Tag Archives: Miles Mander

‘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.

Claude Rains in ‘Phantom of the Opera’

Original Poster. 'The picture that has everything!' Caveat emptor.

Original Poster. ‘The picture that has everything!’ Caveat emptor.

Nelson Eddy hoped that his leading role in “Phantom of the Opera” (Universal, 1943) would revive his career. It didn’t, and no wonder. The wonder is that it didn’t sink him for good. It’s easy to be scornful of Eddy, but I’ve always thought he played the light comedy scenes with Jeanette MacDonald in the mid-30s operettas about as well as that drivel could be played. He had the courage not to look unduly embarrassed by the nonsense he had to say and do; at his best, he looked as if he enjoyed the work. He looks strained all through “Phantom of the Opera,” yet he was proud of his work in it and considered it his best picture. As Gian Carlo Menotti once hissed under his breath, after answering a lot of foolish questions from a soprano during a rehearsal at the Spoleto Festival: “Sssingers!

At the time, “Phantom of the Opera,” which cost approximately one million dollars to produce, was by far the most expensive picture Universal had ever made. What a shame it’s so terrible. They spent a fortune on costumes and sets, many of which look expensive, most of which are hideous. It’s big-budget vulgarity run amok. (The director, Arthur Lubin, went on to create “Mister Ed.”) With all the garish golds, sea foam greens, powder blues, pinks, lavenders and pale violets, it looks less like the Paris Opera than an Easter egg hunt.

And with all the money Universal lavished on the production, I expect the studio bosses were loath to let well enough alone and allow the story to fit within the confines of the horror genre, so they added flaccid “comic” flourishes and strengthened — well, lengthened — the romance elements (which were more evident in the novel than in the Lon Chaney silent picture). In this version, Christine (Susanna Foster) is wooed not only by Raoul (Edgar Barrier), who is now a police detective (rather than an aristocrat), but also by the opera company’s leading baritone, the barrel-chested Nelson Eddy, who is twice Foster’s age and looks older. The two swains spar tiresomely — a running gag has them unable to pass through a doorway without bumping into each other — and our heroine eggs them on while primly denying them so much as a peck on the cheek. It’s extremely exasperating.

A triangle of squares: Susanna Foster, Nelson Eddy, Edgar Barrier. Eddy himself molded the little bust.

A triangle of squares: Susanna Foster, Nelson Eddy, Edgar Barrier. Eddy himself molded the little bust. It’s a lot like the picture: ugly without being entirely incompetent. (But check out the length of that neck . . . !)

Comedy tonight. 'After you, monsieur.' 'No, after you.' 'No, after you.' 'After you.' 'After you.' et cetera . . . I thought they'd never leave.

‘Comedy’ tonight. ‘After you, monsieur.’ ‘No, after you.’ ‘No, after you.’ ‘After you.’ ‘After you.’ et cetera . . .
I thought they’d never leave.

There is also an extended back-story to explain how the Phantom came to haunt the Palais Garnier. The script went through many drafts; the final result is a mess.

Claude Rains as Enrique Claudin: Painted like a whore.

Claude Rains as Enrique Claudin: Painted like a whore.

Considerable time and effort is expended on making Erique Claudin (Claude Rains) a sympathetic figure: in this version, he’s an aging violinist in the Paris Opera orchestra pit, who finds himself summarily discharged after twenty years’ faithful service because a recent injury to his left hand has made him unable to play in tune (!). (Oddly, this same injury will not prevent him, later in the picture, from clambering up ropes like a monkey.) We learn also that Claudin is behind in his rent and has not salted away so much as one sou — he has spent all his earnings paying for Christine’s voice lessons (anonymously, of course: the girl barely knows he’s alive). For several preliminary drafts, Claudin was revealed to be Christine’s long-lost father, but this invention was eventually scrapped and nothing was put in its place to explain his devotion to the young member of the opera chorus. We must presume, then, that he is either a randy old goat or that he believes the girl has a remarkable voice. Unhappily, the dialogue doesn’t support the former, nor Susanna Foster’s singing the latter.

Rains took violin lessons to prepare for his role.

Rains took violin lessons to prepare for his role.

And yet there’s hope for the wretched Claudin: he has composed a brilliant concerto (the solo instrument is not identified), which score he delivers to the great publishing house of Pleyel & Desjardins, certain that the publisher will rush it into print and save him from ruin. When he makes a follow-up visit, Pleyel (Miles Mander) is busy showing his mistress (Renee Carson) his etchings — both literally and figuratively. “Now, my dear, the acid,” says Pleyel to his mistress, Georgette, “Be careful or you’ll burn yourself horribly!” They look into each others’ eyes; saucily, he kisses her cheek. “M. Pleyel,” says Claudin . . .

Renee Carson, Miles Mander, Rains: Secret dalliance beside the pan of acid -- an accident waiting to happen.

Renee Carson, Miles Mander, Rains: Secret dalliance beside the pan of acid — an accident waiting to happen.

Annoyed at having his diddling cut short by a meddlesome fiddler, Pleyel denies any knowledge of the manuscript, heaps abuse on him (“I’ve seen samples of your work before: perhaps some employee has thrown it into the waste-basket, where it belongs”) and orders him from his shop. Claudin begins to leave, but stops short when he hears his music being played in the other room — an admirer is showing Claudin’s score to Franz Liszt (Fritz Leiber, in a George Washington wig). But Claudin mistakenly believes that Pleyel has stolen his composition. At this, his mind cracks. In a blind rage, he strangles the rascal publisher. The terrified mistress seizes that pan of lime green etching acid and throws it full into Claudin’s face . . . and, handy-dandy, the Phantom is born.

Prelude to murder. Rains as Claudin: 'Thief! You've stolen my music!'

Prelude to a murder. Rains as Claudin: ‘Thief! You’ve stolen my music!’

Renee Carson, Miles Mander, Rains: 'You've stolen my music!'

Renee Carson, Miles Mander, Rains: ‘You’ve stolen my music!’

Carson, Rains: Prelude to the acid bath.

Carson, Rains: Prelude to an acid bath.

Splish, splash! The acid burns the face, but not the hands or the bombazine.

Splish, splash! Miracle acid that burns the face, but not the hands or the bombazine.

The Palais Garnier now must deal with a pot-bellied, aging violinist with an injured hand, an acid ravaged face, a silvery mask, a broad-brimmed hat, a flowing cloak, an ax to grind and an iron determination to hear Susanna Foster rend the air and set Paris agog with her middling voice . . . or else! Shortly after sustaining his injuries, Claudin swipes a ring of skeleton keys from the general manager’s office, and then proceeds to terrorize the opera company and its patrons for the rest of the picture. These skeleton keys give him magical access to every cranny, cubby-hole, cavern and subterranean lake in the place. In few, it’s a damned silly affair . . . and, alas, it’s not much fun. It sounds fun, but it isn’t.

Rains as the Phantom

Rains as the Phantom.

Claude Rains brings his formidable skill to his role and lifts the trashy material — but only slightly. It makes me heartsick to see him work so hard on such contemptible stuff. The writing is appalling. And how can anyone take him seriously when he is painted like the Whore of Babylon? The makeup was designed by the legendary makeup artist, Jack P. Pierce. God only knows why he painted the men to look like transvestites . . . Indeed, when at last Rains is unmasked, the prosthetic scars are scarcely more horrifying than the rouge, mascara and powder he wears early in the picture. Lucille Ball rarely wore so much lipstick.

Rains and that damned chandelier. Lowering the lights.

Rains and that damned chandelier. Lowering the lights — and the boom.

It was madness to attempt to film this story while the Second World War was still going on: the producers could not secure the rights to any of the operas associated with the famous book (e.g., “Faust”). The only genuine operatic score used in the picture was von Flotow’s “Marta” (about which, the less said the better); for the rest, themes from Tchaikovsky’s Fourth Symphony and from Chopin’s Polonaise in A major and his Waltz in C# minor were adapted and lyrics (in Russian and French) were added. The results are gruesome kitsch. In its first run, newspaper reviewers harshly criticized the picture for being “more musical than horrific.” I’d say they got this exactly backwards. The ersatz operatic numbers are excruciating without being funny. In small doses, however, the musical interludes may provide a few chuckles . . . but only a few. I recommend a few highballs prior to viewing.

Finally, there is the unmasking. Jack Pierce put so much makeup on everyone throughout the picture, one may be forgiven for being disappointed by what he came up with for the climactic revelation of the Phantom’s acid-scarred face. He’s not entirely to blame. Rains was adamant about the makeup: he felt if he were given the full treatment, he would never again be allowed to play a leading man role. As it was, he only allowed one closeup. Arthur Lubin had a few hidden cameras placed at different angles to photograph him surreptitiously, but these shots are badly lighted and somewhat out of focus.

That's right -- give away the ending. Rains unmasked by Foster. His skin is smoother than Noriega's . . .

That’s right — give away the ending. Rains unmasked by Foster. Much ado about very little . . .