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Friday, April 14, 2017

An Almost-Chiller From Universal

Eddie Takes a Guilt Trip Ahead Of Scarlet Street Ordeal To Come

Flesh and Fantasy (1943) Spins Three Supernatural Stories

Pretty punk transfer. At least I could see and hear it. Universal Vault is like going back to stone age that was syndicated TV, their DVD's too often stale Cracker Jacks and without a prize. But how else to see this ever-elusive omnibus with all-star cast at supernatural doings? You could ask why Flesh and Fantasy didn't make Screen Gems' SHOCK package with Universal others, then of course we'd have seen it two dozen times by age fifteen. There are three tales, none scary, but each engaging. I liked the middle one with Edward G. Robinson best, him offering prelude to a situation not unlike what later drove The Night Has A Thousand Eyes, more noirishly executed there. I felt for all of Flesh and Fantasy that Universal was holding back, not wanting to confuse this class offering with lowdown monster stuff being fed kids in same seasons. And yet 20th Fox did full-out horror for a carriage trade with The Lodger, plus there was The Uninvited, where Paramount proposed ghosts as real enough, and warned us to be wary of them.

Marvelous Creepy Setting, But Flesh and Fantasy Only Fitfully Pays Off On It

Flesh and Fantasy was done in-house by Universal, though produced by outsiders Charles Boyer (star) and Julien Duvivier (director). Boyer was free-lance after a contract period in the 30's with Walter Wanger, had been in hits, was recognized as a top romantic lead man who selected properties well. Duvivier was his friend who'd made a name in France, did films there that were known, if not seen, by US interests. He had lately come over to direct Lydia, with Merle Oberon, for Alex Korda, and then multi-storied Tales Of Manhattan, also with Boyer, and profitable for 20th Fox. Universal would sink much (for them) into Flesh and Fantasy, one of three "top-budgeted" pics (Variety) slated for late summer-fall '42 production. Other two of the group were Hitchcock's Shadow Of A Doubt, produced independently by Jack Skirball for U release, and Pittsburgh, an agent-packaged deal worked out by Charles K. Feldman, who had finessed as much with The Spoilers earlier that year. Universal had begun to embrace outside pacts where risk wasn't altogether theirs, half or more financing to come via partners.

Carny Setting Evokes Freaks and Later Nightmare Alley, But That's Where Comparison Ends

Director Julien Duvivier Rehearses Barbara Stanwyck
Flesh and Fantasy had distinction of a solid cast, putting product on track to class bookings, a thing Universal coveted and got with their Deanna Durbin and now Abbott and Costello series. Borrowings augmented a line-up that was, like Boyer, free-lance (including Barbara Stanwyck). From Warners would come Edward G. Robinson, plus John Garfield, who pulled out but days ahead of start, and got suspended by WB for his pains. Universal claimed to kick in $250K for promotion, which would, they said, be a highest- ever outlay toward sales. Truth in the claim was anyone's guess, but the pressbook was size of a Navajo blanket, so we may assume showmen were impressed. U was a company determined to leap the B fence and sup at wartime first-run wells. Extravagance translated to one more story than Flesh and Fantasy's pot could hold, four shot but room enough only for three once initial edit was done. Least starry of the group was Destiny, with contract pair Gloria Jean and Alan Curtis, this plucked off and released later as a stand-alone feature, direction filled out by studio mule Reginald Le Borg.

Flesh and Fantasy saw the future beyond theme of clairvoyance and dreams it wove. Here was precursor to short-form chilling that television would bleed white through decades to follow. Trouble with Boyer-Duvivier's mix was pull-back from scares we'd grow to expect where content peered into unknown. Blame Flesh and Fantasy restraint on studio timidity, censor threat, and belief a thinking audience wouldn't sit for spooks. Best for us, then, to approach Flesh and Fantasy in knowledge it will dodge creepy promise. Closer exam of the Val Lewton series from RKO might have inspired creative heads to juice this up, but as Flesh and Fantasy was pocket dramas of fate, and too polite to be explicit, outcome could be neither fish nor fowl. Watch this for parallels with U's Phantom Of The Opera of a same release year, both too formal-dressed to please Uni's monster army, then or now.


Blogger CanadianKen said...

I've always been frustrated by this one - in the sense that it comes so close to working. I think the initial sequence (with Betty Field) is indeed Lewton worthy (arresting opening image, settings and camera movement ultra-atmospheric - and that mask Fields wears is a thing of strange beauty). The middle section with Robinson does indeed have the best performances. He and Thomas Mitchell both serve up superb Oscar-level work. It's the third segment that stinks. A real waste of Stanwyck and Boyer - and since it serves as the film's finale, audiences exit on a dud note - one that tends to cloud the good impression from the earlier parts. I've seen "Destiny", the feature version of the excised Gloria Jean vignette. It concerns an escaped convict and a blind girl with an almost Carrie-like ability to control nature. I believe this is the section John Garfield was signed for. The okay Alan Curtis inherited the part but Garfield would have added some real punch. What they've added to make the thing feature-length practically destroys it - a lot of prosaic gangster back and post story for the Curtis character. It takes forever to get to the film's supernatural elements. But when they come they're wonderful. Jean's a charmer; there's a real fairy-tale atmosphere and the storm in the forest sequence is magnificent and scary. Something like Snow White's escape through the woods in 1937. What a shame "Flesh and Fantasy" couldn't have retained the 30 -35 minute version of this one and jettisoned the Boyer part. But - of course - with him as producer - I guess that was unlikely to happen. Too bad - because replacing it with the original Gloria Jean portion - would have turned this into a very good picture - instead of just two thirds of one.

7:52 AM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

Griff stops in with a comment and question about "Flesh and Fantasy":

I've never seen this. [Great title.] Considering some of the non-horrorific items that made it into the Shock Theatre packages, it's amazing this one was never included. Anyway, if it doesn't spoil matters, what in the heck does Robert Benchley have to do in this?

From John: Robert Benchley appears in the framing sections, but does not figure into any of the stories. He does get to open and close the show, however, with humorous asides and reaction to other-worldly elements of "Flesh and Fantasy."

1:44 PM  
Blogger Scott MacGillivray said...

Gloria Jean stole the preview, which put someone's nose out of joint, and the next thing she knew her sequence had been cut. While she was shooting it, her leading man was "always Alan Curtis" from the first day, so Gloria never knew that John Garfield had been the first choice.

Her sequence, filmed in mid-1942, was retrofitted in 1944 because she was about to leave Universal at the end of that year, and the studio had already promised exhibitors their usual three Gloria Jean features for the next year. So Universal hurriedly completed some half-finished projects that already had footage shot/scripts prepared/sets built, among them the FLESH AND FANTASY footage and FAIRY TALE MURDER (ultimately released as RIVER GANG in America).

Gloria will be 91 on April 14, and I think she's the only Universal star from the 1930s who is still with us. You can send her a fan letter or "happy birthday" e-mail at

5:36 PM  
Blogger iarla said...

With the Gloria Jean footage restored (check out "Destiny", minus the padding used to turn it into a 'feature') and the Boyer chapter excised, it would have been special.

4:47 AM  

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