Films: Drama/Romance


Reviewed by DAVID VINEYARD:         


THIS IS MY AFFAIR. 20th Century Fox, 1937. Robert Taylor, Barbara Stanwyck, Victor McLaglen, Brian Donlevy, Sidney Blackmer, John Carradine, Douglas Fowley, Robert McWade, Frank Conroy, Alan Dinehart, Douglas Wood, Sig Ruman. Screenplay: Lamar Trotti, Allen Rivkin (uncredited: Kube Glasmon, Wallace Sullivan, and Darrel F. Zannuck). Directed by William A. Seiter.

   This film is a nostalgic romantic musical set at the turn of the nineteenth century with a pair of real life lovers in obvious love with each other — no, it’s a tough crime tale about a super gang of bank robbers threatening the safety of the nation’s economy — no, its about a tough young undercover operative who falls in love with the showgirl sister of one of the criminals he is sent to arrest — no, its about corruption at the highest levels of government — no, it’s about Teddy Roosevelt — but it’s also a tough prison drama as the hour counts down to an innocent man’s execution — and it’s a psychological drama as one man tries to break another to reveal the mastermind behind the bank robbing scheme…

   Well, actually it’s all of that, and with that many elements it shouldn’t work, but still they do.

   I first saw this as an adolescent, and again as a young adult, then it was over forty years before I saw it again earlier this week on You Tube, so I was surprised how accurate my memory was about it, and shocked to find it was every bit as good as I remembered it. Not many films manage that. The look, script, performances, careful recreation of the era from familiar names and slang to the very acts performing on stage, all meticulously recreated and still retaining the charm they possessed then and when first released.

   The film opens with a group of nuns and children touring Arlington National Cemetery in contemporary (1937) times. They pause at General Sheridan’s grave, then the next stone reads Lieutenant Richard Perry, who no one has heard of, though as one nun notes he must have done something great for his country.

   The tour walks on, the camera lingers, and slowly fog and clouds take us back to Washington DC in the McKinley administration and a party at the White House where we meet Vice President Sidney Blackmer as the loud and ‘bully’ Teddy Roosevelt (the first of many times to play TR), then young Lt. Richard Perry (Robert Taylor) recently back from the Spanish American War with medals and the praise of his commander Admiral Dewey (Robert McWade).

   Perry barely gets to flirt with a pretty girl, however, before he is called back to a meeting alone with President McKinley (Frank Conroy). It seems a gang of bank robbers in the Midwest have been so successful they threaten the economy and the Secret Service is helpless because of a high level leak in Washington.

   Perry is known to be rebellious, independent, brilliant, and brave. He will be McKinley’s personal operative, communicate only by a special mark on letters he sends, and his status and existence unknown to any other human.

   You can see where this is going.

   Perry goes deep undercover and sets out on his quest to find the man at the top. (Several IMDb reviews missed entirely that McKinley isn’t sending him to catch bank robbers, but a high placed traitor in Washington — the perils of reviewing films before watching them.) The trail leads to Chicago and a new elegant saloon replete with illegal gambling run by Bat (Baptiste) Duryea (Brian Donlevy) and brutal practical joker Jock Ramsay (Victor McLaglen).

   The star of the show is Bat’s half sister Lil Duryea (Stanwyck) who Jock believes is his girl, though she does everything short of throw a drink in his face to discourage him.

   Naturally Jock is none too pleased to see handsome Perry take and interest and despite her best efforts Lil take an interest back.

   If the middle section drags a little, keep in mind Taylor and Stanwyck were about to marry and very much in love and this was designed to take advantage of that publicity to bring in women audiences. We may complain today there are too many musical numbers and the romance goes on a bit, but audiences in 1937 did not. They wanted to see the real life lovers devouring each other with every glance and Taylor and Stanwyck deliver. Especially Stanwyck who does everything but melt when she looks at Taylor.

   Perry soon realizes the key to the bank robberies and Mr. Big is Bat and Jock, and through Lil to them, but he’s is also in love with her by now. Still he penetrates the gang and soon Bat begins to see the advantage of a smart smooth operator over crude Jock with his unfunny practical jokes and card tricks that never work. And his sister loves Perry as well another bonus, because Bat is not without nuances, including genuine affection for Lil.

   Perry manages to get a letter to McKinley, but when the president informs his cabinet and Vice President, the traitor is among them. Perry had planned to resign and get out with Lil, but he is too close to run now.

   The Midwest is too hot, so they plan to hit a bank in Baltimore, but plans go awry when the police spring a trap and Bat is killed. In due order Jock and Perry are caught, tried, and sentenced to death for the man killed in the holdup shoot out. (Justice actually did move faster then — or at least law did.)

   Perry still doesn’t know who the top man is and plans to work on Jock as the date of execution approaches. The following scenes between Taylor and McLaglen are well done as Jock begins to unravel under the pressure. Perry plays Iago to Jock’s Othello who falls apart with fear and anger as the date of his hanging approaches, and the pull never comes to free him. Both men are effective in these scenes.

   It’s an impressive scene when Jock does break with half a dozen policeman in his tight cell struggling to restrain him.

   Now Perry can write the President, and gets warden John Hamilton to send his specially marked letter so he can be freed and the traitor exposed. Which, as any good dramatist would stage it, is the point when news reaches Perry that McKinley has been shot, and dies without waking up.

   Oooops.

   Perry’s only hope is to tell Lil the truth and send her to President Roosevelt (Sidney Blackmer), but when she finds out he was a policeman and her half brother died because of him, she turns on him and Perry has no where to turn as the hours near for the execution. The warden and the priest come for Ramsay, who has regained enough composure to do card tricks for the priest, and who looks forward to Perry hanging next.

   It isn’t giving that much away that Lil realizes she loves Perry goes to TR, is not believed, then is, then isn’t again until McKinley’s secretary calls a second time to confirm he was instructed to look with specially marked envelopes, but is it in time…

   Of course it is, this is Hollywood, not Stratford-on-Avon. Movie audiences still don’t want to mix too much irony with romance, and killing off Robert Taylor at that point would have killed the box office and word of mouth. These things aren’t film noir, happy endings, if at all possible, are required. Things would soon darken as the war approached, but in 1937 the odds of Taylor and Stanwyck not ending up in clench were microcosmic.

   The film was originally designed for the popular team of Tyrone Power and Alice Faye, then when they were out, Fox borrowed Taylor from MGM, and since he and Stanwyck were soon marrying this was guaranteed box office gold.

   Stanwyck sings her own numbers, and is sprightly, sexy, tough, and — well she’s Barbara Stanwyck and at a point in her career when she made one good or great movie after another. Taylor has some strong scenes in the prison and handles them with skill, his desperation quite real, and his manipulation of Jock has a tough sadistic edge we would not see in him again until the post war era.

   McLaglen chews the scenery with the best of them and yet delivers moments that will recall his Oscar-winning role in John Ford’s The Informer. Donlevy does well with a good bad man, but then he always did. The rest of the cast is capable with Douglas Fowley and John Carradine as henchmen.

   But one actor stands out.

   Sidney Blackmer’s Teddy Roosevelt comes close to stealing the movie every time he is on screen. He is full blooded, bully, enthusiastic, boisterous, loud, and altogether Teddy. He played TR in at least three other movies (uncredited in William Wellman’s Buffalo Bill), and on television, and like Raymond Massey’s Lincoln, it is the role he is best remembered by.

   He was still a popular character actor as late as his role in Rosemary’s Baby but he seldom had a part with this much energy. He also played Anthony Abbot’s (Fulton Ousler) Police Commissioner Thatcher Colt in The Panther’s Claw, and Colt was modeled on TR.

   Director William A. Seiter had a good career that began in 1915 and lasted into television (he made the switch in 1955) up to 1965. If not an auteur, he was capable and professional in the manner of a George Sherman or Woody Van Dyke and helmed all sort of films ably, while screenwriters Lamar Trotti and Allen Rivkin went on to better things.

   This is a nostalgic postcard from the past, tinted with sepia and rose colored glasses, the early years of the 20th Century as only Hollywood could do them. You wouldn’t be too surprised if Perry turned out to be Nicholas Carter and this came straight from the Nickel Library and the pen of Frederick Rennasler Dey himself.

   If the film misses a beat I have never noticed it. It is exactly what is means to be, and to expect anything more or damn it for not being anything else is to totally miss the point that it is perfect for what was intended.

   I cannot find it in myself to criticize any film for being exactly what the audience wanted and the director, screenwriters, and producer intended. Doing anything different would have upset the delicate balance that allows this to work, and in 1937 no one wanted to see the film noir version of this story.

   It’s like complaining because there is no CGI in Snow White or Bert Lahr doesn’t look much like a real lion in The Wizard of Oz as far as I’m concerned, it completely misses the point. It is well and good to not like it for what it is, but don’t condemn it for not being what it was never intended to be.

   For what it is, its a wedding cake topper for an attractive young couple when they were at their most beautiful and has just the right mix of romance, comedy, melodrama, and grit to entertain anyone who loves movie movies. It is a perfect example of they don’t make them like that anymore with all the flaws and genius that statement encompasses. Seeing it again after forty years I was astounded at what good taste my fourteen year old self had in liking it and remembering it so well at the time.

   To think they used to give away dishes to get people to come in and see movies this good.

Reviewed by DAVID VINEYARD:         


THE FUGITIVE. RKO Radio Pictures, 1947. Henry Fonda, Dolores Del Rio, Ward Bond, Pedro Armendariz, J. Carroll Naish, John Qualen, Fortuno Bonanova, Rodolfo Acosta. Screenplay by Dudley Nichols, based on the novel The Power and the Glory by Graham Greene. Directors: John Ford and Emilio Fernandez, the latter uncredited.

   Asked by a journalist to name the top three American film directors of all time, Orson Welles replied honestly: “John Ford, John Ford, and John Ford.”

   Certainly Welles was being clever, but he was also being honest. When it comes to film directors, there is John Ford and then there is everyone else.

   I will be clear. I would reply to this day exactly as Welles did, though I would add the finest film director who has lived to this date.

   So take this project, The Fugitive, the film version of Graham Greene’s stunning novel of faith, guilt, and redemption, The Power and the Glory, only surpassed in his own work by The Burnt Out Case, his finest achievement as a serious novelist. Add to that a screenplay by the brilliant Dudley Nichols, and topped with a cast of Ford’s favorite everyman Henry Fonda, and what you have is …

   A misfire.

   A misfire, because you could not find two men more diametrically opposed in outlook, philosophy, and their shared Catholic faith than John Ford and Graham Greene. Ford’s film adaptation is faithful and direct, often straight from the novel. But where Greene wrote his novel as a deeply conflicted Catholic uneasy with his faith and all too aware of the futility of his heroes victory, John Ford made a movie about the Christ-like sacrifice of a flawed priest and the ultimate triumph of the church through the ascension and symbolic resurrection of his hero.

   It’s the exact same story, save Greene’s novel is one of the closest he came to writing a tragedy, Ford’s is a sentimental and triumphant parable about the redemption of the faithful in Mexico through the sacrifice of a flawed man rising to ascension in the footsteps of Jesus.

   The story is simple. In the 1930‘s parts of Mexico were under the control of a secular anti-Catholic, anti-faith, near police state where there was a bounty on the head of any priest ministering to the people. The Catholic Church responded by sending priests in lay disguise into the country to attend to the religious needs of the faithful from last rites to confession. The hero of Greene’s novel is one of these, a Mexican priest returned to serve his flock.

   Here Ford and Greene hove close to each other. The young priest (Henry Fonda) is what was known then as a ‘whiskey’ priest, one who had failed in his duties, fallen into sin, and in this case even had an affair with a Mexican woman, Dolores del Rio. On the ship entering Mexico with the priest is an American bank robber (Ward Bond) who will play the good thief to the priest’s Jesus, also true to the novel.

   Meanwhile a lieutenant in the Federales, Pedro Armendariz, knows a priest has entered his territory and is determined to find and execute him.

   Greene’s hero, is frightened, uncertain of his mission, tempted by drink and sex, and struggles with his faith in lieu of the pressure on him from all sides to turn back and abandon this suicide mission. Ford’s priest is seeking redemption, is near Christlike in his determination to repent for his sins, and finds peace in his mission and ultimate fate.

   Greene’s novel is never sentimental and only symbolic in its questioning: an allegory of fragile men battling intolerance and evil, but flawed and weak and ultimately all too human. Though Greene’s hero meets the exact same fate in front of a firing squad after being betrayed by metizo J. Carroll Naish, a whining slimy treacherous Judas figure, his death in the novel redeems no one, not even himself.

   Ford’s film, though is full of beautiful Christian imagery borrowed from the great works of religious art from Michelangelo and Leonardo to Rembrandt. Shot in stark black and white on location in Mexico, it is a stunning looking film as you might expect from Ford. Ford’s priest dies as triumphal as the risen Christ with the Lieutenant’s Pontius Pilate unable to wash the innocents blood from his hands. In the novel the Lieutenant at best feels a certain guilt at having killed the priest, and questions his work.

   Nothing demonstrates the difference between film and book as the ending does, though it is almost word for word the same in both. After the whiskey priest dies, a Catholic family silently mourns him and waits for a relative to die without the last rites. There is a knock at the door and a child goes to open it. A man stands in the doorway and begins to announce he is a priest, but before he can speak the child silences him with a finger to his lip, and he enters the darkened home.

   In Greene’s version we are meant to recognize the futility of the priest’s sacrifice. However noble it was, the Church would always send another man because the Church transcended individual sacrifice. In a sense Greene’s hero has saved no one’s soul but his own and maybe the thief’s. He accomplished little, died for his efforts, but was only a cog in the machinery of faith. His sacrifice was an illusion that has meant nothing to anyone but himself and will be forgotten by everyone but a handful of people, lost even as his body lies in unconsecrated ground no last rites read over it to ease his soul heavenward.

   The book is not tragic because he does overcome his flaws, but just how necessary that sacrifice was is questioned. It is the work of a deeply faithful and conflicted Catholic, himself held captive by guilt and self recognition. The novel is a deep and troubling question about the necessity of sacrifice and the blindness of faith.

   That same scene in the Ford film is triumph, the rising of Christ Himself, reborn in this new anonymous priest. The Church has defeated the forces repressing it. The priest has defeated his enemy’s in death and his own inner demons, their power is broken, the faithful have triumphed, the music rises, the priest silhouetted in the door way is Christ, the child mankind saved by his Grace.

   Ford’s film is sentimental, worshipful, a paean to the power and glory of the Church, and yet the title of the novel, The Power and the Glory, is ironic and the Church would have triumphed and continued with or without the priest’s sacrifice. The film is heavy handed, it’s message delivered with a sledge hammer of symbolic images and barely concealed metaphors. A revival would be less obvious.

   The novel leaves questions unanswered, the ending is ironic and a bit bitter, the priest’s sacrifice of little matter however Christ-like its nature. Greene is uncertain if it is necessary or pointless for a good man to die. Good Catholic that he was, Greene is clearly wishing he could change the outcome and let the priest find happiness with the woman. The author’s conflict, not the parable. make this a great book.

   The Fugitive is not a bad film. Like most Ford films, it is gorgeous to look at, literate, and the acting by Fonda, del Rio, Bond, Armedariz, and Naish well above average. It would likely be a more respected film if it had just had the courage to question faith and sacrifice as Greene’s novel did. Instead it is as sentimental about the faith as Going My Way or Boys Town.

   The power of the novel is lost in Christian symbolism, the glory of its telling sacrificed to just another heavy handed Hollywood religious parable about as subtle, but not half as much fun, as de Mille.

   Greene famously disliked the film, with some justification, both as the author and as a noted film critic, but then he was never very happy with any of the American films of his work, and expecting him to appreciate one by the sentimental Irish American patriot John Ford was probably too much to ask.

   The Power and the Glory did get a more faithful adaptation in a film made for British television and released theatrically, starring Lawrence Oliver as the whiskey priest and Claire Bloom the woman he loves. This version dares to ask the questions and pose the conundrums Ford’s film shies from. It may be the only time in history the made for television version was better than the theatrically released feature. It is certainly one of the few times anyone made a better film than John Ford using the same source.

BAD FOR EACH OTHER. Columbia Pictures, 1953. Charlton Heston, Lizabeth Scott, Dianne Foster, Mildred Dunnock, Arthur Franz, Ray Collins, Marjorie Rambeau, Lester Matthews, Rhys Williams. Screenplay: Irving Wallace & Horace McCoy. Director: Irving Rapper.

   This movie is available on DVD in a set of four films billed as Bad Girls of Film Noir, Volume 1. While I’ll name them below, I won’t comment at length on the other three, but to be blunt about it, Bad for Each Other is the kind of film that gives noir a bad name.

   Don’t blame the movie. It is what it is, a black-and-white doctor drama that when it was made had no intention of being related to any of the host of crime films, spy dramas, gangster movies, mystery thrillers, and even the occasional historical mini-epic from the late 40 and 50s that are all lumped together in the guise of being noir. Some are. Most aren’t. “Noir” is now often little more than a marketing device.

   There isn’t even a crime in this one, only the moral dilemma some members of the medical profession (Dr. Tom Owen, for example, as portrayed by Charlton Heston) must face: be idealist and work for pennies on the dollar that society doctors can make, catering to rich women with minor aches and pains, or be one of the latter and rake in the big bucks.

   Lip service is paid to the idea that Dr. Owen needs the money to be able to contend for the hand of one of the idle rich, Helen Curtis (cool husky-voiced Lizabeth Scott), twice divorced and the daughter of the wealthy owner of the mine back in Owen’s hometown of Coalville, PA, but the good doctor seems all too willing to be seduced by money instead and the easy way to get it. That Mrs. Curtis is only a trophy to be gained along the way seems all too clear, even at the sacrifice of his own reputation. (He has to cover anonymously for the head of his practice when the latter confesses that he can no longer do surgical procedures.)

   There are a couple of interesting plot lines that go nowhere. The story that remains is as limp as yesterday’s lettuce. Well-known hardboiled author Horace McCoy ought to have been embarrassed for putting his name on this one.

   Other films in this set are The Killer That Stalked New York (1950), Two of a Kind (1951 and reviewed here) and The Glass Wall) (1953). Two of a Kind starts out in fine fashion, but in my opinion fades badly. Comments on any of these most welcome.

Reviewed by DAVID VINEYARD:         


  SERENADE. (1956) Mario Lanza, Joan Fontaine, Vincent Price, Sarita Monteil, Vince Edwards, Harry Bellaver, Joseph Calleia. Screenplay Ivan Goff, Ben Roberts & John Twist, based on the novel by James M. Cain. Directed by Anthony Mann.

   After a four year hiatus, this was to have been Mario Lanza’s triumphant return to the screen.

   As such it’s hardly a triumph.

   Serenade is James M. Cain’s finest book according to most critics, and his biographer Roy Hoopes, and for once I agree. It’s a dark symbolic journey through hell to a kind of redemption complete with a Christ-like sacrifice. It tackles big themes, and for its time is quite blatant about the heroes bi-sexuality, and his reclamation of his manhood (Cain’s theme, not mine, so go after him if you must) thanks to Juana, an earthmother-like Mexican prostitute.

   The hero of the novel is a gifted singer who threw away his talent on pop music, thanks to his Svengali-like impresario and lover. On the skids, he has gone south to Mexico where he meets Juana, a woman he once had a passionate affair with, and after a death, they go on the run.

   Heavy on symbolism, the scene where the hero and Juana make love in the abandoned church, the sharks and the iguanas are all justly well remembered elements of the novel, and the hero’s plight becomes a metaphor for the corruption of modern society. Though readers here might prefer The Postman Always Rings Twice, Mildred Pierce, or Love’s Lovely Counterfeit, this is Cain’s greatest achievement as a novelist.

   The movie, not so much. Imagine trying to make a musical and woman’s picture of Under the Volcano or Day of the Locust, and that might be easier than this book.

   We open with Mario Lanza being discovered in the California vineyards. Under the guidance of beautiful but cruel Kendal Hale (Joan Fontaine) he loses his voice and flees her to Mexico where he meets young beautiful, rich, and passionate Juana Montes (Sarita Monteil). She is attractive, but hardly any of those other things Juana represents in the novel, and the scene where she dresses like a matador at a party and battles a mock bull is supposed to mirror a scene in the book, but instead plays like bad comedy.

   After the fourth musical number in the first twenty minutes, and following the awful title number by the usually great Sammy Cahn, you know this film has abandoned Cain for standard women’s picture country. That might have worked in Douglas Sirk’s hands, but this is clearly not a comfort zone for director Anthony Mann and screenwriters Goff, Roberts, and Twist.

   Vincent Price is good as Lanza’s friend and ally, but all you can think of watching him, is what he might have done as the controlling homosexual impresario.

   Granted, you couldn’t film Cain’s novel without a great deal of obfuscation at that time in Hollywood, but it didn’t have to be turned into this big Technicolor turkey either. A good noirish black and white film is lurking beneath this clown show.

   The novel is a blend of Hemingway, Graham Greene, and Christopher Isherwood in Cain’s own unique voice. It is full of memorable scenes, imagery that will stick in your mind, dark under currents tugging like riptides at unwary readers, and the restoration of the hero’s voice becomes a metaphor for his soul and his manhood.

   In the film the attractive Sarita Monteil couldn’t redeem Green Stamps, lives in a palatial ranchero William Randolph Hearst might envy, and it’s hard to believe she and Lanza like each other, much less become so indelibly tied that she virtually becomes his lost soul.

   Fontaine and Price try hard, but there is nothing here to work with. Mann does nothing that remotely resembles Anthony Mann, and the story plays as if it was written from Cliff Notes of the novel or the Classics Illustrated version.

   This is bad soap opera and a mediocre musical, with a star who returns to the screen fat and unconvincing. He isn’t bad, but at most he seems peeved rather than tortured by his lost voice and by implication masculinity. I’ve displayed more angst when I mislaid the car keys.

   The novel is dark, sensual, powerful, shocking, blatantly sexual, violent, noirish, and symbolic. It has the quality of a nightmare, but there is no awakening, only an ironic sort of redemption out of sacrifice and tragedy.

   Serenade the film is tired, trite, empty, slick, pointless, and disappointing. It did nothing to rebuild Lanza’s fading career, and stands as a black mark against Anthony Mann.

   The problem is that Serenade is exactly the movie you would expect Hollywood to make of Cain’s novel in the nineteen fifties. It is so what you would expect you could do a better satirical film about how Hollywood corrupts this kind of book. It is far and away Cain’s least film adaptation, and a sad fate for a stunning novel.

   The music is bad and Lanza fat, so his fans have no reason to watch it; the film is flat and unimaginatively shot so Mann fans have no reason to watch it even as completists. There is no redeeming performance by anyone who hasn’t been better elsewhere, the script is dull, and even Mexico doesn’t look that good in widescreen Technicolor.

   Read the book then rent Double Indemnity if you need a dose of James M. Cain’s unique perspective.

REVIEWED BY DAN STUMPF:         


THE HATCHET MAN. First National Pictures / Warner Brothers, 1932. Also released as The Honorable Mr. Wong. Edward G. Robinson, Loretta Young, Dudley Digges, Leslie Fenton, Edmund Breese, Tully Marshall, J. Carroll Naish. Director: William A. Wellman.

   Recently watched: The Hatchet Man, a Warners thing from 1932 with Edward G. Robinson as a respected Chinese Executioner working for the Tong in San Francisco. When he’s ordered to kill his best friend (played with slanty eye and lilting diphthong by Irishman J. Carroll Naish), he promises to look after his buddy’s daughter, and see that he never causes her any unhappiness… According to custom, this also includes marrying her.

   Time passes. And it passes quickly, because this is a Warners film, and only runs 74 minutes anyway. The daughter grows up to be a very fetching Chinese-American (played by Loretta Young?!) who obligingly marries Robinson — now a prosperous businessman — because he’s nice to her and her father would have wished it.

   She predictably falls for a flashy Chinese gangster about five minutes later, but when Eddie discovers them together he recalls his promise to Naish and breaks Custom by not killing them both. Instead, he allows them to go off together, a move that causes him serious loss of face in the community and eventual financial ruin.

   More time passes. Even quicker. Robinson, now a migrant field hand, gets word that Loretta and her new husband were deported to China, where he has put her to work in a brothel.

   Remembering his vow still, he makes his way to China for a richly satisfying ending that somehow manages to be melodramatic and cynical at the same time.

   This was directed by William Wellman at his tough best, and a real treat.

Reviewed by JONATHAN LEWIS:         


FIRE OVER ENGLAND. United Artists, UK/US, 1937. Flora Robson, Raymond Massey, Leslie Banks, Laurence Olivier, Vivien Leigh, Lyn Harding, Robert Newton. Based on a novel by A. E. W. Mason. Director: William K. Howard.

   Fire Over England is an historical drama set in the late 1580s. Based on a novel of the same name by A. E. W. Mason, the movie takes place during the reign of Queen Elizabeth as the Anglo-Spanish War (1585-1604) rages on.

   The film has a captivating plot, very good cinematography by James Wong Howe that makes excellent use of shadow and lighting, and a memorable soundtrack. It manages to pack quite a bit of action in 92 minutes. While there aren’t any truly outstanding moments in the film, it’s overall a well-executed project. The maritime fight scenes, in particular, are extremely watchable.

   We begin in the Court of Queen Elizabeth (Flora Robson). A frantic Cynthia, portrayed by Vivien Leigh in what was to be her first on screen performance with future husband Olivier, is fluttering about. Then we hear the film’s first voice. It’s that of James Mason, in an uncredited role as Hillary Vane, a distinctively bearded Englishman who we soon learn is traitor and an agent for King Philip II of Spain.

   Soon after, we encounter Michael Ingolby (Olivier), a patriotic, if somewhat youthful Englishman. He and his father, Sir Richard Ingolby (Lyn Harding), are traveling on an English vessel that is captured by the Spanish. Michael escapes and swims ashore. His father isn’t so lucky. Sir Richard Ingolby is captured and burned to death at the Inquisition in Lisbon. The younger Ingolby witnesses the smoke over Lisbon, learns that his father died there, and develops a hatred of Spain.

   But then it gets complicated, for he has developed feelings for Elena (Tamara Desni), a Spanish girl who saved him following his escape. Even so, Ingolby returns to England. There, he woos his beautiful fiancée, Cynthia (Leigh), and metaphorically butts heads with the Queen. His wit and daring impresses the publicly fierce, but privately fragile, monarch as to his true abilities and his loyalty. Soon, Ingolby assumes the now dead traitor Vane’s identity and returns to Spain to act as a spy in the palace of King Philip II (Raymond Massey, below and to the right).

   After a series of twists and turns and an coincidental but inevitable encounter with Elena and her now husband Don Pedro (Robert Newton), Ingolby makes his way back once again to his island homeland. Once there, he leads men in battle against the encroaching Spanish Armada. When it’s all over, it’s the burning of the Armada that in the end creates flames all over England. (In an earlier entreaty to the Queen, an impassioned Ingolby had warned of the Spanish menace and how, if the English did not act soon, the Spaniards would rain fire down on England.)

   With a cast such as this, it’s no surprise that the film benefits from its above average to superb acting, much of it quite theatrical. Olivier was around thirty years old when Fire Over England was made and his talent is on display throughout the film. Leigh’s work in the film led directly to her being cast as Scarlett O’Hara in Gone With The Wind.

   Although their onscreen pairing would culminate in real life marriage, the chemistry between Olivier and Leigh, while definitely palpable, just doesn’t come across as strong as that between Olivier and Desni. Perhaps that is the case because there was far more tension between Olivier and Desni’s characters than between Olivier and Leigh’s.

   For his part, Raymond Massey is perfectly fine in his portrayal of the rather taciturn Philip II. His is just not a particularly memorable performance. Flora Robson’s portrayal as Queen Elizabeth, however, really is quite remarkable. One just imagines that Queen Elizabeth would have come across quite similar to how Robson portrays her in this film.

   Released in 1937, Fire Over England does seem to make implicit allusions to England’s contemporaneous concerns over the rise of Nazi Germany. Spain is presented not just as a great power rival, but as a totalitarian force that threatens English liberty. It’s somewhat ironic then, that in film with such strong pro-English sentiment, that the characters with the most depth to them are the Spaniards, Elena and Don Pedro, both of whom are faced with far more difficult moral choices than any other characters in the film.

   In conclusion, Fire Over England is a well above average movie and one that anyone with an interest in early British cinema, in particular, should seek out. (The film is in the public domain, so there are likely copies of varying quality available.)

   While it may not be among the best historical epics ever produced, it’s still a very good film, one that showcases the talents of two actors who would go on to even bigger and better projects, both in the movies and in their personal lives.

REVIEWED BY WALTER ALBERT:         


  IS LIFE WORTH LIVING? Selznick Pictures, released by Select Pictures, 1921. Eugene O’Brien, Winifred Westover, Arthur Houseman, George Lessey, Warren Cook, Arthur Donaldson. Director: Alan Crosland. Shown at Cinefest 26, Syracuse NY, March 2006.

   Based on “The Open Door,” a Saturday Evening Post story by George Weston, this attractive film traces the fortunes of a young office worker who’s framed for a crime and after unsuccessfully trying to make a fresh start selling typewriter ribbons, has his suicide all planned and ready to be carried off when he rescues a young woman who’s fainted from hunger in a park.

   He carries her off to his boarding house and puts her in the care of his sympathetic landlady. He keeps delaying his suicide as he establishes a business with the young girl’s help to convince her that she’s repaying his good deed. The business unexpectedly takes off and he becomes wildly successful. Then the man who framed him reenters his life, and it appears that the young man’s success may be short-lived.

   Lewis Selznick, David O. Selznick’s father, apparently liked the story in the Post so much that he rushed the film into production. I’ve not read the story, but I certainly liked the film that resulted from it. It’s basically an Alger story with some wry twists that lift it out of that time-worn groove.

   I suppose that much of the attraction of the film lies in innocence reestablished and generosity rewarded, with a healthy dash of rooting for the young couple. In any case, I thought the film was a standout for its sympathetic characters and compelling situation.

Next Page »