Sunday, March 25, 2018

From my archives: 'David Lean directs Noel Coward'

“I loved its follies and apathies and curious streaks of genius,” wrote Noel Coward of his decision to return to England when World War II began. Had he not, the rise of David Lean would not have been deterred, but it may not have been as swift or as assured.

Coward provided Lean with writing that was strong and well-structured; Lean, as an already accomplished editor, knew how film worked. He could eliminate the extraneous. He had a keen sense of how to breathe cinematic life into a flat concept or character. Lean serves the material; later he will serve himself, with ever-more preposterous results.

Their mutually beneficial relationship is captured definitively in Criterion’s new box set. The first film in the series, the breathtaking World War II propaganda film In Which We Serve, was written for the screen; the next three – This Happy BreedBlithe Spirit, and Brief Encounter, are stage-derived. Lean solves the problems put to him in two out of three cases by the plastic limitations of the material, at best with Encounter, but to middling effect in Breed -- and comes up empty in Spirit.

When the war began, Coward was in a unique and ambivalent position. A tremendously popular entertainer, he was a prolific songwriter and playwright with a reputation as an effete, cutting drawing-room wit whose undeclared but obvious homosexuality both amused and repelled England’s middle class. Coward had written his grand stage chronicles of English life, Cavalcade and This Happy Breed; his patriotism was showing. He volunteered for the war effort in numerous ways, and In Which We Serve was the grandest of these, earning Coward an honorary Oscar and an air of unassailable legitimacy.

Based on the exploits of Coward’s friend Lord Mountbatten early in the war, the naval saga In Which We Serve is a perfectly pitched paean to the fighting spirit. In this case, it is delineated not by violence and victories, but by patience and fortitude in the face of what were at the time seemingly impossible odds. In this film, Britain’s classes are exemplified, and barriers between them are tacitly overcome as all bond together in unity, modesty, understated humor, and stiff-upper-lip stoicism.

Noel Coward and crew, rescued in In Which We Serve
 Coward, in particular, was making a huge gamble. His insistence on making it “his” project included casting himself as the brave Captain Kinross, master of the destroyer Torrin. Coward’s portrayal of a noble, unaffected, and incredibly straight naval officer was probably his greatest performance. Coward’s Kinross is absolutely calm, repressed to the point of being wooden; an apt critique of the heterosexual male stereotype in performance. (Later, Coward would overhear criticism of his performance from a neighboring table at a restaurant. As he left, he flounced over the offenders, put his hands on his hips, and hissed, “Well, I thought I was VERY GOOD!”)

Coward knew he needed top help to realize his project. He selected talents such as future Oscar winners and nominees Lean, producer Anthony Havelock-Allan, cinematographer Ronald Neame, and camera operator Guy Green. Likewise, his casting initiated long-term relationships between Coward and Lean and actors such as Bernard Miles, John Mills, Kay Walsh, Joyce Carey, Celia Johnson, and Richard Attenborough.

Neame’s inky shadows and sharp highlights lend depth and dimension to the combat scenes, a nourish contrast to the traditionally lit domestic and flashback scenes. This high-contrast look will maintain itself in all succeeding black-and-white Lean films.

Lean, known already as the best film editor in England, now showed his organizational and leadership capabilities. Although he was a notoriously bad hand at drawing, he resolutely storyboarded the action -- and annotated his shooting script to within an inch of its life before hitting the soundstage. “All the important imaginative thinking, he (Lean) maintained, had to be done before the shooting commenced; there was no time for lengthy improvisations on the set when a director was working with numerous actors and technicians.” (1) This thoroughness and discipline served him well in future; his stone-faced seriousness on set would later lead to rifts with more easygoing colleagues such as Trevor Howard and Robert Mitchum.

Lean began production on In Which We Serve as a glorified assistant director; however, Coward wearied of the time-consuming, technical rigors of film direction and turned over the helm entirely to Lean after a few weeks. Even in his first effort, some of Lean’s trademarks -- confident pacing, deep-focus shots, and close attention to the human face -- are evident. “. . . .the fact that Lean was able to stamp his personal style upon a production overshadowed by Coward’s looming (and egotistical) presence says much for his ability.” (2)

Overcoming a initial lack of support and cooperation from the British military with an intervention from King George VI himself, Coward and Lean’s film wound up on release to be quite literally a rousing success, serving as a template for the stiff-upper-lip heroics of war films to come. The fruitful association continued.

This Happy Breed was a sentimental, historical stage epic in the style of Coward’s previous Cavalcade of 1931 (that show initiated the cliché in which a loving shipboard couple wanders away from in front of a life preserver . . . labeled “H.M.S. Titanic”!). Where Cavalcade profiled the upper crust, Breed looks warmly, if condescendingly, at the working class.

Robert Newton and Celia Johnson in This Happy Breed
It’s another tribute to the spirit of embattled England, studded with heartaches and happiness, rendered in a deliberately dull Technicolor palette to more accurately reflect the dingy reality of plebian life. It’s an uneven if deeply felt panorama that fails to engage.

“ . . .he took every mundane event the cinema avoided – washing up, drying clothes, a great many meals – and worked the dialogue into them. For a British film to do this was unusual enough, but to show the kitchen sink, albeit in muted Technicolor, was revolutionary.” (3) This, along with a not-so-obscure moralizing about the comeuppance of those who don’t know how to “keep their place” oddly presages the conventions of British “kitchen-sink” social realism that were to flower 12 years later with John Osbourne’s Look Back in Anger.

Blithe Spirit, a farce about ghosts and fidelity, initially hailed as a masterful work, has not stood the test of time. Its brittle drawing-room sauciness is a return to form for Coward, and it had a long and happy run on stage in London. However, in Lean’s hands, the jokes fall flat – male lead Rex Harrison waspishly declared years later that it’s useful to make a comedy with a director who knows what’s funny. It is known best watched for its Oscar-winning special effects and Margaret Rutherford’s definitive performance as the batty medium Madame Arcati.

Kay Hammond as whimsical ghost Elvira and Margaret Rutherford as Madame Arcati in Blithe Spirit
Lean and Coward’s final collaboration, Brief Encounter, equals In Which We Serve in quality and significance. A third adaptation of a Coward stage work, it tells the story of two married people who meet by chance in a railway station, fall in love, realize that an affair would destroy them both, and part.

It’s a fever-dream, stream-of-consciousness visual poem punctuated with the heavy thuds of “realities” to be faced up to bravely. Our narrator and protagonist, Laura (Celia Johnson is absolutely perfect as the clipped, overwrought, unconventionally ravishing heroine) feels so keenly the lost chance that Alec (Trevor Howard as a noble young doctor) represents that she contemplates throwing herself under a train a la Karenina in the penultimate scene.

Celia Johnson and Trevor Howard in Brief Encounter
 As is the case in almost every subsequent Lean film, the willing spirit is chained by the weak flesh, the social imperative. Wild, nonconformist impulses threaten the blasé normality from which they sprung and are snuffed out ruthlessly. Tellingly, Lean is quoted as saying: “I am drawn to the person who refuses to face defeat even when they realize that their most cherished expectations may go unfulfilled.” (4)

Like Rosy Ryan in Ryan’s Daughter, Zhivago, Lawrence, and Nicholson in The Bridge on the River Kwai, Laura is swept out of and above mundane reality by her passionate obsession, but is flung to earth. In the end she does the right thing – and crushes out her soul like a cigarette butt.

Coward and Lean both moved on to reach iconic heights – Coward as a sort of aging roué, and Lean as the eminence grise of cinema, for better and worse. To watch these four films in chronological order is to see Lean grow from a contractor to a fully assured artist who is ready to do what he needs to make his vision come to life.

  1. “Beyond the Epic: The Life and Films of David Lean,” Gene D. Phillips, pg. 55.
  2. “Noel Coward: A Biography,” Philip Hoare, pg. 328.
  3. “David Lean: A Biography,” Kevin Brownlow, pg. 181.
  4. Phillips, pg. 96

In Which We Serve (1942)
This Happy Breed (1944)
Blithe Spirit (1945)
Brief Encounter (1945)

In Which We Serve (1942)
Director Noel Coward, David Lean
Screenplay Noel Coward
Producer Noel Coward
Director of Photography Ronald Neame
Art Director David Rawnsley
With Noel Coward (Capt. E.V. Kinross, R.N.), Bernard Miles (Chief Petty Officer Hardy), John Mills (Ordinary Seaman ‘Shorty’ Blake), Celia Johnson (Mrs. Kinross), Joyce Carey (Mrs. Hardy), Kay Walsh (Freda Lewis), James Donald (Doc), Derek Elphinstone (Number 1), Michael Wilding (Flags), Robert Sansom (Guns), Philip Friend (Torps), Richard Attenborough (Young Powder Handler – uncredited)
Runtime 114 minutes

This Happy Breed (1944)
Director David Lean
Screenplay Noel Coward (uncredited), Anthony Havelock-Allan, David Lean, Ronald Neame
Producer Noel Coward, Ronald Neame (Neame uncredited)
Director of Photography Ronald Neame
Art Director C.P. Norman
With Robert Newton (Frank Gibbons), Celia Johnson (Ethel Gibbons), Reg (John Blythe), Vi (Eileen Erskine), Kay Walsh (Queenie), Stanley Holloway (Bob Mitchell), John Mills (Billy Mitchell), Amy Veness (Mrs. Flint), Alison Leggatt (Aunt Sylvia)
Runtime 111 minutes

Blithe Spirit (1945)
Director David Lean
Screenplay David Lean, Ronald Neame, Anthony Havelock-Allan, Noel Coward (Coward uncredited)
Producer Noel Coward
Director of Photography Ronald Neame
Art Director C.P. Norman
Costumes Rahvis (dresses only)
With Rex Harrison (Charles Condomine), Constance Cummings (Ruth), Kay Hammond (Elvira), Margaret Rutherford (Madame Arcati), Jacqueline Clarke (Edith)
Runtime 96 minutes

Brief Encounter (1945)
Director David Lean
Screenplay Noel Coward, Anthony Havelock-Allan, David Lean, Ronald Neame (latter three uncredited)
Producer Noel Coward, Anthony Havelock-Allan, Ronald Neame (latter two uncredited)
Director of Photography Robert Krasker
Art Director Lawrence P. Williams (as L.P. Williams)
With Celia Johnson (Laura Jesson), Trevor Howard (Dr. Alec Harvey), Cyril Raymond (Fred Jesson), Stanley Holloway (Albert Godby), Joyce Carey (Myrtle Bagot)
Runtime 86 minutes

USA, 2012
Produced and Distributed by The Criterion Collection (region 1)
Aspect Ratio 1:37:1
Sound Mix Mono
Extras New high-definition digital transfers of the BFI National Archives’ 2008 restorations. Audio commentary on Brief Encounter by film historian Bruce Eder. Interviews with Coward scholar Barry Day on all four films. Interview with Ronald Neame, short documentaries on the making of In Which We Serve and Brief Encounter, TV documentary David Lean: A Self Portrait (1971), 1992 episode of The Southbank Show on the life and career of Coward, 1969 audio recording of conversation between Coward and Attenborough, trailers, 46-page booklet with essays by Ian Christie, Terrence Rafferty, Farran Smith Nehme, Geoffrey O’Brien, and Kevin Brownlow.

Tuesday, March 20, 2018

The NFR Project #59: 'The Poor Little Rich Girl' (1917)

The Poor Little Rich Girl
Dir: Maurice Tourneur
Prod: Adolf Zukor
Scr: Frances Marion, from the play by Eleanor Gates
Phot: Lucien N. Andriot, John van den Broek
Premiere: March 5, 1917
76 min.

It’s difficult now to conjure up a concept of how popular Mary Pickford was. She bore the intimidating title of “America’s Sweetheart” (though born in Toronto) — the on-screen incarnation of an appealing, virtuous, spunky young woman with whom audiences fell in love. Just as Chaplin became world-famous seemingly overnight, so did Pickford after the release of her 1914 Tess of the Storm Country (my NFR essay on it here).

An intelligent and intensely professional filmmaker, she took control of her projects as a producer from 1916 onwards, introducing innovations and raising the bar for film quality across the industry. (Her director for The Poor Little Rich Girl was the top-notch Maurice Tourneur, whose The Wishing Ring we touched on here.) Her successes were so great that she formed United Artists with Chaplin, Douglas Fairbanks, and D.W. Griffith in 1919 — an effort to get out of under the already heavy hand of the film studios.

As a performer, she had range and depth, working in everything from slapstick to romantic tragedy. As a producer, she exploited her strengths to create a series of wildly successful films in which she played plucky children or pubescents — Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm, Little Annie Rooney, the Little Princess — in short dresses, adorned with huge sausage curls. She was funny, feisty, and adorable.

The Poor Little Rich Girl is a typical tale of pathos. It is odd to see a vaguely bosomy 25-year-old play an 11-year-old, but the filmmakers cannily used tall actors to play the adults in the film, and scaled the settings and props accordingly, to make her seem as childlike as possible. Here she is Gwen, a coddled but emotionally neglected financier’s child who wants nothing more than to be paid attention to by her parents, or at least out playing roughhouse with the poor kids outside her brownstone mansion’s window.

Her character is high-spirited, which is I believe what we call obnoxious people we like. In one scene, she single-handedly destroys her ornate bathroom, leaping about like a maniacal dwarf. Finally, two of the servants, hoping for a quiet night off to go to the theater (and who can blame them?), give Gwen a double dose of “sleeping medicine,” which propels her into a hallucinatory land of dreams while her parents and her doctor struggle to save her life.

Gwen wanders through the Garden of Lonely Children, encounters Death, and rejects her in favor of Life, who is cavorting symbolically in forest groves in pseudo-Grecian attire a la Isadora Duncan. She sputters back to consciousness, her near-death experience having taught her selfish parents to abandon the pursuit of wealth and social prominence. Hey-ho! They will give up this city livin’ and go dwell in the country. 

The espousal of "country" virtues -- honesty, unpretentiousness, goodwill -- is typical for the time. As millions shirted from rural to urban America, there was an immense backlash of nostalgia for the plain ways of rooted folks. Cities were associated with sin, corruption, and the unholy worship of the Almighty Dollar (in Gwen's drug-dream, her father, "made of money" by being symbolically clothed in it, works relentlessly at a machine that makes more -- capitalism kills the soul). As that way of life was exterminated, it was also celebrated.

This kind of sentiment went over big then, but does not resonate so much now. Periodically, we seem to need a child actor or “child” actor in our lives — witness the later superstardom of Shirley Temple. Pickford created the template for those who followed.

When Pickford got her Honorary Oscar in 1976, she was obvious unwell, struggling to make it through the interview. (It didn't help that she usually had a skinful.) She died three years later at the age of 87.

The NFR Project is one writer’s attempt to review all the films listed in the National Film Registry, in chronological order. Next time: Douglas Fairbanks Sr. in Wild and Wooly.

Friday, March 16, 2018

The NFR Project #58: Chaplin's 'The Immigrant'

The Immigrant
Dir: Charles Chaplin
Prod: Henry P. Caulfield, Charles Chaplin, John Jasper (all uncred.)
Scr: Charles Chaplin (Vincent Bryan, Maverick Terrell, uncred.)
Phot: Roland Totheroh, George C. ‘Duke’ Zalibra (William C. Foster, uncred.)
Premiere: June 18, 1917

The Immigrant is a rare example of a perfect film. Chaplin was a genius, but he also shot 90 reels of film — 15 hours — to get those 25 classic minutes of The Immigrant. He didn’t follow a more traditional, cost-effective set of operational parameters. He didn’t storyboard, he didn’t budget. He did it by doing it, until he got it right.

Fortunately, he could afford to do so as he was at that time the most popular person in the world, and perhaps that the world will ever see. He became an international superstar in 1915, only a year after his first film appearance. As soon as possible, he began writing, starring in, and directing his own projects. His impeccable timing, his subversive wit, his cocky insecurity, his playful inventiveness, his endearing incarnation of the Little Tramp persona were all in service of a comedy that transcended language, perfectly understandable in all cultures by virtue of being entirely human. Chaplin makes sense all over the world because he deals in universal truths.

Here, the Little Tramp is in yet another outcast incarnation — that of the despised, frightened, and powerless immigrant. In an America swarming with new citizens, including Chaplin himself, the fears played upon in The Immigrant are connected to deep feeling, which creates more resonance, more laughs, and ages well. The film opens with a boatload of the tempest-tossed arriving in New York harbor. Chaplin riffs through a set of seasickness gags. He begins to heave in sync with Albert Austin, one of his repertory company, and the camera cuts away just as it seems the two are past the point of no restraint.

Chaplin builds a wistful romantic relationship with fellow traveler, the beautiful Edna Purviance. He aids her after her mother’s “poke” containing their savings is stolen. Charlie inadvertently wins their money from the thief, then gives her the lion’s share of the proceeds. That Chaplin can move instantly from slapstick to pathos and back again is a gift that is increasingly impressive as the years pass. No other film comedian has come close to it.

Some see The Immigrant as bearing the kernel of Chaplin’s left-wing political consciousness, which later caused him to be expelled from the United States, in 1952. In the film, he gives an officious bully of an immigration officer a kick in the behind (cited later as the part of the evidence for his expulsion). But the Tramp character is no respecter of persons, always ready to land a hearty kick on those he dislikes. (In fairness, the same officer gets to give the Tramp a kick in return shortly after.)

The film shifts to “Later — hungry and broke” as the Tramp waddles disconsolately down a city street. He finds a coin on the sidewalk, pockets it, and eagerly enters a restaurant, forgetting that his pocket has a hole. The remainder of the film builds masterfully on the premise of the poor man discovering his fiscal shortfall and trying to remedy it before his burly, aggressive waiter (another Chaplin regular, the enormous and beetle-browed Eric Campbell) beats the tar out of him.

Chaplin entwines his sequence with the first by bringing Edna into the picture, revealing her there dining as well. By film’s end, Charlie has paid the bill and found work for himself and Edna as artists’ models. In a short coda, the Tramp playfully wrestles Edna into a minister’s office. The End.

Chaplin came up with a smooth, integrated plot with characters we could invest in emotionally. This was years beyond contemporary comedians, who just strung gags together. Brownlow and Gill’s magnificent Unknown Chaplin shows that the restaurant sequence was the first to be shot, and that the romantic relationship, the artist’s involvement, and the marriage coda were worked and reworked into satisfying shape. In show business, it takes a lot of work to look effortless. Genius is in large part persistence.

The NFR Project is one writer’s attempt to review all the films listed in the National Film Registry, in chronological order. Next time: Mary Pickford in The Poor Little Rich Girl.

Monday, March 12, 2018

The NFR Project #56: Where Are My Children? (1916)

Where Are My Children?

Dir: Phillips Smalley, Lois Weber (both uncred.)
Prod: Phillips Smalley, Lois Weber
Scr: Lucy Payton and Franklin Hall
Phot: Stephen S. Norton, Allen G. Siegler (both uncred.)
Premiere: April 16, 1916
62 min.

She was the first American woman to direct a feature film, and the first to establish and run her own studio. She invented the split screen. She made hard-hitting moral dramas that were wildly popular in her time. She saw film as a persuasive medium through which she could evangelize her progressive Christian beliefs. Lois Weber is a rediscovered filmmaker, disregarded until critical reappraisal in recent decades. (I am unable to find and review her 1916 drama Shoes, which is also on the National Film Registry.)

She entered the business as a singer, performing for the chronophone, the first synchronized-sound playback system. Soon, in creative partnership with her husband, Phillips Smalley, she was making films in the “social problem” vein that were so popular in the 1910s (see my earlier essays on The Cry of the Children and Traffic in Souls). She wrote, directed, and edited her own fair-minded, naturalistic, and nuanced features, made money, and prospered for a time.

 Where Are My Children? made Weber’s reputation, being Universal’s top-grossing film for 1916. Its topic, abortion, caused it to be banned in Pennsylvania. It stars Tyrone Power Sr. as a district attorney who prosecutes an abortionist, only to find that his wife and her “society” friends are all the doctor’s patrons.

This being 1916, Where Are My Children? is not a call for female sexual autonomy but a cry for responsible maternal fulfillment. It is pro-birth control, but anti-abortion. Its working title was The Illborn, and it opens with a schematic of baby souls, suspended in heavenly light and smoke, waiting to come down to Earth. It seems that there are “chance” babies, unwanted babies, and prayed-for babies, and we should all be shooting for Category Three. Unwanted children suffer in health, lack of resources, and exposure to dysfunction and violence. In short, they are a burden on the body politic.

The D.A. and his wife, though affluent, are listless and unfulfilled as they are childless. Everyone around them has adorable little children. The D.A.’s sister brings in her newborn, and we are advised that she has “contracted a eugenic marriage.” The theory of the time was that if potential mates were screened and eliminated from conjugal consideration for displaying deviant characteristics, wholesome and creditable offspring would result. “If the mystery of birth were understood, crime would be wiped out,” an intertitle states. A kind of home-grown breeding program. (This thinking led to marriage restrictions, compulsory sterilizations, and eventually Nazi genocide.)

As the D.A. mopes about, his pampered wife is busy surreptitiously referring her friends to the ominously named Dr. Malfit. (The depiction of the debilitating effects of the procedure as then practiced is not stinted.) “Never dreaming that it was her fault, her husband concealed his disappointment,” says the intertitle. The wife is not only letting own the human race, she’s letting down her husband and herself as a woman. The argument for birth control is independence inverted — it is women kept more at heel.

The plot turns on the seduction of the maid’s daughter by the wife’s brother (a cad and an obvious seducer — “Practice teaches men of this class the bold methods that sweep inexperienced girls off their feet”). Of course, she gets knocked up. Of course, the wife sends her to Malfit, who screws up. She returns, confesses, dies. The D.A. prosecutes the abortionist, who gets 15 years hard labor. Vengefully, he hurls his appointment book at the D.A., who opens it and finds his wife’s name, and those of many of her friends, inside.

Tyrone Power Sr. is effective here in one of his few preserved silent film performances. His commanding and stern visage in the revelation scene gives the movie a powerful melodramatic edge. “Where are my children?” he cries to his wife, who collapses. Unfortunately, “. . . having perverted Nature so often, she found herself physically unable to wear the diadem of motherhood.” We are left with a scene of the two of them, sitting in misery, surrounded by their playful, flitting superimposed imaginary offspring. He shoots her a dirty look. End.

By 1922, moralizing stories were no longer popular, and Weber’s work was deemed too preachy and straitlaced. The movie industry was consolidating, and independents found themselves squeezed out. Weber, and other key early female directors such as Alice Guy-Blache and Nell Shipman, lost their production companies. Weber’s prowess and independent spirit led to her rapid engagement with most of the film companies on the West Coast, but she was unsatisfied. In 1927, she advised young women not to seek a career in the movie industry.

The NFR Project is one writer’s attempt to review all the films listed in the National Film Registry, in chronological order. Next time: Chaplin’s The Immigrant.