Good sets, good costumes, brilliant montage. BUT!...
I was impressed by this film's production design, the photography and editing, a fine supporting cast and a superb montage sequence. But the merits of 'The Passionate Quest' are outweighed by bad acting by the lead performers, an implausible plot and dodgy character motivations. This is one more movie featuring a sensitive poet who disdains honest employment, and we're meant to approve because he's handsome.
The main characters are Rosina, Philip and Matthew, all of whom drudge away in rural England, in the glass factory owned by Rosina's uncle (Benjamin Stone by name, and stone-hearted by nature). Rosina wants to be an actress, Philip is that would-be poet I warned you about, and Matthew hopes for a career in high finance. All three go off to London in "the passionate quest" for their respective hearts' desires. So far, so good.
Philip proves himself a complete idiot by trying to sell his poems to newspaper editors ... but we're clearly supposed to like him, because he's played by a handsome thin actor.
Rosina gets a job in the chorus of a West End musical, for which the financial backer is wealthy Lord Towers. I was expecting him to try to seduce pretty Rosina. I was mistaken. Purely out of the goodness of his heart, he arranges for chorus girl Rosina to get a bit role. But on opening night she gets stage fright and a fit of stammering: she muffs her one line of dialogue, and gets fired.
Meanwhile, Matthew actually achieves modest success as a Lombard Street financier. I found this admirable, but Matthew is played by a short overweight actor, so he's got to be either the comedy relief or the villain, or both. Matthew proposes to Rosina, but she'll take vanilla. So he marries a wealthy widow (Mrs Flint by name, and flinty by nature), and then he uses her wealth to build a financial empire. So far, I found Matthew quite sympathetic.
But now that he's rich enough to get any woman he wants, he's so obsessed with seducing Rosina that he cooks up an incredibly contrived plan to bed her. He pays Madame Mathilde, a modiste, to hire Rosina as a mannequin so that she can be lured to an hotel suite in Paris where Matthew intends to have his way with her.
SPOILERS COMING. So, along comes heroic poet Philip in a flurry of sonnets, with Lord Towers and his faithful man Erwen bringing up the rear, hell-bent on defending Rosina's honour. All ends happily, though implausibly.
The sets and costumes in this film are excellent, and I was impressed that several scenes featured large crowds of extras, intelligently directed. In the lead role, May McAvoy is pretty, with various hairstyles, including a short dark bob evoking Louise Brooks. But McAvoy is nothing sensational here, and I had great difficulty believing that Matthew (who has the self-discipline to become a millionaire) would jeopardise his wealth and reputation in his obsessive pursuit of her. This movie is made worse by relying on several title cards that describe the characters' personalities, telling us what ought to be shown.
There are good performances in supporting roles by Frank Butler, Holmes Herbert, DeWitt Jennings and Louise Fazenda. But a fatal flaw in this movie is the casting of Gardner James as the dreamy poet Philip. Gardner James is extremely handsome (he resembles Peter Lind Hayes, only better-looking) and he's slightly callow, although that's appropriate to this role. His problem is that he shows absolutely no acting ability whatever, in a role that's badly written.
The brilliant montage occurs when Rosina is about to make her stage debut, and she's overcome by stage fright. Close-ups of May McAvoy, tongue-tied and terrified, are intercut with shots of the audience's eyes, the stage manager's mouth (prompting her) and the orchestra leader's baton. Rosina's panic is brilliantly conveyed ... though less by McAvoy's acting ability than by the photography and taut editing. Someone here's been watching German UFA films.
This brilliant sequence is cruelly ironic: the beautiful McAvoy was a film star in the late silent era, but talkies revealed her speech impediment and her very limited acting ability ... and she quickly became a mere extra in crowd scenes. Watching May McAvoy portray an aspiring actress whose career is ruined because she can't speak dialogue, I was utterly fascinated by how this sequence cruelly predicted her real-life downfall. I wish that this entire movie was as good as that montage sequence. Overall, though, I'll rate 'The Passionate Quest' just 5 out of 10, and its script is mostly laughable.
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