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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Spending Time With Turner Classic Movies: A CAROL FOR ANOTHER CHRISTMAS (1964)

Hard to believe that there are only eight days until Christmas.  This year has been much more hectic than last year, when I was able to watch several Christmas themed movies by this point, what with the holiday hosting/planning, gift buying and wrapping, Santa picture taking, decorating, etc.  That being said, I still am intending on watching at least a few more Christmas movies if I can manage it.  But here at last is my first Christmas film of the season and it really struck me.

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Daniel Grudge (Sterling Hayden) is spending his Christmas Eve as he always does, alone and in the dark.  He is interrupted by the arrival of his nephew, Fred (Ben Gazzara), who is angry at his uncle for stopping an international exchange of professors from the United States and Poland.  Grudge tells Fred to stop being such a bleeding-heart and begins to extoll the virtues of isolation and neutrality.  Grudge not only wants to stay out of all conflicts and keep on his own “side of the fence”, but he also wants to build up armor, defenses, and bombs in order to make sure that the rest of the world knows that the United States can not only destroy them but they can do it faster and better than anyone else.  Fred is horrified at this speech and calls Grudge on what he believes is the true reason for his uncle’s bitterness.  It was on this very night in 1944 that Grudge’s son Marley was killed in action overseas.

Grudge freely admits that he is still angry over the loss of his son and wonders why Fred would still want to be involved with other people and other countries after seeing what that involvement got Marley.  Fred just shakes his head and takes his leave.  With his nephew gone, Grudge begins to see flashes of his dead son and hear music playing in his long empty room.  When he opens the door to investigate, he finds himself on the deck of a transport ship.  A soldier approaches him and introduces himself as The Ghost of Christmas Past (Steve Lawrence).  The vessel is a World War I troopship returning with the bodies of the many dead, not all from the United States but all sons of mothers and fathers.  The Ghost of Christmas Past will share with Grudge the need for international powers to “keep talking” because “when the talking stops the fighting starts”.  Grudge remains unconvinced until the Ghost of Christmas Past takes him back to the day where he visited a makeshift hospital in Japan, after the bomb fell.

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Moving on, Grudge is confronted by The Ghost of Christmas Present (Pat Hingle) and a table covered in food.  The Ghost beckons him over and offers him some of the bounty, before flicking a switch and illuminating a barbed wire fence nearby.  On the other side of the fence are numerous “displaced people”, each homeless and hungry, huddling together for warmth.  Grudge is sickened by this and demands to know how the Ghost can eat with all these hungry people nearby.  In response the Ghost asks Grudge how HE can eat, as there are always hungry and homeless people in the world needing help even if you can’t see them.  He begins to give Grudge statistics and numbers of just how many people in the world are homeless, sick, and needy.  Before too long, Grudge can take no more and rushes away.

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He comes into a ruined town square, surrounded by rubble and destruction.  It is here that he finds the Ghost of Christmas Future.  The Ghost tells Grudge that he is in his own hometown at some date in the future.  Some time before nations stopped talking to each other and others began dropping out of the United Nations.  Before too long information became clouded and suspicions rose, leading to the dropping of several nuclear bombs.  What remains now are the few members of humanity who survived.  While Grudge and the Ghost watch these people gather into the center of the rubble and celebrate the entrance of their leader, the Imperial Me (Peter Sellers).  These people value selfishness and isolation, and the Imperial Me has come forth to declare war on the other surviving members of humanity “over yonder and across the river” who want to band together against their common problems.  Grudge is already highly disturbed by what he sees until a man comes forward he recognizes.  This is Grudge’s butler Charles (Percy Rodrigues) and he has decided to speak to try and convince the mob to have dignity, decency, and respect once again.

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A CAROL FOR ANOTHER CHRISTMAS was written by Rod Serling at a time when the world seemed to be at its worst.  The threat of nuclear destruction felt ever present and the recent assassination of President John F. Kennedy hung over the nation.  Shot at the Michael Myerberg Studios in New York City, A CAROL FOR ANOTHER CHRISTMAS was to air as part of a series supporting the United Nations.  Directed by Joseph L. Mankiewicz, this special aired on December 28, 1964 and not again for forty-eight years when TCM showed it in 2012.

Many people have said that while A CAROL FOR ANOTHER CHRISTMAS is a must-see film, it is too much a product of its time and must be viewed in that historical context.  I could not disagree more.  A CAROL FOR ANOTHER CHRISTMAS is just as important and relevant to the state of the world today as it was in 1964.  We still live in an age where nuclear war is a real and terrible possibility.  We still live in a world where we are confronted by the senseless deaths of sons and daughters in fights that we don’t always agree with.  We still live in a world where people want to close out those who don’t match up with their own sensibilities.  Especially in light of recent events in Syria, in Paris, in California, in the race for the Presidential Nomination, this television special from 1964 is not only important but it is needed.  Watching it in 2015 I could not help but feel that these important issues being raised in 1964 were still in dire need of being talked about.

A CAROL FOR ANOTHER CHRISTMAS should be a part of everyone’s holiday viewing no matter where you live, no matter what part of the world you are in, no matter what religion you practice.  While it is based on A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens, it is not just a Christmas story…it is a call for peace and goodwill for all men.  We still live in a world where we need to encourage ourselves, our neighbors, and our leaders to “keep talking”.  I am so grateful that TCM pulled this film from obscurity an brought it back into the public eye.  But since there are many people in the world who do not get TCM and because there is no DVD copy available, though I sincerely hope that someone will put one out soon (hint hint TCM), here is a copy that I found on YouTube.  Please take some time out this holiday and watch it.  I think that you will find it just as startling and relevant as I did.