Wednesday, November 25, 2009

The Great Garrick (1937) and It's Love I'm After (1937)


Greetings, patient readers. The saga of the Siren's Internet access would not make a good movie, unless you consider it compelling cinema to watch a woman screaming at a voice-recognition system because it doesn't recognize her voice. Today the Siren called and explained to a puzzled but pleasant Time Warner representative that she was very, very sorry she had said all those mean things about Time Warner because, bad as Time Warner is, Verizon is much worse. Anyway. Only intermittent access for the next week. The Siren will be strolling through occasionally, she hopes. At least the new abode is nice.

Meanwhile, the Siren doesn't want to leave her blog dark over the Thanksgiving weekend. So she is offering a post that is more on-the-fly than usual. The film books are still packed away, due to the sad fact that when you have a family to feed, finding the frying pan is of somewhat more practical urgency than locating your lost copy of Memoirs of a Professional Cad. (I miss that one in particular.) Nor do I have any idea where A Proper Job is located--we had excellent, careful movers but labeling wasn't their strong suit. My favorite so far was the box inscribed "Electronics" that contained most of my vintage handbag collection. Poor Brian Aherne may be lurking right next to the frying pan, for all I know.

And that is a pity, because I would have liked to re-read what he had to say about The Great Garrick from 1937, one of the Warner Brothers Archive DVDs I bought a while back. David Ehrenstein is a great fan of this James Whale film, and the Siren shares his high opinion. The Siren does recall that Aherne described how the part was created for him by Ernest Vajda, who pitched the idea to Aherne in the actor's living room one night. Vajda then pitched it to Mervyn Le Roy, with even more embellishments (and, one presumes, cocktails). Aherne claims that by the time the screenwriter got around to writing, as opposed to narrating, the story was changed and wasn't as good. It was also a box-office dud.

Well, perhaps Aherne's recollection was enhanced by the drinks he knocked back with Vajda, because the film is delicious, a great farcical fantasia about actors and role-playing in which, as Jonathan Rosenbaum puts it, "the art and pleasure of acting" is "demonstrated...in countless varieties of ham." (Elsewhere he compares it, with good reason, to The Golden Coach.) It is by far the best Aherne performance the Siren has seen. He gives you Garrick's magnetism alongside his occasional bouts of stage fright, but he also shows that neither mode is entirely free from performance. With the rest of the delightful supporting players, including Olivia de Havilland, Edward Everett Horton and Melville Cooper, Aherne makes you think artificiality is a better form of reality, if it comes with such gusto and commitment to the part.

Plus, the movie is gorgeous to look upon, with that otherworldly shimmer that Whale always gave his productions. The Siren was particularly enamored with the way Whale staged people within the frame. He had a massive cast to deal with, and they're all up to something whether they are center stage or off to one side, yet you always have a sense of where everyone is. And Whale had a great way with period interiors, shooting them like living spaces, not sets. Which begs the question, what does it mean to have fully inhabited 18th-century sets in a film about theatricality?



The Siren's WB Archive double-feature was It's Love I'm After, also from 1937, which paired so well with The Great Garrick that she would love to recreate the bill some time. It's Love I'm After isn't as beautiful or layered as The Great Garrick, but the Siren enjoyed it mightily all the same. It contains one of the few really good comic performances of Bette Davis. Now before you fire up the torches, do understand that Siren yields to no man or woman in her love for Bette. But, for all that Davis could deliver a choice witticism with matchless style in her dramas, in full-out farce she often smothered the laughs. (Exhibit A: The Bride Came C.O.D.) Here she has a funny script and an able co-star in Leslie Howard, and most of her scenes are hilarious.

Ah, poor Leslie Howard. Tied forever to Ashley Wilkes, a part he hated right down to his costumes. ("I look like a fairy doorman at the Beverly Wilshire," he groused, "a fine thing at my age.") The Siren has seen Gone with the Wind at least a dozen times, and she says with utter confidence that it isn't the least bit typical of his talents. Unlike Davis, his strength was comedy. Howard was the definitive Henry Higgins. (Do you hear that, Rex Harrison, you old scene-stealing so-and-so, from your perch in the afterlife?) Howard excelled in the foppish sections of The Scarlet Pimpernel, was witty and bright in The Animal Kingdom. Here, as ham actor Basil Underwood, Howard moves through many performance modes, trying on various roles. Like Aherne, he leaves us to question which scenes are Basil "on," and which are off. His line deliveries are a treasure. The Siren's favorite is, of course, "Who's Clark Gable?" which may be the most truthful moment Basil has in the picture. Lack of clairvoyance is a blessing, isn't it?

Yet another common feature of the films is Olivia de Havilland. Swaddled in furs and panniers in The Great Garrick, here Olivia comes down a staircase in a silk pajama thing that is as revealing as 1937 ever got. Her character, as in the Whale film, is the least clued-in of the bunch, playing for real while everyone else tries on roles. It's the most ingenuous of ingenue roles, but de Havilland manages to be funny and engaging.

And so, with an appreciative nod for the lady on her banner, the Siren wraps this up and wishes her patient readers the very happiest of Thanksgivings. She is very thankful that they continue to stop by, come light posting or even lighter posting, come Verizon or Time Warner. And that, my friends, is no line.

29 comments:

gmoke said...

Leslie Howard, I like his sense of humor even during his polemics for democracy in "49th Parallel." He was quite a charmer, as one of your previous postings certainly points out.

Peter Nellhaus said...

It's been many years since I saw It's Love I'm After, which was purely by chance. The movie played on late night television, and was the perfect antidote to the preceding movie, which had unnerved my mother, something called Psycho.

Happy Turkey to tu, Jad et famille.

Trish said...

I always loathed Leslie Howard until I saw him in films other than GWTW. Turns out he was a wonderful actor, and gmoke is correct. He is terrific in 49th Parallel (one of my favourites).

DavidEhrenstein said...

These films showthat the 30's -- not the 70's --was the great period for commerical American filmmkaing.

The studio system hand't hardened into standard-issue procedures for shooting involving "coverage" and tiresomely rote champ-contre-champ staing. There was a lot of experimentation as is obvious from Whale and also Dorothy Arzner (especially Working Girls) and even Mr. Cukor -- whose Sylva Scarlett is an utter joy. It was also an utter comercial failure -- which drove him to start picking up those hairpins more scrupulously (as did his leading lady.) It was also another great role for Brian Aherne, and would make a teriffic double feature with Garrick.


As I believe I've mentioned, The Great Garrick is most definitely Jacqes Rivette avant la lettre. The blurring of distinctions between theater and "real life" is there (though not th paranoia) and I daresay it would make a great compare/contrast with L'Amour par Terre and Va Savoir.

DavidEhrenstein said...

Don't forgewt Leslie Howard in Of Human Bondage and The Petrified Forest!

He's very much a man of his era. Had he lived it's hard to imagine his changing his style to accomodate the 40's shifts in dramtic emphasis. Films like The Petrified Forest where he goes toe-to-toe with Bogart's macho psychopath vanish in an era devoted to conventional "masculinity." Cary Grant more thna survives of course but he as alwasy was the exception to the rule.

Trish said...

And The Scarlet Pimpernel. Truly delightful.

Arthur S. said...

There are parts of The Great Garrick that are almost Godardian in it's self-reflexivity. My favourite moment is the beginning after Garrick's boast and the crowd going "Teach the French...Teach the French", the way they approach theatre as if it's a soccer tussle.

As for the 30s being the great period of American cinema...well it's certainly the most optimistic, that's for sure. My personal opinion is that until the 1980s, American Mainstream cinema had a good long creative spurt. The 1960s being a low but respectable period while the 70s being a total explosion and the 50s being the High Modernist period of American cinema. The 40s were great and excellent too.

What I like about Garrick and other 30s films is the way it blurs genres and mixes and matches tones. Other films that did it was Me and My Gal by Walsh, the Cukor movie mentioned by David E., Picture Snatcher, Borzage's Bad Girl, Lang's You and Me and othe movies.

Karen said...

I'm a huge fan of Leslie Howard--I agree that he's the definitive Higgins--and am happy to be the first to put in a vote for Pimpernel Smith, his WW2 reworking of The Scarlet Pimpernel. It's a lovely mashup of comedy, adventure, and idealism. I adore the opening scenes of Howard as Oxbridge don, striding along the hallowed walls and rebuffing all who would detain him--then clearing his classroom of women by presenting a staggeringly anti-feminist screed, all done so he could talk his male students into coming with him on his anti-Nazi freedom runs.

The ending is particularly haunting, especially in light of Howard's own fate.

Robbie said...

Ah, Olivia de Havilland! One of my favorite actresses of all times! Recently went to a documentary screening of film called "I Remember Better When I Paint" and was delighted to discover that Oliva is narrator of the film and she was all present at the screening. As beautiful and talented as ever.

Trish said...

OMG, I forgot about that one, Karen! I actually saw it before seeing The Scarlet Pimpernel. Yes, Howard is definitely the better Higgins. I'm going to duck after I say this, but Rex as Higgins is on my DO NOT LIKE list. Shut up, dear boy!

DavidEhrenstein said...

Rex was A REAL PIECE OF WORK.

He drove both Carol Landis and Rachel Roberts to suicide.

Mankiewicz was his best director. I like him in Cleopatra, The Honey Pot and The Ghost and Mrs. Muir.

Karen said...

I simply adore Harrison in The Ghost and Mrs Muir! SO much to love about that film. I also love him in Night Train to Munich and Blithe Spirit. He MUGS too much as Higgins, though. Howard set just the right tone.

Trish said...

Agreed. I definitely like him Ghost and Mrs. Muir and Night Train to Munich. Not so much in Blythe Spirit. I've heard that Daniel Day-Lewis is being pursued as the next Henry Higgins, a prospect that fills me with joy.

Trish said...

David, I know, and every time I look at Rex it's hard not to think of him as a murderer....

Juanita's Journal said...

I rather liked Bette Davis in "THE BRIDE CAME C.O.D.". However, I heard that she and James Cagney had a low opinion of the script and spent most of the production laughing at it.

Anagramsci said...

I like Bride Came COD too--I mean, it's not a major comedy, that's for sure, but it does boast an extraordinary cast (love Harry Davenport!)--and Bette scores big time (in my opinion) with her delivery of the immortal line: "Mustard!"

The Siren said...

Add a vote from the Siren for Harrison in Unfaithfully Yours. He's wonderful. Also Night Train and Ghost and Mrs Muir. In My Fair Lady, though, I agree with Karen. You feel that every single effect has been calibrated in front of an audience--which it had, of course, but it isn't what you want in a movie.

The story goes that during the stage run, Harrison became chagrined over the huge ovation Julie Andrews would get after her blistering delivery of "Without You." So he started stepping on the applause by coming in immediately with a huge laugh and his next line. And the Siren believes this story because he even does it in the movie!

Hiller and Howard have wonderful chemistry, which Hepburn and Harrison did not. (Hmmm, H&H, H&H -- meaningless but cute.)

Yojimboen said...

The question everyone over a certain age can answer: Where were you when JFK was assassinated? Me, I was in the National Film Theatre in London watching…
Unfaithfully Yours.
I haven’t been able to watch it since.

Karen said...

I was coming home from kindergarten, where I found my mother weeping in front of the radio, where she always listened to Arthur Godfrey.

Haven't been able to listen to him since. Although I'm pretty sure that has nothing to do with the assassination.

Trish said...

I was in Grade one, and home for lunch. We watched "The Flintstones" as usual, then returned to school in time for the 1:10p.m. bell. When we arrived back in class, we found the schoolyard deserted, and our teacher alone at her desk. Miss Baker was in tears and hovered over a small green radio. We were Canadians living in a border town, and we were sent home. When we arrived, our mom was in front of the tv, well into the news coverage. I'm ashamed to admit to childish resentment when all of my cartoons were preempted. How selfish!

DavidEhrenstein said...

I had walked to Queensboro Community College (it was walkable form my house in Flushing) to pick up a prospectus. On my ay back I stopped at a candy stroe when word of the shooting forst came over the radio. I started to run home. On my way a car barelling down the street stopped right next to me and drive yelled out "He's Dead!"

Then I got home and watched everything. For a solid week there was nothing on the tube save grief coverage.

Finally Sunday rolled around again and Judy came on and did THIS.

DavidEhrenstein said...

Godard turned 79 today.

The Siren said...

Good news - Internet finally up and running at the Siren's place. Regular posting to resume shortly. Happy Birthday to Jean-Luc Godard, and thanks to David for the remembrance.

Donna said...

Apropos to nothing, but I see Siren's mention of H&H and all I can think of is Horn and Hardart.

Leslie Howard is letter perfect as Henry Higgens, it is as perfect a performance as is the previously mentioned Scarlett Pimpernel. I've missed Pimpernel Smith.

Trish said...

Did Godard sign that Polanski petition, protesting the director's confinement in jail for a rape he committed 30 years ago? Considering that Europeans don't consider rape "rape" (Whoopi's words), I wouldn't be surprised, but no less disturbed. Or is it that so many of the signatories have themselves committed "indiscretions" and don't wish to appear hypocritical...?

DavidEhrenstein said...

About rape (Polanski is mentioned in passing)

Buttermilk Sky said...

I saw Rex Harrison in a NY stage production of "Heartbreak House" and he was wonderful, better than any film performance of his I've seen. Now I learn (from Mark Harris's "Pictures At a Revolution") that he was also a drunk and a racist who treated Anthony Newley with particular cruelty during the misbegotten "Dr. Dolittle." Maybe it's better not to know everything about people we admire.

The Siren said...

Trish, I don't think Godard signed for Polanski. It was a relative handful that stuck their necks out in that way, as the screenwriter for A History of Violence pointed out in an acerbic LA Times column (which I recommend).

Buttermilk, Harrison is that rare performer, like Peter Sellers, of whom it is hard to find ANYONE with something good to say about him as a person. As I recall Vincente Minnelli is polite about Harrison in his memoirs but that's about it. All the same, I would have loved to see Harrison in Heartbreak House.

X. Trapnel said...

Any recent sightings of Noel Harrison? Gray, shaggy, and running a sheep farm with Stacy Tendeter on the Welsh/English border.