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In 1934 Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur made an independent film starring
Claude Rains and Margo called CRIME WITHOUT PASSION. The results were
moderately interesting, so the two creators returned to movie production in
1935 with THE SCOUNDREL. Now their star was not just a great actor like
Rains, but the leading British playwrite (except for Bernard Shaw) of the
first half of the 20th Century - Noel Coward. Coward plays a book editor
who is brilliant, brittle, witty, and totally amoral. He has many literary
acquaintances, but no friends. Not that these literary figures (Alexander
Woolcott, Lionel Stander, Eduardo Cianelli) are really likeable enough to
merit having friends of their own. Indeed these people are so self-centered
that one wonders how they can relate to humanity enough to have good taste
in writing, publishing, or even playing music (Coward's second girlfriend is
a pianist who is as cold as he is).
The wit of the lines of dialogue, no matter how hard Coward can give them, is not on par with the lines of witty dialogue from Coward's PRIVATE LIVES or BLYTHE SPIRIT. Hecht and MacArthur could write funny material in a farce like THE FRONT PAGE or TWENTIETH CENTURY (or Hecht's solo work, in say NOTHING SACRED), but they were not brittle or delicate. So that Coward's amoral attitude starts to drag after awhile. Then the film turns into a search for emotional catharsis. Coward dies in an airplane crash in the Caribbean, but his unhappy spirit returns to earth. His acquaintances do not heed his warnings about the emptiness of their lives (Coward sort of becomes the equivelent of Jacob Marley here), but he does find some sorrow for his lost soul from his first girlfriend. So he finds salvation in this drop of sadness.
The total film must be considered an interesting failure, and leads one to another point - Coward's name lives today because of the continuous strength of those major plays of his (PRIVATE LIVES, BLYTHE SPIRIT, HAY FEVER). His movies are another matter. Few of his performances were so well done on celluloid as to bear comparison to Olivier, Richardson, Guilgud, Guinness, Redgrave, Mills, Burton, and Sim. His best performances are probably in his own film IN WHICH WE SERVE or in later films where he was in supporting parts (OUR MAN IN HAVANAH and BUNNY LAKE IS MISSING). But how to explain a serious attempt at film making like THE ASTONISHED HEART which failed so badly (the story doesn't quite make sense). Of all his best plays, the only one to gain an Oscar was the dated CAVALCADE (in 1934), now best recalled for a brief scene when a young couple on a honeymoon turn out to be onboard the R.M.S. Titanic. Why Coward, a master of theatre, a gifted cabaret performer, a good actor, turned up so maladroit a film career is one of the mysteries of 20th Century films.
Noel Coward is perfectly cast as a suave, vain, selfish well educated,
upper class publisher. The literary crowd that congregates at his
office is equally lacking in depth and seems concerned only with their
status and success. They constantly meet at Noel Coward's publishing
office in the hope of gaining favor for their next book and to make
sure they are not left out on the latest gossip in the artistic realm.
Cora is a young idealist and poet who believes her love can change Noel Coward and that they can establish a long lasting relationship. She ends her relationship with her fiancé to become Noel's lover. However Noel returns to his playboy ways after 6 months and ends the relationship. This breaks Cora's heart and she eventually returns to her fiancé who has since lost his job and self respect after losing Cora.
The story picks up when Noel Coward leaves New York City by plane chasing after a new lover, a concert pianist who is just as shallow as he is. However a storm is encountered and the plane crashes into the sea killing Noel. God takes pity on him and grants him one month on Earth to find someone who will cry for him, otherwise he is condemned to wander the Earth, never to find rest, for all eternity.
The climax takes place on a dim, rainy night and ends with a prayer and a miracle. A strange redemption occurs. The death experience teaches Noel the true values of life, although his former associate artists are incapable of understanding his message.
The film has beautiful music and the scenes are classic film noir. Unfortunately it is not on DVD or VHS. For those who enjoy this type of movie it is a classic masterpiece. Noel Coward's dialog is sharp and witty and no one could play the part better.
The Scoundrel is a fantastic film which takes the viewer on an emotional and linguistic journey that reminds one of the power of the film medium. Everything from costumes to sets and lighting changes for the darker in a brilliant way. The whole film shifts in tone radically and boldly. The character MALLARE, whom Noel Coward plays, expresses the psychology of the dark side of humanity in times of love. He articulates what few rarely say, and this makes the dialog exceptional. The perception of human nature. Hecht wrote the pseudo-decadent Huysmans homage FANTAZIUS MALLARE some years before, hence the character's name, I'd imagine. The movie dialog is rich, baroque and sardonic as well. The poet's works were clearly inspired by maxwell Bodenheim's poetry and persona and are hilarious. A real treat.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
***SPOILERS*** ***SPOILERS*** It's easy to see why the script for this film won an Oscar. At least during the first half. My head was spinning from all of the snappy lines whizzing by. Noel Coward plays a New York publisher (`Why don't you publish books that you like?' - `What? And corrupt the public?') who charms and manipulates his many hangers-on. Then he dies in a plane crash and the story turns into a bizarre Flying Dutchman take-off in which Coward must find someone who truly mourns him before his soul can rest in peace. Very enjoyable until it gets bizarre. Viewed at Cinefest in Syracuse in March 2003.
Damn you Hecht and MacArthur, forcing me again to write a review for a
sadly neglected film after the equally magnificent 'Crime Without
I had already gotten ready to write 'The Scoundrel' off as a little dialogue-driven romantic drama with by far the smartest dialogue of any film of its time (from what I've seen), but then in the last third it's like somebody suddenly turned the whole thing up to 11 and the film enters the realm of magic realism while still feeling consistent with the tone and intentions of the rest of the film, it becomes very emotional in a - dare I say without sounding pretentious - transcendental way. But I should probably begin at the start.
Again like in 'Crime Without Passion' what's maybe the most remarkable aspect of the film is that the protagonist - here it is the head of a book publishing firm - is an intelligent but highly unsympathetic character who nevertheless is taken seriously by the filmmakers as a figure to identify with, and at least for me very successfully so. When this seemingly irredeemable character finally gets his chance of redemption it is after such a traumatic event and at such a high price that this turn is wholly believable and more than welcome on my part.
'Crime Without Passion's lawyer Lee Gentry and 'The Scoundrel's book publisher Anthony Mallare are actually quite similar characters in general. Both are talented in their chosen field and successful at their job in which they are their own bosses. More importantly both are proud about their wit, pitiless and unabashedly self-centered to the point that they have no real use for friends. The people at his firm he calls his friends acknowledge his brilliance but otherwise mostly talk in negative terms about him which Mallare is totally fine with. About them he says: "I call everybody who is clever enough to see through me a friend." Again you have to look no further than the lines that introduce us to Anthony Mallare to get an idea of who this man is. Here are two more samples:
Colleague: "What did you think of Mrs. Robinson's book?" Mallare: "It rrreeks of morality." Colleague: "You are not rejecting it..." Mallare: "Certainly! To the lions with it." Colleague: "I thought it had a lot of sales value." Mallare: "Undoubtedly. But I refuse to make money improving people's morals. It's a vulgar way to swindle the public. Selling them things they least need. Virtue and dullness."
Colleague: "I don't understand you, Tony, with all the money you throw away on advances, refusing old Slezack." Mallare: "I refuse to be blackmailed. Especially by the lame, the halt, and the blind." Colleague: "And pity - that most vile of virtues - has never been known to you, eh?"
Like Gentry he is looking for the right woman for himself. I guess the key difference is his environment. Gentry was an intelligent man surrounded by "common folk" while the people that Mallare surrounds himself with are not unlike him educated and cynical people who hardly get into contact with people outside their own little circle. Mallare merely is the most extreme of them, but also the most brutally honest and most consistently true to himself and his ideals. After cruelly finishing an unlucky relationship with a smart life-affirming young poet who initially seemed like a great match for him he remains without pity except for himself and actually admits that he doesn't even like himself. Mallare gets ready to lower his expectations and settles for a woman who is very much his cold female counterpart. Tragically even this attempt fails in its infancy making it doubtful that a man like him ever could find his heart's desire or even a real friend let alone a soul mate. And this is when the up to this point very dialogue-driven film takes an unexpected turn and becomes something very different.
In this romantic drama about literates the characters don't just talk like your Average Joes and Plain Janes with a few quotes from classic pieces of literature thrown in (although naturally they do that too) but they actually speak quite like real well-educated people, well, maybe in an idealized form, it is a movie after all and as mentioned a smartly written one at that. The acting also is pretty understated and has an authenticity that is quite unlike anything from that era. I can't really describe it, it just has to be seen, and it probably isn't everyone's cup of tea, if you don't get where those characters are coming from you might not get into it at all.
I was very surprised to find out afterwards that the screenplay actually won the Oscar that year, I would expect this film to have a difficult time finding the right audience, viewers expecting high emotion, sentimental romance and "entertainment" will largely be disappointed and just plainly turned off by the unlikeable protagonist while and the more high-brow crowd would probably find its ambitions to be aiming too low and its romantic tendencies difficult to fully embrace. Up until the last third it's basically a series of dialogue scenes and filmmaking-wise or even storytelling-wise it's nothing special. The less than stellar copy that I had to watch might be deceiving regarding the cinematography, though, and all this changes after the turning point when it becomes more comparable to something like 'Portrait of Jennie' or 'Liliom' but I won't give away any more. Watching 'The Scoundrel' miracles can be expected.
I've seen this film listed somewhere as "Boxoffice poison" It's one of my favorite films and always has been. Ben Hecht was famed as the "script doctor" who was called in when a script needed fixing. MacArthur was actress Helen Hayes' husband. These folks belonged to the Algonquin Club. The film "The Man Who Came to Dinner" featured Monte Wooley who played Alec Woolcott of that club. I was 10 when "The Scoundrel " came out in a local third run theater and saw it six times that week. Forty years later, the UCLA film archives let me see "The Scoundrel" once more. I still appreciate it. My favorite actors: Anton Walbrook and Conrad Veidt and favorite film is "The Red Shoes". Everything gets dated particularly in the arts and at moments, "The Scoundrel" does too. I wonder if the theme has something to do with Coward's possible sexual "perversion" guilt at that time.
Oddly enough, for the longest time, I had believed that this movie was
a recipient of the full four star rating on Leonard Maltin's film
guide; ultimately, it only got three stars there, which nicely
corresponds to the two allotted it by Leslie Halliwell. In any case,
THE SCOUNDREL's inclusion in my ongoing Oscar marathon comes courtesy
of its winning an Academy Award for Best Original Story. The
sophisticated yet fanciful plot tells of a ruthless heel of a publisher
who treats his equally callous writer clients terribly and his coterie
of long-suffering client girlfriends abominably until he meets his
comeuppance in a plane crash at sea; God allows him to return to earth
for a month but, unless he can find someone there able to shed genuine
tears for his demise, his soul will condemned to roam restlessly for
The film marked the starring screen debut of British theatrical institution Noel Coward following a small role in D.W. Griffith's Silent WWI epic HEARTS OF THE WORLD (1918) and is notable for bringing him together with two of America's most renowned playwrights/screenwriters Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur (here making their sophomore directorial effort in Hollywood). For the record, Coward's erratic film career peaked with his WWII propaganda classic IN WHICH WE SERVE (1942; which he starred in, wrote, produced, composed and co-directed with a debuting David Lean!) but he did lend, albeit briefly, his legendarily suave presence to a few noteworthy films, namely Otto Preminger's BUNNY LAKE IS MISSING (1965), Joseph Losey's BOOM (1968) and the cult caper comedy THE Italian JOB (1969); indeed, his only other starring role came 15 years after THE SCOUNDREL in Terence Fisher's THE ASTONISHED HEART (1950; which I own a copy of but have yet to watch).
With regards to the two directors, MacArthur only helmed three more movies, all in collaboration with Hecht including CRIME WITHOUT PASSION (1934) and SOAK THE RICH (1936) which, again, are both in my unwatched pile; on the other hand, Hecht lasted for three more films (often in collaboration with celebrated cinematographer Lee Garmes), including SPECTER OF THE ROSE (1946) and ACTORS AND SIN (1952) which, you guessed it, I have yet to delve into. Interestingly, Garmes' name also crops up in THE SCOUNDREL where he is billed as cinematographer and "Associate Director" as seems to have been the case with the duo's directorial debut the previous year.
The mainstay of the movie is undoubtedly Noel Coward's magnetic central performance forever quipping the vitriolic epigrams that the superb script is chock-full of. Yet, therein, lies the film's most glaring problem: being in the company of these disagreeably amoral and irredeemably cold-hearted characters even if for a relatively slim 76 minutes does wear the viewer down; indeed, even the one humane character here (Coward's latest conquest, a poetess played by Julie Haydon) is made to utter, "I just realized there IS a God" upon reading the newspaper headline of his death at sea! Still, having the cast peppered with a slew of Hollywood and Broadway notables helps immeasurably in removing the traces of bad taste: from Stanley Ridges to Harry Davenport (who suffer the most from Coward's egomaniacal antics) and from Lionel Stander to Edward(!) Cianelli to Alexander Woolcott (who, conversely, show the least remorse for his passing). Allegedly, the mystical final third of the film also has the directing duo and a debuting Burgess Meredith among the inhabitants of a flophouse Haydon visits in her desperate search for Ridges; although this segment might strike one as incongruously sentimental, the stylishness of the visual treatment in which it is rendered manages to smooth over such lapses in tone. In fact, according to a contemporary review of THE SCOUNDREL in "The New York Times", it is mentioned that the film fades out on a shot of "the River Styx and Mr. Coward presumably journeying across it into the great beyond" but this is nowhere to be seen in the copy I watched which ends more prosaically on a close-up of a ghostly Coward's grateful face turned upwards towards God for granting him eternal peace after all.
Unlike children, "The Scoundrel" should be heard and not seen. This
very disappointing movie has a terrific script, containing dialogue
delivered the way only Noel Coward could deliver it. Those familiar
with his witty, supercilious delivery are in for a treat, and the team
of Hecht-MacArthur have spread enough to go around to the entire cast.
Having said that, the acting in this picture was so bad as to be almost embarrassing, overwrought to the point of ham. Coward himself seems uncomfortable when not reciting his lines and seems to say them unnaturally, as though from memory and not as an actor would. The rest of the cast follows suit and seems bedazzled by his presence.
I find it astounding that this picture won an Academy Award (Worst Idea For A Motion Picture?) as the film starts out OK but quickly descends into goofy fantasy and ultimately into maudlin burlesque. Several actors are miscast and flounder about, except for Stanley Ridges, who plays the boyfriend of the girlfriend. "The Voice", Lionel Stander, as a poet? Come on. A hit-man, maybe, but not a poet. Ditto Eduardo Ciannelli. The best that can be said, apart from the dialogue, is that it is mercifully short at 76 minutes - but bring a blindfold.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
It's a unique film, as it gives us our only chance to see the young
Noel Coward in all his ironic glory. Because he seems so reserved &
detached he's perfect for the role of an unloved cad who
matter-of-factly uses all those around him. However in the deadly
serious (no pun intended) last act, when Coward must make like the
Flying Dutchman, he's much less comfortable.
But his way with an epigram is peerless, and Hecht & Macarthur have given him some gems (Macarthur, really -- he was the wit of the pair).
The film is superbly lighted by the great Lee Garmes, but has little camera movement aside from a storm sequence. Hecht and Macarthutr cared about one thing -- getting their dialogue on screen. (NOTE: H&M themselves have blink-and-you'll-miss-'em cameos as bums in the flophouse scene).
The most notable supporting player is the one and only Alexander Woolcott, notorious Broadway columnist and close friend of both Macarthur and Coward, who appears as one of the bitchy authors always kept waiting in the reception room of publisher Coward.
Curious that Woolcott would agree to do a film that clearly lampoons the legendary Algonquin Round Table, of which he was a founder, and Macarthur something of an auxiliary member.
The Scoundrel actually won an Oscar for best story, though that victory is probably due more to Coward's imposing presence than any brilliance in the plot. It's Coward, Woolcott, and the dialogue you remember...
i saw this film over 20 years ago and still remember how much i loved
it. it really touched me, and i thoroughly enjoyed noel coward's work
in it. highly recommended: atmospheric and touching.
i think of this film from time to time, and am disappointed it hasn't enjoyed as much of a revival as many classic films. hadn't realized til i searched for it today that it won an academy award for best original story for ben hecht and charles macarthur.
basically it involves a nasty character who destroys another's career and is cursed because of it. he dies, but is allowed redemption if he can convince someone to shed a tear over him. the bulk of the movies shows him in pursuit of this goal. well written and lovely. i had known him for his plays so i was surprised to see him in this role on TV late one night in new york. a must see if you ever have the opportunity.
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