The Light That Failed (William A Wellman, 1939)

Made the same year as Wellman’s great Beau Geste, this lesser-known drama, sadly not on DVD as yet, is another wildly noble and compelling period melodrama adapted from a novel by an imperialist author, Kipling.  There was clearly a demand for such films in 1939, in the early days of the Second World War. Once again, the story ranges between England and wars in deserts, in this case the Sudan. However, in this film much of the drama takes place within the four walls of an 1880s London flat, framed by battle sequences at the start and end.

Anybody watching in search of war scenes might be surprised by just how much of the film is made up of Ronald Colman fighting his own private battle behind closed doors. Colman stars as Dick Heldar, an artist tormented by unrequited love for a fellow-painter, and struggling to hold on to his failing sight long enough to complete his masterpiece, a portrait of poor Cockney girl Bessie Broke (Ida Lupino).  I don’t think the film stands up as well as Beau Geste, but it does have powerful performances by both Colman and Ida Lupino, as well as atmospheric, shadowy black-and-white cinematography by Theodor Sparkuhl, with the pictures flickering in and out of focus as Heldar’s sight fades.

As with Beau Geste, also scripted by Robert Carson, the film has a childhood sequence early on which heavily foreshadows what is to come later. (Quite a few films from the 1920s and 1930s seem to use this device – I have seen one silent film, Children of Divorce (1927), where the directors, Frank Lloyd and Josef von Sternberg, really ram the point home by constantly intercutting between later scenes and glimpses of the characters as children.)

Muriel Angelus and Ronald Colman

In this case, the sequence is also in Kipling’s novel – indeed, most of the time the film is extremely close to the book, though it cuts out most of the  jokey slang and makes occasional shifts of emphasis. Dick, as a young teenager, is seen at the seaside with a girl, Maisie, and it is briefly established that they are both being cared for by a guardian there. The two have escaped to play with their pet goat and practise shooting a gun, but there is a mishap when Maisie accidentally shoots near Dick’s eyes and he says he can’t see for a moment, before the powder burn clears.

Dick is distraught to learn that Maisie is leaving to go away to school, saying that he loves her and even that, as they are to be separated, it would have been better if she had shot straight and  killed him. Maisie has a rather chilling line here: “How selfish you are! Just think how much trouble it would have caused for me.”  This is an interesting change from the book, where Maisie is worried about how she would feel if she had killed Dick rather than whether she would be punished. The shift of emphasis makes her character seem harder and more self-centred, although in other scenes I think Carson and Wellman tend to make if anything her slightly more sympathetic than she is in the book. In this early scene, she also speaks of her longing  to be an artist and suggests Dick should follow the same career, after he says that he can’t pass exams but can draw good caricatures of his masters.

Colman and Walter Huston with some unrealistic war paintings

The action then jumps forward to a battle scene in the Sudan in the 1880s, where Dick is now a war correspondent/artist. During a battle, he saves the life of his friend, Torpenhow (Walter Huston), but is injured himself, with a slash across the head. He is later invalided out to England, where his war paintings cause a sensation, and he sets up home in a flat adjoining Torpenhow’s.  At first Dick enjoys his success, but he quickly becomes disheartened when it transpires that the public, and the magazines commissioning his work, don’t want too much reality. They want their war paintings clean and gleaming, with soldiers in pristine red uniforms.  Of course, Wellman and Carson – and Kipling in the partly autobiographical novel – faced similar problems, in striking a balance between making the war scenes realistic and making them noble and inspiring.

While out walking in London, by an amazing coincidence which apparently really happened to Kipling and his own childhood sweetheart, Dick bumps into Maisie (Muriel Angelus), now grown-up and trying to make her own career as an artist. He tries to help her, but shows a lack of understanding when he offers to do some paintings which she can sign and pass off as her own. “You don’t understand. It must be my work – mine, mine, mine!” replies Maisie passionately.

Muriel Angelus

When he criticises her work for lack of training and technique, she complains that his is too masculine, full of “blood and tobacco” – interestingly, this is a line that is there in the novel too, as is her protest that she wants to paint a portrait of a woman and show how she has suffered. John M Lyon’s introduction to the Penguin edition of The Light That Failed points out that Maisie can be seen as a ‘New Woman’ of the period. In any case, Dick wants to marry Maisie, but, while staying polite and charming, she makes it clear it will never be possible for her to go beyond friendship.

Rejecting Maisie’s idealised portrait of Melancolia, inspired by James Thomson’s poem The City of Dreadful Night, Dick decides to work on his own painting on the same theme, which will draw on his knowledge of life and his own feelings of despair. As his model, he takes the angry Cockney girl Bessie Broke (“Stone-broke, if you like”), who faints with hunger on his doorstep and is taken in by Torpenhow. It’s hinted that Bessie may be a prostitute, especially in a late scene where she is seen walking the streets in her finery, but this is never actually stated. However, there is a scene where she offers to live with Torpenhow, saying that she knows he will not marry her, but would be willing to stay with him just until he meets “Miss Right”. The lonely Torpenhow (a moving portrayal by Walter Huston)  is tempted to agree, but Dick steps in to stop them getting together, sending his friend away.

Ronald Colman and Ida Lupino

Dick’s task of creating his last masterpiece gains urgency when he learns that he is going blind and can only hold on to enough sight to carry on painting by being permanently drunk.  Trapped in a room together, Dick and Bessie soon hate and despise one another, and their fiery scenes together are the most memorable parts of the movie, with the hate story proving far more powerful than the failed love story. This whole story of impending blindness and noble self-destruction obviously carries a risk of sentimentality. Occasionally in scenes where Dick is alone talking to his pet dog Binkie,  great actor though Colman is, I think it almost tips over the line – but the scenes with Lupino have a harshness and power that work against any easy tear-jerking. Her angry performance here is quite similar to that of Bette Davis in Of Human Bondage.

Colman with the dog, Binkie

I won’t go over all the melodramatic plot twists which pile up on top of one another towards the end of the movie, but will just say that it keeps up the pace and emotional weight, even if the noble ending  is a bit much to take. Above all, Lupino and Colman are both riveting to watch in this, and the film is a must for fans of either. Colman, in his late 40s by this time, was really much too old for the role of young artist Dick, but his additional world-weariness adds to the poignancy of the character as he tries to complete his life’s work before the light does fail.

Ronald Colman as Dick with his great painting

Ida Lupino as Bessie Broke

18 thoughts on “The Light That Failed (William A Wellman, 1939)

  1. CagneyFan

    Fabulous review, Judy! I mean that. I appreciate the fact that you’ve interwoven points from Kipling’s book throughout your piece. Like you, I thought Huston’s performance excellent; Colman and Lupino also turned in excellent portrayals. And who can’t help but love Binkie, who looks like Bogie’s dog in Stand-In. Could be the same dog, I don’t know. I generally like Muriel Angelus, but I thought her character a weak link in the movie, and I don’t think it was her fault. The Light that Failed is a very fine melodrama with interesting symbolism and foreshadowing, much of which you already pointed out. Definitely worth seeking out, especially for fans of Ronald Colman and his magnificent voice.

    Reply
    1. Judy Post author

      Many thanks, CagneyFan, and glad you liked this film so much too. I often find it interesting to look at books alongside the films they inspired, and hope to do the same with more films in future, including a couple by Wellman. I haven’t seen Stand-In as yet, though I aim to do so soon – will look out for the dog, which I would think could well be the same one as there were only a couple of years between the films.

      I don’t think I have seen many films with Muriel Angelus in them, but I think she is pretty good in this and I do find her character interesting. (I’d love to know who painted both her paintings in this film and Colman’s – I’ve been wondering if it was John Decker, whose work featured in other films including ‘Scarlet Street’.) However, the film really comes alive more during the scenes with Colman and Lupino, who burns up the screen in this early role. Thanks again.

  2. R. D. Finch

    Judy, it was good to read such a complete description of this film, which has long interested me and which sadly, as you point out, isn’t available on DVD. Your description of the film and book make it seem as though it deals with many of the subjects common to Kipling’s works but with the element of romantic melodrama worked in. I’m especially intrigued by this early performance by Lupino and also by the presence of the wonderful Walter Huston, who I wasn’t aware was in it. The character of Maisie, who does indeed sound like an early version of the “New Woman,” and her relationship with Dick also intrigued me. Hope it comes out on DVD soon or at least is shown in the States on TCM.

    Reply
    1. Judy Post author

      R.D., thank you – I have just had a look over at the US TCM site, but sadly it doesn’t look as if the film is scheduled there at the moment. I do hope it is shown there and/or issued on DVD – quite a few of Wellman’s films have been released on Warner Archive recently so there may be hope this one will follow. I do agree with you on Walter Huston, who is is very good in the film as Colman’s friend, and also has some good scenes with Lupino. I’m also interested in your comments on Kipling – I haven’t read a great deal of his work, but seeing this film made me want to go to the novel.

  3. Ellen Moody

    It is good to see the careful comparison of nuanced changes between the book and film. I’ve not seen either of these films (Beau Geste, The Light That Failed) and feel guilty because I do love Colman’s performances and presence. I’ve read about them — not the same thing.

    Curious: it often feels with him that he’s too old for the role he’s playing, even when he was younger. There are people who look older even when they are young, and that was true of Colman by the time of the talkies. This week I did rewatch him in a very early silent film, Romola: he plays a character not in Eliot’s novel and looks young there. But I think it’s more than that. We just feel he has this weight of experience in his face, and my feeling is once he assumed a mustache he kept it most of the time to reinforce this sense of being older.

    Ida Lupino looks beautiful; surely the archetypes in Of Human Bondage are the same: the rough angry girl of the strees whose resentment is aroused.

    Reply
    1. Judy Post author

      Thank you very much for the comment, Ellen. I haven’t seen any of Colman’s early roles, so am interested to hear that he already looked older than he was in the early talkies. I do agree that there is a weight of experience in his face. Ida Lupino is excellent in this and I think you are right that there are definitely similarities between her and Davis’ character in Of Human Bondage, as they both resent being turned into material for art while the artists fail to give them full weight as human beings.

  4. Sam Juliano

    Last night at the sold-out opening of the three-week William Wellmann Festival at Manhattan’s Film Forum, (WINGS in a spectacular restored print) program director Bruce Goldstein jokingly told the audience that though the number of films on the schedule was about 43, he was “initially hoping for 70.” He then introduced 75 year-old William Wellmann Jr., who delivered what was surely the most articulate and engaging introduction I have even witnessed at the Film Forum, one where he talked about his upbringing in a house where Gary Cooper was a regular visitor, and where he spent some times on his father’s sets. He talked about his father’s zany sense of humor in the later Q & A, mentioning the use of the bubbles in WINGS and in another film where a child bites someone in the leg and bolts. In any case, though this anecdote has nothing to do with the film being reviewed here, it underlines the fact that even with a comprehensive itinerary, there is really no way to cover all bases even with these kind of numbers. Wellmann Jr. talked quite a bit about the excellence of this coming Monday’s rarity, the 1926 silent YOU NEVER KNOW WOMEN, which I have also secured tickets for:

    http://www.filmforum.org/movies/more/you_never_know_women

    Yet, THE LIGHT THAT FAILED is not being offered, much as several others could not be included, even with the vast majority of the seential stuff on tap. TCM still sits on top, though as you note other seemingly obscure Wellmanns have made it to Warner Archives release. I am already somewhat smitten by the melodramatic story you tell here in relaying the plot and in the work of Colman and Lupino, who are exceptional talents. When you think of how many great actors Wellmann help to come along it’s mind-boggling: Cagney, Cooper, Rogers, Gaynor, March, Barthelmess, L. Young, Powell, Dvorak, O’Brien, Fonda, Andrews, Darwell, Beery, Brooks, F. Vidor, Huston, Gable, Baxter, Dunne, Dix, Murray, Peck, Widmark, Arthur, McCrae, O’Hara, Johnson, Lombard, Menjou, G. Rogers, and more. But you know this well Judy, as you’ve spent a good part of your life reviewing the man’s work in a remarkable showing of perseverence and passionate persuit. I will certainly keep my eyes on this one, and have taken note of the obvious BEAU GESTE parallels. (BEAYU GESTE will be screened in the festival)

    Masterful discovery and writing, Judy!

    Reply
    1. Judy Post author

      That festival sounds wonderful, Sam, and it must have been great to see ‘Wings’ in the restored print with an introduction by William Wellman Jr, who has done such a lot to raise interest in his father’s work, together with experts Frank Thompson and John Gallagher – I’m hoping their biography will be published soon. I will be very interested to hear what you think of ‘You Never Know Women’, a very rare silent which I haven’t seen, thought to be lost for many years. Florence Vidor, who stars in that, is one of those who didn’t make the transition to talkies (as in The Artist!), with her voice in Wellman’s ‘Chinatown Nights’ being dubbed by another actress.

      Interesting that they originally hoped for 70-plus movies at the festival (I’ve ‘only’ seen 46 of his films so far, and still have many more to go!), but it’s good that so many rarities are being included in the festival, anyway, and I’m hopeful that at least the restored ‘Wings’ and maybe some others will turn up in London in the future. Thanks for the very kind words on my review, and let’s hope this one does get a DVD release before too long.

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  7. muriel

    Great review. This is one of my favorite films and one of my favorite Kipling novels. The novel adapted well to film because it is short.. As for your comparison with Beau Geste, I think it is better than Beau Geste, because BG suffers from one problem: Gary Cooper.

    Reply
    1. Judy Post author

      Thank you very much, Muriel. Glad to hear you like this film and this novel, though it sounds as if I like both ‘Beau Geste’ and Gary Cooper more than you do!

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  11. 36elalamo

    “The Light That Failed” is one of my favorite Wellmans — and that’s saying something for someone who has studied Wellman’s career for more than half his life. terrific write-up.

    I do know that Universal has recently struck a lovely new print of the film. I believe it was intended for the Film Forum series; I don’t know why it wasn’t shown. But because it exists, perhaps some other enterprising programmer in NY or (if I may be selfish for a moment) better yet in L.A. will bring it to a theater near at least some of us.

    By the way, John Gallagher and I have finished our book, “Nothing Sacred: The Cinema of William A. Wellman.” To call it massive would be an understatement. We intend for it to be the last word on the subject and we’ve included literally everything we know. We’ll keep you posted as it gets nearer to publication.

    Frank Thompson

    Reply
    1. Judy Post author

      Thanks very much for visiting my blog and commenting, Frank – I’m honoured to hear that you liked my write-up of this great Wellman movie. Great news that Universal has struck a new print of the film and let’s hope it does turn up at one or two cinemas, as you say (London would be good for me) – it would also be lovely to see it on DVD or blu-ray, fingers crossed.

      Many congratulations to you and John Gallagher on finishing your massive book, and I will look forward to hearing when it nears publication, and to reading it, of course.

  12. Sam Juliano

    Congratulations Judy, and what great news here from Frank Thompson on the near-completion of his book with John Gallagher! And a new print for THE LIGHT THAT FAILED? Fabulous.

    Reply

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