Mata Hari (George Fitzmaurice, 1931)

Mata Hari Greta Garbo Lionel Barrymore

Greta Garbo and Lionel Barrymore

This is my very belated contribution to the Barrymore Trilogy blogathon – many apologies for being so late (I forgot the blogathon’s date), but please do visit Crystal’s blog, In the Good Old Days of Classic Hollywood, to read the other entries. 

This smash hit romantic melodrama is dominated by Greta Garbo, playing the woman whose name has become a byword for seductive spying. However, Lionel Barrymore also gives a powerful performance as a General who falls under her spell. Although Ramon Novarro is ostensibly the male lead, Barrymore has a more interesting role and manages to steal a large number of scenes.

The film is only loosely based on the life of the real Mata Hari, a Dutch exotic dancer living in Paris who was executed for spying for the Germans in the First World War. A recent biographer argues that she wasn’t a spy at all and says there was little evidence against her. Be that as it may, Mata was around 40 during the war and her career as a dancer was on the wane. By contrast, Garbo was only 26 when she made the film and at the height of her beauty – so the character doesn’t quite have the desperation which Mata would have had in real life. Another difference is that the real Mata was Eurasian, but fortunately, although Garbo is seen performing a sexy Oriental dance, the studio didn’t try to alter her appearance.

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Dinner at Eight (George Cukor, 1933)

This is my contribution to the Barrymore Trilogy Blogathon. Please do look at the great range of postings.

Dinner at Eight 5“The most glamorous production of all time,” proclaims the original trailer to Dinner at Eight. Well, Jean Harlow’s astonishing dresses, made by Adrian, are certainly glamorous – and so is the whole central idea, of a businessman’s wife arranging a grand society dinner. But, like the previous year’s great portmanteau drama featuring some of the same stars, Grand Hotel,  this is very much a Depression era film, with a desperation underlying the glamour.

The film has an astonishing cast even by the standards of MGM – it must be one of the most star-studded ensembles of all time, featuring  both John and Lionel Barrymore, as well as Harlow, Marie Dressler, Wallace Beery, Billie Burke, Madge Evans, Lee Tracy and Edmund Lowe. Names like Phillips Holmes, Grant Mitchell and May Robson have to make do with bit parts.

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The Road to Glory (Howard Hawks, 1936)

road to glory 2

This is my contribution to the World War I in Classic Film blogathon . Please do visit and take a look at the other postings!

Where previous Howard Hawks films about the First World War focused on pilots, this one goes into the trenches. Warner Baxter, Fredric March and Lionel Barrymore star as beleaguered French soldiers struggling to cope with the ceaseless death and destruction all around them on the Western Front. A contemporary review in the New York Times criticised The Road to Glory for its mix of grimness and romanticism, and failure to draw any conclusions about the “ultimate value of [the soldiers’] sacrifice”. Yet, to a modern audience, the bleakness is the thing which resonates – the feeling of individuals caught up in events which they can’t control and don’t understand. While it isn’t as well-known as some Hawks movies, this film is now available on DVD in both region 1 and UK/region 2.

The drama centres on two melodramatic tales of human relationships, a love triangle between two soldiers and a nurse, and a father and son coming together on the frontline. However, the most powerful and memorable elements of the film, beyond these stories, are the portrayals of the war itself. There is some very stark photography of the men advancing through a ruined landscape full of darkness and shadows. Much of this footage was taken from a great French film, Raymond Bernard’s Les Croix de Bois, after Twentieth Century Fox bought up the rights. But this movie has its own story.

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Night Flight (Clarence Brown, 1933)

nightflight4   MGM was at one time said to have “more stars than there are in heaven”. The studio certainly poured quite a few of them into its 1933 drama Night Flight, produced by David O Selznick and directed by Clarence Brown, which features both John and Lionel Barrymore along with Helen Hayes, Clark Gable, Robert Montgomery and Myrna Loy.  It’s an all-star cast list to rival Grand Hotel or Dinner at Eight, but this lesser-known film is on a smaller scale and doesn’t have the same compelling quality as the other two – perhaps because it was severely cut after its premiere, so what we have are the butchered remains of an epic. Most of the time the various stars are kept separate, with several of them never sharing a scene. The two Barrymores are both superb and bring the film alive whenever they are on screen, especially when they are together. But some of the other actors are wasted, especially Gable, who hardly speaks a line and is only seen wearing a helmet in the cockpit of his plane, having to act silently by means of his eyes alone.

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A Christmas Carol (Edwin L Marin, 1938)

Reginald Owen as Scrooge

Reginald Owen as Scrooge

As a fan of 1930s films, I was really looking forward to seeing  this 1938 version of A Christmas Carol. However, I must admit I was rather disappointed with this very short film (just 69 minutes), which cuts out a great deal of the story, including most of its darker elements. Remarkably, this is a version where nobody really seems to be poor. Instead, there is a lot of MGM glamour, including Ann Rutherford improbably cast as an elegant blonde Ghost of Christmas Past, plus some lavish Hollywood snow scenes thrown in. I can see that this adaptation was aimed at a family audience and this is why it has cut out so many of the scary/disturbing elements, but unfortunately this means it has in effect plucked out the heart of Dickens’s story.

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Orson Welles as a very young Scrooge, on radio


Orson Welles on radio

I’d heard a lot about Lionel Barrymore’s great performances as Scrooge on radio, and decided today to listen to his most famous audio version of A Christmas Carol, broadcast at Christmas 1939 as part of Orson Welles’ Campbell Playhouse  series.

Via Google, I found a website which claimed to have the show available for streaming. However, after listening for a while, I realised that the website in question (I won’t link to it to avoid further confusion!) had got in a muddle, and the programme labelled as being the 1939 broadcast was in fact the one broadcast the previous year, 1938 – when Barrymore was unable to take part and the 23-year-old Welles stepped in to play Scrooge as well as being the narrator!

It’s an astonishing double voice performance by Welles. He is unmistakably speaking in his own voice for his introduction, which includes him reading out the Nativity story, but sounds convincingly elderly and gruff as Scrooge. Indeed, at first I readily accepted that it was Lionel Barrymore, since he achieves a voice which is quite similar. Possibly even more remarkable, in the flashback sequences where he plays the young Scrooge, Welles sounds not like himself, but like a younger version of the elderly voice he has been doing for Scrooge – and the story’s emotions come across strongly in all his voices. I was interested to find  that Joseph Cotten plays Scrooge’s nephew, Fred – he appeared in many of Welles’ radio productions before starring with him in Citizen Kane and The Magnificent Ambersons.

Anyway, I’m glad to have heard this version, which keeps a lot of Dickens’ language and is compelling listening, even though it isn’t the production I set out to hear! I do still hope to listen to the Lionel Barrymore version before too long, and here is a link to The Mercury Theatre on the Air, a site which has both the 1938 and 1939 dramas available  for download, correctly labelled! They are also currently being streamed at Wellesnet, until January 1 2013.

A Christmas Carol has been produced on the radio many times over the years, with Lionel Barrymore playing Scrooge regularly for many years. His brother John stepped in to play Scrooge in 1936 when Lionel’s wife had just died, but sadly there doesn’t seem to be a surviving recording of John’s performance in the role. Laurence Olivier also played Scrooge on radio on one occasion. Here’s a link to the first half of a two-part  article about the various old radio versions, with lots of fascinating illustrations. I’d definitely like to listen to more of these radio productions, and also to more of Welles’ other radio shows – he did adaptations of many classic novels and films, including Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities and The Pickwick Papers.

David Copperfield (George Cukor, 1935)

This is a continuation of my mini-Dickens series and also a rather rushed contribution to the TCM Summer Under the Stars blogathon – Saturday, August 18 is Freddie Bartholomew’s day on TCM in the US (though not, sadly, in the UK, where I live), and David Copperfield is being shown as part of his day. My posting below this one, on Me and My Gal, is also an entry in the blogathon, for Gene Kelly’s day. 

Compressing a long Dickens novel into a single film is a tall order. With many such productions, the most immediately striking thing to a keen reader of the book is how much has been missed out – and, at every turn, you find yourself regretting a character or a plot twist that has been lost. By contrast, in George Cukor’s celebrated adaptation, starring Freddie Bartholomew as the young David and Frank Lawton as the adult, I’m struck by just how much he has managed to include. I’ve read that originally producer David O Selznick, who was a passionate fan of the novel, had thought about making two movies, dealing with David’s childhood and adulthood separately. This might have worked even better – but the single film we have crams an awful lot into its 131-minute running time.

I’m not going to recap the story of the novel here, but will just say that I think the film does rely on a knowledge of the book, and might be confusing at times for anyone who doesn’t already know the characters. With such a widely-read novel, it was possible to get away with this in the 1930s. The film has been described as feeling almost like  Phiz’s drawings brought to life, and I can certainly see this for some of the characters, in particular Roland Young as Uriah Heep – almost unrecognisable from other roles I’ve seen him play, such as Topper, and looking uncannily like the illustrations. The script, mainly written by novelist Hugh Walpole (who also has a small role as the vicar), keeps much of Dickens’s own language – something more recent adaptations have tended to jettison – and many snatches of dialogue are taken straight from the page. Best of all, a lot of the humour is kept in, rather than being cut out in the interests of the plot, which is always a risk when adapting Dickens.

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