Category: Womens Film

The Hard Way (US 1943)

In 1942 Ida Lupino was an established star at Warner Bros. She had top billing in the 1941 film that made Humphrey Bogart an A list star at Warners – High Sierra. This followed her performance in They Drive By Night (1940) which had wowed the critics. She had lead roles opposite Edward G. Robinson in The Sea Wolf (1941) and John Garfield in Out of the Fog in the same year. Everything was going well but still Warner Bros. didn’t really know what to do with her. She was loaned out as the lead in two films for Twentieth-Century Fox and one for Columbia before she got another Warners role – and this only because Bette Davis turned it down. She was top-billed in The Hard Way and this turned out to be one of the few films for which she received the recognition for her performance that she always deserved. On the film’s release a year later it won the New York’s Critics’ Circle award for Best Actress.

Helen and Katie at home before Katie’s new career takes off

As in many of Lupino’s films, her role in The Hard Way is not the heroic role but instead the one that drives the melodrama narrative. Lupino plays Helen Churnen, a woman in her mid-twenties who has married an older man, a worker in an industrial town. Her mother had died and Helen thought marriage would save her from poverty during the depression. Now she feels trapped. She intends to prevent her younger sister Katie (Joan Leslie), who lives with her, from suffering the same fate. Joan Leslie had been a child performer and after several uncredited roles in films in the 1930s was finally getting adult roles. In 1942 she was still just 17 tears old. The narrative of The Hard Way sees Katie leaving high school and hoping to become a stage performer. Helen determines to be her ‘stage mother’, abandoning her marriage to accompany Katie and trying to make sure she becomes successful. Katie meets a pair of vaudeville performers, traditional ‘song and dance men’ played by Jack Carson and Dennis Morgan. Carson’s character, Albert Runkel, falls for Katie in a big way and it is through him that she gains an entry into show business. But it is Helen who makes sure that Katie exploits her talent, sometimes by ‘any means necessary’. Kunkel’s performer partner Paul Collins sees Helen’s involvement as poisonous and what might have been a showbiz ‘rags to riches’ story becomes a dark melodrama with tragic outcomes.

Helen and Albert get together but Paul and Helen have their doubts about the relationship

The original idea behind the film was based on a story by Irwin Shaw about the relationship between Ginger Rogers and her mother Lela. Ginger joined a vaudeville show as a dancer when only 14 and married at 17 in 1928. She eventually got second lead roles in film musicals in 1930. The screenplay for The Hard Way by Daniel Fuchs and Peter Viertel was intended as a vehicle for Bette Davis, but was also offered to Ginger Rogers herself according to some sources. Both turned down the role. Ida Lupino was sometimes seen as Warners’ back-up for Davis but she was ten years younger than Davis (and seven years younger than Rogers). When she made The Hard Way she was just 24, but played the role much older so that the relationship with Leslie’s character sometimes feels like the classic mother-daughter relationship of the 1940s ‘woman’s picture’. In 1942, just a few months into the American involvement in the Second World War, some directors as well as male stars were beginning to become unavailable after signing up for service. Warners clearly saw The Hard Way as a major production but the director job went to the relatively low-profile contract director Vincent Sherman. Sherman had worked on a range of projects, including films with John Garfield and Humphrey Bogart, but not yet with major female stars. After The Hard Way he would direct Lupino and Davis in two films each and later two more with Joan Crawford, so Warners must have been satisfied with what he achieved. Two other significant names on The Hard Way were James Wong Howe as cinematographer and Don Siegel in his familiar role as ‘montage editor’ before his directorial career took off a few years later. Wong Howe didn’t enjoy working on the film because he thought Sherman was too inexperienced. This seems an odd remark (quoted in Alain Silver’s book James Wong Howe, The Camera Eye, Pendragon 2010) and it may simply be that the celebrated cinematographer thought the film wasn’t going to be an interesting story in visual terms. But that too is not really the case.

One montage includes this expressionist image of Katie threatened by clocks announcing her next deadline

When the film was completed, Jack Warner felt it was too downbeat and he asked for the addition of an opening scene with a more glamorous Lupino who would then introduce the story as one long flashback (in a manner not dissimilar to the start of a film noir). This sequence required a set similar to those used by Wong Howe for parts of Out of the Fog, his first film shooting with Lupino. The town of Greenhill, where the story proper begins, is presented using a sequence which is said to have been taken from a Pare Lorentz documentary made during the Great Depression. Later in the story there are several opportunities taken to use the montage skills of Don Siegel for the familiar swirl of theatre handbills, performances, newspaper headlines etc. against a musical medley and a voiceover narration. It’s possible that Lupino spent some time with Siegel (who was also a Warner Bros. contractee). Later he directed the last of the films produced by Lupino’s company The Filmakers, Private Hell 36 (1954). There are certainly expressionist images both in the montages (a screen of clockfaces representing the pressure on Katie as her career develops quickly), in some of the many backstage scenes and in the opening sequence. The art director on the film was Max Parker, seemingly another Warner contractee who would work with Lupino again on her last Warners picture, Deep Valley in 1947. The Hard Way uses many music tracks, both diegetic and non-diegetic, and they are all listed on the film’s Wikipedia page.

Albert devises a nightclub cabaret act with Katie . . .

. . . but Helen is always there ready to manipulate producers, club owners and agents. Helen is here with the agent Max Wade (Nestor Paiva).

The Hard Way was a success at the box office. Variety in January 1944 reported rentals (i.e a net return to the studio production division) of $1.5 million, placing the film as twelfth among the 14 Warners films that returned for than $1 million to the studio in 1943. Lupino also appeared alongside the other leading Warners players in the third-placed title in Warners’ list, Thank Your Lucky Stars – a compendium film of sketches and musical performances, one of several such films made during wartime. This had rentals of $2.8 million. In the same report, Ida Lupino is reported as fourth on the box office list for Warner Bros. after Bogart, Davis and Errol Flynn. Given this high spot in the Warner Bros. roster it’s perhaps surprising that Lupino didn’t get better parts over the next couple of years.

Helen with fading star of musical theatre, Lily Emery (Gladys George), offering her one drink too many and aiming to create an opportunity for Katie

But what did Ida’s loyal fans and more general audiences make of her role and her performance? Too often, even with top billing and her usual strong performance, Lupino’s character was out of the limelight – quite literally in this case. In The Hard Way it could be argued that Helen is the villain, capable of stepping on anyone who stands in the way of Katie’s success. But Helen is doing this for her sister and she only knows how to do it the hard way. Vincent Sherman understood the story and he strove to make the town of Greenhill as grimy and smoky as he could – somewhere that a bright young woman would want to escape from. A wartime audience in 1943, especially one with a majority of women, many in work for the first time, may well have understood the story too, including the bonds between the sisters. Helen is promoting the idea that a woman’s career is important. As some modern reviewers note, the mores of the time meant that no man could cope with the idea that his wife might become the main breadwinner and this becomes the pivotal realisation in the narrative. The film pleased Monthly Film Bulletin‘s reviewer in the UK (November 1942) who praised all the performances and saw Vincent Sherman’s direction “leaving nothing to be desired” for a film that “achieves a most unusual sincerity”. According to Lupino’s biographer William Donati, the star at first didn’t take to Sherman and thought she didn’t understand the film. She was quite ill during the shoot but most of all she was devastated by the death of her father, the great stage performer Stanley Lupino, from cancer at the young age of 48. But Ida was a trouper and she completed the film. After the positive reviews she felt better and formed a strong friendship with Vincent Sherman who would then direct two further Warners films with Lupino as lead.

The Hard Way is not easy to find in the UK, but it is available in the US and it’s an essential film in Ida Lupino’s filmography.

Honey Cigar (Cigare au miel) France-Algeria-Belgium 2020)

Selma (Zoé Adjani) enjoys her honey cigar.

I watched this film as part of My French Film Festival 2022 and the next day it turned up on MUBI. Fortunately I enjoyed the film and I’m grateful for the chance to watch it more than once. The odd title refers to a delicacy made by a group of village women in the mountains of Algeria. It’s a cigar-shaped cylinder of thin fried pastry filled with honey and here enjoyed by a young French woman of Kabyle ancestry visiting her parent’s homeland. ‘Kabylia’ is the Berber-speaking region of Northern Algeria.

Visiting Algeria.

The making of honey cigars by village women comes towards the end of the film but we first meet the central character Selma sucking suggestively on a honey cigar in a short prologue as part of the opening titles. These titles are certainly unusual and suggest that this will be a narrative suffused with the physicality of sexual desire as experienced by a young woman. Selma is then introduced more formally as a 17 year-old being interviewed for a place at a prestigious Parisian school that should ensure her progress into a highly-paid business career. She is fluent in English and handles herself well in the interview. One of her two interviewers appears to be an American who questions her in English. The narrative is set in 1993 and the questioning refers to the Algerian Civil War. Selma is articulate in defining her ‘double identity’ of French and Algerian. She also realises that she will have to face the casual racism and ignorance of the business world typified by the American’s questions.

Selma with her mother played by Amira Casar . . .

. . . and her father (Lyès Salem).

Honey Cigar is an impressive début feature film written and directed by Kamir Aïnouz, herself French-Algerian. Selma is played by Zoé Adjani (niece of Isabelle Adjani, who I now discover is also the daughter of a man from Kabylia) in a powerful and affecting performance. In an interview on Cineuropa’s website Kamir Aïnouz tells us that the idea that underpins the narrative came to her when she repeatedly saw in her mind’s eye an image of a young woman, spread out on her bed and seemingly in pain – as if her body was tearing itself in two. Aïnouz realised that the story of this young woman was also the story of Algeria in the 1990s. The woman feels torn between two cultures, both of which seem to have designs upon her body while Algeria, still a ‘young country’ after independence in 1962 is experiencing the rise of fundamentalism and terrorist attacks. The soundtrack of the film contributes to the narrative with occasional quotations from the story of Scheherazade, the epitome of a young female rebellion against the male hegemony of an historical Muslim world, here expressed through her sexual desire.

Selma’s family belong to a successful Parisian élite living in the upmarket district of Neuilly-sur-Seine. Her father is a lawyer who travels to Algeria frequently looking after clients. Her mother is a gynaecologist who has seemingly given up work to be supportive of her daughter. The couple are secular but still traditional in terms of wishing to influence Selma’s possible decisions re marriage. But there are tensions in the parents’ marriage which will also have an impact on Selma. Towards the end of the narrative, Selma and her mother make a trip to Kabylia to meet her grandmother, still in her mountain village.

Selma with Julien (Louis Peres).

It’s interesting to see a representation of a French-Maghrebi young woman that reverses the typical relationships of a girl from les banlieues. Julien, the young man who Selma meets in her new school/college is in his final year and it is he who is from a working-class family. Selma struggles with her sexual desire and we assume that she has had a relatively sheltered life up to this point. Her experiences with Julien are contrasted with a brief but painful interaction with one of her parent’s preferred successful young men, Luka (Idir Chender), a young banker. There is also a third but underdeveloped interaction with Sélim (Jud Bengana),  the son of her parents’ friends.

Selma in Paris – but this image could be anywhere. The world is open to Selma if she wants to find it.

Honey Cigar is beautifully presented in a ‘Scope ratio with photography by Jeanne Lapoirie, one of the top current French cinematographers and with the ravishing performance of Zoé Adjani it’s always a pleasure to watch. The presentation of Selma’s family is nuanced with the father appearing at first to be ‘modern’ and outward-looking, but revealing his attachment to more traditional values in terms of his daughter’s behaviour. Meanwhile, the mother seemingly moves in the opposite direction. Her desire to keep her links to Algeria eventually may prove her to be the ‘modern’ woman. In fact, Honey Cigar is clearly a female narrative with a strong link appearing between Selma and her grandmother via her mother. We hope this will help Selma to find her own way with confidence. Honey Cigar is an impressive début feature with a great central character. It’s not perfect and I recognise some of the reviews that suggest Kamir Aïnouz has been very ambitious with perhaps too many issues to deal with, especially in the Algerian sequences. But I think this is outweighed by what she has achieved in her presentation of Selma. I hope the film gets seen widely and I heartily recommend it.

And Now Tomorrow (US 1944)

My main interest in this film was its status as the second scriptwriting project for Raymond Chandler at Paramount shortly after his work on Double Indemnity. It certainly seems like a strange choice made by the studio. The only justification seems to be that it was a chance to develop Chandler’s knowledge of scriptwriting by giving him a different partner to write with. Trying to discern what Chandler might have contributed to the script is not easy.

And Now Tomorrow is a familiar studio genre picture, a romantic melodrama using the device of a disease/accident as the narrative disruption in the early scenes. It might also be what in the 1930s and 1940s was known as a ‘woman’s picture’. Partly this is because it was adapted from a hit novel by Rachel Field and partly because it starred Loretta Young and Susan Hayward as central characters. It is essentially a story about the Loretta Young character although Alan Ladd gets top billing. The woman’s picture is usually a film with a central female character who drives a narrative that requires her to overcome a problem arising because she is a woman – conventionally in this case a problem with her intended wedding. The audience is intended to comprise women in the main. Maria LaPlace (1987) points out that in many Hollywood films of the 1930s/40s, women’s stories are inevitably ‘re-positioned’ to in a patriarchal film industry to serve more masculine discourses. This means that it became important for feminist scholars to find those ‘marginal’ areas of cultural discourse which, though still largely controlled by men, are actually sites of production by women and for women. Thus publishing, both of novels and within women’s magazines becomes an important locus for stories.

Early in the narrative, Emily is introduced to Dr Vance by her family doctor (Cecil Kellaway)

Wikipedia suggests that originally Jane Murfin, an experienced scriptwriter with many credits, was assigned to the film, but eventually she was replaced by Frank Partos. There is no mention of a separate writer for the adaptation so Partos and Chandler presumably had to produce a screenplay directly from the novel. This is where the studios use of contracted writers comes in. The idea might have been to provide more experience for Chandler but pairing him with Partos, a Hungarian Jew of roughly the same age as Billy Wilder, did not mean a change. Working with a woman might have made sense. As it is, it is interesting because Partos had worked several times with Wilder’s writing partner Charles Brackett who Chandler had replaced as Wilder’s partner on Double Indemnity (Brackett didn’t think much of James M. Cain’s writing in the original novel). Partos had just finished working on the script for The Uninvited (1944), a fantasy horror which proved a significant hit for Paramount. Chandler would find his next job at Paramount would be the follow up known as The Unseen (1945), a mystery thriller.

Emily (Loretta Young) with Janice (Susan Hayward)

The plot of the film is straightforward. Emily Blair (Loretta Young) is a wealthy young woman living in Blairtown in New England where her family owns the local mill. Just as her marriage to an ‘appropriate’ young man Jeff Stoddard (Barry Sullivan) is announced, she falls ill with meningitis and though she recovers she finds she has lost her sense of hearing. She postpones the wedding and seeks a cure from international specialists to no avail. The fact that she feels that her deafness is a barrier to a ‘proper marriage’ is the problem she must overcome. Alan Ladd plays Dr Merek Vance, formerly from the poorer part of Blairtown, who now practices in Pittsburgh. He meets Emily by accident, noticing that she is deaf and being impressed by her lip reading. It turns out he is conducting research into hearing loss and eventually he agrees to make her part of his trials of a new serum. You can probably guess what happens. The potentially interesting sub-plot involves Emily’s younger sister Janice (Susan Hayward) who sees Emily’s reluctance to marry until she gets her hearing back as an opportunity to pursue Jeff. As in the best romances there is a stumbling block to Emily switching her attention to Merek and that is the class difference and his sense of grievance against the Blair family.

Does this scene include Chandler dialogue? (Screen grab from DVD Beaver)

I was engaged by the film and enjoyed it up to a point (more Susan Hayward would have been good). I certainly didn’t have the very negative responses of some leading US critics at the time who were especially cruel about Loretta Young’s performance. Bosley Crowther in the New York Times called it a “stupid picture”. Bad reviews don’t seem to have affected Box Office which was generally very good – as predicted by the trade papers. The director Irving Pechel was not generally liked by the cast and Loretta Young and Alan Ladd didn’t have a strong connection – though they seemed to work together effectively. What might Chandler have contributed to the script? Not much to the narrative structure, I’m guessing, but probably something to the dialogue. I was most interested in the Alan Ladd character in a part quite different to that of his lead in The Blue Dahlia (1946), which Chandler scripted on his own, using one of his own story ideas. I don’t really know Ladd that well as an actor but with Chandler’s dialogue in The Blue Dahlia he speaks in measured tones with pauses and there is a sequence in And Now Tomorrow which is similar, after Emily assists the doctor on an emergency operation they talk in the car (see above). He tells her he is “worn down to the ankles” which sounds like a Chandlerian line. At other times Ladd as Vance is quite sharp, mainly when his anger about poverty in the mill town comes to the fore. The other interesting aspect of the Ladd role in this ‘woman’s picture’ is that it is as another doctor who studies the woman who ‘lacks’ something and is then allowed to interpret what it might be. The doctor’s medical gaze replaces the erotic male gaze which is prevalent in other narratives. Sometimes by ‘solving’ the woman’s problem (often psychological rather than physical) the doctor enables her to find romance (as in Now Voyager). In this case Dr Vance becomes the beneficiary himself. See Mary Anne Doane (1987)

The tragedy of the film production is that Rachel Field died suddenly after an operation in 1942 before the script was ready and the camera rolled. I do wonder what she would have made of the adaptation. I think I should point out that the medical discourse in the film isn’t convincing and that the film doesn’t do much to help audiences’ understand hearing loss. I couldn’t find the film on any streamers but I watched a Region 2 DVD.

References

Doane, Mary Ann (1987) ‘The ‘Woman’s Film’: Possession and Address’ in Christine Gledhill (ed) Home is Where the Heart Is, London: BFI Books

LaPlace, Maria (1987) ‘Producing and Consuming the Woman’s Film: Discursive Struggle in Now Voyager‘ in Gledhill (ed) op cit

Little Women (US 2019)

The sisters by the sea (from left, Emma Watson as Meg, Florence Pugh as Amy, Saoirse  Ronan as Jo and Eliza Scanlen as Beth)

Little Women, adapted from the novel and directed by Greta Gerwig, is a clever mainstream family entertainment (classified ‘U’ in the UK). It’s a mainstream studio movie for Gerwig who has been mainly associated with American Independent Cinema up to this point. It is very enjoyable to watch but also makes statements in line with current ideas about feminism and in particular the difficulties women have faced in becoming media producers and artists. The film has been a deserved success. The local single screen cinema I attended in a small market town was busy for a Thursday afternoon matinee in its third week of release and I understand that in Hebden Bridge, the cinema advised audiences that they may have to queue for admission and they should arrive early. Releasing at Christmas was a good move – some scenes in the snow and the colourful outfits of the March girls reminded me of another film with Christmas connections, Meet Me in St. Louis (1944). The success is richly deserved and there are many reviews out there so I’ll just make a few observations that might be less widely circulated.

One of several beautifully composed long shots

First up is casting. Everyone is very good in their role but I’m intrigued that none of the March ‘girls’/women (the narrative deals with several years and previous films sometimes used two actors for some of the parts) are actually American. Saoirse Ronan as Jo was, I think born in New York, but grew up in Ireland from the age of 3. Emma Watson as Meg, was born in Paris, but grew up in England. Florence Pugh as Amy is English and Eiza Scanlen as Beth is Australian. In addition James Norton whose character marries Meg is also English (and currently playing Stephen Ward in the BBC serial on Christine Keeler). I don’t have a problem with this but I’m surprised as previous film versions have usually cast American actors. I’m wondering if there was a conscious decision to think of non-American English speakers because they might be more suited to a 19th century East Coast narrative? Of course, many American actors have played British characters, including Emma Stone who was at one point going to play Meg. Ms Stone played an 18th century English woman in The Favourite. But I want to link the casting to two other selections of ‘creative personnel’ for the film, cinematographer Yorick Le Saux and composer Alexandre Desplat, both French, though with experience on American films.

Another beautiful long shot of landscape. I’m showing these because the film’s promo shots focus only on the characters and part of the pleasure of heritage films is settings on a big screen

The ‘literary adaptation’, especially of 19th century novels, is a British ‘thing’ for good or ill. For a period they were known in the UK as ‘heritage films’, a generic category that is equally popular in France. My feeling is that the British and French ‘heritage films’ look and feel different, though I confess I’m not sure exactly what the differences might be. I am inclined to say that Little Women ‘sounds’ British and looks French – but the actions are American? Partly this is because I was riveted by some of the camerawork which at different times made me think of various European painting styles. I was particularly taken by long shots of the Laurence house in Concord and the beach scenes which presumably are meant to be the New England coast but could for me have been Europe. Allied to this, I was easily accepting of the Paris scenes as being shot in Paris when they were actually in the US. Gerwig (or Columbia) also cast French actor-director Louis Garrel as ‘the Professor’.

Laura Dern and Meryl Streep with Florence Pugh

Finally re the casting, I didn’t recognise Chris Cooper at all as Mr Laurence, but I thought him very good. Laura Dern and Meryl Streep are also effective as Marmee and Aunt March. Saoirse Ronan plays the lead and she has great screen presence and charisma, but in some ways Florence Pugh steals the film and I did feel sorry for Emma Watson as Meg, though it is the part rather than the performance that means she makes less impact than Pugh’s Amy.

The major innovation in Greta Gerwig’s adaptation is the restructuring of the narrative, so that flashbacks reveal to us how the March daughters were, back in 1861, and how they are ‘now’ in 1867. Cuts are often made ‘seamlessly’ on similar movements by the same character. This has been much heralded by critics but I found it disconcerting at first. I like to think I am a reasonably skilled reader, but I had to ‘work’ to follow the narrative and reassemble the plot as we went along. Eventually I found myself in tune with the flashbacks but I wonder how many audiences were either confused or just allowed the overall narrative flow to take them along? Perhaps most audiences, especially in North America, know the story so well that they could follow events with no problem at all? The major innovation in the film appears to be to ‘play’ with the scenes detailing how the sisters are influenced or not in terms of the need to marry ‘well’ – i.e. to rich men. I haven’t read the novel but Gerwig’s script seems to shift the discourse around the marriage ‘deal’ to make it a more complex issue about the possibility for women to control their own creativity – and to get properly recompensed for their output. Jo achieves this by writing about herself and her family and getting the full royalties. Amy marries into money but only once she has worked out the economics of life as a female fine artist.

I’m not part of the target audience for this film and I note that there are female commentators who don’t like the film. Hadley Freeman posted a negative personal take in her Guardian column. I found her argument confusing but along with the many comments on her piece she does articulate some of the concerns about Hollywood’s practice of re-making literary adaptations of the same canonical novels. The video essay below by ‘Be Kind Rewind’ is quite long (25 mins) but highly recommended. It takes you through the 1933, 1949 and 1994 film versions and suggests the ways in which the current version is different. It’s both scholarly and engaging – a neat trick. What comes over most of all is that each version is appropriate for its time. I don’t know who is behind this video but she is very good (and she has other similar essays on her YouTube Channel that are well worth viewing).

Home (UK 2019)

Sarah Outen with her rowing boat

Home is an unusual film and difficult to categorise. It seems straightforward enough at first as a documentary record of one woman’s ‘adventure’ over four years (2011-2015) and covering 20,000 miles. Sarah Outen has one prime objective – to complete her long journey around the world using only her own muscle power. She must be the ‘engine’ that makes her travel possible by rowing boat, kayak or bicycle. She can’t accept any lifts and if her kit fails her she must swim or walk. It’s a dangerous and exciting personal trip into the unknown.

All of this seems clear enough but the film’s tagline hints at something else when it reads ‘An outward journey inward’. This suggests that Sarah has two ‘journeys of discovery’ – one concerned with the world she encounters each day, both the environment she moves through and the people she meets, and the other the things she learns about herself from those encounters.

Sarah’s double ‘journey’ also reminds us that a documentary has a narrative just like any fiction feature and this one most resembles the film genre of the road movie. Road movies traditionally set out to find new experiences in different places and to explore how the central character changes as a result of those experiences. The road movie is the archetypal American adventure and the idea of a story that is a ‘journey’ for the central character is also an American idea with Hollywood films often presenting a ‘quest’ which the hero must undertake to reach a final goal. We might ask: “What is Sarah’s goal?” Will she know when and if she achieves it?

But narratives don’t have to be ‘linear’ and they don’t have to strive for specific goals. Sometimes the story goes full circle and the characters arrive back where they started but still changed in some way. What is important is to note that ‘documentary records’ are inevitably ‘narrativised’ – made into stories that are accessible for audiences and offer the same pleasures as fiction narratives. How will this affect Sarah’s story?

Who has taken the photo in this remote region, another lonely traveller?

In the famous spoof Western movie Blazing Saddles, the hero rides around a giant rock in the desert and discovers an orchestra playing the exciting musical score accompanying his ride on screen. It’s a brilliant way of exposing the artifice of cinema and the ways in which audiences are prepared to suspend disbelief. As Sarah kayaks along a turbulent river or cycles across the desert, how often do we stop to wonder who is using the camera? Sometimes it is Sarah herself but her options are limited. We know there must be another camera operator and a support crew. Home does in fact refer to the support and logistics crew needed to bring the kayak (‘Nelson’) or the bicycle (‘Hercules’) to the right place when Sarah arrives in her rowing boat. Sometimes we even see the crew. None of this diminishes Sarah’s achievement or takes away from the ‘authenticity’ of the documentary experience. But it does refer to a particular filmmaking practice.

Home is edited by the Canadian director Jen Randall of Light Shed Pictures. Officially she is also co-writer and director of the film.  It is often said that the meaning in films is ‘created’ in the edit suite. Home is a 92 minute film created through careful selection of shots from hundreds of hours of footage shot by nine different camera operators. Jen Randall started work on the film only after Sarah had returned.

Home is now a film but Sarah’s journey was also a blog, followed by people all round the world. The film is now on release in the UK and also winning prizes at the specialist film festivals for ‘adventure films’ like Kendal Mountain Festival and Banff Mountain Film Competition. The film’s release has been organised mainly through independent cinemas and Sarah has often appeared in person at these screenings to conduct a Q&A. Screenings are listed on the website below and the next appears to be in Peebles in January 2020. When the screenings tour is completed the film will become available on VOD.

An emotional time, as Sarah waits for oceanic storms to subside

Home is extremely well put together and the narrative works. There are many surprising moments and several relationships of different kinds that Sarah experiences over the four years. This certainly isn’t 90 minutes of only staring at seas and rivers and mountain roads – though they do feature of course. Jen Randall has said that the key ‘Eureka moment’ for her searching through all the hours of footage was when she looked at the footage of the Pacific crossing. This gave her a sense of the ‘shape’ of the narrative. It is also the most emotional and dangerous part of the whole story.

Many people say that they have been inspired by Sarah’s story and these kinds of adventures are both popular with film and TV audiences and arguably necessary for our culture. The film includes romance, friendships and Sarah’s own personal battle with mental health issues. This is a film that should get you feeling for Sarah and thinking about what she has achieved.

You can find out a great deal more on these two websites

https://www.sarahoutenhome.com

http://www.lightshedpictures.com

Devotion (US 1946)

The ball scene with (from left) Anne Brontë (Nancy Coleman), Emily (Ida Lupino), Charlotte (Olivia de Havilland) and Rev. Nicholls (Paul Henreid)

Devotion is a film seemingly disowned by Warner Bros and derided by critics – but enjoyed by many audiences (though perhaps not devoted fans of the Brontë Sisters). Warner Bros. was a studio known for biopics and this one features the best known members of the Brontë family, starring Ida Lupino and Olivia de Havilland as Emily and Charlotte. It was potentially a prestige production with Paul Henreid as the curate Rev. Collins, Sidney Greenstreet as William Thackeray and Arthur Kennedy as the dissolute brother, Branwell. Olivia de Havilland was at this point in dispute with Warners over her contract and Jack Warner, in a typical move, ‘punished’ her by giving her third billing. For the second time (after High Sierra), Ida Lupino found herself with top billing by default – which is equally demeaning. She does however, come out as the best performer in the cast (and that’s not just my opinion). Whether Jack Warner’s action was also the reason for holding back the film’s release until 1946 (it was made over the winter months of 1942-3) is not clear, but in his biography of Ida Lupino, William Donati states that Warner Bros. did not even tell Olivia de Havilland about the film’s première. She only learned about it when Ida Lupino phoned her to compliment her on her work on the picture. There is a new biography of de Havilland by Victoria Amador, entitled Lady Triumphant, University Press of Kentucky, 2019. Perhaps this will reveal more of exactly what happened when de Havilland took Warner Bros to court in August 1943? She won her case and the so-called ‘De Havilland Law’ of 1944 restricted the studio’s contractual hold over players to seven calendar years. Since de Havilland signed in 1936 she was thus free of Warners’ control. Lupino benefited from this when she left the studio in 1947.

Rather than a Warners biopic, it is more likely that the studio saw Devotion as a response to Goldwyn’s adaptation of Wuthering Heights (1939) with Merle Oberon and Laurence Olivier and also as competition for Fox’s Jane Eyre with Orson Welles’ and de Havilland’s sister Joan Fontaine (which opened in the UK and Ireland on Christmas Eve 1943).

Donati, like many others felt that it was a mediocre picture that doesn’t work. But is it that bad? To add to the prestige cast, the film was photographed by the great Ernie Haller and it had an Erich Wolfgang Korngold score. Director Curtis Bernhardt had an impressive back catalogue in Germany, the UK and France but he had only been at Warner Bros since 1940 so perhaps he wasn’t able to stand up to Jack Warner or to demand changes to the preposterous script. Presumably, to fit the Brontë story into a mainstream generic narrative, the script contrives a scenario whereby Emily falls for her father’s new curate but cannot express her love and in effect becomes involved in a contest with Charlotte (who did actually marry the historical figure of Arthur Nicholls). The other historical events are moved around to suit the construction of a conventional narrative. This is not necessarily a problem for most audiences but the way the conflict between Emily and Charlotte is represented surely is. I feel that there is a strange contradiction in the casting. In one sense Lupino and de Havilland are cast as characters who do match each star’s own screen persona. Ida Lupino is the passionate and intense Emily and Olivia de Havilland is the colder, more rational Charlotte. That’s fine and so is the age difference. Olivia de Havilland was a couple of years older than Lupino and that fits with Charlotte as the older sister. But the performances contradict this.

For me Lupino feels older, or more precisely, more ‘mature’. Olivia de Havilland comes across as a head girl type, a little prissy and certainly bossy but not really aware of what she is doing. Lupino is more ‘natural’ and ‘spiritual’. She also has a deeper voice and, as several commentators have pointed out, although the script is not very good, Ida Lupino manages to handle it much more effectively – it seems to make some sense when she speaks the lines. Other aspects of the production seem to confirm the distinction. Olivia de Havilland was at this point much more experienced in historical roles (all those prestige adventure pics with Errol Flynn) and her hairstyle and dresses in Devotion are not unlike those of a cavalry officer’s wife in They Died With Their Boots On (1941). Lupino’s hair and dress are more simple and more appropriate for a young woman on Haworth Moor – though the dress that laces up the front looks like a costume from The Adventures of Robin Hood.

An unlikely pose for the Brontë siblings on the studio set for Haworth Moor

The script is indeed terrible, but the cinematography, of mainly studio sets, is excellent and all the performances are better than the script deserves. It’s interesting to see Arthur Kennedy as Branwell. He seems to have spent a long time as a ‘junior’ figure in Hollywood films even though he was 29 when he took on this role. In one of his later roles, in The Lusty Men (1952), he plays the novice to Robert Mitchum’s ‘veteran’ rodeo rider (Mitchum was three years younger). It makes me wonder if the delayed release of Devotion held Kennedy’s career back. Nancy Coleman as Anne Brontë is marginalised by the script. Anne was herself a novelist, possibly the first of the three sisters to complete a book (Anne Grey, published in a ‘triple volume’ with Emily’s Wuthering Heights). Later she wrote the Tenant of Wildfell Hall (1848). Presumably the intention was to streamline the biopic narrative so that Anne’s position in the family is diminished. Again the casting seems odd. Anne, the youngest sister, was played by the eldest of the three actresses, although the one with least experience.

Everything comes back to the script. It appears to derive from a story written by the Romanian-born Theodore Reeves which was then worked into a screenplay by Keith Winter and Edward Chodorov. There is no reason to question the good intentions of these two writers. Winter was Welsh and had already worked on Forever and a Day which included a Lupino cameo in 1943 (though, because it was a ‘compendium film’, they might not have met). Chodorov would later become the writer for one of Ida Lupino’s most successful films, Road House in 1948. I can only assume that it was ‘front office pressure’ that produced such a strange script. Looking at the cast in 1943, it may have been that Warner Bros thought an ‘English story’ using several of Hollywood’s pool of British acting talent would work well in the context of America’s entry into the war.

One of the intriguing compositions featuring Ida Lupino and Olivia de Havilland

I shouldn’t end without some praise for Curtis Bernhardt’s direction. I enjoyed the film despite the silly script and read it as a ‘romance melodrama’ edging towards the ‘woman’s picture’ of the period. There is a Region 1 DVD from Warner Brothers – see the second trailer above. If you are in the UK, the Parsonage Museum in Haworth puts on screenings of the US DVD fairly regularly. I saw it in Haworth a few months ago.