Category: Hollywood

Jane Eyre (US 1943)

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This is one of the most powerful and popular of C19th English novels. The author, Charlotte Brontë, published two other novels but it is this work which has made her famous. I read it in my teens, twelve times as I remember. I was immediately taken with the manner in which Jane challenged authority, especially male authority. And besides this there was the potent Gothic aspect which suffused much of the novel. This is not a novel that can be transferred in all its complexity and power to the screen: but the melodramatic plot does work well on film.

This Hollywood version, directed by Robert Stevenson, was the third, though the 1910 film was only a reel in length. Kate Ellis and Ann Kaplan commented on both this film and the 1970 TV film version directed by Delbert Mann:

“[this] is a story of a woman who understands instinctively the inequities of patriarchal structures but who cannot, finally, move entirely beyond them. … Jane’s strength comes to the reader through the clear, strong voice of the first person narrative . . . Neither film version (1944, 1970) is ultimately able to retain the centrality of Jane’s point of view. (The English Novel and the Movies, 1981).

There have been more film and television versions since then. We now have had Charlotte Gainsborough working with Franco Zefferelli, Samantha Morton working with Robert Young and Mia Wasikowska with Cari Joji Fukunaga. Gainsborough and Morton make a better fist of the strong woman to my mind: whilst Fukunaga’s 2011 version gets stuck in odd variations from the plot.

One of the limitations of this 1943 version is the casting. Jane is played by Joan Fontaine, who was the wife in a film version of that lesser masterwork inspired by Jane Eyre, Daphne Du Maurier’s ‘Rebecca’ (1940). Fontaine’s performance is closer to the somewhat submissive heroine of  Du Maurier than to Brontë’s Jane. This point is accentuated by the casting of Orson Welles as Rochester. Referring to the finale of the novel and film Ellis and Kaplan ask,

“(could Welles ever appear chastened?) . . . “

Moreover, when could he resist directing as well, and the film bears many of his hallmarks.

However, in the rather different presentation from the novel both stars are very good. And they are supported by some excellent actors, including Agnes Moorehead and Henry Daniel and the young Peggy Ann Garner, Elizabeth Taylor and Margaret O’Brien.

The script of the film was (surprisingly) by Aldous Huxley with contributions from the director and John Houseman. The screenplay was in part an adaptation of a broadcast version by The Mercury Theatre on the Air. The film does provide a voice-over to present Jane’s point of view, but not all key parts of the film enjoy this. Moreover, two key characters are missing from the film version, Miss Temple from the Lowood school and St. John Rivers from Jane’s odyssey away from Thornfield. Both, in different ways, are important in the characterisation of our heroine.

Stylistically the film broadly follows the conventions of Hollywood studios, thus reinforcing the position of the men in the film. However, it does capture the Gothic atmosphere, especially at Thornfield. There is some excellent use of high and low key lighting by the cinematographer George Barnes. And an equally Gothic feel is imparted by the score from Bernard Herrmann.

This is a classic Hollywood adaptation of a great novel. The characters and plot are recognisable but I rather think Charlotte Bronte would have wanted quite a few rewrites if she had been involved. It does though score with the acting and the production. There are pleasures in the narration, style and performances, notably that of Welles. Happily when the Picturehouse at the National Media Museum screen the film this Saturday they will be relying on a 35mm print, which is apparently in excellent condition . This will certainly do full justice to the visual pleasures of the film.

The screening is preceded by a panel discussion chaired by Samira Ahmed. The panel plan to comment on the book, the film adaptations and the works’ popularity. It will be interesting to hear what they may say about the Brontë and the Stevenson versions. Lovers of either will also get a chance to pose questions about this.

Sirk #5: Battle Hymn (US 1957)

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Battle Hymn is the film that probably puzzles Sirk fans more than any other. It’s a biopic of an unusual American military hero who was also a minister for an Ohio church. Though the film’s script doesn’t follow the story of Colonel Dean Hess with absolute fidelity, Hess was constantly on set and was able to veto the casting of Robert Mitchum (thought unsuitable because of his reputation – for smoking dope?) in this part-biopic. This presence reportedly drove Sirk to distraction because it prevented him going further in departing from the script.

Hess joined the USAAF after Pearl Harbour and, in a ground attack role in Germany, accidentally bombed an orphanage killing 37 children. The film suggests that the terrible memory of this incident caused Hess to return to active service in 1950 in order to train pilots for the Republic of Korea (i.e. the South Korean) airforce. The training took place close to the front line and Hess then became involved in rescuing several hundred Korean orphans/refugees caught up in the fighting. Later Hess used the proceeds from his successful autobiographical book and its film adaptation (both were released in 1957) to build a new orphanage in South Korea.

Battle Hymn is a Technicolor/CinemaScope epic starring Rock Hudson in the lead role as Hess. Drenched in a soupy score to enhance the religiosity of many scenes, Battle Hymn is as resolutely conventional as its plotline implies. It even begins with a propagandist throwback – an introduction to the film by the Air Force General commanding during the Korean War. Sirk had nothing to do with this and claimed that he had never seen it. But why did he agree to direct the film?

Production still of Rock Hudson with Korean orphans flown to the US for the shoot.

Production still of Rock Hudson with Korean orphans flown to the US for the shoot.

Sirk’s testimony in Jon Halliday’s interviews with him is quite revealing about his complex relationship with Hollywood. First he says that he liked working with children and that he was attracted to the idea of working with the Korean children (which he concedes might be because of their ‘foreigness’. Linked to this is his interest in Korean and Japanese culture. It is this which initially gets him interested in the story when he meets a Korean military attaché and then the notorious Korean President Syngman Rhee, whose wife turned out to be Austrian (and who enjoyed speaking German with the director). Although the film appears to have been shot in Arizona, Sirk did get out to Korea and Japan and Hess himself flew Sirk over North Korea at one point. This combination of children/Korean culture/German culture and flying was very attractive to Sirk. Unfortunately, the film also came with ‘front office’ interest, a sizeable budget and Rock Hudson (by now a major star). Sirk could see in the script the possibility of exploring yet again a complex character – a man with religious beliefs who could invest his energy in the seemingly opposite pursuits of killing the enemy and saving the children. Sirk wanted to emphasise this by finding a visual/dramatic expression of this split personality. He toyed with the idea of making Hess a drinker but the real Hess fought against this and his presence on set was enough to force Sirk to abandon the idea. Sirk also suggests that Rock Hudson should not have played the role. Instead it should have gone to an actor like Robert Stack who could represent this ‘duality’ more convincingly. It seems a little pat to suggest that only a few months after completing Written on the Wind and not long before The Tarnished Angels, Sirk would contemplate repeating the Hudson-Stack pairing in some way, but that might be the case. There are also two moments/two aspects of the script which intriguingly look forward to future Sirk projects – and two of his best films.

James Edwards as Lt. Maples during the sequence when he is given the wrong target.

James Edwards as Lt. Maples during the sequence when he is given the wrong target.

‘Hess’ is a German name and the character explains to his church deacon that his bombing of the orphanage in Germany was even more painful because of his grandmother’s memories of the area. This is yet another twist to the back story of this complex character (who is known to his old buddies from 1944-5 as ‘Killer Hess’). A year after making Battle Hymn, Sirk would go to Germany to make a film based on Erich Maria Remarque’s novel A Time to Live and a Time to Die (the title being slightly changed). In 1959, Sirk’s last Hollywood film was Imitation of Life and Sirk had long had a fascination with what he called the ‘race question’. In Battle Hymn he cast (I’m assuming he had some say in the matter) James Edwards, one of the pioneering Black actors in Hollywood in the 1950s, as Lt. Maples, one of the American pilots selected to help train the Koreans. This was a major coup for Hollywood (though it didn’t signal a breakthrough in better roles for Black actors). As recent films like Red Tails (2012) have depicted, the American Air Forces were segregated in the Second World War. Segregation in US Armed Forces didn’t end until an order from Harry Truman was issued in 1948, so the action in Korea in 1950 was barely into the new era. Battle Hymn emphasises Edwards’ role as Lt. Maples with two incidents. First, he is ordered to attack a target that later turns out to be a truck full of children – finding himself responsible for children’s deaths just as Hess had done in Germany. Later, when he has volunteered to help to look after the children on the base, he sings what was then known as a ‘negro spiritual’ song to them, ‘Swing Low, Sweet Chariot’. To Sirk’s credit, the film at least includes the Maples character in the central narrative.

The other notable aspect of Battle Hymn is its focus on the rescue of the children. This chimes with a cycle of similar post-war films in several countries, including The Inn of the Sixth Happiness (UK 1958) in which Ingrid Bergman played a British woman missionary escorting 100 children to safety in China during the Japanese invasion in the 1930s. The rescue mixes with the biopic narrative to create a Hollywood storyline but the popularity of the film (to the relief of Universal no doubt) also depended on the aerial sequences which are well handled by Sirk and his crew.

The Philadelphia Story (US 1940)

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This is a classic romantic comedy of the studio era (an MGM production): not quite a screwball but with touches of that genre. The centre of the film is a captivating performance by Katherine Hepburn as socialite Tracy Lord. In fact Hepburn had appeared in the original Broadway production of the play by Philip Barry. That other unconventional Hollywood figure, Howard Hughes, bought the rights to the play and presented it to Hepburn. So she was able to pick the director, George Cukor, and also have some say in the casting.

The cast is splendid. Cary Grant is ex-husband C. K. Dexter Haven, rather less virtuous than his ex-wife Tracy. James Stewart is journalist Macaulay O’Connor, playing the role lightly in the period before filmmakers discovered his dark side. And he is accompanied delightfully by Ruth Hussey as his photographer Elizabeth Imbrie. The plot revolves around Tracy’s planned second wedding to George Kittredge (John Howard) safely contained within the Hays Code. The principals are at times very funny, at times very charming. The supporting cast is excellent. My particular favourite is William Daniel  as Sidney Kidd, publisher and the employer of O’Connor and Imbrie. It is his machinations which propel much of the plot and which also provide a fine final moment to the film.

Hepburn had good taste in directors, in this case George Cukor. Among Cukor’s talents was the ability to bring out full and distinctive characterisation from female stars. And he is working with a number of other fine craftsmen, including Joseph Ruttenberg on cinematography and Franz Waxman providing the score.

The film was an undoubted success, something that escaped Hepburn in a number of her earlier starring roles. It received six nominations for Academy Awards. James Stewart walked off with the Best Actor Oscar. The writer Donald Ogden Stewart won an Oscar for Best Adapted Screenplay. His success was curtailed within a decade as he was one of the victims of the Hollywood Blacklist.

The property was remade in 1956 as High Society. It is not in the same class but, as a musical, it does have some fine numbers. Now it will be possible to see the original this coming Saturday (June 18th) at the Hebden Bridge Picture House. It seems the film will screen in its original format, Academy ratio black and white 35mm: it will look all the better for this, though it also has a 1940s mono soundtrack.

Apologies, it seems the film is screening from digital.

Sirk #4: All I Desire (US 1953)

Naomi (Barbara Stanwyck) returns to her home after years away, surprising her husband Henry (Richard Carlson) and delighting her daughter Lily (Lori Nelson)

Naomi (Barbara Stanwyck) returns to her home after years away, surprising her husband Henry (Richard Carlson) and delighting her daughter Lily (Lori Nelson)

Despite access to Technicolor for appropriate genre films, Douglas Sirk found that he was back to Black & White for this costume melodrama starring Barbara Stanwyck. Presumably Babs was not considered a big enough draw to justify the extra production expense of colour, though Sirk certainly wanted it. This is a major indictment of the Hollywood studio system. Stanwyck was for me the leading actress of her generation, matched only by Bette Davis. Ten years earlier, some reports placed her as the best-paid woman in America. ‘Too old’ at 45, Stanwyck, as the great trouper she was, continued to work through the mid 1950s featuring in several interesting films before moving over to TV.

A classic dissolve as Naomi the actress remembers the small town she left 10 years ago.

A classic dissolve as Naomi the actress remembers the small town she left 10 years ago.

All I Desire is an adaptation of the novel Stopover by Carol Ryrie Brink. Stanwyck plays Naomi Murdoch, a woman at the start of the 20th century who has left her family and ‘run away’ to become an actress. Now she is stuck in a touring vaudeville troupe but her family believe that she has become a big star, touring Europe. She has kept up the charade. When her younger daughter Lily writes to her with the news that she is to appear as the lead in her school graduation play, Naomi decides to risk going home to meet the family again.

Brink was a writer of what we might now think of as Young Adult novels and the narrative of Stopover suggests a focus on the mother-daughter relationship. In Sirk’s hands this becomes a family melodrama, but one hampered by the ‘happy ending’ imposed by producer Ross Hunter as per Universal’s policy. Sirk was disappointed that the title was changed since he thought Stopover signalled a different kind of story. In his conversations with Jon Halliday (Sirk on Sirk, faber & faber 1997) he says that Stanwyck’s character is in some ways a “‘pre-study’ of the ‘actress’ in Imitation of Life“. Stanwyck (admired by Sirk and many of Hollywood’s other leading directors) “had the unsentimental sadness of a broken life about her”.

Naomi arrives back in the small town of Riverdale, Wisconsin and finds a complacent middle-class family. Her husband Henry (Richard Carlson) is the high school principal and her three children seem to live separate lives. The youngest, Ted, still has the innocence of youth and loves his mother unconditionally, the eldest, Joyce, blames her mother for her father’s unhappiness and treats her coldly and Lily is all ego.

Low key lighting as Naomi reads a poem at the after show party.

Low key lighting as Naomi reads a poem at the after show party.

The symbolism of melodrama. Naomi has found the key to the house – and to her past love? The same low key lighting persists.

The symbolism of melodrama. Naomi has found the key to the house – and to her past love? The same low key lighting persists.

Expression through composition. Naomi looks out, excited to see her daughter's boyfriend come to take them riding. Joyce, the reproachful daughter looks on from the back of the room, separated from her mother by the window jamb.

Expression through composition. Naomi looks out, excited to see her daughter’s boyfriend come to take them riding. Joyce, the reproachful daughter looks on from the back of the room, separated from her mother by the window jamb.

Sirk is highly skilled in the way he manages his resources and marshals Universal’s crew to produce something always worth watching. The film is full of moments when the possibilities of the full-blown melodramas towards which he is heading can be glimpsed. The plot includes the darker side of Naomi’s sudden departure ten years earlier in the shape of the local gunshop owner played by Lyle Bettger whose re-appearance certainly disturbs the Stanwyck character. Sirk’s mise en scène and the camerawork by Carl Guthrie are heavily imbued with film noir flourishes which spread through the family scenes as well as those referring back to Naomi’s past. Sirk’s comment to Halliday was ” . . . a woman comes back with all her dreams, with her love – and she finds nothing but this rotten, decrepit, middle-class family”. I’m not sure these strong words are merited for the family we see in the film, but the mise en scène and camerawork do suggest what Sirk was thinking. If he’d got his own way Stopover might have become a great film. As it is we can just enjoy the craftmanship of Sirk and Stanwyck and look forward to There’s Always Tomorrow a few years later.