys crushing people under his will and succeeds in breaking his wife emotionally. Young David Copperfield describes him as looking just like a panther in one of his books, which seems apt.

I have heard much about W.C. Fields, but David Copperfield was the first film I have seen him in. He is, from what I understand, usually, notoriously not fond of children in his films, but Micawber is an exception. Apparently Charles Laughton was originally cast, but he did not like his performance and bowed out. Fields was inserted at the last minute and even had to read some of his lines off cue cards. I enjoyed his performance, though perhaps because he was reading off cue cards, he occasionally seemed oddly disconnected from the other characters (or is that just how W.C. Fields is?).

The film is a bit static, not nearly as dynamic as I remember the 1935 A Tale of Two Cities being (which also featured Edna May Oliver, Basil Rathbone, and Elizabeth Allan). It’s more like a filmed series of picture postcard, though it makes for a pretty picture and the cast is rich. I’m glad I saw it and it has given me a strong desire to read the book again (though I have promised myself not to start until I finish a few of the books I am reading now).

Random Note: 1935 seems to have been a big year for literary adaptations. Anna KareninaMutiny on the Bounty, David Copperfield, A Tale of Two Cities, A Midsummer Night’s DreamLes Miserables. Even The Mystery of Edwin DroodCaptain Blood, and She. Something in the air?

 
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Posted by on November 7, 2016 in Movies

 

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Witness for the Prosecution – Movie, Play, Short Story, from Agatha Christie to Billy Wilder

Charles Laughton as the barrister and Tyrone Power is on trial for his life

Charles Laughton as the barrister and Tyrone Power is on trial for his life

One of the best adaptations of an Agatha Christie story is Witness for the Prosecution, released in 1957 and starring Charles Laughton, Marlene Dietrich, Tyrone Power and Elsa Lanchester. It is a courtroom drama, but also a suspense story and even a bit of a comedy. It is one of those films that you think perhaps Alfred Hitchcock could have directed, though it does contain the trademark biting wit of the actual director, Billy Wilder, who also co-wrote the screenplay, with barbed words and witticisms zinging through the courtroom.

The movie is known for its surprise ending and when I first saw the film, I unfortunately knew the surprise, or at least some of it. But what I discovered is that even though I knew the twist at the end, I did not have the ins-and-outs of how it was worked out quite right and my enjoyment was nearly as high as if I had not known what was coming. And even knowing everything, the film loses nothing in subsequent viewings. There is too much humor, good characterizations and the fun of knowing what is coming and watching people’s reactions to things other characters do not know.

Not only did the movie introduce me to Billy Wilder, Marlene Dietrich and Charles Laughton (I already knew Tyrone Power from his swashbucklers, like The Mark of Zorro and The Black Swan), but it also made me want to read the original Agatha Christie story. Witness for the Prosecution is based on a 1953 play, which Agatha Christie adapted from her own short story from 1925. I read them both and it was fun to see how the basic story remained the same, but was changed to suit the increasingly visual mediums, from page to play to celluloid.

51XqC-+3slLBut the story remains the same in all three. Leonard Vole is a pleasant young man who seems to have a way of unconsciously making people, especially woman, like him. He becomes platonically involved with an elderly lady who is murdered, but leaves all her wealth to him. Unsurprisingly, he is then accused of the murder. His solicitor and barrister work to get him off in the face of nearly impossible odds. To make it worse, Vole’s German wife, Romaine (Christine in the movie) seems curiously antagonistic towards him and surprises everyone by refusing to give him an alibi and instead stands up in court to denounce him (since they were not legally married because she had a husband in Germany still living). The solicitor and barrister then receive evidence that might disprove her story.

Short Story by Agatha Christie (1925)  – The short story is told from the perspective of Leonard Vole’s solicitor. We see everyone, Leonard and his wife Romaine, from his perspective. In this original version, Romaine dominates the story. The story is really about her, though we do not meet her right away. The solicitor, Mr. Mayherne, believes Leonard when he tells him he is innocent, though the case looks very bad, but cannot figure out the motivations of Romaine.

In England they have solicitors and barristers. The solicitor is the one who works closely with the client, acts by the authority of the client, but cannot speak in court. The barrister does not have as much contact with the client, cannot act for them, but is the one to make the case before the judge. In the short story, we hardly meet the barrister. He has perhaps one line, but the story is not centered in the courtroom. It begins in Mayherne’s office, passes through the courtroom briefly and then wanders away as Mayherne follows a lead that might break Romaine’s testimony. It is very interesting, but lacks punch when you already know what is coming.

witness_playPlay by Agatha Christie (1953) – In his introduction to The Mouse Trap and Other Plays, Ira Levin writes that Agatha Christie began writing plays because she felt that when other people had adapted her novels into plays, they adhered too closely to her novels, thus making the play confusing. When she adapted her own works, she changed and simplified plots, once even changing who the murderer was and occasionally removing Hercule Poirot from his own story. For “Witness For the Prosecution,” however, she expanded the plot rather simplified it, though she does change some things.

In the play, Mayherne becomes Mayhew, but must share space with the barrister, Sir Wilfrid, as the story becomes a courtroom drama. The plot remains the same and Romaine remains a figure of mystery, much speculated on by the lawyers. And where the short story really doesn’t speculate on who the murderer is if Leonard didn’t kill her, the play offers a suspect in the murdered woman’s housekeeper, the extremely bitter Janet McKenzie, who is also in the short story but less prominent. The play also provides one extra twist to the end of the story that was not in the original story.

Film, directed by Billy Wilder (1957) – Reportedly, Billy Wilder did not want to make Witness for the Prosecution; he felt an adaptation of a play wouldn’t be particularly challenging for him. However, he does an excellent job and really brings the story to life. Where the play is just a courtroom drama, Billy Wilder brings humor and humanity. The biggest change is how he makes Sir Wilfrid (Charles Laughton) the center of the story and gives him a story of his own that is separate from the trial, though connected.

Sir Wilfrid worked so hard that he suffered a heart attack. The movie opens with his return to his office with a nurse in tow (Elsa Lanchester) and orders from his doctor not to take any stressful cases. But Mayhew the solicitor brings along Leonard Vole (Tyrone Power) in an effort to interest Sir Wilfrid. With his nurse protesting all the way, he decides to take the case. Suddenly, not only is Leonard Vole’s life at stake, but also Sir Wilfrid’s, who has to take pills throughout the trial for his heart.

MV5BMTc0MjgyNTUyNF5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTcwNDQzMDg0Nw@@._V1_SX640_SY720_The relationship between Sir Wilfrid and his nurse, played by married couple Laughton and Lanchester, is great. She is the super-cheerful, commanding kind of nurse so often found in Agatha Christie novels who have a habit of saying “we” instead of “you” (how are we doing today?). But she has her match in Sir Wilfrid, who hides cigars in his cane and whisky in his thermos instead of cocoa, and their interaction provides half the laughs. But they also develop an unexpected and mutual respect for each other in the end.

Laughton is the real star of the film. His Sir Wilfrid is brilliant, petulant, warm-hearted and tyrannical, but also truly cares about his clients and is not in the business just for his reputation. As a result,though, of Sir Wilfrid’s prominence, Leonard Vole’s wife (now called Christine and played by Marlene Dietrich) is slightly less the overshadowing figure that she is in the short story and play, but her character remains a highly interesting one, and the one around which the plot still turns.

I don’t want to spoil the ending if you’ve never seen the play or movie, but it is an excellent film. Along with And Then There Were None (1944), it was one of the few movie adaptations of her books that Agatha Christie liked.

Random Note – in the film, the murdered woman’s housekeeper, Janet McKenzie, is played by the inimitable Una O’Connor (The Bride of FrankensteinThe Invisible ManChristmas in ConnecticutThe Bells of St MaryThe Adventures of Robin Hood). O’Connor also played the housekeeper in the play only several years earlier. Since McKenzie seems extremely bitter in the play (though I’ve only read the play, but that is how it seems) and is comedic in the movie, I am extremely curious how she played the role on stage.

Here is a clip of Sir Wilfrid cross-examining Janet McKenzie.

 
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Posted by on January 26, 2015 in Drama, Fiction, Mystery, Plays, Suspense

 

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The Bride of Frankenstein

200px-Brideoffrankposter1935 – Starring Boris Karloff, Elsa Lanchester, Clive Collin, Valerie Hobson, Ernest Thesiger, Una O’Connor – Directed by James Whale – Screenplay by William Hurlbut, adapted from the book Frankenstein by Mary Shelley

I feel this requires some explanation. I am not, even with the most generous definition, a horror fan. The closest I’ve ever come to the genre is Abbott and Costello Meet The Invisible Man and Mel Brook’s Young Frankenstein. However, I am a fan of Elsa Lanchester and for some reason I thought it would be a good idea to see at least one classic horror film, on the understanding that a 1935 horror film was not the same as a 2014 horror film.

And it’s certainly not like anything I’ve ever seen before. It wasn’t scary or horrifying – though I probably would have been scared as a child. It has been described as campy, as possessing sly humor; one commentator from a documentary on the DVD called the performances operatic, which is to say, grand, sweeping, expressing heightened and stylized emotions. It is atmospheric and I will admit that it is startling the poignancy and feeling Karloff gets out of his character.

The Bride of Frankenstein is the sequel to the unexpectedly massive hit in 1931 of Frankenstein that made Boris Karloff such a great star. He was billed in The Bride of Frankenstein not as Boris Karloff, but simply as Karloff.

The film begins with Mary Shelley (Elsa Lanchester), Lord Byron, and Percy Shelley in a castle in Italy, where there is a fearsome story blowing outside. Lord Byron is gushing about how marvelously horrible Mary’s book was – which is also a nice opportunity for some flashbacks to what happened in the original 1931 Frankenstein movie. Looking rather evil herself, Mary says that the story is not finished.

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Elsa Lanchester, looking like she’s having rather evil thoughts

The scene shifts to just after the big fire that ended the first movie, which supposedly killed the monster (and Dr. Frankenstein apparently fell off a windmill to his death). The villagers are all standing around the charred remains of the mill and exulting that the monster is dead…except that he’s not (and neither is Frankenstein).

Right off the bat we meet Una O’Connor, who does a marvelous turn as a slightly hysterical and somewhat bloodthirsty maid to Frankenstein’s fiance, Elizabeth. When the monster drags himself out of the burning wreckage, he kills two peasants, but when he runs into Una O’Connor her reaction is so oddball funny that he just stands there as if even he doesn’t know quite what to make of it.

Soon, Dr. Pretorius (Ernest Thesiger, unforgettable in his role) arrives at Dr. Frankenstein’s door, with suitably creepy music. He’s the kind of character that gives eccentrics a bad name. He wants Frankenstein to return to the quest to create life. Pretorius has succeeded in making very small (several inches tall) humans with good brains, while Frankenstein has succeeded in making full sized human without good brains.

Frankenstein says no, but Pretorius has the monster kidnap his fiance, forcing Frankenstein to collaborate with him in trying to create a woman for the monster, who just wants a friend and is getting rather tired of having people react to him in abject fear and horror.

There is a very famous scene where the monster meets a blind hermit who is longing for a friend as much as the monster is and he teaches him how to speak a little (unlike in the book, in the first movie the monster does not speak). However, when several other people come upon the hermit and the monster, they try to kill the monster and take the hermit away for his own safety, so they think. It is after this that the monster runs into Pretorius, who promises him a friend.

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Elsa Lanchester as the intended bride of the monster – actually looking less evil than Mary Shelley

I was amazed at how seriously this movies is taken by commentators and critics: the lighting, symbolism, acting, even the makeup. It is what I would consider iconic.It is rather well done, one of those rare sequels that is supposed to surpass the original. The theme is otherness. The monster is other, outside of everyone else and to a certain extent so is Dr. Pretorius and Frankenstein. It’s about loneliness, mad ambition and the desire to create just as God did. The religious symbolism is thick, which some people think makes the monster a Christ figure, but most people agree that since the monster is man made, the symbolism is more ironic.

On a less philosophic level, the music near the end, when Pretorius and Frankenstein are about to bring the bride to life using the energy of the thunder storm is quite something and the electronic dissonance created by all their equipment gives the music a very contemporary, heavy metal kind of sound.

I would like to know what a cosmic diffuser is, though. It appears to be something Frankenstein uses to diffuse energy into the dead body, but it sounds more like the brand name of a hair dryer.

Spoiler! In the end, the irony is that even the bride who is created does not care for the monster. She is confused and not aware that she is supposed to be a monster created for the other monster and she reacts with fear. The monster, who all along has felt he should never have existed, kills himself and Pretorius – who he recognizes as rather evil – and the bride, but allows Frankenstein and his fiance to escape.

There is some debate about what time period this movie is actually supposed to set in. The book was published in 1823. The film is a blend of the early 1800s with the contemporary 1930s. Valerie Hobson as Elizabeth looks very 1930s, with her clothes and hair. There is even a telephone device invented by Pretorius. But the village looks like the early 1800s. According to the director, it was his intention to create a world that encompassed both times.

200px-Frankenstein's_monster_(Boris_Karloff)In the credits for the original Frankenstein in 1931, there was a cast list with the corresponding characters they played. At the bottom, it just read “Monster – ?” Since everyone now knew who played the monster in the sequel, the film was advertised as Karloff the Uncanny (also billed that way in the 1932 The Mummy) returning as Frankenstein’s monster. However, the bride was kept a mystery. It read “monster’s bride -?” She was, of course, played by Elsa Lanchester, who also played Mary Shelley in the prologue to the film. I was a little surprised at how a short a time the bride is actually in the film, but she certainly makes a splash.

I can see why people speak about the make-up artist Jack Pierce. One usually doesn’t hear much about make-up artists. He had as much to do with the look of the film and creation of the characters as the cinematographer or director or composer.

Turner Classic Movie has many essays on the film, which contain more analysis of the meaning of the film and trivia about the making of it and those people involved.

 
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Posted by on June 14, 2014 in Movies

 

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