Monday, May 17, 2010
Son of Fury (1942)
The Siren had a great time with Son of Fury: The Story of Benjamine Blake, which she just saw on impulse. Besides, you know what this blog really needed? Another George Sanders movie, that's what. We were running low.
Given her love of swashbucklers and Sanders, the Siren probably would have seen Son of Fury ages ago if it weren't always billed as a "South Sea Island-er." We all have certain plot elements that make us groan, and when the Siren hears about the South Seas she practically howls. As sure as death, taxes, and Hugh Hefner's girlfriends using too much self-tanner, you will get:
1. Flowers everywhere, waving palm trees, cute little huts, a secluded lagoon (see no. 4);
2. The king/chieftain/whatever, initially itching to kill the Handsome Western Stranger but abruptly turning all wise and avuncular;
3. At least one native girl, usually played by an actress from any corner of the globe except the South Seas, giggling over the HWS;
4. the HWS going swimming with the native girl in the secluded lagoon, so you get lots of underwater shots and the girl dog-paddling in a flirtatious manner;
5. the native girl falling in love and living only to serve her HWS, and the HWS falls in love too because the girls back home are such a drag with their shoes and their petticoats and their bad attitudes and the way they never once think to serve you fish wrapped in a banana leaf.
This shit is so persistent that some of it pops up as late in 1984 in the revisionist version of The Bounty. The Siren finds the setting bearable only if there's a fun twist, like everybody getting washed out to sea at the end of The Hurricane. And the Siren warns you that the South Seas portion of Son of Fury hits all the points. Fortunately the tropical paradise stuff forms only about one-third of the movie, and the other stuff, including Frances Farmer, Sanders and Tyrone Power, is great. Plus, John Carradine is loping around the island with Power, louche and gloomy as ever, and Carradine pulling his endless tape-measure body out of a hammock takes some sting out of Gene Tierney in permed hair and a sarong that drapes carefully over her belly button.
The plot hews closely to the ur-swashbuckler theme of usurped inheritance, with evil baronet Sir Arthur Blake (Sanders, bien sûr) forcing the real heir, his allegedly illegitimate nephew Benjamin Blake (Roddy McDowell), to become his bonded servant. Ben sticks around long enough to grow into Tyrone Power and fall in love with his beautiful cousin Isabel, played with gusto by Frances Farmer. Fed up with his brutal uncle, Power runs away to the South Seas in order to make his fortune so he can come back and get even.
Now when people discuss Sanders, a frequent topic is his way with a drily funny line, and as Addison DeWitt his delivery is a joy forever. But think also to Addison and Eve in the hotel room. As Sam Staggs and others have noted, the scene suggests S&M roleplay to the point where Baxter's collapse onto the bed is a climax in more ways than one, Sanders leaning in for the kill: "And you agree how completely you belong to me?" So often he is playing a man reserved to the point of iciness, but one you just know is a world-class freak once the bedroom door slams shut.
All of Sanders' best roles employ this side of him, and Son of Fury is one hell of an illustration. When the movie opens Sir Arthur is bare-chested and pummeling the stuffing out of some bit player, as part of a late 18th-century amateur boxing match. It isn't the way Sanders lands the punches that tips you off about Sir Arthur, it's the way he savors the moments between, eyes widening and chest heaving in anticipation. Later he beats Roddy McDowell and plays it the same way, prompting the child to declare, "I'll never submit." Hmmm.
But the high point arrives during a masquerade ball, where Sir Arthur catches Ben (now Power) making a passionate declaration of love to Isabel. Sir Arthur summons his nephew to the stables. They enter and have a nice long moment of eye contact before Sir Arthur declares that it's time to continue Ben's education in the "manly art of self-defense," adding, "it is time you learned to give as well as take." They punch one another to the tune of more roaring double entendres--the Siren's favorite, spoken by Sanders of course, being "Take off your coat and your education will begin."
A minute or two later, as the Siren was reeling back on the couch trying to convince herself that yes, she'd heard what she just heard, Power takes an almighty overhead wallop from Sanders and collapses on the floor. And Sanders pulls a whip off the wall and starts flogging him, and there's shots of Power unconscious on the floor, profile prominent and lashes fluttering. The ball guests pound on the stable door and finally break in and someone grabs Sanders' whip out of his hand and begs him to stop "for mercy's sake." Sanders staggers off, sweaty, panting and spent.
People, this is one dirty scene.
Alas, that's the last of Sanders for a while, although once we've dispensed with the island idyll he does come back, thank god. Power flees to Bristol where he's sheltered by a barmaid, played with unaffected sweetness by Elsa Lanchester in a nice couple of scenes. He stows away on a ship bound for the Spice Islands and becomes part of the crew, but not without getting knocked around by the first mate. Power gets physically chastised a lot in his movies, ever notice that?
Anyway, all the sexuality pouring off Sanders makes for a nice contrast with Power, who had a purity that seemed to come partly from his wondrous looks, and partly from something innate. To some it reads as closed-off or wan, to others (like the Siren as well as Myrna Loy, who confessed to being in love with him) it's key to the actor's appeal. Power could play attraction, infatuation and love quite well; base lust, not as much.
So when Power jumps ship with Carradine and meets Gene Tierney, whom he christens Eve (blech), their scenes play even cuter than such stuff usually does and they have to carry off the romance via their beauty. It sure isn't chemistry; Power plays much more believably against Farmer in the earlier scenes. Tierney was very young and utterly exquisite, but what could she do with a screenplay that demands she learn English by looking at Power with shining eyes and chirping, "Earth!" while pointing up at the sky. The Siren kept hoping Sanders would show up shipwrecked, but no dice. No, we go through all the scenes enumerated above, and Power dives for pearls in a really baggy set of swimming trunks, and finally a ship arrives to take him back to England and revenge.
Director John Cromwell has a number of good-to-great movies on his resume, but not much auteur cred. Son of Fury is too uneven to make a solid case for his talents--for that you'd need Caged or The Racket or (the Siren loves this one) The Enchanted Cottage. Gareth McFeely points out that Cromwell seems much more interested in the English scenes than in the island paradise, and the Siren seconds that emotion. For that matter, she could say the same of Arthur C. Miller, the brilliant DP who also shot How Green Was My Valley. The island is just pretty; the streets and rooms of England are enthralling. Miller had a way of lighting scenes so that the foreground looked lushly detailed, sharp and accurate, but the background was left in inky shadows that suggested an era without electricity as well as acres of more period stuff stretching beyond the confines of the set. Plus, everyone looks gorgeous. Even Henry Davenport.
Back in England, Power has brought Farmer a string of pearls and declared that he still loves her. (Farmer is throatily sexy and sinister in her few scenes; it is sad indeed to recall that this was her last movie before she was institutionalized.) Farmer's response is to betray her cousin to Sanders. It's no avail, however; Power's legitimacy is revealed in a court scene and Sanders must hie back to the ancestral manse and plot his next move. It's all building to the final confrontation between Sir Arthur and Ben, but the scene preceding that inevitable fight is the last one to relish in Son of Fury.
Sanders slinks into Farmer's bedroom and says he hopes "you won't forget your poor old father after he's broken and humbled," while looking like he's no such thing. Farmer points out that she's doing fine, since Power has asked her to remain as his wife. And just when you thought Sir Arthur could not possibly get any more deviant, he sidles over to his daughter, picks the pearls up off her neck with a caressing little flourish and purrs, "Now that has possibilities." Moments before Power barges in, Sanders is sitting at the table eating grapes, with little finger-wiggles after each one meets his mouth.
All this, mind you, in 98 minutes. So, is Son of Fury a lost classic in need of reappraisal? Well, no. But it was so much fun the Siren wanted a cigarette afterward.