From Nomad Widescreen, an excerpt of my conversation with the very fine writer and critic Tony Dayoub of Cinema Viewfinder, about the sublime Powell/Pressburger movie Gone to Earth, with Jennifer Jones. (This demonstrates also that the Siren was still indulging her classics habit in the midst of the New York Film Festival.) You can read more of the Siren and Tony and Gone to Earth at his place, in a post that covers some additional excerpts. More about Nomad at the end of the post.
Farran Smith Nehme (FSN): In September, after a long day of screenings at the New York Film Festival, Tony Dayoub and I decided to trek downtown to catch a one-shot showing of a 1950 film neither one of us had ever seen. It was Gone to Earth, Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger’s ill-fated adaptation of a Mary Webb novel. Film critic and programmer Miriam Bale was screening a rare 35-millimeter print at the 92nd Street Y Tribeca, and Tony and I were flabbergasted to discover a film we both consider a masterpiece.
The likely reason for Gone to Earth’s rarity, compared with the many well-known and frequently revived Powell-Pressburger classics, is that it has a troubled history. Powell preferred developing his own stories over adapting those of others, and he also found the romantic 1917 Webb novel faintly ridiculous, remarking that it was a town-dweller’s overheated view of country folk. But producer Alexander Korda believed the book was a sounder commercial bet than an original screenplay, and Powell’s objections were brushed aside. The movie stars Jennifer Jones as Hazel Woodus, a half-wild, half-gypsy girl who roams the Shropshire countryside with her pet fox, and is loved chastely by a Baptist minister (Cyril Cusack), and carnally by a ruthless squire (David Farrar). She marries the reverend, and he refrains from consummating the union, in the belief that Hazel’s innocence shouldn’t be profaned. But the squire has no such scruples, and he continues to pursue Hazel, even as it remains clear throughout that she belongs not to men but to the earth of the title.
Jones had married the producer, David O. Selznick, just before shooting started. Powell wrote about the making of Gone to Earth in volume two of his autobiography, Million Dollar Movie; he was assaulted with a barrage of the trademark Selznick memos, which the director cheerfully ignored and left to “accumulate in some pigeonhole.” (Pressburger read the memos, “then went back to reading Time and Life.”) Selznick had been reasonably cooperative during filming, just showing up from time to time to check on Jones and take her on weekend jaunts. But when Powell and Pressburger screened the film for him, Selznick popped a Benzedrine and said, “I’m not satisfied with your cut, boys. I’m going to take this picture over.” Powell explained that the Archers, his production company, owned the rights. Selznick listened politely and the parties wound up in court, where Selznick lost that round.
But Gone to Earth didn’t do well upon release, and Selznick had obtained the North American rights. He reshot a third of the footage with Rouben Mamoulian at the helm, slashed away another half-hour, and re-released it in 1952 with the groanworthy title of The Wild Heart. That version, hopelessly marred by all accounts except possibly Selznick’s, flopped, too. There is a Region 2 UK DVD available of the original Gone to Earth, but it has never been available on Region 1 in the US. You may consider this discussion as a plea from Tony and me for someone to give Gone to Earth the full US restoration and DVD release that it deserves.
One thing that goes to show how much of Selznick’s savvy had disappeared by 1952 is that Gone to Earth contains one of Jones’ best performances, possibly her very best. She was coached in the regional accent; it’s probably impossible for an American to judge how accurate the results are, although Powell thought she sounded fine. You can hear inconsistencies and note the fact that Jones’ accent isn’t much like that of Esmond Knight as her father. But Hazel isn’t an ordinary girl; when she first appears she’s dressed half in rags, searching for her fox, and the camera finds her among the hills as though she just emerged from a tree like a figure of mythology. Her strange voice is completely in keeping with her strange nature, and her half-pagan belief in demons, spells and ghostly voices.
Tony Dayoub (TD): It’s ironic that Selznick commits the same crime as the film’s male protagonists. Like them, Selznick, who saw enough spirit in Jones to make her his wife and muse, tries to stifle her rough luminescence, reworking Gone to Earth into his subpar version. Much of the charm of Jones’s performance in the Powell version is reportedly (because I’ve never seen it) lost in Selznick’s The Wild Heart. Why Selznick was unhappy with her portrayal of Hazel is a mystery. Her performance is far superior in Gone to Earth than are her grating histrionics as the similarly wild Pearl in Selznick’s much better known Duel in the Sun (1946). I chalk up his Svengali-like interference to the fact that Selznick’s affair with Jones was in full swing by 1945, with the two marrying a year prior to the UK release of Gone to Earth.
In any case, Hazel’s central dilemma, the subjugation of her wild, feminine spirit by two men — the roguish squire Reddin and Marston, the well intentioned minister — is very reminiscent of ballerina Vicky Page’s inner conflict in Powell and Pressburger’s more famous The Red Shoes. In that film, the talented Page is forced into a triangle where she must choose between sacrificing her career for her composer husband or leaving him behind to continue her rise to stardom under the direction of the dictatorial director of her dance company. Powell and Pressburger also explore similar themes in Black Narcissus, where a group of nuns living in a convent in the Himalayas start succumbing to the lusty temptations offered by their natural surroundings. As it was with the female protagonists of both of these previous films, Hazel’s state of mind is often reflected in the increasingly expressionistic lighting by Christopher Challis (whose camera operator in this film, Freddie Francis, would become a renowned cinematographer in his own right). As Hazel falls prey to the seductive advances of Reddin, who whisks her away to his cluttered, castle-like retreat, the night sky turns a lurid shade of orange, aflame with erotic intentions. This until the milquetoast Reverend Marston summons enough gall to come rescue her from the arrogant Reddin. (At which point Reddin’s servant — played by the reliably comic supporting player Hugh Griffith — enters his master’s drawing room to needle him, “Will there be three for dinner or one?”)
Two more brief excerpts, because Tony and the Siren really did flip for this film, big time:
TD: Powell and Pressburger’s films almost feel like musical compositions with certain audio cues indicating the start of a new movement. This one launches the dreamlike chapter I discussed earlier. But there are other such cues that indicate a supernatural undercurrent. Two immediately come to mind that bookend the film. We discussed the first one soon after watching Gone to Earth – a “phantom” hunting call I think you called it – in which we hear a group of unseen hunters utter the film’s title, an expression which alerts others that their quarry (in this case, Hazel’s Foxy) has hidden itself in a foxhole.
A dreadful symmetry occurs when we hear the call again in the film’s finale, this time referring to a fatal accident that befalls one of the characters. Though there are hunters present, this is definitely not a call coming from them. If not from them, then who is it from?...I’d like to think it’s the pagan spirits that Hazel and her mother believed in. Though I don’t think it’s as clear onscreen, Webb’s novel depicts a bewildered Hazel fleeing from Squire Reddin and his hunting partners, believing they are mystical huntsmen of Welsh lore. Though Hazel’s pet, Foxy, manages to evade Reddin in Gone to Earth’s opening scenes, it would appear that Hazel and Foxy’s fate are inextricably linked by a primal atavism. Observe earlier in the film how Reddin chases Hazel through a county fair while on horseback, the way he would one of the animals he hunts. Even the minister’s intentions in marrying her are apparently more a matter of taming her free-spiritedness than having any romantic or sexual motivation. The final utterance of “Gone to Earth,” can then be attributed to those same pagan huntsmen, finally laying claim to Hazel after she quite literally has “gone to earth.”
FSN: When Selznick was battling the Archers in court, Powell asked Pressburger where they’d gone wrong with the man — what did he want? “Sex,” Pressburger told him. “You’re not serious,” responded Powell. “Why, the film reeks of sex.” And so it does, just not Selznick’s kind of sex, as Pressburger pointed out.
The movie also evokes the border of Wales, the land of Powell’s ancestors, with wonderful beauty and clarity. Powell was pleased with Gone to Earth and thought Jones was “splendid.” He formed a close friendship with the troubled actress and later told her, “you were the most beautiful woman I ever worked with”—one hell of a tribute from a man who immortalized many stunning women. Thelma Schoonmaker, the film editor who has worked with Martin Scorsese ever since her Oscar-winning efforts on Raging Bull in 1980, was married to Powell from 1984 until his death. She screened Gone to Earth in Seattle in 2007. Schoonmaker told a reporter that her husband “loved the eventual movie, but he was afraid you could hear the crackle of the page whenever they did a movie based on a novel.” I’m convinced that if this movie were more widely known, most viewers would respectfully disagree.
The Siren notes here that Nomad Widescreen, where she could be read alongside Tony, Glenn Kenny, Simon Abrams, Kurt Loder, Karl Rozemeyer and Vadim Rizov, is no more. The editors and writers at Nomad were uniformly excellent, and the Siren was always proud to be associated with them.
(Updated 11/17/11, with correction and the fourth photograph above, courtesy of the ever-courteous Yojimboen. Also a link to Tony's excerpts at Cinema Viewfinder.)