Classics From Criterion: THE BROWNING VERSION (1951)

One of the things I enjoy the most about the Criterion Collection is discovering hidden gems within the collection.  There are always the splashier, more famous titles that we all know and love for good reason.  But every once in a while I pick up a movie that I have heard little to nothing about, one I have never seen before and find interesting and give it a go only to find that it is an amazing film that deserves to be talked about more.  THE BROWNING VERSION is one such film.

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Andrew Crocker-Harris (Michael Redgrave) is a master of classics at an English public school.  Getting on in years, he has been forced to leave his position due to poor health.  At the suggestion of his doctor, Crocker-Harris is taking a lesser position at a smaller school and leaving his classics behind.  His current class is less than dismayed at this turn of events.  “The Crock”, as the boys call him, is not well liked either by his students or his peers.  He is pedantic, reserved to the point of being stuffy, and generally unable to endear himself to his fellow man.

Someone who does not suffer from this problem is Crocker-Harris’ wife, Millie (Jean Kent).  In fact she has made many friends, including the science master Frank Hunter (Nigel Patrick) with whom she has been carrying on an affair.  She despises her husband, seeing him as weak, ineffectual, and totally absorbed in his work.  Clearly she had different ideas as to what her husband would be doing with his life and career when they got married.  She has given up on any hope of happiness with her husband, and her husband has given up any hope of happiness in his life at all.

Crocker-Harris is aware that he is disliked, aware that his students not only dislike him but loathe him as well.  He also knows that his colleagues have no regard for him and that his career is not what he wanted to make of it.  He knows that his wife dislikes him and that any semblance of a happy marriage has disappeared long ago.  He feels himself a failure, not only as a teacher but as a man, and he has resigned himself to being a failure for the rest of his days.  When he meets his successor and hears that fellow staffers refer to him as “The Himmler of fifth level”, he is hurt but accepts that this is only proper and just considering what his life is.  It isn’t until one of his students, a lad named Taplow, brings him a good-bye present that things begin to change for Crocker-Harris.

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THE BROWNING VERSION is based on a one act play written by Terence Rattigan, and was adapted for the screen by the same.  While the play ends when Crocker-Harris receives his gift from Taplow, the film continues on and gives a much more complete and emotionally satisfying ending.  The fact that Rattigan himself wrote this new ending is perhaps more reassuring that this was the ending that he always meant to infer with his play.

If you are hoping to find something similar to GOODBYE, MR. CHIPS then I am afraid you will be extremely disappointed.  THE BROWNING VERSION is an examination not only of a man’s life and his family, but also of failures of all kinds.  The failure of unfulfilled dreams, of incompatible love turned into mutual destruction, of disconnection, and resignation to ones lot in life.  It also asks the question, when is it too late to change or is it ever too late?

I have heard this film described as a man looking back on his life and realizing that he has been a failure in his job and his marriage.  But I think that that is a very simplistic view.  I think that Crocker-Harris was aware that he had failed in many aspects of his life but it wasn’t until he was presented with the end of his current position and with a possibility of some kindness and consideration that he must confront this failure and decide what is to be done.  Tallow’s gift echoes pieces of Crocker-Harris’ past, pieces that he had given up and that those around him have forgotten.  For a moment when he receives this gift her can see a possibility of happiness once again if only he could figure out how to get it.

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Mrs. Crocker-Harris could easily been seen as a purely nasty person but I think that she has been disappointed just as her husband has, but her disappointment comes from the man she married and his inability to be the person she wants him to be.  When she realizes she can’t inspire or affect him to become that person, she decides to destroy him instead so that she can at least have some satisfaction from watching him to respond to something of her making.  While many of the people in THE BROWNING VERSION are mean, I would not say any of them are bad.  Rather they are all unhappy and dissatisfied in their own ways, and they each respond to this dissatisfaction differently.

This film also presents a fairly unflattering portrait of public education staff life.  Teachers are shown to be petty, rude, and gossipy.  Another teacher is leaving along with Crocker-Harris but he is leaving to play cricket and the difference between the two farewells is obvious and hurtful.  When the head master asks Crocker-Harris to allow the younger master to give his farewell speech second, a slight to the more senior master, because the expected response and applause will be far greater than the one for Crocker-Harris, we can feel the harshness of the comment because it is something that still happens today.  Popular sports outweighing academia once again.

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Finally, Michael Redgrave is phenomenal.  He carries this film utterly and he manages to portray Crocker-Harris not only as a unpleasant person but also as one that we can sympathize with.  We can dismiss him as simply a man who has failed at life but if we take the time to really listen to the words being said and really see the nuances in Redgrave’s performance we will see that here is a man who once had hope and promise, and through a series of decisions has lost that.  There is tragedy here and it is a tragedy that we can all relate to as who among us hasn’t had a moment where we wondered, “What if?”

 

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Watching With Warner: THE BARRETTS OF WIMPOLE STREET (1934)

Things have been a bit slow around here on the blog.  Life got a bit hectic in the last two months and so I didn’t have the time that I wanted to watch movies to blog about.  But hopefully things will be getting back to normal now and so I have returned with a film from the Warner Archive about the courtship of Elizabeth Barrett and Robert Browning, as well as the Barrett family and their patriarch.

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In the home of Edward Barrett (Charles Laughton), the doctor has come to visit the eldest daughter.  Elizabeth Barrett (Norma Shearer) has been ill for many years and standing, let alone walking, is very difficult and painful.  Despite her misgivings, Elizabeth’s doctor assures her that full recovery is possible if only she has the will to make it so.  Elizabeth has no outlet aside from her beautiful and brilliant poetry, which is often published, and her many siblings.  In particular she enjoys spending time with her sister Henrietta (Maureen O’Sullivan) but their fun is cut short by the disapproval and tyrannical behavior of their father.  Edward Barrett wastes no time in telling Elizabeth that her doctor is mistaken and that she is still very ill, in fact she may very well be close to death.  He even defies the doctors orders in his almost perverse attempt to keep her confined to her rooms.  He demands strict obedience from all his children and has forbidden any of his children from marrying.

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In spite of her father’s wishes, or perhaps in part because of them, Henrietta continues to see a friend of her brothers named Surtees Cook (Ralph Forbes).  The two secretly see each other and love begins to blossom.  Surtees has a promising career in the military and wants to marry Henrietta.  She loves him and wishes to be his wife but refuses him due to her father’s iron rule, as she can see no way around it.  It is Elizabeth who encourages her to do whatever she can in order to be happy.  It is soon after, during a snowstorm, that Elizabeth Barrett meets Robert Browning (Fredric March).  A fellow poet, Robert Browning is quite famous throughout London and has fallen in love with Elizabeth over several months of reading her poetry.  Deciding that he must meet her, he arrives in a swirl of life and snow and changes everything.  He declares his admiration for her and Elizabeth responds by telling him that she could die at any moment.  He responds by laughing this off and encouraging her to seize the day and live her life fully.  As he takes his leave, Elizabeth stands and makes her way unsteadily to the window for the first time in years just to see him once more.

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Months pass and Elizabeth blossoms.  She becomes stronger and healthier with each passing day, her new found lust for life astounding her doctors and worrying her father.  For his part, Edward continues to admonish his daughter against becoming too adventurous and warns her that another relapse may be close at hand.  Elizabeth’s doctors propose a trip to Italy in order to aid in her recovery and Robert is more than happy to support this plan.  In fact, he had plans to go to Italy himself at just about the same time.  He comes to call on Elizabeth and in her joy, she walks down the stairs to greet him surprising everyone.  Of course, her father not only squashes her plans to go to Italy but also her new found spirit and carries her back upstairs.  Some time later, the Barrett’s chatty cousin Bella has come to visit Elizabeth.  When she hears that Elizabeth is not going to Italy she resolves to convince her uncle Edward to allow it because she firmly believes that she can talk any man into anything.  She goes downstairs to prove this point when Henrietta announces that Robert Browning has come to visit Elizabeth.  Elizabeth and Robert declare their love for each other but Elizabeth still fears her father finding anything out about Robert’s and her relationship.  Downstairs meanwhile, Bella has just spilled the beans that Robert Browning and Elizabeth Barrett are rather more than good friends just as Edward Barrett was beginning to consider the trip to Italy.  Instead, he begins to plot a trip of his own for Elizabeth…one that will take her far away from Robert Browning.

THE BARRETTS OF WIMPOLE STREET made me think of THE HEIRESS…if the father in THE HEIRESS was just ever so slightly, oh what’s the word, insane.  Based on the famous 1930 play of the same name, THE BARRETTS OF WIMPOLE STREET omitted most of the references to Edward Barrett’s sexually aggressive behavior towards his children, which was a large part of the play but which has no basis in historical record.  The real Edward Barrett did have a strange habit of disinheriting any of his children who married, but that is as far as it went as far as documentation is concerned.  In the play, Edward has rather incestuous intentions towards his daughters with special attention lavished on Elizabeth.  In the film however, there is only vague reference to this with a great deal of euphemisms used to imply that Edward is a sex addict who not only has designs on his daughters, but also had many child with his late wife as a result of marital rape.  Yeah.  Of the script changes, Charles Laughton said “They can censor it all they like, but they can’t censor the gleam out of my eye”.  Watching the film you definitely get the sense that all is not quite right in the Barrett household and this unease only increases as the story progresses.  I started off watching this and thinking it was a perfectly fine historical romance and about halfway through things started taking a turn that made it something more.

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This is really Norma Shearer’s movie.  She has to carry the entire story and much of it while sitting on a couch, unable to move about freely, in the same set-piece for most of the film.  Even when she is offscreen her presence is still felt, just waiting until she appears again.  I think that too often Norma Shearer gets pegged as either “The Divorcee”, “The Woman from THE WOMEN”, or “Mrs. Irving Thalberg”.  Well, yes she was all of these but she was also a really good actress who could do more than put on a slinky gown and be charming.  She could also be quiet, emotional, and dramatic.  She could be intelligent, witty, and strong.  She does a wonderful job as Elizabeth Barrett and it isn’t until the credits roll that you remember that she isn’t.  I will admit that at first I felt like I was watching Norma Shearer in a costume but after some time I forgot all that and only saw Elizabeth.

THE BARRETTS OF WIMPOLE STREET was definitely different than I thought it would be.  More than a romance based in history and more than a historical saga with a love story, this is a film that tells of a love and of a darkness that came about when Robert Browning met Elizabeth Barrett.

 

Announcing the Beyond The Cover Blogathon!

Many of the greatest movies were adapted from books, tomes ranging from classic to obscure, from hardboiled detective pulp fiction to science fiction to children’s fables, by writers like Ian Fleming, Stephen King, Jane Austen, Louisa May Alcott, Raymond Chandler and so many more. This blogathon is your opportunity to focus on great cinema that started as words on a page.

Please join Liz of Now, Voyaging and Kristina of Speakeasy in celebrating cinematic adaptations of the written word in the BEYOND THE COVER blogathon.

The event takes place April 8, 9 and 10, 2016.

There are so many books to movies that no duplicates are allowed, BUT different movies from the same book are fine. You can complain about the adaptations, you can hail the director’s choices or you can cover a whole book series.

Video/booktube and podcast entries are welcome along with the traditional blog posts. Books and films from all countries are fair game so please feel free to travel the world in search of great literary adaptations!

Just check the roster below to see which topics are already taken and then sign up using the handy form. When blogathon time comes just tweet us the link or leave it in the comments and we’ll all have fun reading your writing about film that came from reading writing.

Help yourself to one of the banners in this post, help us promote on your blog and on social media at #BeyondtheCover, and see you Apr 8-10!!

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*many thanks to Ruth of Silver Screenings for making these wonderful banners

 

Sign up here, or click here to open signup form in a new window

 

 

The roster so far (click here to open in a new window):

January 2016: A Wrap-Up

January was another busy month for me but I still managed to get some movies under my belt!

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Blogathons: I took part in several blogathons this month including The Loretta Young Blogathon, The Backstage Blogathon, and The Classic Collaborations Blogathon!

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Twelve Classics for 2016: I started off 2016 by watching the first of my Twelve Classics for 2016.  I can now say that I have seen THE LADY EVE and it was fantastic!

Classic Film Blogger Shout-Out: Ruth of Silver Screenings is my pick for this month!  Ruth is just awesome and she is also a super nice person to boot!  Head over to her site to see all of her wonderful posts and be sure to check out the O’Canada Blogathon that she is co-hosting with Kristina of Speakeasy.

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Favorite Film Discovery of the Month: This one goes to GREAT EXPECTATIONS directed by David Lean.  This was my first foray into the world of classic film Dickens and I LOVED it! By far my favorite film that I saw all month and one that is now added to my favorites list!


Be sure to take a look at my other monthly wrap-ups here!

 

The O’Canada Blogathon: BACK TO GOD’S COUNTRY (1919)

This post is part of the O’Canada Blogathon hosted by Kristina of Speakeasy and Ruth of Silver Screenings.  Be sure to check out the other entries here!

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In the far northwoods, in a small cabin there lived Dolores LeBeau (Nell Shipman) and her father (Roy Laidlaw).  They are quite happy there living the simple life, alongside the many and varied types of wildlife that Dolores has tamed and made friends of.  Into this idyllic life comes a naturalist, one Peter Burke (Wheeler Oakman, who is part author part government inspector.  He is traveling the woods looking for inspiration for his next book and soon becomes the houseguest of Dolores and her father.  During his time there he and Dolores fall in love and their days are spent blissfully together.

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After some time Burke decides to take his leave and continue on his journey toward Ottawa.  In order to make sure that her love will return to her, Dolores steals his manuscript out of his pack before he departs.  At that moment a dangerous criminal is making his way through the underbrush.  Rydal (Wellington Playter) is the master of a trading vessel wanted for murder and he is traveling with his accomplice (Charles B. Murphy).  While Rydal sits by the fire he is confronted by a Canadian Mountie who places him under arrest.  But as they are heading back to the post, Rydal’s accomplice ambushes them and kills the mountie.  The two head off with Rydal now dressed as a mountie.  They soon happen upon Dolores who is taking a bath in the nearby pool along with her friend bear.

Rydal is taken with the young beauty and decides that he wants to see more of her.  Much more.  So he pretends to be a wounded mountie and seeks shelter with Dolores and her father.  While Dolores is hesitant, her father welcomes the two men with open arms and they spend the night.  The next morning, emboldened by his dreams overnight, Rydal decides to make his move while her father is away gathering wood.  With his accomplice blocking the door, Rydal attacks Dolores and soon her screams bring her father rushing back.  In the ensuing struggle Rydal’s accomplice is killed by Dolores’ father and Rydal, playing the part of the mountie, arrests him declaring that he will take him back to the post for trial.  Meanwhile, Burke has realized that his manuscript has gone missing and is returning to Dolores’ home in order to retrieve it.  He arrives to find a dead man in the doorway and the house empty.  Following the path he sees Dolores, who watches in horror as Rydal throws her father over a cliff.  She dives in after him and Burke dives in after her.  The two of them pull Dolores’ father’s lifeless body from the water as Rydal makes his escape.

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One year later, Burke and Dolores are married and now living in an apartment in the city.  Burke is working on his writing and Dolores is pining for the fjords, or at least her little cabin in the woods with her animal friends.  A telegram arrives from the Department of the Interior telling Burke that arrangements have been made for them both to sail to Halifax on the Flying Moon, a trading vessel that will take them up towards Baffin Island and into the Arctic.  After several days onboard Dolores and Burke are curious as they have not yet seen their captain.  When they do see him, Dolores wishes that they hadn’t.  The captain is none other than Rydal and he has not forgotten Dolores or his designs on her.

With an estimated budget of $67,000 BACK TO GOD’S COUNTRY became one of Canda’s first major motion pictures and it was the most successful silent Canadian film.  The film was directed by David Hartford and produced by Nell Shipman and her husband, Ernest Shipman.  Nell Shipman had created Shipman Curwood Producing Company in 1918 in order to make BACK TO GOD’S COUNTRY, which would end up being the only film the company produced.  The screenplay was based on a story written by James Oliver Curwood entitled Wapi, The Walrus, and was adapted by Nell Shipman herself.  This adaptation caused some issues with Curwood, who took exception to the fact that Nell took facets of Wapi and molded them into the character of Dolores.  She created a heroine who took on men and won, saved her love, and generally kicked bottom.  Curwood was mad because this character was portrayed by a dog in his story.

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Well, sorry to Mr. Curwood but if BACK TO GOD’S COUNTRY was about a dog then I don’t think I would have enjoyed it half so much.  In fact the main reason this film is so successful is Nell Shipman and her portrayal of Dolores.  The men try but they come up pretty one dimensional.  Burke is pretty vanilla as far as romantic heroes go and Rydal is a  slightly over the top melodramatic baddie.  But Dolores is fantastic!  Nell Shipman is lovely but not in a traditionally beautiful way and her body is real and natural.  She is a fit and athtletic woman and it shows.  She also loved nature and animals which is something that really comes through with her animal co-stars.  Nell Shipman does a fantastic job of bringing an empowered and intelligent heroine of her own making to life.

This is by no means a perfect film.  Along with the previously mentioned less than impressive male characters, there are also some instances of “brown-face” and some less than sensitive ethnic portrayals.  But Nell Shipman is fantastic and the Canadian wilderness is on grand display here making BACK TO GOD’S COUNTRY an example of early Canadian cinema well worth seeing.  So if you are intrigued here is the film, restored beautifully by Library and Archives Canada.  Of note there is no musical score accompanying this film but it is gorgeous version with lovely color tinting.