Classics From Criterion: GREAT EXPECTATIONS (1946)

Charles Dickens is an another author who I am sorry to say I have not read which is a situation that I hope to remedy soon.  That having been said, I have recently been on a reading binge which has brought me back to my bookworm roots.  So when I was trying to decide on a movie to watch the other day it seemed only right that I choose something with a literary basis.  Which led me to my copy of David Lean’s GREAT EXPECTATIONS.

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The story is that of a boy named Pip (Anthony Wagner).  He is a poor boy and an orphan, who now lives with his sister and her husband.  One stormy evening he makes his way to the churchyard to leave flowers on the grave of his parents.  While there he is startled by a gruff man with shackles on his arms and legs.  The man, named Abel Magwitch (Finlay Currie), is an escaped convict and steals what items Pip has in his pockets and then demands that the frightened boy bring him food and a file for his chains.  Pip returns to his sisters home where he is greeted by her husband, Joe (Bernard Miles).  Joe is a blacksmith and is kind to Pip while his wife, Pip’s sister, is decidedly not.  After a less than pleasant dinner, Pip sneaks into the kitchen after everyone else is asleep and steals a meat pie and a file from Joe’s workshop.  He then hurries off to find Abel but runs into another escaped convict, this one with a scar across his cheek.  When Pip finally finds Abel he tells him about the another man with the scar.  Abel becomes agitated and thanks Pip for helping him before running off into the night.

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Sometime later soldiers come to the door looking for Joe.  They need help repairing a pair of shackles that they need in order to recapture some escaped convicts.  Joe repairs the shackles and then takes Pip along while they watch the soldiers hunt for the escaped men.  It isn’t too long before they hear sounds of a struggle and come upon Abel wrestling the man with the scar.  Abel declares his hatred for the other man and is once again arrested.  As the two men are lead back to the prison boat, Abel confesses to Joe that he stole a meat pie from his house but never mentions Pip playing any part.

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Some time passes and Pip is summoned to the great house of the eccentric spinster, Miss Havisham (Martita Hunt) to act as a companion to the teenaged girl who lives there named Estella (Jean Simmons).  Estella is cold and cruel, though beautiful, and she mocks Pip’s manners and coarse behavior at every opportunity.  Though he finds her behavior hurtful Pip still falls in love with her.  During his visits to the house he also meets a skinny young boy who challenges Pip to a fist fighting match.  Pip easily beats the boy who surprisingly stands up and politely thanks Pip before the latter takes his leave.  When Pip turns fourteen his visits come to an end as he must begin his apprenticeship as a blacksmith.  Estella also leaves at this time, heading to France in order to learn how to be a lady.

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Six years later Pip (John Mills) and Joe are visited by Miss Havisham’s lawyer, Mr. Jaggers (Francis L. Sullivan).  Mr. Jaggers tells Pip that he is the recipient of a mysterious benefactor who hopes to help turn him into a gentleman with “great expectations”.  Pip leaves Joe, who has been made a widower in recent years, along with the new housekeeper Biddy and travels to London where he is set up in an apartment by Mr. Jaggers.  At the apartment he meets his roommate, one Herbert Pocket (Alec Guinness) who in fact turns out to be the skinny boy Pip met all those years before in Miss Havisham’s garden.  Herbert is charged with teaching Pip how to become a gentleman.  Herbert and Pip run up debts in their quest to make Pip a true London gentleman.  Herbert also tells Pip the truth of Miss Havisham and her intentions when it comes to Estella (Valerie Hobson), whom Pip still loves.

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This version of GREAT EXPECTATIONS is not based so much on the book as it is the 1939 stage adaptation which happened to feature Martita Hunt and Alec Guinness in the roles they would also play in the film.  David Lean had never read the Dicken’s classic and was cajoled into seeing the play by his wife.  The ending of the film was somewhat changed from that of the book thanks to an idea once again from David Lean’s wife which lead to her receiving a screenplay credit.

While GREAT EXPECTATIONS is a slimmed down version of the classic work it in no way feels rushed or choppy.  The whole story moves along with such compelling and intriguing action that you can’t help but get swept along.  Considered one of the best, if not the best, film version of a Dickens’ story I have to say that this film was absolutely wonderful.  There is a darkly twisted sense of humor that Dickens’ seems to have in many of his stories and that is evident here.  From the death masks on the wall of the lawyer’s office to the elderly man who only wants a nod from you now and again to keep him happy, evidence of the Dickensian sensibility is everywhere.  It feels as if David Lean has a great respect for the source material and made an effort to honor that.

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For such a complex and rich story the film version does a remarkably good job of pacing and plotting.  The story never feels bogged down in details and the characters never become muddled.  Yes there are certain elements from the book that are glossed over or removed and I am sure that if/when I read Great Expectations for myself I will find many things that the film never mentioned.  But GREAT EXPECTATIONS the film is smart, funny, exciting, suspenseful, and tremendous.  It is exceptionally well done and it is a film that I had never seen before but one that has now found its way on to my favorites list.  Moreover, GREAT EXPECTATIONS the film did the one thing that I believe all films based on books should do.  It made me excited to read the book!


If you have read Great Expectations or if you have seen this film or both let me know in the comments what you thought and how it compared to the book!

 

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Watching With Warner: ALL AT SEA (1957)

I am a complete anglophile.  I love all things British and so when I was wanting something a little more light-hearted to take a short break from TCM’s Summer of Darkness, I turned to Sir Alec Guinness, Ealing Studios, and the Warner Archive.

Captain William Horatio Ambrose (Alec Guinness) and his crew are being awarded the Lloyd Medal by the British Government, a prestigious award for their heroic actions in saving their ship, the H.M.S. Arabella.  After the ceremony Captain Ambrose is besieged by reporters hoping for a story but they are to be disappointed.  The good captain has already promised his story exclusively to a reporter named Peters.  Peters is waiting for the captain at the pub across the street, where the captain is given a jug of rum with the compliments of the owner all in thanks for his heroic actions.  Captain Ambrose begins to regale Peters with the tale of his life, one which starts soberly enough but as the rum flows becomes more and more, shall we say, blustery.  It seems that Captain Ambrose comes from a long line of sea-faring men all of which met with varying degrees of success, or lack there of, during their naval careers.  Ambrose has a terrible secret of his own and it is that he suffers from terrible and intractable sea sickness.

After the end of the war, the duration of which Ambrose spent in naval labs testing different experimental sea sickness cures, the aging Captain Ambrose reads an advert in a local paper regarding the sale of a vessel docked at Sandcastle called the Arabella.  After spending his entire life savings to buy this vessel, Captain Ambrose finds that he has not bought a ship at all but rather a run-down amusement pier.  The local population is not particularly impressive either.  The pier is currently run by a crew of men who, although wearing naval uniforms, have no military experience save one man named Tom (Percy Herbert).  The head man of the pier is a man named Figg (Victor Madern), a local dredger who promptly resigns as soon as it becomes clear that Captain Ambrose is now in charge and has no interest in continuing to allow the men to slack off.  Tom is quickly promoted to First Officer, and Captain Ambrose sets about trying to make the pier profitable again.

This does not go particularly well however.  The problem is that Captain Ambrose has managed to get on the bad side of two members of the local council.  The first is Mayor Crowley (Maurice Denham), a crooked local politician who sold the pier at a vastly inflated price but who doesn’t like that the captain is not willing to play ball with him in matters of pay offs and the like.  The second, and more troublesome, is Mrs. Barrington (Irene Browne) who runs the local bath houses, has a penchant for moral decency at all costs, and who already thinks that the captain is a peeping tom.  The first sign of trouble comes when Captain Ambrose wakes up to find that the pier’s slot machines have been confiscated by the council because they encourage gambling, according to Mrs. Barrington that is.  Heading down to the police station to make his case, Captain Ambrose manages to convince the local officers that the machines do not constitute gambling at all when Mrs. Barrington walks in.  Supremely confident in her right to take the machines, she is less than pleased to see the captain walking out with them.  This clearly means war.

Captain Ambrose sets about trying new and different ways to improve the pier and create a lucrative tourist attraction.  But at each possible juncture he is foiled Mrs. Barrington and the council.  He makes a dance hall for the local teens (and yes, Alec Guinness dances and it is fabulous) but the police shut him down because he doesn’t have the proper permits.  When Captain Ambrose goes before the council to pay his fines, he is informed that on top of the money he owes he is no forbidden from acquiring a dance hall permit.  He tries to make a bar but he is prevented from getting a liquor license.  The next day the council meets and Mrs. Barrington immediately launches in to a diatribe about how Captain Ambrose is corrupting the morality of the community.  Mayor Crowley dismisses her concerns as he has plans to create a marine drive which will lead to the demolition of the pier.  Mrs. Barrington is on board with this plan until she realizes that it means that her beach huts will be destroyed as well.  In an indignant rage she resigns from the council and storms out.  No one seems to miss her.

Out on the pier Tom and Captain Ambrose spot a figure on the shoreline.  It is Mrs. Barrington and she is crying!  Ever the gentleman, Captain Ambrose goes ashore to speak with her and see if there is anything he can do to help.  Mrs. Barrington brushes him off at first but finally relents and agrees to join the captain for a spot of coffee, with a dash of rum, in his cabin.  After a few cups, Mrs. Barrington and Captain Ambrose are feeling much more sympathetic towards each other.  Captain Ambrose thinks that it is a travesty that the bath houses are to be demolished!  Mrs. Barrington tells him that things are much worse than that, his pier is set to be demolished too!  The two former enemies then set about devising a way to keep both the bath houses and the pier from being torn down.

God Bless Warner Archive.  I love Ealing films, ever since my Dad first showed me KIND HEARTS AND CORONETS.  Some might argue that ALL AT SEA (also released as BARNACLE BILL in England) is a lesser Ealing comedy, but I would say that even a weak Ealing comedy is still aces.  Yes, I am channeling my inner Brit.

Let’s start with the obvious, Alec Guinness is fabulous.  He plays the role of Captain Ambrose totally straight, which makes the situations even funnier.  A character who could be very buffoonish comes across as quite human and sympathetic.  He brings a dignity to Captain Ambrose, but also a humor which is quite endearing.  Also, his voice and diction are wonderful.  He is another person I could sit and listen to read the phone book.

This film is really what I love about the Ealing comedies.  Clever and witty, funny and charming, ALL AT SEA is just a really lovely way to spend an afternoon.  The story is engaging and amusing, and the cast of characters is varied and enjoyable.  Even the “bad” guys are easy to take and no one comes across as really annoying or  just too evil to tolerate.  This is what Ealing did best, a human comedy about people.  While the stories and situations might be slightly inflated or seem just a little out there, there is still a very human heart to each story.  This might be a little story about little people, but it is really great fun and I certainly recommend it.  Thanks to Warner Archive for making ALL AT SEA available and I will be crossing my fingers for more Ealing Studios releases in the future!

If you want to hear more about All At Sea/Barnacle Bill and some other lesser known Ealing comedies check out the Attaboy Clarence Podcast