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This film adapts a play by Terence Rattigan, first staged in 1946. The
author had a great story. An ordinary citizen battles the British
to gain a fair trial for his son, who has been expelled from a junior
academy for the crime of stealing.
In the play, the father's crusade is important, but not the main dish. Rather, the focus is on the impact of the crusade on the boy's family circle, and how they respond. Every scene occurs within the home. The whole country may be arguing about the case, but the arguments we hear -- whether the boy is guilty; whether, even if innocent, his expulsion warrants so much fuss -- are made or quoted en famille.
This movie adaptation, on the contrary, moves out into the world where the public fight takes place: in the offices of naval officials, in the British House of Commons, and before the Lord Chief Justice. The approach is exciting, and makes it easy for the audience to follow the stages of the battle. A disadvantage is that it leaves less chance to experience what the play says about people and about life.
Usually, in dramas about battles for justice, a wrong has been done. The business of the action is to right the wrong. However, in Rattigan's play, it is never clear that a wrong has occurred. Although the play helps us believe that Ronnie Winslow did not cash a stolen money order as charged, at least one member of his family thinks he did, and no proof emerges that he did not.
If we assume he was innocent, did the degree of wrong to him warrant the battle waged, and the sacrifices it entailed? There is no indication of animus against Ronnie on the part of the academy, which had strong evidence for thinking him guilty. If their finding was incorrect, it seems a reasonable mistake. Moreover, the boy is happy in another school, and increasingly uninterested in the crusade. In these circumstances, how grave is the wrong? Does it justify the enormous public attention it receives, or the physical, social and financial costs to members of his family?
The play raises these questions stubbornly and extensively. That doesn't halt the action, which perseveres, as often in real life, toward a goal whose worth is uncertain. The movie, focused primarily on winning the battle, tends to pull away from the play's uncertainties. Nevertheless, in one respect it adds to them. When it takes us to court, it shows the family's lawyer running circles, fairly and unfairly, around the opposition. Is a battle for justice, unjustly waged, a battle for justice?
Robert Donat is very good as the family's forensic champion. I might have thought excellent, had I not been spoiled by Ian Richardson's superb (matchless? definitive?) performance of the role in a PBS broadcast of the intact play in 1988. As the father, Cedric Hardwicke is insufficiently forceful and expressive. Margaret Leighton as the daughter is pretty, but insubstantial. Neil North does well as the expelled boy. Cameo appearances by Cyril Ritchard and Stanley Holloway are fun.
David Mamet's version of "The Winslow Boy" quite fails to understand Terence
Rattigan's play, from which the film is derived. The film is glued to a
one-dimensional stereotype of pre-World War I English behavior, decorous and
emotionally suppressed, which defeats the drama at every turn. [Warning: in
support of my comments, some facts of the movie's plot are mentioned.]
The play, on the contrary, is not a period piece. It portrays the agony, humiliation, disbelief, indifference, anger, confusion, determination, persistence, idealism, sacrifice, protective love, cynicism, and fear with which a boy's nearest and dearest react to his expulsion from naval cadet school, and the crusade to vindicate him. Their language may be more refined and their emotional expression more controlled than often occurs, but within these limits the range and conflict are substantial.
By combining his stereotype with extensive deletions, Mamet cuts off his characters at the knees, if not higher. The father's determination and persistence remain, but most of his tendency to dominate and humiliate is gone. The sister's intelligence, loyalty and tact are there, but not the poignant depth of her love and vulnerability. We see the mother's protective love, but not the formidable passion of her attack against the crusade.
The original play feeds the intellect by raising questions about the boy's innocence, and about the worth of the crusade in his behalf; contrary opinions are not merely stated, but supported with cogent reasons. It feeds the soul by raising the banner of doing Right, and by facing the substantial sacrifices along the way. It feeds the heart by showing the deep and vulnerable love of a father for his son, of a mother for her family, of a daughter for her fiance, of a family friend for the daughter. All this food is on short ration in Mamet's remake.
Rattigan has a fine dramatic sense, which Mamet often spoils. Watch, for example, what should be the most striking scene of the story, a cross-examination of the Winslow boy in the family parlor. England's best trial lawyer is deciding whether to take the case. In the original, the questioning starts quietly but builds to an aggressive harshness that has the boy muddled and crying, and the family angry and alarmed. Whereupon the lawyer, to everyone's surprise, accepts the case, calling the boy "plainly innocent." Mamet doesn't cut the text in this scene, but he does cut way back on the lawyer's aggressiveness and the boy's distress. The dramatic excitement of the original, based on powerful emotional reversals, is mostly lost in the remake.
Within the limits of the Mamet stereotype, Nigel Hawthorne as the father and Jeremy Northam as the lawyer are interesting and pleasant to watch. The rest of the cast is not memorable.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
Fourteen years after its PBS broadcast, this superb production has not
transferred to a video recording! Its general unavailability is a great
This production is not a movie more-or-less based on a play, but the play itself, word for word as written for the stage. A movie might carry the action out into the world, with much physical motion and visual excitement. The audience could be taken to the naval academy from which the Winslow boy was expelled, and then to the office of the First Lord of the Admiralty, to debates in the British House of Commons, and to a trial before the Lord Chief Justice, in the family's effort to secure fair play. [See, for example, this approach in the 1948 film version.]
But the play, as written by Terence Rattigan, stays home. Although excited by the crusade, the author is most interested in its effects on those closely involved: members of the Winslow family, their intimate friends and their lawyer. What the case does to or for them, and how they react, have more room to emerge in conversations and interactions en famille.
At first hearing or reading, the play may seem a straightforward tale of youthful innocence vindicated against governmental injustice. Braving tremendous odds, the good guys challenge the bad guys, and win. But on closer inspection, one finds that the boy's innocence is never proved, and that some in the family deny or doubt it. Moreover, even if he is innocent, the harm to members of the family and to the country from pursuing the case might be greater than the harm from letting it drop.
Ronnie Winslow, about 14 years old, was expelled for stealing and cashing a money order worth five shillings, belonging to a fellow cadet. He maintains that he did not, and we want to believe him. But when we first meet him, he is urging his older sister, Kate, to join him in lying about something important. If about that, then is he also lying about the money order?
His older brother, Dickie, assumes that Ronnie is lying, but that "pinching" is no big deal for boys his age. Kate thinks Ronnie is not lying, but she is unsure: what is important to her is the violation of his right to a fair hearing. His mother, Grace, though emotionally very supportive of her stricken son, never expresses an opinion concerning his guilt. His father, Arthur, after putting the question quietly and firmly, is convinced by Ronnie's denial. His lawyer, Sir Robert Morton, after an aggressive cross-examination that leaves Ronnie muddled and weeping, announces that he is "plainly innocent."
The navy has relied on the opinion of a famous handwriting expert, that the endorsement on the stolen money order was in Ronnie's handwriting. Toward the end of the play, we learn that at trial the expert's testimony has been discredited by Sir Robert, who is widely considered the ablest advocate in the kingdom. One can't help wondering whether the expert was actually mistaken, or simply collapsed under our man's forensic fireworks.
But life is like that. Crusades are often launched for ends whose worth is unclear. Moreover, the actions and motives of crusaders may be a mixture of good and bad. This can make them harder to join, but more interesting and instructive to watch.
One admires the boldness, determination and persistence of the father, Arthur Winslow, without whose initiative the crusade would not exist. Yet he is rather a sourpuss, often dominating or humiliating others. His indispensable lieutenant, Kate, is the most attractive member of the family, bright and realistic but often blinded by partisanship. Sir Robert is a supercilious, cold fish and a brilliant, (unscrupulous?) forensic champion. All three make substantial sacrifices for the sake of their crusade.
Much of the dramatic excitement comes when esteemed characters behave badly, or disregarded characters greatly please. Perhaps the most beautiful moment in the play is a marriage proposal to Kate by Desmond Curry, an old family friend whom she rather disdains. And when the crusade has triumphed, it is the genuine, powerful, fully human excitement of Violet, the family maid whom Arthur has long wished to fire, that brings to the living room the roar of the crowd. Ronnie's mother, Grace Winslow, claims no understanding of the legal issues, but her emotional richness, founded solidly on love, matches the intellectual wealth of Sir Robert. She makes a powerful case that the crusade, out of pride and stubbornness, is destroying her husband and family for a son who is uninterested in the result.
I hope the author, who died in 1977, was lucky enough to see his play this well performed. No actor was less than satisfying. Ian Richardson as Sir Robert, Emma Thompson as Kate, Gordon Jackson as Arthur, Gwen Watford as Grace, David Troughton as Desmond, and Rosemary Leach as Violet could scarcely have been bettered. The existence and excellence of this production must owe a great deal to Shaun Sutton, the producer, and Michael Darlow, the director.
[WARNING This comment tells how the film ends.]
Terence Rattigan's screenplay for The Browning Version expands and greatly improves his short stage play of the same name. The title refers to a translation by the poet, Robert Browning, of "Agamemnon," a classical Greek tragedy. The film's protagonist, Andrew Crocker-Harris, an English private school teacher brilliantly played by Michael Redgrave, once wrote a translation of "Agamemnon," and has been trying for years to teach 13-year-old boys to read the Greek original. Because of poor health and general dissatisfaction with his performance, he has resigned his position.
In the tragedy, Agamemnon is murdered by his wife, aided by her lover. In the film, Crocker-Harris is spiritually dead, partly from spousal "murder," although the slaughter has been reciprocal, and his wife, Millie, is in worse shape than he. His "death" shows as extreme precision of word and manner, absence of emotional reaction, supercilious bullying of his students, and a cool, high-pitched, stilted, professorial approach to every circumstance. Her "death" shows in a desperate search elsewhere for masculine love, and in harsh, hard, hostile, cold-blooded, humiliating attacks against her husband.
In a tragedy, the hero starts out happy and becomes miserable. In this film, full of the sadness of professional and domestic failure, the hero moves away from misery, via understanding and heartfelt repentance, to the possibility of happiness. With nary a mention of Jesus or the Bible, this story of a teacher of classical Greek reverberates with Christian motifs of spiritual death and resurrection.
The reversal owes much to the intervention of Taplow, one of Harris' students; Frank Hunter, his colleague and Millie's lover; and Gilbert, his replacement. Impressed by the discipline in Harris' teaching, but put off by its humiliating style, Gilbert mentions that the students call Harris "the Himmler of the lower fifth." Harris has not been aware of the nickname, and is clearly hurt. Gilbert is genuinely apologetic and Harris speaks of his failed career and early hopes. At this point in the play, he attributes his failure to shortcomings in the students, which he says will also cause Gilbert to fail. But Gilbert's gibe and sympathy have penetrated.
Taplow, who does a beautiful, satiric imitation of Harris in his absence, nevertheless feels sorry for him and wants to like and help him. In tutorial with Harris, Taplow argues for a vivid translation of "Agamemnon," which he finds exciting. Responding to this warmth, Harris mentions the "very free" translation he had written long ago. Later, as a goodbye present, Taplow gives Harris Browning's translation, inscribing it: "God from afar looks graciously upon a gentle master." Harris weeps, sobs; the ice is breaking up.
Hearing of the gift, Millie insists that Taplow is apple polishing. The shell temporarily recongeals. Hunter, angry at Millie's conduct and thoroughly ashamed of his affair with her, assures Harris that Taplow's appreciation is genuine. He urges Harris to leave his wife, and to stay in touch. Harris blames himself as much as Millie for the failure of the marriage, he unable to provide the physical love, she the intellectual love, which the other most needed. But the genuineness of Hunter's apology and interest have made a difference.
In a sense, the heroes of the story are the three helpers, especially Taplow and Hunter. And the love they give is not physical or intellectual, but that of the Good Samaritan, extended to a fellow human being in need. But if to Harris, why not to Millie, whose need is even greater? Why are Taplow and Hunter and we in the audience eager to rescue Harris, but content to abandon Millie?
While Taplow in the study translates the scene in which Clytemnestra stands over the body of her murdered husband, Millie on the lawn pleads with Hunter. Hunter: "I feel sorry for him." Millie: "He's not sorry for himself, so why should you be? It's me you should be sorry for." Hunter: For Heaven's sake, stop this [complaining]." Millie: "For Heaven's sake, show me some pity. . . . If you don't [come to visit me], I think I shall kill myself." Why not -- for Heaven's sake -- try also to rescue her? Her coarse brutality toward Harris is hard to forgive, but so is his refined humiliation of students. But two huge defeats, heart disease and forced resignation, invite our compassion for him at the outset. His language, beautifully dressed, raised in pitch but never in volume, quiet, clear, restrained, invites attention and leaves room for helpers. Following Taplow's lead, we start the film wondering what is wrong, and hoping to fix it. But most important, Taplow and Hunter appreciate this man, who is really dying to be liked. They don't like Millie. We follow their lead. Taplow, Hunter and we are not saints: they don't stop for Millie, and we don't ask them to.
At a school assembly, Harris and a popular cricket star are to make farewell speeches. The latter's speech, expected to produce a climax of public enthusiasm, falls flat. Harris' appearance, expected to be an embarrassment, electrifies the audience. Putting aside his planned text, he confesses his complete failure as a teacher, not because of the shortcomings of his students, but because he has not given them "sympathy, encouragement and humanity." (The viewer, through his tears, may note that this is what Harris has newly been receiving.) The eloquent, short speech concluded, the assembly begin to clap and then to cheer. Not a realistic response, I think, given the school's long-established fear and rejection of this man. But surely the video audience is cheering, and the angels above.
At the Cannes Film Festival, Terence Rattigan was awarded Best Screenplay and Michael Redgrave, Best Actor. Emphatically deserved! The film is beautifully directed by Anthony Asquith, with a fine cast, especially Brian Smith as Taplow and Nigel Patrick as Hunter. I wholeheartedly second the raves in other comments at this site. (This one is based on the VHS edition.)
Genevieve Bujold as Antigone is splendid; Fritz Weaver as Creon, even
better. Anouilh's version of Antigone is longer than Sophocles',
far more time to the confrontation between the heroine and the king.
has fine moments in this scene, but Weaver's acting skill and stage
are completely, masterfully at home. What a shame that most of his video
work has been with scripts which, compared with this, were poor
Before the struggle with Creon, there is a love scene between Antigone and her fiance, Haemon. James Naughton's handsome, well dressed, thoroughly decent, college-boy Haemon, is the sturdy male partner, with and around whom Bujold dances in words and movement. Beautifully and affectingly. Stacy Keach as Chorus, Aline Macmahon as the nurse, Louis Zorich as Jonas (the first guard) and Peter Brandon as the messenger suit the performance well and contribute to its excellence.
Jean Anouilh wrote in French. The translation used in this performance is Lewis Galantiere's "adaptation." It was used for the American premiere, New York City 1946, starring Katherine Cornell as Antigone and Cedric Hardwicke as Creon. Galantiere writes beautifully, but so does Anouilh, whom it's a shame to adapt when you can stay true to the original. Often, this production seems to agree, restoring some of the adapter's cuts and deleting various additions and emendations.
Galantiere's understanding of the heroine's motives differs from Anouilh's in important respects. At the beginning of the play, Galantiere has Chorus, when introducing Antigone, assert that she is "on the side of the gods against the tyrant, of Man against the State." That may be how many people, vaguely remembering Sophocles, think of the character. But the take is Galantiere's, not corresponding to anything in the speech at hand, and not consistent with the development of the play.
Anouilh's Antigone does not invoke the gods, the common people, mankind or humanity, or define what she opposes as tyranny or the state. Early in their confrontation, Creon asks Antigone why she tried to bury her brother, Polynices. She replies that she "owed it to him. . . . Those who are not buried wander eternally and find no rest." She feels sure that what she did was right, but does not elaborate. One can tell little concerning her notions of an afterlife, and nothing concerning her belief in any gods.
Creon asks whether she really believes that the dead wander as shades if not properly buried, and reminds her that burial ceremonies are often wretchedly performed by the priests, an insult to the dead and their mourners. Then, in a passage omitted by Galantiere but restored in this production, Creon says: "And you still insist on being put to death, merely because I refuse to let your brother go out with that grotesque passport, which you would have been the first to be embarrassed by if I'd allowed it. The whole thing is absurd." She replies, "Yes, it's absurd." Then, for whom did she disobey the law? "For nobody," she replies. "For myself. For me."
Antigone had not seen Polynices, since he left home eight years ago, when she was only 12. Much of that time, Creon (honestly?) informs her, Polynices and her other brother, Eteocles had spent plotting and attempting the assassination of her father, Oedipus. She is staggered by these charges, but finds a stance, in opposition to the kind of life that Creon exemplifies. To obtain happiness he must continually compromise, doing what he despises, saying Yes to what he hates. On the contrary, it is better to say No to what you would rather not do, even if you must die for it.
This is her position at the end of the confrontation with Creon. In the last scene, as Jonas takes her to the tomb where she is to be buried alive, she dictates a letter to Haemon: "My darling, I wanted to die, and maybe you won't love me any more. Creon was right. It is terrible to die. And I don't even know what I'm dying for." The last three sentences were omitted by Galantiere, but restored in this production. To make sure that they register with the audience, they occur twice, dictated by Antigone and repeated by Jonas.
Was Galantiere's version commissioned by the Broadway producers? Was he asked to soften the radical, existential despair in Anouilh's play?
On another issue, the Chorus says some fascinating things about tragedy, which seem partly contradicted by the play. His ruminations occur shortly before the confrontation between Antigone and Creon. For example: "Tragedy is restful; and the reason is that hope, that foul, deceitful thing, has no part in it. There isn't any hope. You're trapped. In melodrama, you argue and struggle in the hope of escape." But in tragedy, you "shout" to express what you are.
The point does fit Antigone's behavior. She has no hope of escaping death and does not try. But Creon argues and struggles with Antigone, hoping to change the outcome. So does Ismene. Haemon argues and struggles with his father. Even the Chorus gets into the argument, with suggestions to Creon on how to prevent the catastrophe. Should we treat the Chorus' aphorisms as evidence that sometimes he (or the playwright?) doesn't know what he's talking about?
Should the audience respond to tragedy as if there were no hope? Thanks to their myths, the Greek audience knew how Antigone was going to end. Thanks to Sophocles, so do we. But while experiencing the play I seem to suspend this knowledge, hoping against hope that a decent way out exists, even if the characters don't quite manage to see or take it.
Not only does this marvelous film cater to one's desire for a peek at the
neighbors, but it makes their daily round unrealistically interesting,
attractive or affecting. The courtyard of the Manhattan apartment I once
inhabited had no lovely ballerina starting the day with graceful, sensual
dance, or talented songwriter filling the night air with live,
semi-classical piano. Rather, my window opened on the blare and schlock of
commercial television and radio.
Jimmy Stewart's neighbors include not only a killer who considerately leaves his shades up for everything but the crime but also Miss Lonelyheart, who dates and grieves in full view, another woman who eloquently laments and protests (to all the world who failed to stop it) the murder of her pet dog, and policemen who arrive within seconds of being summoned to stop a fight. Who would need movies if ordinary life were this alive?
Although Stewart is prone, with left leg in full cast, his role is something like that of a male ballet dancer, functioning as a kind of center off and around whom others play. These "others" include not only his neighbors (for the most part unaware of him), but also his visitors. In dialogue, we first see this with Thelma Ritter, who plays his skillful, no-nonsense nurse. Stewart's unassuming, brief responses set off her fast, funny, caring, shrewd paragraphs. For how many people do insurance companies provide nurses like this?
But of course the crowning wish-fulfillment is Grace Kelly as Stewart's would-be bride. If there is another movie in which she is this beautiful, lead me to it. The beauty is in her carriage, her looks, her clothes, her speech, her love, her intelligence, her pluck, her resourcefulness, her resilience, her good temper, her liveliness. (That she stays superbly attractive is the more remarkable, since aggressive pursuit is not ordinarily a becoming posture.) Here she is, mine to enjoy. The more so, because Stewart's retreats leave her more available to me, who would be glad to fill in.
The murderer is played by Raymond Barr, who spent much of his cinematic life as a central character, Perry Mason. Here, he mostly elicits action from others, rather than providing it himself, which is perhaps the fate of most criminals in detective stories they precipitate. There is of course the last, frightening struggle between him and Stewart, a climax more crucial for the plot than for my enjoyment of the movie, which had already been signed, sealed and delivered.
By the way, in a recent comment (5/2/02) tim777ca asks why, as Barr approaches his apartment, Stewart leaves his door unlocked. He is physically able to move to the door and lock it. He could unlock it again if needed by friends or police. Do we have an ending with no artistic necessity? Is this, as tim777ca alleges, characteristic of Hitchcock's films?
In a highly competent cast, the most striking performances are John
Shrapnel's Creon, Tony Selby's Soldier, John Gielgud's Teiresias, and the
12-man Chorus. Creon is an autocrat, often arrogant, domineering, coarse
brutal, though democratically allowing and responding to gibes and
from his subjects. The translation, the staging, and the actor all make
Creon more vicious than Sophocles intended, but Shrapnel brings him
powerfully to life.
Selby's Soldier is a show-stealer. We are familiar with Shakespeare's skill in using clever, uninhibited commoners to create comic interludes in high tragedy. Greek tragedy is not noted for this, but Sophocles clearly knew how, and the translation is even funnier. A very old John Gielgud splendidly gives the ancient seer, Teiresias, a power of presence sufficient to overbear the autocrat. Gielgud does not shout; he is on stage for only two minutes, but the force of his utterance lingers in the memory. The Chorus look like older peers of the British House of Lords circa 1890. Their lines are spoken, sometimes in unison, sometimes singly in sequence, always with great clarity and variety.
The play begins with an act of civil disobedience by the king's niece, and ends with the misery and suicide of the perpetrator, of her fiance (the king's son), and of his mother (the queen), together with the utter despair of the king. What went wrong?
The first move is Creon's: a decree that, under pain of death, no one may bury Polynices (his nephew and Antigone's brother), who has been killed making war against the city. The stated reason for the decree is that enemies must be treated manifestly worse than loyal citizens. But why go to this extreme? One could easily distinguish between an enemy (Polynices) and a patriot (Eteocles, his brother, killed in the same battle) by simple rites for the former and elaborate ones for the latter. Creon completely ignores the conflict between his decree and the hallowed custom of burial rites.
Antigone, aware of the law and the punishment, plans to bury her brother anyway. This action strikes her as beautiful, partly because, unafraid, she will be doing what she enthusiastically believes to be Right. But partly also because she is entranced with the notion of embracing Polynices forever in the world of death. Her sister, Ismene, thinks the plan extreme, but can only counsel submission. Neither woman considers trying first to persuade Creon to amend the decree which, if successful, would make disobedience and its consequences unnecessary. By disobeying, Antigone will challenge Creon's authority as well as his wisdom, making it harder for him to back down. Especially hard in this case, since his acquiescence would look like partiality for a family member, a sin he has pledged to avoid.
Having disobeyed the edict, Antigone is brought before Creon. She eloquently invokes the "divine, everlasting" laws that her disobedience obeyed, but falters when Creon's questioning (a la Socrates) probes her understanding of justice to enemies and patriots. The questions logically point to the solution mentioned above: burial for both, but simple for the enemy and elaborate for the patriot. But no one offers it: neither Antigone, nor Creon, nor the Chorus.
Ismene is summoned. Grief-stricken at Antigone's prospects, she pleads to share the guilt and the punishment. Turned down by Antigone, she puts to Creon a powerful argument: surely he will not execute his son's betrothed. Her love, compassion, courage, gentleness and poise are beautiful, but the formula that might have saved the day does not occur to her.
Creon's son, Haemon, now enters, desperate to rescue his betrothed. He begins by expressing full deference to his father's judgment and authority, hoping this will make it easier for Creon to consider alternatives. Haemon tells Creon that the city completely disagrees with him: it thinks that Antigone's action merits not death, but the highest honors. The confrontation shows great courage in Haemon, but also much dishonesty. That popular opinion, even if favorable, would be as unanimous, as enthusiastic, or as accessible to him as he claims, is not plausible. The opinions he reports are emphatically his own and manifestly contrary to his father's. The initial assertion of deference was a pretext. Creon is enraged. If, instead, Haemon had asked Creon to explain why the edict was necessary, might this have led to a discussion of its merits, and might that have opened the way to changing the decree?
This was the last chance to prevent catastrophe. Haemon rushes out, warning that Antigone's death will cause another. Antigone, waiting for transfer to the tomb where she will be buried alive, laments her fate, feeling now that her death will be ugly and miserable.
Teiresias enters to declare that the country's altars and hearths are all defiled by birds and dogs satiated with Polynices' unburied body. Creon takes this as balderdash that Teiresias has been bribed to concoct. Whereupon Teiresias predicts Haemon's death. Remembering that the old man's prophecies have never been mistaken, Creon finally changes course. He rushes to bury Polynices and then to free Antigone. But too late: Antigone has hanged herself; a grief-stricken Haemon lunges at his father, then kills himself. Hearing the news, the queen also commits suicide. Creon is left inexpressibly miserable and shamed. The Chorus, having offered no criticism when it might have helped, now daringly condemns the grand words of proud men, who lack wisdom and piety.
Creon does change course, not in time through reason, but too late and through compulsion. Given his character, would better reasoning have persuaded him? Given the other characters, was better reasoning within their repertory? Was it all inevitable? In practical life we usually assume not. Should the assumption in this play be different?
Most of the actors were unfamiliar to me, but they were outstanding. P.J.
Brown as Joe has a rich, bass voice, quite able to withstand the
comparisons with Paul Robeson's performance in the 1936 movie. Playing
Queenie, Joe's wife, Ellia English outdoes her famous 1936 counterpart
(Hattie McDaniel) as both actress and singer.
Rebecca Baxter as Magnolia Hawks has a lovely soprano and a youthful appearance persuasively close to Magnolia's 19 years. She is also a marvelous dancer, with great legs, which she shows to advantage, playing Magnolia's daughter in 1920s costume. Shelly Burch as Julie La Verne looks and sounds right for the character when she speaks, but I thought her singing voice too high and coloratura-like for the role.
One advantage of this production is that it has enough time (over 2.5 hours) to emphasize an aspect of the operetta that abridged versions scant. The action occurs at four different times: 1887 on the southern Mississippi River, 1892 in Chicago at the World's Fair, 1900 in Chicago at the Trocade ro night club, and 1927 back on the Mississippi. This production, aided by foundation money, gorged itself in the fancy-dress styles of these four different eras.
Richard White as Gaylord Ravenal looks just fine as a charming gentleman and obsessive gambler. He has a rich baritone, which works well most of the time. Unfortunately, the part is written for very high baritone or tenor. The only place that this really creates a problem is in the duet, "You Are Love" (the romantic climax of the play), which requires Ravenal to spend some time at F and G above middle C. At those times both he and I were uncomfortable.
Lee Roy Reams and Lenore Nemetz, the show's principal dancers, were given plenty of time for their numbers, which they performed with great skill and elan. Eddie Bracken, whom I had seen before, but not since the 1940s, was a splendid Cap'n Andy. He is listed at the top of the credits and deserves that spot. He can take command of the stage when appropriate, as when he pantomimes a fight between hero and villain, or orchestrates Magnolia's triumph at the Trocadero. Marsha Bagwell is funny and deft as the wife who commands Cap'n Andy on every occasion but the important ones.
What a shame that, so far as I know, this tape has never been available for purchase! My comments are based on a PBS broadcast I recorded in 1989.
As a child in the 1930s I thought Paul Muni one of Hollywood's best, but I
can't recall the movies on which this judgment was based. I don't know
whether I saw this film then or not.
Now I find the depiction of "great writer (Zola) and great painter (Cezanne) in Paris during the 1800s" to be a grade school or Sunday school version of life. Hollywood's description of the Dreyfuss affair lacks complexity, sophistication, reality, accuracy. The true story abounds in dramatic interest, excitement, conflict and power quite beyond the movie's reach.
But we do have two marvelous public speeches, one when Muni as Emile Zola is reading his pamphlet, "I Accuse," to his friends and allies. And the other, when he is defending himself in a hostile court against the charge of having slandered the army. These alone are worth more than the price of admission. Spend your time hearing them again and again and then get yourself a copy of Zola's pamphlet and a good book from amazon.com on what the Dreyfuss affair was all about.
Paul Robeson as Joe is in splendid voice, although I've heard him sing the
verses to Ol' Man River at a better pace, not so hurried. Also, the film's
poor sound quality, though not greatly harming medium-range and low solo
voices, murders large choruses and high climaxes.
Next-best singer is Helen Morgan, as Julie La Verne. Her alto is just right for "Can't help lovin' dat man of mine" and "Bill." She was a member of the Broadway original cast of Show Boat; the movie here preserves a golden performance. Another member of that original cast was Charles Winninger as Cap'n Andy. I've seen Cap'n Andy's that I've liked better (Eddie Bracken and Joe E. Brown), but Winninger's performance is appealing and his great scene, pantomiming a fight between the hero and villain of a Show Boat melodrama, is spectacular.
Allan Jones as Gaylord Ravenal has a lovely, light tenor voice, which usually floats above the mud in the sound system. Unfortunately, his songs are few and abridged. The best are the two duets he sings with Irene Dunne as Magnolia Hawks, "Make Believe" and "You Are Love." In both cases, by partially or completely eliminating verses and repetitions, the movie prevents the emotional buildup that is important for the impact of the song. This is especially true for the latter duet, which should be the romantic, musical climax of the show.
Irene Dunne has a pleasant soprano, not quite easy in the top notes. Physically she seemed too large-boned for Magnolia and not young enough; some of her dancing was painfully awkward. Speaking of dancing, the operetta's dancing duo of Ellie and Frank Schultz (played by Queenie Smith and Sammy White) was ruthlessly cut. Numbers that had time in the stage version to develop and unfold as miniature and delightful works of art were shrunk into exercises or samples.
The movie added one or two good songs not previously used on stage. But the many other changes, whether inserting new scenes or cutting originals, were uniformly unfortunate. With Oklahoma, Hollywood managed to keep a fine, stage musical reasonably intact; I wish they had done so here.
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