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Edward Everett Horton
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Cinema-going really is a subjective thing, and as such very vulnerable to preconceptions: the excitement of a picture that is better than one had assumed can vastly overwhelm the faint disappointment left by a renowned film finally experienced in person, even when the objective quality of the two is similar. Perhaps some of my most enjoyable moments have come courtesy of movies of which very little was expected, or which were a completely unknown quantity -- there is nothing like stumbling upon classics for oneself, rather than hearing them lauded to the skies until nothing could ever live up to that expectation...
To be honest, "Escape Me Never" is no such classic, and if I'd been given to expect great things I should no doubt have been frustrated and annoyed. But since the only thing I knew about it was that the remake flopped for Errol Flynn, I went to see it out of curiosity alone and ended up rather enjoying myself.
This version is undoubtedly a vehicle for Elisabeth Bergner, who is considerably more successful on screen here as Gemma, the mercurial waif of uncertain nationality, than as Rosalind in her subsequent "As You Like It" with Laurence Olivier. Her heavily-accented English is less incongruous in this context, and while Gemma shares a number of her Rosalind's more exasperating mannerisms, here they get on the other characters' nerves as much as they do on those of the audience. Ironically, the result is that the heroine is much easier to bear with.
The film benefits from some gorgeously-shot location scenes on the Continent, thanks to German cameraman Sepp Allgeier, which form a memorable contrast with the claustrophobic London interiors. It also has a good score, although the actual ballet music is unremarkable -- it's sadly tempting to concur with the prima ballerina who pronounces in favour of inserting twenty bars of Tchaikovsky, and this sequence is no rival to the achievement of "The Red Shoes".
The story has some surprising twists as well, and gains points in my book by avoiding the obvious ending. The main problem for me was that the principal characters tend to come across as so unsympathetic, and behave at various arbitrary junctures in ways that seem to be dictated only by the requirements of the plot. Fenella, who initially seems cast as our heroine, is a selfish spoilt bitch, Caryl, the 'good' brother, comes across most of the time as a stuffy prig, Sebastian's affections seem to switch conveniently on and off like a tap, and Gemma's chirpiness can be extremely wearing. However, provided you don't expect to find the characters lovable as such -- and can stomach a couple of scenes of implausible manipulation by the script -- the film is actually pretty decent entertainment.
Miss Bergner manages to develop some genuinely unexpected depths in the initially carefree Gemma, and next to her Sebastian is the other most interesting character. Much of the time he is an unashamed cad who is only really interested in a girl when she is apparently unavailable, but he does gain some maturity, and he and Gemma deal clear-eyed together as the two true Bohemians of the quartet. Having seen this film one can understand why Warner Brothers picked up on this role as a potential leading part for Errol Flynn to widen his dramatic career -- and it's not on the face of it an unsuitable choice.
Ironically, in a film where the plot summaries tend to consist of a single sentence accusing Sebastian of neglecting Gemma's child in favour of his music, I feel that this is the one misdemeanour of which the character is really not culpable: it is Gemma who rejects his hospital advice, and then expects him somehow to understand what she wants in the middle of a rehearsal crisis when -- for inexplicable plot reasons -- she is struck dumb before giving him any useful information. Sebastian treats her unreasonably in many ways, but I really don't feel that this episode is one of them.
It is fun to note Hugh Griffith playing Caryl as what is basically a rehearsal for his upright and naive dupe role in "The Wicked Lady" -- it took me a long time to work out why he seemed so familiar!
The characters are fairly cardboard, but I did in the end come to care about what would be the outcome. And while the logic behind the characters' actions at certain times may seem arbitrary, the actual script is generally pretty good on the unspoken subtext of scenes. I suspect that your tolerance for this picture will probably depend ultimately on your tolerance for Elisabeth Bergner: her particular brand of whimsy will either irk or enchant. I can't say for my part that I was entirely enchanted -- but I do feel that she successfully carries the film, which I would not earlier have predicted.
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