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Thursday, August 06, 2020

18th Century Frolics On 1940 Plates

Jane Austen Gives Us "The Gayest Comedy Hit Of The Season"

Playful to a crowd-pleasing fault, I see easy why this Pride and Prejudice might have clicked, but hold, it did not, for MGM lost $241K in a year when most of what they released saw profit. Compare Pride’s worldwide rentals of $1.8 million with also-’40 Boom Town and its five million. No need asking why New York sales preferred more of the latter to burden of the former, and yet … Pride and Prejudice ran ideally to tastes of Radio City Music Hall, there a stunning four weeks, near-unheard of for the house, and demonstration that what was great for the Hall might not be so across a greater US. Prestige was served as reviews were expectedly good, Metro again congratulated for quality not common to commercial-chasing Hollywood. Pride and Prejudice is just out on Blu-Ray and so plays better than ever, unless you were among 1962 and later audiences who saw it as part of Leo’s “Perpetual Product Plan,” a reissue program of operettas and “World Heritage” features thought evergreen due to literary antecedents and the fact students would come by busload per school tie-ins. I wonder how much, if any, lifelong film crave resulted from ’62 field trips compulsory rather than chose. My own was hone via David Copperfield served enrichment style at a Gastonia matinee in 1969, brand new print and all, which was Metro-customary for these revivals. Jane Austen was less revered then (1940 or 62) than now, if the many recent adapts of her work are evidence, one (2016) pitting Pride and Prejudice characters against a zombie horde, but we’ll pass that.

Character types as cast in Pride and Prejudice go the gamut from Dickensian to down streets from Andy Hardy, a contradiction of faces and style that make this a still edible early eighteenth century-set pudding. All would have been familiar to 1940 viewership, past links to modern, or period costume, then modern again. Enter an Edna May Oliver (b. 1883) who you’d think could not exist in our time, engraved as she seemed upon Copperfield or A Tale of Two Cities when they were first published, or made as movies. As a representative of past centuries, Oliver was unimpeachable. Others could convince after fashion of past century birth and performance tied as much to then as a ’40 now. Melville Cooper (b. 1896), Edmund Gwenn (b. 1877), and E.E. Clive (b. 1883) lend such authenticity. These emerge believably from a Jane Austen world, or Dickens, or anyone that wrote with feathers. What gives Pride and Prejudice variety is players, many necessarily younger and/or bound by formed expectation. I rely upon Mary Boland to play as she had opposite Charlie Ruggles or as busybody support, so am not disappointed, or maybe I am frankly, because it seemed she was more Boland than Mrs. Bennet, and that was risk any casting director ran when using a too entrenched persona asked suddenly to modify the act, even if subtly. Boland wasn’t likely to do that, and it may not have been fair to expect her to.

The five Bennet sisters are necessarily young, so if MGM ingenues play them, they will register current, at least more so than seemingly genuine articles, like Edna May, et al, off a historical shelf. Costumes however lavish could carry the early 1800’s illusion only so far where “Polly Benedict” of the Andy Hardy series is wearing them. Maureen O’Sullivan has the primary sister role behind Greer Garson, her qualification earned for acting, and adequately, in period before, alongside Garbo, George Arliss, others that cracked earlier-era code. Simulating a past was not a thing to come natural, some of strongest latter-day personalities lost utterly where calendars turned way back on them. Applaud then fitness of Greer Garson for such commission as “Elizabeth Bennet,” plus Laurence Olivier, who seemed in initial movies better suited to remote periods, even as he was said to disdain the “Darcy” part. Garson was precisely a right actress at exactly the right time. From here through the war, the Music Hall would not have a more reliable draw. Everything they played with her crushed records. Hard to fathom now with Garson so forgotten, and audiences disinclined to enjoy her. TCM should do a month for stars enormous in their brief day and barely footnotes since. Names besides Garson? I’ll leave those for readers to suggest.

Jane Austen’s novel was perhaps more “famous” than read in the mid-30’s, so Metro bought a play adapted from it that was lately successful on Broadway. “Chuckling” crowds made comedy a best way in, and yes, Austen gave that, but updating would need laughs the more-so, hence promised instruct on “how pretty girls t-e-a-s-e-d men into marriage!” Pride and Prejudice had to be everybody’s Austen to have a chance, and “Filmed In The Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Manner,” which meant plenty to those who envisioned movie night out as at least a four course meal. Pride and Prejudice is best taken in a spirit of fun, serious matters but touched lightly with crises as quickly averted as they are introduced. This all was cater to what a 1940 audience was presumed to want --- in fact, I think it was only on such terms they’d suffer such content at all, and even then Pride and Prejudice failed, so down went Austen as screen source for decades to come. Did Metro wish in hindsight they had set Pride and Prejudice in modern times? The set-up would serve, endlessly, for them and others --- unwed daughters, harried parents, appropriate or not suitors. Maybe Pride and Prejudice was worth doing just to get that mousetrap built.


Blogger Kevin K. said...

As for oldtimers, don't forget Fredrick Kerr, who played Colin Clive's father in "Frankenstein" -- born in 1858! It's an eerie thing to see someone on your tv screen born 162 years ago.

As for TCM spotlighting the once popular, now forgotten: Richard Barthelmess and, of course, George Arliss.

4:31 PM  
Blogger Beowulf said...

Who is Greer Garson? Get me Greer Garson! Get me a young Greer Garson. Who is Greer Garson?

10:29 AM  
Blogger Dave K said...

The literary classic the whole summer class was hauled off to see was a re-issue of Selznick's ADVENTURES OF TOM SAWYER. I loved it but, honestly, was even more impressed that the theater threw in five color cartoons to boot. In high school, an auditorium full sat respectfully, if a bit sleepily through the 1954 ROMEO AND JULIET... the college audience that watched Zeffirelli's hotsy-totsy version just a few years later was a bit more engaged.

As to the used-to-be-big-is-now-not-so-much category, a unique status might be Eddie Cantor. His best films won't be widely screened in the foreseeable future for obvious reasons (they almost always contained a black face number.) Yet in his day this movie star, reportedly the highest paid at one point, had movie and radio execs tearing their hair over his 'pushy' liberal politics!

11:53 AM  
Blogger DBenson said...

In the 1960s my junior high class was hauled a long way to see the newly horizontal "Gone With the Wind" at a fancy widescreen cinema. I don't remember the book or movie being mentioned in the classroom at all, which was perhaps just as well.

I know movies find their way into classrooms via video (and once upon a time, 16mm), but do kids still get taken on cinematic field trips? For that matter, do schools still figure in new movie marketing at all? Certainly there's a lot of school-related merchandise for some films, but that's not quite the same.

4:00 PM  
Blogger Reg Hartt said...

Not the movie but the play. A story worth telling. My Grade 13 class in Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario, Canada studied T. S. Eliot's MURDER IN THE CATHEDRAL. I took to it like a duck to water. "There goes Reg<' said one girl when the teacher asked me a question. He said fiercely, "He is the only person in this class thinking."

After that each student gave what they felt long thoughtful answers, each longer than the one before them.

The capper arrived when a live production of the play came to town. Where on the page Eliot had four knights/murderers on the stage were five. The fifth was a very attractive young man who had nothing to do but stand there.

Naturally our teacher asked what we thought the reason for the change in symbolism. Each student gave longer answers that the one preceding. Finally he asked me. Everyone prepared for something deep.

I said, "The fifth person is a very attractive young man. He is either the producer or the director's boyfriend."

That led to a near riot. Afterwards the principal told me, "You have entirely the wrong attitude. If you leave this school today you will starve in two weeks."

I left. Had I not done so I would have starved. The world would be a different place. I arrived in Toronto that night friendless and homeless.

A few weeks later I met the young man. When I asked what he was doing in the play he said, "I was the director's boy friend."

So this is not totally unfilm related I got the British film version of MURDER IN THE CATHEDRAL on Blu-ray from the BFI. It's a winner.

6:10 PM  
Blogger Supersoul said...

Nearly forgotten today, but wildly popular throughout the 1930's and into the early '40's.He was incredibly good-looking, and an accomplished and versatile actor whose leading ladies were among the most popular actors of that era. In fact, it was none other than Bette Davis who named Brent as her favorite leading man of all time and that puts him at the top of some of the greatest leading men of all time.

Why is he virtually unknown today? Beats me. Go watch "Dark Victory" to see why Davis said what she did.

8:54 PM  
Blogger Neely OHara said...

As to Eddie Cantor, yes, Big star and forgotten today, but I think rightly so — in or out of black face he was always too broad, too frantic, to “in your face” for me to enjoy his films. I saw a pre-code George Brent the other night and was amazed — he was handsome, funny and charming. By the time he was a 4-F prop for Warner’s wartime leading ladies I found him to be a chunk of drift wood, surpassed on the “dull scale” only by Robert Young.

As to forgotten stars, I put forward Bing Crosby. By the time of his death, Crosby had been relegated to the occasional TV holiday special and Minute Maid orange juice commercials. This had to be death to a man who had not only been in the Box Office Top Ten for fifteen years -- five at #1 (winning a Best Actor Oscar along the way) -- but who simultaneously had a top rated radio show, and who, as a recording artist, made 1,700 recordings, 383 of which charted in the top 30, and OF those, 41 hit the #1 spot.

The two recent volumes (hope I love long enough to see the third and final installment published) of Gary Giddins’ exhaustively researched biography posits that he was the biggest star in the world for over 20 years, but if it weren’t for the annual arrival of White Christmas, he would be forgotten by most people today. (I recently encountered a 20-something who had never heard of Elizabeth Taylor. I think I’ll just head to the Actors’ Fund Home in Englewood now...)

1:01 PM  
Blogger Tbone Mankini said...

Last school trip to the cinema was 71 or 72 for a re release of DR ZHIVAGO... supposedly to tie up with Modern European History....Was absolutely riveted by a film that totally passed me by in 65, despite the ruthless hype at the time.....of course, by the time we got back to class the next day, most recalled almost nothing about the story or more importantly for the teachers, the context of the film....of course, the local cinema owner was laughing all the way to the bank, as he was used to having few, if any, customers in the afternoon,esp for a nearly decade old film....

3:36 PM  
Blogger William Ferry said...

I'm going to borrow a few choices from Douglas Brode in his book THE FILMS OF THE FIFTIES: Paul Muni and Jennifer Jones. Both were big deals in their day, but today are limited to real film buffs, as far as any popularity goes.

4:31 PM  
Blogger Supersoul said...

Far from being a 4-F prop, as you put it, he was an expert pilot, but had no military experience, therefore, at the age of 39,the Army did not want him even though he attempted to enlist. When rejected, he temporarily retired from films to teach flying as a civilian flight instructor with the Civilian Pilot Training Program and later became a pilot in the US Coast Guard for the duration of the war. Not too shabby for a draft dodger, huh? Whereas one might attribute Crosby's decline to such glorious attributes as his long history of being a mean drunk and who emotionally abandoned his sons from his first marriage which drove more than one of them to suicide. Perhaps it was stellar attributes like these that kept him out of the war. By all accounts Brent was a good man who did, in fact, serve his country, while Bing, in contrast, apparently only served himself a few too many cocktails.

6:12 PM  
Blogger Dan Oliver said...

Read Gary Giddens' biography and you'll see that you're being very unfair to Crosby.

8:52 AM  
Blogger Neely OHara said...

Supersoul — as to Brent’s being too old to serve as opposed to 4-F, I stand corrected. (BTW, 4-F means ineligible — I never called Brent a “draft dodger,” nor did I even imply such.)

I made observations about their abilities, popularity, and subsequent obscurity. I made (and make) no comment about either gentleman’s character.

3:07 PM  
Blogger William Ferry said...

Crosby did consider enlisting, despite possibly being eligible for some kind of deferment as the father of four. However, he was called to D.C. by Secretary of War Stimson who essentially said, forget it.

6:58 PM  
Blogger Kevin K. said...

As I read these comments, other actors come to mind. Maybe not great, but always watchable: Joel McCrae, Chester Morris, Kay Francis... Even Jack LaRue!

10:16 PM  
Blogger Reg Hartt said...

Anyone with a knowledge of show business knows it is a business which is Hell on its stars. Whatever drove Crosby down the spiral path drives many, far too many, down that path.

1:19 PM  
Blogger Filmfanman said...

The evidence of their talent is found in their recorded performances; the personal life of any mass-media performer is mere hearsay and speculation by comparison. I prefer to enjoy the performance, rather than roaming about the venue seeking to lift the curtains or to open closed doors to see what's happening behind them. Those curtains and doors are closed for a reason - and why spoil the pleasures presented by artful illusions?
Bing Crosby was a great singer, and like Elvis Presley, his saving grace as to his personal life may have been that he was an exceptionally good musician.
Yet all the merely personal stuff is like a mist that will burn off in time - the recorded performances are what will persist, and which will continue to exist of all presently deceased performers. It's there, in those recorded performances, that one must judge their talents. Judging dead entertainers beyond their public performances simply isn't part of my entertainment agenda.
That's why I still watch, listen to, and enjoy the performances of Bing Crosby, Elvis Presley, and George Brent. Not because they may or may not have been kind to widows, orphans, and dogs, or because they were or weren't cowards or super-patriots.

9:12 AM  
Blogger Lionel Braithwaite said...

Neely, said young person had never heard of Elizabeth Taylor because current day local TV stations in (North) America don't play movies that old anymore, nor do streaming services (that much). Another reason is that said young person has a life which does not involve watching movies as old as those of Elizabeth Taylor's for entertainment; it sounds hard to believe, but it's true. Streaming services (Netflix in particular) need to play them more, I'll admit, but to get younger people to watch them might be challenging due to current mores and views on the role of women and minorities in society, and what views older stars have that are repugnant to people of today (case in point, John Wayne's comment's in an old Playboy article that has now come to light, and has now tarnished his reputation enough to have his name removed from a airport and a college.)

7:38 PM  

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