Tag Archives: Juarez

‘Juarez’: German Expressionism Down Méjico Way

Original poster.

Original poster.

I can’t claim it’s a great picture, but “Juarez” (Warner Bros., 1939) is a lot of fun. It’s probably much better than it has any right to be. Claude Rains as Louis-Napoléon is funny every second he’s on screen.

Here’s his first scene; it opens the picture. Rains was rarely so hammy as he is in “Juarez,” but the vigorous way he attacks the lines is exactly what his scenes call for. In this barely disguised expository scene, he’s saddled with the nearly impossible task of playing both Emperor of France and Chorus (i.e., telling us that which we need to know, but which his onscreen colleagues know only too well). He solves the problem by hamming it up to a fare-thee-well. I find it hilarious the way he flashes his eyes and emphasizes his royal displeasure by making full-arm jabbing motions at the members of his cabinet — with an overlong cigarette burning at all times. And keep your ear peeled for the first time Rains says “Monroe Doctrine.” As a boy, Rains had a terrible stammer that he worked hard to overcome, but he never quite mastered the letter “R,” which, when he was insufficiently vigilant, came out as a “W.” “Monroe Doctrine,” which is often spoken of in “Juarez,” presents an almost insuperable obstacle to him, with those two R’s in such close proximity: in this instance, it comes out as “Monroe Doctwin” (or nearly so: there is a hint of an “R” in there). This is funny in itself, but because he follows it with one of his lunging swordsman’s gestures, crying in a loud voice: “YOU!” — it’s even funnier. (It is a testament to Rains’ hard work that he only slips up once or twice on “Monroe Doctrine,” and only when he has a full head of steam up.) Erich Wolfgang Korngold’s score also adds to the comedy. (To my ear, it sounds like orchestral acid indigestion: one can imagine its accompanying Elmer Fudd’s discomfort after, say, swallowing a bowl of mashed potatoes that Bugs Bunny has laced with chilies, nitroglycerin and alum.) As the Empress Eugènie, Louis-Napoléon’s dragon-lady helpmeet, Gale Sondergaard is also superbly funny. That such was almost certainly not her intention makes no difference at all: she’s a riot. Claude Rains drives every scene he’s in; because he’s such a tremendous clown, everyone who comes into his orbit automatically becomes either his comic conspirator or his stooge — including Bette Davis, as you will see for yourself in a minute.

Rains doesn’t appear again for almost an hour, and when he returns he puts on a good show. The image of him astride that wooden horse makes me laugh before he even opens his mouth. And of course, he’s still got one of his overlong ciggies going. That’s Hugh Sothern who plays the American Ambassador, John Bigelow, a representative of William Seward. Sothern looks so much like Seward, it’s a shame he never played the man. He only appeared in two dozen pictures, mostly in westerns — he played Old Hickory in two pictures (“The Buccaneer” and in one short). He’s good in this small part, but Rains wipes the floor with him, and all the while he’s atop that wooden horse.

Here’s his great scene with Bette Davis, the first one they ever played together. You can see from the still below that hers is not (ahem) a subtle performance: how could it be, with Rains’ shoveling up mountains of comedy for her to play against? She was extremely shy around him during the shooting of this picture. When she appeared on the Dick Cavett Show in 1971, she described it this way: “He was the King of France, who loathed Carlota, and I was a kid and petrified of Mr Rains. So I thought he hated me; I didn’t know he was playing the character. I thought he thinks I just STINK — what am I gonna do? But eventually we worked together quite a lot; eventually we became really great friends. We were really great friends.” What Davis didn’t tell Cavett (and no reason that she should have done) was that, like many of his co-stars, she fell madly in love with Rains, a feeling he did not return. She often sought refuge with him after the smash-up of her latest love affair or marriage, but he never gave her a tumble romantically. “Frankly,” he said, “I’m terrified of her!”

The ending of that scene, when Carlota’s fragile mind cracks and she goes tearing off helter-skelter into the void, is visually the most interesting moment in the picture, though there are many interesting cinematographic moments scattered throughout. The cinematographer is Tony Guadio: he was nominated for an Oscar, but lost to Gregg Toland for “Wuthering Heights.” The director, William Dieterle, brought German Expressionism to Old Mexico, and the combination is often arresting — even stunning. The final shot in the picture — Carlota, now forever lost in the steepy night of lunacy, while the sun streams in on her — is also a stunner. Twenty years passed before I saw the picture for the second time; it was the one image that I never forgot. Such moments are enough to make me forgive a lot of misfires. Much of this picture uses distinctly Germanic lighting, which looks like ghost stories told round the campfire with flashlights under chins. Some of it is pretty arbitrary and foolish, but when it works, it works brilliantly — trouble is, it doesn’t work often enough. (Dieterle’s “The Devil and Daniel Webster,” photographed by Joseph August, uses the campfire bit even more luridly and often.)

O, what a noble mind is here o'erthrown! Bette Davis as the Mad Carlota.

O, what a noble mind is here o’erthrown! Bette Davis as the Mad Carlota.

Although Bette Davis feared that Claude Rains hated her, she seems never to have given a second thought to Brian Aherne, who played her uxorious husband, the Emperor Maximilian von Habsburg. The thin-skinned Mr Aherne roundly detested her. Some years later, he observed, “Surely nobody but a mother could have loved Bette Davis at the height of her career.” In their scenes together, he gazes at her tenderly — love-besotted — while she rarely looks at him except as a means of putting exclamation marks on the ends of her sentences, or sometimes in the middle of them. She was a very great actress; her performance in “Juarez,” however, is not one of her best. It is certainly one of her busiest.

The biggest surprise in “Juarez” is that Brian Aherne gives a first rate performance. For once, his tree-top height and fey superiority don’t work against him. In comedies like “The Great Garrick,” he’s too diffident and self-conscious to be droll, and in drama, he’s too lightweight to be taken seriously. He’s rather good in the late-fifties sudser, “The Best of Everything,” but only by accident, I expect. In that one, he plays a boozy, ass-pinching, over-the-hill paperback editor — boozy, he can do; ass-pinching, less so — but in “The Best of Everything,” his reminiscences of long-ago days with Fitzgerald and Perkins, of how with them he heard the chimes at midnight, are what work best in his performance; they’re strangely effective, precisely because you don’t believe a word of them. His inability to make the tawdry third-rate stuff seem credible works in his favor. This must surely be an accident: I make no doubt that we’re supposed to believe his tales of his youthful triumphs and escapades; we’re supposed to pity the man because his success came too early and has been followed by an unbroken string of failures and humiliations: we’re to imagine that he became a soak somewhere along his sad and messy descent into has-been-hood. But Aherne’s performance suggests that he’s a glassy-eyed boozer because he’s a never-was, and that he never knew any of the literary celebrities who are the supporting players in his tippler’s tales of salad days that never were. At any rate, it’s a more interesting story that way. And I like to give second-raters like Aherne the benefit of the doubt. I’m also well-disposed toward Aherne because he wrote a charming book about George Sanders entitled “A Dreadful Man.” (Indeed he was.)

In “Juarez,” however, Aherne’s feather-weight superciliousness and scarecrow physique are perfectly suited to the Emperor Maximilian, an unwitting puppet of Louis-Napoléon. Maximilian is the most interesting and complicated character in the story — perhaps the only one who isn’t a Classics Illustrated cartoon. Maximilian’s unimpeachable integrity and unshakable belief in absolute monarchy as the wisest form of government are undermined by his incompetence as a leader and naïveté as a politician. When he learns that he has been duped by the petit-bourgeois French king, his agony is incredibly moving, but his attempts to set things right are doomed to fail, even pathetic. It takes a weak sister like Aherne to make this predicament tragic instead of merely ridiculous. For Maximilian is a ridiculous character, with his Viennese dandyism ludicrously out of place under the burning eye of the Mexican sun. Quite apart from the fussiness of his attire, he sports the most extravagant tonsorial fashion: the Emperor Maximilian and that year’s other cinematic would-be autocrat, the Cowardly Lion, appear to give their royal custom to the same barber.

Separated at Birth? 1939: The Year of Royal Oddballs; the Emperor of Mexico, da King of da Fores'.

Separated at Birth? 1939: The Year of Royal Oddballs; the Emperor of Mexico, da King udda Fores’.

Aherne’s performance was the only one in “Juarez” to receive an Oscar nomination, but he lost to horrible Thomas Mitchell, who won for his performance as the drunken sawbones in “Stagecoach.” Poor Brian Aherne! How terrible to lose to a performance so low as that one!

Since the picture is called “Juarez,” I suppose I should mention Paul Muni, who plays the title character. Oh, God . . . Well, he’s less terrible than usual. He plays the role under many pounds of makeup. In some scenes, he looks like the shorter brother of Boris Karloff as the Monster in the first two Frankenstein pictures. He looks as if Wile E. Coyote had dropped an anvil on his head. As Benito Juarez, Muni is a whole lot less animated than was his wont; in many scenes, he indicates gravitas by becoming nearly catatonic. It’s beyond me how he can be absolutely motionless and say almost nothing, yet still come across as an incorrigible ham. And to tell the truth, I dislike the guy so much, I haven’t been willing to do enough homework to unravel this mystery — I’d rather accept it as an unknowable perplexity than put myself through the punishment of figuring out how he does it. Of course it’s possible that I’m too prejudiced against him to accept that his performance is not hammy. But I sincerely doubt it. His makeup does a lot of hamming for him: his eyebrows have been concealed under some sort of prosthetic skin, and a pair of furry nubbins, like a black caterpillar cut in half, have taken their place. Muni manages to pull the corners of his mouth down so low that he often reminds me of the churlish apple tree on the Road to Oz.

Separated at Birth? Paul Muni and twin.

Separated at Birth? Los Dos Sourpusses: Paul Muni and twin.

The nadir comes when he interviews a spirited young peón named Pepe (Manuel Díaz in his only movie role), who is so animated, one may be forgiven for imagining his name is Peppy. Juarez asks the young shepherd boy how his dogs fought off the depredations of a ferocious timber wolf; Pepe tells him the tale of the war of attrition against the marauder, with much exasperating pantomime: Muni’s slit eyes go evermore slitty till he says, “Jes, Pepe! Dat is de right way to fight a wolf!” And from this interview, the President of Mexico derives his ingenious strategy for the campaign which will eventually rid his beloved republic of the European overlords. It’s damned silly stuff. And I may say, not Muni’s fault. But why not blame him anyway?

The screenplay is by John Huston, with help from Æneas MacKenzie and Wolfgang Reinhardt, and is based in part upon a play by Franz Werfel and a novel (“The Phantom Crown”) by Betina Harding. In the circumstance, this has not proved to be too many cooks, though the quality of the script varies from scene to scene. Huston & Co. get through a lot of exposition in a hurry — it’s not good, but at least it’s fast, which is more than can be said of most historical pictures from the Studio Era. Muni’s scenes veer toward sanctimoniousness and sentimentality, but I’m unprepared to say whether this is the fault of the actor or the writers; it is probably a combination of both. Rains’ scenes are the funniest, though I doubt they’re intended to be; Aherne’s are the most touching — especially those with his Mexican cohorts who stand by him when the French withdraw their support. His romantic scenes with Davis aren’t entirely satisfactory, partly because she doesn’t bother to work with him and partly because I find it hard to take the tune that underscores their love scenes, “La Paloma,” seriously as a harbinger of tragedy. The orchestration is beautifully reminiscent of Puccini; the unidentified singer is a mezzo with a fast, tight vibrato (very much of the old school); she sings it ardently and with perfect simplicity, but the tune is — I don’t know — too familiar, too on-the-nose; it has underscored too many corny scenes of gay caballeros and their dreamy, hot-blooded señoritas Down Mexico Way.

The supporting cast includes a lot of famous actors, who give solid support. John Garfield plugs away at his role, but is miscast and affects an unfortunate accent that comes and goes without warning. It doesn’t help that we are treated to the sight of him in prison eating a raw ear of corn like an animal . . .

Oh, for corn sake, Porfirio! John Garfield as General Dìaz.

Oh, for corn sake, Porfirio! John Garfield, being all insolent and bestial as General Díaz.

Here’s an exchange between Garfield (as General Porfirio Díaz) and Aherne: the Emperor Maximilian visits the captured Díaz in prison to seek his help in restoring peace and order to the country. Garfield slices the baloney as thin as his talent will permit, but he’s quite hopeless. I don’t buy a word of it. His little stabs at a Mexican accent — on “Benito Juarez” and “constitution,” for example — make the whole thing seem idiotic, yet for all its silliness, I still find it mildly rousing: I know what it’s supposed to do, and am able to indulge Garfield’s incompetence. (I’d much prefer to see Gilbert Roland as Díaz, though he was perhaps far too aristocratic for the role.) Much of the picture is in approximately the same vein: constantly aiming high and missing the mark. But I like the ambitiousness of it. And in some scenes, it actually works just as it’s supposed to do.

Díaz: How can I help you?
Maximilian von Habsburg: By bringing peace to Mexico.
Díaz: Only one man can bring peace to Mexico: Benito Juarez.
Max von H: What is he, Benito Juarez, that he inspires men such as yourself, General Díaz? Tell me.
Díaz: What is he? He’s an ugly little man in a black frockcoat. He is Benito Juarez. He was born in misery, to live on a few grains of corn a day. He labored for an education; he used it to help his own people, and they elected him as a representative. He was imprisoned and exiled by a dictator, but he helped to destroy the dictator and free Mexico. He wrote the constitución. He became President of Mexico. He ruled it justly and well. Till traitors and landowners and speculators brought the French to depose him and put you in his place! YOU! Maximiliano von Habsburg!

I particularly like Gilbert Roland as Colonel Miguel López; Roland was one of the few Mexicans in the large cast. He looks great in military uniform and has authority and real finesse in a fairly underwritten part. He’s a perfect foil for Brian Aherne and Bette Davis, and a handsome devil.

Hola, guapo! Gilbert Roland as Col. Lôpez.

Hola, guapo! Gilbert Roland as Col. López.

Davis always had a soft spot for Roland: when she was first making her way in Hollywood, over at Universal in 1931, she was hired to be a “test girl,” which position sometimes required her to lie on a divan and be kissed by dozens of hopeful young actors. Kissing onscreen is a complicated business; not everyone can do it right so that it looks smooth and romantic. The first day on the job, she said she almost died of embarrassment — but the one young actor who was a marvellous kisser was Gilbert Roland. He got the part. Eight years later, they worked together in “Juarez”; they have only a few brief exchanges, but she has better chemistry with him than with Aherne.

Joseph Calleia, as the villainous vice president, Alejandro Uradi, who has designs on Juarez’s presidency, is almost as hilarious as Claude Rains, and like Rains, he steals every scene he’s in.

Notable Claude Rains Pictures (Part II)

Notorious

Claude Rains in 'Notorious':  The Nazi mama's boy.

Claude Rains in ‘Notorious’: The Nazi mama’s boy.

Alex Sebastian in “Notorious” (RKO, 1946) is one of Claude Rains’ best parts.  As Sebastian, Rains’ performance is so indelible that once you’ve seen it, it’s hard to imagine another actor in the role.  After “Notorious,” whenever a picture called for a silky, suave villain, producers would tell the casting agent:  “get me a Claude Rains type.”  Rains was not, however, Hitchcock’s first choice.  Hitch wanted that poor man’s George Sanders, Clifton Webb.  To be sure, Webb would have been entirely convincing as a mama’s boy (which he was). He was, moreover, such an unsympathetic screen presence, one would be glad to believe he was also a Nazi.  But as a heterosexual in the grip of an obsessive sexual passion for Ingrid Bergman . . . not bloody likely.  One can easily imagine his putting clothes on Ingrid Bergman, but not his tearing them off.  Hitchcock had to be convinced to let Rains play the role.  When he talked to Rains about the part, Hitch asked him, “What about this business of a being a midget?”

“What do you mean, a midget?”

“Your wife, Ingrid Bergman, is very tall.  There are occasions when we can build a ramp, but have you ever worn elevated shoes?”  It was a blow to Rains’ pride, but he bought the lifts and often used them throughout the rest of his career.

When critics refer to Sebastian as a Nazi mama’s boy, there’s always the sense that they find his being a mama’s boy somehow more objectionable than his being a Nazi.  The other famous Hitchcock mama’s boy is also a villain:  Norman Bates.  In that one, Bates’ villainy only comes out when he actually IS his mama.  I’m not sure what to make of this, other than Hitch was a strange fellow.

Bergman isn’t good in the first reel, when we’re supposed to believe she’s a hard-drinking tramp, but after the first dozen or so minutes, I’d say it’s the best performance of her career.  Cary Grant, for once, doesn’t twinkle and make coy faces, but he goes too far in the other direction:  he’s so brutal and unyielding, it’s hard to understand why Bergman puts up with him.  He is very good looking and beautifully dressed, but what a swine . . .  I keep thinking she’d be better off with Rains, if only he weren’t trying to kill her.

Rains, Grant, Bergman:  'We both invited you, Mr Devlin.'

Rains, Grant, Bergman: ‘We both invited you, Mr Devlin.’

The most famous scene in the picture is the big party and the furtive investigation of the wine cellar — it’s Hitchcock at his absolute best.  But my favorite scene happens the morning after, when Sebastian in robe and slippers goes into his mother’s (Madame Konstantin) bedroom and tells her that he is in big trouble.  “I am married to an American agent,” a memorable line reading that belongs (but isn’t) on the AFI’s 100 Movie Quotes list.  Mme. Konstantin responds by lighting a cigarette while she absorbs the news in silence.  It doesn’t take more than five seconds, but it’s a Master Class in great acting.  She conveys more about her character in those few seconds of silence than most actresses could convey in a hundred lines of dialogue.

Rains, Mme. Konstantin:  'I am married to an American agent.'

Rains, Mme. Konstantin: ‘I am married to an American agent.’

But it is Rains’ performance that makes the deepest impression.  As usual, he dominates every scene he’s in.  He makes the Nazi mama’s boy a more sympathetic character than Cary Grant’s hero.  It was his fourth and last Academy Award nomination.  He didn’t win this time, either.  For this was the year that Clifton Webb was supposed to win for “The Razor’s Edge,” only to lose out (along with Rains) to Harold Russell in “The Best Years of our Lives.”

Now, Voyager

Davis to Rains:  'I should think you're the least clumsy man I ever met, doctor . . .'

Oh, Doctor!  Rains: ‘I have a great admiration for people who are clever with their hands.  I was always so clumsy with my own.’  Davis:  ‘I should think you’re the least clumsy person I ever met . . .’

About “Now, Voyager.” Its failings are many, but I continue to love it, probably because I’ve always gotten deep satisfaction from transformation stories. The first and final scenes are wonderful, but in the middle there is much to dislike.

Here’s an important early scene, in which Rains, as Dr Jacquith, America’s foremost alienist, does what he does better than anyone else.  The material is entirely second-rate, composed almost entirely of platitudes, but he makes it sound like the last word in compassionate sagacity.  His closing line, “I suggest a few weeks at Cascade . . . ” lets you know that poor, crazy Aunt Charlotte will emerge from Dr Jaquith’s sanitarium as a butterfly from a chrysalis.

“Now, Voyager” works just about perfectly for the first forty-five minutes or so, until Charlotte Vale (Bette Davis) and Jerry Durrance (Paul Henreid) take that taxicab in Rio, driven by that stereotypical (but completely inaccurate) greaseball, Giuseppe. (He’s supposed to be Brazilian, but he’s named Giuseppe and his cartoon gibberish sounds nothing like Portuguese.) The taxicab scene tiresome and offensive and goes on forever. Happily, it is followed by several wonderful episodes, beginning with their romantic parting in Rio, which is beautifully written and acted. The scenes immediately following Charlotte’s homecoming are the best in the picture: Gladys Cooper fully expects her neurotic child to return to enslavement without a murmur of protest; she is seriously displeased when the wretched girl mildly refuses to do as she’s told. Cooper rebukes her for refusing to perform a daughter’s duty, but Charlotte dryly observes, “Dr Jacquith says tyranny is often expressed as the maternal instinct.” Cooper’s surprise and outrage are wonderful to behold. Every new encounter becomes a skirmish in which the old woman pursues a new strategy, but the girl treats chastisement and obloquy as if they were birthday greetings, and Cooper must quickly beat a retreat while she gives the matter more thought. Finally, she threatens to cut off Charlotte’s allowance completely and to disinherit her: but the ungrateful girl blandly tells her “I’ve often thought of working for a living. I’d make an excellent headwaitress.” Over the course of these episodes, the old tyrant slowly comes to realize that this stubborn female person is no longer her neurotic daughter/servant Charlotte: this person is Bette Davis — obedience isn’t what she does. I love every scene with Gladys Cooper, but when the old cat finally drops dead and the guilt-ridden Charlotte runs back to Cascade, the picture hits another patch of tedium while Charlotte finds herself looking after young Miss Tina Durrance, the most insufferable little neurotic in the history of motion pictures. Let me point out at once that the little actress is actually quite terrific: it is the character who is so revolting. At least, until Charlotte takes charge of her.

I’ve always wondered about the theory of treatment at Cascade(s): I mean, who in his right mind would believe it a good idea to force a nervous wreck like Tina to compete at ping pong with children who are far more skillful than she, especially if they are equally neurotic? That strikes me as a sure way to push her over the edge. But then Charlotte steps in. Something marvellous happens when the ugly little duckling comes under Charlotte’s care. Earlier in the picture, Charlotte herself had gone from ugly duckling to swan. Now she transforms her by-proxy daughter from ugly duckling to . . . ugly duckling with cleaner fingernails and an expensive party dress.  For a long time, that threw me.  Whenever I saw homely, awkward little Tina descending the stairs in her ribbons and ruffles, I thought of those lines from “Don’t Put Your Daughter on the Stage, Mrs Worthington”:

She’s a vile girl and uglier than mortal sin,
One look at her has put me in
A tearing bloody rage.

But then I noticed how beautifully the child actress, Janis Wilson, handled the scene. All dressed up, she’s still not pretty and she knows it. She’s awkward and self-conscious and pathetic. But she’s doing her best to look poised, confident and pretty, because she wants to please Charlotte and her father. It’s an amazing little performance.

Moments before this, Claude Rains has asked the immortal question, “Roasting wienies?!” Quite irresistible!

It was wise to cast Claude Rains as Dr Jaquith, because Dr J, as written, may be the worst alienist who ever drew breath.  Rains soft pedals the terrible advice and lays on the creamy charm with a large trowel.  “You’ll never get a new pair of eyes if you spoil them with tears,” is some of the first quackery we hear from him and there’s plenty more to follow.  I mention this because Olive Higgins Prouty, the author of the novel, had a long acquaintance with psychiatrists.  When she was twelve, she suffered a breakdown that lasted nearly two years.  Later on, when she was a successful novelist, she became a philanthropist and gave an endowment to Smith College, where she first met Sylvia Plath.  After Plath’s failed suicide attempt, Prouty supported her financially.  To show her gratitude, Plath caricatured her in “The Bell Jar.”

Cooper:  'Charlotte, I thought I told you to wear the black & white foulard.'

Cooper: ‘Charlotte, I thought I told you to wear the black and white foulard.’

Keep a look out for what Gladys Cooper does with her hands. She uses them to great effect in a few important scenes.  I’ve always admired her technical skill, especially since she wasn’t, alas, a great actress. I love the way the camera focuses on Cooper’s fingers drumming on the bedpost while she listens to Charlotte’s disobedience. That may be the best thing she ever did in pictures. She was une grande dame par excellence and a thorough professional, but she wasn’t imaginative or talented enough to be great. Her voice wasn’t terribly interesting or expressive, though I am CRAZY in love with her old-fashioned pronunciation. She provides a window into Edwardian pronunciation: for instance, she’s the only person I’ve ever heard pronounce “secretiveness” as seCREETiveness. In another picture, she’s the only one to pronounce the last name “Cartwright” as KHAR-tritt. Both pronunciations are clearly (at least to me) not her own invention, but fossils from Edwardian, perhaps even Victorian RP (i.e., “received pronunciation” — you may already know that acronym, but it was new to me as of about a year ago). Gladys Cooper didn’t have the imagination to come up with eccentric pronunciations. Such eccentricities as she possessed were not eccentricities at her career’s beginning, when she was universally considered to be the most beautiful woman in England (circa 1905 – 1925). The British postcard industry was invented almost entirely so that her face could be printed and mailed about the country and all over the world. She was a good, sensible actress, but hardly a great one. Bette Davis loved her, really adored and admired her. When Davis made her memorable appearance on the Dick Cavett Show in 1971, it was the day after Cooper died. Davis paid a brilliant, moving tribute to Gladys Cooper . . . so moving, in fact, that I hunted down Sheridan Morley’s biography of Cooper, which I read, and also had a look at as many of her movie performances as I could find. She never, ever gave a bad performance, but she rarely did anything terribly imaginative. She simply wasn’t that clever. That’s why her hands in “Now, Voyager” mean something to me. She communicates anxiety and frustration with them in a way that neither her voice nor her face were capable of. I like to think that Cooper rose to the occasion of working with a great actress like Bette Davis and a great actor like Claude Rains (whom she knew from her theatre days in London — by the way, she was the first living actress in England to have a theatre named after her). But I’m afraid this is sentimental fantasy on my part. She had no use for ugly actors and certainly recognized and deplored incompetent actors. But I doubt she recognized Davis’ and Rains’ greatness — certainly not fully. Davis’ adoration was almost certainly one-sided: Cooper doubtless thought Davis’ admiration was simply an indication of common sense.

John Gielgud told a funny story about the time he attempted to direct the aging Mrs Patrick Campbell (Shaw’s first Eliza Doolittle) in a West End play in the early 30s. Mrs Pat abruptly quit the show shortly before opening night, because she wanted to spend more time with her dogs. But before she did this, she raised hell at every rehearsal, one way or another. Though the play was perfectly straight-forward, Mrs Pat was (or pretended to be) in a constant state of irritable bewilderment. She interrupted one run-through by demanding, “Who are these people? Where do they come from? Does Gladys Cooper know them?” Cooper was not a great actress, but she most definitely had been a very great star for a very long time. Adoration was what she expected. In Hollywood, it was not always what she got.

Irving Rapper, the director, was a Warners’ workhorse — not particularly distinguished, but competent. He did a lot of apprentice work as dialogue director on pictures like “The Adventures of Robin Hood,” “Dark Victory,” “Juarez” and “All This, and Heaven Too.” The look, I’d suggest, is more the work of the Director of Photography, Sol Polito, who did a lot of excellent work in his career, including “The Adventures of Robin Hood,” “Old Acquaintance” and several other Davis and Flynn pictures. Still, Rapper must have had a lot to say about it, especially since “Deception,” photographed by another great DP (Ernest Haller — one of Davis’ favorites: e.g., “Jezebel,” “Dark Victory,” “All This, and Heaven Too”), is notable for how great it looks. But part of the great look was the Warners’ style, which I find irresistible, even in many of their cruddier pictures. I can almost always tell a Warners picture within a few minutes.

Davis:  'Oh, Jerry, don't let's ask for the moon . . . we have the stars.'

Davis: ‘Oh, Jerry, don’t let’s ask for the moon . . . we have the stars.’

For my money, “Now, Voyager” is one of Max Steiner’s best scores, specifically because it adds romance without being intrusive. “Oh, Jerry, don’t let’s ask for the moon: we have the stars.” is a beauty of a last line, and it is greatly helped by the underscoring. Steiner adds musicality to Davis’ voice that wasn’t there without music. His other great score is the one he wrote for “Casablanca,” which I consider to be the absolute model of great scoring. There’s one important musical cue in that picture — the underscoring for the Paris montage sequence — variations on “As Time Goes By” — that I swear is responsible for making audiences (including me) accept the picture as a great, gorgeous romance rather than a story of an attractive, somewhat bovine young woman and a middle-aged man in a partial toupee, with cigarettes and bourbon staining his false teeth and befouling his breath. There are a hundred things right with “Casablanca”; it’s one of my favorite pictures (though I don’t consider it a great one), and up at the top of the list is Steiner’s score, which is very nearly invisible to the ear, but creates atmosphere every bit as effectively and persuasively as the fog and rain in the last scene and the rotating blades of the ceiling fans in Rick’s Café Americain.

The Passionate Friends

Ann Todd, Trevor Howard, Claude Rains:  The old triangle stuff.

Ann Todd, Trevor Howard, Claude Rains: The old triangle stuff.

By her own admission, Ann Todd was not much of an actress.  Unfortunately, this did not prevent her from playing the prima donna and, as far as Claude Rains was concerned, wasting everybody’s time on the set.  Moreover, during the filming of “The Passionate Friends” — a literate, nicely acted romantic triangle picture from 1948 (released in ’49) — director David Lean began carrying on an affair with her, while he was still married to actress Kay Walsh, and it appears that Todd took wicked advantage of her hold over her director/lover.  Lean confessed to Rains, “Claude, I’m going to get into awful trouble.”  And he did.  Rains admired Lean enormously as a director (the feeling was mutual), but thought Lean was mad to have taken up with Todd — a man-eating “machine,” as he called her.  After shooting wrapped, Lean married her in May of 1949. They divorced in 1957.  Rains was appalled.  “By God, she took every cent from him.  I don’t think anyone could live happily with that woman.  She took every damn thing away from him.  He ended up with nothing but an old car.”

Todd was often referred to as “the pocket Garbo.”  That seems about right:  I’d add that she could just as reasonably be called “the pinched Garbo”:  except for the rare occasions when she smiled, she always looked as if her shoes were too tight.  She had a lovely speaking voice and beautiful diction (she studied elocution at the Central School for Speech and Drama in London) — all very good, as far as it goes.  But it doesn’t go far enough.

Rains was too much of a professional to let his personal dislike interfere with his performance.  I rather think his irritation with the actress adds sauce to their onscreen relationship.  The picture has been almost entirely forgotten, yet it’s among his best performances (which, admittedly puts it among a large number) and unquestionably the best she ever gave.  On the surface, his character, Howard Justin, is a standard issue Rains part:  powerful, unflappable man of the world brought low by a straying woman.  But I doubt if Rains ever gave a more intensely emotional performance than he gives in this one.  For much of the picture, Howard Justin could be a stand-in for Alexander Sebastian (“Notorious”), Alexander Hollenius (“Deception”) or Victor Grandison (“The Unsuspected”), but near the end of the picture, things change — and Rains cuts loose in an emotional torrent that always overwhelms me, no matter how often I see the last reel.

Rains on the verge of a melt-down.

Rains on the verge of a melt-down.

“The Passionate Friends” is based on H.G. Wells’ novel of the same name.  The screenplay is by a fine espionage novelist, Eric Ambler:  the Thinking Man’s Ian Fleming.  Like Fleming, Ambler often featured a number of recurring characters in his novels, but none of them ever caught on like James Bond — more’s the pity:  Ambler was much the better writer.  His screenplay for “The Passionate Friends” is wonderfully literate.  In an early flashback scene (surprisingly, “The Passionate Friends” has more flashbacks than most film noirs, a genre that practically subsisted on the device), Steven Stratton (Trevor Howard) and his girlfriend Mary (Ann Todd), lie in a meadow and recite from Keats’ “Endymion”:

All its more ponderous and bulky worth
Is friendship, whence there ever issues forth
A steady splendour; but at the tip-top,
There hangs by unseen film, an orbed drop
Of light, and that is love:

Todd & Howard:  'Endymion,' anyone?

Todd and Howard: ‘Endymion,’ anyone?

Mary does not marry Stratton, whom she loves.  She marries Justin, whom she does not love — and to make life easier on everybody, she decides never to see Stratton again.  But this is a love triangle, so their paths needs must cross.  They run into each other at the New Year’s Eve party, 1939 — she with her husband, he with his current girlfriend.

This meeting leads to a more serious rift and again Mary vows to avoid Stratton.  Nine years pass before their paths cross again.  In a voice-over, she says:  “I suppose that if Fate had been kind and gentle, we would never have met again.  But Fate is not kind and gentle:  it sent us together to a sunlit lake and snow-capped mountains and a holiday in Switzerland.”  It’s a fine bit of writing, that; with her beautiful diction, Todd makes it exquisite — perhaps the one time in her career that Todd actually elevated good material.

In another scene, Mary reads this passage from a book she pulls from a shelf in Stratton’s flat:

In the beginning God gave to every people a cup of clay, and from this cup they drank their life.

It’s from a creation myth of the Digger Indians in California; I find it very beautiful, even though I don’t believe a word of it.  This is approximately how I feel about the central conflict of this love triangle story.  Mary refuses to marry Stratton because she says she doesn’t want to “belong” to anyone, and he responds, “Then your life will be a failure.”  We’re supposed to agree with him, but I wouldn’t marry anyone who said anything so caddish.  On the other hand, she goes off and marries Howard Justin, a man she doesn’t love, because he’s rich and offers her security and a kind of life she couldn’t otherwise afford.  It seems to me that, since Howard did not win her hand, but purchased it, she belongs to him, and without the compensation of true love.  That neither she nor Stratton sees it that way strikes me as a bit thick, especially since they’re given to spouting such lovely poetry at each other.  But let that go:  I think it may be accepted as a romance version of Hitchcock’s McGuffin — an unimportant, but necessary device to set the machinery in motion.  Once the engine is running, the rest of the picture clicks along efficiently and by the end, the emotional impact is very impressive indeed.

“The Passionate Friends” is one of David Lean’s later black and white pictures; after “Hobson’s Choice” in 1954, he made big Technicolor pictures.  His pictures always look good, but I prefer his smaller, more intimate black and white features; the cinematography (by Guy Green) in this one is great:  enough to make it well worth seeing.  The screenplay and the acting make it a minor classic.  So why was it not a hit in the United States?  I’ve often wondered.  Perhaps the name change had something to do with it.  In America, it was retitled “One Woman’s Story.”  Perhaps even more likely, it was the marketing.  Have a look at the ludicrous poster for the original release.

Does this like a picture you would want to see?

Does this like a picture you would want to see?

When Rains was asked if he could explain the reason for the name change, he replied, “Apparently, Americans don’t understand passion.”