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.)
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.