Tuesday, September 29, 2009
Ever see a movie that was bad, that announced itself as bad from the opening moments and never really got any better, and yet you could not bring yourself to miss a single moment? Such was the Siren's reaction to Devotion, the Brontë Old Dark Moors fantasia that TCM showed last week on a double bill with Wyler's Wuthering Heights. Devotion is a survey course in everything that ever goes wrong with Hollywood biopics.
Inscrutable casting? Check. The very American Arthur Kennedy as Branwell Brontë, the worldly, wised-up Ida Lupino as reclusive Emily, the beautiful man-magnet Olivia de Havilland as plain, yearning Charlotte, the extremely Continental Paul Henreid as the Reverend Arthur Nicholls.
Appalling liberties taken with the facts? Check. Emily conceives a hopeless passion for Nicholls and spends the rest of the movie mooning over him, in a perfect example of Hollywood's prosaic approach to the interior lives of artists. Never mind Emily Dickinson or Robert Herrick--fiercely sensual writing must have its origin not in the imagination, but rather in some sort of literal love affair. For years some people would try to prove that Branwell wrote Wuthering Heights, due mostly to the immensely irritating notion that a woman living a circumscribed life couldn't conceive of such tormented, passionate lovers. Devotion's screenwriters at least attribute the novel to the right author, but attach an "explanation" for Heathcliff and Cathy that is almost as insulting to Emily.
De Havilland, an exquisite beauty who seems to have bowled over male directors and costars like so many ninepins, had the odd fate of frequently playing the plain (Gone With the Wind), the spinsterish (To Each His Own, Hold Back the Dawn) or both (The Heiress). Her talent could usually make you believe in the character, if not her lack of looks, but here she's obviously having a lousy time. (You can read about this movie's checkered production history, and its connection with de Havilland's famous contract-busting suit, here at TCM.) She's third-billed and it shows, but the Siren cannot blame de Havilland. The character of Charlotte as written and conceived is a simpering, self-centered blight, a "ninnyhammer" as the Siren's beloved Georgette Heyer would have put it. That Henreid is anywhere close to believable when he falls for her demonstrates his gift for conveying men who make lousy romantic choices, something his characters do in almost every film.
Inconvenient details summarily dispensed with? Check. Anne Brontë, a talented writer, is a cipher here and if it weren't for a throwaway line toward the end of the movie you'd never realize she could hold a pen, let alone write The Tenant of Wildfell Hall. There is barely a hint of the Brontës' poverty and isolation, as they all attend a ball at one point in drop-dead gowns that probably cost some Warner Brothers seamstress several weeks of her life and a good deal of her eyesight.
So why did the Siren enjoy herself? Well, after a while she watches some movies the same way she tunes into a particularly unhinged political commentator--the waves of crazy just wash her out into the sea of batshit and she starts to have a great time. Favorite moments include Henreid blandly explaining away his Austrian accent by saying he had spent a lot of time on the Continent, as though one could send Wallace Beery over there and he'd come back sounding like S.Z. Sakall. Emily bounds around the moors with an enormous sheepdog whose magnificent coat flaps in the breeze like he's doing an Alpo commercial. She takes Nicholls on a walk, points up a hill to a perfect Old Dark House and remarks helpfully, "I call it Wuthering Heights!" The rest of the time she pulls Branwell out of gutters and tells Charlotte to think of someone else for a change. The complicated, cerebral professor who became the object of Charlotte's affections turns into Victor Francen, tilting his head at everybody and doing a nonlethal version of his bad guy from San Antonio. Tuberculosis manifests itself as a couple of concertgoer coughs before you go out in a rainstorm to pull Branwell out of gutter No. 3 (or was it 4?) and catch your death.
But some things are genuinely good. Curtis Bernhardt keeps things moving and manages some nicely angled shots, such as the black-clad horseman who shows up in Emily's dreams from time to time. You don't know what he's doing there--she wrote Wuthering Heights, not "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow"--but he looks great. Erich Korngold's score is omnipresent, underlining each beat in that vintage studio way (here comes the love theme! here's the "Branwell is drunk again" music!) but it's gorgeous to the ears, as Korngold always was. Arthur Kennedy sounds like he always does (did Branwell spend a lot of time in Massachusetts?) but he does a hell of a job as an alcoholic wastrel, turning Branwell into an intriguing dry run for his equally drunken and indolent pseudo-intellectual in A Summer Place.
And then there's Sydney Greenstreet, and oh how the Siren loves him in anything. Greenstreet shows up as William Makepeace Thackeray about 3/4 into the movie but he is worth the wait and then some. As the great satirist, Greenstreet looks so right and he sounds so right that it doesn't matter that Signor Ferrari somehow landed in London and started squiring around lady novelists. And Greenstreet gets the best dialogue, complete with hat-tip. "Good morning, Mr. Thackeray." "Good morning, Mr. Dickens," replies Greenstreet, as the other gentleman takes his frock coat and fright beard into the publishing house.
But finally, the real reason to watch Devotion is the extraordinary cinematography by Ernest Haller, who lensed Gone with the Wind, Jezebel, The Roaring Twenties and many others. It's simply gorgeous, the interiors of this fantasy Haworth flickering with shadows and suggestiveness. The look of the picture suggests more Brontë than all the sisters' flutterings together.