Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Quality Street (1937)

A few years ago I was up in Duluth, Minnesota looking for someplace quiet, to grab a bite when we suddenly the perfect place: a small restaurant, with a kitschy, pseudo Russian theme that served custom-made burritos named after Rasputin and the like. It was as if the universe had reached into my brain and conjured up exactly what I needed to make me perfectly happy. I've treasured that memory, odd as it may seem, because I felt like it was evidence that of the interconnectedness of all things.

I was content to live my life with just that one instance of planetary alignment, but the other day it happened again. I was home sick, feeling very much in need of a cinematic pick-me-up, something light and frothy with just a touch of screwball. I needed one of those rare tonic films. To complicate matters, I was also feeling very Jane Austen-y since watching The Young Mr. Pitt had reminded me of the early 19th century and, inevitably, of Austen. I picked disconsolately through my Austen DVDs. Sense and Sensibility was too sad. (I always, always cry like a baby when Marianne almost dies). Pride and Prejudice was just too long, Emma was not quite right and Bridget Jones was definitely not on the bill. I scanned my Tivo and alighted randomly on the description of Quality Street: a young woman (Katharine Hepburn) becomes an old maid waiting for a young man (Franchot Tone) to return from the Napoleonic Wars. OK, Kate Hepburn and Franchot Tone--I'm there already. Throw in Napoleonic Wars and you've definitely got me intrigued. And doesn't this outline sound just a little bit like...PERSUASION?! Oh, Universe, you've done it again. You've reached into my brain and provided me with exactly what I wanted, when I wanted it.

What a fun discovery this movie was. It IS a screwball version of Persuasion. Take out Louisa's head injury and add in Anne Elliott posing as her own coquettish, young niece, and you more or less have Quality Street. This film has all the tea-swilling, pelisse-wearing, repressed-sexual-smoldering of a Jane Austen adaptation and all the chaotic misunderstandings and physical gags of 1930s RKO comedies. The story is based a play by Edwardian playwright, James M. Barrie, best known for his novel Peter Pan. The ever-competent George Stevens directs.

Franchot Tone, whom I've liked ever since he took my attention, however briefly, away from Cary Grant in Suzy, is really great here. I've rarely seen him in comedies, and he definitely shines in the part of the cocky young man who is humbled when he actually has to pursue a woman. Even while he chases "niece" Olivia, hoping to reign her in as a favor to spinster aunt Phoebe, he tips his hand in just the right places to show the audience that it's Phoebe he really loves. Hepburn, is excellent as well, belying the old story that she learned everything she knew about comic timing from Walter Catlett in Bringing Up Baby (1938).

If it's so great, why doesn't Quality Street top the list of Hepburn films from this her infamous "box office poison" period---a list that includes such gems as Sylvia Scarlet, Stage Door and Bringing Up Baby? Maybe it's the 19th century setting that puts people off. We think of Hepburn as a modern actress and prefer her comedies edgy and hip. There's nothing particularly edgy about Quality Street,--none of the cross-dressing deviance of Scarlet, or the risque undercurrents to Baby's fast-moving mayhem. (My bone! It's rare! It's precious!) Quality Street has remained quietly buried, dug up once a year when TCM does a Katharine Hepburn tribute; I captured it only through exhaustive Tivo-ing. But if you have any interest in Katharine Hepburn, Franchot Tone, 1930s comedy, or Jane Austen, I'd say you definitely want to make the effort to watch this one.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Young Mr. Pitt (1942)

Certain Robert Donat films so deserve a DVD release that I feel compelled to do some kind of civil disobedience on their behalf. That's it: I'm going to lie down in the middle of the street until The Young Mr. Pitt comes out on DVD. Not only is it one of Donat's most important performances, it's directed by Carol Reed for Pete's Sake. Carol Reed! You've heard of the The Third Man, right?

I apologize for the poor quality of the screencaps and their limited number. The DVD I obtained was a bootleg made when the movie was shown on TV in England. My computer didn't like this particular DVD very much so I only have captions from the first 40 minutes of the film. Grrrr. But yeah, we really need a DVD of this wonderful film.

Robert Donat plays Pitt the Younger, an obscure, idealist, reform-minded MP in late 18th century England who is suddenly thrust into the premiership as part of a complicated back room deal between the outgoing government and the King. William Pitt was the youngest Prime Minister in British history and his administration was dubbed the "mince pie government" because everyone assumed it would be over by the end of the Christmas season. Of course, if the guy is a subject of a biopic he must have lasted longer than that. He sees Britain through the dark early days of the Napoleonic Wars promoting a then-obscure young seaman named Horatio Nelson to leader of the navy. Nelson's triumph over the French fleet in Egypt suddenly turns the tide of the war and Pitt's popularity skyrockets. All this from a man who promised his father that he'd never seek fame in war.

The ever-fickle public call for peace, though Pitt is sure that Napoleon has no plans to retire anytime soon. He is sure they will be called to defend themselves and their allies again and again. Pitt is in love with the daughter (Phyllis Calvert) of one of his powerful constituents and they become secretly engaged, which was quite the scandalous thing back in the day. His health is wavering as well, so he plans to step down as Prime Minister as soon as he can groom a successor. It looks like the anti-slavery activist William Wilberforce would be the perfect candidate. Fate begs to differ, Pitt is trapped at the helm and money troubles eventually force him to relinquish his dream of marrying.

Donat is very good here, doing his usual schtick of playing a character from late twenties into middle age. Early in the film he plays Pitt the Elder as well. I guess Old Mr. Pitt isn't as good a movie title. It's pretty remarkable that he does manage the young part so well, and I love that he allows his middle-aged face to show through when appropriate. I think that in real life, Donat felt fairly older than his years, so I guess it's not a surprise that he plays a tired, middle-aged man with such delicate poignancy.

My favorite scene in the film involves Donat joining in a pillow fight with a bunch of little kids while Calvert looks on lovingly. His hair gets mussed up. It's all good. Of course, none of this is remotely historically accurate. In real life, Pitt was never romantically linked to any one. The filmmakers did a good job of sneaking the romance in at the edges of Pitt's life and of making the inevitable break-up reasonably believable. Of course in real-life Regency England it would have been perfectly acceptable for a Prime Minister, no matter how beleaguered by bills, to marry a rich young woman. But no matter--it all makes for some lovely angst on Donat's part.

Worth mentioning are the excellent supporting players. Robert Morley is brilliant as Pitt's rival, Charles James Fox and Raymond Lovell makes a hilarious, bumbling King George III. I think it was actually a fairly bold wartime an English monarch as so utterly incompetent. Here, the king is more concerned with his latest turnip crop than with affairs of state. Since the real King George was declared mad only a few years later, it's not such a stretch although it was his grandfather, though who was turnip-obsessed.

Parts of the film are unintentionally funny. As a Big, Important sweeping biopic it keeps reminding us of the march of history in corny ways. As Pitt the Elder watches his son sleep, the screen goes fuzzy at the edges and we cut across the Channel to baby's baptism. "Congratulations Mrs. Bonaparte," an off-screen voice intones. Later we check in on young Napoleon pwning his examination at military school. I guess this is what Robert Donat's biographer, J.C. Trewin meant when he called The Young Mr. Pitt "dated." But what does it really mean to say an old movie is dated? To me, it means that the values it espouses are irrelevant or antithetical to the modern viewer. Gone with the Wind is dated in its portrayal of happy-go-lucky slaves, for example. Still a great film, though, no? The Young Mr. Pitt must have seemed a bit fusty in 1968 when Trewin wrote Donat's biography. Give it another forty years or so and it's just fine: a nice example of British war-time filmmaking that managed to get its message across without beating you over the head with it. There is a whole sub-genre of war films that use past conflicts to make a point about the current political situation. In this case, the Napoleon=Hitler analogy works alright if you don't think about it too much. The point is that having a politician, not a king or a strongman at the wheel is bound to be complicated, but preferable to the alternatives. Some politicians, like the corrupt Fox will be a hawk or a dove depending on the prevailing winds. Actually trying to lead from one's principals is far more difficult. It's Mr. Pitt goes to Whitehall with a downer ending.