Thursday, August 31, 2017

Classic Films in Focus: THE WOMAN IN WHITE (1948)

The 1948 adaptation of Wilkie Collins' The Woman in White features some notable character performances and plenty of Gothic mystery, but it isn't an ideal picture or a very faithful treatment of its source material. Its appeal depends mainly on its sinister figures, particularly the always memorable Sydney Greenstreet as Count Fosco, but its leads are less interesting, and they get the majority of the screen time. Classic film fans will find the movie worth watching for Greenstreet, Agnes Moorehead, and John Abbott, but devotees of the original novel will find the changes problematic, especially where the romantic plot is concerned.

Gig Young plays the painter Walter Hartright, who gets drawn into intrigue when he becomes a drawing master to pretty heiress Laura Fairlie (Eleanor Parker) at Limmeridge House. Walter falls for Laura but is warned of her engagement to Sir Percival Glyde (John Emery) by Laura's cousin, Marian (Alexis Smith). When Walter accuses Sir Percival and Count Fosco (Sydney Greenstreet) of a diabolical plot involving a mad girl who strongly resembles Laura, Marian tells him to leave, but both Laura and Marian soon discover that Walter's suspicions were correct. Reunited some months later, Walter and Marian realize that Laura's double has died and been buried as Laura herself; together, they set out to rescue Laura from an asylum and restore her true identity.

The most appealing of the novel's sympathetic characters is Marian Halcombe, and the film recognizes this fact even as it rewrites much of her role. Alexis Smith gives a fine performance as the intelligent, capable Marian, who serves as a foil to the delicate and rather insipid Laura. Eleanor Parker is actually more interesting as mad Ann, Laura's double, than she is as Laura herself, and sadly that's a fault that the film keeps from the original text, in which Laura is a demure Victorian angel made damsel in distress. Both actresses give better performances than poor Gig Young, whose Walter seems very stiff for a lover who can't decide which girl he likes. Walter's role in the novel as de facto detective doesn't really carry over into the movie, and this leaves Young with little to do but strike poses and lock eyes with both of his leading ladies.

The action depends much more on the heavies, especially Greenstreet's Count Fosco as the prime mover of the plot. Greenstreet has just the combination of charm and menace, as well as the impressive girth, that make Fosco so fascinating as a literary villain, and if you like Greenstreet in other films you'll enjoy his performance here. John Emery's Sir Percival is just a thug in comparison, always eager to jump into murder, while John Abbott is delightfully awful and ineffectual as Laura's hypochondriac Uncle Frederick. Only Agnes Moorehead enjoys any ambiguity about her character's intentions; her Countess Fosco is an odd, repressed figure who has her own reasons for hating Fosco and pitying the plight of poor Ann. Fans of the actress will be sorry that she doesn't have more scenes, but she gets quite a moment in the film's climax as compensation.

The problems with The Woman in White might lie more with Stephen Morehouse Avery's screenplay than Peter Godfrey's direction or any actor's performance, but flaws it definitely has, although some of them are only apparent to those familiar with Collins' source material. Godfrey's best film, Christmas in Connecticut (1945), also stars Greenstreet, but most people remember the rotund actor most for his appearances in The Maltese Falcon (1941) and Casablanca (1942). You can see Alexis Smith play nasty in Godfrey's 1947 picture, The Two Mrs. Carrolls. Eleanor Parker went on to earn three Best Actress nominations for her roles in Caged (1950), Detective Story (1951), and Interrupted Melody (1955). Gig Young gets more to do in The Three Musketeers (1948), Torch Song (1953), and Desk Set (1957), and he won a Best Supporting Actor Oscar for They Shoot Horses, Don't They? (1969).

Tuesday, August 1, 2017

Classic Films in Focus: WEST OF ZANZIBAR (1928)

Tod Browning's silent 1928 story of revenge in the African Congo provides a challenge to modern viewers, given that it relies on hyper-racist stereotypes and deeply rooted misogyny for much of its horror, but if you're looking for something truly horrifying then West of Zanzibar (1928) certainly fits the bill. It packs an astounding amount of perverse cruelty into 65 minutes of film, most of it perpetuated by Lon Chaney as a paralyzed villain on a vendetta against his romantic rival and the child who symbolizes his betrayal. Lionel Barrymore and Warner Baxter also have prominent roles, although Mary Nolan takes most of the abuse as the young woman persecuted by Chaney's monstrous vengeance. Chaney is, as always, mesmerizing in a dark and complicated role, but be warned that this film is no stroll in the park.

Chaney plays the magician Phroso, who loses the use of his legs in a fight with Crane (Barrymore), the man who is stealing his wife. Later the wife turns up again with a baby in tow and promptly dies. Over his wife's corpse, Phroso swears vengeance on Crane and his child, thus embarking on an eighteen year mission to ruin Crane, debauch his daughter, and murder them both by invoking the ritual sacrifice performed by a tribe of African cannibals. Phroso makes himself a voodoo master in the remote African camp by using his magician's tricks, but his relentless desire for revenge blinds him to a painful truth until it is almost too late to change.

Chaney's performance is the highlight here. He begins as a sympathetic victim, a good man buffeted by unkind fate. His world crumbles when his beloved wife abandons him and her suitor cripples him, but these events alone do not change him. He only chooses evil over good in the church where he finds his wife's body, with the helpless infant crying nearby. The scene swells with terrible irony; Phroso looks on the Virgin and Child, and instead of pity for his wife's daughter chooses hate. From then on he embraces cruelty, sending the girl to be raised in a Zanzibar brothel while he cheats Crane of his ivory haul. Chaney plays Phroso as tragic, then monstrous, with slight hints of the vestiges of his humanity peeking through from time to time just to remind us of what he once was. His dead legs provide a physical parallel to his withered soul, and Chaney is, of course, brilliant in the way he manages to convey both the bodily and the spiritual wreckage.

Everyone else mainly reacts to Chaney, and the emotions called for are horror, disgust, fear, and loathing. In his own way, Lionel Barrymore's Crane is just as much a monster as Phroso, wreaking havoc and creating misery without ever worrying about the consequences of his actions. He laughs at Phroso's folly because he feels no pity for its victims. Mary Nolan, as Maizie, is chief among these; her tragic eyes and body language suggest so much more about her suffering than the title cards can convey. Warner Baxter plays a good man mired in Hell as Doc, but Maizie's arrival stirs his numbed conscience, and the pair eventually gather the courage to defy Phroso. These two characters get more nuanced development in the 1932 version of the story, Kongo, which fleshes out the doctor's narrative and their budding romance. The superstitious natives also react to Phroso, but they're so hideously stereotyped that they remove the viewer from the moment, and it's hard to blame the actors playing them for being unenthusiastic about selling their roles.

If nothing else, West of Zanzibar proves (yet again) that silent horror is by no means tame; Browning pushes buttons and tests limits in ways that no horror director of the 40s or 50s could. It suffers from the usual limitations of its era, especially where racist, colonialist attitudes are concerned, and it exploits the sexual degradation of its main female character in deeply uncomfortable ways. It might be preferable to start with other Chaney films if you aren't already well versed in his work or silent movies in general; try The Phantom of the Opera (1925), The Unholy Three (1925), or The Unknown (1927). For some of Browning's more controversial work, see Freaks (1932), or try his very weird collaboration with star Lionel Barrymore in The Devil-Doll (1932), in which Barrymore plays the man obsessed with revenge. Browning and Barrymore also team up for The Show (1927). For a different look at Warner Baxter, try The Prisoner of Shark Island (1936).