Tag Archives: Iago

‘This Above All’: Soap Box Derby

Stylized version of original poster.

Stylized version of the original poster.

Before I say anything else about “This Above All” (20th Century-Fox, 1942), I want to make it clear that I have a great affection for this picture. Probably far more things are wrong with it than are right or good, but it’s extremely atmospheric and stirring if you’re willing to meet it halfway. It’s full of decency, earnestness, romantic yearning and — this above all — emphatic patriotism. Much of it is well written; all of it is beautifully photographed (by Arthur C. Miller, who was nominated for his work, but lost to Joe Ruttenberg (“Mrs Miniver”)); the story — ludicrous as some of it is — is well-paced by director Anatole Litvak. It’s full of faults, but it’s never boring. Overall, I find it thoroughly entertaining and emotionally satisfying.

The title, however, made me approach the picture with considerable trepidation the first time I saw it. I was pretty sure it must be a reference to Polonius’ admonition to his son . . .

This above all: to thine own self be true.
And it must follow, as the night the day,
Thou canst not then be false to any man.

. . . but I hoped it wasn’t. Unfortunately, the title is indeed a reference to Polonius’ speech, and it is quoted for the purpose of moral instruction. It comes at the end of the picture, and is underscored by Alfred Newman’s idiotic note-spinning, which is of a genre I call “Choir Celestial Claptrap.” I’m sick and tired of hearing this Shakespearean passage quoted out of context as if it were the Wisdom of the Ages, rather than what it is: perfectly sensible advice, marred by a nonsensical conclusion.* One can quite easily be true to oneself and a cheat to the rest of the world: that’s what villainy is all about. Besides, Polonius is, number one, a humbug, and a scumbag too. It is no wiser to take his advice about personal conduct than to receive moral instruction from Iago.
* For me, the nadir of misinterpretation came away back in the seventies, when “60 Minutes” did a feature about arch anti-feminist Phyllis Schlafly (author of “The Power of the Positive Woman”), who quoted the passage and placed heavy emphasis on the final word, “man.” Schlafly explained that Shakespeare’s intention was to instruct women to pretty themselves up for their hard-working men! Evidently, she confused Polonius and “The Tragedy of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark” with Jack Jones and Bacharach/David’s “Wives and Lovers.”

Original poster.

Original poster.

“This Above All” features enough undisguised “We’ve got to win this war — we’ve got to!” speeches to fill a half dozen morale-boosting pictures. (“We’ve got to win this war — we’ve got to!” is, in fact, its antepenultimate line.) The plot is full of borderline ludicrous episodes and accidents, and yet it works quite beautifully if you’re willing to embrace the foolishness. It strikes me as entirely heartfelt and done in a blaze of passion. With few exceptions, little of the acting is first rate, but many of the second raters are better than usual. As Joan Fontaine’s father, Philip Merivale is particularly good; so is Miles Mander in a tiny part. The screenplay by R.C. Sherriff is what I like most about it. I find his patriotic bunkum to be of a very high order. His speeches are not nearly as exquisite as Emeric Pressberger’s in “The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp,” but they get the job done. Moreover, Sherriff actually gives the opposition a chance to make a strong case for its side. The opposition will, of course, have to change its mind by the last reel, but not before it has strutted and fretted its hour upon the soap box.

A Few Words about R.C. Sherriff

Robert Cedric Sherriff (June 6, 1896 — November 13, 1975) wrote an excellent anti-war play, “Journey’s End,” in 1928, which was based on his own experiences as a captain in the Great War. He was seriously wounded at Passchendaele in 1917 and invalided home. Success as a playwright did not come easily to him. By the time he wrote “Journey’s End,” he was an insurance broker and had written six unproduced plays. “Journey’s End” very nearly did not happen. Producers at the time had little interest in plays about war, especially those that featured no leading lady. (“No Leading Lady” is the title of Sherriff’s autobiography.) As they saw it, the War to End All Wars was also the War that Everyone Wished to Forget. Eventually, the script found its way to an eccentric producer, Maurice Browne, who gave it its West End premiere at the Savoy on January 21, 1929, where it played to packed houses for two years. It was Laurence Olivier’s first big break, also James Whale’s, who directed it. Three years later, James Whale hired Sherriff to write additional (uncredited) dialogue for “The Dark Old House,” and in 1933, hired him to write the screenplay for Claude Rains’ career-making picture, “The Invisible Man.” Sherriff went on to write many hit movies, including “Goodbye, Mr Chips,” “Random Harvest” (both based on novels by James Hilton) and “That Hamilton Woman.”

The Opening Argument

This opening scene hooked me at once. It immediately establishes the tone of the movie: it’s the middle of World War II, and the lazy immoral complacency of the Old Guard is vehemently attacked by a latter-day version of the Bright Young Thing — and the Bright Young Thing is in the right. Gladys Cooper, always a welcome old cat, must receive and endure a proper old pasting from a patriotic young beauty. As in nearly every picture Gladys Cooper ever appeared in (with the notable exception of “My Fair Lady”), she is thoroughly in the wrong. The tongue-lashing she receives from Joan Fontaine is wonderfully satisfying.

“One day we may look back and thank Hitler for some of the things he’s done to wake us up, but we’ll never look back and thank you!” How do you like the manners of this aristocratic young firebrand? Of course there’s a war on and dear old Albion is fighting for her very life, but does that give Prue the right to compare Miss Cooper unfavorably to Herr Hitler? The first time I saw this scene, the intensity of the rebuke just about knocked the breath out of me. But this is one of the things that makes Sherriff’s patriotism palatable. All through “This Above All,” Sherriff argues that the English class system is riddled with injustice and cruelty: many inequities will have to be put right if the country is to survive. But first, they must all pull together and defeat Hitler.

On her first night in WAAF training, Prudence goes out with a friend whose fiancé introduces her to a dark, handsome man of mystery named Clive Briggs (Tyrone Power). The two are simultaneously attracted and antagonistic to each other. And both of them are allowed to be right. Very unusual in a wartime propaganda picture.

Stolen Moments

“This Above All” captures beautifully the poignant yearning and the thrilling stolen moments that are the most delicious part of falling in love. Here are two examples of what I mean. First, Clive and Prue make plans to take a holiday together on her first leave:

I wish he were a better actor. He’s much better in the silences: in them, he’s very good. But oh man, those bum line readings of his . . .

And here is how their holiday starts. This sequence is a bouillon cube of the entire picture: it has nearly all of its essential elements: patriotic fervor (hers) and its opposite (his), the dream of romance colliding with the class struggle (theirs), England herself (courtesy of the Fox backlots and Robert Kane’s process shots) . . . and Gladys Cooper, who’s there to be disapproving of the way the improvident world keeps disarranging her table neither with her consent nor to her liking.

It isn’t terribly well acted, is it. No, she lets her eyebrows do most of her emoting, while he nearly always sounds as if he were reciting. Yet I find their inadequacies rather touching: the artificiality of her eyebrow acting and his inability to make lines of text sound like conversation strike me as near-virtues with this particular material. Besides, both of them are extremely attractive and they have real chemistry together. She’s better than he is. She does scorn and vehemence well, and she is better than good in the final reel, when things have become quite literally a matter of life and death. And he is good in the silences. Still, better acting would have made for a much better picture: the first time I saw it, I kept wishing Deborah Kerr and Laurence Olivier had played the leads, but there it is — mustn’t grumble. There was a war on.

A Ham Spills a Mess of Beans

Power and Fontaine part company with Mitchell. I love the atmospheric lighting.

Power and Fontaine part company with Thomas Mitchell. I love the atmospheric lighting.

From the “laddies” and “ayes” that pepper Thomas Mitchell’s sentences in this next clip, I take it we’re supposed to believe this proud Son of Elizabeth, New Jersey, is a Scot, but his accent is such a Hollywood Irish stew, it’s hard to know for sure. I have always been allergic to Mitchell’s boisterous, rubicund leprechaun act. He’s perfectly awful: with his face eternally aflame with riot, he reminds me of a fiery Brussels sprout. But it seems that mine is very much the minority opinion. At any rate, in this scene, in which his character provides us with an enormous amount of exposition, he has the twin merits of swiftness and energy. He’s also a bit less sentimental than usual. And I have been careful to end the clip a split second before he begins to roister.

I’m crazy about the song Brenda Forbes sings at the beginning of the clip. We don’t get to hear the entire song, and some of the lyrics are obscured, so I think they bear repeating. They go like this:

A certain German chancellor has lost his head,
He’s going to get a headache somewhere else instead,
And he will be retiring very soon,
To join a certain Kaiser down in Doom,

Adolf, you’ve bitten off . . . much more than you can chew.
Come on, hold your hand out,
We’re all fed up with you. (Cor, blimey!)
Adolf, you toddle off, and all your Nazis too,
Or you may get something to remind you
Of the old red, white and blue.

We’re sick of all the muddle and the mess you’ve made.
You’ve gone and stuck your fingers in the marmalade,
So now you’re going to get a big surprise.
You’re nothing but a basket full of lies.

Words and music by Annette Mills, ©1939.

Original sheet music.

Original sheet music.

Ty Complains, Joan Waves the Union Jack

This clip features the most extreme example of back-to-back soap box orations in the whole movie. They both mean what they say, but they’re in over their heads.

Poor Joan Fontaine! I’m sure she really does mean every word she dutifully recites; she pulls out all her stops; she changes tempo; her voice goes up hill and down dale; she varies the speed of her tremolo; she employs aposiopesis (Greek: ἀποσιώπησις, “becoming silent”: in oratory, it’s the breaking off of speech to indicate fullness of emotion); she does everything great actors do to ennoble big speeches — but all in vain: she simply doesn’t have the chops to make this sort of thing work. Halfway through, when she lifts her eyes to the heavens and lets the words come cascading out of her in a great frothing curd of sentimentality and ham, it’s almost painful how inadequate she is. She’s working so hard . . . ! I really am touched by her earnestness and diligence. Her pantomime of emotion at the very end, when she executes a hiccough-like facial contortion, eyebrows aloft and working like mad, a sudden widening of the eyes, and finally a little frown just as she buries her face in Ty Power’s chest — pathetic . . . I confess it always gives me a shame-faced chuckle.

After this oration, and for the rest of the picture, Tyrone Power is in for a rum go of it — oh, a very rum go. Among other miseries, he seriously injures his hand and must seek the help of a district nurse named Emily Harvey, who patches him up, but tells him plainly that she will have to report him to the authorities. German spies have been reported in the vicinity and she must do her duty. Nurse Harvey is played to perfection by Jill Esmond, who was recently divorced from Laurence Olivier after ten years of marriage.

Jill Esmond gives a beautifully restrained performance as Nurse Emily Harvey..

Jill Esmond gives a beautifully restrained performance as Nurse Emily Harvey.

The School of Hard Knox

Quite a while later, after having endured many indignities and close calls, Clive fetches up at the rectory of the Reverend Alexander Knox. Knox is another actor I’ve never much liked, but he handles this stuff well — though he has a bad habit, when making his significant points, of staring into the middle distance — a cliché that is endemic among ham actors. We are offered no explanation of why Jesus has called the rector’s left hand home before the rest of him; I assume his loss is intended to give his moral authority additional weight — that old sophism: he has suffered, therefore he has wisdom. (Thirteen years later, a similarly handicapped Spencer Tracy brought justice to Black Rock — single-handed, as it were.)

Out of context, the rector seems mild enough, but I bristle when he says, “I see you as a symbol of our age — an Age of Reason that’s driven out the Age of Faith.” Quite apart from its being intolerably patronizing, I find it maddeningly wrong-headed for the clergyman to complain that the main problem of living through the Age of Hitler is that everyone is behaving too reasonably.

The Greatest

The single greatest performance I ever saw an actor give was Christopher Plummer‘s Iago, which he played, not as a human being, but as the embodiment of unadulterated, fathomless Evil.  This was back in 1982 at the Winter Garden Theatre on Broadway.  James Earl Jones was a fine Othello, but it was Iago’s show from start to finish.  Plummer didn’t win the Tony for his miraculous performance, however.  That year, the Tony went to the actor who gave the second greatest performance I ever saw:  Roger Rees’ star turn in “The Life and Adventures of Nicholas Nickleby.”  Rees was so great in that monumental play (eight and a half hours long!) — the greatest theatrical experience of my life — that I doubt even Christopher Plummer could have resented losing the award to so excellent a performance.  1982 was a good year for Broadway.

Plummer as Iago: So will I turn her virtue into pitch, And out of her own goodness make the net That shall enmesh them all.

Plummer as Iago:
So will I turn her virtue into pitch,
And out of her own goodness make the net
That shall enmesh them all.

I’ll never forget the way Plummer delivered the lines quoted above:  his clarion voice brayed out the words in an accelerating, but even, rhythm and the notes ascended the scale until he arrived at the word “enmesh,” when he startled the audience by lingering on the “shhhhhh.” Such nerve!  And so thrilling!  A lesser actor would have sounded ridiculous.  In his black leather, Plummer already looked like a reticulated snake — one with porcupine quills bristling on his head.  The “shhhhhh” clinched the look:  the most villainous snake-in-the-grass of all time.  I remember the Sunday matinee crowd I saw it with audibly gasped at his audacity.  But his whole performance was like that:  surprises everywhere, but always completely in service of the story.  Plummer was so diabolically funny and entertaining, you couldn’t help rooting for him . . . until his plans started to pay off with tragic results.  He made Iago irresistibly entertaining — a wise choice, since it happens to be the third longest role in Shakespeare.  (And perhaps the longest, since Hamlet’s and Richard III’s lines are often heavily abridged.)

That was the first time I saw Plummer on stage.  Before then, I only knew his work from the pictures he’d been in.  Until the mid 70s, he wasn’t much good in pictures, to be quite frank.  Certainly, it wasn’t entirely his fault:  he was in a lot of dogs.  “Inside Daisy Clover” is a fantastically bad picture:  nobody in it emerged with his dignity intact.  And in the famous musical from 1965, which Plummer likes to call “S and M,” he wasn’t good.  In most of the pictures he made before the the 70s, he seemed anxious to make it clear that he knew how crummy the material was — “Don’t blame me, folks:  I didn’t write this crap.”  The result was that he often came off worse than those who did their best to do elevate the second- and third-rate stuff.  At his best, he was very good — as, for example, when he played Rudyard Kipling in John Huston’s “The Man Who Would Be King” (1975).  But nothing prepared me for the sensational Iago he played in 1982.

Plummer:  The Man Who Would Be Kipling.

Plummer: The Man Who Would Be Kipling.

In recent years, he has become one of the most reliably entertaining character actors in pictures, but Christopher Plummer’s natural habitat is the theatre, in front of a large, adoring crowd.  In the theatre, he’s stunning, even in the worst crap.  A revival of “Inherit the Wind,” for instance, back in 2007.  I found something I wrote to a friend right after coming home from seeing it:

Plummer was wonderful as always, but gee whiz, what a terrible, turgid piece of agitprop!  It’s amazing that it keeps getting revived.  From first to last, it’s utterly false — & the platitudes rain down in torrents.  My expectations weren’t high:  I’ve seen the movie, which is pedantic & dull & preaches nosily & clumsily to the choir . . . but I hoped that seeing it live might make at least parts of it crackle.  Alas, no.  The whole thing is so smug & one-sided — nobody opposed to the Darrow character is allowed to have a flicker of intelligence or humanity — Darrow is saintly & sagacious & everyone else is a prating fool or hypocrite or both.

In some ways just as bad is the quasi-one-man show, “Barrymore.”  I saw that idiotic show twice.  Plummer made it worth seeing, but it’s awfully thin porridge.

Plummer as Barrymore:  'The rain beats at the door with the persistence of an unpaid madam.'

Plummer as Barrymore: ‘The rain beats at the door with the persistence of an unpaid madam.’ That line, alas, is not in the show: it’s a paraphrase from Gene Fowler’s biography, ‘Good Night, Sweet Prince.’

As Barrymore, Plummer is wonderful wonderful wonderful.  The moment he enters, wheeling a cocktail tray ahead of him and with an inebriate glint in his eye, you know you’re in for a high old time.  He looks amazingly like the Great Profile himself.  (Poor old Jack Barrymore was so haggard from alcohol that Plummer, who was 67 when he played the role on Broadway, looked younger than Barrymore did when he was 40.  Barrymore was only 60 when he died, but looked decades older.)

Plummer as Barrymore:  I'll have Manhattan . . .

Plummer as Barrymore: Lush Life.

Plummer richly deserved the Tony he won for that performance, but the script is far beneath his talents.  The writing, especially as it gets toward the middle, is hopeless.  Barrymore’s actual words are marvellous, but when the playwright has to invent . . . well, it’s roughly the equivalent of what it would sound like if Neil Simon tried to write Shakespearean verse:  impossible.  Somewhere I read that the movie of “Barrymore” is an unholy mess, but of course I read it online, so who knows?  The DVD is to be released on May 7, 2013, and I’ve already ordered a copy.  There’s at least an hour of Plummer at his Plummiest, but the play stinks.  The writing is so incompetent that it’s not even really a one man show:  half way through, when the playwright runs out of invention, he has an offstage voice converse with Barrymore. On Broadway, the offstage voice spoke the lines so amateurishly, I felt more compassion for Plummer than I did for poor, doomed Jack:  why should such an artist be forced to work with such a piss-poor co-star?  Both times I saw the show, I was distressed to see so much talent lavished on such drivel, but now I remember only the extraordinary wit of the performance.

Happily, the other plays he has done on Broadway have been better than “Inherit the Wind” and “Barrymore.”  He was the greatest King Lear I ever saw, and the wittiest.  Indeed, his performance made a deep impression on me because, to date, he’s the only actor who ever made it clear why Cordelia, Gloucester and Kent are faithful to him, while his other two daughters hate him.  And it all has to do with his venomous wit.  As Plummer played him, Lear’s rages aren’t nearly so terrible as his acid tongue.  Goneril and Regan didn’t spring from the womb as villainesses; they were driven to it by their hateful old father, who never loved them.  Cordelia gets the shaft in the first scene, but it’s the first time she ever incurred Lear’s disfavor.  She loves him because he always loved her best.  Gloucester and Kent are faithful to him because he had been a very great king until he made the disastrous decision to retire from the cares of the throne.  Plummer’s interpretation made this absolutely clear.

Plummer as Lear:  More sinned against than sinning, and very, very funny.

Plummer as Lear: More sinned against than sinning, and very, very funny.

In interviews, Plummer has said that he, like Olivier, lacks pathos.  His Lear wasn’t as moving in the final act as others I’ve seen, probably because one doesn’t easily feel sorry for Christopher Plummer.  But he was refreshingly unsentimental and he spoke the lines beautifully.  He explains some of his thinking about the role in the clip below.

[To be continued . . . ]