Wednesday, June 11, 2008

The Barretts of Wimpole Street directed by Sidney Franklin (starring Norma Shearer, Frederic March, Charles Laughton, Maureen O'Sullivan)

The Barretts of Wimpole Street (1934). Screenplay by Ernest Wajda, Claudine West, and Donald Ogden Stewart from the play The Barretts of Wimpole Street by Rudolf Besier.

Wimpole Street, 1845 — In a time when maids glided across the floor as if on casters (in this case, Wilson, delightfully played by Una O'Connor), the invalid Elizabeth Barrett (Norma Shearer) — affectionately known as "Ba" — and her brood of siblings live under the tyrannical rule of their father Edward (Charles Laughton), who allows none of his children to be married, and demands love though all he inspires is fear. Any thought of dissension is met with passive-aggressive emotional manipulation ("You shall never know ... how much you have grieved and wounded your father by refusing to do the little thing he asked.").

Elizabeth's only joy is in writing her poetry, her dog Flush, and the encouraging letters she receives from fellow poet Robert Browning (Fredric March), whose work she respects and adores. Having fallen in love with her through her words, Browning takes it upon himself to visit her unannounced.

In her room (where most of the action takes place), they hit it off wonderfully in a scene filled with genuine joy. In an amusing exchange, Elizabeth asks Robert the meaning of a rather obscure passage in his Sordello. He looks confused for a bit, then replies, "When that passage was written, only God and Robert Browning understood it. Now, only God understands it!"

From that point, we know they are to be married, whatever the cost. And, though her health and her father are obstacles, each will be overcome in turn. Except for its extraordinary characters, this is in many ways a traditional romance. But the movie's great success comes in actually eliciting suspense, even though we all know that Ba eventually became famous as Elizabeth Barrett Browning.

A parallel subplot comes in the form of Elizabeth's sister Henrietta (Maureen O'Sullivan) and her burgeoning romance with a soldier. Edward puts the kibosh on that quick. ("Is it nothing to you that I shall hate you for this to the end of my life?" "Less than nothing.") Later, it comes out (euphemistically, of course — this was just after the enforcement of the Production Code) that Edward may have some sort of sex addiction that he is railing against (and trying to protect his children from inheriting?), and that he may even have some nonpaternal feelings for Ba. (Their age difference — or lack of it — may have helped: Laughton was 35 to Shearer's 32.)

Laughton plays all of his scenes with fire, but Shearer is the real star here. Some of her readings are a bit "theatrical," but mostly she is terrific as Elizabeth. She even draws the eye away from costar March, though he is perhaps at his most engagingly boyish here. Director Sidney Franklin avoids staginess through a variety of angles

Though it may seem so at first, Ba isn't that much different from other characters Shearer had played. She obviously has no husband to rebel against here, but she does defy her tyrant father's wishes, which Mick LaSalle (Complicated Women) says makes her the "spiritual sister to Jerry in The Divorcee." LaSalle, a vocal fan of Shearer's pre-Code work, also says that this film is the last of hers that "satisfies completely as both a movie and a Shearer showcase," meaning it sort of signifies the end of an era of film history.

Trivia: In 1957, Franklin made a veritable shot-by-shot remake of this film starring Jennifer Jones (Elizabeth) and John Gielgud (Edward). I have not seen it. Gielgud was one of the great actors, but I'm not sure even he could top Laughton's performance in this.

Tuesday, June 3, 2008

Book Review: Center Door Fancy by Joan Blondell

"When Joan Blondell published Center Door Fancy in 1972, it was labeled a novel, but everyone knew better. She maintained that virtually all events in the book were from her life. No one questioned her; the parallels were too transparent.... The roman à clef included her vaudeville trouping childhood, her days as a fizzy comedienne of the talkies, and her doomed marriages."
— from Joan Blondell: A Life Between Takes by Matthew Kennedy

Center Door Fancy is an autobiographical novel by actress Joan Blondell covering her life from her birth into a Vaudeville family until her third divorce. (Click on the "Joan Blondell" tag at the end of this review for reviews of some of her films.)

Except for one thing: the heroine of Center Door Fancy is not Joan Blondell but "Nora Marten." The name of every other major "character" in Blondell's life has been changed, too (with walk-ons like James Cagney and Clark Gable retaining their monikers) — but, presumably, everything that Blondell writes about really happened.

Blondell doesn't shy away from anything: her attempted rape by a policeman, her multiple abortions during her first marriage, and her third husband's volatile nature are all here. Her childhood and each of her marriages are handled in detail, making it very easy, as Matthew Kennedy states in the quote above, to tell who is who. "Johnny Marten," writer and star of "The Boy Is Gone," is her ambitious vaudevillian father Ed Blondell (writer and star of "The Lost Boy"); "Ceecy Quinn" is her ultrareligious mother, Katie Cain.

Then there are Blondell's three husbands: the distant and impenetrable David Nolan (Oscar-winning cinematographer and serial husband George Barnes), the caring but insecure Jim Wilson (actor and crooner Dick Powell, also her costar in nearly a dozen films), and the unstable and ambitious Jeff Flynn (Oscar-winning producer Mike Todd).

The years are not specifically stated most of the time, but it's fairly easy to keep up with the time, especially if you look up the real dates. The novel ends around 1950, right after Nora's divorce from Jeff, with her "trying to revive a career" that would continue with movies and regular TV appearances until her death in 1979.

I'm not sure why Blondell chose to write her autobiography as fiction. I don't think it was to avoid a lawsuit — all three of her husbands had passed away by 1972 — so perhaps it was simply in order to achieve a certain amount of distance from painful events. In any case, Center Door Fancy is incredibly readable in that "listening through the keyhole" kind of way.

But it's also very well written. Blondell has a upfront and open style (much like her film persona) that presents a lot of information in few words. I imagined I would like it, but it's even more engaging than I expected. Center Door Fancy is one of those books that fill your every possible moment until it's finished — when I had to put it down, I couldn't wait to get back to it. (And anyone who reads a lot knows how rare that is.)
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