Tag Archives: Mrs Patrick Campbell

Frightfulness: Funny Halloween Fare

Bride of Frankenstein

Original poster.

Vintage poster. The original title was minus the article. I don’t know when it got added. E.E. Clive is erroneously listed as C.C. Clive.

Among its many distinctions, James Whale’s “Bride of Frankenstein” (Universal, 1935) is one of the few examples in movie history of a sequel that is much better than the original picture. I think it’s going too far to say that it’s a great picture, but it’s entertaining, commendably short and very very funny. Since the story treats of mad scientists, monsters and grave robbers, it’s unquestionably a horror picture, but it is primarily a comedy. For my money, Ernest Thesiger steals the whole show. I can’t even type his name without giggling at the memory of him.

Ernest the Great, Queen of the Night

Every word that comes out of his mouth is droll; every cartoon face he pulls is hilarious. I don’t know if there’s another actor who makes me laugh as much as Ernest Thesiger does. Thesiger is so outrageously queeny, he makes Quentin Crisp seem like Charles Bronson by comparison. As I’ve often mentioned in the past, I’m usually put off by camp. But Thesiger’s camping is a brand that I love. His range is rather narrow, but it’s deep and rich: he specializes in desiccated aristocratic crackpot degenerates, mincing reprobates, malevolent tipplers, and ancient imps; these rascally old gentlemen, whether they’re burying the dead (as in “Scrooge” (1950)) or digging them up (as in “Bride of Frankenstein”), are always hugely entertaining. Thesiger makes me laugh just by the way he pronounces the word “gin.”

Oh, he was a mad old thing . . . Born on January 15, 1879, Ernest Frederic Graham Thesiger, CBE, was the grandson of the Baron Chelmsford, and the nephew of General Frederic Augustus Thesiger, 2nd Baron Chelmsford, who, one week after Ernest’s birth, led his troops into a disastrous fight against a Zulu army at the Battle of Isandlwana, a crushing victory for the Zulus — and the British army’s all-time worst defeat at the hands of a technologically inferior indigenous force. When the Great War began in 1914, Thesiger enlisted, with the fond hope of being assigned to a Scottish regiment, because he wanted to wear a kilt. He was wounded in battle almost at once and sent home. Shortly after he recovered from his wounds, a dinner party guest asked him for an account of his time in France. He replied, “Oh, my dear, the noise! And the people!” Three years later (1917), in an improbable move, he married Janette Mary Fernie Ranken — the sister of his close friend, William Bruce Ellis Ranken. Apparently, Thesiger and Janette wed largely out of their mutual adoration of her extraordinarily handsome brother. Upon hearing the news, brother William expressed his opprobrium by shaving off all his beautiful chestnut hair.

Charcoal sketch of Ernest Thesiger by John Singer Sargent.

Charcoal sketch of Ernest Thesiger by John Singer Sargent.

Thesiger originally intended to be a painter; he haunted the studio of John Singer Sargent, who was his close friend. While still a young man, Thesiger switched from painting to acting and befriended Mrs Patrick Campbell and George Bernard Shaw, with whom he worked closely. He made his movie debut in 1916, in a spoof of “Macbeth” as it might look if presented by an American company: Thesiger played one of the Weird Sisters . . . in drag. Throughout his long life (he died in 1961, on the eve of his eighty-second birthday), Thesiger moved in several literary, theatrical and artistic circles. Shaw wrote the role of the Dauphin in “Saint Joan” for him. Maugham was also a good friend, and once wrote to him, “. . . I am always writing parts for you, Ernest. The trouble is that somebody called Gladys Cooper will insist on playing them.” In 1925, he appeared in Noël Coward’s “On With the Dance” . . . again in drag. A year or two after he appeared in “Bride of Frankenstein,” he published a book entitled “Adventures in Embroidery” about needlework, which was his hobby. It appears that the book was not a bestseller. Nor, I think, was his early memoir, “Practically True.”

Here are three of Thesiger’s most amusing moments in “Bride of Frankenstein.” (Franz Waxman’s spooky score is also hilarious.)

‘Do you like gin? It is my only weakness.’

‘Have a cigar; they are my only weakness.’

‘Oh, he’s quite harmless — Except when crossed!’

The Old Dark House

Original poster.

Original poster. J.B. Priestley’s and Melvyn Douglas’ names are misspelled.

James Whale’s “The Old Dark House” (Universal, 1932) also features a funny performance by Ernest Thesiger. This time, he plays the cadaverous lord of the manor, Horace Femm(!), who looks to me to be the model for the acerbic food critic, Anton Ego, in “Ratatouille.” His sepulchral attire and the black rings round his eyes also remind me of the butler in Chas Addams’ cartoons.
Addams Larger
Following the success of “The Invisible Man,” Universal’s front office was anxious for Claude Rains to play Horace Femm in “The Old Dark House,” but James Whale insisted on his old friend, Ernest Thesiger. It would have been interesting to see Rains in the role, but it’s hard to believe anyone could bring more eccentric lunacy to the part than dear old Ernest. Rains was a great actor, but not a natural eccentric: in this case, therefore, I think Whale was right to insist on Thesiger.

Late Night Supper with the Femms


I find Horace Femm’s sardonic observations about piety extremely appealing. And funny, of course. A year later, when the Production Code was enforced, this scene would never have made it past the censors. Why is “Have a potato” so funny? I have no idea, but I laugh out loud every time I hear him say it.

Drinks with Ernest


I love Melvyn Douglas’ line: “Correct, Mr Femm: War generation, slightly soiled — a study in the bittersweet — the man with the twisted smile.” The scintillating script is by Benn W. Levy.

Bedtime with Miss Femm

As this next clip will demonstrate, Miss Rebecca Femm (Eva Moore) is not the most welcoming hostess in the British Isles. In fact, she reminds me of a witty remark made by Dame Edith Evans. When asked why she had never played Lady Macbeth, Dame Edith replied, “I could never impersonate a woman who had such a peculiar notion of hospitality.” Eva Moore was the mother of Laurence Olivier’s first wife, Jill Esmond.

“You r-r-r-revel in the joys of fleshly love, don’t you!” God, I think that’s hilarious. In “The Old Dark House,” piety is presented as a symptom of madness; in the case of Rebecca Femm, it appears to be no other thing but the desperate means by which a lubricious old lesbian hopes to repress the carnal desires that torment her and keep her awake a-nights. She claims to despise soft, white skin and long, straight legs, but she can’t keep her crooked fingers to herself.

The Body Snatcher

Vintage Poster.

Vintage Poster.

The best thing to be said for “The Body Snatcher” (RKO, 1945) is that it gives Boris Karloff a chance to show what a fine and subtle actor he was. Karloff is always good, even in the worst pictures, but I’ve never seen him give a better performance than he does in this one. He’s cabman John Gray, whose sideline is providing cadavers to Dr Wolfe “Toddy” MacFarlane’s (Henry Daniell) medical college.

The picture has a wonderfully creepy atmosphere and some intermittently excellent dialogue, but it is hobbled by almost uniformly terrible acting. Daniell is as swishy and creepy as ever, but he’s better than usual, except for the stupendously terrible love scenes with his unexpected wife. It’s a dreadful thing to see Henry Daniell pitch woo to a fetching lassie — far more alarming than to see him saw up a cadaver. And less credible, too. Dr MacFarlane’s wife (Edith Atwater) tells him she is “fey” (which, in Scottish superstition, means she has the gift of prophecy) and he agrees. In the circumstance, the term is infelicitous.

Edith Atwater, Henry Daniell: 'Your a fey creature, Meg, with mad ideas . . ." Look who's talking.

Edith Atwater, Henry Daniell: ‘You’re a fey creature, Meg, with mad ideas . . .’ Right back at ya, Queenie!

New Cadaver

The young medical student, Donald Fettes, is played by the resolutely American Russell Wade. He left show business in the late forties to pursue a career in Palm Springs real estate. In the fifties, he developed the El Dorado Country Club and was the president of what became the Bob Hope Golf Classic. One assumes he was better in that line of work than in the acting game. Donna Lee is the street singer.

The murder of the street singer is echt Val Lewton; Robert Wise directed, but the moment is pure Lewton. Deep, deep shadows and not a soul in sight, then a sound effect that tells the story. The majority of Lewton’s pictures are based on the central premise that we’re most frightened by the things we can’t see.

Toddy and Gray

This next scene contains my favorite line in the picture.

“Look! Look at yourself! Could you be a doctor, a healing man, with the things those eyes have seen? There’s a lot of knowledge in those eyes, but no understanding.”

Hotel a la Swing

Here’s a curiosity: it’s from a two-reeler called “Hotel a la Swing” (Warner Bros., 1937), in which a troupe of out-of-work actors takes over the management of a hotel that is nearing bankruptcy, and through their ingenuity, turns the place into a success.

Holiday in Hades

This sequence is supposed to be happening in the new rooftop garden cabaret. If you want to see the whole thing, you’ll find it as a special feature on the DVD of “Swing Time.” As you will see, the chorus line in this number is ragged as hell, but it’s awfully funny when you look at it immediately after watching Fred and Ginger in “Swing Time.”

I especially like those beefy, middle-aged devils in evening dress. They’re hopelessly out of step with each other. The girl singer is Marcia Wayne. She never made another picture.

Yes, We Don’t Make Hash

This is another number from the same short subject. It has nothing to do with Halloween, other than its being, in its own way, a horror. I like the clumsy tap dancing and the xylophone music, and I feel sorry for these three schnooks. This was their big break, and nothing came of it. They went by the name Lane Tree & Edwards . . . but not very far.

You can see the 2014 Edition by clicking here: “Frightfulness II: Funny Halloween Fare, 2014 Edition.”

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.”