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Sunday, December 30, 2007

Two items of the lost & found type

One of the great things of the internet era is much more easier to come accross things which otherwise should have been missed.

As an instance of that, I'm bringing to the visitors of this blog two examples of rare Laughtonware of which I just came aware through Youtube.

Filmed Galileo, by Ruth Berlau
Laughton as Galileo, William Phipps as Andrea and Mickey Knox as the Little Monk, in a photo from the Los Angeles staging

"In describing Laughton's Galileo Galilei the playwright is setting out not so much to try and give a little more permanence to one of those fleeting works of art that actors create, as to pay tribute to the pains a great actor is prepared to take over a fleeting work of this sort". So wrote Bertolt Brecht in "Building up a part: Laughton's Galileo".

It is indeed a pity that great stage work is usually only enjoyed by contemporaries, leaving little, or no trace for the future. Nowadays many stage performances may occasionally be captured in video, but older events are lost forever. Still, one can try to figure, even if in a platonic way, an approximative idea, from testimonials, reviews and pictures, how a performance might have been.

In the case of the 1947 stagings of Galileo, we have Brecht's word, and also the photographs which Ruth Berlau took during rehearsals.

Time ago, I was lucky to see a documentary titled "My name is Bertolt Brecht, Exile in U.S.A." (produced in 1989), in a local film festival: and I was thrilled to see that it contained silent filmed excerpts of Laughton's performance as Galileo. The directors (Norbert Bunge and ChristineFisher-Defoy) were present, so I asked Mr. Bunge about the footage, and he told me that there were filmed bits of the stage production in the Brecht archives in East Berlin. Very interesting to know. however, i was led to think that those were just only a few short filmed bits.

But recently, I came across a one-minute bit from a documentary about Ruth Berlau in Youtube ( Click here to watch it), in which, apart from it showing bits which I had not seen in the other documentary, it is mentioned that Ruth Berlau's filmed record is more extensive than I believed: she shot the entire play. Albeit it was done with a domestic camera, in Black and White, and from a static position (in fact, as an spectator might have seen it in the theatre), well, the mere idea of it being available to be seen is mind-boggling.

Click here to learn more about the documentary containing these images, "Red Ruth: That Deadly Longing"

Stopover in Bombay

Another surprise foud in Youtube is a video from a TV programme hosted and starred by Laughton titled "Stopover in Bombay". According to the notes accompanying the video, the show was never aired! It seems that it was a pilot of a series to be hosted by Laughton, who would also play parts in some of the series' episodes.

The date seems to be 1958, which is interesting, as it shows that, even though Laughton didn't do much films after "The Night of The Hunter", he was certainly busy, albeit in other mediums.

Click here to watch the video.

Tuesday, December 25, 2007

A propos Jane Wyman: The Blue Veil

Laughton, Jane Wyman, and director Curtis Bernhard resting between scenes

"The Blue Veil" (1951) is a rare film: one with a multi-stellar cast and two Oscar nominations which has almost dissapeared from sight. Of all the films from Laughton's filmography is one of the most difficult to locate. I must say that, while originally released in my country, I have yet to see a TV broadcast of it, let alone a video or DVD release. It was only through the kind help of an American Laughtonian (who sent me the tape which he had recorded, years ago, from a TV airing), that I was finally able to see it. Well, "see it" is here a figure of speech, as the image in the tape was somewhat faded, and the viewing was interrupted by commercial pauses here and there, so my comments on the film are bound to be somewhat incomplete: I can't, certainly, make a proper comment on the film's photography, such was the poor image quality of the tape.

Having watched it, I am of the opinion that the film is a good, watchable melodrama, well worth a DVD release. However, it seems that the same reason that has kept that film in the vaults, and unavailable for TV broadcasts or video releases so far, is a matter of rights' ownership. Honest, I don't think that it takes such an incredible amount of money to satisfy these copyright issues, so whoever the responsible, please, pay for thew rights so this film becomes available for view again.

The Blue Veil was based on a French wartime film "Le Voile Bleu" (1942). It was released in the United states after the war (1947) and it is likely that its American release impressed RKO's studio heads enough to consider an American adaptation. It certainly looked like a good vehicle for Jane Wyman to star in: The young actres had proved he could play substantial lead roles and character parts, and her ascending star through films like The Yearling, Johnny Belinda (for which she won an Oscar) , Stage Fright, made of her an ideal actress for a melodrama such as "The Blue Veil".

Spanish herald advertising the film

The film was indeed meant as a quality product, apart from a spectacular cast including
Jane Wyman, Charles Laughton, Joan Blondell (who would earn an Oscar nomination for her role in the picture), Agnes Moorehead, Cyril Cusack, Everett Sloane and Natalie Wood.Norman Corwin, the famed radio writer, was responsible for the adaptation of François Campaux's original story. You may remember Corwin as the author of the screenplay of "Lust for Life", but I'd like to point here that Laughton had worked in a number of remarkable radio programmes written by him: It is not a widely-known fact from Charles' career, and unfairly so, as these programmes are indeed worth listening and should be recovered... But then this is another story, to which I'll come back in another post sometime in the future.

Maybe the lower-profile element of the film is the director, whose name won't ring many bells, even to dedicated filmophiles, which may disregard him a priori as a journeyman. Curtis Bernhard had been working mainly in Germany, a country which he had to leave prior to the Second World War, as so many did, due to the fact that he was Jewish. He was therefore part of the exiled European contingent which enriched the former Hollywood with their talent and/or craftmanship. His directing in "The Blue Veil", while not spectacular, is competent enough.

The story
(you may skip the next few paragraphs if you don't want to be spoiled about the plot)

American first release poster

This is the story of Louise Mason, a woman who loses her husband in First World War, and then her child. Looking for a job, but not having any special training or skills, she is eventually offered the chance to work taking care of children.

Her first customer, a recently widowed corset-maker (Charles Laughton), is so satisfied about how she keeps his child, and so drawn to her good character, that he proposes her marriage: she kindly declines, as she rightly guesses that it's the man's uncapability to bear a lonely life, rather than genuine love, what motivates his otherwise well-meaning proposal. However, the corsetmaker's secretary has no such qualms and marries him, and with the child having a new mother, Louise looses the job.

Her next employers are a wealthy couple (Agnes Moorehead and Don Taylor). Louise takes care of the younger son, while his older brother is tutored by an idealistic young teacher who resents his steady, but far from exciting job, and yearns for far horizons. Louise and the teacher get friendly, and, when he takes an offer to work in a foreign land, he asks Louise to marry him, and she accepts. Her employer wishes them the best of luck, even though she tells them that she feels that the whole thing is a bit rushed. Louise has no doubts, but her suitor suddenly becomes hesitant. Feeling her fiancé is too doubtful about such their future relationship, Louise refuses to marry such a vacillant partner and returns to her work.

We next see Louise taking care of a teenage girl (Natalie Wood), the daughter of a singer (Joan Blondell). The singer is very devoted to her career, to the point that she neglects her daughter, who increasingly turns to Louise as a mother figure. When te singer doesn't attend the girl's confirmation due to an important audition, the girl introduces Louise to her friends as her mother. Considering that the whole thing has gone too far, Louise quits, not without telling the singer her reasons, which realizes that she should be more of a mother than she has been, and ready to turn down offers for future shows which might come between she and her daughter.

Later, Louise is employed by a young couple. The husband is British, and when a new war breaks out in Europe, he leaves the Sates to join the army. When the husband is wounded, his American wife leaves as well to take care of him, enthrusting her child to Louise. The husband dies and her widow marries someone else again, forgetting about her son. Years pass and Louise has become, to all efects, the child's mother. Sudenly, she gets a notice that his biological mother and her new husband have returned to claim the child, but Louise refuses to give them back the boy, who is like a son to her, to a mother that hasn't cared for him in years. The District Attorney (Everett Sloane), gives the kid back to her biological mother, even though he considers Louise to be the real mother. But he must stick to what the law says.

Louise is now an aged woman, and she is considered too old to nurse children. Having no other working experience, she ends as a cleaning woman in a school, where at least she's in contact with children, but otherwise leads a lonely life with no-one to take care of her in her old age... Will all the unreserved love she gave to so many children go unrewarded? Maybe, maybe not... Hey! I'm not spoiling the end :p

This is the kind of film which is usually described as "tearjerker", yet its efficacy in the Kleenex department doesn't mean it is an overwrought melodrama... In fact it is quite restrained. Examples of it might be the almost-silent scene when Louise realizes that something is going wrong with her child, or the scene where she quits her job at Joan Blondell's home, where, in a crucial moment, we only see her back when we could see her tear-stained face.

To many spectators of today, used to more cynical approaches, the character of Louise might strike them as outlandish in her unselfishness... Yes, this woman who becomes the surrogate mother to all children under her care, only to be left heartbroken when she has to leave the job, is nearly a saint. But then we've all known about people who is able to sacrifice themselves for others. Also, Louise is counterpointed by the misanthropic toy-store owner played by Cyril Cusack. Cusack seems to have the store, not because he likes children (he doesn't: he's inclined to scare them out of the place), but because he's an overgrown child himself: So maybe it's no wonder he becomes friendly with nanny Louise.

On the other hand, we also see Louise considering to have a life of her own: first, when she accepts the teacher's marriage offer, even though she's disappointed by the selfish love of grown men, and returns to the unconditional love that children give her. Second, when she raises her ward as if she were her actual mother, and resists the idea of giving him away.

As a Jane Wyman vehicle, she certainly makes the best of her performance, suggesting well the loving, sacrificial nature of the nanny-nurse in a quiet way. This gives more strength to the scene where she claims to the District Atorney the custody of the boy she has mothered for years: the frustration of her not being a biological mother is patent there. She also ages convincingly, even though the kindly, older Louise isn't quite like Angela Channing, the shrewish matriarch that an older Jane Wyman played many years later in the TV series "Falcon Crest"

Personally, I have one complaint. I know the film was done in other times, but I resent that the Joan Blondell character is presented as selfish for wanting to maintain her career as a singer, instead of being a full-time mother: she has to earn her keep, doesn't she? In contrast with this, we don't see, for instance, a criticism of the Charles Laughton character for directing his corset factory and leaving his son in the hands of a nurse (however competent)... Ah, forgive me, I'm just sensible about these issues..

On Charles' performance

Charles as Fred K. Begley

Oh, but of course we should be talking about Charles a bit... shouldn't we? ;D

"The Blue Veil" is one of those films which figures in his filmography, but is rarely reviewed or mentioned in books about him. The logical reason is that it is a hard-to-get item, or a "lost" one. This is not an unique case among his films, though maybe "On Our Merry Way/A Miracle Can Happen" (where Laughton's participation in the film was considered lost) would be more of a case in point. Laughton only appears in the first part of the film as Jane Wyman's first employer. Interestingly, Laughton has quite a number of episodic films in his career, in which he gave performances short in footage but grand in quality ("If I Had a Milion" could be the topping example).

Laughton's Fred K. Begley is a man devoted to his corset factory, he finds it hard to live alone, so Louise not only solves the child-care issues, but also becomes a confidante he can trust: they become a family of sorts. However, it is not actually a family, and Mr. Begley ends proposing to the nanny: Laughton uses a polite, but very matter-of-factly way to do it, quite becoming to a businessman. In fact, more than a marriage, he seems to be proposing a commercial partnership. And he accepts Wyman's refusal like a sport, even though, as soon as he leaves her room, he drops his façade and we see him walk sadly down the corridor. In this moment of bleak defeat, he gets a call from his secretary, and Laughton brightens so much during the conversation that it s obvious that it is not bussiness that he's talking about: it is the realization that he's not alone as he thought he was..

Back from the honeymoon, the new Mrs. Begley is ready toi take care of the child, and she believes that the Nanny is no longer needed. Laughton's sadness at the thought of loosing Louise reveals that he doesn't agree with the idea, revealing that the dominant boss at work is a bit of a henpecked guy at home.

In all, he gives a touching, competent character study.